Thursday, March 1, 2018


February 2018

Greetings from Wat Poo Jom Gom, NE Thailand.



As usual at this time of year; I have been spending much time in retreat mode in the quiet branch monastery of Wat Poo Jom Gom, close to the Mekong River. Most of the time I stay in a small cave near the top of the 'mountain', about 1 ½ hours walking distance from the main monastery complex. The principal benefits of residing here are the experiences of solitude and silence, and the possibility of spending much time in nature, either walking through the expansive national park or sitting quietly in a shady remote place. The simple, natural lifestyle makes for a very physical experience, helping to settle the mind into the present moment.

The cave is a specially protected environment, warm in the cold and cool in the heat, sheltered from the strong sunlight, rain and wind. However, I spend most of my time outside, enjoying the fresh air and some degree of sunshine. The 'winter' in Thailand is known as the cold season and is also the dry season, usually with little or no rain from November until April. 'Cold' is, of course, relative here. When the temperature drops below 20C it is 'cold', mainly because the houses and clothing are designed for the normally hot weather during most of the year. The north-east of Thailand also experiences a cool northerly wind, giving a significant wind-chill factor (especially in thin and sparse clothing).

Fire Fighting
The dry season is also the burning or 'fire season', when farmers burn off the remnants from various crops, rice stubble or the unused parts of the tapioca plants. Some of them, however, are maliciously lit in the National Park, either to clear off grassy meadows for cattle grazing, burn the leaf litter for mushroom gathering or force the bamboo to send out new edible shoots.



This year the fire season began unusually early. Already in December fires were ignited in the meadows near to the monk's huts. In early January several fires were lit to the east of my cave. Fortunately, since I was nearby and saw them early, I was able to extinguish them before much damage was done, although one of them got into the grassy meadow and scorched a large area. Both times I had just finished making my evening hot drinks and showering before retiring to the meditation platform on the top of the outcrop. This provides a 360-degree panoramic view down the Mekong River and across to the mountains of Laos. Unfortunately, it also gives a bird's eye view of any fires burning for many miles around, and in the dry season there are usually many, so the view is often obscured by the low-lying smoke.

Most of the fires burn slowly through the leaf litter, but once the fire gets into the tinder-dry grass of the meadows, there is little one can do, especially when it is fanned by gusting winds. For the fire in the meadow, the most I could do was scout downwind ahead of it (with smoke choking my lungs and stinging my eyes), and try to prevent it passing beyond the patches of rock which act as natural fire-breaks. Only where the flames were creeping against the wind or much reduced by sparse vegetation could I actively try to extinguish it. I soon discovered an effective method by patiently waiting for the wind to briefly die down or blow against the fire, then sweeping the flames towards the burned-out patches, or snuffing them out with my broom. I slowly worked my way along the periphery of the fire, painstakingly extinguishing every flame until I reached the furthest edge against the rocks. Then, with the last snuff of flame, it was suddenly totally dark! I stood there in silence and darkness for some minutes, until my eyes gradually adjusted to the faint starlight and I could see the expanse of the blackened meadow with the last few glowing embers scattered about. Fortunately, I had brought my headlamp with me from the cave, although it was a hundred meters across the meadow, safely placed on a large rock. A few stumbles and scratches later I recovered the lamp and made my way back to the cave.

Shortly after I returned from the Ajahn Chah memorial ceremony and a brief trip to Bangkok, the burning season took a more serious turn, with someone setting multiple fires around the adjacent area. One of them I only saw by the orange glow through the trees as it was growing dark. In the darkness it was hard to determine precisely where it was, but upon closer inspection I saw that there was a whole series of fires burning up the side of the opposite mountain and down in a nearby valley where there was one of the unoccupied caves. Although it seemed far away and was already quite dark, I decided that I should investigate further. A short scramble straight down the rocky hillside soon saw me involved in a two-hour marathon extinguishing fires in five separate places, although I had to give up on the biggest and most dangerous one which was blazing through the bamboo between massive blocks of stone. After two hours I was so exhausted that I could barely drag myself back to my lodging at the main hall for a drink of water, a cleansing wash and much-needed sleep.

I remained at my lodging in the main hall the next day to recover my strength. Then the following day, as I trekked back to my cave, I noticed a pall of smoke rising very near to my destination. By the time I arrived at my cave the adjacent forest was alight and streams of smoke were billowing across the plateau. I quickly extinguished the nearby fire, but then realised that it was spreading down the slope in all directions. Some three hours later, numb with exhaustion, hoarse from smoke inhalation and trembling from aching muscles, I crept back to my cave with just enough strength remaining for some drink, a wash and a long sleep.


Aliveness
One of the benefits from living close to nature for some length of time is that our senses begin to wake up. Especially if we are living in a rugged natural environment, we need to be continuously alert – to the changing environmental conditions, to potential danger and to our own physical situation. The main benefit of this is that we abide in the present moment much more, even though it may not always be comfortable. Our senses interact with sense impressions immediately and more simplistically than the conceptual mind. Thus we can also notice more easily when we do get lost in conceptualizing.

In contrast, when we live in a familiar domesticated environment our senses often go to sleep, since we do not need to use them so intensely. For example, towards the end of December, due initially to knee pain, I spent a few days staying in the guest hut beneath the sala. This was much more comfortable than staying in the cave, as I could close all the windows and be out of the cool wind in a consistently warm environment. I noticed, however, that with the reduction in physical sensation, as well as the sound of the wind, I was more often in my own head, with focus on thoughts rather than physical sensations. And many of those thoughts were concerned with plans for the future and memories of the past. When I wanted to know what time it was, I had to look at the clock rather than consult the direction of the sun or moon. The extreme, of course, is living in a busy city, where our senses often need to shut down due to being overwhelmed by stimulation. We are then forced even more to take refuge in our own minds, and when we find that unpleasant, to seek for distraction in amusement or entertainment.

Living in the present moment with the impact of sense consciousness can be very peaceful and mentally quieting. There is just this present moment experience, with no need to think about or elaborate on it. Also, we can use this occasion to observe the effects of sense stimulation on our changing moods. Some impressions are pleasant and attractive, and we may notice a tendency to want to hold on to them. Or they may trigger off memories of previously pleasant impressions. Most sense impressions are fairly neutral and we notice that they do not excite interest or revulsion. Here at Poo Jom Gom much of the scenery is unthreateningly unusual: strange rock formations, unordinary vegetation, unique patterns in the rocks, gnarled and twisted trees, etc. This can create an unusual state of mind – open and curious, yet silent and calm.



A Simple Life
Why did the Buddha recommend a simple lifestyle as a skilful basis for spiritual practice? The basic principle is that we have limited mental energy, and whatever we focus on has a strong influence over our being. If our attention is preoccupied with non-spiritual affairs, there is not much available for spiritual practice. This is also the basis for the stress of everyday life which challenges many people – they try to focus on some task, but much of their attention is distracted or diminished by other affairs which draw their attention. This could be some other task (if they are multi-tasking), some emotional conflict, or even some unresolved emotional trauma largely buried in the unconscious. If we at least do not over-burden our attention with a load of trivial mundane life tasks, we may begin to unpack the other sources of attention leakage and learn to patch -up these leaks.
The new meditation platform.


Ajahn Chah Ceremony
Of course, the main event this time of year is the Ajahn Chah Memorial Ceremony in mid-January. And this year was an especially memorable occasion, marking the 100 years since his birth. Thus many of the branch monasteries made an extra effort to attend, arriving with a number of monastics and lay-supporters. Since I am normally in Thailand at this time of year, I decided to make the accommodation space at Wat Pah Nanachat available for visitors and only arrived for the last day of the event, January 16th. Besides the official events, there was also time for reconnecting with others from distant places.
Here are the links to the event (from last year) and the talks given this year:

 
English Sangha Dhamma discourses
1) Ajahn Sucitto
2) Ajahn Pasanno
3) Ajahn Amaro

The Uncertain Future
Generally, my longer term plans are to spend more time in Australia, principally at Wat Buddha Dhamma, north of Sydney. Ajahn Khemavaro has offered to sponsor a two-year work visa for me, so presumably I should be there to work! Hopefully this will include work on my on-going book on 'I-making'. The application for this visa was more complex than first thought. Besides the mandatory health check, I also needed police clearance certificates from Australia, New Zealand and Thailand, due to having for extended periods in those countries. All this necessitated two extra trips to Bangkok (one was just overnight) and then return to PJG. However, it was not in vain and the visa was issued on Feb. 23rd in time to book a flight to Sydney with Ajahn Khemavaro.

Wishing you all progress in the practice and a rewarding New Year.



Saturday, November 11, 2017

November

Changing place and changing mind

Greetings from Thailand, where I arrived some days ago.



The Rains Retreat at Hartridge Monastery in Devon flew by very quickly and very peacefully. I was able to settle into my preferred routine of balancing physical, mental and spiritual exercises. Fortunately, all the Western monasteries are situated in quite exceptional natural environments, suitable for quiet meditation and communing with nature, and with supportive spiritual friendship. Hartridge Monastery is quite easily accessible for people yet also in a quiet rural environment, surrounded by farmland and near a number of public footpaths. The countryside is criss-crossed by a maze of narrow farm tracks lined with hedges, and in some places with towering, ancient beech and oak trees. One also has the choice whether to stay on the ridges with sweeping views or plunge into the thickly wooded valleys. The choice is often made by the weather conditions – either open, wind-blown ridge or sheltered but damp valley.

Unfortunately, my plans to finish the I-making book did not reach completion, although the opportunity for more in-depth reflection was very beneficial and rewarding in itself. In fact the book has increased in size, so much so that I have started to write a second one, a shortened, condensed version, which is also incomplete at this point. However, as I entered another period of travel I had to pack it up for the moment, but hopefully can get back to writing once I have a more settled lifestyle again.

The time following the Rains Retreat is a time for visiting, particularly for supporting the annual robe-offering ceremonies held at each monastery. Thus, following the Hartridge ceremony and five-day visit from Ajahn Damrong, Ajahn Sopa and Ajahn Sucitto, I travelled to Harnham Monastery in Northumberland for the Kathina Ceremony on October 15, followed by an Elders Council Meeting. I was then planning to attend the Kathina at Chithurst Monastery in West Sussex, but I was asked to lead a five-day retreat at Amaravati. Ajahn Pasanno was scheduled to lead this retreat, but the forest fires in northern California had affected Abhayagiri Monastery, so he was not able to travel to England as planned. Although the monastery residents were evacuated for a number of days, the monastery was fortunately not damaged. The local town was not so fortunate, with eight of the residents losing their lives and 20 properties destroyed.

I thus missed the Chithurst Kathina ceremony, but was able to support the dedicated meditators who very diligently participated in the retreat. I then travelled to Chithurst Monastery for a few days' visit, before catching the flight to Bangkok. Autumn had arrived in England, with yellowing leaves flying in the wind and the temperatures slipping more often into single digits. I was fortunate that most of the days at Chithurst were sunny and dry, allowing numerous walks through the countryside with brilliantly coloured trees. One day was organized as a day-long Sangha walk to the Yew Forest at King's Vale. Since it was somewhat further than I was used to, I joined the group for the first part up to the top of the South Downs hills, where we stopped for lunch. From the highest point we had a faint view of the Isle of Wight and Chichester Cathedral on the south coast. I then made my way back to the monastery along footpaths meandering across the very green fields, criss-crossed with streams of the Rother Valley.



Changing our mind

My study and meditations on the Buddha's teaching have accentuated the quite radical insight which the Buddha realized. It has become increasingly clear what the Buddha meant when he said that the Dhamma is not easily understood by the average person. To truly understand his teaching requires nothing less than fundamental changes in our usual way of relating to reality. In general I would say that this is two-fold, although the two changes are closely related.

The first fundamental change is from an object-oriented approach to reality to a process-oriented approach. This, I would say, is the fundamental insight to which the Buddha awoke – that everything is a process rather than some fixed object.

The second fundamental change, following on from the previous one, is from an interpretative mode of relating to an observing mode. That is, instead of depending upon our interpretations of what we apprehend, we should give more precedence to a continuity of observing the on-going flow of impressions. Unfortunately, most of us have trained our minds to quickly interpret what we observe (from assuming that it is a stable object) and then judge, think and react according to the interpretation. And most of the time the interpretation is not complete, accurate or appropriate. That is, if everything is continuously changing processes, when can we conclude that anything is definitely a certain way or a certain form?

Of course, merely thinking about these changes of relating is still dwelling in interpretation. Fortunately, though, the Buddha has given specific meditative practices to help facilitate this change. Exercises in focusing attention help to quiet the internal dialogue which is interpreting, or at least give us the possibility to know how much we are interpreting. Developing the exercises in mindfulness encourages us to observe directly the nature of body and mind as they are changing. The very act of mindfulness is observing, and when we observe, what we see is process rather than object. Thus the more we practice the Buddha's teaching, the more we change our out-of-harmony way of relating to reality to one which is more in tune with the way things really are.


Wishing you all beneficial and rewarding practice.

The uphill trek.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

July 2017
Travels from April to July

Greetings from Hartridge Monastery, Devon, England. I arrived here in early July, a few days before the beginning of the Rainy Season Retreat. Since I was in Europe anyway, and as it is uncertain when I will be back to Europe in future, I thought that it would be suitable to spend yet another Rains Retreat in England. I chose Hartridge Monastery because it was the only one of the four British monasteries where I had not previously stayed for any length of time. Ajahn Jutindharo was very open to the idea, and even promised to 'reserve' the 'hermitage hut' at the far end of the property as a suitable location for further intensive work on my on-going book project. I am thus residing in a comfortable hut, surrounded by lush Devon forest, under the usual grey clouds on a mild summer day.

The local village of Rawridge as seen from Hartridge.

 
The monastery is located about 30 kilometers east of the cathedral city of Exeter, in an area of outstanding natural beauty called the Black Down Hills. These are actually a series of very flat ridges intersected by deeply-sloping valleys. The flat ridges make excellent pasture land, and so are mostly wide, open fields providing panoramic but wind-swept, views across the countryside. The numerous small villages are situated in the sheltered valleys, and various farm houses, barns and hedged pastures are scattered up and down the slopes as far as the eye can see.
We are a small community of five monastics – three monks, one novice and one anagarika, plus various long and short term guests. The other monastics have all been resident here, before so I am the only 'incomer'.


Sumedharama Monastery, Portugal
My third stop in Europe, in early April, was Sumedharama Monastery, Portugal, where I resided for seventeen days. The present 'temporary' monastery is a large rented property, with a four-bedroom, two-storey house providing a meditation hall and library on the ground floor, a guest house and some good-sized gardens. It is situated about forty kms north-west of Lisbon and some four kms from the coastal town of Ericera. The association which is leading the project has already purchased 10 hectares of land nearby, and is in the process of finding contractors to begin the construction of a multi-purpose building complex, with four monastic huts, a meditation hall, kitchen, monks' lodgings, storerooms and numerous toilets and showers. The cost including taxes is estimated at over 1.2 million Euros. When this first of eight phases is complete, the community will move from and give up the rented accommodation which, although adequate, is not suitable as a long-term monastic residence.

 Harbour of Ericera. (A. Vajiro photo)
 
The Sangha has been resident in Portugal for five years now, has a dedicated community of supporters and has built up a favourable relationship with the local people. One monk walks the 8 km round trip to the market in Ericera for alms-round each day, and almost always returns with a generous donation of food. One morning when I was out for my early walk, a woman spontaneously offered me three bags of buns!

During my visit, some of the dedicated supporters living nearby took Ajahn Vajiro and myself for an outing to central Portugal to visit some limestone caverns and ancient dinosaur footprints. Visiting these places certainly puts human beings in their minor place in the universe. For example, the stalagmites (on the ground) in the caverns 'grow' one centimeter in one hundred years from the dripping of calcium-laden rainwater. Thus, one of them near the walkway, 2.2 meters high, has taken 22,000 years to 'grow'. Meanwhile, the dinosaur footprints preserved in sedimentary deposits date from about 145 million years ago! To get some perspective, the dinosaurs survived on planet earth for 165 million years, whereas Homo Sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years (and some people doubt whether we will survive into the next century).

Where Dinosaurs roamed. (A.Vajiro photo)

April 13 is the Southeast Asian New Year, so a number of Thais living in Portugal took the occasion to come to the monastery and celebrate in the traditional way with offerings, followed by the 'washing of hands' ceremony, symbolizing the washing away of any hurt they may have caused in the course of the year and beginning the New Year afresh.

Shortly before my departure for Switzerland I was invited for a visit to the historic town of Sintra, situated around a rocky hill north-west of Lisbon. We first meandered through the botanical gardens of the royal palace high up the slope of the hill to arrive at the highest point, which gave us a panoramic view over sprawling Lisbon city and up and down the western coast. I recognized several trees from New Zealand and the Western Cedar from the Pacific Northwest of North America. Our journey took us westward along the base of the hillside to a former Capuchin monastery (Convento dos Capuchos), with its simple buildings moulded into the surrounding rocks. This order was the most ascetic tradition of Catholic monastics, and the simplicity of the place attests to their ascetic inclinations with tiny, unheated cells, although they were lined with cork for insulation from the chilly winters. The monastery was founded in 1560, but abandoned when all religious orders were abolished by the Portuguese royal family in the 1830's.
We then continued on to the most westerly point of continental Europe, called the Cabo da Roca, on a rocky promontory overlooking the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean below. This was the point which the early Portuguese sailors were so eager to view, because it signalled their return to home waters, often after years exploring strange and mysterious lands.

The Lighthouse of Cabo da Roca.



Switzerland
I departed from a balmy 25C Lisbon, and after quite a scenic flight across northern Portugal and Spain, southern France and the foothills of the French Alps, arrived in a cool 10C at Geneva for my visit to Dhammapala Monastery. The unusually cool weather was due to the 'bise', a cold northern breeze. However, one side effect is that the crisp, clear air accentuates the view of the snow-capped mountains – the towering mountains appear to be hovering virtually within arm's reach. Thus the trip up to Kandersteg was a very powerful experience. In the three years since I was there I had forgotten the exceptional, mind-stopping wonder of being surrounded by towering peaks.



However, it was not long before the other side of extreme nature was revealed. At the end of April we were buffeted by a three-day blizzard. April snowfall is not, however, a serious danger, and once the sun returned the fields were soon green again, although some of the wild flowers were a bit flattened.
On May 14 Dhammapala arranged a Vesakha Puja celebration near Bern. Several hundred Thai supporters and a number of Swiss gathered for the meal offering, my talk in Thai and a very 'cosy' circumambulation inside the hall. One of the Swiss attendees was Ariya Nani, whom I had known many years ago and who subsequently ordained as a nun in Burma. Over the years she became a well-known international meditation teacher, but more recently, due to health and family reasons, she has had to leave the robes, although she is still quite active in teaching.
Ajahn Thanissaro, a Thai monk resident at Dhammapala for many months, was booked to lead the annual Thai-language retreat, so I was more free to make my own programme. I visited two of the meditation groups, in Geneva and Bern, attended by quite a few people.

England and the International Elders Meeting (IEM)

On 20 May Ajahn Khemasiri and I travelled to Amaravati Buddhist Monastery for several days of meetings with the International Sangha of Ajahn Chah's monasteries around the world. This major event is only held about every three to four years, as a means of helping to keep the widely-spread Sangha connected. I am quite fortunate in being able to make personal visits to many of the monasteries worldwide, but most of the senior monks are tied down to the duties of looking after their respective communities, with little time for friendly visits elsewhere.

This year about 120 monastics from the various continents gathered, and the overall atmosphere was one of exceptional harmony and cooperation. A number of weighty and pressing procedures were quite smoothly agreed upon, and initial structures set up, for example, a standardized process for establishing further branch monasteries.
Photo and news can be found at:
https://forestsangha.org/community/news/uk_triennial-sangha-gathering

Following the IEM I travelled with Ajahn Munindo to his monastery at Harnham near Newcastle, where I stayed for three weeks. The monastery was recently able to purchase a four-bedroom house about 200 meters down the back-entrance lane. This provides a much-needed extension to the accommodation for the Sangha, especially a comfortable and quiet residence for visiting elders. 

Mangala House.
 
I had a reasonably peaceful time at Harnham, with one Sunday-night talk, a double-header visit to Edinburgh and Glasgow and leading a seven-day retreat at the monastery's Kusala House retreat centre. Since many monastics had gathered in England for the IEM, there was also much coming and going of Sangha members passing through Harnham on the way to different places.
Ireland

My travels next took me to visit Paddy and Ger in Aghada, south-east of Cork. They had been working very hard to get the meditation room above the garage in shape for the weekend non-residential retreat. Mid-week they also organised a public talk in the local town of Middleton and it just so happened that Venerable Thanavaro (Hungarian) and Venerable Indapanyo (Irish) were both on hand to give the occasion some 'Sangha weight'. The small, friendly crowd was very responsive and several people signed up for the weekend retreat.

 
 
Since the two Venerables were beginning a five-day walking tour in rugged West Cork, we all travelled out to a remote peninsula for lunch and an excursion. The 'excursion' turned out to be rather more than we bargained for when we tried to trek directly overland from the rocky coast to the footpath above us. If you have not heard of them before, be warned about Irish bogs! What appears to be smooth, evenly contoured country can easily become waist-deep depressions with sticky mud on the bottom. We must have staggered around a variety of hidden obstacles, zigzagging slowly up the slope for several hours, before stumbling upon the partially-paved walkway. This was a very intimate exposure to Irish trekking, all the time being buffeted by the breezes barrelling in from the Atlantic Ocean and funnelling the cold, clear waters to crash against the seemingly endless stretches of rocky coastline. 
 
 (Photo by Paddy Boyle.)

On our trek we also discovered the remains of a number of 'famine houses', crumbling remains of farms devastated in the Great Potato Famine of the 1840's when nearly one million Irish starved and another million set sail to begin life again in the New World.

I finished my trip to Ireland with a well-attended talk in Dublin for the Irish Sangha Trust, and then departed early the next day for Torino, Italy. I had forgotten I was flying at the beginning of the holiday season, with the usual crowds of tourists, full planes and delayed flights. Fortunately, I had quite a long wait at Gatwick Airport for my connecting flight, so the delayed departure from Dublin was not a problem. More troublesome were the crowds of people awaiting flights at Gatwick.

Santaloka Hermitage, Gressoney Valley, north Italy

After some fifteen hours of journeying from Dublin, I arrived at the spectacular Santaloka Hermitage at an elevation of 2,000 meters in the Italian Alps. Unfortunately, the previous week's hot, dry weather had just been broken by a series of tumultuous thunderstorms, and the morning temperature dropped to 3.3C! However, what a contrast to the rest of Europe – one looks out the windows to endless vistas of towering peaks in all directions. The only sounds are the wind in the trees, the cascading water and the occasional ringing of a cow bell.

For the first two days of my stay, Santaloka supporters trekked up to the hut with the meal, but on the third day I ventured the half-hour walk down the mountain to almsfood at the edge of the village. The trek back up the hill is a reasonably gentle but steady climb, and once back at the hut one has worked up a healthy appetite.

I arrived on a Wednesday evening and on the Sunday Ajahn Chandapalo joined me after leading a retreat on Lake Garda. The weather was not too cooperative and each of us was nursing a cold, so we only had a few short excursions. However, the day before our departure, Cristian took us both for an outing by cable car up Mt. Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe. We stopped halfway up for lunch and some acclimatizing, and then, as the clouds were lifting, made the last stage to 3,600 meters. Needless to say, climbing the stairs to the observation deck was quite an exercise, but we were rewarded with spectacular views all around and various peaks, including the summit of 4,810 meter Mt. Blanc, appearing and disappearing in the swirling clouds.

We continued our cable car journey across the wide glacial plateaus on the French side to Aiguille du Midi at 3,840 meters. This is an especially scenic route, particularly as the cable car consists of a series of three four-person cabins spread along the cable at distances of about 100 meters. Thus the cable stops every five minutes as the cars are unloaded and re-loaded at each end, and so the five kilometer distance takes about half an hour, with many panoramic stops along the way.

(Photo by A.Chandapalo.)

My European travels finally wound down, and the following day I started my 13-hour journey to Exeter Airport via Milan and Manchester, arriving only 10 minutes late! Now that I am settled at Hartridge for the next three months with my computer and some interesting books, it remains to be seen how much progress I can make with writing my own next book.

Wishing everyone a beneficial and rewarding summer.