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Arthasiddhi, myself and around 40 friends, mitras and Order members from Cambridge sangha have been following the Being Divine Online Home Retreat as a community within the wider community, adding to the mix some of our own meditation sessions (every day at 8 am), three zoom plenaries (or check-ins) and WhatsApp home groups, as well as attending evening events at Cambridge Buddhist Centre online. It has been such a joy: and we’ve deeply appreciated the richness of Ratnavandana’s experience and teachings on the Divine Abodes.
I’ve been leading some of the meditation mornings from my community’s shrine room at Abbey House (Grade 2 listed, it dates back to 1580 – I honestly don’t know what I’ve done to deserve living here, in this divine abode), and I can confidently state that never has it held so many meditators in one sitting! It feels a bit like the magic of a Mahayana Sutta – the Vimalakirti Nirdesa perhaps – as we greet people Zooming in of a morning. The experience of sitting in an online meditation session brings a poignancy to the fact that spaciousness is a state of mind. Although most of the retreat community is located in Cambridge, we’ve also had participants from Istanbul and the Netherlands. Some of us have been dealing with sadness and difficulties in our lives as we’ve followed the retreat: but I think we also all have been heartened by an upwelling of joy and pleasure that being part of the retreat has brought us. In my particular WhatsApp home group we’ve shared pictures of birds bathing, the gorgeousness of tulips and the audacity of ducks, and these simple delights have woven us together into a sustaining community of meditators.
When I get up from meditation in the mornings I often go out into our garden and fill up the bird bath. I can see this bird bath out of the window where I work in my room, so during the day I can see a procession of birds making use of it, either washing or drinking: blackbirds, sparrows, robins, blue tits, magpies and pigeons. I think there’s a little wren nesting nearby, but I don’t often see it in the bath – perhaps it’s observing social distancing!
I notice that it gives me such pleasure to see the birds making use of the bath – availing themselves the simple and yet absolutely crucial and sometimes elusive commodity of water. Sometimes the birds seem to be forming an orderly queue, or a smaller bird will give way to the approach a bigger bird. They seem to thoroughly enjoy the sensations of bathing, and the effect of the cascading droplets of water arcing into the air from their wings. To catch sight of this fills me with delight, which I imagine they are totally unaware of.
And when I investigate the joy I feel, I notice there is a tenderness there – awareness of the birds’ need for a safe watering place, and of my ability to fulfil that need. There’s a connection, based on my wish for the birds to be well and free from fear. Also my delight at seeing them being happy and playful.
We - me and the birds - are connected by this ritual of the bird bath – and I notice that there’s also a connection between me and the birds when I’m gardening; I realise they are taking an interest (for gustatory reasons I imagine) in what I am doing; what I might be unearthing. Maybe as they sing and call out to each other, they are communicating something about the human activity in the garden… but let’s not get too solipsistic.
As Ratnavandana emphasises, it’s very important to practise the Brahma Viharas off the cushion as well as on, and I do think it’s important to acknowledge, reflect on and explore our place, physically and emotionally, in the ecosystem of our particular contexts – as an important element of what you might call the cultivation of ‘self-and-other metta’ in its subtle manifestations both as mudita and karuna – because it nourishes a sense of faith, confidence and effectiveness of meditation practice and the retreat community.