By Sensei Alex Kakuyo
In a couple of weeks, I’ll have my one-year anniversary of living on a homestead.
I can say with full honesty that I love this life. Growing food and caring for animals is rewarding. Watching the land grow and shrink throughout the year is educational, and being surrounded by nature is nourishing.
That said, there have been challenges and hard lessons. I think I may have killed my tractor—apparently, I wasn’t supposed to leave gas in it over the winter. And several trees have fallen down in our back pasture. So, those will need to be limbed and quartered at some point.
The most important challenge (and lesson) came early last year when I was working in the garden. I was dealing with an infestation of striped cucumber beetles that were threatening to destroy our squash plants—this was after dealing with slugs that threatened to destroy our bean crops and gypsy moths that threatened to eat our collard greens.
As I stood there baking under the summer sun, carefully spraying each tender leaf with soapy water in the hope that it would keep the beetles away, I realized that everything on earth wanted to kill my garden.
The neighborhood cats wanted to dig up my vegetables; the insects wanted to eat them. The sun wanted to rob my garden beds of water. As the gardener, it was my job to keep those things from happening. I had to keep the garden alive.
I learned this lesson again when I brought chickens on the property.
When I first got them they were puffballs—I could barely tell one from another, but they grew quickly, developing feathers and personalities. Eventually, it was time for them to leave the safety of my barn. And that’s where the problems started. It turns out everyone likes to eat chickens—possums, raccoons, weasels, hawks, dogs, cats; anything with teeth or talons is a danger to my birds.
So, I built them a coop, and I built them a chicken run. The chain link fence that enclosed their run to keep dogs out was reinforced with a layer of chicken wire to protect them from raccoons. Then more chicken wire was put over the top to keep the hawks out.
I even nailed down the fencing with garden staples to ensure that nothing could dig underneath. My birds live comfortably inside an iron dome that would require wire cutters and opposable thumbs to breach But it’s not enough.
It’s not enough because chickens don’t do well in the heat. Their internal body temperature is 105 degrees, and their feathers are like winter coats that they can’t take off. If the outdoor temperature goes above 85 degrees, they’re in danger of heat exhaustion. So, my summer was spent putting ice cubes in their water to keep them cool and feeding them watermelon to keep them hydrated.
The problems continued into the winter months.
I went out two, sometimes three times a day to replace their frozen water with the liquid kind. I weatherproofed their coop and run with heavy tarps. Cold temperatures aren’t a danger to the birds, but they need to be kept out of the wind and rain. They also need a steady supply of dry bedding to ensure they don’t get frostbite on their feet.
One day, when I had to chip ice off of the chicken coop’s door before I could open it, I realized everything on earth wants to kill my birds. Animals want to eat them, the sun wants to cook them, and the snow wants to freeze them. As the chicken keeper. It was my job to keep that from happening. I had to keep the chickens alive.
The same is true of the cats, my family, and every living thing on this homestead. For each of them, I must stand in the gap; placing my body between them and a world that wants to do them harm.
Thus, the path of a homesteader is like the path of a Bodhisattva
When Buddha first laid out the path to enlightenment, he taught the Sravaka and the Pratyekabuddha dharmas. The former focused on strict monastic discipline within the confines of a Buddhist community, and the latter focused on meditative training; done in isolation.
In both cases, the primary goal was to realize enlightenment as quickly as possible to end the personal suffering of the practitioner.
Late in life, Buddha taught the path of the Bodhisattva.
Explaining that the dharmas of the Sravakas and Pratyekabuddhas could only get us to the cusp of full enlightenment. If a practitioner wants to realize full, complete enlightenment, Annutarra Samyak Sambodhi, they must become a Bodhisattva.
A Bodhisattva is a being who vows to realize enlightenment for the express purpose of saving other sentient beings from suffering. So, while their own happiness certainly enters the equation, it is the happiness of others that drives a Bodhisattva to walk the Buddhist path.
To an outside observer, this may seem like a strange course of events. Why would Buddha bother teaching the Sravaka and Pratyekabuddha dharmas if only the Bodhisattva realizes full enlightenment? The reason is simple.
The journey of a Bodhisattva is difficult, and it requires a strong personal practice. More than that, it’s impossible because even as the Bodhisattvas work to save all beings from suffering, they understand that there where always be more suffering to work through and more beings to save.
In Vasubandhu’s Treatise on the Bodhisattva Vow, it’s described in this way:
If beings were to come to an end, then and only then would my vows then come to an end. However, beings are truly endless. therefore these great vows of mine shall also never come to an end.
What’s beautiful about this passage is the level of dedication it describes. Bodhisattvas understand that there will always be beings who suffer in the world. So, they respond with a promise; that they’ll never stop working to end that suffering.
But what does suffering look like? How can we codify the Bodhisattva vow, so that it’s useful in daily life?
Simply put, suffering is the pile of dirty dishes in the sink. It’s the driveway that’s buried under two feet of snow; it’s the sick child that wakes up crying every two hours.
And the work of a Bodhisattva is to address that suffering; wash the dishes, shovel the snow, comfort the child with the knowledge that it’s only a matter of time before the dishes are dirty, the driveway is covered and the child is sick again. As humans, we live in a world bent on destroying everything we love. As Buddhists, we wrap our arms around the things we love, keeping them safe—keeping them alive for as long as we can.
When we do this, when we walk the path of a Bodhisattva, satisfaction is not found in the completion of our work. Rather, satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment come from our willingness to do the work over and over again.
I think about this as I go about my work on the homestead. I know I’m fighting a losing battle. I know there will come a day when my garden beds are rotted, when nothing grows in them but weeds. I know there will come a day when my chickens die, when my body is too old and feeble to protect them from this world.
I know I’m going to fail.
But that day won’t be today. Today, I’ll walk the Bodhisattva path. Today, I’ll wrap my arms around my chickens, my garden, my family.
I’ll wrap my arms around all living things. And when the world attempts to do them harm, I’ll tell them, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep you alive.”
Namu Amida Butsu
Editor: Dana Gornall
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