Forest Sangha Newsletter October 1996

Who We Really Are; Ajahn Sumedo
Sutta Class: Punna & Papa; Venerable Asabho
Right Effort: Making It Work; Ajahn Siripanna
Going Forth - From Three Insiders
Sharing the Blessings; Venerable Thanuttaro
The Dalai Lama at the Barbican; Ajahn Sobhano
High on Black Turtle; Yatiko Bhikkhu
Sign of Change:


High on Black Turtle
Venerable Yatiko writes from the Thai forest on the struggles and serenity that can be found in one of the last unspoilt areas in the region.

It's 5.45 a.m., the morning after the Uposatha, and though much of the past two hours have been spent watching bizarre Wun Phra morning hallucinations, and trying to be mindful of 'I'm nodding, I'm nodding', the immediate past thirty minutes have been strangely bright and blissful. Suddenly, I hear the birds enthusiastically break the silence with their morning music. After a few moments of indulging in this refreshing clarity, I slowly open my eyes. The meditation hall in which we spent the night is situated on the top of a mountain; it is open walled on three sides. Before us spreads a panoramic view of a wide mountain range covered by some of the last remaining virgin rain forest in Thailand; there are no villages to be seen, no sounds of civilization to be heard. Nestled in the valley floors are some low-lying clouds, making the mountains and the morning stillness feel all the more mystical. I'm inspired now. Reflecting on my good fortune, I look around me and see the other monks sitting, facing the sunrise. We all put forth effort last night. We tried hard and now it feels good. 'Cause and effect', I think to myself. Struck with a sense of devotion, I think of the Buddhas' words: Rightly speaking were it to be said of someone, "A being not subject to delusion has appeared in the world, for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and humans." It is of me indeed, that rightly speaking it should be said. For that alone I'm fortunate.

Dtow Dum [Black Turtle] is the Thai name for a forest region along the Thai-Burmese border, in the province of Kanchanaburi. Running north-south with the border is a mountain range spanning several hundred kilometres which, only a few decades ago was rich with dense rain forest and full of wildlife. In fact, almost all of Thailand was once so forested but today, after a few decades of hungry tree-chopping, the virgin forests are nearly all gone with only a few pockets of them scattered around the country still remaining. Dtow Dum is one of them.
When the mind is a bit bored, tired of its meditation object; when a few hours of walking and sitting have aroused little joy or interest, it can become quite convincing that to be unconscious would be a serious improvement on one's state of well-being.

We arrived as a group at Dtow Dum some six weeks ago. We set off not far from Kanchanaburi city on foot and did a three day tudong (walking expedition), which served as a sort of pre-retreat ritual - a time to let go of responsibilities and the routine at Wat Pah Nanachat, and to reflect on the time ahead and how we should use it. Having been here twice before, I knew what to expect: a huge forest, miles from civilization; tall old trees, bears, elephants, tigers, snakes, winding streams, winding paths; no chores, no group schedule, and lots of time to oneself. In short, a perfect opportunity to cultivate formal meditation practice.

Each of us has been given a small diang [little knee-high bamboo beds] in the forest, over which we hang our glots [mosquito net umbrellas] and fly sheets. A small area has been cleared around our diangs and a jonggrom path has been levelled out for walking meditation. A stream, along which all our residences are dotted, flows through the forest; it serves for bathing and washing.

The animals in the forest make their presence known just enough to remind us that our life here shouldn't be taken for granted. Over the years there have been many bear encounters, and one monk saw a wild cat wrestling with a barking deer. So far this year, we've had one monk chased up a tree by a wild bear, and another monk came back to his diang one day only to find a family of elephants bathing peacefully in the stream. Although the animals seem to prefer to keep to themselves, their presence is a tangible reality and rare is the night that goes by without hearing some leaves rustle in the forest, and the thought crossing through the mind, "What was that!" It certainly helps to take death reflections away from being mere abstract possibilities.
So, having arrived at Dtow Dum, I was well aware of what a special situation it was. How could I use it wisely? How could I use this time in such a way that the Buddha would approve of my efforts? I sincerely wanted to pour all I could into cultivating the Path, yet I wanted to proceed in such a way that wouldn't lead me to that particular despair which always seems lying in wait for one given to ambition - worldly or spiritual. The day of our departure Ajahn Pasanno gave a short reflection, in which he said casually and with a smile, "Go to Dtow Dum and see how refined the mind can get." For the first fortnight I would often call to mind these balanced words. The casual air with which they were spoken remained with me, and helped me to proceed with a light touch. So the first few weeks went by on something of a high for me. Inspired by the natural setting, the peace of the forest seemed to impress itself quite spontaneously on the mind. As must happen however, the inspiration phase passed and the nitty-gritty of facing the days in solitude began to show itself.

One of the main hindrances that can come up for many of us here is sloth and torpor. With distractions down to a minimum, frustrations are most easily avoided by just crashing out. When the mind is a bit bored, tired of its meditation object; when a few hours of walking and sitting have aroused little joy or interest, it can become quite convincing that to be unconscious would be a serious improvement on one's state of well-being. It doesn't, of course, solve the problem, but this isn't immediately obvious, and a habit of over-sleeping can slowly creep into one's daily routine. But we trudge on, trying to see an attack of sleepiness as impermanent, and reaping the benefits - both in terms of insight and contentment - when we succeed.

If we had been living out here isolated as hermits, devoid of external feedback, we would have had only ourselves on whom to rely for an honest reflection of how things are going. But the individual who can do that is rare indeed, and this is where kalayanamitta (spiritual companions) can prove to be so invaluable. Accordingly, our group agreed to have discussion sessions on Uposatha nights, to share where we were at, to relate skilful means that we have found useful to each other, and to address issues that can creep up in group situations that some of us may feel are causing a particularly strong block in our practice.
Ajahn Samvaro played the role of facilitator, and guided us through discussions on various issues. A major theme was how to use different skilful means in cultivating metta for ourselves and others. We also related ideas on how to find profound emotional satisfaction through the monastic form and through meditation, and discussed fears that some of us had. Some of us had to work with fear from living in the wild forest, others found that the solitude could amplify social fears, and others were working with doubts over their basic ability to make this practice work. We could see how we all had some difficulties, and that we'd have to find the humility of heart to admit them to ourselves, and the courage of faith to face that which truly must be faced. Coming together like this, we could see how universal fear and doubt is, and also, more importantly, how others have faced and dealt with them. We could draw on their creativity, determination and patience, and reflect that we are not alone; we have noble friends who have been there and seen it through, and are progressing confidently on the Path.

During our time here at Dtow Dum, a balance seems to have been struck. In solitude we find the time to develop the path of training, to develop a calm mind and body, and to investigate deeply our experience of life. While in the group there is the time to nourish our aspirations, to encourage each other, to cultivate awareness in group sittings and to remind ourselves of the task at hand. And in all this, to trust that a powerful seed is being planted whose value we can hardly fathom, whose fruits may touch and nourish this world in ways we can't presently imagine, a seed whose goodness may keep rippling out to the world long after these original impulses to purification were conceived.

There are two weeks left now before we all head back to Wat Pah Nanachat; two weeks to make good use of the space and simplicity of the Dtow Dum forest. It applies to me here as it applies to everyone reading this: Now is the time. Now is the time to make all I can out of the conditions that are before me. Soon I'll be back at Wat Pah Nanachat where there are different things to focus on and different things to appreciate. Now, I have the day before me. I am in good health and good spirits. I am amongst good people. Again, words of the Master come to mind: "Bhikkhus, what should be done for his disciples out of compassion by a master who seeks their welfare and has compassion (on them), that I have done for you. There are these roots of trees, these empty huts. Develop meditation, bhikkhus, do not delay lest you later regret it. This is my message to you."