One thing that distinguishes Buddhist forest monasteries from most places is that every day, for some (often the same) period of the day, you can hear the sound of sweeping. In the Western monasteries there are vacuum cleaners as well, but it is the sound of bristles brushing repeatedly, patiently and indomitably across stone that tells you you’re in a place of Dhamma-practice. Every day that stone paving will get muddy or cluttered with leaves, and every day, as if in a timeless and unhurried struggle against the forces of grubbiness, brooms will rhythmically swoosh across it. It’ll be the same tomorrow so there’s no hurry; but neither is there reluctance or despondance about the pointlessness of moving dirt around on a planet that is made of the stuff. Because it’s not about getting things done and finished: sweeping is just what we do, it’s a meditative kamma-yoga. We sweep just to be the sweeping; the rest is uncertain. The sound is like a mantra. Tidying up is itself one mark of a community; it makes you feel that you belong to a place.
And so, after the long winter retreat when we’ve been more focused on our internal spaces, it’s good to move out into the grounds and tidy up the windfalls, the masses of dead leaves that get wedged under doors, around drains and against anything that has stood outside these past few months. Being out here, in the unusually warm and blooming spring, is an awakening to the active world that we’ll be steering through for the rest of the year. Our routines, work, and occasional events involve crossing these few acres: so it’s good to prepare the ground, to make it a sanctuary.
Of course, tidying up one’s mind and heart is the theme of any retreat, one of attending to potentially sacred ground. We clear what obstructs the mind so that purity is revealed. Even then, that inner sweeping is a supportive condition, but not an inevitable cause for realization: one can get fixated on the broom, the floor, the dirt or what other people are doing – and thereby miss the brightness of a pure abiding. So in order to avoid getting bogged down in the details of one’s inner story, practice has to be more holistic. We are encouraged to sweep all quarters with kindness, through mindful awareness established internally, externally and in-between.
The resultant open alertness is of great benefit in a monastery because here we are constantly in the presence of the aspirations, commitments and generosity of all those who visit. For example, at the beginning of the year, it was an inspiration to have so many people come to take the Refuges and Five Precepts. For the first time since we began offering this opportunity, we had to use the Dhamma Hall (which was full) for the ceremony. This speaks volumes about the will to commit towards living with integrity, something that can only be for the good of the society and the individual.
That same open alertness can guide our relationships in terms of attention, cordiality and respect. For some of us, the start of this year meant attendance at the International Elders’ Meeting in Thailand. It was a lot lighter and friendlier than that title suggests – actually the idea to call it International Elders Meeting was partially because the acronym IEM, when pronounced as a word makes the sound which is Thai for ‘to meet’. So it was a meeting whose aim and procedure was not to decide or authorize anything, but just to host a reflective get-together for Luang Por Chah’s senior Western monks and nuns. As the occasion was the 20th anniversary of Luang Por Chah’s passing away, it was especially significant and convivial. Luang Por Sumedho was present, but true to his retirement stance took no part in any of the formal meetings, meeting people individually instead. (I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear that he is well and enjoying his free time.) For the rest of us it was a warm-hearted ‘iem’ indeed, and one that brought up many topics around staying in touch with Luang Por Chah’s everyday life approach, while responding to the increasing complexities and diversity of the societies that we’re dwelling in. It’s when looking into areas of internet usage and high-speed communications that grabbing a broom feels like a blessed relief. It keeps you grounded.
Living at Cittaviveka means that one has access to a well-managed piece of woodland that includes heathland and a lake. It is an enormous asset, and one that is unique to our Sangha in Europe. Living with Nature opens the mind to the grounding energies of the natural world. The benefit is mutual in that it’s because of a non-commercial and environmentally conscious community that the Hammer Wood has been restored to a natural state after over half a century of use for coppicing, hunting and fishing. This restoration work and environmental training is ongoing, and this year we are planning to hold another ‘Chithurst Forest Week’ in the summer. This will be the third such event in successive years, and will include the now customary ingredients of camping, voluntary work in the woods, forest pujas, and wildlife guided walks. Lay men and women are invited to come and take part. The week begins on Saturday 30th June and ends the following Saturday, 7th July. The plan is to have a guided walk that explains the management of the woods, and also to have experts lead walks and talk about the wildlife that they find. The focus for this year’s rambles is on botany, bugs and birds. There are a few main projects. One is the control of invasive species such as bracken and Himalayan balsam, which can completely dominate areas to the exclusion of all other plants. There will also be repairs to steps and fences; and tree planting after-care. Participants are expected to keep the eight precepts during the week and a program is being put together, including details of how to book, which will be displayed in April on the Cittaviveka blog www.chithurst.blogspot.co.uk and at the monastery itself.
There will be more meetings (and more elders) at Cittaviveka in the first part of the year. We expect Luang Por Khoon and Ajahn Piyasilo to come through in mid-April, followed by Luang Pors Bunchoo, Khum, and Dumrong between May 15th and 21st.
Our Wesak Celebration will be on May 27th. Then on June 17th, it will be Father’s Day, Luang Por Chah’s birthday and the Annual Thod Pha Pa, with the usual mix of people, celebration and meditation. After which, between July 11th and 17th, we expect to be hosting Tan Ajahn Viradhammo, a much-loved veteran from the early days who is now based at Tisarana Monastery, near Ottawa in Canada. Please come for a visit!
Every coming seems to be accompanied by a going or two. Ajahn Abhinando returned to Aruna Ratanagiri in March after spending eight months in solitude on retreat in Hammer Wood.Cittaviveka was where he entered Sangha life and spent his early years as a bhikkhu, and so it felt very good to offer him this special time as he approaches his twentieth Vassa. As the weather warms up, Ven. Dhammarakkho will be undertaking another long tudong in the Midlands and will be spending Vassa at Amaravati. In June we’ll be losing Ven. Subhaddo who will be joining Ajahn Vajiro in Portugal as part of the scheme to establish a monastery there. Also in June Ven. Aruno will be returning to his native Italy to help out at Santacittarama for six months or so.
It’s good to be part of a larger Sangha and we all benefit from the sharing, and the multi-cultural membership of our communities. It helps to keep the ethos centred on Dhamma values rather than any national sense. In that spirit, some of us will be travelling to teach abroad as well as in this country. Hopefully this will brush away some stress and confusion, but you don’t need to be a samana to do that. Internally, externally and all around, the advice is to just keep working at it.
But if you find benefit in reminders and companionship, please come, grab a broom and join in!