Greetings from Birken Forest Monastery, near Kamloops, British Columbia.
After arriving from Australia in early July, and a flurry of family visits, I came to Birken in time to enter the Rainy Season Retreat on July 20th. We are five monastics: three monks -- myself, abbot Ajahn Sona, and Ven. Santacitto, a Canadian ordained in Thailand; a Norwegian novice, Nandaka; and the long-term Thai nun, Sister Mon.
The main house with 12 bedrooms, meditation hall, kitchen and eating area.
On the one hand, the monastery is situated deep in the wilderness, on a plateau at 1,200 meters elevation, with the nearest permanent neighbor fourteen kilometers away. Other than an occasional vehicle passing on the rough gravel road or a plane flying overhead, there are no other man-made sounds. It is quite an amazing experience to stop wherever one is and listen to the all-pervading silence, interrupted by brief bird calls, the chirping of squirrels or the shwooshing of a passing breeze. Of course, with the external silence one's thoughts echo loudly in the mind! However, one of the first steps towards calming the mind is to observe what all the mental noise is about. Is it really necessary? What is its effect on the heart?
On the other hand, it is sometimes hard to realize the isolation, since there are many signs of human occupation. The area has been extensively logged over many years, so there are indications of human disturbance at frequent intervals. Patches of artificial pine plantations dot the landscape, old logging roads criss-cross the countryside, free-range cattle wander around, and there are remnants of previous habitations.
The old logging roads are very useful for wandering through the area, since much of the older forest has become a maze of fallen pine trees, victims of the pine beetle epidemic which has devastated vast areas of forest in western Canada and the USA. This peaked about ten years ago and the dead trees are now toppling over throughout the forest. It is also possible to walk through the pine plantations - if one is very mindful, as they are underlaid with the scattered debris of the logging industry, which very wastefully just harvests the larger trees and pulverizes all the smaller ones.
One of the most impressive displays of the remnants of previous inhabitants is the 'Ghost Town' about two hours' walk from the monastery. This is a collection of around a dozen abandoned houses which were once the lodgings of the workers and their families at a busy sawmill. For some reason the sawmill closed down and the village was completely abandoned. From the vintage of the abandoned cars it appears this happened in the late 1950's or early 1960's. A number of the houses are showing their age, with collapsed roofs, broken windows and surrounded by vegetation. It would certainly make a good movie set for one of those post-apocalyptic films!
I decided to spend the Rainy Season Retreat here at Birken partly because I was visiting Canada anyway, and also as an opportunity to continue work on another book. Ajahn Sona very generously offered to support any of the senior monks who wished to have a retreat, and has been exceptionally accommodating for my 'retreating', as well as several excursions I made for teaching in Vancouver and to visit family. I spent a very comfortable and fruitful Retreat here in 2012, when I was able to finish the 'Treasures' book.
Shortly after I made the arrangements to stay at Birken, I received an invitation to spend the Rainy Season Retreat in Bali. A very devout family in Denpasar, whose youngest son is a monk with U Pandita in Burma, is working towards developing a Forest Monastery in the hills north of Denpasar. This is near the mother's native village, at an elevation of about 800 meters. A small hermitage has been established in a Chinese cemetery, and a hall, kitchen and teacher's hut built in the outskirts of the village. I would have very much liked to help support their project, but having already agreed to stay at Birken and committed to the writing project, I had to decline for now.
Although I tell some people for simplicity's sake that I am on a book-writing retreat, in fact producing a book is secondary. The main point is that I am working on a theme for contemplation, and, if it works out a book may manifest! While working on the 'Hindrances' book I came across a terse but poignant phrase: 'I-making, mine-making and the underlying disposition to conceit', which appears a few times in the Pali texts. I wondered what this meant, but unfortunately no direct explanation was given, although related teachings kept cropping up in various places throughout the Pali scriptures. After completing the 'Hindrances' book I started to investigate this theme further, without at first fully realizing the profundity of the topic. But it gradually began to dawn on me that it related to some of the deepest and most significant of the Buddha's teachings, including the teachings on non-self/non-soul, the Five Groups of Grasping, and Conditional Causality. It didn't take long for me to realize that clearly understanding these themes could easily take a lifetime, or maybe several!
I have thus changed my original idea of writing a detailed book on the original theme of 'I-making'. Instead, by the time the Retreat ends and my travels begin, I will hopefully have completed a study-guide or handbook of references, notes, and reflections which I, and anyone else interested in this theme, can continue to use for further investigations.
As many people familiar with the Buddha's teaching know, the second of the Factors of Awakening is 'Investigation of Dhamma'. Dhamma has two main meanings: the Buddha's teaching, and all things. Or we can say that the Dhamma as the Buddha's teaching is a particularly skillful way to view all things, in order to help us 'see things as they really are'. I have known about the value of investigation of Dhamma for some time, but this has been reinforced by some of my recent studies regarding the conditioning of consciousness by its contents. That is, consciousness is conditioned by what is in the mind and what is in the mind conditions consciousness. Thus, in a simplified sense, if we focus our mind on skillful themes, this can have a beneficial effect on our mind.
One of the most noticeable examples of this occurred a few days ago. I returned to my hut after a shower to do some writing and found that I had nothing to write! I felt as if I had lost the thread of the theme I was working on, Dependent Origination. However, since for me the early evening is the best time for writing, I thought that maybe I could at least work on some of the other chapters, which were still just a jumble of unorganized notes and references. I then spent nearly an hour sifting through the notes, collecting related notes together, deleting duplicates and transferring some notes to other chapters. Then next morning during meditation, various reflections related to the chapter I was working on arose. I was pleasantly surprised, since in the evening I was merely doing what I refer to as 'left-brain, donkey work': just sorting through information, but not actively trying to absorb or understand the material I was attending to. However, somehow it must have filtered down to a deeper level of consciousness, and the next day it bubbled up as insightful reflections.
On another level, though, the benefit of investigation of Dhamma is to help us step out of our limited world of constant self-reference. In order to investigate deeply, one needs to quieten all one's preconceptions, presumptions, expectations and, if possible, all one's cultural conditioning, in order to open as much as possible to what the Buddha is explaining to us. This is where external and internal silence is so helpful, if not always so easy to find. Thus I have been balancing my time between conceptual study and meditation practice or mindful walks in the silence-enshrouded wilderness.
As the Rains Retreat ends I will have several teaching engagements in Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast, north-west of Vancouver, and Victoria, (www.victoriaims.org) and then will make a short visit to Abhayagiri Monastery in California before returning to Thailand for the winter.
Wishing further insightful practice to all.