|Forest SanghaNewsletter||October 1997|
Living in Faith
Nuns on Tudong in England
Extracts from Sister Jitindriya's letter to friends and family about herfive weeks of walking from Amaravati to Hartridge Monastery in Devon...
The journey wasn't all inspirational by anymeans. In concept and theory and in philosophical retrospect ... yes, perhaps... but the nitty gritty of it at times was quite challenging ... physically,mentally and emotionally, but then that is what this kind of walk (tudong) isall about. It's a kind of stripping away of the usual 'comfort zones' thatone can retreat into, so as to contemplate the sense of insecurity that isthus laid bare in the face of the unknown ... They are a monastic practice,intended to help deepen mindfulness, to cultivate a heart of faith, and todevelop qualities such as patient endurance, equanimity and gratitude. It'salso true to say that generally they are undertaken with great enthusiasm asan opportunity to get out the monastery for a while and enjoy life in nature!... Always moving on is helpful; not going backwards or hanging on to what'sgone before. Also not knowing what's to come, but knowing only each step asit is and constantly seeing all imagined futures to be pure projection,things unfolding never as expected.
... Even on the last day of our walk webattled with low energy and fatigue. Perhaps it was an accumulation oftiredness as there were many nights with little sleep because of either cold,discomfort, throbbing feet, exhaustion, or all of it! It might sound ratherhorrible as you read this but actually, it was all right. It was just how itwas and there was no alternative to be had so although not particularlypleasant, it was all good stuff to practise with. We were never in any danger.
Much of the time, despite the difficulties,a certain kind of ease or quiet joy could be detected in the heart ... injust the simplicity of it all, not having to think too much, being'unburdened' (bar the weight of the pack), and wandering as we were. It wasgood not to have any planned rendezvous which meant we didn't have to stressourselves out in covering miles or making deadlines that inevitably becomedifficult to meet. We could rest when we needed to, and move on when we wereready.
... For me, and I think for all of us, thealms-rounds were the high points of our walk. It's so powerful to receivepeople's generosity in this way (especially in Western countries) ... such atouching and poignant reflection in that simple interaction for both giverand receiver, and a deep and strong sign in the psyche of the path and fruitof the religious life. The feelings of gratitude and blessing that can wellup within one in those moments are 'other-worldly' and feel quitetransformative. Memories of those who offered us hospitality in various formswould often come to mind at later times bringing again warm feelings ofgratitude and a deep sincere well-wishing towards them.
... it's not so easy to learn to 'receive' whole-heartedly andunconditionally.
|It was remarkable that people in these places were so keen to help us. Theyweren't particularly Buddhist or even knew that we were much of the time.They were just kind, thoughtful folk, all too happy to give. Most tried tooffer us money at first but we would gently explain that our monastic ruledid not allow us to accept or use money. This always amazed people ... somecould not fathom it, others apologised, and some even tried to convince usthat it was all right to take their money. Almost always people would comeback with food, once they had understood what our almsbowls were for.|
Much of the time, despite the difficulties,a certain kind of ease or quiet joy could be detected in the heart...in justthe simplicity of it all.
Being Westerners and not living within aBuddhist culture however, this practice of almsround can feel quite uneasy atfirst. Having been brought up with ideas about being independent andself-sufficient, pulling your own weight, not being a drain on society andall that, and with most of us coming from a rather middle class background,to actually stand there with our bowls, defenceless, open to whatever ... canfeel quite embarrassing at first, it's not so easy to learn to 'receive'whole-heartedly and unconditionally.
... We spent about three days and nightsaround Dartmoor, staying with friends on two nights, both in beautiful, magicplaces, and camped out for one night. That particular morning we sat aroundour camp-fire savouring a warm cup of tea in the middle of nowhere, quietlytaking in the misty landscape of the moors, when suddenly over the hillcharged an army squadron of about forty young men in full combat gear, packson their back and machine gun under arm, their commanding officer loudly androughly urging them on. They looked rather tortured running (some limping) inthose hard black boots. They were quite surprised by our presence I think,probably looking somewhat like over-grown Brownies to them I suppose, andthey had to run right by us to avoid the bogs, some looking rather longinglyat our relaxed formation and our steaming tea, others obviously quiteinterested in our army-style bivvy-bags still laid out from the night's rest!
... "Keep away from them, gentlemen" ...the commanding officer shouted, and we watched silently as they charged overthe stream and up the next hill. When the clamour of their manoeuvre hadfaded back into silence we all just looked at each other and laughed at theimpression this surreal scene had left.
|Some twenty minutes later, another squadron burst over the crest of the samehill. We hadn't moved much at all, and we watched again as the same scenetook place ... Was this 'take two' of a Monty Python skit? This group seemeda little more chirpy though, and in better humour ...|
"Good morning, ladies, that's a cosy little scene you have there!" ...
they all looked quite interested as they ran by.
"How long have you been out?" I asked ...
"This is our fourth day, we're on our eighty-ninth mile."
Hmm, pretty impressive ... we werecertainly taking things a little easier at about ten to twelve miles a day!Strange to think that people think our lives are too tough, but they do thisvoluntarily as well! Not long after, a third troop charged over the hill, butheaded off in a different direction, and we knew it was time for us to headoff as well.
... We staggered up the far end of thispebbly beach at dusk, exhausted, to find our own privacy near a rocky niche.It felt nice to be there: clear weather, no worries about private property,having a camp-fire or making noise, and finding the sand quite comfortable... at last completely level ground; to fall asleep and wake to the sound ofcrashing waves at the shore some fifty yards away. We didn't rouse early thatmorning, we only had a few miles to walk that morning, so we took our timeover breakfast and enjoyed the solitude and relaxed atmosphere for a while.At around eight-thirty some people started trudging up the beach towards us."Typical British!", we thought; it was not a great beach day, but the sun wasup and they carried wind breaks. It was the beginning of a long weekend. Butwhy make such an effort to trudge all the way up this pebbly end, there wasplenty of sandy beach about five miles of it? Soon more people turned up.Then, as one rather weighty man and his wife settled in just a few yards fromus and undressed completely we began to realise what was so attractiveabout this part of the beach. It wasn't us. When this man began to strut upand down proudly airing his naked body right in front of us we knew it wastime to go. It felt ridiculous at the time, to wrap ourselves up over bothshoulders in robe, don packs and, covered from neck to toe, walk back pastall these nature loving bods!
|Acalo Bhikkhu writes from Wat PahNanachat, Thailand:|
It is almsround and it is raining, and any available energy for thought isturning over itself and tying itself into knots. Most of these thoughts Ihave witnessed before, different characters, different colours, same plot.Having refrained from speech for some time, it seems that I can feel themovements of my mind with a little more sensitivity. Under an umbrella Irecollect Sylvia Plath's famous novel title, The Bell Jar.
Stepping over a trail of ants, slipping alittle in the mud -- the sharp little stones scratching lightly between mytoes -- I recognise a pattern of thought. The contents of my mind are like anold record collection and many of the tracks have cracks where the needlegets stuck. How many days can I walk these same tracks and roads and thinkthe same things? Want the same things? Remember the same things? ... It couldbe years! Lifetimes! My heart sinks and gets annoyed. The umbrella hangs likethat bell jar and I too feel trapped while the contents of my mind ferment intheir own gases.
I try to remind myself that I should not betoo critical of these phenomena. Many times before Ive returned to themonastery after the almsround dizzied and exhausted by my thoughts, incliningtowards respite. Then, sitting down cross-legged, there has been a sweetrefuge in knowing the simplicity and honesty of a body breathing. But it willbe another forty five minutes before we get back to the monastery, and thisimpatient mind wants rest prescribed now, thank you!
How many days can I walk these same tracksand roads and think the same things? Want the same things? Remember the samethings? ...It could be years! Lifetimes!
On days when the sky is clearer, turning mymind to notice space sometimes helps. In that space surrounding this wetseason magical dawns often occur. Pink, purple and gold caress a remarkablebouquet of cloud types and formations. Dragonflies may hover and dance whilea small flock of birds draws a temporary line through the sky. In the cornerof my eye I may catch a blooming lotus, turning to appreciate it, lucid andcommanding almost, red against the celebratory green of the newly sproutedrice fields, reminding me of the mind's transcendent capacity. But todaythere is no space and little appreciation for natural beauty. It is beingconcealed by a mesh of constricting thoughts, vigilant in their persistence.So I try to notice when each thought ends. No, it's not working; walkingswiftly and coordinating the alms receiving is keeping my mind alert, but itis agitated. There are no spaces. There is excessive thought energy. What canI do? Surely all thought is not bad -- many teachers in fact encourage thecultivation of the reflective capacity, using thought ... 'Wisely reflecting...' Yes! So then I decided to try to hold the thoughts that may lead toincreased wisdom.
As we walk through Tung Bon village severalold men squat down as they see the monks approach. This is the only villageon all the almsrounds that I've walked where the men also squat. As they dropthe rice in the bowl, what may be read by the lines on those faces? Fallingto their knees, are they ashamed or afraid? No, it seems not; in their faces,there lies a richness and a joy. You see? I say to myself, a mind withhumility and respect is enriched but not belittled.
Now coming to a junction, oh yes, the loudmusic. A buffalo walks by casually followed by its caretaker walking in amanner equally casual. The buffalo is apparently oblivious to its friendlying carved up in the back of the black utility, which is the source of thenoise -- loud guitar rock, crackling through straining speakers. Consideringthe scene, I am amused by its metaphoric potential. I have mind states likethat. Like a loud obnoxious black meat truck rocking into town and parkingsmack in the middle of the junction, demanding that its goods be purchased.Those greedy moods that demand sense gratification, slaughtering the subtleand sensitive. Try not to believe it, I say to myself, just wait until itdrives back out of town.
Some way out of the village on the way backto the monastery, we approach the chicken farm. It's interesting to note thatthe bowl around my neck seems heavier, the robe more constricting and thestones a little sharper. This kind of thinking doesn't seem to do much for myequanimity towards physical discomfort. Oh well! I can't develop everythingat once ...
The chicken farm is an obvious butpertinent reflection. One day they arrive, hundreds of little chirpingchicks. Passing each day in their quarters which grow more cramped as theirbodies grow. Then one day after only three or four weeks they're just notthere any more! Somebody came with a truck full of boxes, filled the boxeswith plump chickens and drove them away to a predictable and bloody fate. Howquickly it seemed to happen. They hatched, clucked a few times, maybe laid anegg or two, and now they've probably become part of somebody else's body --possibly even mine! ... And when will my turn come?
Entering the cool and subdued tones of theforest there is, as there has been many times a mild feeling of relief, ofhomecoming. Still a little agitated by excessive thoughts, what could I do?Maybe I could share some of these almsround reflections ...
Two Bhikkhus go Tudong inIreland
Ajahn Karuniko shares some of his impressions:
My two previous tudongs in Devon and Cornwall had been pleasant experiences.Lots of invitations for food and places to stay with friendly peopleinterested in Dhamma, as well as very favourable weather. However this year Ithought I would undertake a more faith orientated tudong ... I consider aquality of faith to be the willingness to go into the unknown, to challengethe attachment to worldly security, as we aspire to realise that which isbeyond the world; tudong also requires a willingness to learn from whateversituations present themselves, whether favourable or unfavourable, pleasantor unpleasant. Thus the journey becomes one that takes us beyond the securityof the world.
County Clare seemed a suitable place. Fewpeople we know live there, probably very few Buddhists, I had never beenthere before and it even had the reputation of inclement weather. One thing Ihad heard on a few occasions though was that the people there are friendly.So Venerable Thitadhammo and myself spent almost two weeks wandering aroundCo. Clare ...
... The almsrounds (pindapata) were quitememorable, some for their pleasant aspects and some for their not-so-pleasantones. Our first was in a small town where the prominent feature was the ruinof a Franciscan Abbey. I felt reasonably confident, thinking that the peoplethere may be sympathetic to a couple of monks whose lifestyle resembles insome way that of the Franciscan monks. However, as we stood there on ashowery morning only one gentleman showed any interest in us and almsfood wasnot forthcoming. We were pretty much resigned to not eating that day when thefriends we had just been staying with happened to drive by ... so our bowlswere amply filled that day after all.
I sometimes felt a tinge of sadness, as Irecollected that this once thriving abbey was now a ruin... But I could alsoexperience gladness, recollecting that this was a place where people oncelived, cultivating the spiritual path, and follow their example.
... Another memorable occasion was when afriendly and smiling Catholic nun put some food into Venerable Thitadhammo'sbowl. One of the items was some cheese and as she offered it, she added thecomment, "Eat it within seven days". I wondered how she knew that cheese canbe kept for seven days as a medicine. Later, when we came to eat the cheesewe read, written on the packet: "Once open, eat within seven days". Somethings do have a rational explanation!
... There were a few occasions where thealmsrounds offered us the opportunity to develop patient endurance. On onesuch occasion the only shop around was connected to a service station on abusy main road. It began to rain quite heavily and we stood there for quite awhile watching our bowls fill up with water and listening to the noise of thetraffic. I smiled as Venerable Thitadhammo drank the water from his bowl inappreciation of the offering from above, while I appreciated receiving somebowl rinsing water. Also, by this stage of the walk, Venerable Thitadhammohad developed some back pain, so he had more to endure than cold hands andfeet. However our patience was rewarded as eventually we received enough foodfor our meal; and it was nice how just as we were leaving, the people in theservice station gave us a bag of apples.
... There were only two occasions when wedid not receive enough food for a meal. One of these was on a wet day; wewatched our bowls fill up with water, and all that manifested was a large tinof baked beans. We had fun though trying to open it, with cold hands and aninefficient pocket knife can-opener. But, thanks to Venerable Thitadhammo'sexpertise, we succeeded and were eventually appeased by the beans!
... Tudongs can also be undertaken in thespirit of a pilgrimage, visiting religious sites -- old or not-so-old. As youmay imagine, there are no Buddhist places of pilgrimage in County Clare.However there are several old ruined Abbeys, so to give our tudong also asense of pilgrimage, we visited and spent our evenings around a few of them.I found them pleasant places for meditation and although one of them was nextto a railway line; fortunately the trains were infrequent. I sometimes felt atinge of sadness, as I recollected that this once thriving abbey was now aruin; but, alas, that is in the nature of things. But I could also experiencegladness, recollecting that this was a place where people once lived,cultivating the spiritual path and follow their example. It just shows how wecan reflect on the same object from the past in a way that brings sadness orgladness. The Buddha recommended gladdening the mind as conducive towell-being, to concentration and to seeing things as they are, so I opted forthis way of reflecting. In the ruins were also many grave stones, old andnew, as local people continue to bury the dead there. We spent an eveningamongst the grave stones and were undisturbed. It was a suitable place forthose who wished to 'Rest in Peace'. For the wise, things end in peace. So onthat note I shall end here and leave you in peace, I hope.