Wednesday, July 6, 2022

 

July 2022

Greetings from winterly Wat Buddha Dhamma, 10 Mile Hollow, Wisemans Ferry, NSW 2775, Australia; www.wbd.org.au

 

Here in the southern hemisphere we are experiencing Winter, which is also the time of the traditional Buddhist 'Rainy Season'. Fortunately, at Wat Buddha Dhamma winter is not too extreme, with most mornings around 3 – 5C and sunny afternoons in the upper teens. Ironically, it is also the dry season.

This year we may only have a small Sangha due to some health issues and a serious delay in receiving a requested visa.

I have been reminded that it has been nearly 6 months since my last Blog update. I will not claim it as an excuse, but part of the reason was that not much has happened in the last 6 months – 'nothing to write home about', as the saying goes. The other part of my delay is that, for the early half of that time, I have been quite preoccupied with applying the finishing touches to my book. Now, with the final comments from my diligent proofreaders, Theresa and Grant, the enduring patience of Sharon for layout and Melinda for production of the ebook, it is now ready for reading. Copies can be downloaded from the monastery website: www.wbd.org.au/news/book

In March, we were once again 'flooded in' with both the ferry down and the northern route along the river under water for ten days. Ari, one of our long term lay women, was eager to leave for a flight to Sri Lanka. The only option, other than walk 10 km over the hills, was to hire a helicopter for an airlift out. This was doubly helpful as it allowed some fresh vegetables to be flown in and Yuliana as a replacement cook to join us in our maroonment! Shortly after, several of us were obliged to have a picnic lunch in the park next to the ferry dock and had to clear debris off the picnic tables before eating. Various forms of debris, including an old mattress, clothing and driftwood indicated that the area was about two meters under water at some point. We are happy to live nearly 100 meters above the river level!

And … just as I am uploading this blog, we are once again ‘flooded in’. No big problems for us. The weekend retreat has had to be cancelled, some of the tracks are more washed out and the low lying bridge to the old garden has once again washed away – this time 100 meters downstream. One of our guests is marooned here while another guest, who hiked in from Wisemans Ferry five days ago, decided to hike our over the hills to Mangrove Mountain – 4 ½ hours in the rain!

                                                               The bridge to nowhere.

With the lifting of the Covid restrictions it is now possible to travel. I thus stirred myself from inertia and three of us took a road trip to Victoria. The main reason was to attend the Grand Opening of the Dhamma Sala at Vimokharama Monastery in the Dandenong ranges, east of Melbourne. This project has been in progress for the last eight years and Ajahn Hasapanyo and his disciples have done a superb job of re-establishing the site as an ongoing monastery after the original house was burned down.



Our trip to Victoria also allowed us to visit Ajahn Sudhammo at the new monastery, Nigrodarama, just north of Melbourne. Unfortunately, he was not able to extend his visa before it expired and has now returned to Thailand to re-apply for a return whenever it is granted. Ajahn Bom, another monk from Ajahn Dtun's monastery in Thailand, is keeping the place warm over the southern winter.

On the return journey we followed the coastal route which involved an overnight stop at a camp ground where we were able to view the sunrise over the Tasman Sea. Australia is such a huge country – continent actually – that it really requires many days to appreciate the natural beauty and diversity of the landscape. It takes more than a few hours to absorb the effects of majestic rocky headlands pounded by the crashing surf or the endless expanse of pristine, sun-drenched beaches.



                                 

Ajahn Khemavaro has made good use of the opportunity to travel with visits to Thailand, Indonesia and USA, as well as several trips to various Buddha in the Bush properties. After a rereat in Brisbane, much interest was expressed in establishing a local Vietnamese Theravada monastery. With much enthusiasm and energy a 360 acre property was located one hour west of Brisbane and the down payment was quickly raised. Dhammachakkha Forest Monastery will be the first Vietnamese Theravada monastery in Australia, although still in the early stages of development.

One of the teachings of Ajahn Chah which I have been reflecting upon recently was triggered off by a discussion I had with one of our recent guests. This is the teaching that Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or suffering) is our teacher. The more I contemplate this simple teaching the more profound it becomes. If I had only heard this teaching when I was young it would have saved me so much (unneccessary) suffering!

Most of us, unfortunately, waste so much time and energy denying, avoiding or trying to escape from suffering. If we could just transform this energy into studying suffering we would not only save a lot of wasted effort, but learn some valuable lessons in the process.

Of course, Ajahn Chah was giving this teaching within the context of the Buddha's teaching on the Four Noble Truths. These truths tell us that suffering is a fundamental reality of life and this experience has a definite cause which can be brought to an end through a detailed practice of spiritual development.

I think the main reason why most people do not try to study suffering is that they do not know that there is a path of practice to transcend suffering – the Eightfold Path. Without a way out, suffering seems like a very unpleasant deadend. And, while not exactly easy, by studying suffering we can gradually learn to free ourselves from this self-created condition.

The tools are now within our hands. 

Wishing you all good health, well-being and the peace of Liberation.

                                                    

                                  Australia Rock -- can you see the outline of Australia?

Saturday, December 11, 2021

 

December 2021

Greetings from summerly Wat Buddha Dhamma, 10 Mile Hollow, Wisemans Ferry, NSW 2775, Australia; www.wbd.org.au

Another Rains Retreat has passed, extra peacefully this time since we were in lockdown for the whole three months. This year, eight monastics and five laity resided for the retreat. Similar to last year, Ajahn Khemavaro gave the weekly Saturday evening talks and I gave the weekly Sutta Class. The Sutta Class theme was 'Beyond I-making', following the outline of my forthcoming book. The video talks can be viewed at:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLoqEu9rv_k_fvhkdI591UiK11l-aups67

Fortunately, some lockdown restrictions were eased in time for the Robe-offering ceremony on November 7th.This was offered by the three Anagarikaas, of three different nationalities: Thai, Sri Lankan and Australian. The ceremony was thus multiethnic with the offering announcement in five languages, including Pali and Vietnamese.

Ajahn Sudhammo, unfortunately, was not able to attend the Robe-offering ceremony as he returned to Nigrodharama Monastery, near Seymour, Victoria as soon as the border was opened. He had been expecting to spend the Rains Retreat there but was locked out due to the resurging Covid pandemic. Then the initial lockdown kept being extended, eventually for 100 days! Nevertheless, his calm and steady presence here was much appreciated. Also, his carpentry skills enabled the fitting out of the two new shipping containers as comfortable lodgings, and the new laundry shed took shape.

At the time of writing, Australia has just opened its borders to international travellers. However, due to the uncertainties still surrounding international travel, and my own inertia from staying here for several years, I am not planning any travels at present.


                                               Gamia lilies in blossum.

One of the insights which has become clearer to me while working on my book is just how programmed human beings are by feeling. At its simplest, human beings' whole life is directed to pursue and maintain pleasant feeling, and avoid or escape unpleasant feeling. The development of civilization is simply the development of more and easier ways to fulfil this fundamental human drive.

Then, if we investigate feeling, what we discover is that most people experience the most pleasant feeling when they can escape, forget or lose their everyday (painful) selves in some form or other. The worst method, of course, is in intoxication, since one not only loses one's sense of self but also one's self-control, and both physical and mental health also suffer. Slightly less deleterious is losing oneself in art, music, dance, theatre, movies and other forms of entertainment. While sometimes this can expand one's sense of self it can also bring up very strong emotions which maybe cannot be properly processed. Much less deleterious is losing oneself in nature or some form of healthy sport (extreme sports perhaps excluded). This is usually a very calming, relaxing and refreshing experience allowing a releasing of one's excessive focus on self. On a more positive note is losing oneself in spiritual exercises such as prayer, chanting, meditation, etc. (However, if this becomes too obsessive it can lead to fanaticism.) The only major problem with all these methods is that they are all only temporary – one eventually returns to one's old self again, hopefully at least somewhat more healthy and/or wiser.

The Buddha, of course, had a very unique answer to this universal human dilemma – ultimately, there is no self from which to escape. The escape from self is actually an escape from unpleasant feeling embedded in specific experiences; and if dealt with skilfully, unpleasant experiences can be successfully resolved to give the complete ending of unpleasant feeling and a new experience of well-being.

Of course, while the theory is very straightforward, putting it into practice can be somewhat more challenging. The main thing to keep in mind is to apply a step-by-step approach, the pleasure of peace dawning in stages. The first step then is to clearly observe the nature of the unpleasant feeling which we are attempting to flee. This, of course, is the key step in unlocking the whole backlog of unresolved negativity and ignorance wrapped around suffering.

                                                   Purple invasion.

Fortunately, the Buddha provides us with a wide range of skilful means to deal more wisely with difficult issues. The most useful of all the skilful means is the development of friendliness or
metta bhavana. While this practice is usually taught as a way of spreading universal well-being or kindness throughout the world, most practically it is first necessary to develop friendliness towards one's own unpleasant experiences. Only when we are truly openly friendly towards our selves in all of its aspects can we really share well-being with others.

Thus, we start by developing friendliness towards our own aches and pains, our annoyances and irritations, our anger and frustrations, etc., etc. How friendly can you be to these experiences? This is, of course, a developing process. Can you really be openly friendly, welcoming and accepting of all the unpleasant aspects of your self?

At the very least, this practice allows us to come a bit closer to our unpleasant experiences, which we have turned into our enemies and then avoided, ignored or actively fled from for so long. With this new attitude you may notice that perceiving unpleasant experiences as enemies actually makes them more unpleasant! By fighting with unpleasant experiences your body becomes more painful through contraction and toxic chemicals in the blood, and the mind becomes more painful through the toxic effects of hostility, negativity, frustration, fear, etc. However, responding with kindness and friendliness changes the rules, and thus the results, of the game. Try it out.

Coming closer to unpleasant experience allows the possibility to see it more clearly. And often just the act of being more aware of the basic issue, takes away its sting (not to mention that it can even be pleasantly interesting). At other times, maintaining some consistency of awareness reveals its inconsistency – the issue is actually a fluctuating series of events, memories, emotional reactions, ideas, etc., etc. Where is this thing we are turning into a monster out of fear?

Sometimes, of course, there is some obvious issue which is causing us suffering. This can benefit from some deeper, contemplative investigation directed towards revealing its root cause. Thus, from a calm state of mind we investigate how it manifests in the body, as an emotion, as a state of mind. Can it be sensed as an image, a sound, a texture? When does it arise and cease? How does it arise and cease? Can we allow it to cease?

Gradually, our ignorance and fear of unpleasant experiences eases and we can more peacefully see them as unstable, impersonal processes, which are part and parcel of the on-going web of life. The compounded fear and hostility around unpleasant feelings gives way to a receptive and peaceful well-being.

Wishing you all good health, well-being and the peace of Liberation.



Saturday, May 15, 2021

 

May 2021

Greetings from cool, green Wat Buddha Dhamma, 10 Mile Hollow, Wisemans Ferry, NSW 2775, Australia; www.wbd.org.au


Here it is nearly the middle of 2021! Time, of course, is very subjective. Some months have passed very quickly, while others have crept by ever so slowly. The 'slow month' for me was March as I was waiting expectantly to move into my new lodging on the hill, halfway up the valley. However, a series of issues arose in the finishing up and delays kept piling up. Phil, our builder friend from Belegin, completed the main structure in early January after working 8 hours per day, six days a week since the end of October. We then returned to our normal work period of 2 hours per day to finish off the details. Fortunately, we had many eager and willing volunteers to contribute their energy to the project.


Most of our long term residents and many guests spent some time on the site. Anagarika Miles and David took turns helping Phil, and then continued with the detailed work. Annie oversaw much of the painting work. Yuwadee, Noy and Pat spent a whole afternoon painting ¾ of the outside walls (the fourth and steepest wall took nearly 2 months to paint between rain storms, scorching heat and courageous painters!). Yoshi, Ray and friends got the water and septic tank set up, while our devoted electrician, Rene, wired up the Solar electrical system and installed the hot water heater.

Fortuitously, Michael, a professional landscaper, happened to be cycling past on the Old Great North Road and stopped in to visit. Once he was introduced to the project, he generously volunteered many hours masterfully completing the rocky staircase.



Through all the drama of hut construction I was also slowly working towards the publishing of my latest book, which has become a project in itself. I think the writing is basically complete after five years of gestation (although I make changes every time I look at it). Amaravati Publications has offered to publish it and a generous sponsor has come forward for the printing costs. The primary edit is complete and several proof readers are going through the text. A friend from Canada has offered to do the layout and I am seeking permission to use quotations from various publications. All-in-all it is slowly coming together, although details of printing and distribution are still in negotiation.


The purpose in putting together this book is really about systematically gathering into a coherent form my research on the theme of Anatta, no permanent self. Firstly, this involved collecting the relevant passages from the Pali Canon and translating them (2 yrs). The next stage was ordering them into some comprehendable form (many changes). Just when I thought I was nearly finished, I realized that some of the basic technical aspects of the teachings (Kamma, Nibbana, The Five Groups of Grasping and Dependent Origination) needed to be explained (2 more years). Editing and filling in further reflections took a further year.

One of the major, on-going challenges is translation of Pali terms to English. Although I normally think in English (sometimes Thai) trying to 'get my head around' some of the Pali concepts became a mind-bending exercise. Even though English is quite a flexible language one soon discovers its limitations through translation work. I have to keep reminding myself that language does not entirely encompass the real experience. On the other hand the purpose of a book is to communicate. I won't mention how many times I was ready to give up book writing! However, I do think that there is some useful material which some people may find helpful in their practice.

I call the book a 'contemplative workbook' as its purpose is to provide various themes for contemplation, including principle Buddhist teachings and guided meditations. Hopefully this will allow an experiential investigation beyond mere words. How many of us have ever really experienced the depths of ignorance and craving?

May you experience Liberation, good health and well-being.





Thursday, October 22, 2020

 

October 2020

Greetings from cool, green Wat Buddha Dhamma, 10 Mile Hollow, Wisemans Ferry, NSW 2775, Australia; www.wbd.org.au

Time has passed very quickly here in the quiet bushland of New South Wales. These days it seems to go much faster with Covid restrictions on travel and visiting. Fortunately, Australia has not been as severely affected as other places, so restrictions have been easing for some time.

Just before the lock-down was initiated at the end of March, Ajahn Suddhammo returned from a stay at the new Nigrodharam Monastery, north of Melbourne, and a NZ, former-monk, with building skills, arrived to help us with our re-construction plans. Although the restrictions prevented our eager crew of Thai helpers from lending support, with the two skilled builders, work on the new Mahathera cottage was able to continue.



For the re-build, the size of the building was reduced and extra effort was made to make it more fire-resistant. The walls inside and out, as well as the decking on the veranda, are all made of fibre cement board, and the wooden foundation has been enclosed with fibre cement board to keep fire, and any flammable material, from encroaching on the wooden timbers. While not entirely fire-proof, the new structure is approximately 80% fire-resistant.

               Even the decking is made of cement fibre board for fire resistance.

Finally, after five months of steady effort, I was able to move in to the new Mahathera cottage, although there were still occasional work days to complete some of the details, such as painting, installing curtains and tiling around the two sinks. Electricity installation is still in progress, but the wood stove works exceptionally well!

The beginning of the 'Rains Retreat' brought a winding-down of further work projects as a dedicated core group of ten people and the Sangha settled into a regular routine of eight-hours a day group practice, a weekly Sutta class, private interviews and the usual Saturday night Dhamma talk. This year Ajahn Khemavaro and I switched roles – he gave the Saturday night talks and I gave the weekly Sutta Class, discussing the Satipatthana Discourse on the development of mindfulness.

The 'Rains Retreat' for me was not as settled as in previous years when it was a time I could focus more intently upon working on my on-going book in reflective detail. The unsettledness was primarily due to some increasing health issues involving my hands. Since late last year I had been experiencing increasing numbness and then shooting pains in the fingers and wrist. Having found no lasting relief in acupuncture and massage, I enquired of a visiting doctor if it might be Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. She referred me to a specialist who quickly confirmed the diagnosis and suggested several treatments, ending with me having double wrist surgery on August 21. The operation was straightforward and only required five hours of hospital stay. The recovery, however, has been an entirely different story. Initial swelling and pain in other joints continued to increase until a further consultation revealed a flair-up of 'inflammatory arthritis'. Once this was diagnosed new medicine was immediately effective in reducing further inflammation.

Just before the ending of the Rains Retreat I received notice that my new four-year work visa had been granted. It thus appears that I will be spending more time at Wat Buddha Dhamma. In fact, later this month, a builder friend of the monastery will come to start work on a new hut for me, a bit closer to the kitchen/office complex, but higher up the hill for an expansive view over the Ten Mile Hollow valley.



The forest has sprung back to life, however, the skeletal upper branches are a constant reminder of the previous bushfire.

Although unsettled health issues and a lack of energy from struggling with pain have prevented me from giving much attention to my book on the cessation of I-making, the theme has still provided valuable food for contemplation. Two of the main sources of the continuity of I-making are ignorance and craving. I think for most people these experiences are so nebulous and vague that it is hard to get a clear sense of them. Thus, I have been reflecting on the experiential nature of ignorance and craving, and how they manifest and impinge upon our life throughout our daily existence.

Ignorance is not knowing, and can be so pervasive that we don't know that we don't know! A more insidious aspect of ignorance is incomplete knowing, especially if we are not humble enough to acknowledge the limitations of our knowing – we use our assumption of knowing to hide our true ignorance.

The word for craving, tanha, literally means 'thirst', emphasizing that it is close to a primary drive of life, which craving for existence essentially is. We may more easily recognize our erupting greed or desires while failing to observe the fundamental thirst nurturing these seemingly fleeting emotions.

Both of these factors are so all-pervasive in our life that most of us are totally unaware of how the dominate every waking moment. Fortunately, now that the Buddha has pointed them out to us, we can try to increase awareness of these insidious overlays to our life. And even though it may seem counter-intuitive to try to be aware of not-knowing, we can at least notice it's effects at times when we jump to hasty conclusions, misjudge situations or assume we know what is happening when we obviously do not – all expressions of ignorance. As we increase our awareness of craving we may notice how often we are being pushed around by liking and disliking, rather than reflectively making a conscious choice.

Seeing these effects of ignorance and craving active in our life is the dawning of wisdom and the beginning of the freedom to no longer be led along by our old habits fueled by ignorance and craving. What a change in perspective – freed of our enslavement to old compulsions!

Wishing everyone the freedom of Dhamma, good health and well-being.



                                                 Tea tree in blossom.

Saturday, April 11, 2020


April 2020

Greetings from cool, green Wat Buddha Dhamma, 10 Mile Hollow, Wisemans Ferry, NSW 2775, Australia; www.wbd.org.au


Yes, Wat Buddha Dhamma is green again!



It is quite a surprise for those not familiar with the Australian flora to see the bush so quickly sprout back to life. Most of the trees have sent out bunches of fresh leaves through the blackened trunks, while others, more severely burned, have sent up new shoots from the roots. However, the scene is quite surreal as all the shiny, new growth appears too perfect to be real – no withered leaves or even signs of insect damage. And all this brilliant greenery is framed against blackened tree trunks and barren, skeletal tree tops!

On general observation it looks like at least 90% of the native trees have come back to life out of the blackened desolation. In fact, on our first visit following the fire, with trees still smouldering, I noticed that the native grasses were already sending up new shoots, not to mentioned the more fire-resistant gammia lilies and grass trees. As long as one does not look up to the tree tops it is hard to recognize that a devastating fire has swept through here only a few months ago.

The main long-term effect of the fire was the destruction of about 10 of the largest trees in the valley. Most of these were Engopheras, which appear to have a suicide gene. During the hot weather, the prime fire season, they drop flammable bark around their trunk and many of them are rotten inside, leaving openings for the fire to enter and burn them from the inside out. However, the curvaceous smooth exterior is quite fire-resistant and quickly sprouts leaf blooms, even when the interior is still burning!

Much of the regrowth is due to the return of regular rainfall. Three days of heavy rain in early February sent the creek into flood mode, and it has been flowing ever since. Now we have started to hope for sunny days to replenish the solar power.



Towards the end of January the Sangha was invited to Tasmania by one of our devoted supporters who had opened a restaurant at Kingston, near Hobart. The small number of local supporters were exceptionally generous during our short stay with bountiful meal offerings at Yom O's restaurant and for picnics on our travels, as well as very comfortable accommodation and energetic transport. We thus packed many things into our five-day visit with a restaurant opening ceremony, Dhamma talks and meditation sessions, together with a number of excursions to some of the scenic wonders of the island.

The Tasmania meditation group.

Tasmania reminded me a lot like New Zealand with sparse population and abundant natural vegetation. Also, surprisingly, Hobart is quite similar to Wellington, being surrounded by hills and situated on a superb harbour. In fact, the hill overlooking the city is called Mount Wellington.

Hobart city and harbour from Mt. Wellington.

And similar to New Zealand, the west coast of Tasmania is wet and mountainous while the east coast is drier and hilly. For our first two excursions we thus headed west, first into the alpine regions of the Harz Mountains and the second day to Mount Field National Park to the alpine regions on top (but not too the ski resort), and then we descended through a glade of some of the largest trees in Tasmania to the 32 meter Russell Waterfall. On our third day the rain caught us up so we journeyed to the drier east coast to the Tasman Peninsula, the site of the old penal colony of Port Arthur. No one was interested in visiting the ruined site as we have had enough convict history through living on the convict-built Old Great North Road. We rather opted to visit a number of the many natural sites. Our first stop was the Tessellated Pavement, where fault lines have fractured a sandstone plateau in such a way as to create natural paving stone patterns on the sea shore. Next we drove and trekked to the Remarkable Cave where the wild waves of the Southern Ocean has carved a 40 meter cave through the rocky coastline to an open-air beach. Our last stop was through the sand dunes to remote Roaring Beach, one of those typical spectacular, pristine antipodean beaches.

Roaring Beach.

Our short but eventful stay in Tasmania soon drew to a close. With heartfelt invitations to return we made our way back to Wat Buddha Dhamma and the continuing tasks of post-fire clean-up and re-building, but much refreshed from the relaxing break.

Present Past and Future
The Buddha's teaching on the development of mindfulness encourages us to live more in the present moment. Most people, however, also need to relate to past and future. While writing this blog, for example, I must delve into the misty realms of memory. Fortunately, the Buddha pointed out that memory or thoughts of the future are not problems in themselves. Rather, the main issue is with the delighting in or seeking pleasure in memories or future plans.

We all have memories and sometimes need to plan or imagine what the future may present. However, we usually imagine that the past is back there and the future is up ahead – then we go travelling! When we know that the past is already gone and the future is just a fantasy, then we no longer get lost in trying to seek pleasure in them. We just acknowledge memory or plans as particular forms of mental activity in the present moment, and do not try to create more pleasure (or pain) out of them then they already have.

As an exercise just try to observe how you relate to memories or thoughts of the future. Do you see memories as a record of past events or do you go into fantasy mode – 'if only I did that', 'maybe if I hadn't done …', etc.

Unfortunately, we usually think that we simply recall buried memories. However, modern research has discovered that what we actually do is recollect certain key elements and then build a plausible new story around it. The new version then overwrites the old version and becomes the new 'old memory'. Have you noticed how the details of old memories are quite hazy and often doubtful?

In a positive sense memories can be a source of wisdom. If we are willing, we can see where we have gone astray at certain times and what has helped us to realign. Rather than moan over mistakes we can try to be more vigilant in future to not keep falling into the same old habits. 
Thoughts of the future can open up possibilities, but they are only possibilities and not actualities. And, at what point do these possibilities lead you into unnecessary worry – about mere possibilities!

The past is a memory,
The future a mere thought.
Only in the here and now are we alive.

Wishing everyone good health and well-being.



Monday, December 23, 2019


December 2019

Greetings from burnt-over Wat Buddha Dhamma, 10 Mile Hollow, Wisemans Ferry, NSW 2775, Australia; www.wbd.org.au

The thirty year old Sala survived the second bushfire.

I have not been writing much in this blog over the last while, basically because there was not much to 'ramble' about. However, things changed quickly after the Rainy Season Retreat with the on-set of the Australian Bushfire season. Then it was so busy that I had little energy or time to write!

As some of you may know, Wat Buddha Dhamma is situated deep in the Dharug/Yengo National Park surrounded by dry eucalyptus bushland. When bush fires threaten we are advised to evacuate to a safer place. For Tuesday, November 12, the Fire Danger Level for NSW and Queensland was raised to 'Catastrophic', meaning all those in fire-prone areas should evacuate to safer areas.

Since we were in no immediate danger (although the Park Ranger suggested otherwise), we initially did not think to leave. However, when we reconsidered the implications, some other options arose. We were in the path of an extensive, fast-moving, out-of-control fire some 45 km away (Gosper's Mountain – the 'mega fire' now engulfing 470,000 ha) and would be spending the day shrouded in acrid smoke in temperatures approaching 40C.

After careful consideration it was decided that it might be a suitable day to take a picnic lunch and visit the local town to complete a few errands, then review the conditions in the early afternoon. By early afternoon fire conditions had deteriorated considerably with hot, windy conditions fanning existing fires and producing new ones. We thus decided to de-camp to an apartment made available to the Sangha in west Sydney to review conditions in the evening. By early evening fire conditions had truly become 'catastrophic' with 80 fires burning throughout the state, 15 at Emergency Level.

Thus, at the invitation of our generous Vietnamese supporters, we remained overnight and were offered the next day's meal. By morning, with a cool southerly weather change, fire conditions were considerably reduced and we made our way back to the Wat. As we approached Wisemans Ferry the northern horizon was covered in smoke, and from the ridge road we could see massive plumes of smoke billowing up from the vast swathes of burning National Park forests towards the northwest. Fortunately, the monastery property and surrounding area was not impacted by the fire, although the area was covered in a layer of ash, including finger-sized scorched leaves blown 40 km across the hills.

Our second evacuation occurred towards the end of November with a lightening strike at Three Mile Line on the Old Great North Road. Since we are at Ten Mile Hollow on the Old Great North Road we did not appear to be threatened. However, the Fire Service was concerned that the fire would cut off our access road and advised to evacuate. With telephone calls coming in, a siren-wailing helicopter hovering overhead and a visit by fire personnel, we decided to depart for the lodging in west Sydney to appease the officials.

We returned to the monastery the following day and met an official who said all was good and that they would begin a controlled burn soon to contain the fire some two miles from us. However, this was delayed and high winds on Monday forced the fire over the proposed containment line to within 5 km of us. On Tuesday morning we were warned that the fire was slowly approaching but that the winds were directing the main fire-front away from us towards the east. However, by late afternoon we were notified of potential 'ember attack' and, collecting our valuable possessions, all assembled in the vicinity of the kitchen/office in preparation. Having donned protective clothing, set out fire hoses, filled gutters with water and cleared extra-wide fire-breaks, we sat down for refreshments as increasingly dense smoke billowed over the ridge. Just as we were preparing to retire to our 'safe house' – an earthen building stocked with water and medical supplies, and with ample clear space – the first flames crept over the ridge to the south-east. It was still about 600 meters distance and on the opposite side of the road from the monastery so did not appear overly-threatening – night was approaching, the winds were dying down and the fire was moving downhill.

We casually watched the flames creeping along the ridge when three helicopters suddenly flew overhead and landed in the large field nearby telling us to depart immediately leaving all belongings behind. I was not keen to leave my passport and necessary items so suggested that we could take our belongings and drive out the back route away from the fire. This was agreed and we quickly loaded our things and departed in two vehicles, remembering to take the chain saw and bolt cutters (in case the gates were locked).

We set off briskly but, upon making our first right hand turn through the clearing under the power lines, observed that the fire front had crested the ridge and was halfway down the nearby slope. We had not realized that the westerly winds had forced the fire-front past our position towards the east. We moved off more briskly on the eastward track and several more curves directed us straight towards a steep slope where the flames were being whipped 40 meters over the ridge tree tops. We descended the narrow track winding along a rocky gorge over deeply rutted washouts before the track leveled out and the bush thickened through the gulley. However, in the lower reaches of the valley the smoke began to thicken and another curve brought us to within 150 m of a ribbon of fire creeping down the slope. For a moment I thought that the fire may be in front of us but we had little choice but to continue forward. We sped ahead through thickening smoke and darkness only to run into a fallen tree across the track. Fortunately we had the chain saw and were able to quickly clear the path as the red glow flickered over our right shoulders.

Our departure route after the fire.

Shortly we arrived at the track along Mangrove Creek, fortunately recently ploughed, and turned away from the encroaching fire front along an increasingly well-maintained gravel track, then up the opposite slope through Dubbo Gulley to Upper Mangrove village. While we waited to find a place to stay, a Rural Fire Service vehicle arrived to confirm that we had all managed to evacuate and report on the advance of the fire.

After a short discussion, the six of us were very warmly received by the residents of Aloka Meditation Centre where we resided for two nights. Then our Vietnamese supporters took us to a house in west Sydney and the next day we travelled to Santi Forest Monastery where Sisters Jitindriya and Jayasara generously invited us to make use of the much-appreciated quiet and solitude.

For nearly a week we had little news of the condition of the monastery except that dramatic footage on national television of my cottage blazing and helicopters water-bombing the Sala sent panic through our lay community and an avalanche of text messages expressing concern (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-04/one-home-has-been-engulfed-by-the-three-mile-fire/11767160)

Finally one of our fireman supporters managed to access the property and reported that the buildings were 80% intact! We have since made an inspection to assess the damage. Fortunately, all main buildings survived, and the only loss were three monk's huts [including the iconic 'Ayya Khema' Rock Kuti], plus several caravans, wood piles, toilets and water tanks. Unfortunately, some of the water pipes were damaged and water supply has been disrupted. Also unfortunately, most of the forest has been completely devastated, in some places leaving only charred sticks standing.

Ayya Khema Rock Hut before ...

... and after fire.

The following weekend many supporters braved the difficult conditions of trees on roads, smouldering stumps, charred forest and cold showers to assist in an initial clean-up. A week of chain-sawing and plumbing work has now seen most tracks cleared and water restored to the monk's area.

We are most grateful to the Rural Fire Service who helped protect some of the buildings, to all those who generously housed and supported us during this chaotic and distressing time and all the open-hearted people who expressed their well wishes and contributed to expenses and the re-building fund.

The smell of burnt wood and sight of blackened forest still lingers about the property (probably for months), however, we are heartened by the dawn chorus of cackling kookaburras, the sighting of our local wallabies, wombats and goanas, as well as increasing numbers of birdlife.


IMPERMANENCE

While all situations in life can be a source of contemplating impermanence, it is extreme times like this that bring the truth of impermanence directly into our minds. Most often we contemplate impermanence while in a relatively safe and secure environment such that this contemplation is usually in the abstract – yes, things are impermanent but not me. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, your world can be turned upside down and, if you have not seriously understood impermanence, you can be over-whelmed with suffering at all levels of being at once.

One of the huts which burned down was the Mahathera cottage where I had been staying. Initially, someone who saw the television images told us that it was the Sangha House which had burned down. This news was saddening, but when we established that actually it was my lodging that had burned down, I had to choke back some personal tragedy for the belongings I left behind!

Mahathera Cottage before ... 

 ... and after.

I am still getting used to the situation where people wish to offer me something and my first thought is that I already have it. Then I realize that actually, it is now burnt up in my former lodging! Interestingly, upon reflection, it was not the things themselves that were the source of sorrow but rather the sense of me and mine which those things represented. 
There were things associated with my personal history – a fossil from the rocky coast of Portugal; there were things that relieved some personal pains – special circulation-stimulating socks for feet pain; there was my selection of favourite teas, etc.

In one sense, of course, this can be positive as a means of liberation from identity. Yet, while nothing there was irreplaceable, there is still sorrow at any loss of selfness, and a form of dislocation before another sense of (new) selfness is re-established – hopefully more in tune with continuous impermanence.

The Buddha often encouraged the contemplation of impermanence as one of the direct means to liberation. Other times he extended this to include the contemplation of dukkha since impermanence is always unpleasant for the sense of selfness, which is founded upon stability and need for security. This can lead to an increased understanding of 'anatta', no stable self, in that, what is impermanent and dukkha is, of course, not a stable self.

We blindly assume that we are in control of our life. However, the ultimate truth is that our life is controlled by the elements of earth, fire, water and air. While we may rant and curse them when they are extreme, we should reflect that actually these elements were here long before us. They are just impersonally following their nature – we are the ones who are in the way.



Wishing you all an insightful New Year and the peace of realization.