View from the fence, part I

Fence-SitterFor two months now, I’ve been sitting on a fence.

It doesn’t look like a fence.

In fact, what it looks like is the entrance to a comfortable family living room containing a small group of honest, sincere, dedicated people who are the living definition of “spiritual friends.”

I think this group is the real McCoy, and I’m comfortable in it.  I want to be one of these spiritual friends because I could like and relate to these folks.

I’ve even been invited to come on in and take part, make myself at home.

So what does it mean that I’m sitting here on my metaphorical fence, dithering, eyeing the one side with a certain admiration and longing, yet casting anxious glances toward the exit on the other side?

I’m not normally a wishy-washy person.  Normally I think; I decide; I do.

Not this time, however.

This time around, I’m like those squirrels we see out here in the suburbs, trying to get across the road with cars coming in both directions; have you come across them?  They get half-way out into the road, and then they suddenly screech to a halt, trying to decide which way to go while the cars bear down on them from both sides.  It’s a pure wonder that most of them manage to make it across or back in one piece!

So, Susannah, what’s the hold-up here, anyway?

I’ve been sitting on that question for awhile now.

Moon 2Okay, here’s the thing (I think):

I became a Buddhist because Shakyamuni Buddha’s bottom line was something I could relate to.  He said (and I’m paraphrasing something awful here) “Don’t just believe in me and what I’m telling you; instead, try out what I’m telling you and find out for yourself.”

This advice was repeated centuries later in another country when a wise man said something to the effect of, “When you see a finger pointing to the moon, look at the moon, not the finger!”

Being a born do-it-yourselfer, this was music to my ears.  It’s not the messenger, but the message that’s important.  And meditation was the way to internalize the message.

Now, it seems, there are actually two main ways to practice Buddhism.

There’s the way that Shakyamuni Buddha appears to have proposed, the do-it-yourself way (my preferred modus operandi ever since I can remember) that appealed to me (naturally).

And then there’s a second track that I didn’t know about, which was apparently (and here’s where ignorance holds sway) created/discovered/ resurrected when the Mahayana tradition began:  what looks to me like a don’t-bother-doing-it-yourself, instead-have-faith way, attributed to someone called Amitabha or Amida Buddha.  It seems that all I have to do is call on Amida Buddha every day and do lots of chanting, and I’ve got my ticket into the Pure Land.  In other words, heaven.

I’m comfortable with multiple Buddhas; after all, the word buddha simply means “awakened one,” and there are surely bunches of these beings around.  But how, exactly, is this second track different from the Christian “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me” (John 14:6)?

So this Amidism thing, to put it bluntly, sounds to me suspiciously like some kind of watered-down Buddhism (with a different titular head) for errant Christians, or for Buddhists and other folk looking for an easier way than trudging along the (admittedly slow) meditation path?

Fence sitter 2Confronted with the feeling of “what the hell am I getting into here?”  – and following my usual pattern – I’ve gathered a bunch of books to help me through this issue.  As I write, they’re sitting in a pile on my desk:

Finding our True Home (Living in the Pure Land Here and Now), by Thich Nhat Hanh
The New Buddhism, by David Brazier
Not Everything is Impermanent (Zen Therapy and Admidist Teachings of David Brazier), by David Brazier

Sukhavati – Western Paradise (Going to Heaven as Taught by the Buddha), by Wong Kiew Kit
The Feeling Buddha, by David Brazier

and – just to provide some balance,
Godless Morality (Keeping Religion Out of Ethics), by Richard Holloway

[If there appears to be a preponderance of books by David Brazier, also known as Dharmavidya, well, it only seems fair, since he’s the founder of the order to which the sangha of my conundrum is attached.]

My task this summer will be to try to make sense of all this new information so that I can finally get off the fence.  From where I stand at the moment, it looks like a bit of a long haul.

game-piecesTruth is, at this point I think I’m coming to a place of deciding that “organized religion” in any form is a game of chance where I may eventually decide to just gather up my pieces and go home.

Does that make me an agnostic?  Well, if my definition of agnosticism is correct, and agnostics believe that the existence of God cannot be proven or disproven  –-

Christian Zealot:  God loves you and everyone. He will save you.
Agnostic: Prove it.

Atheist: There is no way that a god can exist.
Agnostic: Prove it.

—  then I’m no agnostic, because I absolutely do not dispute the existence of something greater than our tiny, insignificent egos, proof or no.  I may not know what to call it, but I am sure as hell aware of it!

Here’s the sum total of what I know, from my own life experience (been there, done that):

·        I have felt “accompanied” since I was a very young child, which may be the reason why I’ve never been truly lonely in my entire life.  My mother used to tell me that as a toddler I called it “The White Lady.”   It’s been with me from as far back as I can remember, although for some years I mostly ignored it as a figment of a lively imagination.

       No longer.  This awareness gives me strength and comfort and the feeling of being held in an incredibly loving space, no matter what happens to me in my outer life.  I often feel as though I could actually reach out and touch it, as an entity literally beside me yet just beyond the scope of my physical vision.  For the most part, though, I’ve given up trying to define and label it.  Nowadays I’m simply grateful for it.

·        Meditation (a gift of my brief Tibetan Buddhist training) has been a source of self-awareness and learning for me.  Not easy lessons, no.  But so, so worthwhile!

·        Over the years, my heart has grown a bit.  I generally try (try!) to walk in other people’s shoes before I become judge and jury.  I often fail, falling victim to the habit of “judge first, think later.”   (In point of fact, this post itself might be a good example!)   But I do try.

·        I have found good qualities in every person I’ve ever met, no matter whether or not I particularly “liked” them.  Therefore, it seems appropriate to believe that goodness is a quality that every single being possesses, no matter how much that quality might have atrophied or its yang or shadow aspect might prevail.

And that, my friends, is all I know for sure.  It’s not much, I know, but it’s the bedrock that supports my own personal journey.
Funny thing:  I’ve never been much of a fan of poetry;  but these days I’m beginning to feel a closer connection to the poets of the world than to the “thinkers,” because poetry can encompass the longing we can feel for the beyond, the ecstasy of those numinous moments in our lives.  Poetry uses the vocabulary of the heart, not the head.

heart windowStop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.

Somewhere around the eighth grade, we had to learn by heart a poem by nineteenth-century British poet James Hunt entitled “Abou Ben Adhem.”  Trite as it may be considered today, it made a lasting impression on me, and I can still recite it a half-century later.

Here it is:

angel-writingAbou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said
“What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

~ James Henry Leigh Hunt


Hmm.   “Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”

Maybe that’s good enough for now….



  1. Just so that you know, there are noted Zen practitioners who also practiced Amitabha mantras. The different styles of Buddhist practice do not have to only be seen as oppositional. Some people in history have found them to be complementary. ( Ryokan for one) If you are not comfortable with this , that’s ok. Just sharing, am an ordained Zen priest and have not felt that Namu Amida Butsu has detracted from shikantaza in any way at all. Just the reverse. Both are about ultimate letting go. One way is seeing through illusion, the other way is to let go and trust the immensity/totality/NOW. Whatever path appears will be “right” even if the “choice” is neither. Peace. – d


    1. Hello Dominic, and thank you so much for taking the time to comment on my post. You are absolutely right about letting go; I clearly had some major letting go of my own to do when I wrote that post. In fact, if nothing else, just the writing of it helped me to see more clearly my own “stuckness.” And if you happened to read “View from the Fence, Part II,” you know that my teacher wrote some very wise words that helped to open my eyes too.

      So now I’m coming to a degree of comfort with Amidism, especially after reading Thich Nhat Hanh and David Brazier and repairing my ignorance with a better understanding of this style of practice. In fact I’m thinking that, with time and the spaciousness that I now feel, I too will find the practices to be complementary.

      Embarrassing as it was to find myself in that awkward position of digging in my heels with mule-like stubbornness (especially in public!), the entire process has been quite liberating for me, not least because it forced me to realize that it’s more than time to move on from my so-called “independence” to being part of a sangha and sharing the challenges of Buddhist life with other like-minded people.

      Namo Amida Bu (wholeheartedly, now)

      P.S. I’m looking forward to reading your blog!


  2. How wonderful ! No, I had not read the next post.
    Stubborness is only misapplied determination. That same energy serves well in practice, when redirected.
    Mind compares, and creates division. How many times has this mind shown that capacity,
    leading to embarrassment ? Too many to count.
    Sangha is not listed as a jewel accidentally, and is really underated.
    May your practice be enriched many times over through your new community!
    Namo Amitabha ! – Dominic


    1. “Misapplied determination”…hmm, I like that, and I’ll try to hold that thought the next time my monkey mind runs away with me.

      And yes, I have for many years consistently underrated the value of sangha – but no more. The cup is finally empty again and I’m ready to start this leg of my journey with beginner’s mind. Thank you again for your wise words – and for your blog, which I am now following. NAB, Susannah


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