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Silence & Stillness by Swami Sarvadevananda

When I was invited by Mother Anne to take a two month sabbatical, I had no doubt about where I would like to spend the time: Nuns from Amaravati had visited us at Boxmoor and Fairacres and I knew from that contact and from their publications that I would have much to learn there, especially from the teaching of the abbot, Ajahn Sumedho. I wanted to let it be a real Sabbath, to allow some things to remain undone and attend to what is vital, life-giving.

In this I looked to the long and highly developed Buddhist tradition of meditation as a guide to the art of paying attention.

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Two other factors encouraged me: Theravada Buddhism is non-theistic, reverently agnostic about ultimate answers of any kind, so I would not need to either defend or compromise my own position; and it is nothing if not monastic. I felt intuitively that I would be at home with their silence and their life-style, and this indeed proved to be the case.

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If there is one word which sums up the teaching given at Amaravati it is 'mindfulness', the practice of attention to the present moment, awareness shorn of projections. This is not unlike the 'practice of the presence of God' associated with Brother Lawrence, or that clear-sightedness desired by Van Gogh who longed to see a cornfield merely, and marvellously, as a cornfield. Mindfulness is a deceptively simple discipline.

It is not dependent on particular techniques or conditions, nor confined to the time of formal meditation. It requires only enough hopeful faith not to be discouraged when the mind wanders off, gets bored, and bolts into the blue. Very often the breath, in its natural rhythm, is taken as the focus for attention. The very dullness of that makes one notice both how constantly the mind flits about and that what we perceive is itself changing.

Perseverance bears fruit in direct insight into the nature of what is there and this gives rise to serenity.

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It is no longer necessary to be so anxious. It is possible to live at peace with oneself, and so to live wholeheartedly. Mindfulness is as much a matter of the heart as the mind and, I was told, 'the whole practice takes place within the body. I did have some misgivings about attempting to come to any understanding of Buddhism outside of its native culture: Yet in a bare two months I could not have hoped to appreciate the meaning of life and ethos I was sharing in, had it not already been subject to a considerable process of translation.

The complexities of that process are witnessed by the varying fortunes of the English Sangha Trust, which has been trying to facilitate Buddhist monastic life in Britain since the s. At Amaravati now there is a sense of purpose and stability, undiminished by recent disrobings, and it is striking how people from Buddhist countries as well as Westerners feel at home there.

Members of the Thai, Sri Lankan and Cambodian communities from London come regularly to offer the meal and to practise because they feel that it is their monastery. While I was there, a Thai couple came for a blessing of their marriage and whole families came for blessing or to 'take the Precepts'.

Gift of silence

For my part, I soon learned to be at ease with oriental customs, to take off my sandals on coming indoors, to sit on the floor, to join my hands in a gesture of greeting, and to appreciate the graceful simplicity of the traditional robes and shaved heads of the monks and nuns. But, more important, I learned that Buddhist experience is not foreign to me and that a meadow ringed with oak trees is as good a place as a Thai jungle for meditating on impermanence. I arrived at the beginning of September and the onset of three charmed weeks of unbroken sunshine. We were woken each morning at 4 a.

I came to relish the sight of the sunrise and the sunset and the sense of wholeness which comes from witnessing the beginning and ending of each day. Because the monastery's weekly 'observance day' is determined by the phases of the moon, I also found myself using that ancient 'clock': I looked with wonder at the thin sickle which defines the dark side of the moon for us, and stood spellbound on clear nights when she was ringed with rainbows, or on windy nights when she seemed to run wild in a private heaven, rushing clouds in her wake.

Then one morning the whole hilltop was thick in mist, and the sun, when it did appear, could have been the full moon, white and ghostly behind the black jaunty figure of the Buddha in the courtyard intent on walking meditation.

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When the mist cleared, every shrub and hedgerow was festooned with shining wheels, cobwebs, which by mid-afternoon were in tatters, flying like streamers in the grass. Not to see clearly that birth leads inevitably to death is a recipe for unhappiness - we cling to what is transitory and feel aggrieved when nature is simply taking its course. So at Amaravati we were encouraged to notice beginnings and endings and how we ourselves are part of nature, subject to arising and ceasing: But what I did sense was that the deep inner calmness I had felt earlier was somehow a product of the regular discipline of stillness.

It was an inarticulate reassurance that meditation really had opened access into that level of being where the Holy Spirit dwells. I felt reassured that, although my attempts to pray always leave so much to be desired, the point is not in our own evaluation of that prayer, but in the wholeness that it helps to develop — a simple and totally personal acceptance of reality as a oneness with oneself.

I was signed off from my work as a Church of England parish priest for three months. One of the first things I wanted to do was to get back to our own parish weekly meditation group. Being with them again in the silence was a great encouragement, although my mind whirred on as much as ever: And yet I had an appreciation that, despite all the distraction, a vital inner work was in hand. I was often on my own in those quiet days of convalescence, while the family were at work and school, with time to read, rest, enjoy walks in the countryside, and, for once, to get on with mundane household tasks.

I was reminded again of the value of being fully present in the moment. Again, it was the daily practice of stillness that encouraged me in this.

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In hospital, grateful for the care of nurses and doctors, and then, back home, overwhelmed by the love and support of so many people, I was struck by the fact that what really matters in life is people, and having time for each other. Throughout the period of convalescence, I felt that I had touched, and was touching, an inner constancy that is the gift of life in us.

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