PostScript to the ‘My Story’ series

So I want to thank all of you that have been reading my blog. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback about my sharing, and that’s fantastic, because I enjoy writing it. If you enjoy reading it, then I’m very happy indeed.

Some feedback I received from people was that the first two chapters of my story were clear, and that the last chapter was a divergence in style, and may have left some people confused.

I’m not surprised.

I was confused writing it, because truth be told, I have less distance from this chapter of my life (because I’m currently living it) and that makes it much more challenging to talk about.

But that’s the point.

I’m on the search for authenticity, and that journey is emerging, and this whole Basic Attention project is about nudging into that, so that I may inspire others to do the same, and find their own unique voice. I’m doing that in different ways – blogging, video-logging (aka. ‘vlogging’), and teaching meditation. And on a personal level –  therapy and connecting to people in the community.
It’s all part of the evolution.
It’s all important.
It’s all me.
And it’s all about you too. I want this sharing to encourage you on your own search for your true purpose.

Moving forward, I’ll keep telling stories, and I’ll keep sharing parts of my journey, using that scaffolding of before-a-monk / whilst-a-monk / after-a-monk as a kind of reference point for further reflection, sharing, and adventures.

Here’s the first one, part of the new Basic Attention (or ‘BA’ series) and it’s within that second layer of scaffolding – whilst-a-monk. It’s called…

Fata Morgana – The Homeless Man

I’m twenty-eight, and I’m staying in a Buddhist monastery in Serpentine, Western Australia, just south of Perth, for about six months now.

I’m ordained as what’s known as an ‘anagārika’ (pronounced ‘anah-gah-rika’). I ordained on my twenty-eight birthday in fact, the day I was born into this world now marking the day I seek to escape from it, through entering a new birth as a renunciant. The Buddhist monastic path I’m deciding to pursue, and I intend to stay at Bodhinyana, my new monastery, and become a monk, for a few years at least, and depending on how that goes, maybe the rest of my life, because these teachings of the Buddha have been speaking to me.
We’ll see.

An anagārika is person that lives on temple grounds, in a monastery mostly, and is training in what’s known as the ‘eight precepts’ – ethical codes of conduct we endeavour to honour that better our chances of deepening meditation by curbing our sensual desires and training our attention within. The whole idea of being an anagārika is to kind of try-on-for-size the monastic life, almost like playing at a monk for a while, seeing how the lifestyle feels.

The precepts are, by the way –

  1. To refrain from intentionally taking the life of any living creature.
  2. To refrain from taking what is not given (i.e. stealing).
  3. To refrain from any sexual activity: no physical contact or intimacy with the opposite sex.
  4. To refrain from dishonest speech (lying).
  5. To refrain from using alcohol or drugs (obvious).
  6. To refrain from eating after noon.
  7. To refrain from dancing, singing, playing music, and wearing cosmetics, perfume, and jewellery (i.e. entertainment and adornment).
  8. To refrain from using luxurious beds and seats (i.e. using simple furnishings)

Oh yeah, and we also shave off our hair and eyebrows and stuff – a symbol of renunciation.

The precepts are designed to simplify my life, and move me towards a more compassionate relationship to the beings around me. They encourage truth, kindness, and a clear mind – all good things that help meditation. This whole place is geared towards stilling the mind, and the precepts help remove things which tend to stir up the mind.

‘Anagārika’ means ‘one without a home’. Although I’m still able to handle money at this stage of my training, I’m basically living the life of a homeless man. I live on temple grounds, and participate in many of the common activities we do here – meditation, study, listening to Dhamma talks by our ‘Ajahn’, our teacher – but I’m not yet a monk.

A home, and all it entails, is a sound symbol of what we pursue in this life. A sound symbol of life, really. As humans, just like many animals, we like to create a nest – a place we see as stable and secure, a place we claim ownership and boundary over. In that place, we place all our stuff, the material possessions we acquire and gather into our lap, through useful work in the world. If we’re lucky, we find a loving partner, and we share that home together. We may in turn birth children, to guide, help, and share our space, and look after us as we fall away from this life in old age.

As an anagārika, a homeless man, I’m deciding to try-on-for-size moving away from all that.

‘Why?’ you may ask.

Why would you want to do that?

Well, the way I’ve been thinking, and encouraged to think by the ‘Dhamma’, or Buddhist teachings I’ve been listening to lately, is that these material possessions and the relationships in this life promise us pleasure, but they’re fleeting, and somewhat problematic.

How so?

Well, fleeting in the sense that they don’t last. Even the best sex, for example, ends (and not just with an orgasm, as good as the best of those, or several of those, is). Sensual pleasures, end. Problematic in the sense that they leave you, or you leave them, eventually. Your loved ones, for example, die. Or you die. And in the meanwhile, between the ending of the immediate pleasure, and the final relinquishing of it, we chase after pleasure again and again to seek more of the same, and this is addictive and binding, and carves a path in life for us that to me seems like… well, a kind of prison. It don’t seem free. Through chasing after this stuff, my mind becomes disturbed, and has trouble gaining peace.

‘Wow, that’s kind of a downer perspective, man’ you might think, but stay with me, OK?

The thing that brought me here, the place of questioning all this, was this question –

‘Can there be another way than this?’

So I’ve become homeless for a while. Yesterday, I met another kind of homeless man. Herein the story begins.

We’re two months into the rains retreat. The rains retreat, or ‘vassa’, is a time in the monastery where we curb contact with the outside world by not going out to social engagements (except for the occasional emergency, like an emergency exorcism for a poor Thai girl for example!) and work within the monastery grounds also ceases.

For a period of three months we focus our energy on meditation and study.

As anagārikas, we still have light duties to do, but we have more time to meditate, and like the monks, we’re given opportunity for private retreat for two weeks, where we’re alone with no duties, and all by ourselves in our room, to walk meditation, and sit meditation, and study, contemplate. I’ve just come out of such a retreat, the first time I’ve been in such seclusion, and it was both beautiful and challenging. I’m feeling my way into this thing.

I was straight back on kitchen duty after coming out, which meant I was rising pre-dawn and shuffling up to the kitchen from my room, to cook porridge and prepare the breakfast table for the monks. I went the extra mile, stewing fruit that the supporters had brought in, as a treat for the monks – pears and apples, which the monks loved. One monk in particular, an older Thai man who looked like a brown, beaming prune, was, on first offering of the fruit somehow deeply moved, and although he didn’t speak, when I offered it to him his eyes shined, and he smiled deep into my heart.

One morning, I’m walking up the cemented path tracing from the anagārika block to the kitchen refectory, and there is a young man, perhaps my age, maybe slightly older, sitting in full lotus, on the hard, bare, slated stone paving under the patio next to our kitchen. He’s meditating. It’s spring, and warmer than the winter just passed, but before dawn the forest is thickened by moist forest air, and the earth is cold to the touch. This guy is just sitting there, silent and still, in nothing but a thin t-shirt and shorts, bare feet, bare feet for heaven’s sake, and a rucksack next to him.

I let him be.

Sliding the kitchen door open, I walk to the kitchen bench and pull oats from the stores, pouring it into a large stainless steel pot, adding water, a little milk, and a smidge of butter, and start preparing the porridge, stewing fruits on the side because we have a few apples, and this whole thing takes about half an hour. The monks start emerging from the forest, and the anagārikas emerge from the dorm, coming up the path now from the dam which is adjacent to our lodgings, all filing to the refectory to eat. Some see that man, I see, and they pass by, the monks with a slight smirk at best, the anagārikas stopping, only to continue, with shaking heads, searching around them for meaning to this event. The man still sitting, silent, unmoved.

‘What’s with the dude?’ says Michael, a fellow anagārika, after sliding the kitchen door open, hugging his body from the morning chill.
‘No idea’, I say.

The anagārikas begin eating, sitting on thin square cushioned mats we place on the floor in an elliptical formation, facing each other, serving ourselves porridge, milk, tea and apples, muttering about whatever. The kitchen conversations are usually a heady mix of over-zealous elocutions on the life we’re living, and of places we’ve been and people we’ve seen in our search for meaning, or also just somber silence, munching, staring vacantly as we slowly wake. Some supporters who come from time to time to stay for a few days talk of great men they’ve seen from Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka, and tell stories of the evolution of Bodhinyana, our temple, and I’m piecing together the history of the place from these vignettes of shared breath, the collective strivings of men seeking truth and purpose. I’ve only been here half a year, and such stories give me hope, and speak to the deeper parts of me.

I rise from my mat, cross-legged, no hands, hands on bowl and my tin teacup. Glancing out the window after rising, and I see the guy is still sitting, back towards the kitchen, facing the forest, the forest framed by the railing and the apexed roof of the patio. He’s been there what? An hour and a half? And who knows how long before that. A supporter, an older, very gay, very British man, Sunny, who is my favourite for his toffee accent, walks in the door, sliding it open in regale.

‘He’s back’, he says, rolling his eyes.
‘Who is he?’ I ask, him now next to me, his eyes flirting.
‘I can’t remember his name… He’s been here before. He wanders around.’ And with this his hand rests on my shoulder that moment too long, fingers trailing off my body, before he retires to the porridge.

I’m looking through the window towards the man, and the lattisimus dorsi muscle of his upper back bulging his white, smudged, paper-thin shirt.

I scoop some porridge into a porcelain bowl, lump some apples onto it, a splash of milk and sprinkle a few nuts and dried fruits, and a lap of honey for good measure, make some tea, and head to the door, and out to the patio.

Approaching him, I cough, to signal my approach, then squat down to his right, placing the offering on the slate, careful not to clink the bowl and teacup.
He slowly opens his eyes, rousing himself by squeezing his hands and flexing his fingers.
‘Morning’, I say, smiling uncertain. ‘Here’, offering him the tea and bowl, placing it next to him.
‘Thankyou’, he says, with eyes glazed, staring, post-sit, still entering back into the way of things.
I sit next to him in a nearby chair. He looks at the food, blinking.
‘Aren’t you hungry?’ I ask.
He smiles. ‘It needs to be offered’.
I don’t know what this means. My mind is scanning his face, and then I get it. ‘Like the monks, maybe?’ I wonder.
‘You want me to offer it?’ I ask.
He nods.
This is weird, but I do it anyway, and he accepts the food and tea.
I watch him eat in silence, listening to the squelch of the porridge between his teeth. He takes slow, deliberate portions and scoops them into himself, eyes gazing ahead, into the forest. He takes a sip of the tea, and smiles, before placing it down onto the ground, a little distance form himself.
‘Condensed milk’, he says, stirring the porridge.
‘Yeah, there’s a bit in there.’ And with this, a slight nod from him.

We sit.
I let him eat.
There’s a stillness to this guy, different.

As he’s almost done, and I can’t resist, ‘What’s your story, bro?’ I ask.
He gazes up at me, and I realise he really is homeless. His skin is flaked and weathered, he must sleep outdoors I think, for the etched lines in his face tell a story different from mine. He’s a broad man, a Kapha-type, so he can probably shoulder it, but even still, it must hurt, especially this time of year, and the glazed look in his eyes speaks of an endurance to the elements I’m not sure I could bear, and have rarely seen in others, including the monks. His eyes are steady, and there is a stare I’m not familiar with. I pull my body back, inhaling into my chest, holding my breath.
‘Thanks for the food’, he says, rising, and holding the bowl, he hands it to me, tea untouched on the ground.
He walks away, his body gleaning the earth, an extension of the ground, and he’s walking away down the path, head arcing upwards towards the canopy, and a nest of cockatoos taking root, chewing on gum nuts which fall, gnarled, to the paving below.
I watch him, walking away, then gathering the tin cup, walk back to the kitchen.

There is work to be done.

Most of the anagārikas were stationed in a kind of communal hut. We had separate rooms, closed off from one another, spiralling out from one main structure by walking paths that aligned our single entrance to our rooms. I’d just been moved to a monks hut, lucky me, because the monastery was struggling for space to house the new guests that were coming into the monastery to stay for the rains. So, I was given the privilege of staying by myself in the forest in a stand-alone dwelling, called a ‘kuti’, for the first time, which was ahead of my time as an anagārika. I loved it. No longer would my meditation by shifted by a muffled fart from an adjoining room, or I’d be woken to over-zealous early-morning chanting, or a taped Dhamma talk and why the hell wasn’t Michael aware that the whole block need not hear his private consolations? And, most importantly of all, I could finally sleep. Fuck man, sleep. Sleep, without waking to the monotonous thunderclap of intermittent snoring.

Oh happy day.

It was the morning. I was off kitchen duty, and was chilling in my new abode. I’d finished the last day of kitchen duty the day before yesterday and the vague memory of the man was playing on my mind, but was largely forgotten, my new abode and the peace it contained taking up most of my mental space. I’m walking meditation on my meditation path, and so grateful for the space I’ve skipped breakfast which I’m not meant to, but hey, and I’ve been going at it for who knows how long, in a flow. I’m flowing, and time doesn’t mean anything to me right now. Whilst walking towards one end of the path, towards the brick wall which frames the enclosed timber slating of the walking path, I hear a rustling in the scrub, and it’s a sound I don’t recognise, adjacent to my right, somewhere off, maybe some twenty paces. As is the custom of the practice, I note it, as my mind is searching towards it, trying to make sense of the unintelligible sound, but I keep my mind steadied, my head cast down and a few paces in front of me, not following the sound with my body by looking up and at it. I watch my mind as I walk, skipping steps, trying to make sense of the sound, pencilling in possibilities. I’d grown accustomed to the sounds of the forest, and even though I was in new digs, it was the same forest, the same as always, and I doubted any new animals would be here some short distance away from the anagārika block. This slow, crunching sound didn’t sound like anything I’d heard before though, and it didn’t speak of a human gait either, not animal, not human, and if it is a human, most likely a monk, they would have cleared their throat on approach, to politely signal their presence. I’m walking slowly, hands clasped in front, towards the end of the path and I reach it now, facing the brick wall boundary. I turn to the left, always the left, and as I turn, and come around, I see in my periphery, I see, the outline of a figure. I know who it is. It’s the homeless man, and I break my tread, eyes darting up and towards him, hypnotic from sustained practice.

He’s not meant to be in this area.

People who visit the monastery are invited to move in certain sections, namely the kitchen area, meditation hall open for the public, and the anagārika block, should they wish to see how the young men wishing to ordain live. The rest of the monastery is marked with signs saying ‘Please do not enter – Private meditation area for Monks’. Occasionally, you might see a group of laypeople come through, the monks said, but they were often foreigners, with no English, oblivious to the signs.

I knew this guy knew what he was doing. I feel my body clench, the streaming fluidity of the old body now all angles, elbows and knees. He had not only walked past the paths signposted, but had come right up to my hut, and must have done so quietly, since I only heard him at the last minute.

He is a big guy now, I see, bigger than I remember. Bigger than me, sleight at the best of times, let alone on one meal a day, which I was of late, as we ate here.

My mind, flickering and flinching in the moment, and I remember a story the young Serbian monk had told me when I first got here, the time a prisoner had broken out of the minimum security prison not five kilometres from our temple, down the road. He’d made a break for it, and desperate, wandering the open forest, had stumbled into the monastery grounds and into the kutis. Looking for valuables, for anything I’m sure, that he could gather to barter for a new life, he’d wandered from hut to hut, ransacking them, as we left our doors unlocked, but I can only imagine his disappointment and confusion on stumbling across these strange dwellings which contained nothing but books and a bed, or at most, worn brown robes. The irony of that escaped him, I’m sure, but he searched nevertheless, upturning thin foam mattresses and rifling the meagre belongings of those who had none.

There were some hard people in that prison. I’d met them, working alongside them in our forest work as anagārikas. The better behaved ones, the ones who had managed not to succumb to the in-house violence, had sequestered just the right favours to work on our property as a charitable exchange. They cut wood, and collected weeds, and snuck smokes in the forest in view of the monks who said nothing, and smiled, glad for their making good karma. We gave them an opportunity to connect to the influence of good people, and it was remarkable how they changed, and softened when we spoke to them as ourselves. These people had committed heinous crimes, and our compassion, and our belief they were good of heart and worthy of better, despite our awareness that they had stolen, and beaten, and raped, was making better men. Despite all this, my betterment got the better of me in that memory and I wondered what would have happened if that prisoner had stumbled across me, a skinny Uncle-Fester looking guy walking slowly on a path, no eyebrows, some distant freak, some lame game, like a poor twelve year old girl, and he, in need, of errored absolution.

Now this guy, standing. My mind, reeling at the possibilities.

In a brief moment between us, but a flash, I’m looking into his Adam’s apple, with my thin, fragile eyes, searching, for who is this man? He seems dilapidated, and detached, but by the laconic, cemented gait of his body I relax, my panic dissolving into the timber flooring of my walking path. I can feel the energy flowing through my feet, earthing me again.

‘Hello again,’ I’m brave.
A pause. He’s looking at me.
‘Hello.’ he says with an envious certainty.
Another pause, and I feel my body clench, but then release, as I’m letting it, the prisoner panic going, echoes of that imagining fading.
‘Where did you sleep last night?’ I ask, out of impulse, and feeling the beat of my heart.
He pats his rucksack. ‘I have a bivy,’ he says now. ‘Just put it on the ground.’
‘Must have been cold, man.’
‘Yeah,’ he says, in his translucent shirt, and cardboard shorts.
He looks bright, considering he’s just risen from the morning like some desert wild flower, beating the dew.
Something about his eyes, though. They’re glassy, and full. Full of some knowing, some knowing I can’t see, can’t yet know, he beckons me.
He moves towards the edge of my path now, in a measured, almost robotic affectation, yeah, it is an affectation, I realise, and this man is not completely himself, and I feel the panic again as a rising heat in my chest and groin. He is heavy-set. I reckon I could take him in a flight, but. I know these forest paths, the lie of the land. I’m fast, when I want to be.
He sits on the edge of my path.
‘Cushy’ he says, head motioning to the kuti, and unzips a pouch he produces from his shorts.
Another pause, full of some latent meaning.
‘Cushy?’
He inhales and sighs, rolling himself a cigarette I see he’s produced from the pouch, and I’m relieved it’s nothing other than tobacco.
‘You can’t smoke here.’ I want to say, but don’t.
‘I came here two years ago,’ he says now, lighting his smoke, and my eyes fixate on the cigarette. He senses this, and offers the pouch to me. In a moment, I relinquish, and approach him, the sweet tobacco scent overwhelming me. I sit by him, and roll myself one now, and wonder who I am in this moment.
‘Relax, bro.’
I roll the smoke, and he offers a lighter in silence, and I light it, smoking, I’m smoking again, and the smoke feels foreign yet familiar and I retch at it, drawing it in, tasting the chalk.
‘Enjoying it here?’ he asks.
‘…Yeah, I am.’
He turns his body towards me, stubbing his smoke on my path, and I watch my mind judge it, the sacrilege of the act. He’s really looking at me, though.
‘There was a guy here. Reminds me of you.’
‘Oh yeah?’ I say, retreating into my cigarette.
‘It’s watered down,’ he says.
‘What?’
‘That’s what he used to say, this guy. He said it’s watered down.’
I know what he means, and it hits me.
‘My Mum always said I’m searching for something’ – and with this he laughs, clasping his knees, coughing.
‘What?’
‘Your Mum?’ he retorts, his eyes teasing me.
‘Yeah?’
His head is tilted down, he’s gazing up from that, looking up at me, head tilted to one side, canine.
‘Fuck this guy.’ I think, and he senses it and I realise I’m within arm’s reach of him, and I’ve given it away and I panic again, and he knows that.
He knows that, and he stiffens, rising, and leans on the brick wall lengthening his body, leaning in to the walking path, and folds his arms up into his chest, looking down on me.
I could bolt now. I could bolt, I’m out of reach. I could bolt, and run, and track the forest path and down towards the dam, screaming, but I won’t. I’m not. I’m still here.
He’s still got his rucksack slinked over his shoulder, and reaching inside he produces a glass bottle of water, I can see it’s some sequestered screw-top make-shift bottle, label removed, and twirling the lid open, he extracts the cap, and throws the bottle neck down his own and takes deep swigs, finishing the remains of the bottle quarter-full.
After that, ‘Can I fill it?’ he asks.
Is this why he’s here? For water?
‘Yeah’, I say, and point to the water tank, which he already knows is there. ‘Let me.’ I find myself saying, and rise to meet him, now meeting his gaze, and next to him, and I’m taller than him, though thinner, and despite that he feels my stance, and I take the bottle, nudging his forearm in false bravado and go to the tank and track him behind me as I fill it, and return.
I give him back the bottle. And then I’m calm. I slide down the side of the brick railing, and onto the path, and he’s standing next to me, tucking the bottle into his sack, measuring the moment from a distance.
‘Thanks’, he says, and then slides in a swift, slow movement from the path, and onto the ground beneath, adjacent to the hut, and walks directly from where he came, like some fata morgana returning to the forest.

Join me next week where I’ll let ya know how a homeless man became homeless for a day, only to return.

Mettā and Peace
– Stephen


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