Day after Half Moon Day: The Flood

January 31, 2008

We didn’t realise that we were driving right into the middle of the worst affected areas. My brother Tim and I were in his little white van on our way to Wales. I’d been invited to do a retreat on a supporter’s farm. It was July, 2007, the time of the flooding that wreaked havoc in the Midlands and Wales.

We’d been looking at the forecast and severe weather warnings were in place but we thought we’d try our luck. To get from the Hermitage to Wales, taking the most direct route, you have to go through Worcestershire. Worcestershire was one of the worst hit places. We realised things weren’t going to be easy when we found the motorway closed. Map reader Manapo worked out a route that would take us through the countryside. We really had no idea how bad the rain had been in this part of the country.

Our first taste of the severity of the floods came when we approached this roundabout. Our eye lids widened and the atmosphere became one of anticipation as we drew near. It was very eerie. It was like a ghost town. There were abandoned cars everywhere. Clearly people had been caught out and had got stranded in the water. There was no hope of them getting away with their cars so they just left them. There were some very expensive cars there too. By now most of the water had receded so we drove cautiously around the remaining puddles, and continued hesitantly on our route, not knowing what we were going to meet next.

Then over the next two hours we witnessed much of the same. Abandoned cars; closed roads. We went through Pershore on route to Evesham but we were told by Police that Evesham had been cut off. We realised that we weren’t going to get to Wales and our main mission now became getting back to the monastery. But this wasn’t going to be easy. Everywhere we were coming to closed roads. And we really didn’t have a clue where we were. So it was a matter of trial and error as we tried to escape this maze.

But we weren’t alone on this mission. We were amongst many other people also trying to get through, or get out. We’d be in a snake of cars driving slowly along when we’d come to a closed road, or to flood water that was too deep. Then we’d all have to turn around and find another way. We’d be advised by police officers not to go a certain way, and we’d be told by other drivers who had just tried one route that it was impassable. I remember clearly at one point when we were trying to get to Alcester, when again we were in a small group of cars. We were approaching a bridge when a man driving from the opposite direction called and told us the bridge had collapsed. So we all turned around, wondering how we were ever going to get away.

We eventually did get back. And it had been an experience. But it had been a good experience. Why? Because it had helped me to understand a little deeper the Buddha’s teachings on Metta – loving-kindness. Because while we were driving around, trying to find a way through the floods, we were not alone. Others were trying to get through as well. We were all struggling against the impersonal and merciless power of nature. Nature had levelled us. It had made us as one. We were united in our suffering and we were aware of it. There was a great sense of brotherhood and of unity. The masks that we persistently hide behind when we relate to one another had temporarily dropped and we had opened ourselves up to a common sense of our fragility as human beings. We were trying to help each other. People were being nice to each other when they didn’t even know each other! Now it takes something for that to happen in England! The iron curtains of selfishness and hate had temporarily parted and metta and compassion began to show themselves. And how wonderful metta and compassion are! How bright and benevolent! Isn’t it a shame that we cannot remove these iron curtains for good and live with minds of metta and compassion. It brings a tear to my eye when I think back to this occasion and see how it transformed us. If only we could be like this all of the time. If only we could all grasp the deep suffering of life that we share, the suffering that makes us all brothers and sisters, and then we could drop these ugly masks, and tear away these heavy curtains.

But we can live in this way. We can allow metta and compassion to shine forth – by developing wisdom and understanding the First Noble Truth taught by the Buddha: Dukkha – suffering. When we understand suffering we see that we are all one in this respect. We become aware of the inadequacy of human existence and how we all share this. The iron curtains then gradually open and we bask in the light of metta – metta for ourselves and for all.

Ajahn Chah was by all accounts a man of immense metta. Luangpor relates how soon after going to stay with Ajahn Chah he had been part of this huge gathering of monks. They stayed up for three nights in a row, meditating and listening to Dhamma Talks. Ajahn Chah’s unmistakable figure was in the centre of it all. It was an inspiring occasion for Luangpor, but also a demanding one as he hardly spoke a word of Thai and he’d never gone three nights without sleep! He says that at one point he was standing around when he became aware that Ajahn Chah was looking at him. And he said it was amazing. He had never experienced anything like it. He said that as Ajahn Chah looked at him he flooded Luangpor with metta. There are many stories that show just how much metta Ajahn Chah had. How did he have so much metta? He was once asked this by a western monk. Ajahn Chah’s reply is very important: “When you see sabbe sankhara aniccathat all conditioned things are impermanent – you cannot not have loving-kindness”. In other words when you have wisdom you cannot not have metta.

Think of loving-kindness and compassion as a great and noble tree. Great and noble trees must have deep and expansive roots. The deep and expansive root of metta and compassion is wisdom.

Real wisdom, and the insight into suffering and the impermanence of things, is a result of meditative development. But we can stir up this understanding by looking around on a less concentrated level and observing the realities of life. Look! On every level we see transiency; we see uncertainty. We see that nothing of this world can be relied upon. People, moods, possessions, the weather! I’ve just been in Thailand. There are the mega-rich and the mega-poor, especially in Bangkok. You drive around and see new ginormous skyscrapers emerging from the ground. You see people financially doing extremely well. You see them driving around in their BMW’s and Porches, on their way to the airport to fly to some luxury destination. They’re living the high life. And some may be envious. But for how long will this go on? The higher you go the further you fall. And they do fall. Think of a house of cards. We are all living in this way. If one tiny thing changes the whole house will fall. We all live with this precariousness. ALL of us.

And death. The great leveller. Birth and Death – what are these about?!! How anyone can believe in a benevolent creator is beyond me. These are the big ones. We’ve been born and we will die. Life ain’t no party. Think of a person you often don’t get on with. Someone you tend to judge and feel aversion towards. Someone who says things that upset you. Now turn back the clock and think of that person as a helpless baby. Sitting in their cot with their innocent eyes searching around them. They’ve just been born. They didn’t choose to be born. Now they are beginning their journey towards death. And you are the same. Strip away the thin veneer that you place on your experience of life and come to understand how we are all locked into the same struggle.

The Buddha’s stock definition of Dukkha is very important: Birth is suffering, old age, sickness and death are suffering. Not to get what one wants is suffering. Birth, old age and death; the floods that we are all struggling against. So tear back the iron curtains and recognise that we are all the same in this respect. Understanding Dukkha we generate this feeling of brotherhood. We will eventually develop the unconditional metta as spoken of by the Buddha that bypasses all appearances and views all with loving eyes.

So remember to think of loving-kindness and compassion as a great and noble tree. Great and noble trees must have deep and expansive roots. The deep and expansive root of metta and compassion is wisdom. And then think of wisdom as a great and noble tree. One of the fundamental roots of wisdom is samadhi – the concentrated and developed mind.

The next teaching in Dhamma Diary will be given on:

The New Moon Day, Wednesday, 6th February.

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