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
Ajahn Chandapalo's Travels - Part 3
The first part of this account can be read on our website by clicking here,
and the second part by clicking here.
With the Southeast Asian part of my journey now over, I was ready to cross the Equator for the first time on route to New Zealand, with a brief stopover in Melbourne at a recently established Ajahn Chah branch monastery. Bodhivana (Realm of Awakening) lies in the beautiful Yarra Valley area, a 90-minute drive east of the city, surrounded on all sides by state forest and national park. The property itself is an old winery and includes an extensive tract of mixed forest, with native eucalyptus and ferns and introduced pines and, although founded only a few years ago, already has the feel of a well-established monastery. Ten kutis (small huts) have been constructed, dispersed throughout the forest, the most distant being just below the hill top, a 20-minute steep climb from the meeting hall. Mine, thankfully, was closer and by a pond, with much appreciated tree cover. It was very hot when I arrived.
What impresses above all in Australia is its vast spaciousness and its weird and wonderful wildlife. Bodhivana has a range of fauna, including a lone kangaroo that is usually to be seen not far from the main buildings in the early morning, wallabies, wombats and large monitor lizards. Even duck-billed platypuses can occasionally be spotted, frolicking in a stream not far away. The bird life is marvellous: laughing kookaburras, parrots and parakeets in lively rainbow colours, cockatoos, wedge-tailed eagles and the fantastic lyre bird, which looks no more interesting than a chicken until it spreads its gorgeous tail feathers and starts a song and dance routine, imitating many different bird songs and various other sounds, including mechanical ones such as chainsaws and passing cars.
I had a lovely time, and was made to feel very welcomed by Ajahn Kalyano and the resident sangha, which includes various nationalities such as Thai, Nepalese, New Zealanders and Australians. Ajahn Kalyano is English and I first met him when he was still a layman, just before leaving for Thailand where he ordained and trained as a monk. He helped some of us to relocate from from Chithurst to Amaravati monastery the first day it was opened in 1984. The monastery is very well supported; indeed there is no need for anyone to cook as each day has devoted lay people -- mostly of Asian origin: especially Malaysian, Sri Lankan and Thai -- who bring ready prepared food to offer.
The lay supporters were also wonderful, especially the Soo family, the original founders, who picked me up at the airport and took me on several outings, one to the Healesville animal sanctuary for indigenous species and another on a sight-seeing tour of Melbourne. Driving around is an interesting combination of the familiar and the exotic. The name places, for example: Doncaster, Brighton, Coldstream, lull me into a sense of being on familiar territory, while Wagga Wagga, Moorooduc and Koo-wee-rup remind me that I'm a long way from home. The scenery and architecture are almost European, but suddenly ones senses are awakened by a different and evocative smell or the sight of a giant fern or other awe-inspiring plant.
And then to New Zealand, to spend about 6 weeks at Bodhinyanarama (Garden of Enlightened Knowing) Monastery at Stokes valley, not far from the capital, Wellington. This monastery was founded more than 20 years ago by Ajahn Viradhammo, a Canadian disciple of Ajahn Chah, and Venerable Thanavaro, an Italian, known to many here in Italy as the founder of Santacittarama. The present abbot of Bodhinyanarama is another Canadian disciple of Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Tiradhammo, with whom I spent a very enjoyable couple of years in Switzerland in the early days of Dhammapala monastery. He has also visited Santacittarama several times. I was looking forward to spending some time with him and seeing how he has adapted to his new environs. He certainly seems happy there, which is not surprising, as it is a wonderful monastery in its own valley of thick and luxuriant forest -- what they call "bush" -- a mix of native and introduced species which gives it something of the feel of a botanical garden. The central feature of the monastery -- a large wooden meeting hall and cloister -- won an architectural prize, deservedly I believe.
Entrance to Bodhinyanarama's cloister
Most of the resident sangha I already knew -- Ajahn Sucinno, an Australian who I met in Thailand many years ago; Ven. Jinalankara, a Sri Lankan former resident of Amaravati; and two English monks who have both stayed at Santacittarama, Ajahn Ariyasilo and Ajahn Dhammanando. Here also the Asian support is impressive and varied, every day generous offerings of ready-prepared food are brought by Burmese, Lao, Cambodian, Thai, Malaysian, and Sri Lankan people as well as by local New Zealanders. Wellington, with a population of only around 600,000 people -- not a lot for a capital city -- manages to support a Cambodian, a Thai and a Lao temple, as well as Bodhinyanarama Monastery.
I had plenty of time to meditate in my wooden kuti in the bush and on its raised walking path. There were also occasions to explore the monastery, which has over 50 hectares of land comprising the end of a valley, and several walking tracks that meander around, with little wooden bridges fording the streams, and strategically placed benches for enjoying the views. One very long walk goes outside the monastery to the top of the ridge, which can be followed for many kilometres until it drops right into the Bay of Wellington, affording spectacular views of what is actually the crater of an ancient volcano. I discovered first-hand why it's known as Windy Wellington -- it's a walk better done on a calm day!
New Zealand feels a very benign place; you can rest assured that there are no dangerous animals lurking in the bushes, there are no snakes, and hardly any unpleasant insects. It has two main islands, a land area similar to that of Italy, but is very sparsely populated with only 4 million people, a quarter of whom live in one city, Auckland. And it has 80 million possums. Possums are tree-climbing marsupials, nocturnal, that live mostly on a diet of fruit and leaves, about the size of a very fat cat. They were introduced from Australia and, as they have no natural predators in New Zealand, have multiplied incredibly. Capable of causing a lot of damage to vegetation, they are generally considered to be a pest, and there are attempts to control their numbers. They are a common feature in the monastery -- where of course they are completely safe -- and roam around quite fearlessly, waking up the monks in the middle of the night by landing with a great crash onto the kuti's verandah or roof. It's quite a shock the first time, but after a while you get used to it.
Called Aotearoa by the Maori people -- The Land of the Long White Cloud -- New Zealand has a delightful coastline with long sandy beaches, snow-topped mountains and glaciers in the Southern Alps, wide pristine lakes, active volcanoes and luxuriant forest. I wasn't expecting to see much beyond Stokes Valley during my visit, but Ajahn Tiradhammo very kindly took me on short tours of both the North Island and the South Island, at least enough to get a taste of this beautiful and remote country. What stand out most in my memories of the South Island are the brief flight over Cook's Strait; staying with very hospitable English ex-patriots John and Mary in Nelson, apparently one of the sunniest spots in the whole of New Zealand; the long beaches of Rabbit Island; the stunning coastal scenery of the Abel Tasman park; and the gusty ferry trip across the strait back to Wellington.
The highlights of the trip around the North Island centred around the thermal area of Rotorua. The city is on a volcanic plateau, and all around is a remarkable array of hot springs, boiling mud pools and spouting geysers with such memorable names as Hell's Gate and Devil's Bath. It's a sobering reminder that, what we take to be this solid earth that we are walking on, is in reality a thin and fragile crust, barely covering a very volatile underworld. Yet it was so fascinating, with all the various colours in display -- yellow, orange, reddish brown, green and purple -- depending on the predominant minerals present. Even in the residential area of the city itself sulphurous vapours could be seen -- and smelt -– steaming from gardens and drains. A lot of Maori live in this area, and it was heartening to see them well-integrated into society, and their culture and traditions respected and appreciated. Beside the Rotorua lake -- another huge volcanic crater -- is a fine example of a traditional Maori meeting hall, called a Marae. Directly opposite is a relatively old Anglican church with a rather unusual feature. Christ is depicted as a Maori, complete with kiwi-feather cloak, etched into a glass window. Looked at from a certain angle, he is seen to be walking on the lake!
Again we stayed with a retired English couple, Derek and Pam, who I had known about 22 years previously in the early days of the Devon Vihara. It was a delight to see them again after such a long time, and they clearly appreciated the continued contact with the sangha, and we were hosted with great kindness. After leaving Rotorua we spent a night in a Thai temple called Wat Paknam, near Tauranga, which is sometimes referred to as "New Zealand's Florida". It takes a while to get used to the fact that going north takes you closer to the equator. Here they enjoy a very pleasant climate -- "Not too hot and not too cold" as the Thai monks told us -- and are able to grow citrus fruits and even bananas. On the way back to the monastery we stopped off in Napier, on the east coast. This was struck by a powerful earthquake in 1931, killing several hundred people and destroying many buildings. As Art Deco was in vogue in Europe at the time, most of the rebuilding was done in this style. It's now famous as the "Art Deco capital of New Zealand".
Fortunately I was able to return to Italy in stages, with a stopover of almost a week in Melbourne and a couple of days in Bangkok. In Melbourne I was made very welcome at the Buddhist Society of Victoria, which has a long history going back several years before I was born. A couple of talks had been arranged, and during my stay I met many generous people, Asian and Australian, sincerely interested in Dhamma and meditation. Even a brief stay in Bangkok is a joy and, as usual, I met many old friends of Santacittarama, particularly among former diplomatic staff and their families once based in Rome.
Leaving Bangkok in the middle of the hot season and arriving in Italy at the tail-end of the winter was a bit of a shock to the system, but the warmth with which I was welcomed back more than made up for it. Most people still remembered me! I settled in again very quickly, considering that I'd been away for nine months, and within a couple of days the sun began to shine and it was spring once again. Quite some time has now passed since my return, and it has been an interesting exercise trying to write what I hope is a reasonably coherent account out of a muddle of memories. It's a relief to have got it over and done with! The main reason for writing this was as a gesture of gratitude for all those who made this "sabbatical year" possible, have supported me on my travels (in many different ways), have kept the monastery going during my absence and have shown interest in my wellbeing.
Having had the opportunity to step out of the role as "abbot" for a while, and to connect with the wider sangha, has done me a lot of good. In fact, I cannot remember ever feeling better or happier. At present I'm very content simply to stay in one place, and am really appreciating Santacittarama and its circle of friends and supporters. I have been in Italy for over 13 years now -- half of my monastic life -- I do enjoy living here, have a lot of affection for this country and its people and don't have plans to go elsewhere, though I might not wait 25 years before having another break!
Ajahn Chandapalo, post-sabbatical
Dhamma in English
Many transcribed Dhamma talks and books are available from the following websites: www.amaravati.org, www.abhayagiri.org, www.fsnewsletter.net. Audio talks of various monks and nuns may be downloaded from www.dhammatalks.org.uk as MP3 files.
Dhamma in Italian
Testo: "Si può fare", un altro discorso di Ajahn Chah dal libro "Tutto Insegna" è stato inserito alla pagina "insegnamenti" del nostro sito.
Audio: un nuovo discorso di Ajahn Chandapalo intitolato "Oltre la tranquillità" può essere scaricato come file MP3 dalla pagina "audio".