Issue 10: Summer
Retreat Reflection

Meditation is a holiday for the heart

A retreat in the Theravadan Tradition.
Written by Michael Elsmere.

On the 7th May this year I found myself in terminal 5 at Heathrow waiting for an incoming flight. A year previously I had, perhaps rashly, promised a long time Swedish friend I would accompany her to a retreat in the Theravadan tradition at Amaravati. Lena had listened on CD to many of the talks given by Ajahn Sumedho who is the Abbot. When she learned that he was to lead a 10-day retreat she was determined to take part but felt she needed a ‘like minded friend’, as she put it, to accompany her. Subsequently we applied, only to find that in the lottery for places I had obtained a place but she had not! However as May approached as she was still on the waiting list her name came up for a place.

Ajahn Sumedho had been invited to England in 1977 after many years of practice in Thailand with a number of Theravadan masters, amongst them Ajahn Chah. The English Sangha Trust wanted to establish a forest monastery in England and this was achieved in 1979 with the purchase of a large ruined house in Chithurst which became Chithurst Buddhist Monastery or ‘Cittviveka’. As a result of this the sangha expanded rapidly and it was decided to build another larger monastery and retreat centre, and in 1984 Amaravati near Great Gaddesden in Hertfordshire was founded. Central to and dominating the site is the magnificent temple. If you can imagine a Thai temple translated through English architectural traditions this is it. The sweeping curves of the exterior roof are clad in tiles reminiscent of Kentish Oast Houses. Inside, the huge supporting timbers with exposed tenon-joints and wooden pegs remind one of great tithe barns and country churches with their beamed ship-like roofs. The upward heart-stopping swoop of the roof, the serenity of the huge golden Buddha rupa along with the lingering smell of incense at once induce a sense of deep peace and awe.

On the southern side of the temple is a cloister and courtyard of the type that is common in many Christian monasteries across Europe. Here it is much used by the monks or ‘bikkhus,’ for their long periods of ‘kinhin,’ or walking meditation that traditionally is practised outdoors. During the retreat we could also use this cloister but there was also a large meadow bounded with many young trees and a large area of mature woodland with massive old beech trees, sycamore, holly and oak. One day whilst I was there, the strong sunlight striking through the soft green of newly opened beech leaves mingled magically with the intense light thrown up by a massed carpet of bluebells.

The retreat was held in the centre adjacent to the temple which was established to cater for such a purpose. Here 60 retreatants were very comfortably accommodated in dormitories and rooms in the several long low wooden buildings dotted around the grounds.

The schedule began at 05.00 with a wake-up bell for a sitting and talk at 05.30. Each of the sittings was 45 minutes which at first seemed a long time compared to the usual 30 minutes at Gaia House and the Totnes zendo! Each sitting was usually followed by a 45 minute kinhin outside. I certainly appreciated the outdoor aspect of this but felt that the atmosphere in the zendo tended to disperse unlike in our own practice where it seems as if the energy builds through the session.

Another rule of the retreat was that after the noon meal no food was to be taken! Despite my initial concern I found my body getting used to the regime by the end of my stay. By 05.30 the next morning after 17 hours without sustenance however I did feel my blood sugar level bumping along on empty. It was also difficult, despite the wisdom and humour of Ajahn Sumedho’s talks, to keep my concentration! Throughout the retreat he defined and redefined meditation practice; ‘flexible, relaxed openness’; ‘the open gate through which we can walk to liberation’; ‘the sound of silence.’ He examined closely through several other talks what we mean by the term ‘mindfulness’: ‘a state of mind that is quietly reflecting on the present moment and nothing else, pure unadulterated reflection’. In other talks, our state as sensitive beings subject to birth, life and death and our impermanence was discussed. This sense of impermanence makes us vulnerable but as human beings this is our karma. Another time he insisted that ‘sitting, the precepts and forms and ceremonies are interdependent not separable.’ I thought where have I heard this before? Later talks referred to our essential/ original deathless state:

Mindfulness is the path to the deathless,
heedlessness is the path to death,
the mindful do not die but
the heedless are as if already dead.

Dhammapada 2.1

All the talks, even those at 05.30, were full of deep wisdom, great humour and full of stories from Ajahn Sumedho’s own experience (44 years) as a monk in Thailand and England. He pointed out that it’s relatively easy to reach blissful states when one is alone in ones little hut (‘kuti’) out in the forest or jungle but it is in the world within the sangha that we truly face our conditioned self in relation to others.

I came away from Amaravati with a deep sense of gratitude for the temple, the monks and the wonderful staff of the retreat centre who served us with great kindness and generosity. However I could not but long that Dancing Mountains Sangha had such a monastery set in England’s countryside. I trust with all my heart that this may be so one day.

There is a land, an island beyond which you cannot go. It is a place of no-thingness, a place of non-possession and non-attachment. It is the total end of death and decay and this is why I call it nibbhana.

The Buddha to Brahmin Kappa in Sutta Nipata.

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