Wanderings and Reflections
Greetings from Wat Buddha Dhamma, Ten Mile Hollow, Wiseman's Ferry, NSW, Australia.
I arrived here the day before Magha Puja, full moon of February/March, commemorating the spontaneous gathering of 1,250 arahants to pay respects to the Buddha. At present the community here is quite large, with seven monks, two anagarikas and five long-term lay guests. I was invited to offer some reflections upon the significance of this day and Ajahn Khemavaro encouraged the community to continue their meditations until dawn.
In the last few weeks I have changed my residence from Wat Poo Jom Gom in the middle of Pah Taem National Park in North-east Thailand, to Wat Buddha Dhamma in the middle of Dharug National Park in New South Wales, Australia, two hours' drive north of Sydney.
Surprisingly, Pah Taem National Park and Dharug National Park are similar in that they both have large rocky outcrops of sandstone. Thus here there are also numerous rocky overhangs which could provide shelter, although there is only one 'livable cave' on the monastery property, which is used by people seeking simple accommodation. And a special feature of the rock here is that there are numerous patches of fine, soft sandstone, which erodes into shallow caverns with startlingly white or yellow walls of fine sand. Some of these have unusual shapes sculptured by wind and rain and others have subtle coloured patterns sweeping along the walls, almost as if some ancient Aboriginal painter had given play to his creative powers.
In direct contrast to Pah Taem National Park, however, here the forest is much more predominant than the rocky outcrops. This makes for some challenging off-trail walking, especially combined with the not very walker-friendly Australia flora with its many prickly plants. When walking in the bush I need to keep reminding myself that this is Australia, since the flora and fauna are so unusual and unique you could be excused if you thought it was a different planet. And, while there are some familiar fauna such as a prolific amount of bird life, even these are exceptional in their range of colours and loud bird calls.
Also, here there are not so many engaging panoramic views as at Poo Jom Gom, although fortunately the tracks mostly follow along the ridges, so there are numerous opportunities for broad views over the surrounding forested hills as one progresses along. The southern edge of the Park borders the lower reaches of the Hawkesbury River, which although flowing gently, is lined with towering sandstone blocks. Also, the monastery is situated on the Old Great North Road which was built by convicts in the 1800's. The section winding up through the sandstone cliff from the Hawkesbury River is considered a marvel of engineering, with sidings, drainage channels and a road bed of carefully carved stone blocks.
Five Weeks at Poo Jom Gom
Following my three weeks at Dtao Dum, I arrived at PJG on 13 January during the refreshing 'Cold Season'. With 15°C morning temperatures and a steady northerly breeze, it was on the 'cool' side. However, the breezy 30°C afternoon temperatures were very pleasant.
The main benefit of spending some time at PJG is the experience of solitude and silence, which are not so easily found these days. I thus decided to spend my five weeks' stay there in the Nibbana Cave, approximately a one-hour walk up the mountain. As soon as one leaves the vicinity of the Sala the sounds of the village begin to fade away, and any contact with people ceases. One enters a realm of gentle but raw nature, accentuated by a constantly changing procession of rugged, unusual, amazing and startling scenery, as one winds one's way through the valleys and plateaus which comprise this area of the National Park.
The solitude and silence allowed me to deepen the practice of listening to the silence of the mind and 'being awareness'. One of the insights I had during the Rains Retreat at Chithurst Monastery last year was the benefit of taking the quiet/silent mind as one's main focus for attention or point of reference. This insight was reinforced through my studies on the supreme importance of 'appropriate attention' in developing spiritual practice. Whatever attention settles upon has a very strong effect upon the state of the mind, and while attention is often directed by our previous conditioning, we do have some degree of control so as to be able to direct it appropriately. Normally most of us take the active/busy mind as our main focus of attention or point of reference, and then spend much of our time and energy trying to resolve, solve, sort out that busy-ness of mind. An easier way of resolving much of the mental activity is simply to turn attention to the intrinsic silence of the mind. And being in a quiet environment makes the practice easier, as we are not having to expend so much effort on sorting through sensory input.
Of course, the calm, quiet mind is only part of Buddhist practice, that is, as a suitable basis for Insight Meditation facilitated by awareness or mindfulness. And, while the development of mindfulness exercises covers the four main areas of our experience, learning to abide in awareness itself allows for a fuller, more natural and flowing experience of awareness through all aspects of life.
The solitude and silence of PJG allowed for much more continuity in practice, although I noticed that fatigue had quite a debilitating effect. As the month progressed, the fresh, clear air was gradually replaced with smoky haze as the 'Dry Season' burning began. During this season I only put out three fires, but I spent numerous afternoons making fire-breaks around the caves which the monastics have used.
During my first 'fire season' at PJG I extinguished about twenty fires of varying sorts. My initial efforts were reasonably easy and successful, the only deleterious effects being smoke inhalation, some scratches from scrambling through the brush and dehydration due to excessive sweating. However, as I dealt with other fires that season I suffered some more serious injuries – a burnt, bruised and bloody arm from a falling burning stump and an injured arm from a fall. Also, several times I nearly fainted from exhaustion and dehydration.
Previously my only experience of fires was of those in the controlled environment of wood stoves or camp sites, where they were usually friendly and even welcomed. Thus this experience of meeting a fire burning openly and uncontrollably in nature was a completely new phenomenon. This was truly a 'wild beast' with an insatiable appetite, a wide range of moods and temperamental behaviour.
The burnt-over meadow.
So how do we relate to such a 'wild beast'? Most people, if they were willing and able to confront such a thing, would probably try to attack it directly. However, one needs to be very careful with this unpredictable phenomenon, which has the potential to cause injury and possibly death.
In the teachings on developing mindfulness the Buddha gives us some helpful guidelines. Basically, we should first study what the phenomenon is, giving special attention to what causes it and what removes it. Thus in the case of fire we can observe that it is sustained by nutriment – inflammable material and air. And it reacts differently to different kinds of fuel. Certain forms of inflammable material cause it to flare up into large, aggressive flames, while other material burns slowly but persistently. Also, gusts of wind can cause a sudden flare-up or at least move the fire in certain directions. Another aspect of fire is that it needs a certain temperature to ignite.
When we understand these principles we know that there are three ways to extinguish fire: prevent it reaching inflammable material, cut off the air supply or reduce the temperature (i.e., with water). Since there was not a readily available supply of water, the first two options were the only means left. Fortunately, most of the fires at PJG were ground-fires amongst the piles of dried leaves, the dried grass or the dwarf bamboo. Leaf fires were the easiest to deal with – simply rake a path through the leaves to prevent the fire reaching new fuel. When it gets into dried grass it flares up dramatically into leaping flames, the intense heat even causing a mini-firestorm with its own swirling gusts of wind and up-draughts. The only way to deal with this type of fire is to wait until it reaches a natural fire-break in the rocks. Fire in the scrub bamboo is also difficult to tackle, as it too flares up, although not as spectacularly as grass, and then the upper portions fall over, igniting the surrounding area. Thus making a fire-break can be quite frustrating, as it is frequently breached by the toppling fire brands. However, once one learns some of these methods, it can be quite rewarding to be able to bring a previously raging fire to an abrupt halt, in the process saving many plants and other forms of life.
On my way to Australia I stopped over in Kuala Lumpur to give a retreat at the Utama Buddhist Vihara. The Bundar Utama Buddhist Society (BUBS) has a very well-designed and attractive four-storey multi-purpose building for Buddhist activities. As well as a regular weekend programme of Saturday night and Sunday morning public Pujas and Dhamma talks, retreats can be held simultaneously, with student classrooms doubling as dormitories and a very spacious upper meditation hall, quite removed from the daily activities. The building has two rooms and a 'Dana Sala' (meal-offering room) for visiting Sangha. The volunteer staff are all familiar with Sangha etiquette, and very efficiently organize and manage all the events, retreats and talks. It is thus very easy and comfortable for teachers to offer talks and retreats. For my retreat 43 retreatants followed the schedule very diligently, and generously expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to hear the teachings.