Greetings from Wat Buddha Dhamma, near Sydney, Australia.
I arrived here on February 27th after spending a few days with my old friend John Barter in North Sydney. As in previous years, John invited me to offer some teachings at his psychology practice for the Thursday morning, and evening meditation classes and a day-long workshop on Saturday.
Since I had a free day on Friday, John and one of his students, Stephen, took the day off work, and together with Stephen's son and brother-in-law we took an excursion to Ku-Ring-Gai National Park north of Sydney. The park is a series of forested promontories stretching out into Broken Bay, where the Hawkesbury River flows into the Tasman Sea. Needless to say, there are a number of viewing points looking across the bay to the headlands of the Central Coast to the north, Lion Island in the middle of the channel, Barrenjoey Lighthouse and Palm Beach on the east, and the long Pittwater estuary to the southeast. As for much of the coast of Australia, innumerable beaches nestle between precipitous headlands. We clambered down one rugged track to a hundred meter patch of golden sand, guarded by a jagged cliff on one side and a steep, thick covering of Australia bush on the other, as huge waves crashed onto the beach, churning the water yellow with swirling sand.
Towards the end of last year, following the end of the Rainy Season Retreat, I travelled to Bangkok for several invitations to teach and visit some doctors. The main teaching engagement was at the Young Buddhist Association of Thailand meditation centre. The retreat, with 145 diligent meditators, was very well organized, so I only needed to make an appearance in the large meditation hall for two sessions of instruction, and the evening talk and Questions and Answers session. Fortunately, Ajahn Piyasilo from Chiang Rai was able to assist me with translation and leading the walking meditation. The organizers were keen that I should lead the retreat again next year.
I then returned to Poo Jom Gom for another few weeks before joining in the circumambulation of the memorial stupa on the last day of the Ajahn Chah commemoration ceremony. This year saw a larger number of senior Western ajahns than usual, including Ajahn Pasanno, Abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery, USA; Ajahn Sucitto, former abbot of Chithurst Monastery, UK; Ajahn Karuniko, the new abbot of Chithurst Monastery and Ajahn Kusalo, Abbot of Bodhinyanarama Monastery, New Zealand. I stayed on a few more days to participate in the Wat Nanachat Community Day, where 35 monastics from nearly 20 countries introduced themselves and shared their experiences of the last year, and then returned to Poo Jom Gom once again.
Wintertime in Thailand is the fire season, when the villages burn off the excess vegetation from their fields so they are ready for planting when the monsoon arrives. However, a few restless individuals also set fires illegally in the National Park. The park rangers said that these fires enable the villagers to harvest special mushrooms which grow in the ashes of burnt leaves, and obtain more bamboo shoots from the new growth of the burnt bamboo clumps. Needless to say, I only see the devastation caused by these seemingly random fires, and am moved to extinguish them whenever discovered. Fortunately, my vantage point high up the mountain enables me to see the first hints of smoke and I am usually compelled to hurry to the spot to extinguish the fire.
This year I only had to extinguish six fires, only three of which caused me excessive exhaustion. The worst one was at midday during strong winds, quite near to one of the huts. I stumbled across it on the way back to my cave and just managed to prevent it from getting close to the hut. Unfortunately, I didn't have a broom or rake with me, and after nearly half an hour of raking fire-breaks with my bare hands in the midday heat, had to give up when the flames got into the dried-up meadow and blazed two meters into the air (see photo). However, while retreating and pausing to take photos, I noticed that on the edge of the meadow there was a large patch of barren ground with only a few leaves scattered about. It would be quite easy to make a fire-break there, so I spent another half hour sweeping a clearing between the leaves with hands, feet and branches, and was able to contain most of the advancing fire. Fortuitously, Novice Mahaviro came along and together we managed to contain the rest of the fire.
Unfortunately, perhaps due to the meagre monsoon rainfall, there was not much of a 'cold season' in Thailand. One morning the temperature dropped to a bone-chilling 11°C, and a few mornings it was 13°C. The cold is heralded by the cool northeast wind, of which I took advantage to make a few extended excursions deeper into the park. It is quite an exhilarating experience to explore new territory, perhaps due to the excitement, bordering on anxiety, of stepping outside one's familiar environment. This, together with the need to maintain extra vigilance in order not to get lost and discovering unusual sights, combines into a memorable adventure. Even though I usually take a different route each day to return to my cave, the act of branching off into completely new landscapes is often like spreading wings.
I have been reflecting upon the reason why being in nature can be so peaceful and relaxing. When I leave the Sala to return to my cave I notice increasing relaxation the further I go from the Sala. This effect continues until I am about 500 meters into the park, approximately where I meet the first expanse of rocky outcrop with wide-ranging views of the mountains in Laos. It seems that this relaxation is related to the falling away of reference to my 'social self'. In nature there is no need to think about how I should act or what I should say; no real need for any self-reference other than getting this body reasonably comfortably to the shelter of the cave within a suitable time. I notice the opposite effect when I am approaching the areas of the monastery where people reside. I become more aware of time, what I will do next, who I might meet first, start to recall any significant events, etc. It is as if I again take up my persona, with all of its self-reference, associations, expectations and memories which previously I had mostly put aside or at least held very lightly while in solitude.
Most people appreciate the fact that we each have our own personal physical space, of which we often are only aware when someone invades it. I think we each also have our own personal psychological or 'psyche' space. This is usually much more subjective, in the sense that some people are more 'self-conscious' than others. For example, some people could walk through a crowded street and not be too bothered by others, whereas for other people even seeing one other person may cause reactions. (Of course, how much of the non-reaction is due to sensitivity numbness or sensory shut-down?)
To a large extent we live in our own self-centred world, assaulted by sensory impingements which we need to process with some degree of vigilance and effort. And much of this processing requires some self-reference, if only to determine whether or not there is danger. In an environment where we are impinged upon by human sounds, our 'social self' is also activated, and for many people this is where much dissonance and unease occurs. Being in quiet nature, on the other hand, can often be very relaxing, soothing and even psychologically healing, since it involves no or little self-reference. Even exciting nature can be 'relaxing', in the sense that we can be (temporarily) transported 'out of ourselves' by the exceptional experience, and come away refreshed, invigorated, and perhaps awestruck into inner silence. Many people appreciate spending time in nature, either to let their self-referencing quieten down, or just take a holiday from their busy 'selfing' activity.
During the briefly cool weather I twice journeyed up the dried-up stream bed and returned over the neighbouring 'mountain', which afforded an unusual view of the familiar Jom Gom mountain and the rocky promontory where my cave is situated. While the landscape in the area is not what one would call spectacular, it is quite unusual in comparison with other nearby landscapes. Just north of the neighbouring mountain is a huge expanse of barren, rock flowing gently down the slope like a lava-flow and then breaking up into a collection of massive boulders as it drops steeply into the narrow valley of the main stream. Meanwhile, the mountain is topped by huge rectangular sandstone blocks, scattered like some giant's Lego set.
Jom Gom 'mountain' on left, rocky outcrop of the Nibbana Cave on right side. Laotian mountains in background.
On my second journey up the stream bed I encountered several rock faces which would be quite impressive waterfalls in the monsoon. One of them was nearly 15 meters (50 feet) high, staggered in three stages. The first stage was a six-meter high sheer wall which looked like the end of my travels. However, tucked behind a block of stone was a narrow passage where I was able to climb up to the second level, a rippled ledge in front of a jumble of massive boulders. I clambered through them into a sunken basin, to face a seven-meter high wall of rock which at first resisted my attempts to climb higher. However, by stacking up several small boulders I was able to pull myself up onto a large rock and manoeuvre myself over further rocks along the sides to the third level, a broad, gently sloping plate of rock with several water-filled troughs. One of these troughs, miniature bathtub size, provided welcome sweat-cleansing (although I was sweating again in 10 minutes!) After an easy two-meter climb I was in the stream bed, in a broad valley nearly at the top of the plateau.
I noticed that it was now 3 pm and that I had been walking for three hours, meaning that unless I could find another route back I would have to retrace my steps and return just before nightfall (although I did have my head lamp with me). Thus I first needed to discover precisely where I was. The visible landscape did not look familiar. The cliff-faced hill off to the right was either the mountain north of Poo Jom Gom seen from the west, or some mountains in Laos. I turned sharply the way I had come and wandered through some woods and across a rocky outcrop to a high ridge and there it was – a vast panorama spread out before me. Almost straight in front of me in the distance was the large, golden Buddha statue at the Cave Monastery and in the far distance the mountains bordering Cambodia. Off to the left was the neighbouring mountain where I had been a few days previously, and beyond was Poo Jom Gom.
Thus knowing where I was, that I had about 2 ½ hours until dark and was now down to the last of my water, I decided that I would take a chance at a short cut down a stream bed I had seen previously beyond the neighbouring mountain. This should take me quickly (i.e., straight) down to the valley, where I could meet the path up to the Tea Cave, the closest source of water and a quick shower before dark. The risk with unknown stream beds, however, is that there is the possibility of meeting an impassable barrier such as a cliff, chasm or underground cavern. This would mean either retracing my steps or crashing through the thick vegetation on the banks of the stream. Anyway, if I hurried I should have ample time for some alternatives.
I briskly zig-zagged my way across the rocky ridges and valleys, across the parched, golden meadows, along the gleaming white-sand stream beds and up a steep wooded slope to the sweeping rocky plateau below the neighbouring mountain. I was making very good progress when I noticed smoke rising from several directions. Two of them were near the area where I had just been, and one was near the area where I was headed. Realizing the lateness of the day and my declining energy level, I had to forgo a return to where I had been. I also doubted whether I would be able to do anything about the fire ahead of me, but proceeded apace. As I neared the spot where I presumed the stream descended into the valley, I noticed that the smoke was rising from an area only a hundred meters further along the ridge. I decided to at least have a look at the extent of the fire. When I arrived at the scene the fire was lazily threading its way among the slabs of rock which staggered their way down the valley. Even though it appeared that the fire would eventually burn itself out upon reaching the rocky overhangs, it looked relatively easy to rake some leaves away from the edge of the streams of fire and assist its extinction. I therefore grabbed a sturdy branch and clambered over the rocky slabs to clear a fire-break between the rocks. Of course, as usual the theory was easier than the practice. In some places it was very easy to shift some leaves aside and the fire quickly came to a halt. Elsewhere the fire was deep in a crevasse, and I had to balance precariously on some sloped rock to flick the leaves away, while being engulfed in acrid smoke. After some initial success I branched out to circle the periphery of the fire (no use doing only half a job).
The going eventually got difficult where the fire was creeping through dwarf bamboo. Not was I poked, scratched and cut by the bamboo, but as it was hard to scrape a clear break through the thick vegetation, the fire constantly kept jumping the break, not to mention occasionally flaring up in a thick clump of tinder-dry leaves and stalks. However, 45 minutes and a liter of sweat later, it looked and sounded as it the fire was finally out. Since I was only 100 meters from the stream bed and already partly down the slope, I cut across the slope and soon came to the smooth rock stream bed. This was three to four meters wide and looked to be fairly easy to climb down. I had to do some clambering around some bigger boulders, but quickly dropped down the valley until I met a five-meter drop. Fortunately, this ledge was quite near to the tall bamboo along the valley bottom, so it was easy walking down to the sandy stream bed on the valley floor and up the other side, where I soon met the path gently climbing up to the Tea Cave. Within fifteen minutes I was at the water-tanks for a much-needed drink and a well-earned shower. From there it is only ten minutes' walk to the Nibbana Cave, so I took a slight diversion to a viewing point overlooking the valley. I could easily see the area where I had just descended, and was relieved that no smoke was rising, but about 300 meters along the slope, wisps of smoke were still floating over the tree-tops. By that time it was too late and I was too tired to make the trek across the valley, and the fire did not appear to be too large. I also knew that another stream came down the valley nearby, which would probably act as a natural fire-break to contain any further advance. Next day, when I again checked that area for smoke, the sky was smoke-free.
The 'last sunset' over the meditation platform on the rocky outcrop of the Nibbana Cave.
I departed from Poo Jom Gom on Feb. 10th somewhat earlier than I had intended, as I was accumulating a backlog of material to type up because my computer had died (which is why this blog is so late!) I therefore decided to spend a few extra days at Wat Nanachat using one of their computers, before my onward journey to Bangkok and Sydney. As usual, Ajahn Kevali was most welcoming and it was especially enjoyable to catch up with a number of monks whom I had met during my stays in Thailand.
We are presently eight monastics in residence, most staying on for the Rains Retreat. I will be staying here until May 11, through Ajahn Sumedho's visit near the end of April. I will then travel to Bodhinyanarama Monastery in New Zealand, where I will participate in their Vesakha Puja ceremony on May 22nd. On May 27th I will travel to visit John and Hanna at their home in northern New South Wales, where John has organized a meditation day and a talk. From May 31st I will be staying at Dhammagiri Monastery near Brisbane until July 7th, and then on to Vancouver, Canada.
Blessings for health, well-being and diligent practice.