|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1997|
Living in Faith
Nuns on Tudong in England
Extracts from Sister Jitindriya's letter to friends and family about her five weeks of walking from Amaravati to Hartridge Monastery in Devon...
The journey wasn't all inspirational by any means. 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) is all about. It's a kind of stripping away of the usual 'comfort zones' that one can retreat into, so as to contemplate the sense of insecurity that is thus 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 to develop qualities such as patient endurance, equanimity and gratitude. It's also true to say that generally they are undertaken with great enthusiasm as an 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's gone before. Also not knowing what's to come, but knowing only each step as it is and constantly seeing all imagined futures to be pure projection, things unfolding never as expected.
... Even on the last day of our walk we battled with low energy and fatigue. Perhaps it was an accumulation of tiredness as there were many nights with little sleep because of either cold, discomfort, throbbing feet, exhaustion, or all of it! It might sound rather horrible as you read this but actually, it was all right. It was just how it was and there was no alternative to be had so although not particularly pleasant, 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 ... in just 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 was good not to have any planned rendezvous which meant we didn't have to stress ourselves out in covering miles or making deadlines that inevitably become difficult to meet. We could rest when we needed to, and move on when we were ready.
... For me, and I think for all of us, the alms-rounds were the high points of our walk. It's so powerful to receive people's generosity in this way (especially in Western countries) ... such a touching and poignant reflection in that simple interaction for both giver and receiver, and a deep and strong sign in the psyche of the path and fruit of the religious life. The feelings of gratitude and blessing that can well up within one in those moments are 'other-worldly' and feel quite transformative. Memories of those who offered us hospitality in various forms would often come to mind at later times bringing again warm feelings of gratitude and a deep sincere well-wishing towards them.
... it's not so easy to learn to 'receive' whole-heartedly and unconditionally.
It was remarkable that people in these places were so keen to help us. They
weren'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 to
offer us money at first but we would gently explain that our monastic rule
did not allow us to accept or use money. This always amazed people ... some
could not fathom it, others apologised, and some even tried to convince us
that it was all right to take their money. Almost always people would come
back 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 just the simplicity of it all.
Being Westerners and not living within a Buddhist culture however, this practice of almsround can feel quite uneasy at first. Having been brought up with ideas about being independent and self-sufficient, pulling your own weight, not being a drain on society and all that, and with most of us coming from a rather middle class background, to actually stand there with our bowls, defenceless, open to whatever ... can feel quite embarrassing at first, it's not so easy to learn to 'receive' whole-heartedly and unconditionally.
... We spent about three days and nights around Dartmoor, staying with friends on two nights, both in beautiful, magic places, and camped out for one night. That particular morning we sat around our camp-fire savouring a warm cup of tea in the middle of nowhere, quietly taking in the misty landscape of the moors, when suddenly over the hill charged an army squadron of about forty young men in full combat gear, packs on their back and machine gun under arm, their commanding officer loudly and roughly urging them on. They looked rather tortured running (some limping) in those hard black boots. They were quite surprised by our presence I think, probably looking somewhat like over-grown Brownies to them I suppose, and they had to run right by us to avoid the bogs, some looking rather longingly at our relaxed formation and our steaming tea, others obviously quite interested 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 over the stream and up the next hill. When the clamour of their manoeuvre had faded back into silence we all just looked at each other and laughed at the impression this surreal scene had left.
Some twenty minutes later, another squadron burst over the crest of the same
hill. We hadn't moved much at all, and we watched again as the same scene
took place ... Was this 'take two' of a Monty Python skit? This group seemed
a 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 were certainly 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 this voluntarily as well! Not long after, a third troop charged over the hill, but headed off in a different direction, and we knew it was time for us to head off as well.
... We staggered up the far end of this pebbly 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 of crashing waves at the shore some fifty yards away. We didn't rouse early that morning, we only had a few miles to walk that morning, so we took our time over 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 was up and they carried wind breaks. It was the beginning of a long weekend. But why make such an effort to trudge all the way up this pebbly end, there was plenty 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 from us and undressed completely we began to realise what was so attractive about this part of the beach. It wasn't us. When this man began to strut up and down proudly airing his naked body right in front of us we knew it was time to go. It felt ridiculous at the time, to wrap ourselves up over both shoulders in robe, don packs and, covered from neck to toe, walk back past all these nature loving bods!
Acalo Bhikkhu writes from Wat Pah
It is almsround and it is raining, and any available energy for thought is turning over itself and tying itself into knots. Most of these thoughts I have witnessed before, different characters, different colours, same plot. Having refrained from speech for some time, it seems that I can feel the movements of my mind with a little more sensitivity. Under an umbrella I recollect Sylvia Plath's famous novel title, The Bell Jar.
Stepping over a trail of ants, slipping a little in the mud -- the sharp little stones scratching lightly between my toes -- I recognise a pattern of thought. The contents of my mind are like an old record collection and many of the tracks have cracks where the needle gets stuck. How many days can I walk these same tracks and roads and think the same things? Want the same things? Remember the same things? ... It could be years! Lifetimes! My heart sinks and gets annoyed. The umbrella hangs like that bell jar and I too feel trapped while the contents of my mind ferment in their own gases.
I try to remind myself that I should not be too critical of these phenomena. Many times before Ive returned to the monastery after the almsround dizzied and exhausted by my thoughts, inclining towards respite. Then, sitting down cross-legged, there has been a sweet refuge in knowing the simplicity and honesty of a body breathing. But it will be another forty five minutes before we get back to the monastery, and this impatient mind wants rest prescribed now, thank you!
How many days can I walk these same tracks and roads and think the same things? Want the same things? Remember the same things? ...It could be years! Lifetimes!
On days when the sky is clearer, turning my mind to notice space sometimes helps. In that space surrounding this wet season magical dawns often occur. Pink, purple and gold caress a remarkable bouquet of cloud types and formations. Dragonflies may hover and dance while a small flock of birds draws a temporary line through the sky. In the corner of my eye I may catch a blooming lotus, turning to appreciate it, lucid and commanding almost, red against the celebratory green of the newly sprouted rice fields, reminding me of the mind's transcendent capacity. But today there is no space and little appreciation for natural beauty. It is being concealed by a mesh of constricting thoughts, vigilant in their persistence. So I try to notice when each thought ends. No, it's not working; walking swiftly and coordinating the alms receiving is keeping my mind alert, but it is agitated. There are no spaces. There is excessive thought energy. What can I do? Surely all thought is not bad -- many teachers in fact encourage the cultivation of the reflective capacity, using thought ... 'Wisely reflecting ...' Yes! So then I decided to try to hold the thoughts that may lead to increased wisdom.
As we walk through Tung Bon village several old men squat down as they see the monks approach. This is the only village on all the almsrounds that I've walked where the men also squat. As they drop the rice in the bowl, what may be read by the lines on those faces? Falling to 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 with humility and respect is enriched but not belittled.
Now coming to a junction, oh yes, the loud music. A buffalo walks by casually followed by its caretaker walking in a manner equally casual. The buffalo is apparently oblivious to its friend lying carved up in the back of the black utility, which is the source of the noise -- loud guitar rock, crackling through straining speakers. Considering the scene, I am amused by its metaphoric potential. I have mind states like that. Like a loud obnoxious black meat truck rocking into town and parking smack in the middle of the junction, demanding that its goods be purchased. Those greedy moods that demand sense gratification, slaughtering the subtle and sensitive. Try not to believe it, I say to myself, just wait until it drives back out of town.
Some way out of the village on the way back to the monastery, we approach the chicken farm. It's interesting to note that the bowl around my neck seems heavier, the robe more constricting and the stones a little sharper. This kind of thinking doesn't seem to do much for my equanimity towards physical discomfort. Oh well! I can't develop everything at once ...
The chicken farm is an obvious but pertinent reflection. One day they arrive, hundreds of little chirping chicks. Passing each day in their quarters which grow more cramped as their bodies grow. Then one day after only three or four weeks they're just not there any more! Somebody came with a truck full of boxes, filled the boxes with plump chickens and drove them away to a predictable and bloody fate. How quickly it seemed to happen. They hatched, clucked a few times, maybe laid an egg 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 the forest there is, as there has been many times a mild feeling of relief, of homecoming. Still a little agitated by excessive thoughts, what could I do? Maybe I could share some of these almsround reflections ...
Two Bhikkhus go Tudong in Ireland
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 people interested in Dhamma, as well as very favourable weather. However this year I thought I would undertake a more faith orientated tudong ... I consider a quality of faith to be the willingness to go into the unknown, to challenge the attachment to worldly security, as we aspire to realise that which is beyond the world; tudong also requires a willingness to learn from whatever situations present themselves, whether favourable or unfavourable, pleasant or unpleasant. Thus the journey becomes one that takes us beyond the security of the world.
County Clare seemed a suitable place. Few people we know live there, probably very few Buddhists, I had never been there before and it even had the reputation of inclement weather. One thing I had heard on a few occasions though was that the people there are friendly. So Venerable Thitadhammo and myself spent almost two weeks wandering around Co. Clare ...
... The almsrounds (pindapata) were quite memorable, some for their pleasant aspects and some for their not-so-pleasant ones. Our first was in a small town where the prominent feature was the ruin of a Franciscan Abbey. I felt reasonably confident, thinking that the people there may be sympathetic to a couple of monks whose lifestyle resembles in some way that of the Franciscan monks. However, as we stood there on a showery morning only one gentleman showed any interest in us and almsfood was not forthcoming. We were pretty much resigned to not eating that day when the friends we had just been staying with happened to drive by ... so our bowls were amply filled that day after all.
I sometimes felt a tinge of sadness, as I recollected that this once thriving abbey was now a ruin... But I could also experience gladness, recollecting that this was a place where people once lived, cultivating the spiritual path, and follow their example.
... Another memorable occasion was when a friendly and smiling Catholic nun put some food into Venerable Thitadhammo's bowl. One of the items was some cheese and as she offered it, she added the comment, "Eat it within seven days". I wondered how she knew that cheese can be kept for seven days as a medicine. Later, when we came to eat the cheese we read, written on the packet: "Once open, eat within seven days". Some things do have a rational explanation!
... There were a few occasions where the almsrounds offered us the opportunity to develop patient endurance. On one such occasion the only shop around was connected to a service station on a busy main road. It began to rain quite heavily and we stood there for quite a while watching our bowls fill up with water and listening to the noise of the traffic. I smiled as Venerable Thitadhammo drank the water from his bowl in appreciation of the offering from above, while I appreciated receiving some bowl rinsing water. Also, by this stage of the walk, Venerable Thitadhammo had developed some back pain, so he had more to endure than cold hands and feet. However our patience was rewarded as eventually we received enough food for our meal; and it was nice how just as we were leaving, the people in the service station gave us a bag of apples.
... There were only two occasions when we did not receive enough food for a meal. One of these was on a wet day; we watched our bowls fill up with water, and all that manifested was a large tin of baked beans. We had fun though trying to open it, with cold hands and an inefficient pocket knife can-opener. But, thanks to Venerable Thitadhammo's expertise, we succeeded and were eventually appeased by the beans!
... Tudongs can also be undertaken in the spirit of a pilgrimage, visiting religious sites -- old or not-so-old. As you may imagine, there are no Buddhist places of pilgrimage in County Clare. However there are several old ruined Abbeys, so to give our tudong also a sense 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 next to a railway line; fortunately the trains were infrequent. I sometimes felt a tinge of sadness, as I recollected that this once thriving abbey was now a ruin; but, alas, that is in the nature of things. But I could also experience gladness, recollecting that this was a place where people once lived, cultivating the spiritual path and follow their example. It just shows how we can reflect on the same object from the past in a way that brings sadness or gladness. The Buddha recommended gladdening the mind as conducive to well-being, to concentration and to seeing things as they are, so I opted for this way of reflecting. In the ruins were also many grave stones, old and new, as local people continue to bury the dead there. We spent an evening amongst the grave stones and were undisturbed. It was a suitable place for those who wished to 'Rest in Peace'. For the wise, things end in peace. So on that note I shall end here and leave you in peace, I hope.