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Creating Flat Land

The growing season is fast approaching and with it are coming new building projects.  

This year, in addition to adding some new garden beds, I’m also building a greenhouse. This will allow me to grow vegetables year-round and provide protection to some of our plants that are prone to bug infestations.

I’m no stranger to building projects like this one. In my book Perfectly Ordinary (2020), I detail some of my experiences working as a building apprentice on a farm where I helped to construct a tiny house with recycled materials.

The siding was made of pieces of cedar that we obtained from a local mill. It had a wood stove, a floor made from recycled pallets, and a hook-up for solar panels. It was hard work, but it’s also one of my fondest memories. And I often lay awake at night, wondering who might be living in that house now.

The greenhouse project isn’t nearly as ambitious as that tiny house, but it feels more challenging because I’m doing it on my own. I’m no longer an apprentice and there is no building leader for me to run to when things go wrong.

Case in point, I had planned to build a simple foundation for the greenhouse with lengths of 4×4 lumber. But when I constructed the base and checked for level, I realized that there was a seven-inch drop from one side of the building site to the other.

That may not sound like much, but if I tried to build on a foundation that far off level, my greenhouse would end up looking like the Leaning Tower of Pisa!

My first thought was to simply pick a new build site. But I have limited space in the area I’ve set aside for gardening. There are two areas in the garden patch that are perfectly flat, ideal for building.  However, one is covered in garden beds and the other is shaded by my barn for half the day. So, I’m stuck building my greenhouse on slanted ground.  

To solve this problem, I’m building a mini retaining wall on the edge of my garden, so I can add soil to the build site and flatten it out.  

When I was at the hardware store purchasing materials for the retaining wall, I thought about the Pure Land Buddhist scriptures.

In Pure Land Buddhism, practitioners are taught that if they place their faith in Amida Buddha, reciting his name just 10 times, they’ll be reborn in his Pure Land.  

Once they arrive there, they’ll find the ideal conditions to realize enlightenment.

The sutras go into detail, describing exactly what practitioners will experience. In Amida’s Pure Land, the trees have every type of nourishing fruit and bushes contain every type of medicine. Thus, no one is ever hungry or sick. The water is filled with the seven precious jewels and everyone has a perfect, celestial body.

Also, the land is perfectly flat.

That last bit confused me for a long time. I grew up in a part of the country that’s known for hills and valleys.  The high hills and deep ravines of my childhood are a part of me. So much so that when I visit states such as Iowa, the flatness of the land makes me uneasy.

Amida’s promise of a land with no hills sounds strange on the surface. But it makes sense on both a literal and metaphorical level on close inspection.

In a literal sense, there were no cars, trains, or automobiles in the time of Buddha. Most people were poor, so they had to walk everywhere on “roads” that were essentially large dirt paths. Even if they were wealthy enough to travel via horse or elephant, it would still take several days to travel what we consider a short distance by modern standards.

To put it another way, the average walking speed for a human being is three miles per hour. So if someone needed to travel 30 miles on foot to get life-saving medicine, the journey would take at least a day. And the travel time would increase dramatically if there were several hills or a mountain between them and their destination.

When one thinks of the many people who must have died throughout history because there was a mountain between them and things they needed to survive, Amida’s promise of flat land makes a lot of sense.

Metaphorically, we can think of his promise of flat land as a reference to our daily struggles. Each of us must cope with the “hills and valleys” of birth, aging, sickness, and death. In the midst of that, we also wrestle with unkind bosses, rude neighbors, money problems, and bodies that don’t always behave as we would like.

When Amida promises that his land is flat, he’s saying that these problems don’t exist there. Thus, people who are reborn there can put 100 per cent of their focus on the realization of enlightenment.

One day, we will all be reborn in Amida’s Pure Land. But until that happens, we must learn to live in this world, and we must learn to make our own flat land. Sometimes, we do this by building retaining walls in our garden. Sometimes, we do this by using our Buddhist practice to cope with worldly troubles.

But the thing we must remember is that as long as we live in Samsara, the world will rarely be flat of its own accord. We must reach out with our own hands and make it that way.

Namu Amida Butsu

Related features from BDG

Metta’s Snow Days
Dharma’s Garden – Nourishing the Local Community through Homesteading
The Unbroken Lineage of the Pure Land Teaching
My Grandmother’s Greenhouse and Other Portals to Wonder
“Gleanings in Buddha-Fields”: Pure Land Buddhism in Tibet

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