Three - Living Outside
There is a 2.5 mile loop trail at Abhayagiri. Starting from the cloister area, you walk up some concrete steps and pass the gold Buddha image. A steep trail winds up through Jordan’s meadow, crosses a road, turns right, and then passes by the entrances to five kutis. It then crosses a bridge, where you enter into the truly wild part of the forest. Over the next 1.5 miles, you pass the entrance to the Ajahn Amaro tent site, then a small waterfall followed by the new chedi site trail. From there you descend into an etheric forest grove we call “Cool Oaks,” wind your way to “Hawaii,” where there is a small shrine with a wood carving of Ajahn Chah. You continue through Sun Meadow and back down to the cloister area. Some community members walk this trail on a daily basis, and people from the local area often visit just to walk the loop.
During the winter retreat, a small group of us did evening chanting and meditation at our proposed chedi site. This is one of the most difficult locations to access in the monastery, and until recent years you had to climb through thickets of chaparral and manzanita to get there. In 2002, when I was an anagārika, Ajahn Amaro showed me the path to get up to the chedi site and I ended up stepping in a hole and hyperextending my left knee.
A chedi, also sometimes referred to as a stupa, is a monument containing sacred objects, such as the cremains of meditation masters, Buddha relics, and other sacred objects. Any chedi we build in the future won’t be very big - probably with a base of about 12 feet square and a height of no more than 30 feet. The proposed chedi site has some historical interest. There are four large old-growth redwood pillars set in the ground, which have been long since cut, coils of very old wire and cable, along with porcelain insulators. So, we theorize that there may have been an old telegraph or power line at the site. The way Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro discovered the spot was actually by following a single copper cable up the mountain until it led to this particular flat spot, atop a mountain finger jutting out into the heart of the land.
In the autumn of 2018 we cleared more of a trail to the proposed chedi site, which begins at the highest point of the loop trail before it descends into Cool Oaks. In 2019 we began the slow process of cutting steps into the new trail - this chedi trail is an ongoing project and far from complete. Eventually, if the right conditions come together, we plan to build a small chedi, which will be visible from most places in the monastery.
The chedi site trail cuts through the most rugged, steep wilderness of our 250 acre wood. About 100 feet up the trail, there is a fork and if you turn right you get to a tent site known as “The Outpost.” As the weather is starting to warm up, Tan Tissaro has moved out of his kuti to dwell at this campsite. It contains the basic necessities for living outside - a walking meditation path, some flat ground for pitching a tent, and a pit toilet. As it is in a nook in the mountainside, it is one of the few places free from the disturbances of road noise. For a monk seeking to live outside and be secluded, The Outpost is first-class.
We hear stories sometimes about how the Thai Ajahns in the old days practiced walking meditation. Some Ajahns would practically live on their walking meditation path. After having the daily meal, they would hang their robe up on a line and start doing walking meditation. Sometimes they would have a place to sit meditation at one end of their walking path, and if they felt like sitting they would stop their walking meditation and sit down right there. If they wanted to practice even more continuously, in the evening they would lay down to sleep on their walking path, and as soon as they woke up they would continue their walking meditation practice. It is said that those who did much walking meditation attained realization swiftly. The Buddha also praises walking meditation:
“Bhikkhus, there are these five benefits of walking meditation. What five? One becomes capable of journeys; one becomes capable of striving; one becomes healthy; what one has eaten, drunk, consumed, and tasted is properly digested; the concentration attained through walking meditation is long lasting. These are the five benefits of walking meditation.” - AN V.29
One of the sāmaṇeras has moved out to the “Ajahn Amaro tent site,” where Ajahn Amaro stayed in the first years of the monastery, using a canvas “civil war” tent. For myself, I have lived at this site on-and-off over the years and have seen almost every type of local animal there - bear, mountain lion, deer, fox, and even a large bullfrog in the heat of the summer.
Tan Tissaro approached me and asked, now that he is living at the Outpost, “How does one deal with the concern of wild animals, such as mountain lions, since it becomes a reality when one is in their territory?” As he was talking, I remembered reading an Ajahn Chah teaching where he recommended that wilderness bhikkhus never neglect the morning and evening chanting. Considering this, I felt that the act of chanting Dhamma reminders can give us a sense of safety and security and can set the mind up for peaceful abidings. As long as we have an attitude of “whatever happens, happens” and we know that we are cultivating wholesome qualities and solitude, a sense of calm can arise while living in the forest. In nourishing the wholesome and accepting uncertainty, we gain not only a peaceful abiding, but also drawing near to the understanding of Dhamma, which is why most of us came to the monastery in the first place.
“So he seeks out a secluded dwelling: a wilderness, the shade of a tree, a mountain, a glen, a hillside cave, a charnel ground, a forest grove, the open air, a heap of straw. After his meal, returning from his alms round, he sits down, crosses his legs, holds his body erect, and brings mindfulness to the fore.” - AN IX.40