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, www.pariyatti.org
The Heather Meadow in Hammer Wood