The first three years of my life as a bhikkhu were spent largely in one monastery, or more accurately, in a hut (kuti) in one section of a monastery on the outskirts of a town in central Thailand. I had travelled widely, almost frantically, as a layman, and this had resulted in the kind of disenchantment with experiences that was a perfect incentive to get to the root of discontent: to meditate. I had no inclination to go anywhere, even though I could come up with all kinds of grievances about the weather, the food, the noise, the insects, the teacher, and my mind. It was clear that there was no point in going anywhere carrying that discontent. Without its customary means of distraction, the mind dissolved into a flux of moods, memories and anguish at its own vacuousness, and the dumbfounding effect of confronting that left me with little interest in doing anything other than establishing some firm base and equilibrium. It was time to sit still.
One thing did come through the haze – occasionally on alms-round I would see bhikkhus wearing robes of a dull brown, robes that looked patched and heavy, strikingly different from the immaculate bright yellow of the town bhikkhus. While the yellow-robed bhikkhus darted through the streets looking for alms-food, these strange bhikkhus walked slowly, with patient, downcast eyes, apparently indifferent to the fact that the alms offerings were running out. They seemed to have nowhere special to go and yet nowhere worth lingering either. They evoked in me a feeling of nobility, and a mixture of sadness that there was no refuge in the world, and joy that men could walk with such gentle composure, clearly conscious of that raw truth. When I asked my teacher about them, he said they were ‘tudong’ monks.
Tudong is the Thai form of dhutanga, meaning literally ‘means of shaking off’, i.e. the practices that emphasise renunciation, and it can refer to the thirteen dhutanga austerities, or to the forest bhikkhus who live observing all or some of these and other renunciate practices, or more narrowly, to the custom of walking for weeks, months, or even years on end with just a bowl containing spare robes and essentials such as a razor, sewing equipment and matches; a water kettle; and a ‘glot’ – a large umbrella with mosquito-net which acts as a tent. Mostly dhutanga walks are undertaken by bhikkhus of the forest monasteries when they are considered stable enough and well-grounded in the Vinaya-discipline. You have to learn to live simply to go tudong, and to handle yourself with skill in the face of such difficulties as absence of alms food, disease, and bad weather. Moreover, for a foreigner there are the problems of language and custom, and as a meditator outside the shelter of the teacher, doubts about one’s practice and one’s purity. I could see quite clearly that it would be enormously strengthening to walk through that lot and keep on going, and its flavour and appearance very much fitted those ideals of homelessness and simplicity that had led me to take ordination. However, my basic practice was attendance on the teacher, and giving up to the situation of the monastery seemed to give me enough to work on, so I stayed put and let things take their natural course.
A few years later at Chithurst in England the subject of tudong would occasionally crop up again. Sometimes when we were sitting around Ajahn Sumedho in his room in a convivial mood, someone’s conviviality would overflow into fantasies of tudong in Britain, walking along the Downs . . . and when could we go?… all of which was given short shrift by the Ajahn. This was not the time for restless bhikkhus to go off fulfilling personal ambitions; needless to say, we all accepted his take on things.
But times change. When it is no longer an overflow of fantasy and restlessness; when it is appropriate to the Sangha and the Buddhist community; when, like many things in the training, what needs to be done and what you want to do merge; best, perhaps, when it doesn’t matter anymore – then you can go.
In Spring of ’82 we received a terse postcard from Ven. Viradhammo, then resident at Harnham Vihara. It was posted from Lindisfarne, where he was on part of a brief dhutanga tour. Accompanied by a lay supporter, he had walked for eight days over fell and moor, sleeping in lambing sheds and receiving food in the homes of various of the layman’s friends en route. It was a small but significant beginning – you can keep warm enough, you can sleep rough, you can get fed. When Ajahn Sumedho, subsequently invited me to spend the Vassa at Golden Square (near Honiton) in Devon, and consented to my returning on foot for the Kathina in October, I got more advice from Ven. Viradhammo on footwear, rainwear, and eating: “Try to get some breakfast before you begin to walk, otherwise you turn to jelly after a couple of hours,” To which he added, “But don’t just do it the way I did; I’d like to see how you do it.”
By the end of the Vassa, making my intentions known, I had accumulated three tents, three backpacks, a series of Ordinance Survey maps of the 140-mile route, a camping stove and cooking pot, canteens, foot lotions, and invitations to stop in several houses on the way. I had about two weeks to get back to the Kathina, a beautiful stretch of country ahead, the experience of a few long-distance walks to measure things by, and the company of an anagārika who made excellent tea. It couldn’t go wrong; there was nothing perilous or even arduous about it, and witnessing the way that it had all come together – with invitations and loans of equip that involved many people – it seemed that the practice that the walk was about was not a personal trial but the opportunity to share merit. It was a way to bring an example of the spiritual life to those who don’t live near a monastery. I dedicated the walk to all practitioners of the Dhamma, especially to Ajahn Chah, who had given so much of himself and now lay ill in a Bangkok hospital. The dedication fitted very well. I noticed on long walks how one would feel compelled to get to where one was going, walk too fast, be insensitive to and overtax the body. This is typical of all self-conscious endeavour. Putting the walk into the perspective of fulfilling a religious function for other people’s wellbeing, “For the benefit of the many folk” – as it says in the Canon – gave me the space to not have to prove myself, to resist the temptation to turn it into a personal epic, and to be content to take one step at a time.
Rather than having the convenience of a backpack, I decided to carry my equipment in two bowl bags, one over each shoulder, which was more awkward but did allow me to wear the bhikkhu’s outer robe, an important sign. I also decided to go on a route that allowed contact with people, and to keep equipment and supplies minimal so that people could offer help and take part in that way. After some ascetic longings I finally succumbed to carrying a one-man tent, a sleeping bag, my bowl, a change of undergarments, a toothbrush and some first aid; also a rain poncho and groundsheet (which doubled as a waterproof lower robe). I eventually walked most of the way in a pair of light-weight wellingtons (rubber boots) I’d brought with me, preferring to use everyday equipment to specialized gear. Anagarika Tony carried his clothing, sleeping bag and blanket, the small stove and pot, things for hot drinks and an old ice-cream container filled with about four pounds of muesli. The final touch was a small rūpa (statuette) from the shrine at Golden Square that Douglas, our host, had given us with some incense.
We set out at 10 a.m. on October 2nd as we did on every subsequent morning after chanting the names and virtues of the Twenty-Eight Buddhas as a protection and blessing for our hosts. We walked in silent single file about ten metres apart, along the river valley through Axminster on the back lanes around the lower rim of Marshwood Vale to Charmouth, where Richard and Anne Bancroft had invited us for the night. It took about seven hours, but we rested in a couple of breaks for two and a half hours. We were wet, my feet were blistered and the heel was coming off one of my boots, but there was ease in the heart from a day of being attuned to silent mindful walking. Whatever the changes in the next two weeks, that pattern remained the same.
And of course, the royal welcome. The lovely thing about the mendicant life is that your presence is a mirror that allows people to recognise their own goodness with a charity that is joyous and caring rather than burdensome. Throughout the journey, people we stayed with ushered us into hot baths, offered to wash clothes, gave us a meal and often gave Tony some food to take with us. Sometimes we would meditate together or talk Dhamma, but it was always clear that it was all right to sit quietly or rest.
The second day we turned back inland from the cliffs of the Dorset coast through twisting lanes and deep mud slopes on a hot morning. With the changeable English weather, choice of clothing had a skill to it. My basic clothing was light summer wear – a tee shirt, lower robe, and angsa (a light shirt) , with a blanket-thick sanghati, or upper robe, to be used when the weather was chilly, as a blanket or pillow and for proper appearance in towns. The initial feeling one has on wearing a robe is that it is a hindrance to free movement, but in this situation, it came into its own as I watched Tony continually changing sweaters, jackets, thin and thick trousers and having to carry all his spare clothing. We passed through Bridport with scarcely a catcall, we went up onto the downs to the north and east, and stopped to ask for water in the one-street stone village of Loders. This met with an invitation to drink tea, pull our boots off and sit for a while. Meeting people, the relationship is so clean. They know what your life means and that you’re not hiding or expecting something from them. That gives people the chance to be honest without fear of reproach or the need to impress. You share in someone else’s life for an hour, say goodbye and nothing is left but a genuine smile and that openness – “Oh, yes, go up on to Eggardon Hill, the view is really beautiful” – and it certainly was, looking back west over Marshwood Vale and the hills lounging into Devon.
The wind was cold up on that ridge: a lone Roman road and open land. We found a spinney and spent our first night in the tent. Two men in a one-man tent makes for mindfulness of small movements. You have to operate the body like a complex machine, one joint of a limb at a time – roll on left side, draw up right arm, uncurl fingers, reach gently for matches. You don’t sleep very much, and in the darkness of early morning, getting up and getting dressed is an exercise in concentration. We would begin about 3 a.m. and be drinking black tea by 4 a.m. A small night-light, the rūpa set on top of my alms-bowl and a stick of incense made the shrine for the morning’s sitting practice, or if it was too wet outside, reclining in the lion posture. There would be a couple of hours before dawn, and as the mind composed, I would reflect mettā to everyone who had helped me on the spiritual path – it was a colossal list. When the night receded, we would chant the “Twenty-Eight Buddhas”, eat breakfast, pack up and move on.
Jane Browne was driving Sisters Sundara and Candasiri back from Cornwall on the next day, they had said that they’d look out for us on the road into Dorchester. Sure enough, late in the morning, an aged Volvo steamed past with a flash of smiles and flapping white robes, and ploughed to a halt on the verge. There were a few moments in which everyone adjusted their joy to the appropriate greetings and set to the practicalities of finding the right place to eat Sundara’s birthday picnic. Tony and I bundled into the back and the car settled down on its springs and obediently rolled off to the north – Cerne Abbas, Minterne Magna, and a manor-house where Candasiri’s uncle and aunt lived. It was as strange for them, but they were good-hearted and took our oddness well; in fact, Candasiri’s cousin invited the two of us to stay at his farm for the night while he went out. “Make yourselves at home,” he said and left us his house. In the morning he waved Tony into the kitchen “Help yourself to food” – and went off to chase a runaway cow. He said he knew all about monks, as the friars of Hillfield lived only a mile away.
It was a long walk from there across Dorset, south-east to Bere Regis and Waltham Forest, with just one short break in a country churchyard. It was sunny and the leaves were turning red and rattled in the breeze. The Hardy monument stood over to the west, dwindling as the day seat by, and a rainstorm swept over just catching us in a peripheral shower. In the evening we nestled in some pine woods, built a fire, sat and stretched out, feet throbbing, and allowed the rhythm of walking to fade out into meditation and sleep. We spent the next day walking across the forest and camped early to rest and restore physical energy.
Despite the physical effort and fatigue, the walking was very energising for the mind. Most nights, I would sleep lightly for about four hours, whereas Tony dozed rather than slept because of feeling cold. The rhythm of the day had no stress, no tension that needed to be resolved, and although we hardly spoke, it was a very easy and natural silence, as we applied ourselves to walking, sitting, eating, and putting up and packing the tent. Watching the mind in the day within the framework of the walking, ancient memories would unravel and dissolve – a sign that there was nothing much getting stuck in the mind by the day’s activities.
About halfway home, on the sixth and seventh days, we stayed with Mary, a friend of the Sangha living in Poole. Walking through the town, our mirror picked up the usual reflections – shouts of “Hare Krishna, skinhead!” – and genuine inquiries and offers of help from complete strangers. In the centre of town, a policeman pulled up in his van, looked me in the eye and asked – had we come far? Where had we been at ten o’clock that morning? He explained in a level manner that someone bad been shoplifting in the Arndale Centre and the description exactly fitted me! Tony and I looked at each other and laughed – alms-bowl, tent. robes and shaven head – what are shoplifters getting up to these days? He didn’t pursue the investigation, asked a few polite questions about the monastery and let us go on our way.
Sending that evening and all the next day in Poole allowed time for some interesting Dhamma discussion with a few Buddhists and like-minded people whom Mary had invited around. Spiritual company is a blessing, and with all our best wishes we left the little rūpa – a plump and smiling Chinese figure – squatting on the mantelpiece among spiritual paintings and statuettes bowed in prayer, as a reminder of the companionship of the Refuge.
The next morning, we left for the New Forest, and as a concession to preference, took a ride in Mary’s car through Bournemouth and its urban districts for about eight miles to allow more time for walking in the open country. This made possible an unhurried tour from southwest to northeast, and we spent the night in the Forest with plenty of time and energy to sit in meditation. The weather was clear, my body had got used to carrying extra weight, my feet had hardened, and walking seemed as natural an effort as breathing – things felt very balanced. Forests are places where the harmony of nature can leave its impression and an open mind, and the Buddha, recognising how we are conditioned by our environment, recommended his disciples to seek out “roots of trees and lonely places.” Ironically enough, on entering the forest we had passed a fox hunt, where the humans were charging around chaotically, and tooting horns; the nonchalant fox ambling close by where we stood was the only being in clear control of his faculties. Our route went via Minstead Lodge – the other side of the human coin, where a community founded on Christian principles was directing itself towards exemplifying working in harmony with each other and with nature.
The choice is up to us – we may have to live within restrictions and conventional roles, but we do have the freedom to choose those that lead out of pain and delusion.
Rain began in earnest as we left Minstead Lodge, and persisted for the next three days on our walk through the urban back garden of Southampton, Totton, Chilworth. Chandlers Ford –past Eastleigh and up onto the South Downs at Droxford. By the time we got to Eastleigh my rubber boots were worn out. The heels had come off, the soles split, and my feet were always wet. Tony had some money given by a thoughtful lay supporter against just such a contingency, and bought me a new pair. They didn’t leak, but … the effect of wearing a rain poncho and a waterproof lower robe was to channel rainwater into my boots as efficiently as having drainpipes installed. When it came down to it, I finally recognised that wet feet weren’t so bad after all.
We crossed the river Meon at Droxford in a thunderstorm, hid in a disused railway station until it spent itself, and as the sun beamed down from a clean sky, walked up onto the open Downs that presided over the Meon Valley. The fields and copper woodlands glowed: at was marvellous to walk under such a sky with the land stretched out on either side. A line of oak and beech trees conveniently appeared as a pleasant spot to eat our meal of leftover fruit and some pies that Tony had bought on the way. A we chanted the anumodana, fluffy clouds came bobbing towards us, magnificent at first but then revealing dark grey bellies that signified only one thing. Don’t worry,” I said to Tony, “think positive.” The sun disappeared and a sense of urgency entered our eating as I glanced around – not a shelter in sight. Silently praying, “Please don’t rain, or at least not on us, or at least not now,” I suddenly recalled the power of asseveration of truth, and began with: “If I have been mindful…”, thought I’d better make it easy, and rephrased it as: “If, at least during this Vassa, I have done the best I can, please don’t rain!” The response was as swift and adroit as that of a Zen Master. Lightning flashed and it poured down. You don’t stop rainstorms with anything less than a “Lion’s Roar”!
Tony instinctively threw a sheet over his pack and headed for the trees, but actually there was nowhere to go. I slipped my poncho over my head, and, with the rain pinging into the lid of my bowl and turning my pies soggy, munched on peacefully. I might as well be wet and full as wet and hungry. As the rainwater began to flow under my poncho, Tony, catching the mood, reappeared with hands in anjali and a courteous smile: “May I offer you some coffee, bhante?” I declined, finished the meal and stood bowed under a tree while the rain did the washing up.
Storms don’t last long but we did need to dry out. About four miles down the road we stopped in some woods by the trunk of a felled beech and a huge pile of branches. Tony had discovered that, no matter if it rains, if the wood is dead and not in contact with the ground, it doesn’t become waterlogged. We were always able to start fires with twigs and use the heat to dry out larger branches and build up the fire that way. As this fire matured, the rain poured down again, but I lashed the tent to the tree trunk, made an awning over us and the fire, and crawled under the giant beech log. In a dry period, we erected the tent and finally stood around the fire getting alternately roasted and rained on – which seemed better than lying down cramped and damp.
The next morning, we went over Butser Hill and surveyed Petersfield and the valley of the Rother where Chithurst Monastery lies. Colin and Jane, who live about six miles from the monastery, had said that they would like to drive out to meet us and offer us alms-food at Buriton. After the meal, it was only another four muddy miles along the South Downs Way to their house where we could get cleaned up and rest before returning to the busy monastery.
Looking at Tony’s mud-caked white clothing, I recognized another blessing of the ochre robe: yes it would be best to get cleaned up. We came into Buriton rather like those dhutanga bhikkhus I bad been inspired by years before. Living with attention focused on the body, you don’t waste its energy. Walking, and other movements were steady and composed, and although you speak little, the mind remains turned towards other people’s well-being. A lot of the self-concern had died. It was all right to have sore feet, getting wet didn’t send you into a panic, there wasn’t the need to impress yourself or others, and when there wasn’t anywhere to go it was all right to sit by the church in Buriton watching the ducks on the pond and not thinking of anything much. We waited a while, received alms food, and after the meal walked on to Colin and Jane’s house. When we arrived, everything felt so balanced and peaceful amongst us that there wasn’t a lot to say.
When you keep your personal achievements at a level of putting one foot in front of the other and being mindful, you listen to what the world has to say. In that listening, the mind is fresh and alert to the mystery of life, and being unable to express that mystery only purifies the aspiration to live in harmony with it. When the walk came to an end, thirteen mornings after leaving Golden Square, the practice-path that it symbolises continued. Monastic life is about non-abiding, it is a giving up of personal possessions, desires, concerns and opinions. You listen and live close to the heart of life, and the only refuge from the rawness of our nature is to do good and be mindful. Sometimes that seems to leave you completely alone with nothing to hold on to, but the path evokes a compassion in us that fills the heart, and a respect for our way of life that gives us many friends.
Before we reached the monastery, we stopped to say hello to Sam, the woodsman who works in the barn at the top of Chithurst Lane. “You’ve just got back, have you?” he said. Please, just wait a moment.” He walked to the back of his workshop and returned with half of his packed lunch. “Can I put this into your bowl?”