Last week I went out to join in with a local ‘mixed’ meditation group. It being late when I got home, I left my meditation bench and zabuton in the back of my car.
The following day, having to transport some passengers unexpectedly, I took the equipment out and left it temporarily on the roof of my husband’s car which stands next to mine in the garage. And forgot all about it.
My husband rarely goes anywhere in the car, but, unusually, was taking his grandson to the train station that morning. By sheer chance, I looked out of the bedroom window to watch them drive off and was horrified to see my meditation equipment still on the roof of his car! I yelled out of the window but of course he couldn’t possibly have heard me. So I rushed downstairs and jumped into my car in pursuit, (Follow that car!), thinking it would certainly have fallen off at one of the series of bends on our country lane.
Not a bit of it. I reached the main road and, about 100 yards from the junction, there were my bench and zabuton lying in the middle of the road. I stopped, put on my hazard lights and retrieved them. What a relief. But the whole episode prompted some interesting thoughts.
I have had this bench and mat for nearly thirty years, having bought them in the days when Throsssel Hole Buddhist Abbey still made and sold such things. Although mostly these days I sit on a chair, (old age, disease and death), they are still very precious to me. And I treat them, as we treat, for instance, our kesas and our altar equipment, with respect and love. So to see them lying in the middle of the highway was truly shocking.
Of course, my mind ran on, as it does, and I imagined how it would have been if they’d been run over by traffic, which had in fact clearly avoided them. But one big truck would have wrecked them, smashed the bench and ground the mat into the mud. How unbelievably fortunate that I happened to look out of my window, sentimentally really, to wave goodbye. Because if I hadn’t, I might never have realised what had happened, and even been baffled and distressed by their apparent ‘disappearance’. And would I ever have seen the mangled wreck on the road, or even identified it?
The whole episode reminded me of a trip we made years ago to Disney, and one of the rides which took us through various ‘scenarios’ (before plunging us over a precipice to certain, well almost certain… death). One of these was some sort of desert scene, with sand and a smashed buddha statue. Landscape, cinema, but I remember being shocked and actually offended at the time, that something that represented important beliefs for me was lying broken and used as part of a tourist experience.
We invest objects with importance beyond their value. And we need of course sometimes to be aware of that. Bells, gongs, incense, water have no magical properties; but how fortunate we are to have human brains which allow us to value things in different ways and to use objects and association to bring us back to what really matters to us. A smashed bench would not, in the order of things, have been a huge tragedy, but the pain for me, because of all that I have associated with it, would have been very hard to bear.
When I attended Jukai nearly 30 years ago, I naively thought that I had ‘arrived’. I had become a Buddhist, after a lifetime of spiritual exploration. This was going to heal me. I would move steadily (not necessarily quickly) but smoothly on this new path. What challenges awaited!
As I believe is the case for many trainees, there was a strong element of grasping in my early training. That is fine. It is just the way we are. We transfer our human tendency to grasp from things material and transitory to the spiritual path. Very slowly I have come to a much calmer state from which I try to approach this precious gift the Buddha gave us. Something that helped me was a period of some years during which I drifted away from formal practice, though something inside me hung on just enough. I learnt much during that time. I recall returning to Throssel after a gap of some years and I was greeted as if I had never been away.
The following Tanka poem reflects my experience of that drifting away.
Returning to Buddha
Chasing my desire
I became lost in shadow
Then my heart called
I turned towards the light
Shining as bright as ever
Early morning and the sun makes streaks of golden light on the Common. September just around the corner. There is a heavy crop of plums and those we haven’t picked lie rotting on the ground under the tree, blue purple skins and yellow flesh. A dozen red admiral butterflies flit from one to the other and through the branches of the tree glutting on the sweet juice. Under the heavy heat, the countryside is still and there is a faint mist hanging over the trees along the edge of the field. Leaves now are the dark green of late summer. In the shallow pond, set among the flowers in the border for the birds to bathe and drink from, three frogs lurk, eyes and noses just above the water, watching me. We breathe the same air, we share in the same water. We humans are, as Germaine Greer once put it, ‘terrestrials’ – of and from the earth. I am one with the frog and the muntjac deer that browses on the edge of the wood.
Recently there was a news item about a firm which is breeding insects as a source of food. Dog and cat food can now be made from grubs and this provides sufficient of the right sort of protein for our pets to flourish. This is heralded as good news, because it means fewer large mammals being slaughtered and, they said, vegetarians would be very pleased. I am puzzled. There is a photograph of wriggling grubs. Whilst I understand that in one way to kill a grub is less emotionally difficult than it is to kill a cow, or, for dog meat, a horse, it is still killing and the taking of life. And I can’t really see why this would be welcomed by vegetarians. The grub becomes an insect of some sort. Both grub and insect are living beings.
It prompts me to ponder on what I mean by life. Because of course plants are life and recent research indicates that trees communicate with each other in ways we hadn’t previously understood. And we fell trees routinely for wood. Human life could not exist without taking life from some things – plants, bacteria even. I ponder a definition of life as something that is not rooted in earth, that can live freely and move about without having to be hard-wired to a food source. And this includes grubs and insects. Breeding insects as food stuff is surely the same as the wholesale breeding of prawns and shrimps, or even catching prawns and shrimps to eat. Catching fish. All these living creatures, however humanely reared, and many of them are not, certainly do not want to die.
Once you start to think about it, there is so much of heartbreak in this world. I look at the countryside around me in its late summer heaviness and my heart breaks to think that all of this will eventually be lost. And soon, in the evolutionary scale of things. And I ponder the question of attachment. I am so passionately attached to this English countryside with all its flora and fauna, its scenery, its lushness. Where is the letting go, the cutting of ties? I am part of this. Inseparable. I am a terrestrial, connected in every way possible to the raindrops on the sugar beet, the earth beneath my feet, the trees that provide such welcome shade in this hot weather. We are all of a piece, this world and I. I cannot but be attached.
I am brushing my teeth. I reach across to turn off the tap, as advised by the water conservationists. In the field at the back of the house, the irrigators are chucking thousands of gallons of water onto the potato crop.
We are told that sometime soon – in this century probably – the planet will run out of water. How can this be, I wonder, when earth is a closed system? Water circulates. It evaporates and comes back as rain; it seeps down to the water table and comes back through our taps; it flows back into rivers from effluent plants. How is is possible that it can run out?
I reflect that I don’t have enough understanding of physics, or even or geography. Why is drought? Boiled water becomes steam and condenses back into water. If the water molecule is somehow split into hydrogen and oxygen, does that molecule of water disappear for ever? And how might this happen? I consult with my step-grandson, who tries to explain how, with global warming, water will remain suspended in the atmosphere and never fall again as rain.
My human body is 60% water and, whilst it circulates, this amount effectively remains trapped. If this body is cremated, is this water lost to the system? If it is buried, is the water reclaimed? And does the amount of carbon released either way mitigate any gains? If the human and animal population of the world increases, does too much water get trapped in bodies, so that it is not available for the planet?
If humans start to use de-salination plants extensively, will the oceans become too salty for marine life to survive? When the icecaps melt and polar species are devastated, will this nevertheless mean more available water? Or will it mean that the planet heats up so much that life can’t survive anyway?
How fortunate we are to live in a time when streams still bubble down the hillsides and waterfalls plunge over rocks. How fiercely we must appreciate a draught of clear, clean tap water with a cube of ice clinking against the glass and condensation gathering on the outside.
How sweet the falling rain.
In February and March, toads, newts and frogs are all on the move, travelling from their winter hibernation places towards the ponds on the common. To get there, they have to cross the lane where they are in danger of being squashed by cars. They tend to linger, waiting for a passing female to jump onto, or just preferring the marginally warmer conditions of the roadway. To save them, they have to be moved to the common side of the lane or all the way to one of the ponds.
There is an official toad watch group: a number of volunteers who go out to rescue every evening. I am not part of this, but I find myself a reluctant volunteer because I walk my dog last thing at night and can’t avoid meeting up with amphibians on the move. I don’t like picking them up at all, but neither can I bear to leave them there to take their chances with the traffic. And if I don’t move them, I’ll be the one to find their flattened bodies early in the morning when next I walk the dog.
The toad watch volunteers keep records and dead ones have to be moved off the road so that they don’t get counted twice. Bizarrely, I prefer doing that, picking them up by one delicate, clawed foot, reciting the three homages and throwing the bodies into the undergrowth where at least they will naturally be recycled. What I dislike is picking up the living, getting hold of their little bony bodies, throwing them rapidly into the long grass where I pray they have a soft landing. Sometimes I drop them and they squirm on their backs, their pale underbellies exposed, their little curved mouths tightly shut, until they right themselves and I have to catch them and try again. I wear gloves, not being able to bring myself to pick them up with my bare hands.
The official volunteers, out just after dusk with head torches, high viz clothing and buckets, gather them up and carry them in batches to the ponds. But I can’t cope with a bucket as well as the dog on a lead and just have to chuck them one by one into the grass. I report numbers of each, but sometimes it is difficult to tell which are frogs and which are toads. If they hop, they’re frogs. But both species come in many different shades of brown, gold and green. Toads are supposed to be ‘warty’, and this means that they have a rougher, pebbly skin, whereas the frogs are shiny, gleaming in the torch light. And the frogs seem to be more angular, more powerful swimmers perhaps, built for moving faster through the water, though at this time of year the females have bulging egg-filled bellies which makes them waddle and wait.
Some nights I move around forty: frogs, toads, and often too newts, slim, golden slivers which are easy to miss in the darkness. The newts wriggle at amazing speed, their tiny legs just raising them off the asphalt, their graceful bodies propelling them along. Over the few weeks of the watch, altogether we move nearly four thousand creatures, though I’m not entirely convinced that I’m not moving the same ones, which could so easily have hopped back into my pathway as I return.
It is with some relief that I receive the message that the watch has come to an end. But to some extent it never does for me. On warm summer evenings along the lanes there are always toads, squatting on the asphalt, apparently going nowhere. I ought to move them and yet I just can’t bring myself to pick them up. I nudge them gently with my foot or with my torch. The frogs will leap away, the toads either lumber slowly a step or two, or simply refuse to move at all. Many of them are exquisite in their tininess, this year’s or last year’s hatchlings, some no more than the size of my fingernail, perfectly formed down to their little clawed feet, their tiny, shiny black eyes. I marvel at them. I love them. And yet still I hesitate to pick them up and move them to safety and then suffer agonies of guilt at my own ridiculous weakness.
Often, when I get home, there is a toad or two walking across the gravel on the drive or sitting on the flight of steps that leads up to the front door. ‘Welcome,’ I say to them. ‘You’re safe here.’ And I go in and turn off the lights and leave them to the warm and mothy darkness.