Three and a half years ago we moved into this two hundred year old hotel and created a Buddhist Temple. We turned the breakfast room into a dharma hall, placing our standing Buddha on a shrine in front of the tall Georgian windows. We hung our Buddhist temple sign where the old hotel sign used to be.
One way of framing the job of a Buddhist temple is to spread wisdom and compassion. What is wisdom? Clearly seeing samsara and nirvana, or in other words, seeing human nature: its foolishness and the deep impulse to love. What is compassion? The fellow-feeling that arises from clear seeing and the acts of kindness that follow.
We can work to spread wisdom and compassion through picturing an ideal and trying to get closer it, or we can work from a place of celebrating what we have already been given.
Over the last three years I have learnt of the dangers of wanting, and I am moving from a place of idealism to a place of gratitude.
We haven’t just been creating temple, but a community. We have space for people to live in the building; we have people coming to practice with us from the local area; and we have volunteers coming to help get the building in order and keep it clean and tidy, and transform the garden from something basic into something beautiful.
Living and working alongside people provides opportunities for entanglement, and getting knocked out of shape. It provides opportunities for discovering the depth of our own karma, and the karma of the people alongside us.
One of the things that most frustrated me in the early days of our community was when people promised one thing, and then did another or nothing at all.
One resident, displaying good intentions and enthusiasm for living in community took on the responsibility of taking our rubbish and recycling out to the front of the building once a week. Sometimes the black bags of rubbish and the pink bags of recycling would make it out to the front and be taken away, and sometimes they wouldn’t.
After missing two or three weeks in a row we started to run out of spaces to keep the waste before it was collected. I was triggered into frustration and anxiety. Frustration because I felt like I was already working near my limit in those early days of the community, and anxiety because I was anticipating a conversation with that resident that I wasn’t sure would go well, and I was wondering what message we were sending to our neighbours.
I steeled myself to talk with this person. I boxed up my feelings of frustration and shoved them to the back of my mind. I’m sure they still leaked into the conversation, but the more we talked my feelings softened. I connected with the real person in front of me and the struggles in their own life. They recommitted to the job, and we parted as friends.
Not long after they started to forget to take out the rubbish again. We talked and it became clear that there was too much going on in their life for them to manage this regular job. We agreed that he would step down from this responsibility. We moved into a position of congruence: both of our expectations became more rooted in what was actually possible.
I could list a dozen other examples where I became frustrated by this kind of behaviour. I heard my teacher’s teacher’s words echoing in my ears, “Listen to what they say, and then watch what they do”, yet still I found myself falling into hope and then disappointment and frustration.
When I look back on this time, I can see that my frustration had two roots. The first was falling into believing what people believed about themselves. When I was presented with a strong self-story, there was an invitation for me support that self-story – and for the sake of an easy life I agreed with what I was being told.
The second root is more profound. I was acting from a place of wanting. A traditional reading of the Four Noble Truths teaches us the danger of desire, and many of us will have noticed the pattern of wanting and then disappointment in our own lives.
Both of these habits set up a conflict with reality. In the first there’s a dissonance between the story and the actual bundle of habits and patterns that the person is acting out. In the second there’s a conflict between what I want, and what is actually manifesting or even possible.
Acting from a place of gratitude cuts through both of these roots, and anchors me in reality.
As I began to focus on what I was receiving, rather than what I lacked, I connected with a sense of being profoundly supported.
From a material point of view, I already have more than I need to live – and from a spiritual point of view, I have already been given the great gifts of teachings, practices, and the presence of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and the Sangha to support me. How wonderful!
If you investigate the causes and conditions of your own life, you may find the same to be true.
Even when encountering difficulty there is usually something good to give our attention too.
In the second Āghāta Paṭivinaya Sutta, Sairputra teaches us that if we meet someone who spends their time speaking unwholesome words, and performing unwholesome acts, but whose heart occasionally opens to goodness, we should give our attention to that goodness. Sariputra compares that small amount of goodness to a finding a hoof-print filled with water when we are thirsty and the road is dry – rather than scooping it up with our hands and disturbing the mud we put our lips to the water and drink, taking in and appreciating what is pure.
Every teaching has a shadow. Just as the shadow of idealism is disconnect and delusion, the shadow of gratitude and connecting with what is good is avoiding what needs to be addressed. I am not advocating ignoring what troubles us, but making sure that we also pay attention to what supports us.
So often when the windshield is cracked we spend our time obsessing about the crack, instead of looking out at the beautiful view, and being thankful for the chassis and wheels supporting us. I’m not suggesting we ignore the crack – nobody wants a shattered windshield – but acting from a place of gratitude makes it easier to fix the crack, and to live with the cracks that can’t be fixed.
In our community – when I began to focus on what volunteers and residents were offering – rather than what they could not offer – I began to feel differently. I relaxed; reality was not as troubling as I had first thought. I was more pleased to see people than I had been before. I got know them better, and the agreements we made were more realistic and more likely to manifest good results.
When things did go “wrong” I took a step back and remembered all the innumerable ways in which I am supported, and then I stepped forward again from a different place, bringing a different quality of mind to the engagement. Sometimes the stepping back and remembering didn’t happen until after the encounter. I’m not a perfectly enlightened Buddha, after all.
For me wisdom begins with gratitude: trusting in the presence of nirvana allows me to look clearly at suffering and human foolishness – particularly my own greed, hate and delusion. Starting from gratitude also means that I am more likely to feel resourced to reach out to others, and to take compassionate action.
How wonderful it is to realise there is so much to be thankful for.