To start the trip, I stayed at a hotel in Pittsburgh to catch a 6AM flight to Heathrow. Despite the comfy bed with comfy pillows, I did not sleep in said hotel. I stayed up late doing last minute correspondence, and then staying up late became staying up early. The next thing I knew I had only a few hours until I caught the 4AM airport shuttle, so I decided to substitute sleep with a 24oz heavy cream latte at the airport. It worked for a while: I stayed awake until a few hours after I arrived in England, a total of 36 hours without sleep. But the price paid was a deep physical and emotional exhaustion that took at least two days to shake off.
Whisked from the airport by my friends Gricel and Mark, and gently handed to the monastery the next day, I started to recuperate with extra sleep, meditation, and, ironically enough, walking.
I am in love with Britain’s public footpaths.
For the uninitiated, England and Wales have an extensive network of trails that connect all over the country, through farms, forests, and countryside (In Scotland one doesn’t need to use specific trails, as any property is essentially open for public walking). One could walk from one end of the island to the other in a myriad of paths, all through public and private land. It’s a brilliant system. So I’ve been wandering all over Hertfordshire on my time off. There have been times when I’ve, umm…taken an unplanned longer scenic route, but I haven’t wandered too far off. And it’s been a great way to see the country.
When I haven’t been walking, I’ve been staying at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery. Amaravati is located northwest of London, and has been around for thirty years. Although it wasn’t the first western monastery in the tradition which I follow, nor the largest in property size, it’s now certainly the largest in terms of residents. There are at present, 28 male and female monastics and monastics-in-training. The monasteries I’ve been to prior to this ranged from only two to twelve. There is also a steady stream of visitors, as the monastery is much more accessible than the monasteries in North America. In addition to the handful of permanent lay residents, there seemed to be about one to two dozen guests staying there during the week, and weekend day visitors reached upwards of two hundred on weekends.
The schedule was typical of the monasteries I’ve been to, with the exception of a very civilized tea break in the middle of the morning work period. It is England, after all.
The grounds are beautiful. The temple portion of the monastery is fashioned like an old cloister, with vines hanging in the walkway. The meditation hall is lovely and spacious with tall, beamed ceilings. There are plenty of small gardens and hedgerows around the property, lending places for rabbits, birds, and voles to hide within. Even during the work period, it’s a peaceful, quiet place.
It was also a great place to spend my 50th birthday. Mark and Gricel came to visit with chocolate cake, flowers, and well wishes, and I felt wrapped in the strength of friendship, family, and community, even from those far away.
So despite the rough start, not a bad way to begin this leg of the journey.