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Accepting the Unconditional Love of Buddha

Growing up, it was important to my mom that all of her kids learn how to swim.  So, I spent four weeks out of every summer taking swimming lessons at the local pool.

The pool was broken into five sections with level 1 being the shallow end and level 5 being the deep end.  Naturally, the deep end was where all the action was; it had a diving board and a waterslide!

Everyone was required to start at level 1 and work their way up to level 5 by showing proficiency in various skills ranging from holding your breath underwater to doing the backstroke across the pool.  But it wasn't just about learning new skills.

Children who successfully climbed through the ranks were rewarded with prestige and additional privileges.  For example, the waterslide dumped kids out on the deep end of the pool, so only level 5 swimmers were allowed to use it with one exception.

If a kid could swim to the middle of the pool, tread water without assistance for two minutes, and swim back to safety, they could use the waterslide.

The "water slide test" as it was called was administered every Friday morning before the pool opened for the day.  And there was always a long line of kids outside the pool on Fridays hoping to take their shot.  One fateful summer, I decided that I was going to be one of them.  So, I opened up my family's encyclopedia to the "T" section and found instructions on how to tread water.  The instructions were simple:

  • Keep your back straight, and your head above water
  • Kick your legs as if you're doing the frog stroke
  • Cup your hands and move them through the water in a figure-eight pattern new

I didn't have time to practice the technique on my own, but that wasn't important.  The older kids made it look easy enough, and I'd won countless races with kids; swimming from one end of the pool to the other.  How much harder could this be? 

So, one Friday morning I joined several kids at the swimming pool and prepared to take the test.  A lifeguard with dark sunglasses and a deep tan led us to the deep end of the pool.  We all lined up at the edge and when he blew the whistle we jumped in.  The clock started as soon as our bodies touched the water.

The first few seconds were chaotic as we all swam around; trying to get into a position where we wouldn't bump into each other.  At some point, another swimmer kicked me in the groin and I saw stars. My head went underwater and all of the air left my lungs.

I tried to get my bearings and begin treading water, but I couldn't think straight due to the pain.  My lack of practice coupled with a reflexive desire to curl up into the fetal position was a bad combination.  It wasn't long before I was struggling to keep my head above water. 

The lifeguard saw that I was on the verge of drowning, so he blew his whistle and threw me a life preserver.  But I didn't grab onto it.  If I grabbed the life preserver, he'd pull me back to the edge of the pool.  If he did that, then I would fail the test. If I failed the test, then I wouldn't be able to use the water slide, and I desperately wanted to use the water slide.

So, I turned away from the life preserver and continued in my failed attempts to tread water.  I don't know how long this went on with him blowing the whistle and me pretending not to hear it.  But eventually, my head was underwater for one second too long, and I took water into my lungs.

It felt like my chest was on fire and my arms started to spasm.  I jerked my body back and forth in an attempt to keep swimming, but my legs wouldn't move.  And I slowly sank towards the bottom of the pool.  The next thing I remember is my head breaking the surface after the lifeguard, now without his sunglasses, dove into the water and towed me to safety.  It was another two years before I got to use waterslide.

I've thought about this experience recently as it relates to Buddhist practice.  Buddhism teaches that we're all treading water in a sea of suffering.  The waters are poisoned with greed, anger, and ignorance, and we struggle each day to keep our heads above water.  

Sometimes, the suffering is mild; a child having a tantrum in the parking lot or a waiter screwing up our food order.  Sometimes, the suffering is more severe; the death of a loved one or the loss of a job.  But regardless of how we suffer,  Buddhism teaches that we don't have to do it alone.

Rather, there is always a life preserver floating nearby in the way of chanting, bowing, and meditation.  These are tried and true methods for breaking the wheel of samsara.  And practitioners have used them for thousands of years with good effect.  So, why do we resist them?

It costs nothing to sit quietly in front of the altar.  It's a simple act to prostrate ourselves with our foreheads touching the floor.  And anyone who can speak can chant sutras.  But many of us prefer drowning to grabbing the life preserver of Buddhist practice.

We do this for the same reason that I almost drowned as a child.  We're prideful.  We don't want to admit that some things are bigger than we are; that we can't do it all alone.  Instead of our altar being a place of refuge it feels like evidence of failure.  So, we turn away from it; insisting that we don't need help even as the water enters our lungs.

But this is where the true power of Buddhism is revealed.  Because our path isn't just about practice.  It's also about grace.  It's about the unconditional love of Buddha, which never leaves us or forsakes us.  If we choose to skip meditation today, our cushion will be waiting for us tomorrow.  If we forget to do prostrations in the evening, we can do them in the morning instead.

Freedom from suffering isn't a one-time, take it, or leave proposition.  Rather, it's a door that's always open should we decide to walk through it.  It's a life preserver that's always within reach should we decide to grab it.  And if we don't, if we take refuge in our stubbornness and let ourselves sink deep into the water, that's fine too.

Because we're part of a world-wide sangha; a legion of fellow Buddhists that are always chanting, bowing, and meditating on our behalf.  And through the power of their practice, we are wrapped in loving arms and pulled to safety on the shore.

Namu Amida Butsu

 If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!

Accepting the Unconditional Love of Buddha


  1. Hello. Just started reading your blog, and really like it so far. I especially like this piece. As my practice has deepened, I see more and more that "we do nothing alone." That when I practice, the "wider Sangha" of the Buddhas and Ancestors are with me, that my practice itself would be impossible without the Sangha to bring me to it in the first place, and that the voice of the Buddha is always guiding and teaching me and all beings together.


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