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:
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.