POSTCARD # 489: Dated 12th September 2022: Aruna Ratanagiri Buddhist Monastery, Northumberland: I arrived at the monastery in a taxi from Newcastle, after an absence of seven years. First things you see are the stone walls and rundown farm buildings repaired and rebuilt. Grass, hedges, small gardens and trees grown up and all filled out. The monastery looks like it’s nestled into the landscape and everything has made room for it. The guest accommodation is down the hill, two dormitories, male and female and a few individual rooms. I have one of these rooms. There is a Dhamma hall where we sit in meditation, early morning and evening.
My first thoughts about the place were that even though there were these outer transformations, it had hardly changed in the seven years I’d been away – check out an earlier post about this monastery: [‘The thingness of things,’ POSTCARD # 81, dated: July 19th 2014]. I met the senior monk again and he didn’t look a day older. Some of the passageways were repaired and painted but basically it was just the same. It’s as if I’ve been away to the town to get a few things, in the car and coming back only now.
The monks, in brown/faded tangerine colour robes of ancient times, chanting together the historical Pali suttas: Nammo Tassa Bhagavato, Arahato SammasamBuddhassa [Homage to the Blessed] Noble and Perfectly Enlightened One]. Seeing this, and lifted in spirit by the sound of the chanting, I felt well prepared at the end of my UK trip, to step into the Buddha’s Teaching at the start of my return to Thailand.
The bell signals the beginning of a forty-five-minute meditation period. So, I’m getting comfortable on a chair nowadays, because my knees complain if I sit on the floor, and on the chair, the body/mind can get settled into the meditative state. The Theravada practice is not so much about the blissful experience, it’s more to do with the observation and analysis of the mind; the nature of thoughts leading to associated thoughts, headed for some kind of conclusion but never getting there. I’ve learned that this is ‘the doer’ compulsively doing things and we need this ‘doing’ to stop, and make way for ‘being.’ Drop the active driving force and allow the passive form, ‘to be.’
It’s hard to do this, the thinking process is being compulsively driven. You discover that it is after all, the doer, still busy with this and that. It’s possible then, to identify the Self behind it all, and ask that Self to leave the stage. The performance starts to quieten down after that, although the world ‘out there’ is still seen as Self, the doer, the ‘me’ in here, in the realm of ‘doing’, the metaphorical self, ‘I think therefore I am.’ Descartes and his unfortunate self-view – and that’s not the way to go.
Then it all starts to disperse and I’m inside a curious extended freeze-frame moment, vestiges of thoughts dissolve and the whole thing comes to a stop – a sense of immensely distant things and the ‘unthinking’ state arises. The compulsive ‘doer’ is seen in the shadows, but we are not having anything to do with that today, thank you. Then there is only the space and a curious light illuminates everything.
Incidental thinking episodes float by looking for a place to settle, but there’s nowhere that’s not occupied right now. The spaces between thoughts are being kept empty, those intervals that start and finish before the next thought arises. There’s the awareness of how one thought includes an awareness of another thought; awareness can be in two places at the same time. I contemplate something, and contemplate the mind contemplating that but I can’t go any further with this because the bell rings and we have to get up and put our cushions and things away.
Now it’s later, I’m in my room writing this and it’s uncomfortably cold here, fingertips touch the laptop tentatively, unwilling to make contact with its cold surface. I’m feeling chilled, can’t seem to get warm. There’s this uncertainty, all this moving from place to place, every second day. I came from Thailand only seven days ago, and I’ve been in four places – all over the place. Here in the monastery has been the longest stay, nice people, good conversations in Kusala House, and time to consider how the trip has worked out… it has gone well, I think. Everything is still uncertain, like the weather in UK. They were saying that things changed the day before yesterday… Summer became Autumn all of a sudden and the nearness to winter is not a pleasing thought for me. Yet I feel a connection with this kind of climate and this monastery, unfortunately, I’ll be away when the snowy weather comes. Thank you everyone, thank you Ajahn. Sorry to leave but looking forward to being back in the land of blue sky and summer all the time, departure on 13 September, 2 days remaining…
“… I went to Ajahn Chah once, totally beside myself with doubt and worry. After we talked awhile, he looked at me and said, ‘If something is uncertain and you want to make it certain, you are going to suffer.’ Well, that’s obvious. But he really knew what he was talking about, he really knew. If it’s uncertain, you’ve got to see it as uncertain – why try and make it certain? It’s only because of our attachment to certainty that we can’t learn from uncertainty; yet it’s only when we’re uncertain that we learn. When we’re uncertain, we can wake up, and look around and say, ‘What’s going on, what’s happening?’ We can be alert and attentive when we’re uncertain; when we’re sure, we just sit back and get fat and lazy. People who are really certain don’t have this sense of openness and vitality and investigation of life, everything’s very closed and sure.” [Ajahn Munindo, Forest Sangha Newsletter, Number 16, April 1991, “In Doubt We Trust.”]
Image by Herman Ettema: Buddha Rupa by the lake at Aruna Ratanagiri Monastery