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forest sangha newsletter

January     2007                  2550                      Number 78
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah


The Dhamma of walking

Ajahn Sucitto reflects on practice while walking rough


Dhamma-walkers in Crete earlier this year.

‘I don’t think I can do this.’

‘This is fantastic!’

These two comments, eight hours apart, came from one of the participants in a walk I did this year in the mountains of Crete. Indicative of the struggle and the breakthrough involved when passing through previous limitations, they’re a sign of Dhamma-practice. It’s much the same on a 10-day meditation retreat, when on the third day the inspirational energy is flagging and the results of the endeavour haven’t yet made themselves apparent. That’s the practice, that’s the furthering: through meeting the edge of our limitation and mindfully working through it, we can arrive at a larger, more confident sense of our capacity.

Long-distance walking (at least five days out of the comfort zone) has a firm foundation in Buddhist contemplative practice, and as ‘tudong’ is enshrined in the Thai forest tradition. The time was when it was inevitable: to see a teacher, to travel through whole regions of Thailand meant days or weeks of walking through wilderness. And that was a salutary experience, inasmuch as a seeker had to keep strong focused motivation and ‘walk the talk’ of commitment to the Dhamma. It meant meeting insecurity, hardship, and illness as the facts of life that they are, rather than as inconvenient hindrances to the practice. So tudong is a check-in with some of the earthier realities of life: if we haven’t come to terms with these, then where has our practice been going? What use has it been? If there are scenarios – hot baths, bodily ease – that we’ve been hanging on to, tudong is a good chance to shake them off. And that’s the meaning of ‘tudong’ – a ‘shaking off’ of attachments that build up in situations we have control of. The practice still holds its validity: monks, nuns and lay people associated with the monasteries in the West have been going tudong ever since the early days of Cittaviveka, and continue to do so.

Nowadays as wilder places grow fewer and smaller and comfort zones get bigger, and as monasteries get more organized and controlled one has to seek out situations for physical challenges. (There are plenty of psychological challenges in these monasteries. Community life is a tudong in its own right.) However, sustained walking makes our practices unambiguous: this is not about performing a function, getting things done, nor is it an afternoon ramble. The ‘shaking off’ entails the reflective process of preparing oneself, pacing oneself, patiently letting one’s energy and strength build up over time, and moving beyond oneself. It also means supporting others, and being supported by them. Then there is a recognizable transformation. And in the process, one will have walked through a lot of inner chatter and mood swings, thereby strengthening the bases of dispassion and compassion.

Going alone is good, yet companionship can be a better option. Then there’s the opportunity to support, or be helped in times of need. It’s enjoyable to sense over a period of days how four or five individuals gradually form into a group in which people look out for each other – carrying another person’s gear when they’re struggling; checking to see if someone’s lagging behind and being prepared to go back and sit with someone in difficulty. Sharing stories and reflections from each others’ lives. Along with the beauty and purity of wilder places, the earthy compassion and joy of a group of walkers is a major attraction of this practice. Also to be expected are a few struggles over who is leading the group, or if not that, then how he or she is leading it – and why the dummy chose this way, and why it has to take so long, and why we have to go so fast… and so on. So it’s good to lay out the plans and perspectives in advance. After that it’s a matter of knowing when to negotiate and when to surrender – both being skilful practices – because tudong means heading into the unpredictable, into situations that don’t offer much room for negotiation. A Dhamma-walker has to consider and assess things in advance, then surrender to the circumstances that arise. As in this year’s walk, you can’t camp out on a rocky slope with no water, so like it or not and however slowly, it’s a case of just having to trudge on for as long as it takes to find a patch of flat land and a spring.

So one prepares oneself by acknowledging that a Dhamma-walk will entail meeting one’s edge – and bearing with that until it recedes. The body is going to be the main vehicle for that. One literally walks through the push and drag of mental energy into a more grounded balance. As with meditation, it begins with wise reflection: what is needed for the goal? What is excess baggage? When everything has to be carried, you cut your soap in two and take a quarter-full tube of toothpaste. On a walk in the South Island of New Zealand a few years ago, no-one took soap or shaving foam with them, in order to avoid polluting the pristine watershed. There was plenty of rain and mountain streams to keep us clean enough. Still, giving up the fresh feeling you get after a hot shower and a shave added to the mood of the walk. The body is part of nature; let it be so.

As for the rest of the stuff: one spare pair of socks is enough, and you can keep warm by wrapping your sleeping bag around you – and so on. That’s a wonderful exercise in renunciation in its own right. Sometimes one doesn’t even have to apply oneself: once on a long walk in India everything I had, other than the sabong [lower robe] and sandals I was wearing, got stolen. Yet we could keep walking, and it was remarkably freeing to be that empty. The miracle, obvious when you encounter it, is that we fit on this planet; and that the sign of the tudong walker always arouses faith and support in the villages one walks through, irrespective of religious beliefs. The tudong spirit, with its manifest renunciation, commitment and faith, speaks to the heart of all religions. Christians, Sikh, Muslim, whatever – they all have tudong masters in their lineages.

Pacing oneself is a good idea. It takes three or four days for the body to adjust to a more rugged regime. Getting fit in advance helps, as does taking a few preparatory day walks (with your walking gear). Then it’s good if the first day or two are relatively easy, although this isn’t always possible. You can pace yourself during the walk by setting up manageable goals for a day, and rest periods. Daily meditation, before, during and after the day’s walk provides valuable occasions both for bodily energy to be settled and soothed, and for reviewing and releasing mind-states. In this way one maintains focus and integrates the results of the practice.

Mindfulness gets a work-out in the wilds. To be attentive of the ground beneath your feet, of what kind of weather is brewing up, means you have to drop a lot of your inner chatter and pre-occupation. Rather than get embroiled in rehashing the past, you have to look where you’re going, and look after your gear. You don’t want to get halfway along a vaguely defined trail and discover that you left your compass or map behind when you set off a little groggy in the early morning light. However, tudong isn’t just about exploring external terrain. It’s mostly about moving mindfulness into ‘outdoors’ places in the mind – like the feeling of exposure when you have no place with a door and no direction for a meal. The territory is internal. Like many other monks and nuns, I have done tudongs in the soft green landscapes of Britain and Ireland, where a main theme of the practice is that of making oneself available for alms-food and shelter. Out on a village street, feeling like a freak and wondering if anyone could possibly guess that you’re in need of food, let alone be inclined to respond to that need, there’s a fundamental boundary to cross: that of one’s nervousness of strangers, or awkwardness about being exposed and vulnerable. Yet some of our Sangha have done tudongs of one to three months in that territory. It can be a purification of anxiety, and also of the subtle conceit of independence that we can still carry after years of monastic life. We can take the requisites for granted. Tudong blows that piece of self away. The result is greater humility and also greater faith. And by making these principles manifest, one provides a teaching for others: one of the samaneras at Cittaviveka first took up the training as a result of meeting two nuns on tudong in Wales.

There is also the practice with hardship: whether that means days of walking in heavy rain, and blistered feet, or hours of grinding slowly up a mountain. Then no matter whom you’re with, you’re on your own with your mind’s relationship to the body and its pain. And this means another skilful surrender, the surrender to bodily life. It's something that we can avoid for years with our soft chairs and central heating – until disease or death comes to wake us up. ‘Best to prepare yourself’ say the wise. A tudong often enables one to witness the resistances of the mind to discomfort, fatigue and pain, and mindfully walk through them. The simplicity of the practice means coming back into the body again and again: this apparently uncomfortable place is also a place which doesn’t agonize over how much longer this is going to take, fantasize over where else it could be or have an opinion about oneself or others. It just walks. And eventually the mind surrenders and just walks with it. Then in this very body, rather than in the village in the distance or in the sleeping bag at the end of the day, is where the mind leaves its suffering behind. A key truth comes home, one that is well worth travelling for: to mindfully open to suffering, a step at a time, is the way to accomplish peace. Walking, standing, sitting or reclining, to live in that truth is a practitioner’s Path.



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