Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1996

Don't Get Off The Train; Ajahn Thanavaro
Vision and Focus; Sister Thanasanti
Saving Forests; Nick Scott interviews Ajahn Pasanno
The Retreat of Light; Reflections from California
Sutta Class: Morals & Ethics; Ajahn Thiradhammo
The Open Road; Sister Candasiri
Signs of Change:


The Retreat of Light

For the first time, Ajahn Amaro and 3 other bhikkhus of our samvasa have spent the three months rains retreat together in California. Here they give some of their impressions.

Ajahn Amaro:
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.
Tumbling oak-children
upon the drum
my roof.
Smaller seeds
in gentle scurries
down my walls.

Already the fawn
has lost
the sun dapplings
of infancy

One summer
gone already.

Ajahn Thanavaro:
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.

Venerable Sugato:
Living simply in tents drawing water from a spring, and subsisting on one meal a day has been a powerful way to reconnect with the earth that sustains us. Having little or no formal schedule and so much time and space for solitude affects the mind in very positive ways. It is easy to relax in such surroundings and for awe and wonder to be a common disposition. Quite naturally the senses open up and you become more alert and aware of what is happening both internally and externally. Peace is never very far away.
    At night, the silence and brilliance of the stars made palpable a stillness and presence beyond all words. Gazing up at the stars and learning my way around the various constellations helped expand and broaden the mind to a sense of vastness and marvel. In that space it is possible to drop our worries and fears and preoccupation with self and to feel unabashedly connected and involved with the process of life and all its mysteries.
    Our support has been generous and bountiful in many ways; our situation has been superb for practice and we are grateful to have had such an opportunity. Now we're all wondering where we can sign up for the next one.

Venerable Khemarato:
The first impression was one of the struggle of the mind to adjust to a new environment and conditions. I could observe a kind of 'hang-over' in the first week of the retreat. Memories of previous encounters would flush through the mind, and the separation from dear ones brought up a sense of longing. Then there were the adjustments to the physical surroundings - we are not allowed to use any candles - which limits the times for walking meditation for example, and generally letting a suitable routine establish itself.
    To live in nature like this brings us closer again to our connectedness with it, and we become a part of the place that we are living in. Little by little for example the deer are accepting more and more our presence here; very often we share the same paths, that wind along the slopes following a direction which nature dictates by the shapes and forms of that terrain. The weather, wind and clouds or 'my' mind are all inter-connected aspects of nature. When the mind settles down by letting go of the past and the future (to some extent) and relaxes into the present moment, it naturally becomes joyful and delights in being closer again to its own pure essence. The concept of self dissolves into a feeling of oneness with nature. Whenever feelings of loneliness come up and they are not associated with any dear ones, then it becomes obvious that this deep longing we carry in us is for overcoming the sense of separatedness and to find our way home to this oneness.
    Remembering some words from a Chinese master:
Whatever is spoken of, is not true; and whatever is true, that cannot be spoken of.

Mark Bullock:
Together with Greg Scharff, Mark was there in support of the Sangha and offers this account of their vassa retreat:

Or, (For the English reader)
by Mark Bullock (aged 51 1/2)
    I went to a Buddhist Retreat called the Vassa or 'Rains Retreat' for three months this year in Bell Springs Hermitage. Sometimes we called the place "Bell Springs Bed and Breakfast" or the "Bell Springs Motel" because lots of people came there at the weekends.
    It was a kind of camp but I didn't stay in a tent like the others. I stayed in a camper. My friend Greg and I helped take care of four monks and everything else there. People called him the "Vassa Captain". I don't know what they called me. We cooked food (I like lasagne), pumped water, cut wood, answered the telephone, and worked really hard.
    We got to be country people at Bell Springs Hermitage. The city people came and visited us. They brought food and other things. They were very funny and very busy. They had many special needs and hidden disabilities, like having to eat and sleep at all times of the day and being afraid of the dark and the sounds of nature. They talked a lot, always saying how beautiful it was and asking what we did all day. They thanked us all the time too and said we were making lots of merit.
    We didn't play any sports or go swimming or listen to music. We didn't have any campfires either, but we did get roast marshmallows from the wood-burning stove on the last night. We sat and walked and listened to the wind and the trees and looked at the stars and watched all the critters. We had a rattlesnake, a frog, some skunks, some deer, and lots of different kinds of birds around. We caught three mice and took them to live a few miles away. We also saw a bear, a bob- cat, a coyote, rabbits and other animals. I liked watching the grasshoppers and lizards.
    The weather was beautiful almost every day. Sometimes it was cold and windy and foggy, but it never rained (just like Ajahn Thanavaro predicted). I don't know why they call it the 'rains'. I think it was some kind of joke.
    I had lots of fun and I hope that my mother and my sister let me go again next year.

The End