On Maybe Losing the Temple
Since leaving our Buddhist order last November, we’ve been continuing to run our little temple in the heart of Great Malvern, England, as independent Pure Land Buddhist teachers. We’ve been grieving the loss of our old teacher and sangha, revisiting the original Pure Land teachings, forging new colleague relationships, and beginning to ponder our future as Bright Earth. We’ve also continued to look after the community and the building: this week I’ve run our twice-weekly group practice, had several conversations with members of our congregation, replied to a letter from a Pure Land seeker in prison, done the accounts, and offered my time to Extinction Rebellion Buddhists, as well as conducting my daily vigil in town.
A few weeks ago we heard that we may not be able to continue living and working in this beautiful space. This was not a part of our plan. Before we took on this Dharma project, we committed to being here for a decent chunk of our lives in the hope that we could plant seeds and stick around to tend shoots, stake and prune when necessary, and compost and plant more seeds. This news was like a slap. It brought our comfortable future into doubt and led to a cascade of reactions inside me.
Part of me got to work, calculating how much money we would need for a mortgage on a new house, and planning how we could move the pet bunnies and their bulky aviary. Part of me felt shock, outrage, and anger. Part of me listed the people who lived here or who had heart connections with the temple, and considered how I might best break the news. Part of me felt guilty, convinced that we should hand the temple over and that if we stayed here we’d be taking something that didn’t belong to us. Part of me felt the prospect of great relief as the burdens of running this place would be removed from me without having to say “no” to them.
Mostly, I fought with reality. I went to great lengths to convince myself that whatever happened, it would suit me perfectly and wasn’t it great that I was completely equanimous about the whole thing. At other times I was dismayed to apprehend the depth of my bombu nature—the parts of me that cling to security and comfort, and that are expert at arranging the objects and people around me to suit me. Most of my reactions could be traced to self-protection, self-indulgence, and various cunning manipulations to serve my own needs.
I also had kinder parts. These parts knew that this news is a big deal and that my system was responding as skillfully as it could. They know about my strong desire to share the Dharma, to pass on what I’ve received, and my deep love of this place. They knew that I didn’t feel “done” here yet, despite how I feel about this job on difficult days. There was a knowledge, deep down, that I really would be okay no matter what happened. That I did want to serve the Dharma in whatever way the Buddha saw fit, which may or may not involve running this place. That this experience itself was a Dharma offering to me, to remind me of my purpose, to show me once again the depth of my fallibility, and to point me back toward taking refuge in the one who is infinitely wise and compassionate.
Buddhism teaches us about the unavoidability of impermanence. I know this to be true on an intellectual level, but I only have a visceral experience of it when I am actually on the edge, looking down into some kind of abyss. A friend was recently diagnosed with a life-limiting illness—he gets it. A colleague is living with a heart condition that could kill her at any moment—she gets it. Most of us don’t. We need help to throw us into the bosom of the Buddha, and life never disappoints us. We lose houses, pets, relationships, dreams, jobs, Buddhist teachers, spouses, and finally our own bodies. We live in a world tinged with suffering, some of our own making—as species become extinct and microplastics clot our seas—and some of nature’s design. Our time on this beautiful planet is short and we could be asked to move out at any moment.
We still don’t know whether we will be able to stay, although things are looking more hopeful. In the meantime, this weekend we will buy seed potatoes and courgette seeds to plant in our vegetable plot and start off in little pots. We will eat with our templemates tonight—our usual Friday community meal—with a birthday cake for Joe. We will begin practicing in the temple garden again this Saturday as restrictions begin to lift, walking very slowly around the paths David has made, followed by two enthusiastic little dogs.
I wouldn’t quite say that I’m grateful for this latest chapter in our move away from our old Buddhist order. Well, parts of me are. If we can stay, I’ll be choosing it in a different way, having been in contact with the reality of leaving. If we can’t, then we will start a practice group that meets on the Malvern hills. Maybe we’ll do that anyway. Our liturgy says that “impermanence rushes upon us every moment.” If it didn’t, would any of us turn to spiritual teachings? Would any of us remember to enjoy this blustery morning, with dew shining on the grass and white blossoms clothing the trees?
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