Monday, January 12, 2015

Seclusion in the Wild

January 12, 2015
I have just returned to Wat Nanachat after over three weeks in Kanchanaburi Province in western Thailand. Most of the time was spent at the remote branch hermitage Dao Dtum (Black Turtle – after the stream which runs through the area). 

It is quite an amazing place. A former tin mine in Sai Yoke National Park, it was offered as a Sangha residence many years ago, and more recently has been accepted as a Sangha residence by the Forestry Department through their project to allow the Sangha to remain in the National Park boundary, subject to restrictions on building permanent structures. (A similar arrangement exists for Poo Jom Gom hermitage in Pah Daem National Park on the Mekong River.)

The monastery off-road vehicle.

This was my first visit, so it was quite an interesting adventure. I had heard of the remoteness of the place, but no one had warned me of its ruggedness. The journey there in a four-wheel drive, off-road vehicle was the most unbelievable travel experience I have had. We turned off the main highway and crossed the infamous River Kwai of 'Bridge on the River Kwai' fame, and proceeded down increasingly worsening country roads until the pavement ended. We then began two hours of bumping along bone-wrenching, teeth-rattling, brain-shaking tracks. Houses became less frequent and more basic, the fields were less organized and the trees larger and more abundant. We stopped for a break at the Border Patrol Station, and when we started again the Thai Ajahn accompanying me casually mentioned, 'And now the road gets really bad.' 'What', I said, 'worse than before?' 'Oh, yes, much worse.' And so it was. On a number of occasions I was sure the driver was going to stop and tell us to get out and walk as the boulders got bigger, the inclines steeper and the ruts deeper. However, he just kept bumping and rattling along with the engine howling, shifting gears every few seconds as the track conditions changed.

Other than two passes over hillsides, the track mostly follows along the valley floors, crossing various streams. In total we forded streams some 60 times, often bouncing down one rock-strewn bank, shifting to low gear and teetering up the other bank. Fortunately this was over a month after the monsoon ended, so the streams were easily passable. During the height of the monsoon the road is often impassable due to flooding or washed out from run-off, not to mention the occasional tree falling across the road, which happened the day we were travelling out. Seemingly an elephant passing along the road had toppled a tree and the incoming car had to carve a detour through the bamboo, causing a two-hour delay.

The hermitage comprises three specific areas. The main entrance area has the kitchen, main hall, workers' lodgings, guest lodgings and public toilets, and bathing facilities. One hour's walk up the valley and onto a ridge is the 'Outer Sala' and three monk's huts where the Sangha resides. 

Part-way up the valley another route branches off to the 'Inner Forest', where the main stream winds through a thickly-wooded valley which stretches to the Burmese border. In this area many teing (raised bamboo platforms) have been built to accommodate Wat Nanachat Sangha members, who spend two months of the Hot Season camped out in the forest. 

Several of the largest trees grow here, and the stream used for drinking and bathing gently meanders through the lush vegetation. A simple hall has been erected near the entrance, replacing one destroyed by an elephant some years before. This year approximately 20 monks, novices and anagarikas will be staying after a two-week tudong (walking tour) in the nearby forests along the Burmese border. Two paths lead up to this area. One consists of the 'arahant steps', 350 large, irregular steps winding up the steep slope to a broad path beside an old water channel from the mine. 

The other path, the 'Waterfall Path' weaves up through a series of ten waterfalls ranging in height from several to twelve meters. This path has not been much developed; it crosses the stream half a dozen times and in several places one has to resort to use of hands and creative footwork. However, with many inviting pools along the way, it is very likely much used in the hot season.

I was very pleasingly surprised to find the forest in this area either undisturbed or verdantly returning to its pristine nature. My previous travels in the mountains of north and north-east Thailand had been quite depressing, as every year more and more forest has been felled, burned off or turned into agriculture. In this area, perhaps due to its remoteness and maybe its proximity to the Burmese border, it seems the destruction has halted, at least for now.
The added bonus of the lush, undisturbed forest is the variety and abundance of wildlife. There have been sightings or evidence of wild tiger, elephant, gaur (the largest bovine), boar and bear, as well as various wild cats (including leopards), deer, monkeys and a profusion of bird life, from the chirpy little flycatcher to the loudly loquacious Black Drongoes to the Great Hornbill, whose distinctive flapping could be mistaken for a stuttering jet engine. It was not uncommon for a troop of macaque monkeys to wander through the canopy along the monks' hut ridge, or for a flock of Variegated Hornbill to roost in a fruit tree over-head and twitter to each other as they feed.

Dao Dtum is a very physical place. Each day we trek 45 minutes down from the ridge to the main hall, crossing three bamboo bridges and two rocky walkways, for our daily three-minute 'alms-round' to the kitchen. Since the nearest habitation is seven km over a rugged track, the monastics are dependent upon food brought in by supporters and prepared by a paid cook. Fortunately the cook is quite creative and so is able to provide some slight variations on the staples of canned fish and vegetables, noodles, dried soya, peas, grains, crackers and biscuits. He has recently started a garden, so there are always some fresh greens and mushrooms, and sometimes banana and papaya. On occasions a generous supporter may journey in to drop off a supply of fresh vegetables or durable fruit.

Following the meal at the main hall we trek one hour back up the hill to our individual huts, and may not see anyone until the next morning. The first week I was quite tired most of the time from all the walking, even with frequent stops on the way up to catch my breath. However, by the second week I had gained much strength and even ventured a lengthier walk over the nearby fire-break. Ajahn Buddhisaro was concerned about the difficulty, since it had not been cleared for a year, so he had the monastery workers spend several days clearing fallen bamboo and under-brush, and sweeping away the accumulation of fallen leaves which make the steep ascent and descent especially treacherous. Thus one afternoon all four of us trekked up the very steep 200-meter elevation difference to the top of the local mountain (approximately 800 meters elevation) and even more steeply down to the Inner Forest. Although they were heavily obstructed by the thick tree-cover, we were able to glimpse some of the heavily-forested hills and valleys stretching off in all directions. 

Fortunately elephants had previously travelled on the same route, leaving well-trampled imprints which provided us with very useful steps in the steeply-sloped hillside. Since it was still daylight when we reached the Inner Forest, we made an excursion into the furthest reaches of the valley, which is only two kilometres from the Burmese border. Here we saw what looked like leopard claw-marks on a tree, while across the stream a bear passes each night.

Having now 'gained my walking legs', before departing I was interested in venturing on the other end of the fire-break, which rises up to approximately 1,000 meters. One section of this fire-break had not been cleared in three years, so two workers were sent ahead to help clear the way and guide us to the farther end. Since this trip was estimated to take between four and five hours (at my relaxed, sight-seeing pace), we left after the meal. The workers had done an excellent job, even sweeping up the dead leaves, as parts of the path were exceptionally steep. However, their progress was even slower than my walking pace and we caught them up several times. As we reached the higher levels the bamboo forest gave way to spacious glades of towering 'yang' trees soaring over our heads, with panoramic views on both sides of the narrow ridge. As we crossed the summit and turned towards the downward path to the Inner Forest, the way became exceptionally steep and thickly overgrown. The workers were now directly in front of us, clearing a way through the entanglement of tall grass, vines and bush, while we half slid, half clambered down the increasingly steep slope. The way dropped straight downwards at nearly sixty degrees to a trickling stream in a lush, dark valley, suddenly eerily silent after our noisy descent along the windy ridge. We filled our water containers and then headed steeply up the further slope into a thickening bamboo grove.

The first sign of complications soon manifested when one of the workers came back down the slope towards us, saying they had gone the wrong way. He zigzagged through the bamboo thicket before heading off towards the left and called to the other worker to clear a path for us. It seems a clump of bamboo had died and fallen across the main track, entirely obstructing it. About every ten years bamboo goes to seed (it is in the grass family) and then the entire clump dies off and collapses; and in this area the bamboo is huge. However, we could still find markings on the bigger trees, so we weren't too far off course. We soon came up to a ridge and the way once more became heavily obstructed, the workers having to hack a passage through the undergrowth with their machetes. Now there was no obvious fire-break, and one of the workers said that in the three years since it was last made the bamboo had grown up extensively. We continued to wander along the ridge, in some places following the trail made by the workers and in other places weaving around trees and clumps of bamboo. As the ridge began to slope downwards we heard the sound of waterfalls. We all came to a stop as the workers looked perplexed: there shouldn't be any waterfalls or streams on this part of the fire-break! We were told to wait while they scouted down the valley ahead.

The Thailand-Burmese border crosses the top of this 1,125m mountain.

It was a very picturesque place to wait; surrounded by peaceful forest, a steep, heavily-forested hill with towering trees lay off to the right and the sound of waterfalls floating up from a deep valley on the far right. After about 20 minutes the workers returned with the news that they could not find the way ahead; perhaps we had taken a wrong turn further back. It was decided that we should go back up the ridge and look for the correct turning. We retraced our steps up the ridge without any sign of another turning. Meanwhile it was now after 3 pm, with not a lot of time to go exploring before dark. The workers made another attempt to scout around and one of them disappeared up the ridge. After another 15 minutes we decided that the best plan would be to return the way we had come, even though it would be longer, since we now had only a couple of hours of daylight remaining – lost on a ridge, in a thick bamboo forest 10 kilometres from the nearest habitation did not sound like an attractive option with wild tigers hunting at night! However, one of the workers had now disappeared and did not even answer the shouting of the other worker – where was he? The lost worker could very likely look after himself, but when we asked the remaining worker which way we had come, he was not sure. With thoughts of looking for a camp site for the night arising in my mind, we waited in limbo for what seemed like a long time. Finally, we heard the answering shout of the other worker far up the ridge. Within 10 minutes he was back, and when asked for the way back easily led us back down the ridge and onto the original trail. We were soon back at the trickling stream, quenching our thirst and preparing for the very steep clamber back up to the top. Fortunately the track was well-made during our descent, even swept of leaves, so the ascent was quite smooth and easy, if somewhat sweaty. Once again we were rewarded with expansive views over the mountains as we descended from the mountain top past the towering trees, and then steeply down through the bamboo. We were quickly back at the main hall from which we had departed some 8 hours previously. Now we only had another hour's climb back to our huts on the further ridge! Admittedly the last 15-minute trek from the Outer Sala to my hut at the far end of the ridge was somewhat of a strain, but the thought of a hot bath and warm drink drove me on.

One of the limitations of such dense forest as Dao Dtum is the difficulty of wandering off the tracks. Combined with the steep and in some places rocky terrain, there are not too many routes to wander on. Also, in the monsoon season the forest is crawling with leeches and malarial mosquitoes, while in the dry season it is infested with ticks. Fortunately the numerous trails already created usually provide enough exercise for most people. Also, the diversity of flora and fauna not only attracts ever-renewed attention, but keeps one constantly alert and vigilant.

Dao Dtum is probably the most remote of all the branch monasteries. This provides an environment with minimal external distraction. During my three weeks' stay no monks came and no monks left. We did now hear any news or receive any post or emails. I made several phone calls to arrange my travel to Ubon and several of the other monks phoned family during the Christmas/New Year holidays. Otherwise, the weather was pleasantly cool and almost nothing happened!

Personally I found that with so little information to process I had many more memories arising. Some of this was re-processing my travels over the last months, some just images of memorable experiences. I think some of this was due to the increased vigilance and awareness one cultivates when in a new, unfamiliar and potentially dangerous environment. (I started every time I heard a rustling in the dried leaves lining the path, expecting to see a snake, yet every time it was merely a harmless skink scurrying to safety. I never did see a snake the whole time.) The lesson here is that it is important what we expose our mind to, since it may come back to us later.

Just before departing Kanchanaburi Province we paid a visit to Wat Sununtaram, the monastery founded by the very well-known and popular Ajahn Mitsuo Gavesako, whom I had spent time with in the early years of Wat Nanachat. The monastery is in a secluded area covering 200 acres surrounded by wooded, limestone hills and in 25 years of development has expanded to include various large buildings for holding sessions of meditation training for several hundred people at a time. At present the buildings are mostly empty with the 9 resident monks and some lay supporters keeping a quieter life-style as the leaves accumulate on the acres of park and walkways.

I will soon be returning to Poo Jom Gom until the end of February, then to Bangkok for a few days to give a talk in English at BIA and one in Thai at Ban Aree. On 25 February I begin my travels to the southern hemisphere:

February 28-March 1: Teachings at Bandar Utara Buddhist Society (BUBS), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia;
March 3-16: Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wiseman's Ferry (Sydney), NSW, Australia;
March 16-25: Wat Buddha Bodhivana, East Warburton (Melbourne), VIC, Australia;
March 26-28: Teaching at Well-Aware-Ness Psychology, 14 Ridge St., North Sydney;
March 31-May19: Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wiseman's Ferry (Sydney), NSW, Australia;
May 20-29: Bodhinyanarama Monastery, Wellington, NZ;
May 29-June 30: Dhammagiri Monastery, Brisbane, Australia;
July 1 – August 18: Vancouver, Canada;

July 18-19: Teaching at Victoria Insight Group, Victoria, Canada.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Further Ramblings

December 13

I am now back in Thailand after spending eight months in Europe.
Following Ajahn Sucitto's 'retirement party' on November 4th, I travelled to Ireland for teachings. First was a weekend retreat at Sunyata Centre in County Clare on the west coast near to Shannon Airport ( The committee of Sunyata would like to offer the ten-acre property to the Sangha as a branch monastery. However, due to a large debt and the unavailability of a senior monk to take on the project, it seems that it will remain a meditation centre in the near future. Besides a purpose-built meditation hall, there are several converted farm buildings and one hut on the ten-acre property, with a small wood and a stream. Located on a hillside, it has an extensive view of the verdant coastal plain and the waves of rain clouds rolling in off the Atlantic. Members of the Thai community in Ireland are very supportive of the idea of a forest monastery, although it is somewhat removed from the population centres of Dublin and Cork.

I then travelled to Cork for two public talks and another weekend retreat. The first public talk, at University College Cork, was attended by some 170 people as it was linked to a conference on mental health. The second talk was at the hall of the village where I stayed overlooking Cork harbour, to introduce the setting up of a weekly meditation group. Another weekend retreat of 20 appreciative people was organized in a very quiet holiday Oyster Haven resort on the south coast.

I ended my Irish trip with an evening talk in Dublin organized by the Irish Sangha Trust, and then took an early morning flight to Rome. After a few quiet and sunny days at Santacittarama,, I caught my return flight to Thailand on November 22.

Santacittarama (orange building in centre), amongst vineyards and olive groves.

I had a few days in Bangkok to recover from jet lag, and then travelled to Petchaboon province in north-central Thailand for a five-day Thai retreat in the Turtle Hut 'spiritual resort' in the hills. It is a very pleasant place with four-star accommodation and gardens for walking meditation. 

Turtle Hut Spiritual Resort, Kow Kho, Petchaboon.

Nearby is a branch monastery set up by Ajahn Achalo on a scenic hilltop adjacent to a National Park. Although he has only been there for four years, the monastery already has five huts, a large senior monk's cottage with a library beneath and an adjacent property for nuns and female guests. Ajahn Achalo has built various shrines based on the Buddhist Holy Sites in India, such as Vulture's Peak, and designed a stupa and the buildings to reflect Nepalese style. 

I spent a very relaxed and pleasant week there, and then arranged to travel into the remote branch hermitage near the Burmese border, where I will be until early January. Since I shall be there over the New Year, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Joyful New Year 2015.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Rains Retreat in England and Appropriate Attention

Already half of the Rainy Season Retreat has passed and I am well-settled into the Vultures Peak Hut in Chithurst Monastery's forest.

Before arriving here I spent a short week at Santaloka Hermitage in the Gressoney Valley of northern Italy. Andrea met me at Martiny train station in Switzerland and drove me over the Grand San Bernardo pass on a spectacularly sunny, clear day. We arrived at the 2,500 metre pass just in time to stop for lunch at the small lake, surrounded by patches of snow. Santaloka Hermitage, at an altitude of 2,000 metres, was free of snow, with the meadows a profusion of alpine flowers. I had hoped to do more exploring to higher altitudes than my last visit, which was early in the spring with still much snow. However, the weather was not very cooperative, with many cold, wet days. The one day I did manage a reasonable outing, I got caught in a rain storm. Fortunately, with Boonjun's rain poncho I remained fairly dry. Once again the supporters were extremely generous in providing all the requisites and I met a few new people. One woman from the small village where Boonjun lives has been listening to Dhamma talks off the internet for several years, but this was the first time she had met a live monk. Alas, my time there was very short, and I soon left the towering mountains of north Italy for the gently rolling hills of West Sussex.

Santaloka Hermitage and stone stupa.

Ajahn Sucitto and the resident community generously welcomed me to spend the Rains Retreat in a hut in the forest. My hut, the Vultures Peak hut, is situated on a minor 'peak' (but no vultures), near the top of a ridge overlooking the hilly South Downs, just north of the south coast of England. It is a twenty-five minute walk from the main house where we receive food and have showers. Part of the walk is along a narrow country lane which through centuries of use has now eroded 1 ½ metres below the surrounding landscape, like a sunken walkway. Thick vegetation grows along the sides, including several large trees, so that it is well sheltered from the weather. The only minor disadvantage is that if one meets a vehicle, one needs to squeeze into the undergrowth along the sides, often meeting thorny brambles.

Vultures Peak hut.

The second part of the journey is like walking into a children's wonderland. An old coach-road veers off the paved lane down into the Hammer Stream valley. With no houses nearby, the sheltered valley is exceptionally silent and timeless, the wide dirt track lined with huge old beech and oak trees. The monastery side of the track towards the Hammer Pond is heavily wooded, with many large trees, and the other side is a forest of mature chestnut trees. The result is the 'cathedral effect', with a towering 'roof' of leafy branches and a broad, open 'ground floor'. This effect is greatly accentuated when the shafts of early-morning sunlight come cascading through the canopy, reflecting off shining beech leaves or ferns, and diffused through the hovering mists. Other than one weather-beaten footpath sign, there is no evidence that one is in the 21st century. I half expect to meet a horse-drawn carriage bound for the south coast or see Robin Hood and his Merry Men leap out from behind a beech tree (although they lived in Sherwood Forest north of London!).

The track crosses Hammer Stream at New Bridge. It is 'new' because it was only built in 1795. Chithurst House, built in 1862, is much newer, almost 'modern' compared to other features in the monastery forest. On the eastern side of Hammer Wood is part of the Roman road running from the south coast to London, while above the pond one can still make out the remains of an Iron Age Celtic fort.

The alternative route to the hut, passing the Nuns' cottages and circling Hammer Pond, is also exceptionally scenic. The narrow lane, sloping quite steeply down to Hammer Stream, has been eroded up to 5 metres deep and is mostly lined with large trees, which at one point are so thick that it is like walking through a tunnel. The lane runs past the two Nuns' cottages, and then the path turns into a forest track behind the new Shrine Room. After many years using the converted garage for a shrine room, several years ago a new building was added as a Shrine Room and storage room with many windows, topped with a glass-sided cupola, allowing in even more light. The nuns also have two meditation huts further up the hill above Hammer Pond.

The forest path then turns off to meet Hammer Stream and follows it up to the waterfall over the weir. Most of the year there is water tumbling over the man-made weir (dam), originally constructed to power a 'hammer' to forge iron ore. From the open space here one can also get quite an extensive view of the Hammer Pond, at present heavily covered in yellow water lilies. The path next skirts around the edge of the pond close to the water, and then climbs up to a track lined with towering beeches parallel to the pond.

I first arrived at Chithurst Monastery in 1982, when we spent most of the Rains Retreat replacing the tiles on the roof of the dilapidated old house. My first 'lodging' was on a stack of insulated plasterboards in the area which, after renovation finished, became the 'Chao Khun Room', where Chao Khun Panyananda and other senior monks stayed. Over the years much hard work and care have gone into renovating the decayed Victorian house, so that now it is a very well-kept monastic structure, a suitable legacy to the memory of Luang Pa Chah, whose exquisite portrait hangs in the main hallway, benevolently observing.

The major change since I lived here is, of course, the superb new Dhamma Hall and cloister complex. Previously this was the rambling old coach house and stables. During the time I was here we had drawn up initial plans, but the final result is much more grand and outstanding than we first envisioned. Besides the excellent exterior stone-work, the interior, featuring large oak beams and trusses, conveys a sense of enduring time, deference to the past and stability stretching into the future. The Dhamma Hall is connected to the house by a cloister, which also extends along the eastern side of the pond and lawn, enclosed with a holly hedge on the south side, creating a peaceful sheltered space.

During the Rains Retreat the monastery is full to capacity, with eleven monks, two novices and five anagārikas, sharing rooms in the house and the seven huts in the forest. The community alternates with each person having a three-week silent retreat. Although the monastery is nearly one and a half hour's drive from London, quite a few people make the journey at weekends to offer the meal, and an increasing number of local Thais are becoming regular supporters. There are also several alms-rounds to local towns, one of them a nearly four hour walk (with a return ride).

My retreat time here has been exceptionally peaceful. Even though we are in crowded south England, with passing aeroplanes, nearby traffic and local party noises, the huts are far enough from footpaths to be very isolated. I have been using this opportunity to do some regular work on my book on the Hindrances. The good news is that it is nearly complete. We are down to the last details of editing, so it looks as if we will meet the deadline for next year's printing. While it has been quite a 'brain-teaser' to put all the materials together, it has also been a valuable learning experience. Several aspects of the teachings have become more prominent in my practice since the project began, and some key points are very important to keep in mind. One valuable teaching which stands out in working with the Hindrances is the important of Appropriate Attention. Below is a short passage from the chapter on Supportive Conditions.

One skilful mental quality which the Buddha specifically mentioned as fundamentally important in working with the Hindrances is appropriate attention (yoniso manasikāra: S.V. 64f; A.I,3f). While it is not mentioned in the standard categories of teachings (since it is somewhat of a technical term), the Buddha emphasized it as a very significant factor in the mental training of meditation. Thus appropriate attention is the key factor in resolving each of the Hindrances, and its opposite, inappropriate attention, is instrumental in their arising and increasing.

Bhikkhu Analayo (2012: p.193-205*) has made a thorough study of the term 'yoniso manasikāra' as it is used in the Pali Canon. He has distinguished three aspects of the qualifying term 'yoniso': thorough, appropriate and wise. Thus it has a range of nuances in different contexts. I have chosen to use 'appropriate', although the other nuances may also apply.

Attention (manasikāra) is a mental function which is present in any act of consciousness. What we attend to and how we attend have a strong effect upon the mind. Unfortunately, the attention of unawakened beings still under the distorting influence of greed, aversion and delusion is biased in an inappropriate way, which then invariably perpetuates the distortions. Most of us already know the effects of inappropriate application of attention, for example when we are caught in fantasizing about sensual attractions. Observe how this further nourishes sensual desire. Thus both too frequent attention and too narrow attention, not seeing the object from other angles, can be unskilful. If we can shift our attention wisely by seeing the fantasy as fundamentally just a perception, we can notice what mental state this can engender. That is, wisely attending to an object in terms of understanding its nature can have a transforming effect.

The Commentaries explain inappropriate attention as similar to the 'distortions' (vipallāsa), that is, seeing the impermanent (anicca) as permanent, unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) as pleasant, non-self (anattā) as self and the unattractive (asubha) as attractive. This is, of course, the usual way in which unawakened beings view reality. The Discourses, however, explain inappropriate attention in a more practical way specific to each of the Hindrances. For example, sensual desire is nourished through giving attention to the attractive aspect of an object (literally, the 'image of the attractive'). Thus developing appropriate attention requires some re-training of the fundamental way in which we relate to reality.”

*'Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pali Discourses', Bhikkhu Analayo,

The Heather Meadow in Hammer Wood

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Mountain Silence
July 1
I am currently at Dhammapala Monastery, Switzerland once again. I was here earlier, from April 10 to May 6, mainly to teach a weekend retreat in Thai and give talks in Bern and Geneva.

Every time I return to Dhammapala I am awestruck by the spectacular, mind-stopping scenery. No matter what season it is, stepping out of the train is like stepping into a very different world from what one is used to. On the one hand one walks past neat and orderly houses, just like in other parts of Switzerland, but in the immediate background huge mountains of rock tower up into the sky. When the train departs most human sounds are silenced by the pervading presence of nature. Our assumed importance shrinks to a small speck beneath the massive walls of rock, ice, trees and the ever-flowing waters.

The Buddha, of course, encouraged meditators to seek out quiet places. Their absorbing silence and sensory calm are especially supportive of meditation and listening to our inner noises. Much of the environment in the city is designed to stimulate the senses and reference to self: 'I like . . . I want . . . I buy.' Whereas in nature, even though we may 'like' some aspect of the scenery, that liking usually arises from some inner sense of beauty, awe or appreciation, and rarely moves on to wanting to possess it or buy it.

Living in nature can also give rise to reflections on impermanence and impersonality. The landscape and weather are constantly changing: plants growing and dying, snow falling and melting, rain dropping and flowing away. Rocks tumble down the mountains depending on the law of gravity, not on whether I am walking past or not.

When I arrived in April the mountains were still heavily covered in snow, which added another dimension to the sense of otherworldliness. In almost absurd contrast, the meadows in the valley were already richly green and sprouting spring flowers. Within a week, however, the valley was coated with a fresh layer of snow which quickly melted; only to return on the Sunday of the Thai Retreat.

During my two months' stay I was able to visit a number of places nearby and noticed that over the years there have been some serious weather conditions. Several years ago an exceptionally heavy rainfall caused some major flooding, especially in the Gasterntal, where numerous bridges were washed out and large boulders strewn across the valley floor. The following year a severe wind storm roared through the valley, toppling huge swathes of pine trees in patches throughout the forest. Fortunately, it seems that no houses were damaged, the local people having had the foresight to build in particularly secure areas of the valley.

The resident community of Dhammapala has now grown to five. Ajahn Khemasiri has remained the senior monk since I left in 2005. Ven Nandiyo had returned after two years residing in Germany. Ven Kancano I knew from brief visits to Amaravati, and I had previously met Ven Bodhinyando at Harnham. And Anagarika Christoph spent several weeks with us at Poo Jom Gom during the Rainy Season last year.

My two-stage journey to Aruna Ratanagiri Monastery in Northumberland went very smoothly and the plane arrived early at a refreshingly cool Newcastle, a few days before the start of a weekend retreat. Fortunately, Kath had everything efficiently organized so I could relax and focus on the teachings for a small but keen group of retreatants. After so much travel I also appreciated the quiet retreat environment for a few days.

The following Sunday we celebrated Vesakha Puja, with a large number of people attending the evening meeting and many staying for the dusk circumambulation of the lake. The Thai weather devas must also have been attending, as an unpredicted rainstorm suddenly arose, bringing copious amounts of 'auspicious rain'.

My visits to Ratanagiri are always a reviewing of the old and an adapting to the new. Since I was the senior monk there over twenty-five years ago I can recognize the core of the original, rented farm cottage. However, over the years many changes have taken place. A large Dhamma Hall was added shortly after I left and then, under Ajahn Munindo's guidance, more rooms were added, the Kusala Retreat House was created and more recently the reservoir at the base of the hill and surrounding land was purchased and three huts were built.

The reservoir and huts on the new property at Ratanagiri.

A few days after Vesak we set off for the five-hour journey down south for the International Elders' Meeting, which is convened in different locations every three or four years. This year's International Elders' Meeting was the largest one so far, with over 100 monastics residing at Amaravati Monastery for nearly one week. The Amaravati Community very diligently and efficiently organized probably the most smoothly-run event ever held, and the lay supporters provided ample supplies of food and other requisites for the exceptional numbers of Sangha members.

The meeting was presided over by Ajahn Liem from Wat Pah Pong and Luang Pa Sumedho. For the discussions various formats were used and a variety of themes were touched upon, ranging from the perennial one of our relationship to modern technology to ways of preserving Luang Pah Chah's legacy in the changing conditions of the modern world. With such a large number of people in-depth discussions were not possible, but the diversity of themes allowed the expression of a range of views without giving rise to acrimony. One of the richest sources of exchange was the informal meetings in the evenings and during breaks, when one could renew old friendships and catch up with distant Sangha members. I think it was indeed a great credit to Luang Pa Chah's emphasis upon communal harmony that so many Elders from monasteries around the world could come together to discuss relevant issues and depart with a renewed sense of greater community.
Click on the following link for photo:

I returned to Dhammapala on June 3, when Ajahn Khemasiri had already left for his three-week walk and retreat in Italy. Fortunately the three resident monks are a very harmonious team, so the practical affairs ran very smoothly. My trip to Paris was cancelled due to the French train drivers' strike, but fortunately my translator, Jeanne, was able to step in and guide the weekend instead. This allowed me some time to work on my slowly evolving book and rest up for the visit of Prem and Sompon from Thailand. They generously provided train and cable-car tickets for me to accompany them on several excursions to the Aletsch Glacier (the longest glacier in Europe) and Zermatt, with the picturesque Matterhorn in the background. My last week at Dhammapala was quite busy, with travel to the meditation groups in Zurich and Basel. Once again it was very rewarding to meet old friends, some of whom I had not seen for nearly 10 years.

I will now spend a week at Santaloka, the hermitage at 2,000 meters in the Gressoney Valley of north Italy. A group of very dedicated supporters has converted a former cow shed into a lodging for the Sangha and donated it to Santacittarama Monastery. From there I will travel to Chithurst Monastery in West Sussex, England, where I will spend the three months of our annual Rainy Season Retreat. In contrast to most of the monasteries in Australia and New Zealand, the European monasteries are almost all full with monastics, sometimes under quite cramped conditions. In order for me to obtain a place at Chithurst Monastery, another monk had to move out.

Wishing you all continued insight into Dhamma and the peace of realization.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Visit to Italy

I have been in Europe for over one month already. Having been away for two years it has been a curious experience of the old and familiar mixed with the completely new. I arrived on March 22 at Santacittarama Monastery near Rome where I was very warmly welcomed. I had not been there for nearly ten years and it was strange that not much had changed during that time, other than a major increase in the number of huts, the addition of much better guest accommodation and a large (taller than Ajahn Chandapalo) standing Buddha image. It was also somewhat of a ‘deja vu’ to be together with Ajahn Chandapalo and Ashin Ottama, the last time we were together was in the first Dhammapala in Konolfingen, Switzerland some 25 years ago!

At Santacittarama the original house is still being used for the meal and meditation (or, in warmer weather, the still-enduring, sixteen-year old tent) even though there are six monks and four anagarikas, plus quite a few lay guests. Besides Ajahn Chandapalo and Ashin Ottama, in residence there are three Thai monks: Ajahn Preecha, Ajahn Tok and Ajahn Go, and the senior Italian monk, Ajahn Mahapanyo. Now, however, after nearly fifteen years, they have finally received permission to build a large three-storey Sala, with two meeting halls, library, guest-monk rooms, toilets and showers, and a basement workshop.

Ajahn Chandapalo was telling me of how fortunate they were to find this very suitable property after viewing hundreds of potential ones. It is favourably situated 50 km NE of Rome in the beginning of the Sabine hills, an area of rolling forested hills and valleys cultivated mostly with olive orchards. The monastery property is primarily along the bank of a lush, tree-covered stream, with the main house on a hilltop surrounded by lawns and fruit trees, allowing for plenty of parking space. My hut, situated only five minutes walk from the house, was high above the stream yet still sheltered under the trees. Even though neighbouring houses are fairly close and visible from most parts of the monastery, the atmosphere was exceptionally quiet and peaceful.

The stream running through Santacittarama.

While it was very refreshing to be out of the Bangkok Hot Season, unfortunately, my first week in Europe was mostly rainy and cool, with one morning of frost. Fortunately though, I was accommodated in one of the newest huts (next to the ruins of an old stone building) with a very efficient wood stove which, with careful management, kept the temperature around 25C. Spring flowers were already in prolific abundance and the cherry trees were in splendid bloom.

The hut next to the ruined building.

The day Ajahn Chandapalo and I began a short trip to Sorrento the weather fortuitously turned sunny and warm. Khun Waew, a Thai supporter who has been in Italy for many years, invited us for a visit and very generously provided transport and accommodation, as well as acting as tour guide. With an early morning departure from the monastery we took the high-speed train from Rome (travelling up to 300 km/hr) and were in Naples for lunch. Before travelling to Sorrento we managed a short excursion to the top of Mt. Vesuvius, the dormant volcano towering over the Bay of Naples made infamous with the destruction of Pompeii in 79 AD. Other than some sulphur-smelling steam rising from a few places, it was not an especially impressive volcano (although potentially dangerous for the 3 million people who live beneath it), however the view over Naples, the Bay of Naples and the snow-capped mountains inland was quite spectacular.

View of Mt. Vesuvius from Sorrento.

The Bay of Naples is a huge crescent-shaped bay with peninsulars at both ends. Sorrento lies halfway along the southern peninsular in a broad bowl between the hills, with fifty meter cliffs lined with hotels along the sea. Off the very end of the peninsular is the Island of Capri with steep cliffs and rocky shoreline. The Amalfi Coast begins over the southern hills from Sorrento. One tour book says this is the ‘most beautiful coastline in Europe’. While not being able to confirm that, it was indeed quite spectacularly scenic with very steep hillsides plunging into the turquoise Mediterranean Sea and pastel-coloured houses stacked up the rocky slopes.

Amalfi Coast (AC photo).

At the meal invitations we met some of the Thais living in the Sorrento area and all the six Thais who live on Capri. Ajahn Chandapalo gave meditation instructions and teachings in Italian for the non-Thais who attended. The Italians, like the Thais, are exceptionally friendly, grand-hearted and ever-grateful and, also like the Thais, are very generous when it comes to offering food. We were very abundantly fed and were accommodated in a quiet, country-side guest house, Villa Rosmary, surrounded by burgeoning lemon trees, and overlooking the sea with Mt. Vesuvius in the distance.

Khun Waew (centre) and friends.

Santacittarama is now very well-known throughout Buddhist Italy which means that there is a steady stream of guests coming for short or long stay, an increasing number of people interested in taking up the monastic training and Ajahn Chandapalo is very busy teaching retreats, giving talks and lectures throughout the whole of Italy, including Sicily and Sardinia. Wherever we went people smiled or greeted us, and a number wanted to talk  or asked to have their photo taken with us (Khun Waew skilfully telling the women not to hug us!). Hopefully there will eventually be more Italian-speaking monks to help with the teachings and the spread of Dhamma in the Italian-speaking world.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

European Travel Calendar

March 22: Arrive at Santacittarama Monastery, Italy:
March 28-31: Visit to Sorrento and Amalfi Coast

April 10: Travel to Dhammapala Monastery, Switzerland:
April 16: Talk in Bern
April 23: Talk in Geneva
April 25-27: Weekend retreat in Thai at Dhammapala

May 6: Travel to Harnham Monastery, UK:
May 9-11: Weekend retreat at Harnham
May 20: Travel to Amaravati Monastery,
May 26-31: Global Elders Meeting

June 3: Travel to Dhammapala Monastery, Switzerland:
June 14-15: Non-residential retreat in Paris:
June 23: Talk in Zurich
June 26: Talk in Basel

July 3: Travel to Santaloca, Italy
July 10: Travel to Chithurst Monastery, UK:
July 12: Enter Rains Retreat at Chithurst Monastery

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dhammagiri Hermitage, Kholo (Brisbane), Queensland, Australia

My time here at Dhammagiri Hermitage has been very enjoyable but is quickly coming to an end. The external conditions are exceptionally comfortable and supportive. The weather in Brisbane is one of the most pleasant in Australia. During my five-week stay it was almost monotonous, with still, sunny 20C mornings and partly-cloudy, breezy 30C afternoons. A few times the temperature reached mid-30's or dropped to a chilly 18C after some sporadic showers.

The monk's lodgings up on the hill are exceptionally quiet and undisturbed from after the meal until the following morning, allowing for a long uninterrupted period of personal practice. The quiet and solitude allows for some very deep and peaceful meditation. The back part of the property adjoins Brisbane City Conservation Reserve and the water catchment reserve for Lake Manchester, part of the drinking water supply for South East Queensland. Almost every morning I walked out the back gate and onto a series of tracks and trails through the reserves, with views over the lake and surrounding bush-clad mountains.

Lake Manchester through the eucalyptus trees.

Conditions were suitable for me to keep up my usual balance of physical, mental and spiritual practice. In contrast to Poo Jom Gom in Thailand, where I focused more on physical and spiritual practice, here I devoted more time to mental practice. Besides my special emphasis on book-writing, I also did quite a bit of talking during the after-meal discussions. Fortunately, many of the monastery supporters are keenly interested in meditation, so we had some very rewarding discussions. Unfortunately, the book-writing took up a lot more time than I had expected. I don't think that the slowness of the work was directly caused by the fact that I was working mostly on the chapter on Lethargy and Drowsiness! It is just that this chapter is the longest one in the book, but hopefully not the most boring.

Towards the end of my stay we took an excursion through the surrounding countryside. We first journeyed westwards through increasingly drier areas to the main water supply reservoir for Brisbane, Lake Wiwenhoe. This area was very dry, although the lake was almost full. In the nearby farms surprisingly fat cattle were grazing on only scattered patches of wilted grass in parched, dusty fields. The famous Australian 'outback' begins a further 1,000 km west. On the route we passed a sign noting Darwin, in the next state, is 3423 km away! Queensland is a BIG place, about five times the size of the UK, but with only 4.2 million people, most of them living along the coast.

We then turned eastwards on the Tourist Route through D'Aguilar National Park, climbing up to 680 meters through wet eucalypt forest into the Queensland subtropical  rainforest. Even though we were only some 20 km away, the dense, humid forest was in marked contrast to the sparse open dry eucalypt forest around Dhammagiri. Massive trees over one metre in diameter towered to 50 metres in height. Strangler fig vines draped over branches and exotic palm trees unfurled their fronds in any slight opening in the canopy. This happened to be the rainiest day of my stay, so it was a true 'rainforest experience' with some heavy rain showers, swirling mists and cool winds.

Due to the incessant showers we managed only one short walk through the forest, and as we were admiring the diversity and density of the rainforest, noticed that we were providing lunch for the thirsty leeches! Further along the Tourist Drive at lower elevations, the clouds thinned out and we made a number of stops at well-provided lookout picnic grounds. On one side of the ridge we could look west over tree-covered hills towards the Great Dividing Range, and the other side gave vistas of the coast all the way to Moreton Bay and Moreton Island. One lookout, Camp Mountain, on the site of former gold-mining camps, offered a spectacular view through a tunnel between tall trees direct to the skyscrapers of the Brisbane Central Business District, flanked by two tree-covered hills. It almost seemed to be an optical illusion, as we stood surrounded 300° by tall trees, with a 60° degree tunnel opening to miniature concrete towers in the distance!

I will soon be spending a day with John and Hanna in northern NSW, just south of the Queensland border. John spent time as a monk in Thailand and England, and Switzerland when I was there. He is now a psychologist with a practice in North Sydney and has been a pioneer in mindfulness-based therapy in Australia. John and Hanna have an idyllic property on top of a ridge between Cabarita Beach and Murwillumbah. Looking out the east side of the house one can see the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean, and on the western side, beside the mango trees, watch the sun set over the sugar cane fields of the Tweed valley and the very prominent Mount Warning, or 'Cloud Catcher' to the Aborigines. And just a few hundred metres down the road lives another ex-monk whom I knew in Thailand. Steven, formerly Tan Pamutto, was a monk in the early years of Wat Nanachat. As a former brick-layer, he was responsible for a number of building projects, including the hospital hut where LP Chah spent the last ten years of his life lovingly cared for by his disciples. Tan Pamutto and I spent one Rains Retreat together at Wat Pah Pong, where LP Chah got the Western monks to help finish work on the stone railing around the Bell Tower and the Uposatha Hall.

Sunset over Mt. Warning, NSW. Photo by John Barter.

On Tuesday I will travel with John to his practice at Well-Awareness in North Sydney, where he has invited me to give several talks to meditation groups before I return to Bangkok on Friday. After that I begin a trip to Europe, visiting a number of the monasteries there. My first stop will be Santacittarama Monastery in Italy, and then in mid-April I will visit Dhammapala Monastery in Switzerland. There I have several teaching engagements, including a weekend retreat in Thai for the dedicated Thai supporters.

Wishing you all well-being, peace and continuity in the practice to awakening.