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Simplicity - Nature the Elements and True Nature

by Kamalashila

Simplicity - Nature, the Elements and True Nature
11/22/2006 02:24 PM

a talk given at FWBO Day, London April 2004

Until very recently this talk was advertised simply as ‘a Dharma talk’ because originally I wasn’t sure what to say. And in a way it’s ended up as a promotion for the retreat I’m leading for Buddhafield in mid-May. Ever since my recent solitary retreat I’ve been so desperate for communication, of any kind, that I’ll do almost anything to get attention. And for getting attention, what is especially good about Buddhafield is that numbers are virtually unlimited. I mean, you can always put up a few more tents. So if the retreat attracts a hundred or more, I’m sure we could manage it. I think that'd be great. A hundred or two men, women… and I don’t know about angels, but last time I led something at Buddhafield, one of the most committed retreatants was a dog called Brian. I don’t think Buddhafield usually allow pets, especially not dogs, but Brian was given a special place because of the depth of his meditation practice. Of course, that’s never easy to assess, not in anyone, but Brian really was an exceptionally relaxed and peaceful person. He would sit hour after hour in the shrine tent with all of us, quite still, radiating metta and wisdom. Anyway I emailed Brian this week, so I hope he will be able to join the coming retreat.

Anyway as you’ll gather, this is a very serious talk. And Brian – in fact Buddhafield itself - represents something very very serious, something very profound indeed. He represents nature - the natural life, life lived in the open air, on solid ground, by flowing waters, in sun and rain, and under open skies. It represents the way the Buddha Shakyamuni lived for most of his life. In fact the Buddha was born under a tree, gained Enlightenment under a tree, and passed away under a tree. I personally like trees very much, and as soon as I connected up with the Buddhafield community a few years ago, I realised I wanted to live like that. And then, a little more recently, when I had the opportunity to take a long break from things and do a personal retreat, I suddenly realised that I could do my retreat that way. Perhaps in Britain it wasn’t advisable to live under a tree, especially at my age, but I could build a hut on a hill somewhere. So that’s where I lived for eighteen months; in fact I still spend most of my time in that hut, I like so much living right in the midst of nature.

I think it’s reasonable to ask why - I mean what is in fact the advantage of living so close to the elements? After all, the elements – of earth, water, fire and air – are not necessarily so pleasant to live with. They’re fine to look at… yes, It’s lovely to drive through the mountains, take a train to the seaside, or watch a documentary about wildlife. But why live in it? In real life the earth is hard, stony, or muddy and dirty. Water is wet and damp. In this country, it’s cold. Why forsake one’s carpets, hot running water, bathroom and mains electricity? Why go somewhere with just an earth toilet, where water has to be carried in buckets, and where the fire keeps going out?

Well, if you’ve ever been away in the country or down by the sea, or up in the mountains, you know why. Nearly everyone these days lives in a highly artificial environment. There’s a sense of wellbeing and beauty simply being where things are not man-made. Where at night you can look up and see the moon and the stars, instead of a ghastly electric glare. That’s why. It seems to me that contact with nature, in itself, nourishes some kind of human need.

I wonder if that’s true, though. Why should it matter how artificially we live?

I can’t easily answer this. But I think meditation might help us understand it, because meditation works by exposing our artificiality, and then dissolving it. Meditation practice purifies us of our artificiality simply by our paying attention to our experience. That’s meditation in a nutshell - giving attention to experience. But the attention isn't just mental. The attention is also something we do with our heart. The heart is all about what we wish and hope for; it’s about what we want. And what we want in meditation is to find some truth. So looking at it in that way, meditation becomes something like prayer. Because in our heart we want authenticity. It’s because we badly need something real, something genuine – that’s why we give our attention in meditation. And this very heartfelt attention that is meditation brings new awareness. Our awareness of ourselves, of others, of our senses and of the whole world is continually refreshed as we practice. And in the long term, after much practice and reflection, we come to a more philosophical awareness, a kind of sensitivity to reality itself – of the ultimate truth about the nature of existence. And that’s the beginning of wisdom. I think it takes a long, long time for our wisdom to come to fruition - but still, I think some of it starts sprouting in us right from the very beginning.

So summarising, we can say that on the Buddhist path our artificiality gradually drops away and we become more natural and real.

A meditation practice that is especially focused on this approach of nature is the meditation on the elements. Earth, water, fire, and air are known in all pagan traditions, and they embrace everything we can possibly

Page 1 of 7 Simplicity - Nature, the Elements and True Nature 11/22/2006 02:24 PM

experience. And then in Buddhist tradition experience is itself embraced by space and consciousness, two elements which in a sense are even more elemental.

All six elements are always with us. Some things are hard and resistant, like this platform, and my body standing on it. That’s the earth element. Well actually, my body’s outer surface is an expression of the earth element; but what about inside it? Inside, there’s all kinds of colourful fluid, jelly and goo flowing about – so that’s the water element. And obviously there’s water outside, too, for example there’s some in this glass, and the glass itself, being hard, is the earth element. So in various forms, earth and water are everywhere. Also everything is hot or cold; I’m fairly warm, but the water and its glass are cool. So that’s temperature, that’s the fire element. And it’s all moving around, with the movement of the planet and the beating of my heart. That movement is the air element. So everything I experience is a combination of these elements. My body has firmness; it has fluidity; it is warm or cold, and it is in continual motion. And so is everything, everywhere, universally.

The element of space is even more basic inasmuch as it’s what gives the material world its place to be in. My body is a shape in space. It occupies space; it moves around in space; it constantly changes its shape in space. But then consciousness, the sixth element, is even more basic than that, because we experience space and all the other elements. Everything, even space, depends on our experiencing it. The faculty of experience is basic to experiencing any kind of world. It’s a very simple truth: if we close our eyes and ears, we don’t see or hear anything. We won’t be conscious of any sights or sounds. So the consciousness element really is basic; it is everything really, it is the whole world – it is whatever is seen, heard, smelled, tasted. Also it’s whatever is felt, imagined, or thought about. Consciousness is the ultimate element – or at least, so it would seem.

You can see how meditation on these elements can bring us closer to an experience of our real nature. But we’re not usually so closely in touch. Naturalness doesn’t come as easily as we’d like, and it’s partly due to our history. Here in Europe at least, pagan or natural values were suppressed for centuries by authoritarian religion. We are still only starting to see the damage that has caused, let alone break free from it. Our connection with nature can’t actually be broken, but emotionally we are so deeply involved with authoritarianism that it’s hard to see much value in being more connected with nature. The only way is to experience natural reality for ourselves. It’s an issue not of theory, but of practice.

There are actually many ways to practise this. Today, though, we’re using our experience of the six elements. For most people the earth element is the easiest element to experience directly. Everyone’s body has parts that are hard, firm, and durable. Earth is our muscles and bones; our fingernails and toenails; our hair and skin. And of course it’s everything out there that is solid, too. So when we do this, whether we’re sitting in formal meditation practice, or we’re walking around, doing all the usual things we do, we try to get an increasingly strong sense of that nature, that quality of earth that is everywhere. We can feel it bending and stretching as we breathe. We can feel it in the ground under our feet, in the chair we’re sitting on, in our homes and kitchens and on roads and in cars and among fields and trees, up mountains – and finally in the white cliffs that run down to the golden sandy beach.

But when we walk out from there, that gold sandy beach gets gradually wetter, and then we are finally paddling, and we’ve arrived at the edge of a vast ocean. We’ve arrived at the element water. I don't’ know about you, but for me there is an enormous shift there. Water is not just a different element… next on the list, element number two… No, it is another world. Water, water, see the water flow, sparkling, dancing, see the water flow. There’s a magical touch here. The quality of liquid is utterly different to that of earth. The dry solid forms of earth are hard-edged ...

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