S A N T A C I T T A R A M A B U D D H I S T M O N A S T E R Y
While settling back into life at Santacittarama, resident once again after a long absence, now is the time to share a few words about my recent travels. After twenty-five years of monastic life, the last ten leading the community at Santacittarama, it seemed the right moment to take a break, to live for a while as a bhikkhu free from the roles and duties that one tends to gradually assume. The nine-month period that I've been away has had three different phases: firstly on retreat, then visiting some traditional Theravada Buddhist countries and, finally, spending time in associated monasteries in other parts of the world.
It already seems such a long time ago, but last summer I spent in solitary retreat, first in Croatia and then in Slovenia. I've been going regularly to Slovenia for a number of years, and when the members of the Buddhist group there heard that I was looking for somewhere quiet to be on my own, they were very keen to support me for the three-month "rains retreat". Someone kindly offered the use of a small but comfortable weekend cottage, just over the border in Croatia, in a spectacular and supremely peaceful area of forested hills over 1,000 metres high and sparsely populated. An agreement was made with the owner of a small restaurant about 10 minutes walk away to offer some food into my bowl every morning. I soon settled in the situation was most conducive to formal practice, there being few distractions and the mind gradually quietened down in a completely natural way. It was a joyous and heart-opening experience, bringing forth a profound sense of gratitude for all the many blessings I've received in this life. After a while the bliss subsided and then everything was quite ordinary, simply leaving a sense of ongoing presence and a lightness and ease of being.
On the first full-moon day, just one month into the retreat, due to an unforeseen circumstance I found myself suddenly having to leave. Fortunately our Slovene friends had a second option, and I relocated to a 200-year old farmhouse on the edge of a small rural village called Brezovo, east of Ljubljana. This was also very pleasant and peaceful, the village semi-abandoned, and in a lovely pastoral setting. Here I continued my quiet retreat for the next two months, once a fortnight going into Ljubljana for the regular Monday meeting of the Bhavana Society meditation group, until the time came to return to Santacittarama for the Kathina ceremony.
After a brief stay in Italy, and with winter coming on, Asia was beckoning! Neil, an old friend from student days, had invited me on a trip around Cambodia and Laos traditional Theravada Buddhist countries both emerging from recent dark history and so, after a few days resting in Bangkok, we flew to Siem Reap, from where we were able to explore some of the magnificent ruins of Angkor. Dozens of ancient temples spread over an area of about 200 square kilometers are what remains of the centre of the great Khmer empire that blossomed between the 9th and the 15th centuries. They are stunning in their beauty and sheer size and in the refinement of their architecture and sculpture. During the three days that we had available, we were able to visit only some of the most impressive and best preserved. The earliest sites were Hindu, while the more recent ones were Buddhist, and some of these were enormous monastic complexes housing thousands of monks.
Ta Prohm monastery ruins, Angkor
So many empires and political philosophies have come and gone, while the Buddha's dispensation has endured for 2,600 years and although in Cambodia suppressed in recent times, it now seems to be making a strong comeback. The monasteries are once again becoming focal points for peoples' lives and are filling up with novices; their bright orange robes are a common sight around the Angkor ruins and the town of Siem Reap. Cambodia is still one of the world's poorest countries, yet its citizens seem to have a positive outlook and are not dwelling too much on the past but looking to a potentially brighter future.
From Siem Reap a fast boat took us across the immense Tonle Sap lake and downriver to the capital, Phnom Penh. We only had a couple of days here, enough to see the main sites: the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, the museum and the main stupa. It is a large and vibrant city, pleasantly situated by the Mekong delta, with wide French-style boulevards and chaotic traffic. It's difficult to imagine it being totally evacuated just over 30 years ago when the Khmer Rouge came into power. We stayed in the very friendly Bodhi Tree Guesthouse, immediately opposite the Tuol Sleng prison where up to 20,000 people were executed and which now serves as a genocide museum. It remains a stark reminder of mankind's potential for terrible cruelty, even in the name of apparently high-minded ideals.
Laos came under a communist regime shortly after Cambodia, but it seems to have been much less disruptive. In recent years it has been gradually relaxing and opening up to the outside world. We flew into Vientiane and spent several enjoyable days wandering around the streets of what is such a laid-back city, it's easy to forget that it's the capital. The Lao people tend to be so gentle and sweet-natured. Many of the men that we met drivers, boatmen, guesthouse staff had spent a part of their youth as novices, and it showed in their demeanour.
It was a great help knowing someone in Vientiane, an Englishman who ordained as a monk at Chithurst and left several years ago. He is now married to a local woman and working in the National Library, as well as collaborating with various aid projects not only in Laos but also in Thailand and Cambodia. We were invited to stay in their new flat, which they had not yet moved into, and before leaving we performed a traditional house blessing ceremony.
Travelling north by bus to Luang Prabang, with a stop-over about half-way in a village called Vang Vieng charmingly situated by a shallow river, was an epic journey through stunning scenery of forest-draped limestone karsts and remote hill-tribe hamlets. Until a few years ago this route was forbidden to westerners, as buses were regularly held up by bandits.
Luang Prabang is the old royal capital, and deservedly listed as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. It really is a jewel of Asia and we had no regrets about spending over a week there. The heart of old Luang Prabang is the That Phousi (stupa on the hill) and a peninsula formed by the Nam Khan river curving around before entering the Mekong. Forested hills roll out in all directions. Besides its atmospheric setting, the principal attractions of Luang Prabang are its monasteries and temple buildings. Most are quite old and some are simply exquisite in their design and proportion; Lao temples and Buddha images have a unique charm. Yet these are no museum pieces; they are very much lived in and continue to play an integral role in the lives of the local people. Visiting the monasteries, depending on the time of day, you are likely to see young monks and especially novices chanting in the temple, studying, working, banging the monastery drum or practising their English on visitors. Shortly after dawn, with the mist still rising from the Mekong, hundreds of monks and novices walk silently by in single file on alms round, receiving into their bowls offerings of food from the faithful.
Ajahn Chandapalo with novices, Luang Prabang
At this point we were joined by Ajahn Sawaeng and Giorgio, a friend from Padova, and after a few more days enjoying the tranquillity and gentle charms of Luang Prabang, we parted ways. Neil began his journey back to Scotland via Northeast Thailand and Bangkok, while the rest of us headed up river on a traditional Mekong narrow boat. After a couple of hours, just past the Pak Ou caves that house thousands of Buddha images, we turned up the Nam Ou river on a journey that has been described as one of the most spectacular in Southeast Asia. It did not disappoint. The discomfort of sitting cramped on a hard bench for 8 hours was easily endured when each bend of the river opened up new vistas of jagged mountain peaks and forest splendour. Perhaps it's a clichι, but it was like something from a Chinese painting. The only people to be seen were the occasional fishermen and villagers panning for gold or tending their buffalo by the river bank.
Eventually we arrived at Muang Ngoi (meaning 'small village') which has no roads and can only be reached by river. A delightful spot just to sit and soak in the scenery. We took a day's rest here, making a brief excursion to some caves and ethnic minority villages. During the following days we travelled by stages, first by boat, then local bus and hired car, up to the far north, close to the Chinese border, arriving at Muang Sing in time from Christmas. Not many tourists make it this far, and it has all the atmosphere of a remote and undeveloped province. There was certainly no sign of it being Christmas apart from the surprisingly cool weather. Historically this has long been a cross roads between the surrounding countries Burma, China, Vietnam and Thailand and this is reflected in the ethnic mix. There are at least 30 different ethnic minority groups in the area, and many still live much as they have for centuries, with their own particular customs and life styles. One of the most fascinating aspects of Muang Sing is being able to watch the coming and going of different tribal people, often to and from the market, the women dressed in very elaborate and colourful costumes and head-dresses. A guide took us on a day-long trek through the hills visiting some of the minority villages, extremely primitive, nestled in the hills and bustling with community life.
Our visas on the verge of expiring, we headed west in a hired car, another picturesque journey back to the Mekong, with Burma on the opposite bank. After a night in a 'kuti-like' bungalow on the river bank, we took an exhilarating ride on a speed boat through breathtaking jungle scenery and darting kingfishers, shooting the rapids narrowly avoiding rocky islets and oncoming Chinese barges. Arriving at the famous Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet, we were able to cross over into Thailand, which now seemed so modern, developed and efficient!
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This account will be continued in a later newsletter. At this point I would like to express my heart-felt appreciation to all those who have contributed in various ways, also for their kind wishes and by now welcoming me back. Not least to the resident sangha for giving this their blessing and keeping the monastery going during my absence. This 'sabbatical' period has done me a lot of good. I've returned with strengthened faith and renewed vigour in fact I don't remember ever feeling better!
Presentation of photos
On Sunday 30th April Ajahn Chandapalo will be showing photographs and talking about his recent travels. See programme for details.
Dhamma talk in audio
Ajahn Chandapalo's first Dhamma talk (in Italian!) about his recent travels can be downloaded as an MP3 file from here. This is partly an experiment so please do let us know if it doesn't work satisfactorily, or if there is any other feedback.
Ajahn Jutindharo has just left for Thailand for a six month visit, mainly to oversee a project that he initiated some years ago to help the villagers of his home region, one of the poorest areas of Thailand. We expect him to be back in time for the Kathina ceremony on 29th October. In June we will be joined by Ajahn Uttamo, a senior monk of Chinese ancestry who was born in Burma and later lived in Taiwan. About 18 years ago he ordained in Thailand and has since being staying in various Ajahn Chah branch monasteries. A young Czech monk ordained in England, Tan Gavesako, is due to join us for the summer.
Anagarika Luca, having been in training for more than the requisite year, has requested novice ordination. This ceremony is public and will take place on Sunday 18th of June, see below for details.
We are pleased to announce that the new women's guesthouse is virtually complete and already in use. It ended up costing rather more than had been anticipated but it does now mean that we have separate accomodation for men and women. There is also a project, already approved, to extend and improve the men's guesthouse. This may begin next year or the year after, depending on availability of funds.
Now that Ajahn Chandapalo is back we are once again giving thought to a temple/sala building, in consultation with a committee of architects. We hope to have a plan ready soon that will be well-enough defined to ask for an initial assessment by the authorities. A sum of 100,000 that has accumulated over recent years, offered specifically for this project, has been safely put aside in a bank deposit. We do not have much idea of what the overall cost will be, but at least this is a good start.