I decided to write this article about a table, and then I worried that it would be too boring. Why would you read on? Maybe I should choose a different topic—something with more drama. The world is falling apart at the seams, after all. I could open with the birds falling dead out of the sky in the Indian heatwave or an update on my friend who went on a hunger strike for 36 days. I could share a photo of me being arrested at a march to raise awareness about the climate emergency. That photo would guarantee more clicks, more of your attention.
Nonetheless, I want to write about a table. It is a rather beautiful table with a homemade mosaic top. The tiles are arranged in a circular pattern and include bright oranges and vivid blues. It came here to the Bright Earth temple in Worcestershire, England, when we moved seven years ago from the small temple in London that was sold to buy this place. For years it has been missing more than 50 tiles from around its edges—glossy conker-brown with glitter running through.
This week I finally got around to sourcing some matching tiles. I mixed a batch of thick, creamy grout and squidged the missing pieces onto the table. I wasn’t confident as I worked—I’m not good at fine detail and I worried that my wonky tile placement would ruin the rest of the design. Once I’d re-grouted the whole surface so that the lines were bright white, and scrubbed the tiles with wire wool to bring up their bright color, I was relieved to see that wonkiness is part of a mosaic’s magic. It was glorious again.
I have been taking a step back from frontline activism. I’m a very part-time participant in civil disobedience at best, but being on the streets for the past few years has left me weary. I still believe in the necessity of breaking the law in times like these. I will still participate as someone who “turns up on the day”—rather than being involved in the endless preparation, organization, and outreach. I also have a sense that I am being called somewhere else, for now. Maybe I need some time to consolidate my learning, or maybe parts of me just need a longer rest. Maybe I will enter a new phase of direct action and maybe not.
For now, I trust that mending the table is good work for me. The table sits in one of two adjoining alcoves in the temple garden. Their brickwork is built into the steep slope of the garden and they provide a cosy shelter from the rain. One contains the table and a few chairs and the other our big garden Buddha and a smaller rupa of the attendant, Green Tara. When we do walking meditation around the garden every Saturday morning, we gather first around the Buddha and recite our morning verse: “Time has passed with the swiftness of light. It is already morning. Impermanence rushes upon us every moment . . .” It is a moment of being together and being with the Buddha before we walk in loops around the bamboo, the small ponds, the friendly robin.
Sometimes, Shakyamuni Buddha was a flamboyant self-advertiser. He proclaimed to anyone listening that he was the king of the world. He grabbed attention and then listed all his fine qualities without embarrassment. He made a big noise, just like those activists being arrested and going on hunger strike and going to jail. Sometimes he simply stood in front of the crowds and held up a flower. He sat quietly in the forest, or gave modest advice, or helped sick sangha members. Whether or not he was the center of attention, the Buddha worked to spread the Dharma and to save as many people as he could.
The difference between me and the Buddha—not the only difference!—is that he wasn’t attached to how many people were listening to him, or how he was being viewed or judged. He simply used skilful means to share his message with as many people as he could. He did this not because he needed to be seen as interesting, but because he loved them.
I am still attached to being interesting. I know which posts receive the most likes on Facebook—it isn’t the ones with a picture of a table. Sometimes my desire to be seen can obscure what’s really important. What’s more important is whatever it is that needs to be said through me. What’s more important are the tasks that the Buddha sets for me.
For a while I thought that the Buddha wanted me to be arrested. Now I think that he wants me to fix mosaic tables for a while, and to take a holiday, and to contemplate. I think that he wants me to step back from the moments of limelight and do something else.
It feels good to shed another thin layer of ego. There are hundreds still underneath, of course. And, I do feel a little lighter. Maybe you will feel bored and stop reading. That’s okay. It’s none of my business what happens as a result of the small good things I try to do. That’s the Buddha’s business. I imagine the Buddha smiling at me now, as I tie myself into knots.
“Don’t worry,” I hear the Buddha say. “Just see your next psychotherapy client. Just keep writing. Just weed the vegetable patch. Just lead people around the garden in walking meditation. Just keep my table shining. I’ll take care of the rest.”
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For the Earth: Buddhist Environmental Thought and Activism