Greetings from Wat Buddha Dhamma, 10 Mile Hollow, Wisemans Ferry, NSW 2775, Australia; www.wbd.org.au
I arrived here in early March, escaping the hot season in Thailand, but arriving here during a cool, wet period. From daily highs of 35C we now had highs in the low 20s!
I have described Wat Buddha Dhamma in earlier blogs, but for those unfamiliar with the place I will mention some practical details. It is the oldest Forest Monastery in Australia, founded in 1978 by Else Ledermann (later Ayya Khema) and Phra Khantipalo. It is situated approximately 2 hours' drive north of Sydney, deep inside a National Park (Dharug-Yengo) and accessed through a locked gate and a 15 km dirt road. It was originally purchased as a meditation centre, and as a monastery it is a very quiet place, with few visitors.
The landscape is somewhat similar to that at Poo Jom Gom, an eroded sandstone plateau with numerous rocky outcrops and cliffs. The cliffs are also interspersed with various rocky-overhang 'caves', some of them quite spectacular with layers of golden sandstone, and some are honey-combed by erosion. The landscape, however, is much more forested and rugged than Poo Jom Gom.
Ayya Khema's hut built over a large rock.
As the address suggests, most of the 220 acres of the monastery property are situated in a 'hollow' or broad valley between the hills, extending up the slopes on the south and north sides. The sunny south slope is where the monk's hermitage is located, with six huts stacked up the rocky hill, two of them perched quite precariously amongst the rocks. The more shaded north slope has a habitable cave and an assortment of picturesque flora, and contains two steep, heavily-forested valleys with some massive trees. The western boundary cuts across the upper part of the valley and the eastern boundary is part of the Old Great North Road.
Ten Mile Hollow Valley, looking west.
The Great North Road originally ran from Sydney to near Newcastle in the Hunter River valley. It was constructed mainly by convict gangs between 1826 and 1836, but by the time it was nearing completion it had been superseded by coastal steamers. The Old Great North Road is a 43 km section which is preserved from north of Wisemans Ferry to Mount Manning. Closed to unauthorized motor vehicles, it has now become a walking and cycle track, with a camp ground at 10 Mile Hollow. The National Parks and Wildlife Service brochure states that the Old Great North Road 'features spectacular and beautifully preserved examples of convict-built stonework including buttresses, culverts, bridges and twelve meter-high retaining walls, some dating back to 1828.' Two kilometres from the monastery are the remains of the second oldest stone bridge on the Australian mainland, while near Wisemans Ferry is Devines Hill, where the road climbs the steep cliffs from the Hawkesbury river. This is where much of the 'spectacular … stonework' is located – quite an impressive feat, considering that the workers only had hand tools and were toiling in very harsh conditions.
Convict built stone bridge.Besides the many kilometres of track on the Old Great North Road, there are a number of other tracks winding through the National Park as well as the access road to the monastery, which is also the access road to the power line towers stretching through the park. Otherwise much of the bush is not easily accessible except along the rocky outcrops. The Australian bush is not especially 'walker-friendly', with patches of dense undergrowth, wreathing vines and thick clumps of forest debris, not to mention the very prolific prickly, sharp and abrasive vegetation!
The main reason I have decided to spent some extended time here (I have a two-year visa) is my usual pursuit of trying to find a place which allows a suitable balance between physical exercise, mental exercise and spiritual exercise. Of course, everyone has their own preferences for the right balance, depending upon temperament. However, for me at the present time, Wat Buddha Dhamma offers the best possibilities to maintain this balance. There is more than enough space and sunshine for physical exercise, I have solar-powered electricity in my hut for evening study and the quiet environment is very suitable for spiritual exercises. The only 'distraction' from my mental exercise, i.e. study and writing, is that with so much sunshine it is quite enticing to spend more time outside than propped in front of a computer or hunched over a book!
I refer to these three types of exercise – physical exercise, mental exercise and spiritual exercise – because, as a shorthand method of reference, our sense of being is comprised of these three aspects, and unless spiritual practice infuses all three aspects it remains incomplete. In more detail, physical exercise is not simply muscle-building, endurance training or keeping in good physical shape. Rather, it is engaging with, studying and investigating the physicality of one's being. Keeping fit is one aspect, but it also includes studying the body and energy levels in different situations, developing increasing awareness of bodily sensations and investigating the constant changes inherent in physicality.
Mental exercises involve both an emotional and an intellectual element. Thus this is not simply gathering information from books to increase knowledge, but also investigating moods and emotions, particularly those arising from social interaction. Spiritual exercises, of course, involve development of the various meditation practices suggested by the Buddha.
My experience, simply explained, is that if these three aspects of our being are not engaged in a skilful and balanced way, disturbances in our being can arise. For example, I would say that if we do not engage with physicality in a skilful way, one of the dangers is developing an ungrounded, 'disembodied spirituality'. Not skilfully engaging with the emotional element can result in 'spiritual bypassing', while not engaging the intellectual element can lead to a free-floating type of spirituality.
On the positive side, we can say simply that a healthy body supports a healthy mind. True 'healthiness', of course, includes an exceptional degree of awareness of body and mind, understanding body-mind energetics and knowing their psychosomatic inter-relationship. Skilful mental exercises give direction and support for spiritual exercises. For example, I often find that the themes I have been studying provide nourishment for deeper insight during meditation, often in unexpected ways, since meditation can access levels of mind which are beyond our usual self-referencing conceptual mind. This can sometimes be quite frustrating when I am trying to compose a book, because the insights can be hard to conceptualize.
Perhaps needless to say, but the skilful development and careful balancing of these aspects of our being are what constitutes 'true' spiritual practice, similar to developing and balancing the Seven Factors of Awakening.
Wishing you further development and wisdom.