The drive to Birken Forest Monastery brought us through beautiful countryside as we were preceded by a parade of 10 bikers who paved the way for us past lakes and hills and fields full of grazing cattle.
We turned off to a dirt road through the forest and conditions gradually got worse as the area became more and more isolated and signs of civilization faded away apart from the dirt road which brought us along.
After twenty minutes or so we turned up a small tree lined road to arrive at the monastery, a beautiful wooden building. We were greeted by a family of marmots. One stood on his back legs and scratched his belly as he watched us, another rested his chin on the ground and didn’t seem bothered.
We were greeted inside by Sister Mon, one of the Buddhist nuns who lives at the monastery and then shown around by Piyadassi.
We had tea in the dining area and looked through the books in the library which is adjacent to the walking meditation area where guests silently walk up and down.
Meditation at 7pm began with a chant and we sat in still silence for just under an hour. I have never meditated for more than half an hour before and was surprisingly ok with this.
Theresa was tired from our journey and retired to bed after the meditation and I went to my own room as we were in separate rooms.
It was surprisingly big, a meditation mat by the window looking out on the grass and forest outside, and octagonal design on the ground below. The sky is beautiful as I write, looking out at the golden white clouds.
The room is sparse, a chair, a lamp, a mattress and bed sheets in an alcove framed by wooden beams. It is beautiful. I feel I will enjoy my stay here.
I woke early. 4.30 am. It was bright. I drifted off again. The bell chimed three times at 5:15 for wake up and we gathered in the meditation hall at 5.30. Before beginning, we bowed three times to a great white stone statue of the Buddha. This was not in worship but as a symbol of our mindfulness.
There is utter silence in my room as I write this. Complete silence and stillness. Peace.
The breakfast bell sounded at seven and I made my way mindfully downstairs to the kitchen where we lined up in order. Order without restriction, a free and easy kind of order that one does not regularly see.
Theresa and I sat in silence in the dining area with the other guests and ate apple, peanut butter, toast, granola and yogurt, washed down with green tea.
We cleaned up in the kitchen and I set to my chore of cleaning the bathroom, which I took joy in.
“While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
This quote resonates with me here, as it should throughout life in general. I thank one of my yoga teachers in Vancouver and Rolf Gates book Meditations from the Mat for taking it to me. And of course, the man who is quoted, of whom I am interested in learning more of his teaching.
After breakfast I chose three books to take home, these books are for free distribution. I like the simplicity of the covers, maybe not a reason to pick them but there you are. I especially like the pocketbook which I can see myself consulting regularly.
We explored the logging roads in the heat of the morning, surrounded by hares and butterflys.
Ajahn Sona (the Abbot) gave the meal blessing for the main meal at 11 am. The food was provided by a Sri Lankan family. I expected a sparse meal as we are in a monastery but the food was amazing and included desert.
After dinner we had a question and answer session with Sister Mon. The two main pieces I took from it where, firstly, why do we meditate? Indeed why do we meditate? It is a great question and one we should explore if we are to continue with meditation. In my opinion we meditate to get to the true self, the soul. Secondly, Sister Mon also mentioned that one can be mindful at anytime of the day, while doing anything. This goes back to washing the dishes from Thich Nhat Hanh.
I practiced yoga in the silent peace of my room. They encourage us to think of it as our own meditation cell. It makes me happy that I have a regular self practice now as I build towards a daily practice.
We did some walking meditation before teatime. Walking meditation is also available in the stone labyrinth outside. Unfortunately the Abbot did not make it for tea as he was under the weather.
Later in the evening, while wandering outside we walked through a path in the trees which led to a small lake or wetlands where we were greeted by a beautiful white Buddha sitting alone and silent, a solitary sentry on a small island. We did not take out the canoe as the ants had made a home of it.
It is a strange thing, especially for someone as talkative as me; we do not speak to the other guests as the monastery is generally silent. I did, however meet a kind man who was delighted to see us taking an interest in meditation. This place suits us, he told me.
I woke at five to the chimes of the bell and descended to the hall for around 50 minutes meditation, followed by breakfast and chores. We said goodbye and left around 9am to drive home through the beautiful rolling hills which were almost reminiscent of Ireland.