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Practice under the Sky

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My story begins in the pouring rain. It’s the first week of our Vigil for the Earth. Kaspa and I are sitting cross-legged at the top of the steps, right in the centre of our small town. We are wearing waterproof trousers and hooded raincoats. The placards hanging from our necks have a large colour photo of the Earth taken from space, and the words ”Love and Grief for the Earth.” We sit quietly for an hour.

The Buddha’s stories often began outside too. “On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling among the Sakyans at Samagamaka near the lotus pond.” AN 6:21(1) “Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Venerable Sariputta was dwelling at Rajagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the squirrel sanctuary.” AN 9:34(3) “On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Kusinara between the twin sal trees in the sal-tree grove of the Mallas at Upavattana, on the occasion of his final nibbana.” AN 4:76(6)

I love these small details—the lotus pond, the twin trees. As well as helping us to place the Buddha or his disciples before their stories begin, they also show us how rooted the Buddha’s community was in the natural world. Rather than shrine rooms or gompas, their practice and teaching was held by the trees, birdsong, and the clouds. They would have gained intimate knowledge of the plants around them, the animals, and the insects. They would have sat and meditated in the rain as it softly pattered down, just as we did in town.

I am not a hardy person. I am very grateful for home comforts—the radiator in my office, the windows that let me watch the storm from inside the house, our glorious electric blanket. I’ve always enjoyed a stroll on a sunny day, but I’m a fair-weather walker. Three things have happened to change this over the past year. Firstly, our family has increased to include two little dogs—the first time I’ve owned dogs—and they need walking regardless of the weather. Secondly, I took part in a multi-faith 24-hour Earth Vigil in London and I had an amazing time. Thirdly, coronavirus regulations have required us to lead our regular Saturday service in the temple garden.

To my surprise, I have relished these semi-forced opportunities to be outside in all weather. Being outside to do Buddhist practice or to bear witness to the Earth’s suffering has felt incredibly sacred. As we do a slow meditation walk around the temple garden, I spot a bright orange mushroom hiding in the crevice of a log and the pink ruffled dahlias still blooming in mid-October. The blackbird serenades us as we walk and the dogs sniff their way alongside us. As I sit in town in the fresh air, cozy in my new wool hat, I watch people going about their business. I feel grateful to spend time in our town without having to buy things or to run errands; I am simply present, looking at the valley beyond the busy street and radiating compassion out to our ailing Earth.    

When I am practising outside, I find myself more connected to both duhkha and to gratitude and joy. Duhkha is ever-present, with a lack of the usual “insulation” in the form of a regulated temperature, shelter from rain, privacy, and so on. My right foot is beginning to go to sleep . . . I have a reaction to a man walking past who throws me a pitying, dismissive look. The longer I sit still, the more numb my fingers are becoming . . . why didn’t I bring my gloves? Our regular Earth Vigil is only an hour, and even so I sometimes feel the minutes drag as I wait for the moment when I can get up, walk home to the temple, and make myself a cup of tea. 

I also receive countless gifts. Beauty presents itself to me almost continuously: the gently shifting clouds, a little girl’s carefully plaited hair, and even the shush of the traffic reminds me of the ocean. I am never more thankful for warm clothes or my trusty cushion when I’m sitting out in public on a cold day. My fingers delight to be nestled inside the folds of my sweater. I am also visited by the Buddha—as I silently chant nembutsu I receive offerings of calm, clarity, spaciousness, and happiness. I can’t help imagining the Buddha smiling as we sit quietly with the world hanging from our necks, a visual reminder to passersby of the climatic and ecological emergency. We are sounding the alarm, not with noise and disruption, which I also believe to be necessary, but with stillness and radical peace.

Sometimes, when the cold rain is trickling down my neck, I wonder whether our vigil is worthwhile. Not many people are out in this weather; possibly no-one has even seen me. Sometimes I worry that passersby will see me with my placard and feel that I’m blaming them for not doing enough, or shaming them for their consumption or their lifestyles. Sometimes it feels like far too little, far too late.

Then I notice the light glistening on the wet pavements, and notice my shoulders relaxing. I remember that this isn’t about getting a “guaranteed result,” or even about being sure that it’s the right thing to do. It’s a practice. Once a week I walk down into the temple garden, offer flowers to the garden Buddha, and spend an hour chanting and walking with friends. Once a week I set up our A-board on the pavement, settle into a comfortable position at the top of the steps and offer my practice to our local town and to our Earth. Sometimes the hours fly by, sometimes it’s tough. It doesn’t matter. Practice is practice.   

I don’t practice outdoors as much as the Buddha and his community did, but I am getting out there more. We’ll continue a regular garden service when the coronavirus restrictions are eased. Our plan is to continue the weekly vigil until at least November 2021, when the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) will take place in Glasgow. Practising outside makes me feel good. It connects me to myself and to my fellow sentient beings as well as to the world around me. It puts me into contact with the wisdom of the Earth, and brings me many teachings. It also allows me to make a small regular offering to the Buddha, and to the Earth. I am grateful to be in a position to make these offerings and to practice under the sky.  

If you’d like to start a small local vigil of your own, either as a one-off or ongoing, there’s a free starter pack available at the Earth Vigil website.

References

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. 2012. Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA.

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