Not Sure

When I arrived at Abhayagiri five months ago, I had a plan. I was going to stay there indefinitely, and all was going to go perfectly.

As I’ve heard in the past, “If you want to make the universe laugh, just develop a plan”.

As I stayed here, I was reminded that my plan was not necessarily the plan of the community. It would remain to be seen whether it would work out to have me stay. And on my end, as I learned what living in a large community entailed, there was some wavering. Was this what I really wanted? Could I fit in to this large group and lifestyle? But in time I began to feel the strength of the community, and the benefit of living and practicing within it. Once again, I felt a firm resolve to stay put. I had a plan.

Despite the fact that everything around us is constantly changing, the mind clings to the idea of certainty, to safety. The habit is in our DNA, to ensure the continuity of the species. And yet, the very clinging for safety, the constant planning, the gripping to the “sure thing”, causes stress. There’s no end to it. It’s like walking up an icy hill, scrambling for purchase that isn’t there. Or, as in one of my favorite movies, The Christmas Story, like Ralphie scrambling up the slide to try to get what he wants from Santa Claus (Watch here).

Ajahn Chah, the founder of the tradition which Abhayagiri follows, used to frequently say “Mae Naer” or, “Not sure”. No matter how much control we think we have over what happens, it’s not sure. Even the thoughts we have in our mind, and their validity – not sure. The validity of the contents of this blog? Not sure.

Intellectually it makes sense that all is changing, and that what I think to be true may not be. Yet in actuality it’s been a more challenging practice to incorporate. I like to be in control. Who doesn’t? Yet I’m reminded over and over again that I’m not. Despite scrambling for purchase on the slide of life and occasionally reaching the top again, the foot of reality says “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid”, and I’m once again going for a ride.

In my life, change has struck again. While I will be returning to Abhayagiri for a few weeks after this coming trip to Canada, I won’t be staying there as originally planned. Instead, I’ll be spending some time with my parents in Pennsylvania. I’m ok with this new plan, and it feels like the right thing to do right now. And maybe, just maybe, it’s not so much a plan, as just accepting what is, right now. 

Be well and peaceful dear readers, and in the words of Ajahn Sona, another teacher in this tradition….

“Don’t worry. Everything is perfectly out of control”.

Groundhog Day, Over and Over Again

I’ve been here at Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery since the end of
December. Nestled in the hills of Mendocino County California,
the monastery is in the Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada
Buddhism. I’ve been visiting here since 2012, and continue to
return for the community and the abbot, Ajahn Pasanno.

Each year from the beginning of January to April 1st, the
community of monks and lay residents put their regular duties
aside (at least, mostly) and go on silent retreat. During this time, a
crew of volunteers arrives to take over the general duties of the
monastery; cooking, maintenance, office work, book requests,
etc.. I’ve been one of those volunteers for the last three months.
For those that read my blog last year from Tisarana, or my blog
from two years ago, it’s roughly the same scenario. A day in the
life of a retreat support member goes something like this….

Is it really 4AM already?

I crawl out of bed and get ready to start the day with morning
puja in the meditation hall. Since the monastery is located on a
hillside, I walk down the hill from the women’s building and up
and down another hill to reach where I need to go. It’s a ten
minute walk, which helps to add some wakefulness.

I quietly walk into the meditation hall after removing my shoes
outside, set up my seat, and bow to the shrine. It’s not as if I think
the shrine is actually the Buddha. I’m bowing to symbolism of the
awakened mind, the teachings that lead to it, and those who are
on the path.

At 5AM, the puja starts with chanting in Pali (the ancient language
similar to Sanskrit in which the Buddha’s teachings were
recorded) and English for about 20 minutes, then continues for an
hour of mediation. Afterwards I perform my morning chore which
is usually some sort of cleaning and checking messages, until the
bell rings for breakfast. It’s usually oatmeal, with the usual
breakfast beverages.

After breakfast cleanup, my fellow crew members and I start the
day with our appointed tasks.

I’m in the kitchen today, and my job, with two other members, is
to prepare a meal for over thirty people in less than three hours
with whatever food is in the fridge and pantry. All the groceries
are donated, and there’s not always exactly what you want for a
particular recipe. It’s sort of like an episode of “Chopped”: You
have these ingredients. Make something good out of them in a
certain period of time. Thanks to the generosity of many donors,
and the skill of the cooking crew, it’s usually a pretty good meal.

After lunch and cleanup, the retreat schedule has varied,
sometimes with scheduled group afternoon meditation,
sometimes with free time to practice on one’s own.

Today there’s free time, and it’s not cold and raining (surprisingly
it’s been cold and rainy quite frequently, and we’ve even had
snow a few times), so a good time to take a walk. I slowly climb
nearly a thousand feet up to the nearby ridge, to observe the
damage caused by last summer’s fires. The fires came through
and destroyed much of the forests and the nearby town, yet the
monastery was mainly untouched. If you look for the monastery
on Google Earth, there are already updated photos showing the
extent of the damage.

At 6:30pm we meet for a question and answer period, or a
reading, and then evening puja at seven. It’s pretty much the
same as morning puja, with slightly different chanting. After puja
is over, I walk back up the hill to the women’s section, and after
some reading, go to bed to do it again the next day.

The schedule is mostly the same. Every. Single. Day. One looses
track of time: What’s the date? What day of the week is it?

About once a week on lunar observance days we stay up
practicing until 3AM (if we’re not working the next day), and
during the retreat, the crew have regular days off. But the routine,
even though it’s not one I’d necessarily follow at home, is
somehow helpful. The mind comes up with enough things in
meditation (and in general) that provide all the “interesting” one
needs.

I’ve found some peace here, and space to hold what comes up in
life and in the mind. So for now I’ll stay here a while if the
community will allow me to do so, and see where life takes me.

I’ve volunteered to stay to help with the new library here,
something I had hoped two years ago that I’d be able to work on.
It means transferring the books to new shelves, reorganizing them
to a better cataloging system, and eventually entering the Library
of Congress information for all the books into a computer with
library software. No small task, since there are thousands of
books, but one I’ll enjoy working on.

I don’t know how long I’ll be here. I have a trip planned in June
and another in August, and hope to return here between them.
But I’m feeling easier about not having much of a plan, and just
being here now, every day, over and over again.

Be well and peaceful.

Walking The Big Black Dog

I haven’t written any new posts for a while for a few reasons. The first being that I was
spending time with family during the holidays, and not really doing any blog-worthy,
“touristy” things. Which was just fine.
The second reason was that for most of the time since my last post I was wrapped in a
funk that was tough to shake off. I couldn’t really see the point of writing, or of anything
in general. The things I usually enjoyed held little interest, nor did I have the energy to
take part in them. I walked around feeling like I was wearing one of those lead aprons
you wear during X-rays. Most of the time I spent wanting to stay in bed, curled up in a
ball. While I don’t drink, I could see the appeal. Everything was just…meh.
After I left Tisarana Monastery in Canada, I had a lot of time on my hands to ruminate
over a recent loss and betrayal of friendship. Instead of continuing the work with
feelings that came up, I used the spare time to distract myself: watching movies,
surfing the net, reading, eating tons of holiday sweets, and just hanging out.
I was walking “The big black dog” (as Winston Churchill called it) of depression. I hid it
from my family (although no longer, as they follow this blog) because who wants to be
a downer during the holidays? But there it is.
I also struggled with sharing it with others because there’s this held perception that as
a Buddhist, if someone is “doing well” in their practice, then they won’t have any
depressed thoughts. Like we’re all supposed to be shiny, happy people, 24-7.
It was good to spend time with family and friends though, and it kept me going. Having
people around you who love and support you goes a long way.
I also had the chance to talk with a few Buddhist friends and discovered that they too,
on occasion, had dealt with the same issues – even friends who have practiced for
years. Discovering the shared difficulty and shattering the perception of a “perfect
practitioner” was immensely helpful. I wasn’t alone after all, despite what the mind was
telling me.
At the end of the year, I returned to Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery to help with the
winter retreat. I’m now on the retreat schedule of increased meditation, and have been
tweaking my practice by including more body awareness, and refraining from investing
in the stories that depression tells the mind (at least sometimes). It does help. I’m
finding that Buddhist practice isn’t a guarantee against depression, but it gives me
great tools to work with it. I’ve also been walking more, doing more yoga practices,
taking vitamin B12, using a SAD light, and ruminating less (mostly).
Also key has been remembering that this is not “me”. It’s a “tropical depression” in the
sky of who “I” am, of time and space. It won’t last forever, and is passing through at its
own speed.

All of the things above have helped, and while I wouldn’t say I’m back to being a
“shiny, happy person” (if that truly exists), the forecast now is fair to partly sunny. I find
myself laughing a bit more often, and am at least more peaceful. I’ll take it for now.
My next post will be about the monastery where I’m staying, and what I’m currently
doing. But for now, I wanted to share what had been going on. I almost didn’t make
this post, but I decided that there’s strength in sorrow shared. If there’s someone out
there that can benefit from knowing that they’re not alone, then it’s worth having
people know I’m not perfect.
Ok, you probably knew that already, but it’s tough to drop the ideal sometimes. Thanks
for bearing with me.
Be well and…peaceful.

Sabbehi me piyehi manāpehi, part two

I’ve returned to Tisarana Buddhist Monastery, located in rural Ontario, Canada. It has been somewhat of a refuge here. While I’ve been interacting with the monastics and guests here to some degree, I’ve had a lot of time on my own. I’m staying in a kuti (a small cabin), and it’s been wonderful to have a bit of privacy and seclusion again. I’m finding I’m enjoying my own company more than I have in the past.

The scenery here has been gorgeous. Changing leaves, fall colors, and amazing sunsets on the nearby lake. I’ve had time to do some walking and kayaking as well as formal meditation practice. I’ve also had time to look at the changing nature of things, and to be more at peace with it. The sun sets and the moon rises, filling the sky with silvery light. The falling leaves make way for spring’s new growth. Change isn’t always a bad thing.

All the things that we find ourselves clinging to, both positive and negative, can change. And we can be better off for it. Sometimes losing what we think is ours, beloved or pleasing can make room for new growth.

So I’ll be here for another month, enjoying the changing season.



Sabbehi me piyehi manāpehi

I don’t always miss you.

Lost in dreamless sleep, I long for nothing and no one.

When I’m busy and focused,

I don’t notice that a part of me is elsewhere, miles and miles away.

When I’m aware

Of the sound of silence, my breath, or the birds in the trees

I’m not drifting, lost, a sail without wind on an endless sea.

But otherwise…

When night approaches quietly, and emptiness creeps in like something slithering,

When memories come crashing in like waves, leaving an ebb of regret,

When the rest of the day goes on,

Your face tugs at the sleeve of my mind

Over and over

Reminding me of all I’ve left behind,

And all that I could lose.

Harnham Buddhist Monastery (Or, “What I did for my summer vacation”

For the last few months I’ve been back at Harnham Monastery, nestled in the gently rolling hills of Northumberland, England. Sheep and cows graze upon green fields, and the sun plays hide and seek between the clouds (mostly hiding). The monastery is smaller in space than other monasteries, and the area around it is quiet (except for the cows and sheep).

I came here to support a friend, but I’ve been supported here in learning much about myself and Buddhist practice. While there were no great bolts of insight, I did see into a few things in a slightly clearer manner.

First was dealing with loneliness. A lot of time to myself initially left me seeking distraction to fill the time alone. Theres not much distraction available at a monastery: No music, no tv, no eating after noon. I started doing a lot of walking. While this helped some (and also helped me lose ten pounds in the process), being with the loneliness, feeling it in the body and offering compassion seemed to help the most. I’m still learning.

It wasn’t all loneliness, and interactions with others became another practice. It’s funny how even platonic relationships can throw a mirror in your face and show you where your rough edges are. Previously unnoticed aspects of yourself and habits are revealed. “Really? Have I been doing that all along?” It’s a process that never ends, I think. 

Also was the realization that there is no ideal time in the future when I’m going to “really get on with my practice”. The time is now, and the practice is happening right now, whether I “really get down to it” or not. At least that’s the feeling I have these days. To paraphrase John Lennon, practice is happening while you’re busy planning your practice.

Yes, there were other lessons as well. Some I’m still processing, some personal, and some that just don’t lend themselves to being blog topics. For as much time as I spent here, I suppose this blog entry is pretty short. Much of what goes on at monasteries doesn’t seem exciting in the standards of the world outside, but I assure you it was time well spent.

So enjoy some of the pictures below, and may your own lessons continue in a beneficial way.

Swan on Bolam Lake



Yup. It’s a hedgehog. Apparently their population is dwindling, so I’m glad I got to meet one up close.


Barley close up
Barley harvesting

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.