It was in Reading, a town in the county of Berkshire in Southeast England, that Satya Robyn was first exposed to Buddhism. She’d read Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and was drawn to Zen by its aesthetic and to Buddhism in general by the teachings of Pema Chödrön. Interested in learning more, she attended a few beginner’s sessions at a Zen center where, as she noted, the teacher was “wonderful” but “the group wasn’t quite right. . . . There wasn’t enough warmth. I couldn’t feel like I belonged. But I kept going. I talked to the teacher about it, expecting her to say, ‘Just keep doing it,’ but instead she encouraged me to trust that feeling.”
So Robyn did, next trying Tibetan Buddhism—a “culture shock”—and then, many years later, joining a Pure Land group she’d been introduced to through psychotherapy training.
“It hooked me in,” said Robyn. There she encountered the Japanese term bombu, meaning “foolish beings of wayward passion,” and immediately felt she understood it. “We’re all bobbing along on the waves of our greed, hatred, and delusion, they told me. That’s where we begin. And there was something immensely relieving about that for me. I thought, ‘Oh, I’m allowed to be like this.’”
The group, the Amida Order, run at the time by David Brazier, became Robyn’s home. She ordained as a priest and that was when she was given the name Satyavani (satya is Sanskrit for “truth,” and vani, “eloquent communication”)—a fitting name, for in addition to being a psychotherapist, Robyn is a writer. She made it her legal name and shortened it to Satya.
When I asked Robyn about her motivation for becoming a priest, she explained she’d realized that she wanted to make the dharma the center of her life. From there, it was a logical step to want to share the teachings with others.
In addition, she found that her spiritual work dovetailed nicely with her activism. As a member of the global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion, she relied on her faith to give her the courage to engage in protests that she would otherwise have shied away from. It even helped her absorb the grave effect of a first arrest: “I’m a good girl, a law-abiding citizen. But I sat in my red robes in the middle of the road, just sobbing about the situation we’re in and feeling the craziness of having to take such an action. Six police officers picked me up and carried me off to a police cell.”
“There is a source of infinite love and wisdom, and my job is to help people find a connection with it.”
This was in 2019. In 2020, Robyn and her partner, Kaspa Thompson, left the Amida Order and became the lead teachers for Bright Earth, a Pure Land Buddhist temple in Malvern, Worcestershire; they continue their own training as lay ministers with Bright Dawn, a center in Coarsegold, California.
“If you had to explain to your Aunt Mary, who knows nothing about Buddhism, what the aim of your practice is,” I asked Robyn, “what would you say?”
“I would say my experience is that there is a source of infinite love and wisdom, and my job is to help people find a connection with it. We call it Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light.
“But it doesn’t really matter what you call it. The important thing is to bring people into a relationship with this source. Religion should be consoling, I think. It should help us feel less afraid, and when we’re less afraid, we’re kinder. Given what we’re facing, the questions I ask myself are, How can we stay grounded and resilient? How can we continue to be kind to ourselves and others without something bigger to lean into?”
The implication, of course, is that “something bigger” is that connection to infinite love. “It’s a difficult thing to sell in this society,” Robyn told me. “And yet when people get it, they really get it.”
For more information on Satya Robyn’s work and teaching—particularly the new dharma study program she and Kaspa offer for those interested in the practical benefits of Pure Land Buddhism—visit brightearth.org.
Q: The central practice of Pure Land Buddhism is chanting the nembutsu in order to be reborn in Amida’s Pure Land. As a modern Buddhist practitioner, why would I want to do this?
In my experience, knowing that you will be OK when you die brings great relief and relaxation. When we recite the nembutsu (“Namu Amida Butsu” or “Namu Amida Bu”), we’re immediately received by Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. We don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen, and this relaxation offers an assurance that everything will be OK. At the same time, the Pure Land is not an end point. We understand it as the perfect training ground for enlightenment. And once you achieve that, you come back and help people.
The great sage Shinran—successor to Honen, the founder of our school—said that when we recite the nembutsu, we are known and accepted and loved by Amida Buddha. There’s nothing we have to do to earn that love. We are received just as we are. That is just so radical! We don’t need to do any complicated practice; we don’t even need to be good people. We don’t need to have lots of money or be born into the right family or have free time or be academic—we just need to say the name of Amida Buddha, and that’s all that’s necessary. That’s why Pure Land Buddhism came into existence: Honen wanted everybody to have access to this kind of basic acceptance, not just the elite.
As a teacher, I want people to know that they too are acceptable just as they are. I want them to have a taste of this unconditional embrace. Interestingly, sometimes people bring this up as a criticism of the tradition, saying that being accepted just as we are could give us license to do evil. But Shinran said that just because you have an antidote, that doesn’t mean you should drink the poison. It’s still good to be a good person. And in my experience, if somebody loves you, you’re more likely to want to offer them goodness in return.
Still, one of the advantages of being part of Pure Land Buddhism is that there’s permission to be very honest about our limitations. We can be very free about what we can and can’t do. At the same time, we keep trying. We’re all hungry for connection, for love. That’s what we’re doing in our practice: we’re taking refuge by leaning into love.
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