Inverness, I hope

I watched the landscape change from the train window as we headed further north into Scotland. Rolling pastoral hills morphed into mountains, glens, and forests. Animals became shaggier. Accents got a wee bit thicker. 

I arrived at Bazpackers Hostel in the evening, and mostly just relaxed. The hostel was pretty nice, and it was interesting to meet the other people there from all over Europe. I was happy to see others my age and older staying there. There were six beds in the room I was in, and I was surprised to find that the room was coed. There was one guy in the corner who behaved himself, other than snoring.

Today I started out walking along the swiftly moving river Ness. The path goes by the Inverness castle, churches, houses and shops facing the river, along with forests. The whole suggested route on my tour map, complete with stops, didn’t take very long.  So on the way back I looked around a few tourist shops selling tartan kilts, tartan bags, tartan scarves, tartan socks, tartan underwear, and just about everything else. I didn’t buy any. The fun discovery was a grocery store called Morrison’s. How could I not go in? While perusing inside I found condensed milk that comes in a tube and needn’t be refrigerated. Perfect for a “cuppa” on the go. I didn’t ask if they’d give me a discount for having the same name.

After capping off the morning with fish and chips followed by banoffee pie, I arrived back at the hostel. One o’clock. Now what? So I decided the morning’s walking wasn’t enough, and found a trail. The Great Glen Way goes all the way from Inverness to Glencoe, about 60 miles. I wasn’t planning to walk the whole way, but thought it would make a nice out and back walk. 

Thanks to my lack of a map, the out and back turned into a loop of sorts, but the loop took me along a peaceful canal, and through a forested hill offering stunning views of Moray Firth. On my way back, I was pretty sure that I was headed in the right direction, but I will admit that there were a lot of signs for Fort William, and they had me nervous for a bit. I did find my way back. My watch tells me I walked over 14 miles today, so maybe I burned off that banoffee pie.

Tomorrow I’m on my way to the Isle of Lewis. I’ll take a bus to Ullapool, and then a ferry to Stornoway, where my next hostel will be. I’ve bunched up my posts here a bit, so I’ll give you a break until Tuesday or Wednesday. Thanks for following along!

On the Harnham Farm

After a slight transportation/directions snafu, I arrived at Harnham monastery on Tuesday morning. I felt immediately welcomed, and sensed a closer atmosphere. Harnham is a smaller place surrounded by rolling hills of farmland. The sound of sheep bleating and cows mooing provide a soothing, pastoral setting. Although there isn’t much in the way of forest at the monastery, within the grounds are quiet gardens and conservatories, and many quiet spots. There is also a pond on the property which serves as a conservation area and a place for monastic dwellings, and a short walk away is a larger lake surrounded by forest.

The buildings are smaller cottages, and my room on the second floor seemed to me to the best in the house, looking out over the fields and hearing sheep nibbling on grass below my window. 

The abbot, Ajahn Munindo, seemed warm and welcoming, and the rest of the residents were as well. I found myself wishing I had scheduled more time here, as it became my favorite of the three monasteries I’ve been to. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to return for a longer visit.

The main meditation hall
Meditation hall at guest house
Quiet spot

Garden conservatory

Seclusion of the mind

I spent two short days at Chithurst Forest Monastery last week, in southern England. Chithurst is named for the town it’s in, but its Pali name is Cittaviveka, which means seclusion of the mind. In other words, not being distracted by various things, even in the midst of them. 

The monastery is also secluded physically, and is a quiet place in the midst of forests and fields. The buildings are mostly old cottages that originally were in terrible shape. When the monastery started, there were open areas in the roof, and the walls were in equal disrepair. Now you’d never guess, and the hard work of many monastics and lay supporters is very obvious. The grounds are beautiful. Chithurst has a cloister as well, with a garden in the middle and stone walls all around. The meditation hall has a palpable peaceful energy, with post and beam construction, tile floor, and a centered altar that focuses visual attention there. The adjacent forest; Hammer Wood, is peaceful and quiet. A great place to walk through or just stop and sit.

I found myself wishing I had planned more time there, but with monasteries, traveling by the seat of one’s pants doesn’t work very well. Gricel and I just barely got in to stay for the time we did, as the guest spaces fill up fast. I’m glad we were able to visit though. Perhaps the time will come when another visit transpires.

After we left Chithurst, the next day I headed north stopping briefly at Newcastle on Tyne. I spent the evening walking around the castle and the quay (riverside), which was lovely. The next day I headed to Harnham Monastery, but that’s another entry. I’m behind in posting, so I’ll add some pics of Newcastle here as well.

In the land of scones and clotted cream

It’s been a busy week, but very enjoyable.

After leaving Amaravati, my friends took me to a celebratory birthday brunch, where I enjoyed a full English breakfast. Unlike, our typically sweet American breakfast, the English breakfast is more savory. A full breakfast consists of eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding, roasted tomatoes, baked beans, sautéed mushrooms, and fried bread. And if you haven’t heard of it, black pudding is more like a sausage. Upon discovering the ingredients, one might say “yuck!”, but it’s actually very tasty. Really!

Not for vegetarians

On Monday Gricel and I went to London. She had a harp lesson, and while she was thus engaged, I spent nearly an hour in Tesco’s, a grocery store, marveling at all the unique foods that are here. Afterwards we stood in two separate queues for the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel with glass “cages”, and a Thames River cruise. The time in queues (waiting in line) was probably longer than the time on the attractions, but worth doing once.

Tuesday was spent doing home projects at the house of Mark’s sister and brother-in-law, then back to Amaravati for the evening. His sister and BIL had gone on vacation, and I was able to get my dog fix by dog sitting until their appointed person could come a few days later. 

“And they call it…puppy love”🎶
Wednesday was spent walking along the canal in Berkhamstead, rewarded with giant scones and clotted cream. Unlike the triangular hockey pucks that are served at Starbucks, true scones are closer to what North Americans call “biscuits”, often with currants or other fruit. They’re best slathered with clotted cream (sort of somewhere between whipped cream and butter) and jam, but views vary widely.

On Thursday, we went out to Stratford on Avon to see Shakespeare’s home. On the way there, I enjoyed a trip down memory lane when we drove through my old stomping grounds of RAF Upper Heyford. I knew the base had been decommissioned, and would look very different, and it certainly did. The airfield is now a giant car park/storage, and many of the buildings have been torn dow and replaced by new houses. I stood in the new neighborhood where my old dormitory was and marveled at the change. There were still enough of the old buildings remaining to provide some nostalgia, and the place was nice to see. It feels like I was there in another life, as so many things have changed there and in my own life in the 30 plus years since I’ve been there. 

Today Gricel and I will head out to Chithurst Buddhist monastery to contemplate impermanence (and other things). I’ll leave you with more photos to enjoy until I get back online.

Tudor almshouses

Death by Shakespeare?
Not an “ugly duckling”!
What? Wait, where am I?

Not all who wander are lost…at least not much, anyway

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.

All the red lines are footpaths. How awesome is that?

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.

The Cloister

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.

Packing in Pennsylvania

I’ve been hanging out with my folks in the tiny (don’t blink) town of Fort Hill, Pennsylvania. It’s about two hours from anywhere, southeast of Pittsburgh. While very rural, it is a beautiful area, and a great place to walk and relax.

Since returning here, I’ve been reducing, reorganizing, and repacking my stuff in preparation for future travels. I’ve traded in the giant suitcase for something more portable, plus a packable bag for gifts and extras. I’ve unloaded my car, and am now free to roam about the planet. At least as long as my savings will allow.

On Friday I’ll catch an early morning flight to London, landing there in the evening, and staying the night with friends until I head once again to a monastery for the following week.

So for now I’ll share a few pictures of the local area. Hope you enjoy them, and I’ll post again in a few weeks from England.

Live Free or Die

I’ve spent the last week at Temple Forest Monastery, nestled in the hills and forests of southern New Hampshire. I rode and drove down with one of the monastics and another lay supporter from Ontario, enjoying coffee and conversation on the way here.

The monastery has only been in existence for a few years, but I’ve been a regular over the last year or so from being in Connecticut. It’s a cluster of farmhouse type buildings on over 240 acres of forests and fields. The sala, or main meditation area, has been converted from the living room of the former owners, and is a beautiful space with 200 year-old beams in the ceiling. The land was set up to hold a communal, intentional living arrangement, but none of the arrangements really took off. Now it’s made a great place for the roughly half dozen monastics who live there. It was wonderful to visit with old friends, and also to see both a visiting monk from Thailand and my teacher who came out to visit from Abhayagiri.

For the next two weeks I’ll be in Pennsylvania with the folks, trying to wrap things up before going overseas for the big journey. I’ll try to post again once I arrive in England.

Creating the sima (ordination platform) boundaries
A visit to Insight Meditation Society

It’s like this, and it all belongs

I’ve spent the last 3 weeks at Tisarana Buddhist Monastery, outside of Perth, Ontario. The monastery is located in a forested, flat area with many bogs and lakes nearby. With all the water sources come friendly mosquitos, black flies, various other flying insects, and ticks, necessitating liberal applications of DEET.

Despite the bugs, it’s been an enjoyable time. The monastery schedule is similar to most: morning service, followed by breakfast, a work period, lunch, and then meditation/practice on one’s own until the evening service. The abbot of the monastery, Ajahn Viradhammo, is very similar to my main teacher, Ajahn Pasanno at Abhayagiri. He also has spent over forty years as a monk in this tradition, and is warm-hearted and easy going.  Coming recently from Abhayagiri, it’s been like staying at “uncle Ajahn Viradhammo’s place”. Although he number of monastics is about half the size of Abhayagiri’s, the warmth of community is no less.

I was picked up at the Ottawa train station by local supporters whom I’ve met at previous gatherings, and given a place to stay for the night (not to mention some delicious Sri Lankan food as well) before being taken out to the monastery the next day. There were several visits by local supporters who offered meals to the monastery throughout my stay here, and it’s great to see the place so well supported.

There’s been abundant wildlife around here, with deer, groundhogs, squirrels, chipmunks raccoons, turtles, birds and frogs. Each morning, we have whippoorwill alarm clocks that go off outside our windows. Although the idea of reaching out one’s window and patting the birds gently on the head seems amusing to think about, there’s no snooze button on the whippoorwill alarm clock. Just as well, since morning meditation starts at 5AM.

I’ve explored the local area on foot (and canoe) and found some beautiful places, but once again it’s been the people who have really made the stay enjoyable. While some who know me may find this hard to believe, I used to be pretty shy, to the point where some mistakenly thought me as snobbish since I didn’t talk much. I think working in medicine, and probably Buddhism as well, has certainly brought me out of that shell to a large degree. Although I’m still quite content to be on my own, more and more I find the joy in making new friends and sharing with others, and this trip is weaving a beautiful tapestry of connections as I go along.

Groundhog and her babies
Inside the sala
Mom and baby
The big old barn
Inside my kuti (cabin)
Loft bed
My kuti (cabin)

Poutine on the Ritz

Landing in Toronto, I happily found that my air bnb place was in walking distance of the train station. Actually walking distance of everything! I had found a room in a high rise condo in downtown Toronto, with spectacular views of the city from the 49th floor. Acrophobics need not apply.

The real estate agent who owns the condo has restaurant suggestions and helpful maps up on the wall, so I decided to try a nearby restaurant serving a Canadian classic: Poutine. For the uninitiated, Poutine consists of French fries topped with brown gravy and cheese curds. The restaurant, Smoke’s Poutine, has variations on a theme, and I went with added mushrooms and peas.

Yup. It’s Poutine. I had to at least try it, but I must say I prefer my French fries with a nice aioli.

I came back to the condo, reveled in having internet access for a while, and went to sleep watching the city lights.

In addition to taking a break from the train, I had decided to stop in Toronto to go see Niagara Falls. So that was the trip for today. The tour I booked picked me up out front, and I joined three other tourists in being taken out and dropped off at various locations around the falls and surrounding area. It’s a beautiful area, and I hope you enjoy the pics.

Tomorrow I’ll get back on the train for a few hours to Ottawa, where I’ll stay with some friends and head out the next day to Tisarana Buddhist monastery. I’ll be there until early June, so no posts for a while. Hope you’re all enjoying your summer!

Well that’s one way to get an upgrade…

Kamloops to Toronto by Via Rail

After the retreat, two local supporters of the monastery very kindly put me up in their home for the night, fed me, and woke up at “Oh-dark-thirty” to drive me to the train station, plying me with a care package of goodies for the road. I continue to feel warm gratitude for all the boundless help I receive on this trip!

From Kamloops to Jasper the train rode through the Canadian Rockies: Swiss-like mountains, rivers, and forests for miles and miles. While clearly visible, most of the views were behind and in between trees. Easy to see with the eye, but it became a comic effort to take pictures of anything in particular, other than trees. It was that way for nearly all of the trip – when one is moving so fast, in the time it takes to turn on the camera and/or focus it on the desired object, the opportunity is gone. I found it was easier to relax and enjoy the view without trying to make it last.

Bit by bit, we became more and more behind schedule waiting for freight trains with priority to pass. We got into Jasper, BC later than expected, which cut our visit time to a brief 45 minutes. Long enough to admire the surrounding mountains and browse a few shops. It looks like it could warrant a future visit.

Back on the train, we had a few hours of light in which to see local wildlife including moose and a coyote. As the sun went down, so did the elevation. By the next morning it was clear we weren’t in BC anymore, with gently rolling hills similar to eastern Montana. Pretty quickly the hills disappeared and transformed to flatter farmland, which continued for the rest of the second day.

I imagined when I booked the train that there would be bathrooms but no showers on the train. I was pleasantly surprised to learn otherwise. The shower is the basic 36″ size, but there is refreshingly hot water. It times out after 30-60 seconds, but can be immediately restarted. The challenge came in staying upright while the train was lurching from side to side, much like what taking a shower in a boat must entail. A boat on very choppy water, that is.

The food on the train has been another pleasant surprise. It comes as a package for those staying in bunks or rooms, and is quite good. There are usually about four choices for each meal, and are way above what you’d expect on a train – more like a  nice restaurant, complete with white tablecloths and the like.

So after some dietary indulgences, lost sleep, and general travel fun, I ended up with a migraine on the second day, and left the dinner table after the first bite. After I lost lunch as well, no less than three management folks came to talk to me about my symptoms. The result was that even though I had no fever and explained these were usual migraine symptoms, I was put in quarantine for 24 hours. Rather inconvenient, but on the plus side I was given an upgrade from my upper berth to a private room, and room service to boot. While I would not advise getting a migraine on a train, it certainly came with advantages! 

On the third day the landscape had transformed to boreal forests and lakes, which continued throughout the day as we rode through eastern Saskatchewan and Ontario. We ended up in Toronto about 3 hours late, just after noon.

All in all, it was a good trip, although if I did it again I’d do it a little differently. I’d spend a night or two in Jasper and Winnipeg to break up the constant sitting. I’d pack more clothes (some a little dressier than jeans and a t-shirt for the dining room) with me vs in my checked luggage that I didn’t have access to. And I’d spring for the single room.

While it was a surprise not to have Internet, especially when I had planned to use it for correspondence, its absence wasn’t the end of the world. It also gave me more opportunity to just sit and enjoy the view, which seems to be what the train experience is all about.

Ontario muskeg
Trees again!