I love the way ants greet each other.
Each morning, after walking meditation, when the sun is sluicing the treetops, sending shards of soft winnowed light through the mist, on the forest floor, I see small highways moving between the blushed, ocre rocks.
Kneeling, I watch them.
The ants are moving in undulating, serpentine lines, stretching vast distances across the rolling land. Some are leaving the nest, foraging for food, others returning with bounty; gifts for the Queen. The ants pass by each other on their journeys.
Every time an ant passes by another, there is a brief pause. The ants touch faces, before they break and move along, repeating the connection with the next brother or sister they meet. This happens almost every time they encounter one another, the only exception being if an ant carrying a morsel collected from the forest, sometimes the wing of a cicada, sometimes a rolled lump of tree sap, is given a respectful breadth in their struggle, to gift that to the nest. Every ant is recognised. Every ant is seen by the other.
We have much to learn from the animals.
I leave this absorption, and rise, heading back to my hut. I’ve been walking meditation since the darkened time before dawn, and my eyes glance over the corner of my brick hut to see where the shadow is cast on my walking path, using the angle of the shadow as a sun-dial, so I may see when it’s time to walk to the refectory for morning duties. Time is light.
It’s not yet light, and so before collecting my bag, work robe, and bowl, I sit meditation, breathing. I can feel the body opened and clear from the walking, my mind centred on the river of sensations flowing through the body. I feel awake, this morning.
I listen to the waking birds, yawning in the canopy, and then the brawl of red-tailed cockatoos, their drunken ramble like brothers in arms, singing from the return of a night on the town, stumbling home in the small hours, shattering the forest.
Eventually I rise, and walk to the refectory, where the monks gather to eat, and plan the morning work to be done. On the way I glimpse monks, brown bundled monks, stumbling or gliding from the forest like some calling home, back to the ‘Ajahn’, our teacher.
At the refectory the clinking of spoons stirring creamy-white condensed milk into black tea, and a scoop of porridge for each and today there are steamed pears, I can’t remember the last time I ate them, I used to make them, what a treat, and we rise, filing the stairs to the top landing of the refectory to find our seat, seated in line, and Ajahn at the head of it.
Before eating, I place my bowl and bag to one side of my cushion, and the tea and porridge to the other, next to the garishly coloured spittoons imported from Thailand that are used for waste. I arrange my upper robe, and kneel, hands pressed together in prayer. I focus my mind towards the statue of the Buddha in the corner of the landing, and the relics encased in glass – hair and bones collected from enlightened practitioners that the Thai people adore. The Buddha is framed in flowers, and the flowers catch the morning light, the harsh light of Perth, which burns, and penetrates my mind with radiance and colour.
I kneel, and project my mind out to the Buddha to touch it, and with mind touched, I give thanks. I bow three times, one each for the ‘Buddha’, ‘Dhamma’, and ‘Sangha’ – the ‘Awakened Beings’, the ‘Teaching’, and the ‘Community’ that practice to embody the teachings, and realise awakening.
Then, I eat.
The mind moves a lot in these moments of eating. I’ve always been slim, and my last meal, my only meal for the day, was at eleven in the morning, yesterday. Winter is receding in Serpentine, yet the mornings are still cold. I can feel my body eating itself, lurching towards my cup of porridge, and my mind falters, wanting. I enjoy the porridge, no doubt, but I remind myself to stay with the textures in my mouth as I eat, and the sensation of the lumped portion sliding down my throat. ‘Careful not to let the mind wander as the mind loses interest after the first bite when the flavours dull’, I tell myself. I watch my hand move towards another scoop before I’ve finished the first, and observe the small lesson.
One thing at a time. Everything is teaching me.
The mind wanders, though, like a punk in my former life, hopping trains, dodging guards.
I’ve been here two years and I’m constantly humbled by the mind, its ability to slide away from what I’m doing presently, and into imaginings.
On my way to the refectory, I’d heard the girl.
She was walking the stone steps down towards the refectory as I came from the forest and entered the main area next to the meditation hall, and I heard her small steps on the stone and I knew those steps, the gait of the step, stepping down the stones. I was careful not to look, but my mind traced her body anyways in an imagining. I’m thinking of this.
I didn’t come here for this, yet it seemed to be following me, and I felt it was my biggest teacher. I feel my body flush in heat, and the clink of the spoon in my fellow monk’s cup next to me brings me back, and I glance up. Ajahn is smiling at me from across the landing.
The monks have finished their porridge now, and after wash, we’re on the landing, sitting, together. Most monks are silent, eyes closed, being with their body.
Mogallana isn’t though.
His sleight, crooked frame is bent over young Khattiya, who is scribbling notes in his notebook, arranging work for the day. Mogallana, in his thick, Jewish-American accent, is waving a finger down at the young man, and insisting on sweeping the monastery paths this morning, as he does almost every morning, with strange, ritualistic insistence. Khattiya is organising duties for thirty other monks, and sweeping the grounds isn’t a high priority, but he smiles, looking up at the old man.
‘OK’ he says, ‘OK,’ nodding softly.
Mogallana seems pleased with this. He shuffles towards his seat, beaming, tripping on his robe.
After Khattiya assigns duties, Anuruddha, Khema, and me, the three young Australian monks, head towards the southern edge of the forest to collect wood to burn, as we’ve been assigned to do.
We file down to the ablution block, Anuruddha a few steps ahead, and he was having a hard time of late, I could tell. His knuckles were bloodied on one hand, and I wondered whether he’d done it himself.
The forest is cool. The morning mist had burnt away, and the air is bright, and clear. Sunlight catches the failing dew and the tips of spinifex bushes shine, their pointed shards move in a shifting glimmer as we walk, bundling fallen wood.
Khema is slow, always slow. I’ve never seen a man move so slow. He gathers wood with meticulous scrutiny, every branch his own private act of worship. The things around him seem pulled into his centrifugal motion, as if he could stop time itself, and freeze the world in eternal inertia.
I work hard, but that is my way. I work quickly, darting between trees and into the crooked ravines, moving, full of purpose. I like lobbing the wood onto the piles, the satisfaction of it, and the way the wood stacks haphazard, yet with structure, on the pile. I often overwork, tiring myself for the more important work of reflection later in the day, and it’s taking me time not to measure my worth in wood.
Anuruddha, brow scrunched, is spitting at the earth.
Nandiya appears now, the broad faced, pasty Irishman, coming at us, eyebrows missing like us all, yet with his own gone he looks always expectant, his body swinging sideways like a pendulum moving from the shoulder. He holds cloth, a small jerry can, and a leaf-blower.
‘This is how you-’
‘We know how to do it,’ Anuruddha snaps, forgetting himself.
A slight pause, as our collective bodies tense.
‘…Ok’ says Nandiya in a clipped, lyrical accent, placing the assortment on the ground.
He twirls a thick, white cotton rag around a stick he plucks from the pile. The rag is a t-shirt I’d worn as an ‘anāgarika’, or ‘monastery attendant’ when I first came here, attending to the monks. It had since been worn by others, and was oil streaked, probably from the kitchen work. He winds it around the stick and I find the revolutions hypnotic, before he breaks my gaze by pushing the end of the stick down in a swift movement, down from the shoulder, he always moves the body from the shoulder, and he soaks the rag with diesel from the jerry-can.
‘Diesel, not petrol’, he says, and I remember the German monk who had found that out the hard way, blasting himself into a hospital bed. He sets the rag on fire with a lighter produced from a pocket he’s sewn onto his work robe, and stuffs the stick into the bottom of the pile. He sets the leaf blower on low, and fans the flames by setting it just off centre from the flame. It doesn’t take long for the fire to catch full, as the oily eucalypt leaves are potently flammable, and it reminds me of the power of the Australian bush to burn, vast walls of flame like a hellish tidal wave moving towards you. The monastery had seen one such fire in its lifetime. I’d seen another in my former time before coming here, in the Canberra fires, picking smoldering embers off my family roof after the deluge. Walls of fire, swallowing the earth, like death from all sides. Like life, really.
The fire, a dancing, morphing flame, bringer of light and darkness. I stare into it now.
The Vedas talked of Brahma within the flame, of the play of fire as an expression of God, and fire, the eternal entity that transmits matter into ether, and so connects our mortal frame to the Divine.
My mind is entranced by the fire, and wanders to that day of the Divine.
It was the day Nandiya was ordained.
I was on retreat. I’d been alone in the forest, meditating in seclusion, as we were given opportunity to for a few weeks a year. I’d been gone for nine days, and staying in my hut. My food was being dropped to me once a day by a kindly monk at a location where I’d come and collect it, knowing it had been dropped by the metallic clink of the lid being closed on the tin bin some distance from my hut.
This day, when I opened the lid and collected my bowl, a little note had been attached to the top. On returning to my hut, I opened it. It read –
Hope you’re well. Nandiya’s ordination is tonight.
I’d been walking and sitting for long hours every day, starting the retreat with more walking than sitting, to ease the nerves and restlessness I felt at the prospect of solitude, and now I was easing into more sitting, the body and mind calming in to the retreat. My mind was brightening, and on reading the note, a deep smile arose from within. ‘Good for him’, I smiled.
That evening when dusk was descending on the forest, the birds receding into the night canopy, taking roost, I walked with measured steps, to the meditation hall. The hall was a wonderful place, and I’d often sneak into it during my retreats late at night, or before dawn, when there was no-one there, because I loved the energy of the space. Many powerful meditators had been there over the history of this place, including some very powerful monks from Thailand, and the power of their meditation had soaked into the bricks and mortar. You could feel a powerful, electric buzz emanating from the walls, and it would deepen my meditation.
The monks gathered, and the nuns had come from Gidgegannup to the north, from our sister monastery. All were assembled, the ‘Ayya’, or nuns, always more well behaved than the younger monks, who at times seemed like unruly boys, cracking jokes and stifling laughter. The ceremony began, and Nandiya, framed by two seniors, went through the ancient ritual to seal the ordination, and his entry into robes.
I remember watching Nandiya, and feeling an overwhelming sense of joy bubbling from within my chest, trickling through the fabric of my body, such joy and bliss at the witness of a young man taking up the ‘Dhamma’, the teaching of the Buddha. The Dhamma was growing within me, and I knew it as a growing sense of certainty and strength, an excitement at the possibilities of practice. I wished him such growing faith too, and for him to feel the love I now felt, the gratitude for the blessing to come across it in this lifetime. Such a rare and precious jewel we had stumbled across together! Maybe before this night, maybe in another life. We were simply continuing now.
After the ceremony was over, I almost ran back to my hut. I couldn’t wait to meditate! Careful not to trip in my dim torchlight as I sleuthed the passages between rocks, and found footing on rounded forest pebbles rolling beneath the feet that formed the forest track back to my hut, I collapsed onto my meditation cushion, beaming like a boy. The feelings from the evening were fresh, and buzzing through me, the bliss soaking me, every cell of my body like bubbling water flowing through soft, porous stone. My heart was glowing. I’d never felt so happy in all my life.
It was then, I flipped.
I felt everything converge around the heart space and it was as if my body flipped inside out, and I fell, falling now, falling, and a space opening before me, of radiance and spectre, and now the mind still, truly still and silent, and opening into a vast, oceanic space, and my body not there, just mind.
The fire now, flickering.
I turn, and see Anuruddha scooping me towards him with a rounded arm.
It’s time to eat, I remember.
I’m walking back to the refectory, and through the forest I can already hear the dim burn of laypeople entering the temple grounds, the cackle of broad Thai women, and the laughing of children. The low grunt of cars sound in, carrying food and gifts for the Sangha, our community. I detour, heading for the ablution block. I shower, and dress, mending myself from the work, and head to the main area, towards the people come.
People teeming, and so many smiling faces. A young Sri Lankan man, on seeing me, with head lowered, approaches, placing his hands in anjali, the prayer pose, and he bows, his knees touching the earth, then his hands, and I don’t think I’ll ever be used to the praise, I chuckle to myself. He takes this as a sign of approval.
If only he knew my mind.
The monks have gathered, and the food is offered, and we portion it into our bowls, before rising to the landing once more, and are now seated in line, with monastery supporters filing in.
Ajahn, our teacher and beacon, is in fine spirits. He’s telling jokes, and the people laugh, Thai women covering their mouths, whilst the locals jackal, faces contorted and twisted. Gifts are offered, and the monastery attendants come to collect them, bodies hunched so as not to tower – tall, thin men, with sharp, searching eyes. After the collection, there’s a talk from the Ajahn, and we sing the ‘anumodāna’, a blessing for the people for their kindness, calling on the Devas, higher beings, to bid them fair favour.
The people mingle out, and the monks eat in silence. Again, the mind moves, and again, I bind it, gently, smiling, bringing it back.
I collect my bag and bowl, and arrange it to one side, then approach the Ajahn to take his bowl for wash, as is the way for the younger monks to give service, and pay respects. I approach the Ajahn, body lowered, and gather his bowl, scooping up his cup in a swift, invisible movement, so as not to intrude on his conversation being had with other seniors, and place it on his bowl cover, using it as a tray. In one hand I take the tray, the other, the bowl, indexing it between my thumb and fingers, my eyes cast down. Just as I’m about to rise, Ajahns breaks off his conversation, and turns to me.
I lower my body once more, out of respect.
‘Oh, Kimbila…’ he trails, and in the silence, I listen.
My eyes glance upwards towards his. I meet his eye, and in his gaze, is a warmth and beauty that startles me. His pupils shine, and within the speckled iris of his eye, I sense constellations deeper than I’ve ever known. I feel a wash of love flood my body and once again I’m naked, like glass, yet I know he sees all of me, and despite that, I am forgiven.
‘Yes, Ajahn?’ my hands releasing the bowl in anjali.
‘How did the burning go today?’
My eyelids flinch.
‘We covered the southern side. It’s pretty much done, Ajahn.’
‘Very good,’ he says, meaning it, and resumes his conversation.
I rise, collecting his bowl again, still feeling the warmth.
He’s looked at me different ways before. Like the time I left the monastery with a homeless man. I came back after a night spent next to railroad tracks, and he took care to show me the real power of his gaze. His eyes blackened, and he dropped away, and in that absence of him, something beyond the human was looking straight at me, or rather through me.
This man is awake.
On descending the stairs now, bowl and tray in hand, I see her.
She is standing next to the kitchen, holding celery, and I remeber the sound of stepped stone. This is a being I circle around, at a distance forever closing, though I wish it wasn’t so. I keep my head down, yet she calls. I can already see her face.
My body stiffening, I turn.
‘You have celery,’ I say.
She laughs, waving the sprig, and I’m in trouble.
She twirls the celery in her hand and something flashes before her face. In the curlicues of her mouth, and in her shifting cheek bones, for a moment I wonder whether she’s even human, or something sent to test me.
‘What is to become of me, in this life?’ I wonder.
What is to become of me indeed? Stay tuned to Basic Attention where next week I’ll continue my story.
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