This autumn I’ve begun a lay ministry training with the Buddhist sangha Bright Earth. I’ve a long way to go yet and am feeling in no hurry at all. Apart from cultivating the slow and sometimes faltering rhythm of a daily practice, what this training means, for now, is reading of a series of books in company. The encounters which this reading-together generates feel like the heart of the matter. Even when I’ve found the week’s reading frustrating or challenging, I invariably value the threads of conversation and shifts of perspective which these weekly meets generate. From time to time each of us contributes a ‘dharma glimpse’: an event from our daily lives that’s in some way touched on or inflected our understanding of the dharma. Today it was my turn.
I’ve left it late to write this week’s dharma glimpse partly because I’m still wondering what to say about it. I’ve been wondering all week what to say about it in fact. Years ago I watched a snail, and realised something as I watched them that’s never really gone away. I don’t recall much now about the actual snail, but what I do remember is how it felt to watch them. I think I may have lifted my finger close to their face, because I remember how the snail recoiled, pulling in both horns. A full-body wince, as they contracted away from the unknown threat. I remember recognising that – my whole body recognising the snail’s wince, not as similar to my own but as the same. And ten years or so later, here I am still working out why meeting this snail feels as good a place as any to name what awakening means to me. The question of ‘whether a snail has Buddha nature’ is of no interest to me at all. It’s always felt like an empty and very anthropocentric abstraction. Likewise, the idea that whatever visceral being-ness the snail and I share in is something from which either of us need to wake. Being awake to the snail feels like a much better place to start. This week, as I wondered about bringing the snail here so you could meet them, I read the essay What is Amida? by Nobuo Haneda. I loved many things in Haneda’s reflection, but especially that the ground of being which calls to us here in our snailish bodymind, provisionally addressed in Pureland tradition as Namo Amida Bu, translates into English as Bowing Amida Buddha. Central to what Amida means, then, is bowing. What Amida does is to bow, recognising all things as likewise shining with the infinite, radiant life that is Buddha. Just saying this makes me want to laugh. It feels grounded and real and alive, not simply an airy mental abstraction. I don’t want to dress this up as a more than it is – less a glimpse than a hunch. But connecting the little snail with Bowing Amida Buddha has left me wondering about bowing, too. What is bowing, anyway? We make a bending-over gesture with our bodies to help ourselves remember, but that’s not really what bowing means, is it? Maybe bowing to a snail might mean sitting and watching them for a while. Or learning a bit more about how they live and love. Or remembering them, ten years later, and feeling grateful to have met them. But lest this all get too clever, here’s an unsubtle promise for the coming week: to find a snail and spend some time with them. To watch how they move – now reaching out with their soft horns, now pulling them back in – and then offer them a deep and literal bow.
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