Uttaraloka Sketches 06

April 2022

Welcome and Unwelcome Visitors

In late December four very welcome visitors Vidyaruci, Maitrivasin, Amoghavamsa, and Prajnahridaya who had been at Uttarloka since October left for the UK. Shortly after they left Vajramati who was visiting Guhyaloka from New York came to stay with me at Uttaraloka.  Although I’d not planned to have a visitor it all turned out very well indeed and I enjoyed his bright company. We had many interesting talks –  especially in the evenings as we sat in front of the wood stove sipping Turkish coffee. When he left for a couple of months solitary at Arthasarana (previously The Teacher’s House) I decided to go to the UK to see a few friends and to check out my narrow boat – which was in excellent order. It was a very satisfactory trip and I particularly enjoyed seeing Aryadrishti an old friend from the US who I’d not seen for several years.

In mid March yet another very welcome visitor, Satyadhara, arrived for the spring three-month retreat. We’d not met before but were soon settled into each others company and enjoying the retreat. Even though we have had almost three weeks heavy rain with the usual accompanying mud slides, fallen trees and rocks, and swollen – normally dry – rivers cutting off all the roads. But we have kept in good spirits and settled into five or six hours of mediation every day.

The unwelcome visitor was a very friendly, stubborn, occasionally aggressive and really stinky feral billy goat. He wanted into the house and the shrine room and overnight settled into one of the outside chairs like a dog, making it pretty much unusable. For a few days we discussed what to do with him; we rejected the idea of getting help from Pepe who knows about goats, because I think I know what his solution would be; and eventually after discovering that he had been seen on the other side of the mountain where I know there is a herd of domestic goats, we decided to walk him there – he loved to go for a walk with us. Satyadhara walked him over and I drove the car to pick Satyadhara up so that we could run off and leave him. He was very unhappy to see us drive off and ran after the car for quite a distance. It was sad, but life with him at Uttaraloka would have been unbearable. I felt rotten.

Friendship and Solitude

I was sorry to see my companions for the three-month retreat leave Uttaraloka at the end of December, but it is also true to say that I enjoyed the solitude. Being here with companions and being here alone are two completely different experiences. Being completely alone in these mountains I feel flushes of expansive ecstasy, the spacious freedom that I associate with Vajrayoginī; but with friends there is a comfortable gentleness about the atmosphere, a soft enjoyment of human society. The conflict between these two attractions is nothing new. In my youth I relished the joy of setting off somewhere alone and free – often hitch-hiking – but then I’d feel lonely. With friends I’d delight in the connection and communication – particularly the intimate connection with lovers – but then I’d want to get away – to have my own ‘space’.

This dichotomy has been one of the themes of recent months. One resolution would be to reflect that I can spend half my time alone and the other half with friends but my intuition suggests that there is here a deeper spiritual question and potential resolution.

A text that has inspired me for many decades is the Shepherds Search for Mind from the Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. The chapter is about Mahamudra and it is in two parts, both of which are, in my opinion, equally important. In the first Milarepa encourages a middle aged couple to renounce worldly ties. Using uncompromising but humorous language he points out that property, career, marriage, children, wealth, and social life cannot provide any lasting happiness, even though they can seem attractive options; in the second half of the chapter Milarepa explains to a very bright and inspired shepherd boy how to practice mahamudra. He also points out some pitfalls, and includes an exhortation to spend 12 years meditating alone in the mountains.

I have been pondering the renunciation of social life that Milarepa promotes in this and many other of his songs – as does the Buddha in the Pali Cannon and many other inspiring Buddhist teachers. What does it mean to renounce kith and kin; to go forth from society? And are any Buddhists in these times interested in doing so? Many Buddhists seem much more interested in solving the ills of society – even though they know that social life is, and always will be, inherently unsatisfactory. Many people, of course, take it for granted that to be absorbed in society is an essential part of human life and that not to do so is either irresponsible or a sign of mental aberration.

Over the last few years I have been reassessing my involvement with ‘society’ and even with my Buddhist community which because of it’s size, and from institutional necessity has inevitably become linked to the wider society in such a way that spiritual values seem to have had to be compromised with the imperatives of economic survival, public reputation, and social conformity. Religious institutions are clearly very helpful (although they can also be very damaging) but they do not generally inspire me. I want to pursue Liberation, the ecstatic freedom that I have felt when I’ve been truly alone, released from grasping this or that – particularly other people – and to learn to live from this Liberation.

But I am not a misanthrope. Living as I do, spending long periods of time with a few people, I have appreciated the uniqueness of every individual and realised that everyone lives in a unique world – within the gamut of the six realms. I delight in that uniqueness and have discovered that I love people – and other beings – for their individuality – even when it runs counter to my requirements! I am convinced that relationships with individual people are an essential component of the spiritual life. So I’ve come back to a familiar position: I value my individual spiritual friendships but I have little interest in membership of a ‘spiritual family’, a religious community, or any other tribe or clan. This is what I understand as Going Forth from society. I have been pondering what this all means practically and where it will lead me.

Clearly related to all the above – I have also been thinking about the value, the role and my desire for physical intimacy and what part this plays in my spiritual life and particularly with my having taken the anagarika precept.