Desolation….or not

About a year ago, I was talking with a good friend of mine that had settled on Cortes Island, in British Columbia. She was planning a kayaking trip in Desolation Sound with Ajahn Viradhammo, the abbot of Tisarana Buddhist Monastery. Dhamma and kayaking together? Where do I sign up? So I recently joined some friends in Canada for some kayaking and camaraderie. Ajahn Viradhammo gave several talks and wise teachings in this smaller group setting. Several “Cortesian” friends generously offered the use of their homes to our group, and we spent a relaxing week enjoying the atmosphere. The surrounding scenery was truly awe-inspiring, and led to a quiet stillness.


Following this, we went on a kayaking trip on Desolation Sound, east of Cortes. We loaded a mountain of gear into a mix of double and single sea kayaks, and set course for across the sound to the Martin islands.

All of this gear did eventually fit inside these kayaks. With room for ten people as well!
 

Landscapes that looked so far away from the shore of Cortes soon became more familiar. We set up our base camp, and over the next few days explored the Curme islands and Kinghorn Island.


We enjoyed spotting seals, deer, and numerous eagles, and took advantage of warm enough weather and water to go for a swim on most days. The cooler water was a welcome relief for sore muscles, and was clear enough to spot starfish and other sea life below.


Our return trip was a little more challenging. The sound crossing was pretty choppy with winds at 12-15 knots and waves crashing over our kayaks at times (yay for spray skirts!). Yet the kayaks felt secure, and paddling through the waves was quite fun, even if we did feel like we were still at sea for a few days after our return.

During a weekend retreat in Victoria the following weekend, Ajahn Viradhammo recounted how Luang Por Sumedho would describe an event as a “peak experience “; acknowledging that something was enjoyable, yet subtly pointing to its effervescent nature without being a downer. I would definitely describe this trip as a peak experience, and am thankful to Ajahn Viradhammo, my friend Sobhana, and many others who made it possible.

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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”.

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.

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.

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.