Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1992

Committed to Freedom; Ajahn Thanavaro
Crossing the Green Divide; Sister Candasiri
One Day of Practice; Venerable Varado
The Life of a Forest Monk: Pt II; Luang Por Jun
Greetings from Switzerland; Venerable Jayamano
Responding to the Sick and Dying; Barry Durrant
A Light in Confinement; prison letters

Editorial; Aj. Sucitto
Down Lay-life Way; B. Jackson
Caring for the Earth; Aj. Sucitto
View from the Hill; Ven. Vipassi


One Day of Practice

Ven. Varado was one of the bhikkhus invited to spend the three months of Vassa on retreat in Hammer Wood, Chithurst, this year. Here is an account of one of his days on retreat.

Orion, the Huntsman, had marched across the pitch black of the night, and had vanished across the leafy horizon, probably many hours ago. Ursa Minor was high above my head and pointing with eternal faithfulness to Polaris, the Pole Star. Meteorites raced like tracer shells through the constellations, and satellites tracked smooth paths through the vast seas of space.

My alarm clock, having lain patiently all night above my head, bursts into sudden life at 3.30 am. From my sleeping bag, under the open sky, my hand reaches out reluctantly into the cold night air and the buzzing is stopped. Opening my eyes, my first view of the new day is of the infinite cosmos. The light show to end all light shows. Stars beaming through light years of space. And as I listen - nothing. Not a breath of wind. Not a chirp. Not a rustle to be heard. The orchestra of the forest, now, at this early hour, completely still. And how blissful it is to be able to lie for just a few more minutes in the midst of all this.

But the proddings of conscience don't let me lie long; soon I burst forth from the warm cocoon and hurriedly roll my bedding into the forest tipi, stepping gingerly round tree stumps and odd half-burnt pieces of log.

It takes twenty minutes on a good run to reach the monastery, and morning chanting. Racing down steep inclines and down, down to the very depths of the forest. My torch light picks out the bright white domes of toadstools scattered over the forest floor, poking through last year's autumn leaves. And just to stand for a few minutes. Oh! The dark trees are silhouetted high against the starlit sky, and all around the penetrating deep, deep silence. And in that instant even thought stops, suspending for a moment its relentless commentary.

As a teaching it is as old as the hills. In application it illuminates with mind-bending freshness.

At midday in Captain's Wood [part of Hammer Wood], the burning sun, high in a clear blue sky, beats mercilessly down upon my freshly shaven head. The sweet chestnut coppice all round me has grown to above head height now. Innumerable crickets, large and small, rejoicing in the high summers day screech out love's message. Chestnut leaves glint and shimmer in the warm breeze.

Sabbe sankhara anicca
Yad aniccam tam dukkham
Yad dukkham tad anatta
Yad anatta tam netam mama,
nesoham asmi, meso attati.

All conditions are impermanent
That which is not permanent is not happiness
That which is not happiness is not a self
That which is not a self, is not me, is not mine,
is not myself.

This ancient enigma goaded me frequently during the retreat. As a teaching it is as old as the hills. In application it illuminates with mind-bending freshness. That which we have unknowingly manipulated and reacted to, turns out to be really nothing. Like a dead leaf. A lost cause.

Around me, birds chatter and chase in and out of the chestnut bushes. Dragonflies on seek-and-destroy missions hum relentlessly up and down, and then swoop suddenly, to land on a rotten branch or a stone, and gently bathe their outstretched wings in the sun.

High overhead and to the south two crows were badgering a kestrel. In appearance crows are so ugly, in flight so completely graceless and their incessant cawing is a brutality in the serenity of the forest. The kestrel seemed hardly to notice his aggressors and, again and again, swept easily out of their reach.

'There is, monks, this one way to the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and distress, for the disappearance of pain and sadness, for the gaining of the right path, for the realisation of Nibbana - that is to say the four foundations of mindfulness. What are the four foundations of mindfulness? Here, monks, a monk abides contemplating body-in-body, feeling-in-feeling, mind-in-mind, dhamma-in-dhamma, ardent, clearly aware and mindful, having put aside hankering and fretting for the world.'

I walk up and down visualising the bony white skeleton; the dull red flesh; the sticky, bright red blood; the green viscous bile; the long tendons in the arms and legs; and in the head a brain the colour and texture of blancmange.

Slowly the light changes, and harsh blue turns slowly red and orange. Blackbirds squabble and screech with great excitement. For them nightfall is some kind of emergency: a hurried scramble to find the best bunk for the night.

Soon dark shapes zigzag silently through the evening sky. Bats! Scooping up the pestering midges. And then owls begin their triumphant hooting, calling each other to secret rendezvous.

Night falls like mortality, dropping like death. Why do I take it so deeply to heart? Reflect! Look at the pain. Each day is impermanent. That which is impermanent is not happiness. That which is not happiness is not me. Ah! That's it! Nothing has changed, but inwardly peace has burst a bubble of despair.

In my tipi two candles burn lopsidedly beside the makeshift shrine. Along the canvas earwigs scour the place for food. Outside, I can hear mice scuttling in dry leaves. Through the moonlit forest, perhaps no-one hears my Bhaddekaratta-gatha*

The past should not be followed after,
The future not desired.
What is past is got rid of and
The future has not come.
But whoever has vision now here,
Now there, of a present thing,
Knowing that it [the vision] is immovable, unshakable,
Let him cultivate it.
Swelter at the task this very day.
Who knows whether he will die tomorrow?
There is no bargaining with the great hosts of Death.
Thus abiding ardently, unwearied day and night,
He indeed is 'Auspicious' called,
Described as a sage at peace.

*From the Bhaddekaratta ('One Day of Practice' ) Sutta, Middle Length Sayings [vol. III] 131.