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Community Nature and Buddha Nature

by Kamalashila

Community, Nature and Buddha Nature

by Kamalashila

Based on a talk given in the Dharma Parlour, Buddhafield Festival July 2006

What does Buddhism mean by ‘nature’, and does the Buddhist vision of Awakening have
anything to do with it? If it does, what is our relationship, as a Sangha, to the Buddhist
vision of nature?

I recently became interested in starting some kind of large, land-based community. The
idea arose after an eighteen-month retreat in a canvas dome above a Welsh valley. It was
the most deeply inspiring time of my life, and three years later, I am still assimilating it. I
was alone throughout, and lived simply, burning wood and drawing water from the
hillside. I discovered something that thrilled me to the core: that being close to nature
enlivens my understanding of Dharma like nothing else does. Now I want to live like that
with others. I would like to help create a Dharma based ecological vision for the FWBO.

When I started my retreat, I was not at all interested in ecology. I was in the countryside
simply to escape the distraction of other human beings. I expected insights and
realisations to arise not from nature, but from meditation. Yes, I would learn how
to light fires, tie knots, chop wood, and carry water, but I never thought natural things
themselves would give insights into the Dharma. Yet in the event, every single insight
came from these things, bestowed by the elements earth, water, fire, wind, space, and
awareness. I had many deeply unsettling experiences, and they awakened my whole
relationship to nature.

In other talks, I have mentioned the more colourful events that sparked off insights: the
night I got totally lost in the fog, and the time I slipped knee deep into my shit pit.
However, one experience grew to become a constant companion. I can describe it as
a deeper relationship with nature in which the Dharma, the nature of existence, was more
visible than usual. This relationship, and the experiences that arose out of it, gradually
undermined my habitual pride and rigidity. I experienced an ongoing collapse of my idea
of myself, and of the world I thought I lived in. That happened because in that situation,
Nature is so uncompromising. If I needed to urinate or get water and firewood, I was
forced go outside, whatever the weather or my state of health. I am in my fifties. I began
my retreat in December. Over those freezing winter months, whenever I felt very cold or
very ill, I longed for the convenience of piped water and mains electricity. I became
impatient with practical matters, cursing the need to tie a knot or split logs. Eventually
however, my tetchiness and anxiety about the realities around me dissolved. I began
feeling at home in it all. I began to love it. I saw increasingly that my resistance to painful
experience, the pain itself, and the person experiencing it, were all natural, unfixed
realities that could teach me about the Dharma if only I could be open and curious about
their nature. I finally came to inhabit my environmental niche, in accordance with my
Dharma training. From that point, I came into a creative Dharma relationship with every
local plant and animal.

Now it is over, I want to explore this more, with others. I imagine us establishing
somewhere large, land based, unkempt, and diverse. It would perhaps be a bit like a mini
Buddhafield festival, with writers, artists, hippies, yogis, yoginis, Buddhafield workers,
Dharma teachers, activists, ecologists, poets, playwrights, mechanics, accountants,
musicians, dogs, cats, and parrots, all living together. This great diversity of living beings
would share their lives as single individuals, couples, and families. There could be
women’s and men’s communities within the overall community. I suppose most of us
would live in converted barns and farmhouses, but I would also like to see trucks,
caravans, yurts, and benders.

I think such a community could develop a dharma philosophy based on collective
experience. I imagine that would be lively, controversial in some respects, yet helpful and
attractive. Indeed, it ought to attract visitors. People could come and attend retreats,
meditate, and explore the Dharma from the point of view of nature and deep ecology.
Within the community, we could help one another live harmoniously, raise a livelihood
and maybe some children, teach Dharma, and work on ourselves individually. Over the
years, Buddhafield have introduced thousands of ecological minded people to the
Dharma. If large numbers of us actually lived together, we could take that much further,
and develop an approach to Dharma that really explores and co-operates with nature.

My retreat helped me imagine how nature must have informed the Buddha’s own feeling
for the Dharma. I even wonder if this understanding is only available to those practising,
in some way, in a natural environment. It is a matter of actual connection. Certainly, that
kind of sensibility has been in Buddhist teaching right from the beginning. The Buddha
chose to live in nature even though, after his Awakening, he could easily have returned to
a conventional indoor life and made that his basis for teaching. No one would have
thought any the less of him. His decision to remain in the wild indicates that it supported
his realisation better. Certainly, after his awakening, the Buddha became as considerate
of the needs of non-human beings and plants as his own kind. He taught his disciples how
to cultivate love for snakes and other fear-inspiring creatures. His instructions were
abundant with examples drawn from practical experience in the wild. And his central
teaching of vipashyana is a revelation of the nature of things, of the vastness and
profundity of Nature as it is beyond all concepts of space, time, location, and relationship.
Yet we can apply this profound revelation right here in the so-called real world, through
ethics, love, and helpful activity.

A new, nature-based approach to Dharma will need considerable articulating. As well as
living in nature with mindfulness and curiosity, we need to talk about the experience,
study others’ writings on it, reflect on it, write, and argue endlessly. Discussion and
comparison help us deepen our Dharma relationships. Obviously, we also need to work,
and keep our personal practice alive. Nevertheless, relationships are the natural world;
nature is an infinite field of inseparable, total relationship. Awakening to reality must
involve inquiring into the meaning of relationship. We each have a personal history that
is unique, and which we cannot alter. The connections we have made with others are
inescapable; we reinforce them with every meeting, thought, and decision. As Dharma
followers, we also have inescapable connections with the Buddha, through the tradition
of practice that he founded. These connections are all very much alive; as I also
discovered on my retreat, our waking mind, and our dreams, are populated by a universe
of relationships.

Because ecological awareness is about relationship, the ideal eco-dharma community
would include families and sexual partners – and, of course, many single individuals.
Obviously, it would also be excellent for monastic or single-sex communities to cultivate
an ecological ethos; [1] but a mixed-sex environment reflects the whole of life, and for
certain individuals such as myself, offers stirring material for reflection on the nature of
things. There are socio-historical arguments for this, too. For approaching forty years,
despite the fact that there are many families in the FWBO, almost every FWBO
community has been single-sex. Most of us have partners, so why do we prefer living
single so much of the time? This obviously has a lot do with the lack of mixed
community opportunities, but that itself is rooted in circumstance.

A tradition of single-sex activities has nourished the F/WBO Sangha since the early ‘70s.
Since the Western Buddhist Order is non-monastic, single sex situations have provided
our main setting for intensive dharma practice. There the young and unattached,
especially, enjoy a safe haven, where they can practise less distracted by the powerful
forces of affairs and relationships. However, the system has proved unsustainable in the
last decade. Many seasoned practitioners have left their community to live alone or with a
partner. Why is this? For one thing, single sex communities are often geared to the needs
of newer and younger people, and so can become less rewarding for the more
experienced. Moreover, single-sex environments are not automatically friendly places,
despite the standard rationale, i.e. that the absence of the opposite sex relaxes emotional
inhibitions, particularly in men, thus fostering friendship. That rationale works, in my
experience, and I believe it does for many women too. I have personally benefited
tremendously from my time in single sex communities and would do most of it all over
again. However, long-term experience shows that there is something important missing.
Many have had to face the disappointment of realising that their home over the last ten
years is actually rather cold and uninspiring. It is difficult ...

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