Changing Weather, Changing Plans

I’ve just left Tisarana Buddhist Monastery in Perth, Ontario, after finishing the winter retreat period plus another month.

When I arrived, it was a typical Canadian winter. Slowly I watched the icy and snow capped landscape gradually thaw and transform into spring. By the time I left, the lakes had thawed, the trees were budding, and the grass was an electric green.

Which recycling category do raccoons fit in?


Brrrr!

Inukshuk


The retreat itself went well. Perhaps not in a way of deep concentration, but insights nonetheless. When you spend day after day with a handful of people on a regular basis, the experience becomes a giant mirror on your interpersonal habits. How do you respond in a skillful way (hopefully) when someone pushes your buttons? And you also find how you push other people’s buttons as well. How does each situation feel? Where is the suffering? When all our usual distractions are removed, habits become more obvious. 

For example, while I love alone time, if I’m around other people, there’s a tendency for me to talk. Sometimes a lot. I was able to look at this and see where it came from, and when it causes difficulty. Am I now quiet and reserved? Hardly. But there is at least a new awareness around it. And also an awareness that it’s not always a bad thing in some situations, and not necessarily a problem unless I make it one. So there’s a bit of acceptance as well. I’m willing to call it progress.

Amidst all this personal work was time making new friendships and strengthening old ones. The community of monks and lay people here is quite a warm, welcoming group, and one I feel comfortable returning to.

It’s a long story, but tonight I’m headed back to England to Harnham Monastery, which I visited last year. I’ll still have limited internet, but will try to post again from there.

Be well and happy, dear readers!

Winter Retreat at Tisarana Buddhist Monastery, Ontario CA

Morning time, and all is quiet, except for the sound of my boots, crunching through the snow.Wind blows cold, making the -14C (10F) seem much colder. It seeps through my thin cotton pants, reminding me that another bottom layer would have been a good idea.

Oh well.

I choose a quiet road, where no vehicles have been since last night’s snow. The animals have been busy here however, and I see footprints of deer, rabbits, foxes and coyotes. Snow still covers the branches of the trees, unmelted as of yet by a sun that’s shining through a thick curtain of clouds.

I reach a nearby lake, still frozen to some degree, but not enough for me to comfortably test. I stop to enjoy the immensity of the frozen form, the enticing islands in the middle of it. To enjoy the quiet. The vastness.


Walking back, I hear a conversation between two old trees, creaking and moaning as they sway in the wind. 

“Oh, my joints ache” 

“Oh, me too. And my lumbago is acting up: I got no rest last night!”

“Yes, I heard you groaning all night”

I return to the monastery, where the guests stay in a beautiful old farmhouse. It’s my quiet day, on which I have no responsibilities, other than to take time to be present and enjoy the space, and spend time with the mind.

The six of us here have the pleasant task of keeping the monastery running while the monastics and long term lay residents are on retreat. It’s not an onerous job by any means, and we have plenty of quiet time as well. It’s a lovely bunch of people to be with, and a wonderful, peaceful place. 
**Just as a side note, there is very limited internet time here, so I’m not following blogs while I’m here. So if I haven’t “liked” or commented on your posts lately, it’s not personal. I’ll be back into the blogging world in May. Maybe.

Finding Balance

During my recent travels, for the most part I was removed from American politics. I could watch what was going on in both the American and local (wherever I was at the time) political arena as an outsider, which lent itself to equanimity.

I can’t say that I was that involved before I left, but I could certainly see a sense of self revolve around political events and my reaction to them: this leader was “bad”, this other was “good”. I liked some policies, others seemed misguided at best. That duality was somewhat encouraged by the crowds I was within. Not because anyone suggested doing this, but because we all shared the same opinions.

But finding myself in other countries, it was easier to remove myself from political views and opinions. Not that I didn’t have them, but their pull was not as strong. Events in the states were occurring halfway around the world, and without constant access to television, I heard less about them. Locally, not being a citizen, I had no influence over what happened, which granted a certain freedom. It’s easy to be equanimous when one isn’t directly involved (The Indian demonetization excepted).

I have to say that the equanimity was a relief. A freedom to put views and opinions at a distance and say, in the words of one of my teachers, “It’s like this”.

In the Buddha’s time, monastics were instructed to stay out of politics. The idea was that monasteries should be a place of refuge for those of any political party, and no one should feel like they wouldn’t be welcome. Also, there was a higher goal of maintaining equanimity and losing the sense of “this is mine, this is I, this is my self”.

And while I don’t fall under the requirements that monasteries do, I still would like to think that I could have positive exchanges with people of opposing views. That the practice of metta wouldn’t be limited to political party, and that all would feel welcome in my presence.

Even as a lay-person, equanimity is still a goal. So at first, when I returned, my goal was to stay out of the political world, holding on to that equanimity with all my might.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Thanks to a regular exposure to views and opinions from both sides, I found myself in a quandary. When faced with actions that can cause harm to a large group of people, is it fair to stand aside and do nothing? As a layperson, I have no precept or constraint to stay out of politics. So the question I’m facing is this: can one find a balance between standing up for what one believes to be right, yet maintain equanimity? Can one recognize and resist when harm is being done without holding to views and opinions?

I haven’t figured out the answer yet. I believe somewhere in watching the mind, and seeing what leads to suffering and what doesn’t is the key. It’s a work in progress. I suppose that’s why they call it a “practice”.

Retreating to Wat Pah Nanachat 

Wat Pah Nanachat is a Buddhist monastery in northeastern Thailand that belongs to the Thai Forest Theravadan school of Buddhism. It was founded by Ajahn Chah (a renowned monk in that tradition) in the early 70’s as he had an increasing number of western students. At Wat Pah Nanachat the western monks could receive the same training given in other Thai Forest monasteries, but in English until they gained some proficiency in the Thai language. Many of the western monks in this tradition today started out at this monastery, and I wanted to spend some time there.

I had originally planned a longer visit, but travel fatigue and diminishing funds shortened the Thailand portion of the trip. Still, this was definitely the highlight of my time in Thailand, so I thought I’d share the experience, and in a slightly different way…
From Bangkok, you decide to take the scenic twelve hour train route to Ubon Ratchathani. To make things more interesting, you decide to go third class on a friend’s advice. So early in the morning you go to the train station (which lacks the grime and smell of urine that you’re used to at train stations), buy your ticket and find your seat by the window. 

The train is pretty empty. There are rows of benches facing each other on both sides of the aisle, and fans overhead. The coach is fairly clean. A few people step aboard, hoist their luggage in the racks overhead, and begin speaking to each other and occasionally to you, in Thai. A melodic language of which you understand very little, if any. You find yourself wishing you had studied a little more Thai before you got here.The train takes off and you feel the wind on your face as you watch at first buildings, then rice paddies go by. It’s a moving picture that keeps you entertained in between trying to communicate with the friendly people who sit near you and trying to identify the food that the numerous vendors bring by.


You see little packages wrapped in banana leaves and know from experience that sticky rice is usually inside. You summon up the courage to by some for a minimal price and proceed to open a small breakfast of sticky rice with sweet beans inside. 

You’re not disappointed. A bit later you decide to try another dish. While you prefer vegetarian food, the only options seem to be meat. Half chickens on a stick. Fish on a stick. Pieces of pork on a stick. You go for the latter and hope for the best. Later, of course, they bring the vegetables – slices of something between a cucumber and a squash with sweet chili powder. You eat all this along with a Thai iced tea before noon and call it good.

The scenery and hours go by until you reach Ubon Ratchathani, and finally your hotel. Knowing you’ll have to be up before the crack of dawn for the next few days, you turn in early.
And wake up in the early morning running to the bathroom. 

Your head is aching like your worst migraine, you feel hot, then cold, and spend the day throwing up. And wondering, was it the pork? You’ll never know, but you’re certainly not going to the monastery today. You’re thankful that you didn’t eat anything in the evening yesterday. It’s not until later that evening that you can tolerate sips of fluids, and the headache begins to subside.

The next morning is a new day, you’re feeling 90% better and you head to the monastery. Behind the gates of Wat Pah Nanachat is a forested area that feels like another world. You find the large, open sided meditation hall and sit down with a mat on the marble floor. 


About two dozen monks arrive in ochre robes, sit down at the front of the hall, and chant a blessing. Then they go to the kitchen to receive food that has been prepared and offered to them. Like the monastics in the Buddha’s time, they rely completely on the lay community for food: whatever is offered is what they eat for that day. No calling Domino’s Pizza or running to 7-11 for snacks. The monastics are fed and given shelter, and the lay community benefits by receiving spiritual guidance and examples of ethical behavior. It’s a two way street that ties the two together. In addition, the monastics are required to finish their meal before noon. At Wat Pah Nanachat, the meal is offered at 8 am and finished well before 9. 

When the monks have been served, you join the other guests in taking the meal. You then meet with the monk who arranges guest lodging. Visitors to the monastery are expected to abide by the eight precepts, and are asked to turn in electronic devices during their stay. Even though you use it often, you breathe a sigh of relief at cutting the internet cord for a while.
You’re taken to the women’s section where you’re assigned a meditation hut, called a kuti. You’re given a reed mat to sleep on, a blanket, and a pillow. You have your own sheets. There are no beds – it’s just the mat. You’re also given black skirts and grey tops that are the uniform of women visitors. Male visitors wear all white, and after a week’s time are required to shave their heads and eyebrows like the monks do.


There’s nothing scheduled until three in the afternoon, so you have time for personal practice. Even though it’s January, it’s still warm enough in the day that you struggle to stay awake. Finding a walking meditation path, you observe the sensations in your feet as they make contact with the air and earth. You can almost feel the presence of Ajahn Chah here, urging you to do so much walking meditation that you make a rut in your waking path.

At 3:00 you join the other visitors in sweeping leaves, and at 4:30 you have tea time. Mostly this entails drinking sugary beverages to get an energy boost for the rest of the day. You have just enough time to go back to your kuti area to take a cold shower before going to the meditation hall at 6:15.

The evening Puja, or meditation service, starts with chanting in English and Pali. If you’re interested, here’s a link to some recordings. The chanting is finished, and now it’s time to watch the breath, with varying levels of success. Your mileage may vary. But by the end of an hour, the mind usually settles down at least a little, and you peacefully return to your kuti to fall asleep.

What? Is that the alarm already? It can’t be!

Oh, but it is. 0300. Time to get ready for morning Puja at three thirty. Same routine of chanting and meditation, but the newness of the day brings another dimension. And once you get used to it, it’s not so bad. You can even do walking meditation at the back of the meditation hall to stay awake.

You spend an hour doing some cleaning, and then are released until seven to help with setting up the food line. And a new day begins…


After traveling around for so long, staying at WPN was a taste of coming home. I had an encouraging talk with Ajahn Siripañño at the end of my visit there and my stay was a peaceful conclusion for the journey. 

I did spend a day wandering in Bangkok before and after the trip, which I’ll write about later, but Wat Pah Nanachat was both the draw and reward for coming to Thailand, so I wanted to share this first.

Bodhgaya: Beyond the temple walls

I hesitated to make this post, but I finally felt the need to share the other side of this area that doesn’t make it to the “Incredible India” tourist posters.

Bihar is considered one of the poorest states in India. And if one ventures further than the markets and the temples in Bodhgaya, one will see that this village is one of the poorest areas in the state.

This is my third time staying in Bodhgaya, and yet this is the first time I’ve become aware of the magnitude of poverty here in this area. By chance or karma, I landed in a guesthouse that’s right in the middle of village life, so to speak. The guesthouse itself is better than some others I’ve stayed in, and is spotless. I feel safe enough here as well, and would even use the guesthouse again if I return.


But staying here and walking around the back streets has really opened my eyes. I’ve seen slums and other poor areas in India before. Yet here on a daily basis I’m now walking along streets with open drainage, trash, houses without solid doors or roofs, and probably without plumbing. I’m cold enough to be bundled in a fleece over-shirt and scarf, yet there are kids running around without shoes, and sometimes without pants.

All the tourist money coming into the area is obviously not reaching the people that live here, and my heart goes out to them. They seem so resilient, and still friendly, returning the smiles of the strange gori walking through their midst. I realize how very, very fortunate I am.

 

I’ve read some reasons why the poverty continues here despite the town garnering impressive incomes. I’m not from here, and given the state of politics in my home country, don’t feel qualified to propose any reasons or solutions. There are some charities that seem to be doing great work here, but help for most seems to be slow in coming.

My aim in this post is just to share some of the other side, and let you see what’s behind the tourist curtain.

Bodhgaya: The Beautiful

Over 2500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama came to Bodhgaya after several years of study under various teachers, and self practice with austerity. Realizing that the extreme austerity hadn’t brought him to the end of suffering, he recalled a time of peaceful meditation he had experienced as a child. He decided to return to that practice, and after meditating for some time under a local ficus tree, he experienced enlightenment. At that moment, he became the Buddha, meaning the awakened one.

Great Buddha Statue

While the original tree was destroyed, a cutting from it was planted in Sri Lanka. The large Bodhi Tree that stands today has grown from a cutting of that Sri Lankan tree, and spreads over peaceful grounds where visitors all over the world come to visit. There is a temple near the tree that was constructed in the 6th century, at the site of a previous temple that had been demolished. Various stupas surround the grounds, and offerings are placed around the complex. Monastics in various colors of robes sit and meditate, chant, circumambulate, and perform prostrations around the temple. While I was there, there were Buddhist monks from all over the world participating in chanting the original Buddhist teachings. It made for a lovely space to meditate in.


Chanting under the tree
Stupa near the temple

 
Outside the temple complex are international temples built in the style of the countries which built them. I visited a few, although the main draw for me was the main temple with the Bodhi tree. Some of the monasteries here are really amazing to see, and are quite ornate, complete with all the finery.

The Thai Temple:


Tibetan Temples:



Japanese Temple:

Thousands of people flock here to Bodhgaya, and especially at the main temple, the spirit of devotion is palpable. Bodhgaya is still probably my favorite of the Buddhist holy sites, and I’m quite content to just sit under the tree as well.

However, there is another side to Bodhgaya beyond the temple walls and the paved main streets. And that will be the subject of my next post.