Of course the monastery isn’t always like this but this is perhaps the kind of thing that we wish, in our dreams, could happen:
Are you sitting comfortably? Then we can begin...
Once upon a time...when he finally decided to go to the monastery it was the beginning of winter and the frost over the fields was sparkling in the low sun. A few people in the village he knew had met the monks, some of the kids had been to the monastery with school, and they all said they seemed like nice people so he wasn’t so nervous any more. He was excited and tingled a little bit all over, in fact, as the cold north wind swept across his face.
As he walked over the rise and saw the monastery house below he was immediately struck by the peace of the place. He hadn’t expected to feel anything special, his excitement steadied and opened a little. The first person he met was a man carrying a plank of wood from the barn towards the house. He offered a helping hand and found the ground first of all and himself in the door of the monastery second, all before he quite realised where he was. One of the monks was there and took his end of the plank as he walked in.
The monk said ‘thanks,’ and smiled. He felt a kind of stillness and stood looking around, not knowing what to say or even, momentarily, what to think.
The room was like an ordinary sitting room only there were no chairs, just mats on the floor, and a small shrine at the far end. The monk and the man were in the middle of constructing a wooden frame by the fireplace, he guessed for the firewood. He passed a hammer to the monk, who smiled again, more broadly this time. The monk and the man were both English and joked around with each other. Other times they were quiet but the quiet wasn’t awkward. This seemed important to him and somehow beautiful in a way he did not quite understand, a bit like looking at abstract art. The silence seemed strong and cool, like dark blue against yellow.
He found himself joining in with the work but not saying much. When work was done for the morning the monk invited him to stay for lunch and to his surprise he quickly accepted. Three Thai ladies were arriving with some food for the monks and he went to say hello. They were very smiling and chatty and took over in the kitchen. They did not seem to expect him to do anything, even to listen to what they were saying and he drifted back into the main room and sat at the back. This all felt different, he thought, yet at the same time seemed very normal, natural. It was just as though he was travelling abroad to an exotic place in a big bus-shaped house. Or was it a big house-shaped bus? There was something about this place that seemed to make something special out of the ordinary and something ordinary out of the special.
The other monks arrived and there was some ceremony around the meal but the man, who turned out to be staying at the monastery, told him he did not need to join so he just watched the people as they bowed and chanted blessings and so on. Looking on, it was all very gracious as if there were a little bit of silence and space in and around everything. He was a bit surprised to find out that the monk he had met already was the Abbot.
Everyone shared in the food. As he relaxed, life started feeling strangely more meaningful, in a more playful kind of way. He tried bowing for the first time and knocked his head gently on the floor by accident. One of the Thais giggled. She was pretty but he didn’t feel embarrassed, he was trying his best. ‘Trying my best not trying too bloody hard like usual,’ he thought to himself. It was fun to follow along and at the same time respectful. Something relaxed in his right shoulder which had been holding on a long time. He found himself freer to move his head and started looking again around the room. There were all kinds of possible new meanings lurking there in the subtle soft and elegant taste of the East...he was set to dreaming a little…
After the meal the monk came to talk to the visitors and he joined the group, relaxing in his armchair. Everyone sat on the floor. He didn’t quite know what to do with his legs, which suddenly felt rather long and stiff. He shuffled about and tried to follow the conversation. The monk seemed to know the visitors well, enquiring how they were and their families and they talked a little about meditation. There was a very friendly, family atmosphere. He felt a bit like the big kid of the class.
When the visitors returned to the kitchen he found himself alone with the monk. They exchanged a few simple words, nice day wasn’t it…but he was dying to ask something. He told the monk about the guardian of the forest that he had believed in since he was a child.
‘You are a man now. Now you are the guardian of the forest,’ said the monk, much to his surprise. He had not expected to be challenged like this but the monk was smiling very broadly.
‘Don’t you believe in such things? Does the guardian not exist? he asked.’
‘Keep looking and one day maybe you will see for yourself,’’ said the monk.
Again he was surprised, this time inside. He realised that the guardian of the forest was still just a childish figure in his mind in some way, a bit like Santa Claus and he thought of his grandfather who had told him about the guardian when he was a little boy. He had never really questioned what his grandfather had said and to carry on doing what he had been shown, to bow his head as he entered the forest, had just added a bit of magic to his love of the forest which he didn’t think about so much. He had never wanted to think so much about it, that seemed to spoil the magic. But the way the monk was speaking was not just about thinking or imagining but really looking for himself.
He didn’t quite know what to say. One of the Thai ladies appeared and offered to take his plate to the washing-up and he instead followed her into the kitchen to lend a hand. The ladies had to leave quite quickly and he found himself alone in the house. He was relieved to have a chance to really arrive and reflect on the morning.
Something seemed to be opening up inside which had been contracted a long time. He realised he didn’t have to believe or not believe in anything, not in spirits or parties or chocolate or anything. Snow started falling slowly and gently outside in big flakes. The white of the snow seemed so fresh pure and bright. Right there in the moment he felt he could make a fresh start and look again at the world with the wonder of a child that he had somehow lost in all his doubts and worries. He had entered into a very precious state of mind, called in Buddhism, ‘Beginner’s Mind.’ a state of mind with some faith but no knowledge, just open and enquiring.
He decide to go for a walk in the forest...
to the guardian of the forest he spoke with respect
asking for permission to enter
just as his grandfather had told him when he was a small child
to the spirit of the forest he listened
through the wind in the trees, the creaking branches
and the spirit and the guardian seemed to speak to him through his feelings
coming from without or within he could not tell and it didn’t seem to matter
now as he was older and wiser than in his youth
the guardian and the spirit seemed to be coming ever closer
‘are they not actually in the same voice?’
he asked himself
‘surely they are the same’ he thought
the creaking of the branches seemed to speak to him of caution
but there was something deeper
he sat to meditate for the first time
beneath the great pine in the centre of the forest
very deep down in his spirit
far deeper than he could imagine
the voice of the spirit was beginning to express
in the brightness of his heart
the deeper meaning and truth of the forest
and the meaning was the protector, the guardian
for the meaning was itself protected
this truth was the deepest truth of nature itself
and was the eternal life of the forest
this was how through humble respect
he had begun to find nature’s greatest reward
for himself and for the forest
the promise of an eternal life through truth
and through complete surrender
Now he had really arrived in the monastery...just in time to go home again for a little supper...after all it was Christmas time and granny was coming...
I offer this for your reflection