The Forest Sangha is
a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn
The Dhamma of walking
Ajahn Sucitto reflects on practice while walking rough
in Crete earlier this year.
I dont 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, theyre a sign of Dhamma-practice. Its
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 havent yet made themselves apparent. Thats
the practice, thats 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 havent
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 weve been hanging on to, tudong is a good
chance to shake them off. And thats 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 ones 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
theres the opportunity to support, or be helped in times of
need. Its 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 persons gear
when theyre struggling; checking to see if someones
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 its
good to lay out the plans and perspectives in advance. After that
its 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 dont
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 years walk, you cant camp out
on a rocky slope with no water, so like it or not and however slowly,
its 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 ones 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. Thats a wonderful exercise in renunciation in its
own right. Sometimes one doesnt 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 its good if the first day or two are relatively easy,
although this isnt 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 days
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 youre going, and look after your gear. You dont
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 isnt just about
exploring external terrain. Its 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 youre in need of food, let alone be inclined to respond
to that need, theres a fundamental boundary to cross: that
of ones 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 youre with, youre
on your own with your minds 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 doesnt 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 practitioners Path.
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