A Shorter Long Road North

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A Shorter Long Road North

Preface: Herein are some reflections by Ajahn Amaro on his 2008 walk in England with Nick Scott. This walk celebrated and roughly followed the route of a previous and longer walk undertaken 25 years earlier in 1983, also with Nick.

One year after that first walk a book was published journaling their experiences entitled Tudong: The Long Road North, with illustrations by Nancy Sloane Stanley; parts of this book were included in the later anthology Silent Rain.

In the spring of 1983 I set out to walk the length of England (via a rambling, roundabout route) with a lay companion, Nick Scott. I had been inspired by the heritage of wandering monks of the Thai forest tradition and, more pertinently, by the recent short journeys undertaken in England by two Western monks of our lineage. The custom of tudong–journeying on foot by ascetic monastics–had begun in Britain and I was keen to try my hand, or perhaps that should be my feet…

This original walk took three months and brought with it many vivid experiences. A few people we met we had already known for some time and were staunch supporters of the monastery, familiar friends such as Noy Thomson, Carol Winter and Sister Nanda. For some of those we came across it had been their first ever meeting with Buddhist monastics and it was a contact that brought Dhamma irrevocably into their lives. Most in this group, like Dan Jones whom we met in Cambridge, subsequently chose a householder’s path. Others, like the former Ajahn Siripañña, were inspired by this initial contact to enter into monastic life.

Decades passed: people we had met on the walk kept in touch with Nick, came to visit our monasteries, or occasionally we saw each other when I was visiting Buddhist groups throughout England. A few received ordination, like Ajahn Vimalo, Ajahn Siripañña, Tan Suviro and Adrian Gibson; others vanished without a murmur.

Through this trickle of sustained contacts the afterglow of that original walk was kept alive. Then in 2005, perhaps due to the reflectiveness that can arrive when near the 50-year mark, Nick suggested that he and I revisit some of the places and people we had met all those years ago.

I had just finished a year’s sabbatical in June of ‘05 and I didn’t think it would be met with much favor if I suggested taking a few weeks off again, to go on a jaunt through the byways of England’s green and pleasant. Then inspiration alighted: “You know, 2008 will be the 25th anniversary of the first walk; if we left it for a couple of years the Abhayagiri community will be likely to approve of a second walk–especially since it’ll be a way of celebrating the anniversary”

This seemed to be an excellent fit all round so thus it was. As 2008 approached e-mails began to flow back and forth between Abhayagiri Monastery in California and the Galway Peninsular, where Nick now resided.

Along with the grizzling of beards, the years had also brought us more densely packed schedules so we only had an 18-day period to play with. This was about 20% of the time of the original walk so we carefully pegged out a possible route that covered roughly 165 miles on paper. In January of ‘08 Nick placed a modest notice in the Forest Sangha Newsletterto let folks know of our intention to visit some of the route we had followed in 1983. It also invited any of those whom we had met then, or those who would like to meet up with us now, to get in touch.

Late April of 2008 brought Nick and I to Chithurst Monastery, he arriving at the last minute from a back-packing retreat he had been leading in Crete. A thick blanket of rain-laden skies also appeared, taunting our powers of resolution. The storeroom of Chithurst House had rendered up not only a fine tent, a water bottle and a sleeping bag and mat for me to travel with, it had also (to my amazement) supplied the self-same pack that I had used 25 years before. My astonishment was doubled when it turned out that Nick also had the pack that he had used back in ‘83. This small physical connection with the venture our two younger selves had set out on brought a bright glow to the heart and that strange tingle that accompanies such miraculous trivia.

Unlike 1983, wherein our meetings and eating- stops had mostly evolved en route, Nick had this time organized a thoroughly worked-out array of meal-offerings. Personally I had hoped for it to be more in the spirit of monk-who-travels-like-clouds-and-water, with more open days and less preparations. This was not the way this particular undertaking was shaped, however, and I reflected that to harmonize with the wholesome attitudes of your traveling companions is the first rule of a fruitful life on the road. The route was formed of four chunks, these were: Chithurst to my sister’s house in south-west London; Cambridge to Swaffham, where Sister Nanda used to live; Ilkley to Kendal, through the Yorkshire Dales; and lastly from Hadrian’s Wall to Aruna Ratanagiri Monastery, at Harnham.

Memories can be tricky, conniving with each other to create convincing stories, yet again and again it is discovered that things didn’t happened quite that way and–yes–we recall places shaped differently from the way our eyes now reveal them to be. Have the memories been modified by the illustrations that Nancy Sloane Stanley invented for the book? Or perhaps it’s because through endless retelling, the tales have become the reality… So much of what I met along the way this year did not match the memory: St Martha’s church was in the wrong place on her hill; Lakenheath Warren was nothing like that and Barbon had reconfigured itself completely – sañña€ anicca€, sankh€ara€ anicca€–perceptions and memories are unreliable, uncertain.

If there is wisdom, however, we actively develop this “anicca-sañña,” recognizing unreliability in things and, mysteriously, the mind that knows “All is uncertain” provides a genuine refuge. Furthermore, not only does this refuge operate on an internal level but we find we receive great blessings even when things don’t go “right.” When my foot gave out on the last day of the walk, a sequence of encounters with compassionate strangers resulted in rides all the way to Harnham. We arrived three hours before our planned welcome was ready.

So it goes.