End of the Monsoon - Domestication and Homelessness, Spiritual Security
The main monsoon rains ended quite abruptly in mid-September, with a flourish but without too much drama. As I mentioned in the last blog, the journey across the rocky plateau when it is wet is not so easy, so early morning showers are not welcome. However, they do occur, and the morning of our last big rain was especially challenging. I heard the rain begin at about 2:30 am as I was meditating.. Accepting that the path would be wet, I thought, 'No problem as long as there is no lightning or strong winds, and, hopefully, the rain will ease by 4 am when I begin my downward journey'. Lo and behold, at about 3:45 the rain began to ease, so I got ready to set off, realising that it would still be quite wet under foot, with puddles and the odd stream still flowing. Since the area is mostly rock formations, it is exceptionally prone to flash floods. Ideally, if one can wait one or two hours, by then most of the rainfall has already flowed away.
However, just as I was stepping out of the shelter of the cave the rain began again, and then it decided to really rain! The paths soon became streams, the streams became torrents and the main stream became a white-water nightmare (or paradise if you are a white-water kayaker). Fortunately there was not much lightning, so I splashed my way along the pathways, forded the surging streams heading towards the bridge across the gorge. With heavy rain like this there is always the question, 'Will the bridge still be standing?', and, if so, 'Will it be passable?'. While still several hundred metres away I could hear the raging of the stream flooding down the valley, and as I turned the last corner saw that the bridge was still there, with the surging stream shooting along one metre below it. So, checking that the bridge was still secure, I quickly crossed over and made it to the hall for the morning almsround.
Flood waters surging under the bridge.
My 'Rainy Season Retreat' ended on November 25th. This was quite a physically challenging retreat for my increasingly ageing body. I expected my daily three hours of walking to be a workout, but in fact the real challenge was the heat, for which there is little relief except during brief rain showers. Adding to the challenge, my feet, ankle and left knee were uncomfortable for nearly two months. However, some extra rest, massage and use of a knee brace finally took effect, and all three parts eventually went back to functioning normally. When I am able to surmount these challenges and retire to the Nibbana Cave, the silence, tranquillity and solitude there are priceless.
The ending of the rains also means the ending of the flower season. This is the field which was burnt off in January -- it is heartening to see how resilient nature is to human's destruction.
Being in a remote, secluded place can have a special effect upon the mind. I think this partly has to do with it being so 'undomesticated', so that there are a natural rawness, unfamiliarity, poignancy and directness to it. I would define a 'domesticated' environment as one which is designed to be as safe and comfortable as possible for myself. However, in the process I think something gets left out or forgotten. Domestication can induce a numbness of feeling, a dullness of the senses and a lack of clear awareness due to familiarity.
The Buddha seems to have recognised the benefits of lack of domestication, as he encouraged those who were serious about spiritual liberation to undertake the simple and unencumbered lifestyle of 'homelessness'. This was mainly to allow for devoting a maximum amount of time and energy to spiritual practice, undistracted by involvements in the domesticated 'home life'. However, it also provided the opportunity to develop a number of qualities beneficial for supporting spiritual efforts.
The Buddhist strategy for liberation is based upon relinquishing grasping at self-identity in its various expressions. This strategy involves a number of different approaches, one of which is the practice of homelessness. While normally reserved for those who have undertaken the monastic training, it can also be applied to anyone seeking true liberation – it is as much an attitude of renunciation or relinquishment as it is a particular form or lifestyle. Ideally the lifestyle supports the attitude.
The Buddhist scriptures describe the household life as too confined and note that it is not easy to live the spiritual life in its fullness while living in a home. The home life has many characteristics, but probably the main one is possession, specifically of a dwelling and what goes with it. This can of course be the source of a strong sense of identity, as being someone who owns property and possessions (whereas in fact property and possessions often come to own you!).
Most people appreciate or even require some sort of protection from the elements, whether it is their own personal home or not. In a country like Thailand with only moderate temperature changes, people still need shelter from the monsoon rains, and it is convenient to be protected from the scorching sunshine and irritating creepy crawlies. The Buddha even laid down that monks should spend the three months of the monsoon season (July-October) in a suitable lodging.
The way which the Buddha provides residences for the Sangha and avoids the need for personal ownership is through communal ownership. Thus all major articles, such as property, buildings and furnishings, are owned communally by a body known as 'the Sangha of the Four Quarters, present and yet to come'. In most non-Buddhist countries, however, this rather amorphous entity is not recognised, so religious charitable trusts have been set up to own and manage monastic properties and possessions under the guidance of the Sangha, although not all of them precisely accord with the Buddha's model.
Security and Comfort
Among the other characteristics of the 'home life' which may contribute to increasing the sense of self-identity are: safety/security and familiarity, and comfort and convenience. In fact our life is not always going to be safe or comfortable;, that is why we have to make a conscious effort to seek these factors out. We are being constantly stalked by ageing, sickness and death, and we are continuously buffeted by changing physical and mental conditions, not all of them pleasant.
Of course, some degree of safety and comfort is necessary for a sense of well-being, but when do they become hindrances to spiritual liberation? If we try to create too much safety, we may be lulled into a state of complacency and lack of vigilance. Too much comfort can incline to lethargy and a lack of effort. How often do we simply fall asleep when we are relaxing comfortably? When does seeking security become avoidance?
Safety and security are provided by an environment which is protected and solid. Basically, the thicker the walls the safer we feel! But this solidity is really an illusion, feeding the delusion that objects or things are actually permanent. And by assumption this illusion carries over to our view of our own body as a permanent, reliable entity. Safety and security are also supported by familiarity. However, familiarity can easily slip into blind habit, and it is habit, assisted by memory, which seduces us into believing in a permanent self structure. 'You' have seemingly consistent memories (except perhaps as you get older) and 'you' are known as the person with certain particular habits and traits. And comfort is also supported by convenience. I can conveniently get my desires and wishes fulfilled, thus re-affirming the efficiency and efficacy of self-identity. I can have all my conveniences to make my life as comfortable as possible.
The life of voluntary homelessness can help to remove, or at least limit, the effect of some of these supports for self-identity, mainly through having to develop skilful qualities not always important to people in the home life. Thus without a fixed, permanent 'home' to live in we do not feed the sense of possession, ownership or control. Our self-identity is not tied to a place and we are much freer to move to new environments as they suit our changing situation, to which we also become more sensitive. The negative side of this is that we could also become irresponsible and ungrateful for the lodgings we are offered. Thus the Buddha also laid down guidelines for the responsible use and care of communal property so that it is maintained for the benefit of future Sangha members. Also, as Ajahn Chah frequently used to point out, are we just trying to escape some unpleasant situation by constantly moving, or are we moving to find suitable places to investigate the self which is disturbed?
Not having our own fixed abode also gives the possibility to face more directly the reality of insecurity, 'Where will I find shelter? Where will I sleep tonight?' It is, of course, necessary to have some reasonable degree of safety. However, real security requires an increased degree of wisdom and vigilance. The wisdom part is knowing about possible dangers in the place where we are staying and gaining some knowledge about prevention. We can do this in two different ways: one is to gain the appropriate information and the other is through direct experience. For example, experience I encounter fairly frequently is bewilderment and confusion from losing the path down from the cave, which is often so irregular, and the light from the headlamp so focused, that within seconds I can suddenly step off the path. It is a very interesting experience to be someone who knows where they are and where they are going, and then suddenly becomes totally bewildered and disoriented. But if one does not succumb to bewilderment or its associated panic, it is fairly easy to simply stop and re-orient oneself, or take a few backward steps to where you were so confidently on the path.
Vigilance is necessary to avoid threats to safety. And of course, if we are not always in the same environment we are less likely to fall into familiar, repetitive and often mindless habits that keep re-affirming a particular self-identity. Vigilance has several sides to it. On the one hand we notice much more than we normally would, and can become hypersensitive to the environment and our own changing mind states. This heightens our awareness that everything is in constant flux, but can also heighten our sensitivity to the dangers inherent in life – one wrongly placed step can result in a fall, or a loss of mindfulness may lead to an encounter with a dangerous creature.
Every morning I usually have at least one 'snake scare', mostly minor but on a few occasions a major one, even though I can recognise most of the 'snaky roots' on the path. However, branches are continually falling, the flooding rain moves branches and leaves in new formations and sometimes the moving lamplight throws up unusual shadows. Around here snakes are the only thing to be seriously concerned about. There are also scorpions and poisonous caterpillars which can give a nasty sting, but only snakes (or a major fall) could lead to serious injury or death. There are a few 'venomous and potentially fatal' snakes in the area, but most of them are not aggressive. One needs to either harm (i.e. step on) or frighten/surprise one before it would waste its venom on a pesky (i.e. non-edible) human. It saves its venom to obtain a meal. However, there is need for a certain degree of 'snake vigilance' so as not to unmindfully harm or surprise one.
On one of my early morning journeys down from the cave, before I was familiar with the various roots, I got quite a serious fright. A black s-shaped figure with white markings suddenly came into view on the edge of my light-beam. Here a black snake with white stripes is a 'banded krait', one of the deadliest kinds of snake. I paused for a few seconds and then, noticing that the figure did not move, I stepped closer to investigate. It was a nicely curved black root and the markings (not actually stripes) were white sand splashed onto it by the rain drops. Wow, that was a new one for me!
My only actual snake encounter on the morning walks took me completely by surprise. My conditioning was to be vigilant for snakes weaving across the path. However, my close encounter was with one which was coiled up on the edge of the path waiting to strike. Also, because it takes a few milliseconds for the brain to process a visual impression into a usable perception, it took my mind a brief moment before 'snake' registered in consciousness. By this time I was already in mid-step, since I was moving quickly through the forest to keep ahead of the mosquitoes. My foot touched down millimetres from the snake's mouth, but only briefly before I leaped into the air to get clear. I stopped to check out the creature, now several metres away and was later able to identify it as a Malayan pit-viper, one of the 'venomous and potentially fatal' ones.
As I continued on my way I reflected on what I would do if I was bitten. Since this was potentially a venomous snake, I would probably just find a convenient place to sit down and meditate as I calmly passed away. However, I later read that current medical advice is to remain as calm and immobile as possible (so that the venom does not travel quickly and directly to the vital organs), yet make your way to a medical facility for treatment. I was over one kilometre from the main hall and some 40 kilometres from a hospital!
While it is necessary to establish some degree of comfort even in a temporary environment, we are not always able to establish the same level of comfort as we are used to, which our self defines as comfortable for us. Thus many times our 'comfort level' is challenged, with the result that we learn to expand it, perhaps even to levels we never imagined possible. We also learn what our own 'comfort level' is. I found, for example, that now this ageing body is not able to sit comfortably on a hard, flat surface. In most monasteries in Thailand the monks sit on thin rush mats, with no 'cushions' or zafus for support. Senior monks may be given a thicker sitting mat with a backrest, but cushions are considered only for use under the head while sleeping, and thus should not be sat upon!
Convenience is also challenged by homelessness, as we are not always able to have our preferences satisfied. A home is usually a place where we can build our own comfortable environment with every convenience, so we can constantly get whatever we want. In other words, we build an environment to suit our desires, rather than have to surrender our desires to live in the environment as it actually is.
Thus, as the Buddha recommended, living a life of homelessness can help us cultivate many useful spiritual qualities, which not only support the deeper realisation of the Buddha Dhamma of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and impersonality, but provide many benefits for dealing with life's everyday challenges. We have much more (inner, spiritual) security and comfort from developing beneficial qualities than from trying to artificially create an apparent secure and comfortable (external) environment.