28th April 

I have now been at Eleusis for nearly a week and spent my first ever weekend here alone. In fact this is the longest period I have stayed without companionship. There is much to do and at the moment I am just really establishing a daily routine (of sorts) and mostly concentrating on tidying up the immediate environment around the main building - cutting the grass, weeding the main flower bed at the front and starting the mammoth task of organising rooms, shifting pieces of furniture etc, cleaning as I go. Dharmavidya was here with me at the beginning of the week, and aside from visits to local friends and to the shops for essentials he has concentrated on an area of paving round the back of the main building - a hard stand for a wooden building to house all the tools and garden equipment in preparation for the first stages of transforming the main barn. During this period I have managed a first cut of the area of grass we use as a general activity space - eating (when warm enough), workshop activities and discussions, clothes washing and so on - as well as some of the main field where people camping usually set up their tents. Its been hard going I have to say since the two petrol powered machines are both not starting and I have had to resort to using an old electric powered mower. It makes me smile to think about how this beaten up inverted plastic bucket with a front wheel missing just goes and goes and goes. I have become rather fond of it. Okay its not the easiest of tasks, nor the quickest, pushing and pulling this through the long grass, but it has helped to get the job done. Give it another week as well and the scythe would be needed. This is a whole other prospect. On Thursday Dharmavidya and I consider it wise to buy a hover mower given the Herculean task that still faces me. I only get a couple of hours in the evening with the new machine, managing to get quite a bit more done before sun down. On Friday morning we are greeted with rain and the grass is then far too wet and has been so ever since to get any further.

Inside I have re-organised the room on the ground floor as a sleeping space and office for myself. I shall be here a while so it needs to be practical and a comfortable home for me. This room and the one next to it - to the right of the kitchen as you face the building - both get quite damp so there has been a good deal of work cleaning down furniture after pulling it out from the walls, shifting mattresses to dry out and clearing the debris from around the stoves that have been used by people on occasional visits over the winter. I have also started a thorough clean of the kitchen, also adding some shelves and a spare unit from another room. I often do the catering when groups gather so feel I need an operational kitchen that suits - to some extent-  the way of working I have learnt during my time as cook in the Amida community. I start also familiarising myself again with baking bread and using the soya 'cow'. Its been a while since I have done either of these things. 


And so to practice. Well I haven't yet settled on a routine. Three mornings this week I have sat zazen for half an hour or so, and on Wednesday night Dh and I sat in the meditation barn in the light of a rather special full moon.

My plan is from Tuesday to begin a routine that will remain relatively consistent (that is outside of what happens during scheduled events) through the summer until September. Thus anyone visiting will know in advance the skeleton practice at the centre and, when here, can join in as they choose. I shall publish this tomorrow.

Tonight for supper in addition to a leftover vegetable curry from Tuesday night I had nettle fried rice with mustard and onion. One tip I learnt a couple of years ago with nettles, use only the top leaves. Best in springtime. Pick leaves from the stems wearing rubber gloves (of course) and wash thoroughly. Believe me given the amount of nettles growing here there is plenty enough if you just use the tender tips, and it the makes clearing of an area of ground doubly satisfying. 

Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica - primarily a source of food for caterpillars of a number of different moths and butterflies including the Red Admiral, Vanessa Atalanta. Nettles are associated with a number of health benefits particularly gastro-intestinal complaints and urinary infections. In taste when cooked they are rather like spinach. It is said that Milarepa, the famed Tibetan Buddhist ascetic, survived years of solitary meditation subsisting on nettles alone. As a result his skin turned green and he lived into his early eighties.

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Comment by Jnanamati on May 26, 2013 at 10:16

Nettles come to mind again this morning. You may think nettles are nettles, but believe me when I say I have become very familiar with then over the last few weeks of working on the land, and like when you look at any plant life up close you realise how amazing nature is. One thing to say is that there is not just one type of nettle I certainly have become familiar with three different varieties and I am probably not seeing the subtle further differences that would identify more. So you have a straight growing type with a green stem, often very thick & generally easy to pull up; another straight type but with a reddish brown slender stem and often harder to pull since the root system seems extensive; and finally, a more a tender small variety with a wandering stem, difficult to pull because they tangle with other weeds and tend to break off at the root when you tug at them. The first two seem to be the most common. The sting is said to alleviate the pain of arthritis. Actually I am noticing with all the weeding I have been doing that I am showing signs of this condition, particularly the wrists and fingers. Interestingly after multiple stings yesterday - as I started on an area thus far untouched around the fruit trees - this morning my joints do seem to be a little less painful. Most people would regard this job - pulling nettles and other weeds for literally hours - as monotonous, and some of the time I find it so. However I also find myself in awe of the fascinating micro world I am in contact with, the rhythms of mood and messages from my body in response to the work, and the opportunity for practice. This has two aspects: like sitting meditation or zazen one of the things that is faced is ennui, boredom and the impulse - in the case of zazen - to get up and do all of things the mind keeps focusing on. What is valuable is to stay with that desire, the impulse and the feelings it gives rise to and to stay on the cushion. Pulling nettles is like that, when you think that you have had enough sometimes and look at the ground around you that you still need to clear you stay with it, even in the midst of the developing doubt that this is really a worthy thing to do. This isn't just about patience I don't think - kshanti in Sanskrit - an important quality to cultivate in traditional Buddhism, but also the negative capability that Keats wrote about and that Stephen Batchelor highlights in his recent work. This essentially is the opportunity for creativity that can arise when one is able to stay with the inherent ambiguity of experience one inevitably will encounter. Is pulling nettles good or bad to assist me in my Dharmic life ergo to assist me to help all beings? The uncertainty in confronting this question and the ability to stay with it may not seem important in the scheme of things, but you can see I am sure how it is applicable beyond the actual activity itself. Secondly it is also an opportunity for gratitude, actually saying the Buddha's name whilst engaged in the activity. I read with interest that there is a myth that if one recites the name of a person with fever whilst plucking nettles the fever will be dispelled. Ku Amida Butsu, a devout disciple of the nembutsu way from 13th century Japan is quoted as saying each time you say Namo Amida Butsu a person is born from a lotus flower in the Pure Land.

I like the loose association between these two narratives. The nettle sting prickles on my wrist and finger tips as I pull one from the earth. Its root leaves a little heap, an aggregate of earth, plant matter, small insects, sand and sometimes a worm or grub. Thousands of nettles, thousands of nembutsus.  

Comment by Jnanamati on May 14, 2013 at 11:38

Eleusis Diary (four)

14th May 2013

Last night leaving the mediation barn just as the sun sets the little bats fly around me, so low sometimes I think I can feel a slight whisper of air as they pass. Bats are common at this hour, they circle round sometimes to my eye taking erratic flight lines, picking off small insects and moths. They are fast, too fast to see them clearly. It is only their distinctive movement in the air that identifies them. A little like how the swifts distinctive call - swereee as Anne Stevenson describes the sound in her poem - that first alerts you to their presence in the sky. But then once you look up it is the unique aerobatics that separates them from other species. The House Martin can appear the same at first glance, but one can soon see they fly more slowly and are not apt to change direction so sharply, or so often. Two years ago I found a dead bat outside the main house, brought there by "Samadhi", the cat that was visiting us at the time. This gave me the opportunity to have a look at one of these wonderful creatures up close, much feared and to some extent maligned by the general public. What stuck me at the time was the strange configuration that characterises the bat, particularly the face, with its slightly odd protrusions as well as a sort of wincing demeanour. Any way I identified it as a common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus), a small brown bat found across Europe, North Africa and Asia. I imagine then that it is the common pipistrelle that I have been watching at dusk.

A small moment of delight then as stand still looking down the track towards the road, the sharp light of the fading blue sky, the sweet smell of flowers in the air and the little pipistrelles - two or three - flying up and down around my head. I say to myself, I wouldn't at all mind if I died right now in this very moment.

Comment by Jnanamati on May 9, 2013 at 21:25

Eleusis Diary (Three 9th May)

Today as in many European countries it is a public holiday in France known as Ascension Thursday. Ascension derives from the Latin ascensio signifying that Christ rose to heaven or was raised up by his own powers. It is from this term that the holy day gets its name. It is a feast day hence one of the alternative names that is commonly used locally, the feast of ascension. Certain customs are associated with the liturgy of the feast taking place on days referred to as rogation days before Ascension Thursday itself, which includes the blessing of beans and grapes, and the offering of first fruits. The first fruits offering is a religious rite with an ancient history in which the first agricultural produce is given to priests to offer to the gods or God. In ancient Athens the offering of aparche - the Greek term for first fruit implying the most ‘pristine portion of the harvest’ - would be a significant source of funds for temples of the Eleusinian goddesses, Demeter and Persephone (also called Kore - meaning the maiden). This provided funds by virtue of the fact that the temple priests would sell much of the collected offerings in order to pay for the maintenance of the buildings. Evidence shows that a great deal of power was linked to the income this provided, suggesting that there was a surplus that enabled loans to be given and interest on these loans accrued. In fact given the size of the temple complex dedicated to Demeter a good source of income would have been needed. The complex had living quarters, workshop buildings, storage, administration as well as large public spaces. In one reference I have read it says that it was like a city within the city.

Other rituals in the Western church (ascension is an ecumenical holy day) include processions with banners and torches which are said to commemorate Christ’s entry into heaven. In England there is a ritual known as ‘beating the bounds’ in which members of the parish walk around the parish boundaries and hit ‘boundary stones’ with sticks. Apparently one of the purposes of this ritual was as a warning to young men that if they were going to engage in any sexual misbehaviour to make sure they did this outside the parish boundaries!

At the retreat centre, as yet we have apache to offer, at least not grown on this land. In the last few days I have begun to concentrate a little more on the vegetable garden, which includes the task of weeding the strawberry beds. I have an urge to call them fields, not just because of the Beatles song, but also because these are quite sizable areas. A thought popped into my head as I worked between the plants a couple of days ago, on the face of it releasing this precious delicate specimen from the harsh aggressive weeds, tall grass and nettles. The thought, ‘well of course there are no weeds as such, all plants can be seen as weeds (if you follow my drift?) and actually in this context these strawberry plants have become very successful weeds as weeds go’. So the area they take up gets larger each year and of course they are very proficient at convincing us that they should be saved and everything around them pulled up. Okay they do bring us a rather luscious and tasty culinary experience but after a good couple of hours teasing out stubborn weeds, a nicely cultivated rash of nettle stings on my forearm and sore fingers, well such thoughts come to mind. I hope we have a good harvest and some of you will be joining us to sample what the snails, slugs and birds are gracious enough to leave us. 

Actually its interesting to note that the first garden strawberry, as opposed to the wild variety I guess, was first cultivated in France in the eighteenth century, although it was being used by the Roman’s medicinally much earlier than that, and the French were bringing plants from the forest into their gardens as early as the thirteen hundreds. The advent of the fruit bearing strawberry that we are familiar with today came about as the result of a French excursion to Chile where plants with ‘female flowers’ were found (see Wikipedia) cultivated by Mapuche and Huilliche Indians. 

In Greek mythology the origin of the wild strawberry is associated with Aphrodite who on the death of Adonis wept such tears of passion they fell to the ground as little red hearts. In the middle ages this connection accounted in part for the description of strawberries as the fruit of temptation and seduction. 

Amida Buddha is said to be red gold, and Pureland Buddhism, ‘heart Buddhism’. In the Amida Order our robes are made of red cloth. Apt perhaps to have expanding ‘fields’ of strawberries at a centre visited by many Pure Land Buddhists. 

Comment by Jnanamati on April 29, 2013 at 21:44

Diary (Two) 29th April

I didn't sleep well last night so was rather groggy when the plumber turned up at 8.20 this morning. As the electrician said on Wednesday the boiler - that is the part that heats - the element to get technical - is morts. Well not quite he fiddled with the wires laughed a bit and it has been working ever since. But really it is on its last legs. So the plumber and I have an interesting exchange in which the only relevant word spoken that we both understood was desir - estimate. So we have one on scrap of paper, and a vague sense that he will come and do the work if I phone his mobile. The weather, in contrast to the predictions of the forecast, is mostly sunny, and outside there is actually some warmth in the air. Given this unexpected turn of events I decide to leave the computer alone and get on with cutting the rest of the grass. It takes a while as I spend the first twenty minutes or so untangling a second cable which I want to use to extend the reach of the mower.

Its beautiful to be working outside, listening to the birdsong, the hollow sounding knocking of a woodpecker and the light breeze sounding the wind chime. I am a bit preoccupied today with the harshness of the machine I am using and worry to see insects hop from the grass as I mow, near misses with the many snails and beetles scurrying away. Is this really necessary I think? Maybe I am conditioned by being here on my own, the sense that I am just making and area of grass sort of neat to look at. I have to remember that it is necessary if we are going to use it in a month or so's time. I spot two different types of beetle, a long thin black one and a copper coloured one. The latter grabs my attention because he is the colour of the Amida rupa in the meditation barn, the one in the picture in yesterdays post. The beetle is a common European ground beetle carabus menoralis. I see three or four during the period I am working. Is it copper I ponder or red gold? I also see a white butterfly with orange tipped wings Anthocharis cardamines I find out later. the orange has the function of warning off predatory birds since the colour signifies that the butterfly contains 'mustard oil' toxins. Actually its a good sign given that we have endured a terribly long Winter, since like the primrose & the cuckoo it is heralds Spring. Today I work for about five hours. And it still looks like I have made not the slightest progress. I have become wise to this however and don't feel too disheartened. 

At 4.00 p.m. I decide to cycle to Ainay, the first time going any distance on a bike for over four years. When I first started going to Amida practice evenings in 2009 I used to cycle from the Essex coast to Barking - a short train ride to the London Buddhist centre, Sukhavati - about thirty or so miles. I am not going to tell you it was easy, but I am glad I have tested the journey since Ainay is the closest town with a supermarket. Round trip, just under an hour I would say.

Tonight for supper I made a simple tomato sauce with pasta. Visitors have left some quite nice olive oil so Italian is attractive at the moment. I did use one item from the garden, some sage from a small clump out front. It looks healthy and adds a distinctive flavour to the sauce. Its subtle when fresh, so English readers don't think 'sage and onion'. Sage - of course there are many associations to the word - back to Milarepa perhaps: a stoic wise person or spiritual teacher. Sticking to the herb salvia officinalis - the common variety - I discover that officinalis refers to its medicinal properties, and officina "was the traditional storeroom of a monastery where herbs and medicines were stored" (Wikipedia). Salvia derives from the Latin to save which further underlines its medicinal value. It is considered an anti-sweating agent, antibiotic and has anti-fungal properties amongst others. Folklore suggest that it was used to increase fertility in women, to treat snakebites and ward off evil. 

And finally to the promised practice schedule. Mon - Sat: 7.30 - 9.00 a.m. zazen, (45 mins), nembutsu chanting, liturgy recitation or sutra chanting. Evening 7.30 - 8.00 sutra chanting (Larger Pureland sutra) followed by zazen until 9.00. Sunday 7.30 108 prostrations, followed by silent contemplation.  

Here is a picture of one of the reorganised rooms mentioned yesterday.

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