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The Buddhist Practice of Going in Circles

Many years ago, I dreamed of having a house in the country.  I imagined how it would feel to eat food from my garden.  I visualized chickens flapping their wings and running around in the coop that I'd built for them.  And I strategized ways to befriend my neighbors with gifts of fresh produce and warm apple pie.  

Fast forward to present day.  I live on a small plot of land in the middle of no where.  I have a productive garden.  I have six fat chickens.  And I have neighbors who are kind, compassionate people.  I also have a lot of grass.

Grass grows like weeds out here; getting longer and thicker each day.  It clings to my boots in the rainy season, and I've seen it choke the life out of a push mower.  A full-sized lawn tractor with a forty-two inch mowing deck is required to keep my lawn's tendrils under control.

But cutting grass in the country isn't just about technology, there's also technique involved.  Because the grass is course and thick, it's not good to run over long grass that's covered in fresh grass clippings.  Doing so puts extra strain on the mower blades, which results in the engine burning out.  To mediate this a wise groundskeeper mows in a circular pattern.

They start on the outer edge of the property, and mow in a circle around the perimeter; ensuring that all of the grass clippings are blown away from the center.  Then they mow a slightly smaller circler; ensuring that all of the new grass clippings are blown onto the patch of ground they just mowed.  They continue in this way until they arrive at the center of the property, and the entire lawn has been tamed.  

Thus, I spend several hours each week riding in circles around my lawn; trimming the shin-high grass to a respectable level.  Each time I do this I notice something new about the property.  

That small patch where nothing grows because the horse trailer was parked there, the large dent from when a massive tree fell in a storm, the small hole where our friendly neighborhood gophers live, I see these things and I respond accordingly.

I speed up when I go over the patch of dead grass, I slow down while traversing the dent, and I give the gopher hole a wide berth, so I don't disturb its inhabitants.

Doing this doesn't stop the grass from growing.  It was here before I came to the property, and it will still be here when I've turned to dust.  But mowing the yard consistently keeps it under control.  And each time I do it the process becomes easier, and my life becomes more peaceful.

In this way,  Buddhist practice is a lot like cutting the grass.  If we think of our mind like an empty field, then our thoughts are the grass that grows in it.  These thoughts begin as karmic seeds that are planted through our life experiences.  

Some of them are seeds of fear.  Some of them are seeds of joy.  But all of them are guaranteed to ripen into thoughts and actions once the karmic conditions are right.  So, we must manage our minds in the same way that a landscaper manages a yard.  But this is easier said than done.

Because the karmic seeds are constantly growing just like grass in a field.  And if we aren't careful, they can entangle us with tentacles of greed, anger, and despair.  Thus, spirituality is a lifelong practice; just like mowing the lawn.

When we enter the meditation hall and engage with Buddhist rituals, we cut down the grass field of our mind.  We trace circles around it until we reach the center, and take note of what we find.

We do prostrations in response to prideful thoughts, we chant in the face of fear, and we breathe deeply on our cushions to overcome ignorance.  

This is slow, methodical work.  But each time we do it the process becomes easier and our mind becomes more peaceful.

In the end, there's no finish line to cross, no final prize to win.  There's only the practice.  And we engage with it each day; cutting circles in our mind until there's nothing left but enlightenment.

Namu Amida Butsu

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

The Buddhist Practice of Going in Circles                                                               


  1. Thank you, Namo Amida Butsu! I've always said that any spirituality that doesn't wash the dishes or take out the garbage is fairly useless. Thank you for the integration of your practice in the every day. It's good to teach that dharma truth is not something you have to sit on a mountain top to receive, but available even on your drive to work.


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