Changing place and changing mind
Greetings from Thailand, where I arrived some days ago.
The Rains Retreat at Hartridge Monastery in Devon flew by very quickly and very peacefully. I was able to settle into my preferred routine of balancing physical, mental and spiritual exercises. Fortunately, all the Western monasteries are situated in quite exceptional natural environments, suitable for quiet meditation and communing with nature, and with supportive spiritual friendship. Hartridge Monastery is quite easily accessible for people yet also in a quiet rural environment, surrounded by farmland and near a number of public footpaths. The countryside is criss-crossed by a maze of narrow farm tracks lined with hedges, and in some places with towering, ancient beech and oak trees. One also has the choice whether to stay on the ridges with sweeping views or plunge into the thickly wooded valleys. The choice is often made by the weather conditions – either open, wind-blown ridge or sheltered but damp valley.
Unfortunately, my plans to finish the I-making book did not reach completion, although the opportunity for more in-depth reflection was very beneficial and rewarding in itself. In fact the book has increased in size, so much so that I have started to write a second one, a shortened, condensed version, which is also incomplete at this point. However, as I entered another period of travel I had to pack it up for the moment, but hopefully can get back to writing once I have a more settled lifestyle again.
The time following the Rains Retreat is a time for visiting, particularly for supporting the annual robe-offering ceremonies held at each monastery. Thus, following the Hartridge ceremony and five-day visit from Ajahn Damrong, Ajahn Sopa and Ajahn Sucitto, I travelled to Harnham Monastery in Northumberland for the Kathina Ceremony on October 15, followed by an Elders Council Meeting. I was then planning to attend the Kathina at Chithurst Monastery in West Sussex, but I was asked to lead a five-day retreat at Amaravati. Ajahn Pasanno was scheduled to lead this retreat, but the forest fires in northern California had affected Abhayagiri Monastery, so he was not able to travel to England as planned. Although the monastery residents were evacuated for a number of days, the monastery was fortunately not damaged. The local town was not so fortunate, with eight of the residents losing their lives and 20 properties destroyed.
I thus missed the Chithurst Kathina ceremony, but was able to support the dedicated meditators who very diligently participated in the retreat. I then travelled to Chithurst Monastery for a few days' visit, before catching the flight to Bangkok. Autumn had arrived in England, with yellowing leaves flying in the wind and the temperatures slipping more often into single digits. I was fortunate that most of the days at Chithurst were sunny and dry, allowing numerous walks through the countryside with brilliantly coloured trees. One day was organized as a day-long Sangha walk to the Yew Forest at King's Vale. Since it was somewhat further than I was used to, I joined the group for the first part up to the top of the South Downs hills, where we stopped for lunch. From the highest point we had a faint view of the Isle of Wight and Chichester Cathedral on the south coast. I then made my way back to the monastery along footpaths meandering across the very green fields, criss-crossed with streams of the Rother Valley.
Changing our mind
My study and meditations on the Buddha's teaching have accentuated the quite radical insight which the Buddha realized. It has become increasingly clear what the Buddha meant when he said that the Dhamma is not easily understood by the average person. To truly understand his teaching requires nothing less than fundamental changes in our usual way of relating to reality. In general I would say that this is two-fold, although the two changes are closely related.
The first fundamental change is from an object-oriented approach to reality to a process-oriented approach. This, I would say, is the fundamental insight to which the Buddha awoke – that everything is a process rather than some fixed object.
The second fundamental change, following on from the previous one, is from an interpretative mode of relating to an observing mode. That is, instead of depending upon our interpretations of what we apprehend, we should give more precedence to a continuity of observing the on-going flow of impressions. Unfortunately, most of us have trained our minds to quickly interpret what we observe (from assuming that it is a stable object) and then judge, think and react according to the interpretation. And most of the time the interpretation is not complete, accurate or appropriate. That is, if everything is continuously changing processes, when can we conclude that anything is definitely a certain way or a certain form?
Of course, merely thinking about these changes of relating is still dwelling in interpretation. Fortunately, though, the Buddha has given specific meditative practices to help facilitate this change. Exercises in focusing attention help to quiet the internal dialogue which is interpreting, or at least give us the possibility to know how much we are interpreting. Developing the exercises in mindfulness encourages us to observe directly the nature of body and mind as they are changing. The very act of mindfulness is observing, and when we observe, what we see is process rather than object. Thus the more we practice the Buddha's teaching, the more we change our out-of-harmony way of relating to reality to one which is more in tune with the way things really are.
Wishing you all beneficial and rewarding practice.
The uphill trek.