Departing Canada, Abhayagiri Visit, Thailand, The Power of Silence
Greetings from Wat Pah Poo Jom Gom once again.
I arrived here exactly one month after departing from Birken, and in some ways the contrast couldn't be more striking. While the autumn frosts at Birken had sent the leaves on the deciduous trees flying long ago, here at Poo Jom Gom it is exceptionally green and hot. Some unusual late-season rain has given the vegetation a new burst of verdant life and even the delicate monsoon wild flowers are still in bloom. The mornings are a refreshing 25C, while the afternoons warm up to 30+C.
I mentioned to some people that I might stay at another monastery, Wat Pah Tum Seang Pet (The Radiant Diamond Cave Forest Monastery) in November. However, the situation there is still not completely clear, so it was decided to postpone any visits until things are properly arranged.
After leaving Birken my travels took me to the Sunshine Coast, northwest of Vancouver, where friends had organized an afternoon talk and meditation in the very suitable Sechelt Botanical Gardens. Surprisingly, nearly sixty people turned up, even with some last-minute cancellations. A number of people did journey from Vancouver, however, and members from various local meditation groups participated. Fortunately I was also able to stay for a few days to meet with Dhamma friends and visit several places along the very scenic coastline. One special highlight was visiting the museum of the native Indians and learning about their long connection with the land, estimated to be 16,000 years! We often forget how 'new', and thus how impermanent, our modern culture actually is.
After a few days in the Vancouver area, I then caught the ferry to Victoria on Vancouver Island. The very active Victoria Insight Meditation Group had arranged for me to give a day-long workshop on Saturday and the weekly Sunday night talk. The workshop, held in a large house with spacious grounds, was well-attended by a diligent group of meditators, and the Sunday talk gave occasion for some engaging questions. Quite fortuitously I was offered dental cleaning and examination just as tooth pain was increasing, resulting in an emergency root canal before beginning my longer travels. Anumodana to Rhonda and those who helped cover the expenses.
Recordings of the teachings in Victoria can be obtained from the following addresses:
October 29 2016 Retreat recordings
Oct 30 2016 Sunday Night talk recording
My next stop on my way to Thailand was at Abhayagiri monastery in Redwood Valley, northern California. I had not visited Abhayagiri in nearly ten years, and it was quite a revelation to see all the changes which have taken place during that time. The monastery has just celebrated its twentieth anniversary and has now almost completed the original plans to provide all the facilities suitable for a full-fledged Forest Monastery. The finishing off of the new Dhamma Hall/ Kitchen complex was still under way, but the main structure is in place and will hopefully be usable by the New Year. Ajahn Passano and the Sangha have gone to great lengths to design the 'perfect' facility, complete with children's play room, depository for departed ones' ashes, rooms for elderly monastics and ample storage. The very attractive Dhamma Hall has under-floor heating and under-ceiling cooling, with a covered 'over-spill' area for larger events, and is adjacent to the large commercial-style kitchen, but sheltered from it by a central storage area. All the facilities are, of course, earthquake-proof and wheelchair-accessible, and will eventually link in with the present toilet facilities, office-complex and eating hall through a covered cloister around a garden, when the faithful old house is removed.
New Dhamma Hall and Kitchen on right, old house in middle, present Dhamma Hall on left.
Of course, Ajahn Passano has not only been busy with building projects, but has also put substantial energy into 'building' the Sangha. There were nearly twenty resident monastics, two Anagarikas and one Novice receiving the precepts during my stay, with a very comprehensive and thorough training programme in place. Some twenty-five huts are carefully spread around the steeply-sided valley, providing opportunities for solitude in the exceptionally quiet environment. I had forgotten how remote the monastery is in heavily-populated California (more people live in California than in Canada!) However, it is on a minor road through the mountains, even though quite easily accessible from San Francisco.
My Saturday night Dhamma talk and photos of the Precept Ceremony can be found on the Abhayagiri website.
The Power of Silence
Some people ask me why I prefer to frequent the more remote and sometimes not so comfortable monasteries, rather than those with more comfortable facilities. One of Ajahn Chah's teachings, presented as a word-play on two key Thai terms, is that the aspiration for a monastic is for peacefulness ('sangop') while that for the non-monastic is for comfort ('sabai'). While I do appreciate some basic comforts, my main interest is being in an especially peaceful, quiet place which is very supportive of meditation, and such places are increasingly harder to find in this ever-busier, ever more crowded world.
In the simplest way we can say that silence manifests in two distinct ways: externally and internally. Thus someone could be in a very silent place and yet not 'hear' the silence owing to the noise in their own mind. Conversely, someone could be in a very noisy place and yet still hear the inner silence of their own mind. There is also the silence which is merely the absence of noise, and the silence which is ever-present. Of course, the real crux is to remain in the ever-present silence when the external noise contains elements which could lead to greed, hatred and delusion. The two main types of silence, the external and the internal, are also inter-relational, especially in the sense that the outer silence can support the inner silence, and the inner silence may help us hear the outer silence.
The Buddha recommended quiet places for meditation. The mind which is continually processing noise is in a more activated or aroused state, which is not conducive to a quiet state of mind, whereas a quiet, peaceful environment allows the mind to settle into a more relaxed, open and receptive state. Indeed, probably the most important aspect of living in a quiet environment is that it allows us to hear more directly the noise in our own minds. When attention is not occupied with processing noise, it is available to notice many other things. And this can help us to investigate the fundamental sources of the internal noise and enable the possibility of freeing the mind from its disturbances.
When my own mind quietens down somewhat, I can then hear the mental processes more clearly, whether it is thinking, planning, memories or whatever. This also works the other way around -- if I notice thoughts arising, I just need to turn my attention to the outer silence and my thoughts quiet down, as if they have just been absorbed by the engulfing external silence.
Silence, whether external or internal, allows us to see the bigger picture, the picture unlimited by our self-reference. Like gazing into the star-filled night sky or across a vast landscape, listening to silence reminds us that we are infinitesimal specks within the eternity of space and time. All our nagging worries or precious thoughts are actually of little importance in the greater reality of things.
The silence, of course, is always there. Thoughts come and go, some return, but the silence remains. And when thoughts fall silent, there is just the vivid present moment in all its immediacy – just this. No plans, no worries, no fears, no doubts. Just clarity, lightness, vitality. Someone who has experienced the great peace of the deep inner silence gains confidence that it is readily available and ever-present. Our practice is continuously cultivating the means to reclaim the silence which is the inherent nature of the mind.
In the middle of December I will leave the outer silence of Poo Jom Gom for several weeks in Bangkok to visit the dentist, give a four-day retreat and a talk in Thai and respond to several invitations. This is always a test of the ability to keep connected to the inner silence in a particularly noisy environment (without resorting to merely blocking out the noise). Before Christmas I should be back in Poo Jom Gom for a quiet 'Festive Season' and New Year celebration.
Wishing you all peaceful holidays and a rewarding New Year.