What’s it all about?
What is gentle Buddhism, and what qualifies me to speak about it? I will tell you, but first I want to describe the view from my window. I live with my spouse on the bottom floor of our Buddhist temple, and just outside is our vegetable patch – now a mess of spinach gone to seed, elderly courgette plants, and a scattering of bright poppies. Beyond the low wall of the vegetable patch is a vast expanse of valley – right now mist is pooling in the dips and I can see the faint silhouettes of trees and hills rising out of the white.
I will begin with the valley – the skeins of mist, the translucent petals of the poppy – because this is where I am happiest. I am happiest when I forget Buddhism, gentle or not, and relax into my day – meeting whatever happens with curiosity, courage, compassion and gratitude.
Unfortunately, I am not always full of these qualities. Sometimes I am restless, or full of voices that criticise me or tell me that I’m not enough. Sometimes I am overcome by compulsions – to eat cake, or to scroll on social media. As I type this paragraph I just had to get up and let one of my dogs outside, and then the other, and then they both wanted to come back in. Then Ralph wanted to sit on the same chair as Aiko, and I had to mediate their little squabble. I noticed the impatience rising inside me like mercury in a thermometer.
How to be enlightened…
Dogen, the 13th Century Zen Master, told us that in order to be enlightened by the ten thousand things we must begin by studying ourselves. Buddhist teachings offer us many marvelous ways to get to know ourselves, and this is what I will be writing about in this blog – assisted by my experience of the model I use as a psychotherapist – Internal Family Systems. How can we become friendlier with the different parts of ourselves? How can we discover their motives, and help them to relax their iron grip?
For decades, I have driven myself pretty hard. This has had pay-offs – I’ve written ten books, run a successful mindful writing business, worked with many hundreds of psychotherapy clients, and managed a Buddhist temple with my spouse Kaspa for eight years. I have very high standards for myself and I can find it difficult to take breaks or to have fun. I have approached Buddhism in the same way, seeing it as a serious ongoing all-consuming project – reading hundreds of books, completing years of study, feeling guilty when I don’t do ‘enough’ practice or when I’m not a ‘good Buddhist’.
I’m done with pushing. It doesn’t help me, and it doesn’t help anyone else either – as I carry my stress with me like a force-field and inflict it on those around me. I don’t think I’m the only one to approach Buddhism in this ‘striving’ way. These messages are embedded into our capitalist, colonialist culture and so of course they will infect our interpretation of Buddhism too. If we just did more meditation, if we just went on more retreats, if we could just be more generous or patient or compassionate, then everything will be sorted! Will it? What is ‘enough’ Buddhist practice? What if we can’t be more generous? What if we are overwhelmed by feelings of jealousy or self-pity or rage? What then?
In praise of gentleness
I believe that if we can approach our lives and our Buddhist practice with gentleness, we won’t just feel better, but we’ll become nicer people too. If we can stop beating ourselves up, we’ll be less likely to blame or criticize others. If we can be more honest about our limitations, we’ll stop over-promising and letting others down. If we can forgive ourselves, we will be more able to forgive others. If we can heal what needs healing in ourselves, we’ll be more available to help others. We are living in a time of great suffering – war, pandemic, economic crisis, the climate and ecological emergency. We need Bodhisattvas more than ever. In my experience, the quickest way to move towards Bodhisattva-hood is to go gently.
I’m feeling excited about this journey into gentle Buddhism. Did the Buddha say much about gentleness? What about those who followed him? What does my own tradition, Pure Land Buddhism, have to contribute? What about other Buddhist traditions? What are my day to day experiences of gentle Buddhism, and what are yours?
For now, it’s time to finish this writing and look out of my window again for a while. The mist is still there, but the sun is diluting it and I can see more of the trees, the fields, and the little houses. I can feel a new relaxation in my body as I look – a deep acknowledgement of my being ordinary, and the relief of being acceptable just as I am. Maybe I will sit with a cup of tea before I go upstairs to clean the shrine room. Maybe I’m finally learning the way of gentleness.
I hope you’ll come along with me.
Go gently ��