|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 1999|
Passing Thoughts From a Forest
Today has been still and overcast with intermittent showers of rain. The leaves on the trees around my hut are turning brown and have already started to fall. In the first few weeks of the retreat I came to appreciate the vast variety of shades of the colour green - from the subtle paleness of bracken to the deep, full richness of moss, I noticed often what a soothing affect it has upon one's whole being. Now the various shades of brown are beginning to display themselves too, from brilliant gallows and crimsons to the more muted colours of the leaves that have fallen across my walking path path.
Of this three-month period in solitude there remain twelve days or so. One of the monks who did such a retreat last year told me that for him it began to feel a bit like a prison sentence towards the end ... another said: "That last month is a. bit of a grind." So far I haven't found this to be so, but there's still time! Of course there have bean changes in mood and a kaleidoscope of different mental states to work with, but I have kept referring back to a resolution made at the beginning of the retreat -to accept the unpleasant. Calling to mind this intention when things have turned uncomfortable or difficult has helped the mind to resist and judge less, and remember that suffering ceases through changing one's attitude towards the way things are, not in changing the things themselves. Thus loneliness turns into aloneness, boredom into quiet acceptance of inactivity and even depression and despair have a still, peaceful centre when one no longer judges or resists them. Not that it necessarily gets any easier though. For while the faculty of investigation becomes sharper, the delusions can become subtler and quite effectively camouflage themselves against recognition and acknowledgement. There always seems to be something to work with.
One doesn't look forward to retreat with a "now we'll really get down to it and get somewhere" kind of attitude, it's more of an openness to life as it unfolds.
|I was quite surprised before the retreat began by how many people asked as about it. It became apparent that they were imagining how they would cope with such a prospect. Actually I hadn't given it a great deal of thought beforehand -not nearly so much as I would have done a few years back. Solitude and inactivity was once quite a fearful prospect for me even when I had begun to meditate, for it opened the floodgates to unacknowledged fears and desires, repressed emotions and restlessness. After five years or so of practising as a member of the Sangha, some of these energies have diminished considerably. but more than this one finds less of a distinction between being *on retreat" and "not on retreat", for the way in which we are taught to approach the practice is to work with whatever is happening. Some of the most important realisations have occurred in quite stressful and busy working situations where people aren't getting on well or there are a lot of demands. So one doesn't look forward to retreat with a "now we'll really get down to it and get somewhere" kind of attitude, it's more of an openness to life as it unfolds and presents itself in the present moment. The idea of "three months" becomes just a thought which happens now, rather than a prospect to be got through. If one lives one step at a time, then "three months" will take care of itself.|
|The generous and loving support we have received over this period gives one every incentive to apply oneself and be worthy of such generosity. Three or four days a week Ajahn Amaro, Venerable Vajiro and I receive food from people living nearby, who have committed themselves to supporting us for the three months. This never fails to be a quiet and beautiful event. However, although one tries to indicate that half a bowlful will be perfectly adequate, one can sense the anxiety in our donors' faces if they are not given enough opportunity to load us up with all the things they have spent the morning lovingly preparing. Some of my disquiet about wastage was allayed though, when I noticed that wherever I threw away the-leftover rice after the meal, it was gone by the next morning. One day I was washing my bowl and leaned out of the window to tip some water away and was surprised to -see it fall on two equally surprised small brown mice, who were just beginning to tuck in to the day's leftovers. From then on I would often watch them darting out of their little holes within minutes of my putting the food down for them. It was most amusing watching a mouse deal with a long piece of spaghetti, rather like watching someone eating a telegraph pole!|
One feature of the retreat which has taken up a great deal of time and attention has been learning the Patimokkha, the monks' 227 observances, which are recited in a formal meeting every fortnight. The rains retreat is the traditional time when the Vinaya, the monastic discipline is studied and the three month period of solitude is the time chosen by many monks to undertake to learn the Patimokkha. It entails some weeks or months of sustained effort to learn by heart several thousand words of the scriptural language, so I had begun to study a little Pali some months before, in the hope of being able to actually understand what I would be chanting. This was also to try to make it more of an interesting task than the grind it became for several of the monks who have already learnt it.
|At the Outset the prospect is really quite daunting. The speed and fluency that is expected and the sheer volume of material to be learnt make one seriously doubt one's, capabilities. I had learnt a little prior to the retreat, and had seen how what starts off seeming difficult changes as one progresses; so the thing to do seemed to be to begin, go steadily and not make any plans about when to complete it. Studying the context of each rule beforehand, reading the background stories in Pali and English than going through the rule itself word by word, sentence by sentence, until it was clearly understood; seemed to prepare the mind to receive and digest it all. Venerable Suviro, who had recently learnt it himself, gave generously of his time to discuss the process Of learning and give encouragement. Gradually it began to take shape.|
This manner of retaining information by rote learning preserved the scriptures for the first few hundred years and as things continued I began to reel a sense of partaking in something ancient, profound and very precious It is because Of the efforts of thousands Of unknown individuals who, out of love and respect for the teachings, took it upon themselves to protect and preserve them, that we can still practise with them today. There are others for whom one feels gratitude-the great 5th century commentator Acariya Buddhaghosa who revived the study of Pali in Sri Lanka, and the Pali Text Society, whose pioneering efforts over the last century have made available most of the Pali Canon in English. I was in fact using translations by Ajahn Amaro's cousin - I B Horner.
After six weeks of quite concerted effort, the time came to lay aside the books and dictionaries; the 227 rules were all in place, and it remained to polish and practise them. It was also time to disengage the mind from so much thinking about things - worthy things though they had been -and turn back much more to silence, stillness, emptiness. Thoughts about the importance of Pali study, our tradition, the necessity of having a firm theoretical grounding before teaching and so on, which had all come to seem important, righteous, and real, started to fade in significance as this whole mental world which had come into being began to break up and pass away. From this I reflected again upon how interest and attention give things life, but there comes a point comes when it begins to turn compulsive - and your mental creations turn back upon and assail you with their urgency, importance and righteousness, and start demanding your attention. It's not that Pali isn't worth studying after all, but it seems right to keep a balanced perspective and treat our conventions in the same way a mountain climber would his climbing equipment -learning to understand, take care of and maintain it, but above all use it for what it's meant for, and not get caught up in taking pride in it for its own sake.
So at this point, with twelve days left, that whole episode seems like a distant dream. Has this really been two and a half months? Just a few memories remain - mostly of moments of jog in people's kindness or of mistakes made and wrong turnings taken along the way, that turned into learning experiences. The times when the mind might have been perfectly composed and still leave no trace. There's no feeling of having attained anything or got anything - learning the Patimokkha is maybe the exception, There is simply the ever-new realisation that one has arrived again at this moment, now. Was there ever. will there ever be, anything else?