Meditating in New Zealand (Part 1 of 6)
Janet was living at Amaravati, a Buddhist monastery in the UK with a branch monastery in New Zealand, and that's where I was headed; New Zealand, a perfect place to train. I would support Janet by training in the same monastic tradition as hers, except that I would be safely a half-world away!
Before I left for the Southern Hemisphere, however, I needed a place to practice for awhile, to get back on track, and I knew the perfect place; at Bhante Gunaratana's monastery outside of Washington, DC. The Bhavana Society (bhavana in Pali translates as mental development) is tucked away in the picturesque hills of West Virginia just down the road from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Bhante Gunaratana is the founder of Bhavana, a Sri Lankan monk who has been in robes for almost seventy years, and a world recognized meditation teacher.
When I arrived, Bhante G, welcomed me to the monastery and retreat center in the same warm manner that all serious seekers are welcomed in Theravada Buddhist organizations, by never charging fees and only asking that the seeker meditate seriously and help in the community however he or she can.
My mind calmed down quickly at Bhavana and the time went by quickly. I kept busy felling trees and splitting firewood, working in the kitchen, and later pitching in and helping with the construction of the new meditation hall, and I would have actually remained with Bhante G and ordained as one of his monks had I not wanted to support Janet by becoming part of Amaravati.
It was peaceful, waking up every morning at 5 a.m. to the big gong, then meditating for an hour and a half before beginning our day. I even had my own little cabin . . . with a woodstove! Before I knew it, however, on a pretty little fall day where the autumn colors were proudly strutting their red and orange stuff, and while I was laying up the fourth level of blocks for the foundation of the new meditation hall, Bhante G came over. He stood above the ditch and watched me for a long time, his presence always warm and loving, saying a few words of encouragement, and saying goodbye, too, though I didn't know it at the time, because just as he was leaving, Sister Sucinta came running out of the office waving an email in her hand. My travel and visa arrangements were all set . . . and not long after that, I was off to New Zealand!
New Zealand was stunning, once I got there; the twenty-six hour flight seemed endless. About eighteen hours out, we hit a cloudbank that continued all the way to Auckland, and only later was I to discover that it was more or less a stationary phenomenon over the rain soaked islands. Miraculously, the sun came out the day I arrived and remained for my entire 400-kilometer train trip from Auckland to the rainforests of Wellington, which was nothing short of a spectacular series of picture postcards. Every bend in the tracks, from mountains, to ocean, to pastoral pastures of grazing sheep, was breathtaking.
The locals insist that if a giant straightened out all the wrinkles in New Zealand, it would be the size of Australia! Thats a stretch for sure, but the country really does have few flatlands. The South Island even has Colorado inspired snowcapped mountains! The homes and streets in Wellington were surprisingly no different from a middle class neighborhood in Des Moines, very Americanized, but with no street signs! When I inquired about this apparent oversight, I was told that I should know where Im going. . . . Hmm.
The monastery grounds were nestled among a series of great folds in the earth covered with rainforest-type foliage. The setting was gorgeous, and I was fortunate enough to hang my hat in a small cabin half way up the mountain. The cabin was very upscale compared to the kutis that I was accustomed to in Thailand, and it even had a sliding glass patio door! At night, the ever-present possums that populate the southern island like a blanket (somebody forgot that possums have no natural enemies in New Zealand when they unthinkingly introduced them to the islands) loved to sit on my porch and curiously gaze at me in the evenings through the patio door while I meditated with my candle. I always seemed to attract animals for some reason, no matter where I found myself.
The cabin was difficult to find during the day, let alone at night when I had to climb the mountain in the dark to retire. A couple of steps off the path without a flashlight and you'd be finished, so I always kept spare batteries in my pocket, just in case.
The Wellington weather was worse than Washington State or the U.K. The rain was intense, unremitting, and usually came down sideways in sheets, making my nocturnal trek from the meditation hall up the mountainside to my cabin a study in courage to say the least. Then one miserable night it happened - halfway up my flashlight went out. I fumbled in my pocket for the spare batteries muttering, "Thank God, thank God," but when I switched them with the old ones . . . still no light. It was the bulb, and I didn't have a spare.
I couldn't make out a thing in the driving rain and the ink-black forest. I couldn't even see my hand in front of my face! So I was left with two choices, well, three, but I didn't want to holler my head off; that wouldn't be cool or dignified, and probably no one would hear me anyway. So I had two choices, really, and both were bad - either hunker down where I was for a cold, wet night, or feel my way through the forest . . .