|Forest Sangha Newsletter||July 1993|
Barely four weeks ago I have left a smoky canvas-tipi in Hammer wood and the atmosphere of a patch of young chestnuts, hemmed in by oaks and a few pines on three sides and the low dramatic skies over the valley; there I have spent the weeks of autumn. Thinking back on it now, the memories are already accompanied by a dreamlike sense of unreality. Four months ago, during the first days of my retreat in the forest, I remember having felt the same when trying to recall my previous two years at Amaravati, with its people, its scenery and activities. The equal sense of reality both situations held for me at different times has evaporated from the memory and seems unthinkable now.
Time is a bewildering perception; it hinges upon a strange process of the mind carefully forgetting and remembering its own old and already edited experiences. The forgetting seems almost more important than the recalling: the sense of "I" as a subject of experience can only arise through the discreetly forgotten self-contradictions this very "I" constantly undergoes.
Tan Varado, who was offered the privileged hut for his retreat, generously decided that we should share it both and each take a six week turn in using it, the other six weeks we would use the wigwam. Life in the forest has its own rhythms. After a few days the metabolism and sleeping pattern adjust and the senses begin to sharpen in a new and unfamiliar setting. Ear and nose suddenly play a more important part when living without artificial light and for most of the day far from people and traffic. The different sounds of an environment shared with a surprising amount of creatures, the scent of pine trees in a hot summer afternoon, or, at dusk, while walking along a familiar footpath, the sudden wealth of smells - all seems of an unprecedented immediacy and freshness.
To reduce for some time all unnecessary interaction and devote oneself to very few activities in the physical solitude of a forest is in itself a healing experience.
Our sense faculties are so often dulled by the massive sensory impact unavoidable in urbanized living and through the routine of domesticated lifestyles - including the monastic one. The suttas tirelessly suggest the sense faculties as the basis of the Buddha's teaching on how to learn to reflect properly on our situation, but to actually try this with our strained senses can seem strangely unreal. We don't really expect to find the truly important stuff by contemplating how mind and senses work amidst the tedium of ordinary life. But not everybody gets hit off his horse and blinded on his way to Damascus, not every insight is accompanied by a showering of mandarava flowers and the quaking of all the world systems - even a short change of habitat can do wonders, make us look anew at the seemingly obvious or insignificant bits of our experience and help us out of ruts by bringing patterns to our attention that we would not have noticed before.
To reduce for some time all unnecessary interaction and devote oneself to very few activities in the physical solitude of a forest is in itself a healing experience, given the pace of most of our lives. For a meditation retreat a more ideal situation seems hardly conceivable: the space granted by the community, the forest, the support of several lay people who offered to feed us in the manner of a traditional almsround. Under those circumstances, my life quickly fell into retreat mode, in fact, it did so with an almost uncanny ease. I was stunned at the sheer beauty and the pleasure of simply meditating and living on retreat in a little hut under the blue sky over West Sussex woods. At first my enjoyment seemed too unabashed, and it took days until I could relax into being what felt shamelessly happy.
I had determined two things for my stay in the woods: to learn whether it was possible to trust myself deeper and be more of my own friend rather than being my judge - irrespective of what was going to happen; secondly, I planned to practice reciting the monks' Rule.
Despite the early daybreaks, most of my days began nightly: to be out of the forest and down at the monastery for the 4.30 am puja meant leaving the little hut on the hill while the chestnuts were still bathed in moonlight. Nothing matches the complete stillness of the forest at that time - even the last animal has finished its hunt or search for food; the silence of all things in the streaming moonlight touches the heart. After a few minutes of awe I rush down the slope through the fern and the low branches to make my way into the monastery. Once down on the road, the crickets' song awaits me unfailingly; all night they sing, and even the first frosts in late October don't stop them. The puja with the community is followed by meditation and a short seminar on our discipline; after that I returned to the woods and spent the rest of the day meditating and practising the recitation of our rule.
The days were flitting by and time seemed to run through my fingers like sand through children's hands. The summer was hot, the skies unfailingly high and blue - and after a short time, anything else seemed unthinkable. I began to feel a bit strange, almost disappointed by the lightness of my being. I had prepared myself for meaningful, existential anguish - but not this lightness and the cosy, boy-scoutish delights of forest-living. After all, I knew I wasn't enlightened and rather than wasting my precious retreat by basking in some fake conditioned happiness, this was clearly the time of getting on with the real business. I felt trivial in my ease and started seriously questioning the validity of what I thought I was practising. Was not the Buddha's teaching all about suffering and how to end it? Clearly, my persisting happiness could only mean that I kept insisting on delusion. The days passed and the questions kept coming back, yet the sense of enjoyment didn't fade and stayed with me. Slowly and incredulously, I felt my curiosity turning towards this voice which wasn't happy with me being happy.
It became evident, that I did not understand what was happening. I simply couldn't make sense of it. Yet vaguely I sensed that a change was working itself out and that I could only fail at understanding something which seemed to alter the very way of my understanding. The first wild cherry trees began to change colour and I moved into the wigwam. I kept asking myself whose expectations it was that my experience didn't live up to. It became obvious that I didn't find anybody I could seriously believe in. A contemporary Christian monastic insisted that one of the first things we needed to accept about our lives was the evident impossibility of giving everything a clear and definitive meaning. There are many more things we don't understand than there are we do - so obvious and, at once, so easily forgotten. I felt this to be true in a deeper sense than ever before. So, was our urge to be meaningful that which we use to assemble our vague initial notions into a solid self? Or was it the already fledged self-process that was in need of meaning and purpose simply to legitimate and maintain itself? I could not say. It slowly dawned on me that I needed to learn how to simply say, "I don't understand, I don't know what is going on here", and feel that this was alright, however imperfect, yet perfectly all right.
To a Venerable Tree
While living in the forest at Wat Pah Nanachat, my home was a bamboo platform near a huge ancient tree ...
Sitting beneath your boughs
and above your roots,
Breathing in and breathing out -
Your presence is strong
When engulfed by
forest nightmare sounds -
You are a refuge
drifting through boundless space -
You ground me
When fiery pulses
throb through the body and beyond -
Your presence cools
When flowing with a river -
You become an anchor
Sitting beneath your boughs
and above your roots,
Breathing in and breathing out -
You magnify the knowing
I learnt to live in my new home and began to appreciate the ancient intelligence behind the simple wood and canvas structure. Tipis are sophisticated dwellings and the people who developed them had a tremendous practical understanding of Nature and how best to co-operate with it. Once set up, and after some initial learning of how to negotiate the elements of wind, wood, fire and the occasional shower, it is possible to live very comfortably - after all, these wigwams were designed to withstand the winters of North America's Plains. The tipi in these weeks became the symbol of a spiritual sanctuary; I realized that it was very nearly halfway between the cult-caves of palaeolithic man and the medieval cathedrals: a few precariously perched posts on the ground, covered with canvas and held together with two ropes and some strings, one seemed to enter it through the doorhole as if one entered the earth itself - just to find oneself with a single step suddenly in the twilight of a perfect canvas-shaped dome. A wigwam protects efficiently against wind and weather, yet despite even the open fire in the hearth, one is never really very far from what's on the other side of the canvas: light, sounds and small creatures travel easily; the skin which divides the inside and the outside is a thin one. I thought that this was a symbol of where 20th-century man needed to return to on his spiritual journey: not to the magical caves and the innards of the great Mother, nor to the Gothic grandeur of a fatherly God's cathedral, but to this vulnerable and holy space between the few posts and some canvas, to the perfect mandala where the inside and the outside, where self and other seemed to intersect.
The Buddha's Teaching on change is often enough taught and understood as the frailty of all we love and cherish, the fickleness of all our securities and the grim imminence of our own undoing: Cronos with hour-glass and sickle, the reaper with his scythe - the images are familiar. There is another aspect to it all. We are not just mortal by the law of change - we are also alive by its power. Change is not only not the final threat to life but it's the very basis for living. If our organism decided to stop changing, stopped maybe just a few of its continual metabolic exchanges - say, stopped burdening those wretched red corpuscles in our lungs with fresh oxygen on their outward journey after just having cleared the poor things from CO2 after coming in, to give them a bit of a break - the effect on our lives would be vital, and pretty soon lethal. (One of the problems of our afflicted ozone layer is precisely that CFC's don't change - did they break down at a faster rate, they would be far less threatening to our atmosphere.)
Our world of experience and its perceptions work on the basis of change. The senses pick up their impressions in terms of differences and comparisons: a lasting sound at the same pitch very quickly fails to be registered; smells which fill the room we enter - and which delight or insult us - we will be completely unaware of after even a few moments; visual stimuli unmovingly stared at, we literally lose sight of within a minute or two. We need things changing to become aware of them: melody, the interval of sounds and silences; the intensity, the contrasts and tones in light which teach us to appreciate colour; the before and after of a mood or situation; the differences of position by which we recognise movement; the stretching out of an arm to become aware of gravity; and most of all our ideas and the whole of our inner life, which we keep comparing with the memory or the fantasy of a happiness other than the one now: all experience, all of what we call life implies change. And seen in this light, change suddenly looks more like a cosmic grace than the linchpin of man's suffering.
The days and weeks go by; it seems difficult to measure up insight or understanding - a lot of retreat experiences often don't fit into an understandable pattern. Once more I realise that I have not learnt to answer most of the questions which haunt the heart. But instead of frantically trying to resolve them, the heart almost imperceptibly has learned to live with them a little more patiently, a little less compulsively, a little more gracefully. In a beautifully strange way, the sign of a good authentic question seems to be that very fact: there is no resolution to it - the resolution to it has to be lived, not stated; lived continually in every moment of our lives in full awareness and acknowledgment of all imperfection and yet complete surrender to the perfection of the suchness of that very moment.
All that seems so unresolved and inconclusive about my life only detracts from the fact that the mind's insistence to create coherence of experience is yet another attempt to continue creating the existence of a protagonist in the play of this life.
The forest teaches me a reality different to my habitual one. After a while, the mind calms down in a natural way: there is nothing much excessively stimulating; almost everything teaches one to listen, to quieten down, to tread softly. Meditation, I became convinced, must be as old as man is: the circling of a hawk, the stare of an owl, the motionless presence of an adder seem to speak of it. As I have learned that the silence under an ash is not the same as under a yew (however meaningless the attempt to describe such a difference or even name an ash 'an ash' and the yew 'a yew'), so the first people must have learnt that all sound emerges from silence, all movement from stillness, all reality of things from a reality which has no need of things any more: the message of the Unconditioned that underpins the whole tapestry of phenomena rings through and resounds in all things.