|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 1996|
The Retreat of Light
For several years, since 1988 I have always found myself either managing or leading the Winter Retreats at Amaravati or Chithurst, and consequently have had little time for kaya viveka ( physical solitude). Although I knew I could just soldier on regardless with teaching and administrative duties both at Amaravati and here in America, I also felt a distinct hungering in the heart for a breather from immersion in human contact.
One of the members of the Sanghapala Foundation, Daniel Barnes, had a very suitable retreat site for us to use, and California seemed to be a good place for such a retreat. Firstly, it would provide several bhikkhus an opportunity to practise in seclusion; and secondly, providing the Buddhist community of California with the chance to take part in a more classical form of forest monastic life - rather than just going to listen to Dhamma talks in the city, or participating in retreats at local venues.
The monks all lived separately from each other at one end of the 170 acre property - each of us tucked away in our own little gulley - three of us had large dome-tents; Ajahn Thanavaro used a caravan that was already on the site. We met once a day for the alms-round up to the cook-house; other than that we were left quite alone to pursue our meditation practice. On the lunar quarters we would gather up at the shrine room (it was a mongolian yurt actually), and spend the night in meditation and Dhamma discussion together. On the full and new moon days the four bhikkhus would gather together at my tent and we would recite the Patimokkha.
Nature teaches in a very direct way, earthy in her lessons. If we could only listen to her we could learn a lot.
The retreat site, known as Bell Springs Hermitage, was at 3,800 feet; and commanded spectacular views over the local countryside in all directions. Throughout the retreat the weather was very kind to us (it can get extremely vicious up here) and we enjoyed still, bright days and clear nights most of the time. Often the sea-fog would roll in from the west and fill the valleys below us with an ocean of undulating pearl; somehow we were almost always high enough to be above it, and could look down across the new white landscape from sunlit heights. In the last month of the Rains there have also been strange and beautiful atmospheric effects almost daily: coloured haloes around the sun and the moon, and even a white rainbow - two days running.
In entering upon such an open period of time there is always the question: "What should I do?" I had no special aims in mind with regard to meditation practice, however, I did wish to make some use of the time to go more deeply into the Sutta Teachings. Studying the scriptures in such an environment had a profound effect. I often found the mind full of sheer delight in the genius and clarity of the Buddha's wisdom, and a profound love and gratitude for him and the legacy he bequeathed to those of us who have come after. This sense of vandana entered into many areas, and I found that simply chanting, 'Namo Tassa ...' could bring tremendous joy - the delight of revering the Holy.
There were also a few future projects and plans in the air for the time following the retreat - a book, completed, but stalled at the printers; travel to Asia with Luang Por Sumedho over the winter; the gift of land in Redwood Valley - so towards the end, I made a particular point of meditating on desirelessness: both to witness the beauty of the mind when no desire is present, and also to enter into that place of faith that does not need the future to be formulated in any way.
When we arrived here it quickly became apparent that we were coming to a place that was already occupied - being such a remote location (13 miles down a dirt road) the land had many animals and birds either living on it or passing through. One of the most common sights for all of us was that of a mother deer and her fawn grazing at dusk and dawn, and even by the brightness of the moon - they became so used to us that they no longer ran away but would carry on happily eating nearby; finding what nourishment they could in the moss on the oak trees and the tired summer grasses, or crunching on the multitude of acorns littering the ground.
We also found stone chips dropped from the shaping of tools and, on one occasion, an arrowhead - remnants of the previous human occupation. Ven. Sugato (formerly an archeologist) reckoned it to be about 900 years old. Such findings would evoke a strong sense of the simplicity of those lives and the culture of those who had lived here peacefully for hundreds of generations, before the white man came.
It was something of an act of faith to set it up like this - deliberately arranged without any formal teachings - and it was very gladdening to see the positivity of the response of the Buddhist community; those who came were not coming to 'get' anything, but simply for the opportunity to give and to help. Every weekend, 2, 3 or 4 people would make the long drive up from the Bay Area - many of them 'city folks', not used to country ways or the lack of stimulation. No electricity, the 20 mile drive to the nearest town, the feeling of remoteness and the apparent dangers of the dark were difficult for some, (somewhat ironic for folks coming from towns where rape, muggings and drive-by shootings are not uncommon!). But, in the end, people were enormously grateful for the chance to be away from the speediness of urban life and for the opportunity to practise meditation in such a beautiful sanctuary for a while.
upon the drum
in gentle scurries
down my walls.
Already the fawn
My sixteenth Rains Reteat is closing tonight with a beautiful full moon. The sun has brightened our days for the last three months, so in fact this Vassa will remain in my memory as the retreat of light. It has been a very valuable time, in that it has provided me with a precious opportunity to rest from the increasing pressures of life, both offering teachings to a fast growing lay Buddhist community and also as Abbot of Santacittarama Vihara in Italy. The many days and nights spent in meditation and solitude in this beautiful natural surrounding had a very healing effect on the heart, allowing me to get in touch with my emotions and to explore difficult areas of my life with a greater capacity for self-reflective awareness. It has been a time for bringing in the harvest of my efforts, and for gathering the strength to step out into the world with a compassionate heart once more. As with the seasons of nature, our spiritual life goes in cycles following a pattern of achievement, rest and contemplation.
Ajahn Chandapalo's and Tan Jutindharo's willingness to take care of things in my absence allowed me to offer support to Ajahn Amaro. Although we had not spent much time together during the past 12 years, we both felt a strong bond of friendship, having spent our first four years of monastic life sharing the same room at Chithurst and Harnham. Knowing very little about where and how the retreat would happen, I trusted that things would work out. In all respects my faith in the benevolence of the universe was well founded. In spite of various organisational problems the retreat was well set up and ready to start by the time we arrived.
The morning fog rising from the valley and disappearing into the air gave me an insight into the insubstantial nature of all things. The innumerable grasshoppers mating in the fields under the warm sun urged me to overcome lust once and for all. Almost stepping on a rattlesnake reminded me of my impending death. The fear of being attacked by a bear or being sprayed by a skunk at night allowed me to notice my identification with the body. Nature teaches in a very direct way, earthy in her lessons. If we could only listen to her we could learn a lot. Visiting the Redwoods on the day of my 40th birthday felt like entering into a cathedral for a religious service. The tall trees, more than 100 meters high, were the perfect columns of a church roof.
What sadness reflecting on the ecological disaster of our age! One day the sky was overcast with the smoke of a fire. 12,000 acres of a nearby wildlife sanctuary were burnt due to the negligence of some campers who left their fire unattended. A moment of heedlessness can destroy the entire planet just as a moment of anger can burn up the benefit of many weeks of spiritual practice. The opportunity to be silent for most of the time and to relax breathing deeply the fresh mountain air enabled me to dissolve any accumulated tensions and anxieties. In the acknowledgement of my own loneliness and grief, I embraced countless sentient beings with a boundless heart. Looking at the dry grass moved by the wind I asked, "Where is this force that moves the universe coming from?" I did not get a reply from the wind and I did not force my mind to find an answer. To want to end the suffering of birth, ageing, sickness and death requires courage. To want the truth without love is a kind of arrogance. To learn humility is to die in love. As a traveller on the way on this trackless mountain-top looking down at the heart- shaped hill in the valley below, I found out that the earth cares if we respect her. I have benefitted from the life lived in simplicity and in nature and in the unsurpassed Dhamma. I once again took refuge vowing to walk the Path of the Buddha.
HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION