So here we are in Ubon Ratchatani in a hotel on one of the main streets. Karaoke and linen tablecloths in the restaurant. Another day of travel.

Ubon is the location of Wat Nong Pa Phong, the monastery founded by the Venerable Ajahn Chah in 1954 that put the Buddhist Thai Forest tradition on the map for Western seekers for many decades.

When I told one of the hotel employees on Koh Samet this morning that we were traveling to Ubon to visit this Wat, his face lit up. “Are you a Buddhist?” he asked me. How to answer clearly through cultural and linguistic differences?

No. I am not a practicing Buddhist today. But almost a decade ago in the depths of my seeking, I was led to Theravada through first Vipassana, then Insight meditation practice and ultimately through teachers who had trained with him, to Ajahn Chah. His writings were the metaphorical raft of the Buddha’s teaching that carried me across a difficult stretch of water. I spent a summer reading one of his books on the stoop of my house. It was, He was, my “balm in Gilead.”

I had studied with two of his students, Thanissara and Kittisaro, at the Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts and heard their stories about their time at the monastery. So when the opportunity came to travel to Thailand this year, it was an easy decision to add Ubon and Wat Nong Pa Phong to my itinerary.

Tomorrow our driver will take us there, to the place where Luang Por founded a sanctuary and passed his remarkable life. My days as a Dedicated Dharma Practitioner in the Theravada tradition are behind me, but the wisdom of Luang Por, with whom I share a birthday, and the hours of darkness lit by those who followed in his path, reside in my spiritual DNA. It will be a pilgrimage in the truest sense of the word. Decades later, I will sit with him in spirit, in reverence, in the place that he carved out of the wilderness for all who came seeking the light.

Wind, River, Chainsaw: The Profound Nature of Space

I have always had a deep sensitivity to sound.  When I was teaching, side conversations among my students created such pressure in my head that it felt like it would implode. Once, living in South Jersey, I had a neighbor who kept beagles caged and chained in his backyard, and their barking so disturbed my sleep, my “peace,” that I took him to court twice. When I discovered meditation, then, sound became a longtime teacher.  The woodpecker that seemed to wait until I sat on my cushion to begin his relentless knocking.  The housemate whose shoes became like wooden blocks being dropped down the stairs.  The silverware drawer that clattered like a garbage truck in the kitchen. Whenever I sat to meditate, sound became the foreground, a magnetic pull on the myriad filings of my mind.

As I progressed in my practice, I had the good fortune to be introduced to Ajahn Chah, the great Thai Forest Master, by two teachers who were his former students and monks.  One time when he had traveled to England to give a teaching, there was a very loud band playing at a pub across the street.  In response to the agitation of those who had come to sit with him, he asked “is the noise bothering you, or are you bothering the noise?”  I came to understand that sound is a function of the ears, and noise is a function of the mind.  Once, walking with his young monks, they came upon a very large rock.  Ajahn Chah asked them, “is this rock heavy?”  To a person they agreed, “yes, it is very heavy!”  His response was “Ha!  Only if you try to lift it!”  This is a fairly common Buddhist teaching about the nature of perception.

It’s been some years since my Buddhist studies and practice although I still meditate most days first thing in the morning as part of a regular practice: puja, prayer, yoga and meditation.  Part of my journey into awakening as consciousness has been the continual differentiation between experience and Being.  I almost wrote “reality,” but what is reality but a perception?  Awakening as consciousness shift one’s relationship to every thing.  The dissolution of the boundaries of the self bring about the dissolution of the “other.”  It’s a realization of the complete subjectivity of being in a body.

Once I realized that there was no separation between “me,” and what “I perceived,” I knew inherently that everything was me.  Daniel Odier says “The self contains the void, the nonself, plenitude, the worlds, the Buddhists, the Sufis, the Christians, the Jews and the tantrikas!  The mystical experience is one; abolishing all dogmatic limitations, it is silent fusion, the annihilation of all disputing.”  This appears in a chapter on the way tantra differentiated itself from the “excessive” teachings of Buddhism of “understand[ing] the void with nonconsciousness.”

What the Buddhists called the “void,” a cold, emptiness, the trantrikas called space, which contains everything including the void.  Meditation, Odier goes on to say, “becom[s] almost ordinary . . . at the occurrence of any c0ntact with things and beings . . . because all of reality is transformed.  Our presence in the world becomes so open, intense, and refined that the sacred tremoring (awareness of consciousness) is continual.”

Moving to the country, here in the mountains where the population is around 6 people per square mile, my relationship to sound has blossomed as a direct result of this spaciousness that contains everything.  Sounds typical of my day are the rooster who starts his morning prayers these days around 4:30 and his hens beginning their daily song of laying–there’s a whole blog post on the sounds of laying hens!  The river comes into my awareness once Roosty rings his alarm.  When I go outside, the wind is moving in the aspen and cottonwood leaves.  There’s a rich layered texture of white sound. It permeates me and holds me in this tender time as I come more fully into conscious awareness after sleep, and I cherish it.

Yesterday, however, something happened.  Around 6:30 a persistent high pitched whine came in, gas motors revving and slowing, screaming and keening.  It was as if a dirt bike rally was going on in my mind, up and down the trails, long runs and short hops over hills to rev and return and go again and again and again. Almost instantly this scenario became embedded in my awareness.  It touched on years of sensitivity that have more or less healed but have left scar tissue that resonates at the slightest touch.   Still, my relationship to it felt different.  I both felt its irritation and also its essential there-ness.  I allowed this dichotomy to just be.

Later in the day, when my Beloved and I were driving down from our land to the road, we could see far away, across both the road and the river, a white truck parked at an angle where the well watered green of our friend’s pasture gave way to the natural brown hillside of the season and then the trees just beyond.  Immediately on seeing this I felt a shift in my relationship to the sound.  Magically, the dirt bikes dissolved back into the ether from which they had sprung and were replaced by this image of “work.”

This morning they started up again as usual just as I knelt before my altar to wave some incense around Ganesha and do the prayer that has been my regular daily practice for at least five years: please remove the obstacles from my path today by giving me the wisdom to see every difficulty, delay or setback as a gift from my exalted lord Shani for the removal of karma on this path to liberation.  It’s an old-school prayer from my days as a student and follower of Vedic astrology that examines the relationship between our desire for freedom from “obstacles” and their indisputable purpose of instruction.

Throughout my daily prayer of thanks to my yoga asanas and into my meditation they kept up their strange music.  While meditating I knew that they are no different from the sounds of the wind and the water.  Each is chewing away what is.

Thus, in this great unity, everything touches everything else.  A world, a movement of the body, where emotions pour out from the infinite, navigating through the infinite, end in the infinite, only to give rise to another movement.  Act and actor, subject and object, perception and perceiver are united. This is the realization of the Mahamudra.

Daniel Odier, Yoga Spandakarika