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TWENTY YEARS AGO, in 1984, the germinal monastic community of the newly opened Amaravati Buddhist Centre settled into a cluster of barrack-like buildings on a windy hilltop in Hertfordshire. The name of the new monastery (meaning “The Deathless Realm”) had been chosen both as a resonance of the ancient Buddhist city in Andhra Pradesh, in southern India, and as a counteractive force to the “Mutually Assured Destruction” of the nuclear arms race, then gleefully being pursued by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and the Soviet Union.
The meditation space that we used at that time was the former school gymnasium and assembly hall. The windows were cracked, patched with plastic and sellotape, drafty or missing completely; gym markings criss-crossed the cold wooden floor; the large golden
Buddha image sat up on the old school stage, spotlit and surrounded by filmy blue curtains that we had introduced in an attempt to beautify the shrine and suggest the quality of infinite space.
Since 1981, when the community was largely based at Cittaviveka Monastery, in Chithurst, West Sussex, it had been our custom to set aside the mid-winter months, after the New Year, to be a time of communal retreat. At that time of year the English weather does not allow much in the way of building work to go on, visitors are few and the days are short and dark – it is thus a perfect situation to use for turning the attention inward and taking time to cultivate formal meditation practice in a very thorough way.
Amaravati was opened in 1984 in order to provide living space for the burgeoning monastic community (group photos of the time show more than 20 Eight-Precept postulants and 40 nuns and monks), and to be a place where we could hold retreats for the public.
So when this move was made it provided an even more expansive situation for the winter retreats and for Ajahn Sumedho to continue to guide the community in his inimitably comprehensive and inspiring way.
The winters of 1984, ’85, and ‘86 were spectacularly icy; winds howled down from Siberia, seemingly uninterrupted by any solid object until they bit into our bones. It was not uncommon to be wearing six or seven layers of clothing through the day and then to climb into our sleeping bags at night with most of it still on. We sat bundled up in thick robes and blankets for meditation and to listen to instructional talks. The air was icy but vibrant as there was a powerful and pervasive sense of community spirit among us.
Sometimes, in those days, it seemed that the main source of energy in the whole system, and certainly what our hearts were warmed and guided by, was Ajahn Sumedho’s apparently limitless capacity to expound on the Dhamma, especially during the winter retreats. Naturally enough in that situation a lot of guidance was needed – the majority of us were fairly new to meditation and monastic training and needed all the help we could get, particularly within a routine of noble silence and walking and sitting meditation all day – thus Ajahn Sumedho gave extensive instruction, often two or three times a day. There would be “morning reflections” during the first sitting of the day before dawn, often more reflections after the breakfast of gruel and tea, sometimes “questions & answers” at afternoon tea-time, and finally a formal Dhamma talk in the evening. From those early icy times up until the present, in 2004, Ajahn Sumedho has continued to guide the monastic community at Amaravati. Every winter he has explored and expounded on the Dhamma and frequently there have been recordings made of his teachings. The book you hold is a small sample of the talks that he offered during the winter retreat of 2001.
Even though those days now seem a long way off in some respects, and much has changed, there are some elements that have remained stable to the present day, like a constantly returning phrase or rhythm in a musical piece or, more accurately, like the defining style of a master painter that instantly tells you: this is a Monet, that is a Van Gogh.
Now at Amaravati the site of the old Dhamma Hall/gymnasium is occupied by the Temple, the new meditation hall constructed in stages through the 90’s. The orientation is slightly different – the building now faces the east rather than the north – and it is a soaring pyramidal structure, rather than a utilitarian rectangular box. The great light open space within is punctuated with a broad ring of solid oak pillars; it is so silent and still it seems to stop the minds of those who visit; the floor is a blanket of warm white rock, and a barn-like lattice of thick trusses and beams laces the high ceiling and the walls. However, the trees across the courtyard are still the same, just a little taller and fuller, and the brown weather-boarding on the remaining older buildings is edged by frost in the winter morning light just as it was before. In the same way that some elements of the buildings, and the members of the community, have changed and some have continued, the winter retreat teachings Ajahn Sumedho has given in recent years have similarly matured and transformed. They are still built upon a foundation of many classic elements – the Four
Noble Truths, reflections on the arising and ceasing of the Five Khandhas, teachings on contemplation of mind (cittànupassanà) – but the manner of exposition of these and other key elements, as well as his development of particular skilfull means (upàya) has evolved and expanded during these last 20 years. Thus, even though the talks gathered in this book can, in some respects, happily stand on their own it might also be helpful to bear in mind that they exist within a context.
First of all, these talks were given to experienced monastics and a few well-seasoned lay-people. Many who were listening knew Ajahn Sumedho’s favourite themes very well, and he knew that they knew them well, therefore often explanatory material is left unsaid and much knowledge is assumed. Just as a musician might play a few notes to evoke a familiar piece and know of their audience: They can fill in the rest, they know that old theme! Or a painter might use a trademark motif thinking: Pop in that bowler hat again, they know all the other places it appeared… Similarly here, Ajahn Sumedho is often exploring, describing and extemporizing on very familiar themes so that, if the reader occasionally feels a lack of explanation, if the meaning escapes one, the encouragement is to let the music, the balance of tones and colors tide you over.
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