Following are a few of many tales, reflections, and images from Ajahn Amaro’s year away, as told to Fearless Mountain assistant editor Kathryn Guta.
From June 2004 to June 2005 I was grateful to have a year- long sabbatical away from the many responsibilities of teaching and the structures of a monastic routine. During my sabbatical year, which I spent in Asia, I was supported by the monastic discipline without a calendar of events requiring my attendance. The word whim, which had long been absent from my vocabulary, was reintroduced, and that was a real treat.
I have been a monk for over twenty-five years and had never visited the Buddhist holy sites. Living so close to a tradition and yet being so geographically removed from the homeland, I had wanted to visit the holy places that are so much a part of the lineage and teachings of Buddhism. I had heard the names—Rajgir, Buddhgaya, Varanasi—and yet they just existed as concepts. I wanted to bring these places to life.
Letting Go of Roles
I had no fixed route and no schedule. Only my sisters and Ajahn Pasanno knew how to contact me in case of emergency. This gave me a precious quality of space: the ability to pick up and go. In a way, this is the ideal of a wanderer’s life. The Buddha said, “Just as a bird in flight takes nothing but its wings wherever it goes, so too the samana just takes whatever they have wherever they go and leaves no trace behind.”
No one in his or her right mind would go to the holy places of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the hot season, so to avoid running into people I knew, that’s when I went. The effort I made was rather like the effort to create noble silence in a retreat setting—to limit the self-creating signals. When we interact with others, we create ourselves. Thus, for a year, I didn’t have to be the persona of “Ajahn Amaro.”
Since visiting senior monastics are usually asked to give a talk or expected to participate in some role, I avoided the Theravadin institutions. By doing so, I was just another dust-gathering body in India. While I have no problem with stepping into the role of Ajahn Amaro, I was grateful to live away from it for a time. By stepping out of the familiar, I experienced a helpful contrast, rather like living in another culture. I could see how the self-creating processes work, and I could visit the holy places without the baggage of “Ajahn Amaro,” with his life, his world and all his stuff.
One of the things that surprised me was that, to the people in India, I was 98% white and only 2% monk. In the West, when you walk around as I do, wearing a brown robe with a shaved head, you are definitely a religious “something.” That is the defining perception, or sañña. I was continually surprised that people saw me primarily as a white person and only secondarily noticed that I was wearing strange clothes. The definition of one’s place in society as a foreigner seemed to override the role of religious seeker. The perception of caste and color is a dominant feature of how people judge each other. Even though the caste system has been outlawed since the time of Gandhi, simply creating a law will not stop these perceptions from carrying on. The colonial past of the British keeps the association of pale skin with the sense of “other.” Also, so many foreigners run around wearing rather strange gear!
I was viewed as a sahib primarily in the context of people begging for money. I learned how to say: “I haven’t used money in twenty-five years.” I felt how uncomfortable it is to be the object of begging. It’s probably like being an attractive woman or a wealthy person: you are an object of desire. Eyes turn towards you, and then people move in your direction to try to get something. You may say, “I don’t have any money,” but still they persist. I felt the violence and brutality of shutting people out when saying “no.”
The first step in meeting this challenge was to cultivate a complete noncognizance. I consciously screened people out. This was less aggressive than saying no, but still there was a hardness to it. So I began to craft a practice: on the one hand, there was complete noncognizance, on the other hand complete loving kindness. When I started to practice this, it felt wonderful. It is not that you don’t care. It’s the realization that you can’t function in the way the person wants. You do not pick up on the unconscious statement of “I am a poor person and you are a rich person, and so if you do not give to me, you are bad and selfish.”
The approach I found was balancing. There wasn’t a shutting off, and so it seemed to generate less resentment or retaliation. I did not engage with people and thereby did not give them false hope. Yet, by sustaining a quality of genuine kindness and compassion, I could feel I was walking the middle way—the way leading beyond suffering.
Like any other culture, India has its rough edges. Yet, I am struck by its relative sanity compared to the West. I believe this has to do with the average person’s frequent acquaintance with the rude realities of death. In Varanasi, there are bodies and body parts of human beings floating past you in the Ganges River every day. There you are, out for an evening walk, and you see and smell a rotting corpse beside you still ripening from the day before. It still hasn’t been collected.
Death in our culture is looked on as something unfortunate that can be avoided—an unpleasant accident. If you work hard, it won’t happen to you. In India, death is not seen as an aberration but rather the inevitable outcome of birth. The more we can accommodate this sane view of sickness, aging and death, the saner our society will become.
One of the places I was interested in visiting was the original Amaravati. I knew that Ajahn Sumedho had chosen this name for our English monastery from the ancient Buddhist city. Our monastery opened in the early ‘80’s—in the middle of the “Mutually Assured Destruction” era of Ronald Regan, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev. Ajahn Sumedho wanted to use a name that reminded people of something other than imminent death, so he chose Amaravati, meaning “the deathless realm.” It was a conscious choice of a name that was an antidote to “limited nuclear war.”
The original Amaravati is a small village, hardly even a market town on the Krishna River in Andhra Pradesh. The old stupa, which in the Ashoka era was the wonder of the area, is now virtually just a lump on the ground. Almost all the old carvings and pillars have been removed. There are a few pillars remaining like broken teeth in the mouth of an aged person. Still, I found Amaravati to be a peaceful and powerful place.
While there, I had a long and vivid dream that ended with a wall upon which was written: “Life beyond desire is unaffected.” I reflected on this, and a whole variety of things came up. One meaning of unaffected is “undisturbed”; another is “not having pretenses or airs.” When the heart is free of tanha (craving), it is a heart that is unaffected or undisturbed. This seemed a perfect expression of the Deathless Realm, and it has been a helpful reflection to carry and investigate especially when some “affecting” is happening.
Also, Amaro has the same root as Amaravati. It can be translated as “Amaro’s place.” I took great delight in writing a postcard to Ajahn Sumedho, which said: “Greetings to the Deathless, from the Deathless, in the Deathless.”
Getting to the Roots of the Tradition
My trip was quietly wonderful without spectacular events. The most powerful element was the coming-to-life of all the places that are associated with the Buddhist tradition: Spending four months of the monsoon in Savatthi. Going to the Jeta Grove every day, where 60–70% of the sutta teachings were given. The Buddha spent nineteen rains retreats there. What a delight to be able to walk every day in this grove and spend half the day sitting in meditation. The site of the Buddha’s kuti was there in front of me. Ananda’s kuti was right next door. The Buddha, Sariputta, Moggallana and Rahula walked this ground. This is where Angulimala, the mass murderer became an arahant. HERE. The ground was literally littered with shards of earthenware, old cups, and pot lids. Some of the shards looked so similar to those I had seen in museums that I couldn’t help but wonder if they were from the Buddha’s time. I felt the palpable presence of the tradition: Kosambi, site of the infamous quarrel between factions of the monks; Vesali, where the Buddha spent his last rains retreat—these places came alive.
Now, when I think of Vesali, I think of the huge man- made lake. I see the Ashoka pillar and the stupa. It is not just a name and concept as it was before. Ah, Rajgir! It’s hilly there. That’s why they call it the city of the five hills. This is the Sattapanni Cave, where they had the first council after the Parinibbana. It’s this ledge. They held the meeting in the cave on the north side so they wouldn’t get cooked in the day. Smart guys! Well, they were arahants.
You have the physicality of these places in your memory and senses. You can smell them. It’s rather like the color coming into a black and white picture. Or when the spring rains fall on the garden and the fragrances come forth. These words, these ideas, these stories, they happened here! There’s a qualitative change that words do not capture. There is a connectedness and relatedness. You can see why the Buddha said: “Those who visit the places where the Tathagatha was born, enlightened, gave his first discourse, and passed away, those people will experience the benefit and happiness of the pil- grimage for a long time.” It brings a quality of faith, commitment and connectedness that is much more alive. This is the spot. Here in Lumbini is where the Buddha had his last birth. Vesali: this is where the Vajjians took the relics of the Buddha after the Parinibbana and made this little stupa. This stupa! You can feel the sounds of the chanting. You can feel the love and reverence for the Buddha and his life.
A Visit to Ramana Maharshi’s Ashram
The Ramana Maharshi Ashram in Tiruvanamallai is a spiritual magnet not only for thousands of Indians but also for Westerners from all over the world. On the January full moon we circumambulated Arunachala Mountain (about 14 km) along with about 500,000 other people. This happens every full moon. Traditionally the walk is done barefoot. I lasted about three-quarters of the way on the rough tarmac but had to resort to sandals eventually. I still sport a pair of neat half-moon, apostrophe- shaped blood blisters on my heels to remind me of the great occasion.
I felt very much at home there at the ashram, especially since most of the people are interested in meditation and silence. This was the best Buddhist monastery I encountered in India! One of the most striking things is the daily presence of people at all stages of life—from newborn to those far bent with age. Somehow in the West we mostly see very limited ranges of humanity in our daily traffic with the world. Here it’s all fully visible. The complete range of sickness, deformity, loss and death are given equal room with the currently able-bodied. Nothing is hidden away. The pitiless violence of samsara is to be witnessed daily, so there is a deep sobering in the heart when it comes to the pulls of the senses.
—from a letter sent by Ajahn Amaro, February 2005