On the Road Again

Looking towards the lake district.

Monks, take to the road. Travel for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world; travel for the good, the benefit, the happiness of men and gods. Preach the Doctrine…
(Vin 1 21)

In the code of discipline of Buddhist monasticism (the Bhikkhu Vinaya in this case) there is no rule which made solitude obligatory; but in the sutta-pitaka solitude was thought to provide a suitable and sometimes essential atmosphere for the practice of meditation. To what extent did the practice of solitude remove Buddhist monks and nuns from society? Where they always alone? (The source of the above text is unknown to me.)

In our Order we take the Bodhisattva Precepts and for the most part live in community. Sometimes, as the early monks and nuns did, we take some time for solitary retreat. I’ve been packing up necessities these last couple of days in readiness to travel. I’ve taken up the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in our Hermitage in Wales. I’ll be alone and surrounded by sheep!

As was the case with the monks and nuns of old, I’ll not be checking email, or blogging! While I’m away on retreat my good traveling companion Iain has agreed to launch daily postings which I’ll be staying up very late tonight preparing. I found a poem by Ryokan, a bit of a hermit himself, who was greatly influenced by Zen Master Dogen. He wrote a poem titled Reading the Record of Eihei Dogen. This will be published in daily installments along with photographs.

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I’m staying two nights at Telford Buddhist Priory in the Midlands before moving on to the Welsh mountains. Rev. Saido, the monk in residence, took many of the photographs that you will see over the coming days. Many thanks.

Cat in Print

Visitors arriving at the abbey are more than likely to be greeted by Smudge, a black and white cat with the distinctive facial markings of a cat from a Japanese print. Smidge is officially the novices’ cat.
‘Cloister Cats’, Richard Surman

There is our dear Smudge sharpening his claws on the Ceremony Hall carpet. Next week we are having a new carpet fitted. Nothing to do with the cat, it was just time to replace the old one.

I met Smudge in the lane this evening, he was clearly not interested in having his picture taken. The book is currently on display in the novices common room for us all to take a look at our cat in print. Today Smudge was found sleeping in the sun, on top of the book!

Living the Teaching

Towards the end of my masters life I was fortunate to be one of her assistants. We were based at Shasta Abbey in Northern California. As an assistant, or Chaplain as we term that function, I spent a great deal of time in her company, basically doing what needed to be done.

One autumn I went back to England to visit my parents and I stayed at the Reading Priory where I’d been the Prior before returning to Shasta. One of the priory members greeted me with enthusiasm and said how wonderful it must be to be around my master and receive teaching from her. I cast my mind back and forth and couldn’t remember anything specific she’d said about Buddhism in my presence. Then out popped, We are not getting the teaching, we are living the teaching! That was the truth of it although only at that moment did I realise it.

My master wrote a diary while she was training in Japan as a young monk. An edited version, titled The Wild White Goose, makes it very clear that learning about Buddhism is predominately a practical matter. A reader recently wrote his own review of the book.

Spring in The Air

Why do lambs gambol together, run races and leap in the air, from a standstill, for no apparent reason? Why do young rabbits role and tumble and whirl in a ball, in the middle of the road? Why do small birds shake and fluff while standing on the spot building themselves to a frenzy, then issue up unseemly squawking. Why is it that young sentient creatures just can’t keep still?

I was driven to Newcastle this afternoon to make my final visit to the Chinese doctor and collect my last weeks worth of medicine. Spring is in the air. Looking out towards Scotland, and in all directions, there is green. There is so much green I can hardly believe my eyes. I’d forgotten what green was or how green green can be! Amazing. Perhaps the grass is singing and shaking along with the birds. Look! There’s a hereon fishing in a pond beside the road.

At the mall the interpreter said the doctor said, You’re not perfect! I’m happy with that. You want more energy? (As if it’s something for sale.) Well no I don’t want more energy. I’m fine now thanks. I spread my arms wide to demonstrate how fine and full of energy I am. If I need more energy, I’ll rest. We laugh together and get on with chatting about writing web blogs and how I’d written about the good doctors simple advice. Perhaps the interpreter, and manager of the store, is reading this.

Energy is interesting. It’s easy to see in the young and it seems they have too much. Energy seems to diminish with age but I’m not so sure of that. Perhaps unlike the tweeting bird or gambolling lambs we have the capacity, now we are full grown, to live in a more dignified way and express a steady vitality, which is no less energetic for all that.

Alive and Well

Many thanks to those who have written asking after my health and general well being. Soon after I returned from Wales a month ago my strength fairly much dissolved in a somewhat alarming way. This coincided with my having to notch up my efforts to meet a deadline. Thankfully I found a knowing Chinese doctor who had me back on my feet very quickly. Last time we met I asked how I might maintain my energy now it had returned. She went on at great length and I listened intently. The interpreter turned to me and said, ‘Doctor says, when tired you rest’! I’ve been doing that and thankfully I can say with confidence that I am both alive and well.

I’m really sorry however to have been silent these past weeks. Just a couple of days ago the documents I’ve been working on were completed and circulated for consideration. This is not the end of my need to focus on my monastic responsibilities, as I’m bound to do that anyway. However I’d like to get back to writing here again and will do my best to return as often as I can.

The one subject I’d like to write about is the Master/Disciple relationship which is central to the way we pass on the teaching in our tradition. I read an article in Tricycle by Jacob Needleman called Bread and Stone. It’s an interesting look at the age-old question of how to recognize an authentic spiritual teacher. Through a conversation with a few of his students the question turned around to how much do you want to find a spiritual teacher. How urgent is your inquiry? Having found a teacher, how intent are you to listen and follow their advice. Zen Master Dogen has lots to say on the subject.