Held high Dharma banners of bright blue, yellow, red, white and orange framed four saffron robed monks and a golden tasselled parasol in a procession which set out to water the Bodhi tree at Wat Buddhalavarn, the Forest Monastery supported by the Sydney Lao community at Wedderburn.
Gongs sounded and out front Acharn Wititj, aka John Allan, Dharma teacher and custodian of the Rainbow Serpent Dreaming, and Julie Foster-Smith, Aboriginal/Papuan community worker and lecturer in Aboriginal Spirituality at the University of Western Sydney, waved handfuls of gum tips and stomped the dance of Wititj, the Rainbow Serpent.
Behind came assorted Lao lay people and the participants in the Waking Up in the Bush meditation retreat, the youngest, a 12 year old girl of Russian descent, carrying the bucket of water. The water itself was special, fair glistening with merit for it had been collected from the host of lay people who had come to the Wat that day to make and transfer merit with food offerings.
Under a Bodhi tree the Buddha had come to enlightenment 2,500 years ago and the sapling we had set out to nurture was a direct descendent, via grafts of grafts and seedlings of grafts, from the original. In explaining the significance of watering the Bodhi tree to the assembled lay people, the Venerable Santitthito, the senior monk resident at the Wat, spoke fervently in English thick with German and explained that the trunk represented the Buddha, the strong mind with roots deep in the earth, deep in Nature; the canopy represented the spreading influence of the Dharma; and the heart shaped leaves, the Sangha, the multitude of hearts opened by hearing the Dharma.
Many were the smiles from the Lao people on hearing Acharn Khamphaeng's translation of our intention and eagerly they passed along the cups of water from their individual transferring of merit ceremony to fill our bucket.
The tree itself was one of three planted in the grounds of the Wat but this one was in the sandstone bush lands, planted in what was left of the trunk and roots of a long dead and burnt over giant squiggly gum. As founding secretary of the Wat, Acharn Khamphaeng had tended the sapling with care and though it struggled in the harsh country, miraculously it had survived the passage of recent bush fires.
Gathering around, the monks chanted a blessing as we took turns to pour a cup of the water upon the Bodhi sapling. Acharn Witij his eyes bright and his smile broad, flicked water upon us with his gum tips, a Rainbow Dreaming blessing. A three-year-old Lao Australian boy poured the last cup.
Happy were our hearts as we walked down the track to our bush pavilion for the last meditation session of our retreat together, bright the day and fragrant the bush from the shower of rain that had swept through before lunch. Many were the blessings, much the merit.
We were a band of friends, fellow Dharma farers, sitting in the bush, aspiring for peace in a time of war, few but aware of the auspiciousness of our actions.
The Wheel of Dharma was turning with new vigour in an old land, grounded and intertwined with the Rainbow Serpent Dreaming, the longest continuous tradition of teaching for healing and compassion on the Earth.
Ananda: I have realised that friendship is half of the holy life.
Buddha: Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that.
Noble companionship is the whole of the holy life.
The Waking Up in the Bush meditation retreat of 19-21 September 2003 was the first to be hosted by the Wat since its founding 10 years earlier as a forest monastery. Like all the preceding turnings of the Wheel of Dharma, its accomplishment had been born in and carried along by a river of friendship. The importance of friendship, companionship on the holy path was a recurring theme of the Retreat's Dharma dialogue.
Let the foundations of friendship that gave rise to this gem of cultural synthesis, this bush beacon for peace, be acknowledged with gratitude.
First up it was the friendship of Wedderburn artist, Fred Braat, whom I had first met while serving as the City's first community arts officer 1981-5. that had brought me back to Campbelltown and given me a place to camp in the bush land of his studio. Fred's theatre collective, Circus Solaris hired me as a maker in December 2000 to help build a mobile cardboard replica of the Federation Rotunda for the centenary of Federation Parade and, while walking Jennifer dog and Molly ewe, I came upon the gates of Wat Buddhalavarn.
Second factor was the kindness and friendship of the monks resident there, the Venerable Santitthito and Acharn Khamphaeng in particular.
The news that my younger daughter was planning to go to Lao to do PhD studies in anthropology prompted me to enter the Wat and introduce myself. The secretary of the Wat, the yellow-robed, Acharn Khamphaeng, greeted me warmly. Keenly interested in the Lao interest of my daughter, he gave her blessings and letters of introduction for her journey. Soon I was a regular visitor sitting through the evening chant and meditating with the monks into the early evening.
These bonds of friendship deepened and strengthened when in January 2003, I went to Lao to visit my daughter carrying letters of introduction from Acharn Khamphaeng and met his family and teachers.
The 6-week trip became something of a Buddhist pilgrimage for me, a journey through friendship, and I returned with a happy heart but also frustrated by the paucity of available Dharma teaching. I had seen lots of temples and lots of monks but most of these for most of the time were occupied with the ritual forms of Buddhism but not its teaching.
Wat Buddhalavarn likewise, for I had noticed over time that while the monks were well served with food offerings from a roster of Lao families on week days and a retinue of 'weekend nuns', and that once a month there were religious rituals that attracted upwards of 300 Lao, for the rest of the time 33 acre Wat was a place empty of people. Very few non-Lao entered its gates. The vernacular was Lao and the poor English of the monks, discouraged their Dharma teaching.
The bonds of friendship strengthened some more when, after a returned for Lao the Wat became a refuge, and a solace for my despair, during the build to the US led attack on Iraq.
Lao Australians are refugees of the Vietnam War and the civil war it caused in Lao Every traveller in Lao becomes aware that during that War the Lao people became the most bombed people, tons per capita, of any on Earth.
During 1971-73, the most industrialised nation and in total denial by its Government, ruthlessly delivered industrial bombing on the least industrialised nation, one whose economy is consistently rated in the bottom three of poor countries. A free drop zone, anything and everything was a target for the US aircraft, temples: water buffalo, wooden carts and village huts. Bombs rained down for weeks on end and two thirds of the country was plastered. After the US defeat in Vietnam and the victory of the Pathet Lao communists in Laos, the US maintained denial with a trade embargo. Compassionate UN aid programs supported by Sweden and the like are still working to make the bombed country side safe from unexploded US ordinance, cluster bombs and the like.
So we sat watching the cycle of lies and mass murder go around again. At the edge of a city of 2 million TV sets frenzied with war as hot news and wow-pow entertainment, I sat in an evensong of birds and monks, peace and harmony in the bush, amongst friends, meditating on peace together, bearing silent witness to the shameless lies of the political leadership and the blood lust of the US military machine.
Then the war began. On the other side of the Earth, the US military with Australian complicity set to road testing the best weaponry of mass destruction that years and years and billions of billions of tax rorted dollars could buy on a defenceless civilian population. Shock and awe, they called it. Mass bloody murder and piracy, it was in truth. Evensong in the bush.
I saw how the peace movement, which had rallied so quickly and massively, was brushed aside, ignored and denied by the Murdoch propaganda juggernaut. I resolved to work to rebuild the peace from the foundations upward. I dreamed of a Wedderburn Peace Institute nurturing peace within, peace in the family, peace in community and peace abroad. Ripples on a pond.
In this aspiration the Hamburg born, big spirited Venerable Santitthito, who had checked out my work on www.peacebus.com, embraced me like a long lost friend. Sixty-three years old and an age mate, I learned that he like me had been a pot smoking peacenik in the sixties.
He told me that he was one of the first conscientious objectors to the new German army and that after he had followed the hippy trail which led to the spiritual path and SE Asia where he became a devotee of Acharn Buddhadasa at his forest monastery near Chang Mai in NE Thailand and ordained as a monk. Thirty years in robes, thirty years of Buddhist study and practice, he was more than ever resolved on peace.
It was in this context of friendship that I suggested to Acharn Khamphaeng that the Sangha host a bush meditation retreat. At the time I was helping him with his English, reading together teachings of the Buddha in an English translation of the Dharmapada with him ("Hatred cannot be cured by hatred"). Without hesitation he agreed to my offer to organise it saying: "You are a dream come true."
The Venerable Santitthito (in Pali his name means 'standing firm in peace') was grand and effusive in his support. He wanted to see Wat Buddhalavarn work as a forest monastery in a si9milar way to that of his Thai teacher, Acharn Buddhadasa. His enthusiasm was such that in the lead up to the Retreat he would sometimes farewell my visits to the Wat waving his cane in one hand, and with the other giving me the big thumbs up. "The Wheel of Dharma is turning!" he would shout.
Given that neither Tan Santi nor Tan Khamphaeng were at ease with spoken English, whom to teach?
My thoughts flew to a Rainbow Region Dharma teaching friend, mentor and quiet cultural achiever, John Allan as a teacher capable of bringing something fresh and challenging to Dharma teaching at the Wat both in style and content. Our companionship went back to the 1970s and the post Aquarius counter cultural settlement of what is now called the Rainbow Region of NSW.
John was the attendant to Phra Khantipalo when in 1973 the English-born, Thai-ordained monk led the first ever Australian Buddhist meditation retreats in Rainbow Region and south Queensland. John later assisted with the building of the Forest Meditation Centre on the Dharmananda community near the Rainbow village called The Channon. The first meditation retreat held there in 1975 was my introduction to Vispassana meditation. Subsequently John became a father and part of the founding of the near by Bodhi Farm community.
Recognising his talents as a woodworking artist in 1983 I found work for him designing children's playgrounds when I was Campbelltown's community arts officer.
As part of his Dharma practice, in 1988 John started a healing support group for violent and abusive men, the first such in NSW, and went on to become a major mover in the national men's movement. In 1992 I had joined him in that work and supported him as an events organiser and artist when he led the first of the annual men's gatherings called "Standing up Alive".
His work with male initiation took him to the Kimberleys, Arnhemland and the central deserts of Australia and from my occasional meetings with him I knew that in 2001 Elders of the Galpu Clan of Eastern Arnhem Land, in full ceremony, had named him Wititj and initiated him as the first non Yolngu Custodian of the Rainbow Serpent or Wititj Dreaming.
When I returned to Rainbow Region to attend the 30th anniversary of the Nimbin Aquarius Festival and to organise the 4 July Independence from America Day celebration in Byron Bay I met with him and invited him to be both a speaker at the anniversary and at the rally and a companion in turning the Wheel of Dharma at Wat Buddhalavarn. He agreed at once without asking questions or setting conditions, saying: "I will support you out of my loyalty to you as a friend."
Men's wisdom: a man hearing such words from another man is given gifts of strength, courage, boundless optimism and a humble heart.
The wheel of Dharma friendship gathered in more as the production rolled along and three warrant special mention. First Kevin Prakooheang, 27 years in Australia and 27 years working on Australia Lao community development, he is an active lay supporter of the Wat and on its management committee. Kevin not only threw the door of welcome open wide to the Retreat proposal, he participated as a fellow dharma farer.
May his vision for a friendship bridge and a vehicle for carrying compassionate aid between Australia and Laos, the Australia Lao Institute for Cooperation and Development, be accomplished. May it be a splendid rainbow bridge, a wide and a joyfully trod high way for many generations to come.
Another kindness and friendship for which I offer deep gratitude was that of Ms Sthaphone Phoumirath, a teacher of English as a second language, and a coordinator of the 'weekend nuns', a bunch of Lao women who take precepts during the rain season (Buddhist Lent), stay at the Wat on weekends and, dressed in white robes, serve the monks.
Sthaphone walked beside me as a friend and advisor on Lao ways and with her support the weekend nuns not only undertook to provide the catering for the Retreat, they also provided the food at no cost as an act of Dana (the practice of generosity, one of the six perfections as taught by the Buddha) and every meal served was a Lao feast. We were certainly happy belly meditators.
I also want to acknowledge the supportive friendship of Willem Brugman, Catherine Hassall and John Brisbane of the theatre research group, Culture Lab International. Committed cultural development workers working at the edge of cultural exploration from their base at Yellow Rock in the lower Blue Mountains, they had supported me with a Culture Camp at the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin in May and had hosted an exploratory law sharing gathering at Yellow Rock when John Allan and his fellow Wititj custodian, Djawa Burarrawanga, came to Sydney together on 24 August.
Catherine and Willem stood beside me again in the production of this Retreat appreciating the significance of the cross cultural territory being opened, affirming and encouraging me in my work, actively participating in the Retreat and arriving early to help with the set up. John Brisbane applied his skill and experience with desktop publishing to kindly design the flyer for the Retreat.
The retreat attracted 16 participants including two Lao boys of 10 and 11 years of age who enjoyed the camping but were too restless for sitting. Half the retreatees were Australians of Lao descent, the rest Australians of European descent.
There had been some disappointment in me about the smallness of the response. Promoted in the Rainbow Region I would have expected 40 but in the Sydney fringe I was less familiar with media and Dharma networks. Tan Santi was quick to assuage my sense of failure. "It is the just the first time and it will be the first of many bush retreats to come," he said.
Comforting to have a long view. The Buddha had set the Wheel of Dharma turning 2,500 years ago and we were but another turn in another time and place. Wat Buddhalavarn would be around for a long time, as a forest oasis in the southwestern sprawl of Sydney suburbia and yes many follow after to hear the dharma taught amongst its trees.
On Friday evening at sunset we Dharma farers gathered on the veranda of the main hall, a fluoro-lit, slab-floored, steel-framed shed, which had served as a sausage, skin factory under former owners, and was now a shrine room for a multitude of Buddha images.
John Allan had prepared a pumpkin soup to offer on arrival. As day turned to evening, I lit the candles in the lanterns I had prepared and hung them in the nearby young fig tree that Tan Khamphaeng had planted to be a shade tree for future generations of Dharma seekers.
A program only in a very general sense had been agreed upon but with nothing written down or rigid, we were operating in laid back Lao time, feeling our way without stress.
Stress there had been though in setting up. John and I had struggled over two days to rig a camp in blustery winds. Every time we thought we had it settled, the wind would come again, billowing the tarpaulin shelters we had rigged, bending steel posts and scattering the woven mats we had laid out.
It was if the spirits of place were testing our determination. Exhausting enough to be working outdoors in wind, extra exhausting to be repeating effort and to be confronted with futility. An hour before the assembly time, the sky darkened and rain came in.
At this point I gave up, handed over camp stabilisation to friends and drove up to the Hall to shower and relax before the arrival of the participants. I had invoked the blessings of all the Buddhas and all the ancestors and had done best I could to get it organised, now it would be what it would be.
A miracle! Arriving at the Hall and to a broader view of the sky, I could see the storm was passing fast to the northeast and its spectacular passage had unveiled a golden open sky in the west and, in the east, arched against grey rain clouds, a full rainbow. With the setting sun the wind dropped and wondrous calm beauty prevailed. Rainbows and rain, gifts of the Rainbow serpent, we knew we were blessed.
The evening chant assembled slowly. Saffron robed monks in a line in front of the Buddha array, white robed nuns in a line at the back and the Dharma farers of the Waking Up in the Bush retreat sat in between in stereophonic enchantment.
At conclusion, John spoke. Acharn John now for Acharn means 'teacher' and the Lao people insisted he have an honorific. Supported by Tan Santi, he explained to the meditators the five rules of training.
"Venerable Sirs", he began and asked the monks to witness and bless our taking of the five precepts. "I undertake the rules of training to refrain from killing or causing harming, from taking what is not freely given, from false speech, from sexual activity, and from consumption of alcohol or any other mind confusing substance".
Afterwards we gathered outside for a lantern lit procession to take us to our bush meditation retreat. "Just one candle dispels the darkness" was the theme of the Retreat. With a Buddha image liberated from the shrine Room, we were bearing light and taking the Buddha to the bush.
In the Theravada tradition of SE Asia the Buddha is depicted in a number of different postures and the image we carried to our bush pavilion was a 600 mm high gilded bronze casting in the "stop the fighting" pose particular to Lao and NE Thailand. It depicts the Buddha standing, dressed in princely fashion with long flumed robe, with his hands out in front fingers upward, palms outward.
The story as explained by Tan Santi was that the Buddha had been called to arbitrate a water dispute between two clans, one his father's clan, and the other the clan of his mother. He went to river that divided the clans, stood on a sandbar in the middle with his hands so and called for all to hear, asking: "What is more important: the water in the river or the water in your blood?" In this way he moved the contending clans to understand that unless reason, generosity and kindness prevailed, blood would be shed and many sorrows would follow.
Kevin Prakoonheang clasped the Buddha image to his chest and we followed him in lantern procession into the night, into the bush.
Lanterns surrounded our bush pavilion, sat about on its floor, and reflected off its tarp roof. It glittered and shimmered with lantern light, like some fairy city might. Within its enchantment, Acharn John sat us down and talked us through our first meditation session. Frogs calling from the water hole, the gentle night sounds of night beings, and Acharn John's heart centred voice, gentle and mellow calling us into the deep silence and serenity beyond. Here was peace in practice.
Later while we sitting around a campfire, from across the Georges River came the sounds of gunfire. An infantry night exercise at the Holsworthy Army Base was burning up taxes and rehearsing for future US wars with live ammunition, men calling and cheering and explosions loud enough to frighten gun shy and firework phobic Jennifer dog. But I was neither disturbed nor dismayed by the intruding sounds of war, for the refuge we had found together gave me solace and the promise of a peace more enduring.
Wakefulness was upon me before the low growl of Jennifer told me that Acharn John was coming down the track from his kuti, his torch flashing in the darkness, to raise the camp for the 5 am chant with the monks and weekend nuns. Together we kicked the embers into flames and softly sounded the waking up in the bush gong. Groggy with sleep I stumbled along the bush track towards the Meditation Hall. A bright crescent moon was setting and the first light of morning was edging the night away.
The nuns used the Hall as a dormitory and, when we arrived, both monks and nuns were already assembled in the glare of fluorescent lighting that was an offence to the eye. I endured the chanting and moved at once to switch off the lights so that the post chant sitting meditation could proceed with more grace. All this was a ritual of politeness, a show of respect for the routine of the Wat, and all through it I yearned to return to our bush camp.
Back to the bush we went and in the golden light of sunrise, in the fragrance of campfire smoke, Acharn John took us through some stretching exercises and taught the mechanics of sitting still. Amongst trees and in the chorus of birds, we then sat, and with closed eyes listened to the gentle heart tones of talking his voice talking us through. Cultivating heedfulness and concentration we strove together to focus our minds on in-breaths and out-breaths, Budd-ho, Budd-ho, Budd-ho. Noticing thoughts arise, and neither resisting them nor engaging them, noticing them depart.
"It is all about skilful practice of being here and now, waking up to what is", Acharn John explained. At his words a mob of cockatoos began to screech in the trees over head. "Listen to those wisdom birds," said John. "The say: 'Wake Up!' 'Wake Up!'" As if rehearsed the cockatoos screeched some more on cue. A crow concluded the repartee with a single disparaging 'Craw' as if to warn us about getting distracted by the wonders of synchronicity.
The nuns cooked for the 7 am breakfast back at the Hall. Sthaphone had promised noodle soup and I was happy enough to go back for that. The soup was ladled into big bowls and set down for us to take so that no bodily contact would be made with the nuns. Trays of additives were laid out - soy sauce, cut lemons, ground chilli and chilli sauce, lettuce and sugar. Delicious and we sat together at a long table on the veranda sun fishing with chop sticks, savouring and slurping away in the morning sun.
From an Aussie bush camp to a roadside food stall in Lao.
The monks and nuns joined us in our bush pavilion for the meditation session after breakfast. The nuns sat on the mats at the rear and the monks sat in order of seniority in row cross legged on a raised bench: Tan Santi on the right with the 'Stop the Fighting" Buddha behind him, Tan Khamphaeng, Phra Khouphone and Phra Bhounsu the youngest.
The English comprehension of the last three made it difficult for them to understand much of what Acharn John was saying but at no time did they show boredom or restlessness. In meditation they sat, a row of serene Lao faces, like Buddha images on a Buddha shrine.
The aim of our meditation practice was to cultivate a serene and stable mind, for with a serene and stable mind, the beauty of what is can enter. With the non-arising of the wind and the tarp pavilion and banner array stable, it was possible to see the grace and beauty of our camp set up. The 10 m by 6 m tarpaulin hung from ropes slung over high boughs of big gums. With its sides were held up and out by bamboo poles, the outline suggested a Lao temple. Bright sun without and comfortable and shady within, the Lao style mats of woven polyvinyl covered the sand and the cushions spread about gave it a Bedouin feel.
All the poles bore banners in stripes of blue, yellow, red, white and organise supposedly the colours of the Buddha's aura at the time of his Awakening. Marking the four directions were poles bearing koori banners side by side with strings of white diamond shaped lanterns. More white diamonds hung from the edges of the tarp.
All this against a background of fire blackened trunks, dead limbs and vigorous, bunchy leaf growth brought on by those fires. The centrepiece was two burnout and rusting auto wrecks, one a former Falcon hoon car and the other, a former bus. Images of impermanence.
The session after breakfast official opening of the retreat and Acharn John began it with a purification ceremony. Lighting gum tips in the campfire (Australian incense he called it), he circumnavigated the pavilion waving the smoke invoking the blessings of Witij the Rainbow Serpent and finished smoking the Buddha image at whose feet he had placed a hand sized bark painting of a Wandjina figure.
Acharn John expounded with gentle clarity and good humour on many perennially beneficial teachings of the Buddha, including how to meditate, loving kindness practice (Metta Bhavana), perfection of speech (Samma-vaca), the six perfections that carry one to the other shore (Paramitas) and the four uplifted and immeasurable states (Brahma Viharas). But what set his teachings apart in their insight and innovation was their integration into the ancient wisdom of this land, the Rainbow Serpent Dreaming.
In SE Asia the Buddha is sometimes depicted meditating with a sheltering hood of five snake heads. Here in the Wedderburn bush Acharn John was constructing a snake hood for the Dharma appropriate to this land. The Buddha taught 2,500 years ago and John was now framing the teaching with the Rainbow Serpent or Wititj Dreaming, which predates the ice age, and not just the last one 8,000 years ago but the one before that!
Here is how Acharn John understands the Wititj Law off which he had been made a custodian.
"Wititj, that Rainbow Serpent bringing water and healing to the land.
Wititj travelling the country from water hole to water hole.
Each water hole a place of renewal, a place of new life, a place of healing.
That water hole also springs up where ever people come together
for healing and new vision.
That water hole rises up in every heart that listens to the whispering of the Heart.
Tears of sorrow and tears of joy clear the heart and clear the vision.
We see ourselves, each other and the land as Sacred, Alive and Beautiful.
Like people crying in ceremony people reminding each other of each other.
Listen understand what we mean to each other.
Walking together we untie the knots of the past and slip through the clear space
that rises up in each moment, like fresh water bubbling out of the land.
Moving on in freedom we build right relationship
among all people and all beings on this sacred Earth.
We walk the rainbow bridge of healing
We are that rainbow body of light.
It starts in the open heart of sharing and friendship.
It ends in the open heart of sharing and friendship."
Acharn John also explained the symbolism of the Wandjina figure. Tan Santi held it for him while he pointed and explained the sacred line drawing. I had been a witness when the late David Mowaljali,, Ngarinyin elder and long time Wandjina painter, had given the teaching to John and the other men assembled at the Standing Up Alive gathering of the 1992.
Wandjina is creator of the universe and a Wandjina line drawing is a cosmology in itself, every line with a meaning. Wandjina gave the Ngarinyin their land and their Law and Wandjina spirit is in all living things, in the land and everything else in its creation.
"Look around his head, that's his hair. It's made out of clouds and lightning. He is all cloud, the Wandjina. White clouds. Black clouds. His body is mist. He brings the Wet season rains. He brings the wind. His voice is thunder, but he has no mouth or ears, see? Those are earthly organs, so he doesn't need them. It's all a mystery. Š Everything is a mystery, never forget." David Mowaljali as quoted in Dreamkeepers A Spirit-Journey into Aboriginal Australia, by Harvey Arden, Harper Collins 1994.
"Yorro! Yorro!" is the message of Wandjina. "Everyone Standing Up Alive." Everyone and everything awake and alive with Wandjina creation spirit. Trees standing up alive, kangaroos, birds, mountains and humans too.
Out of respect for the Venerable Santitthito's seniority as a monk and his scholarship as a Dharma teacher, Acharn John invited comment and response from him. The respect was mutual from the start and soon the teachers were complementing each other, a two man show stimulating to watch and hear.
In an email sent 24 September three days after the Retreat Acharn Wititj wrote: "It was great to have the Sangha participating in the bush. I felt great support and a huge generosity of spirit. I really enjoyed being able to "bounce" themes around with Tan Santi. The freedom to go off on different tangents and be met. A joy to share both mutual understandings as well as different shades of emphasis. It is good for students to be exposed to different takes on the same material. It encourages them to reflect more about the Dhamma. I enjoyed how Tan Santi and I started adopting some of each other's terms and words straight away. He was an encouragement to me to be bold."
At the end of each session Acharn John invited questions for the meditators. Questions do not readily arise in mind at ease and one feels a reluctance to break the silence after meditation session, so questions were few.
But the question of peace was on my mind. In the flyer I had described the theme of the Retreat as being: "Just one candle dispels the darkness" a reflection on "engaged Buddhist practice and the spreading of peace in a time of war, conflict and social upheaval: peace within, peace in the family, peace in community, peace abroad".
This was my agenda. Acharn John had layered his agenda upon the expectations set by the flyer in these words: "Practical and interactive use of Buddhist teachings and meditation practice to uncover the radiant nature of your true mind. Side effects include a more joyous and expansive approach to life."
"We live in a time of war," I ventured. "How might engaged Buddhist practice restore the peace?"
The Venerable Santitthito replied that the path to peace was to be found in cultivating peace of mind and step by step extending the inner to the outer.
Choosing to be provocative I retorted that my sitting peacefully in the bush was not going to stop war mongers like Prime Minister Howard taking taxes from health, aged care and education and spending them on US made munitions and US made wars. The vehemence in my voice cut through the air like a whiplash and I hastened to reassure my fellow dharma farers of my peaceful state of mind.
Acharn John responded by saying that spiritual practice was more than sitting still with a calm mind. The promise of the perfected ones from ages past was that spiritual practice (concentration, discernment, right view, right speech, right action, right effort, generosity, loving kindness and so on) developed extraordinary powers in the practitioner. He referred to Mohan Gandhi who had entitled his autobiography "My Experiments with Truth".
Gandhi in taking up the challenge of ending the rule of the British in India turned to spiritual practice. He never held any official political office. Rather he wrote and organised while aspiring to live a humble and holy life, reading scriptures, praying, chanting and practicing austerities. The deeper his search for truth, the more respect he earned both from his friends and his enemies, and regardless of whether inside or outside of jail, his power and influence spread.
After the session the question of peace became a theme of discussion in our camp. One of the meditators came to me directly after said: "Do not underestimate your effectiveness as a peace worker. What you have given me in organising this Retreat is a profound gift of peace."
But a few minutes later gathered around the campfire, the discussion became aggressively opinionated. One of the participants whom I shall refer to as Barry, a young friend of Tan Santi seemed to pick up on my tone and began sounding off with opinions that could have been taken word for word from Murdoch media: Foxtel, Channel Ten News or any of the other 50 million editorials News Ltd printed each day. Pure propaganda, unexamined and undiluted.
Now I was feeling a bit niggardly towards Barry because after lunch a bunch of friends had driven into our so called closed bush retreat and in our midst carried out a conversation with Barry without getting out of their car. I thought this was a pretty crass and disrespectful thing to do. So when I tried to short circuit his spiel there was some aggression in my voice. "Listen!", I commanded. "Listen!" But Barry, who was listening only to his own voice, responded by increasing his volume, speed and rate of repetition.
Only minutes before I had been sitting in a bush paradise, an oasis of wise and respectful speech. Now a passionate diatribe, triggered by my own passion, berated me. I felt both oppressed and ashamed. Choosing a not so noble silence, I avoided eye contact and hunkered down to await rescue or the passing of the storm.
Acharn John, the peacemaker, professional therapist, and veteran of many a men's workshops, intervened with a story which went like this:
After the conquest of Northern India by Alexander the Great, there lived Gandahara, (what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan), a great Greek king called Milinda who loved to debate and have intellectual discussions as a refined Greek gentleman should. He was proud of his debating skills and would outclass every one who debated with him. We can imagine some of his debating partners might have thought it prudent when up against an absolute monarch not to debate too well!
King Milinda began to hear reports of a great Buddhist teacher, the Venerable Nagasena, so Milinda sent messengers to the venerable Nagasena, inviting him to meet and debate with the King.
Nagasena's students were, by turns afraid and happy. Nagasena was an Awakened Arahant and while all thought his wisdom would triumph in any debate, some were afraid that this would incur the King's displeasure. Others were happy because they thought the experience would awaken Milinda to the Buddha's teachings.
A meeting was agreed upon and Nagasena came with a large retinue of monks and lay people; Milinda with a large retinue of statesmen, generals, soldiers, horses and elephants.
King Milinda said he was happy Nagasena had agreed to meet and debate. Nagasena said he was happy to meet and debate, "But," he said. "I have one condition.'
'What is your condition?' asked Milinda.
"I will talk to on the condition that we meet and debate in the manner of philosophers and not in the manner of kings." Said Nagasena.
"How so Nagasena, what do you mean?"
"Well you majesty, said Nagasena, " When philosophers meet to debate , they meet as friends, they take the points under discussion and look at these points from every side. They agree and disagree, but in their disagreement, when they put down their points of discussion, they part as friends."
"On other hand kings may meet as friends and discuss many things, but when they disagree they are likely to try and part each others heads from their shoulders."
"Venerable Nagasena," said the wise King Milinda with a smile. "I agree to talk to you in the manner of philosophers and not in the manner of kings."
The story brought a smile to my face but more important it halted Barry's raving and brought me some release.
For the next session John introduced us to walking meditation practice. Mindful walking, aware of each foot fall, conscious of the contact pressure and the movement of muscles, left foot "Budd-", right foot "-ho", left foot "Budd-", right foot "-ho".
We went off individually to find a patch of turf to practice upon and I chose the 20 metre walking meditation track at the nearby the bush kuti. It had been dug out and lined with stones by a diligent and energetic walking meditator in some time past. I hoped that the shakti trodden into the Earth there by that former mindful walker might aid my soles and bring sooth to my churning mind.
I also chose to walk bare footed so that I might be more conscious of the Earth contact. But penance for the shame of my harsh speech in regard to Barry was in there too. Up and down, up and down, Budd-ho, Budd-ho, self castigating thoughts persistently arising and going round and round.
Acharn John reassembled us for what he described as a Wititj Walk. "I am making this up as I go along," he reassured us. "I want us to become the body of the Rainbow Serpent as it moves mindfully through the land bringing healing."
So we set off in single file, Acharn John, custodian of the Rainbow Serpent Dreaming out front as the head, the Venerable Santitthito behind him with his walking cane and the shoulder of Barry to assist him over rough terrain, and the rest us the body winding behind.
We moved slowly. Budd-ho, Budd-ho, Budd-ho, my eyes on the heels of the person in front. Sometimes we paused and looking up and about, the bush was wondrous, as if seen for the first time. We crossed a creek, and passed a grotto, an overhang in the sandstone, where a simple Buddha shrine had been set up. The monks called this "the Cave" and passing by one got the sense of its sacredness as a shelter and a refuge for Aboriginal people long gone.
Further along the track we came to a big pond. This body of water already had a special significance to monks and lay people of Wat Buddhalavarn. Kevin Prakoonheang had dreamed he saw the white robed, black skinned guardian spirits seated at its margin. The Venerable Santitthito was in the habit of taking visitors there to contemplate tranquillity of mind. "The still lake is the Buddha's image of a tranquil mind," he would explain. "Reflecting light, unattached and unperturbed by any image that it reflects."
We as the body of the Wititj, the Rainbow Serpent, were a line of consciousness, a body of healing come to a water hole. We stood still along the retaining wall, silently gazing upon the still water. The light of the late afternoon reflected golden clouds and the tranquillity of the moment entered like a balm.
How to say this mystery? We had embodied Wititj Dreaming and after my soul was whole, my spirit light, my mind happy and at ease and Barry was once more a brother, another dharma farer stumbling along the path just like me.
Later I learned that Barry had been hit by a train and suffered serious brain damaged and that the Venerable Santitthito had been a patient assistant in his healing, sometimes called in by Barry's parents to help him through suicidal depressions. And yes, he had in the course of recovering brain function watched a lot of TV. Haaa.
Acharn John had not been joking when he said he was making it up as he went along. In producing and programming the Waking Up in the Bush Retreat all involved were awake to the fact that we were doing it for the first time, actively engaged in culture creation and laying down pathways for future generations to follow.
An enduring ritual that had arisen in the course of my collaboration with John Allan at the Standing Up Alive Gathering of September 1993 had been the affirmation ceremony we had created. Men took turns, youngest first, oldest last, to stand at a lantern gate, and in the witness of their fellows, state the commitment they were making with their lives, then holding that commitment in consciousness walk through an avenue of flames. It was a powerful, deeply affirming experience for all.
But what was lacking then was the presence of the sacred at the end of that fiery avenue. On this occasion we made the Buddha grotto by the water hole our destination.
Acharn John introduced the ritual with a teaching of the Eightfold Noble Path (right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration) with a particular emphasis on right effort. This he translated as whole effort and vitality, a conscious evolution achieved by diligently directing our life energy to the transformative path of creative healing actions that foster wholeness.
He also invited us to consider our commitment in terms of Vriya, which he translated as joyful effort, persistence, diligence and energy, and described it as the engine room of the Six Paramitas, the perfections that take one "to the other shore".
After the Retreat John gave me a book of Jataka stories, apocryphal tales of previous life times of the Buddha. (Buddhist Tales for Young and Old, Volume 2, Stories 51-100, interpreted by Kurunegoda Pityassa Maha Thera, stories told by Todd Anderson, published by Buddhist Literature Society Inc1996). He pointed in particular to the story of King Fruitful, which he said had "more twists and turns than an Aussie river in the flat country". Therein I found the virtue of right effort beautifully described.
In this previous lifetime the Buddha was born a bodhisattva prince called Fruitful, whose had been born in exile, his father deposed and killed by an uncle. Seeking to restore his paternity, Prince Fruitful set off but in the wrong direction. He had thought he had better first earn a fortune and so had taken a ship to Burma.
A fierce storm overwhelmed the ship and it began to sink. While his fellow 350 passengers and crew prayed on the deck for salvation, Fruitful took action to save himself. As the ship sank, he climbed higher and higher up the mast. When the sea engulfed the praying crowd, sharks and flesh eating turtles began to tear them apart and the sea about the sinking ship churned with blood.
From the mast top, Fruitful made a mighty leap, and dove into the emerald sea clear of the blood and snapping jaws of fish and turtles and began swimming. For seven days and seven nights he swam.
Now there is a goddess who protects the oceans and those who fall into them, particularly those who honour and respect their mothers and other elders like Prince Fruitful had. A bit distracted from her duties by heavenly pleasures the goddess belatedly became aware of the golden prince, whom she recognised as a bodhisattva, struggling in the emerald sea for seven days and seven nights. She went to him and hovered in the air above him..
Wishing to learn truth from him she asked: "Without seeing the shore of the ocean, why are you trying to reach the ocean's end?"
"Oh lovely goddess," Prince Fruitful replied. "I know that effort is the way of the world. So as long as I am in the world, I will try and try, even in mid ocean with no shore to be seen."
Wishing to hear more from him, she tested him again: "This vast ocean stretches farther than you can see, without reaching a shore. Your effort is useless for here you must die."
The prince replied: "How can effort be useless? For he who never gives up trying cannot be blamed, either by his relatives here below or by the gods above. So he has no regrets. No matter how impossible it seems, if he stops trying he causes his own downfall."
Pleased with his answers, the protecting goddess tested him one last time: "Why do you continue, when really there is no reward to be gained except pain and death?"
Like a teacher to a pupil the Prince answered her again: "It is the way of the world that people make plans and try to reach their goals. The plan may succeed or fail only time will tell but the value is in the effort itself in the present moment."
"And besides, oh goddess, can't you see that my actions have already brought fruit. My shipmates only prayed and they are dead! But I have been swimming for seven days and seven nights and lo and behold here you are floating above me! So I will swim with all my might, even across the whole ocean, to reach the shore. While I have one ounce of strength, I will try and try again."
Completely satisfied the goddess who protects the good said: "You who bravely fight the mighty ocean against hopeless odds, you who refuse to run from the task ahead of you, go where ever your heart desires! For you have my protection and none can stop you. Just tell me where I may carry you."
We lined up by order of age, each carrying a lantern, and Wititj-walked mindfully through the moonless night each of us reflecting on our personal resolutions. Crossing the creek by the water hole we could see the Venerable Santitthito and Acharn Khamphaeng sitting in the grotto on either side of the shrine lit up by candles and awaiting us.
The Venerable Santitthito received us with a teaching. "Let the mind shine through the heart rather than letting the heart be dictated by the mind. Seeing, thinking, acting with heart, we become stewards of revival."
"There may or may not be beings, spirits and deities, seen or unseen, near or far, witnessing our words and deeds", he went on. "Better it is to accept the possibility of their existence and, acting so, give them more opportunities to assist us in our endeavours."
My heart leapt at hearing this. Many great beings have gone before treading the noble path of peace and I believe they are calling for us to follow, watching over us, cheering us on and blessing our deeds with auspiciousness. Future generations too are calling for us to prepare the way of peace for them.
One at a time we went forward into the grotto, kneeled, bowed three times in taking the Three Refuges, placed a candle on the shrine, and made our resolution, some in silence, some saying it out loud, then sat to the side to witness the next person. Each a sacred moment.
Turned out I was the eldest and the last in line. This was my resolution: "To be an honourable elder, working for peace and helping turn the Wheel of Dharma at Wat Buddhalavarn."
The grotto and shrine was a glory of candlelight as the two monks rounded off the ceremony with a chanted blessing. Kneeling on brick pavers, the chant seemed to go on forever and I cheered at its end for pure admiration for their phenomenal memory and to express the happiness in my heart.
The Venerable Santitthito was happy too and inspired to give us another teaching. Sitting in the cave, wrapped in robes, holding his bamboo staff with one hand, and gesturing with the other, he was the archetypical image of a teacher.
Many a time over the weekend had we prostrated to take the Three Refuges (to the Buddha for refuge I go; to the Dharma for refuge I go; to the Sangha for refuge I go), the so called Triple Gem. Now the Venerable Santitthito expounded on them.
"Understand the benefits of the Three Refuges", he said. "They are a refuge, a gem, a healing and a firm foundation."
"In times of stress when you need solace and protection, it will be found in recalling one's Buddha nature, the here and now noticing of what is, in the truth of the moment and in the company of those who practice the truth."
"The Refuges are also have power like a wish fulfilling gem or the philosopher's stone, to transform things according to your goals. By being mindful of the Teacher, the Teachings and the practice of the Teachings you will become empowered."
"The Refuges also bring healing to mental and physical suffering, enmity and strife."
"And finally the Refuges are a foundation from which one can only proceed forward and upwards in personal and spiritual development."
There was something perfect, complete, ancient and timeless about this cave ceremony and teaching, a sense of grace, and everyone present, spirit beings and deities seen and unseen, near and far, was aware of it and happy.
Kevin Prakoonheang, one of the lay founders of the Wat was moved to say that he had been in Australia 27 years, that he had spent much effort and many years trying to organise the Lao refugee community and that this was the first time he experienced such noble companionship.
Walking back to our bush pavilion with Acharn Khamphaeng, after crossing the creek we looked back together and beheld the bush grotto glittering like a constellation of stars seen through trees. 'Oh Graeme", he said sighing and gently holding my arm. "My heart is rejoicing."
Hearing his wonder and seeing his smile, my heart rejoiced too. Such a kind, generous and gentle human, he is.
Sunday morning we slipped into and followed the routine of the day before, rising for the 5 am chant in the Hall with the monks and nuns, returning to our Bush pavilion for a stretch (this time led by movement teacher Catherine Hassall), a sitting meditation session in morning light and bird song and a 7 am breakfast of delicious noodle soup, like we had been doing it for years.
A subtle transformation had taken place; Acharn John had now become Acharn Wititj.
In negotiating the copy for the Retreat flyer John had been reluctant about using the name bestowed upon him as a custodian of Wititj dreaming in the context of a Dharma teaching or using the honorific Acharn. As publicist I had advised that John Allan was a bit plain to the eye and ear.
In an email I had written: "Finding you an appropriate honorific is a marketing challenge. Acharn John will be pleasing to Lao and Thai, but difficult for Australians. Witij John is intriguing to Australians but is incomprehensible to Lao and Thai. Acharn Witij has the sound of a legend. Are you ready to become a legend? If not now, when?"
The flyer had gone to print with the words: "A weekend bush retreat and the Dharma taught in an Australian vernacular by Buddhist teacher, John Allan". (For a pdf version of the flyer, click here.)
But in the end names are chosen for us. The Lao had insisted on the honorific 'Acharn' and now after smoking the Buddha and the journey into the Rainbow Serpent Dreaming of the day before, Kevin Prakoonheang proclaimed him Acharn Wititj.
So it was to hear the teachings of Acharn Wititj when the monks and nuns joined us again in the bush pavilion to hear teaching after breakfast. Dharma companions all now, we were at ease within and at ease with each other, in the grace of our bush camp.
The teaching concerned building the Sangha, the community of awakened ones, the teachers and practitioners of the Dharma. In particular Acharn Wititj spoke of Metta Bhavana, which he translated as loving kindness meditation practice for the cultivation of kindness, and which is understood as a natural quality of our heart/minds.
He listed the benefits as being: happily one sleeps; happily one awakes; no bad dreams dreamt; humans love you; non humans love you; devas protect you; the mind easily finds calm; the complexion of the face becomes clear; fire, poison or weapons will not befall you; death takes place without confusion; and the achievement of any exalted state of consciousness, if not enlightened one, is certain.
Loving-kindness, he said, is the first of a series of meditations that produce the four qualities of love: friendliness (Metta), compassion (karuna), appreciative joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekka).
Friendliness is expressed as warmth that reaches out and embraces others. It naturally matures and overflows into compassion, as one empathises with other people's difficulties. The positive expression of empathy is an appreciation of other people's good qualities and good fortune, appreciative joy as against jealousy and envy. This series of meditations comes to maturity in 'onlooking equanimity'.
There are near enemies of all these states (for example indifference and aloofness is the near enemy of equanimity) but ultimately through cultivation one becomes kindly disposed and caring toward everyone with an equal spread of loving feelings and acceptance in all situations.
Acharn Wititj gave us the theory and talked us through the practice of loving kindness meditation. The art is to embody the feeling state of loving kindness by recalling how it feels to meet a good friend for a long time, the feeling of the smile and the sense of well being and happiness and, having established the feeling, sending it out in this order: to a respected and beloved person such as a spiritual teacher, to a dear one such as a family member, to a neutral person such as a shop keeper one does business with and a hostile person, who is causing difficulty
Feelings of loving-kindness can be raised within, he said, by visualisation, reflection on positive qualities and/or by repeating an internalised mantra. Leading by example Acharn Wititj repeated over and over: "May I be well and happy. May I be well and happy. May I be well and happy," his gentle heart tones a caress to the ears.
To conclude the morning session, Acharn Wititj gave each of us a Wititj blessing. He came to each of us in turn, put a gift chip of opal in our hands, opal being the Wititj stone that holds the colours of the rainbow, and blew his breath gently upon our faces. "May you always abide in your radiant true nature," he said.
As if to confirm the Wititj blessing a shower of rain came over and the bush was made sweet with fragrances.
Thus it was with a smiling mind that we welcomed to our bush pavilion the Lao people who had come to the Wat as day visitors. Coming to open eyed awareness, we saw a group of 20 or more children and adults gathered under the shelter of kitchen tarp. I waved them in and they came happily to join us, sitting amongst us, eager to hear Acharn Witij teach.
For a non-festival day, an exceptional large number of visitors had come to the Wat that day. The word about our Retreat had generated curiosity Lao lay people and amongst them were the children and parents of the Buddhist Sunday School of Wat Phrayortkeo in Smithfield Road, Bonnyrigg, the other major Wat supported by Sydney Lao and, as is the way of the world between different groups with very similar aims, seen by some to be 'the opposition'.
When I was out and about promoting the Retreat, Sthaphone had taken me to the Wat and introduced the couple, who organised the Sunday school. Lovely people, they loved the idea of bush Dharma teaching and suggested at once that they might make a bush excursion out of it for the Sunday school group. Now here they were sitting with us, the first ever organised visit of lay people from Wat Phrayortkeo to Wat Buddhalavarn.
We adjourned for lunch and when we got back to the Hall I estimated about 100 adults and children had gathered to make food offerings to the monks and eat. Sthaphone was showing signs of catering manager's stress. She had asked a few people to help but would there be enough food?
A long table was set up and once the first dish was laid upon it, dishes of food came from all directions and the table was quickly covered with pre-prepared Lao food of many different kinds. One minute a bare white tablecloth, the next a feast arrayed. Loaves and fishes Lao Buddha style. We meditators tucked in.
The Sunday School group we discovered had brought more than food to offer. After eating they asked if we had the time and inclination for a performance of dance and music by the children. Of course!
It was just the sweetest thing. We sat with the monks to receive it. First the children (boys and girls aged 6 to 12 years) knelt in front of the monks and chanted prayers. Then the boys on wooden xylophone and drums played a couple of Lao traditional tunes, accompanied by the male Sunday school teacher on a XX , a one string violin, and his wife singing.
I know that they were traditional Lao songs because Kevin Prakoonheang sitting beside me was humming along. Kevin was moved to speak to children in English. By way of thanks he said to them: "You are Australian Lao. You were born in multicultural Australia and your culture is Lao."
"The national flower of Lao is the frangipani which smells sweet, has five petals and no stamen," he said. "The petals represent the countries that share borders with Lao China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma."
"Why does the frangipani have no stamen?" he asked rhetorically. The children were mystified. "Because Lao has never had a centre of its own. It has always been dominated by one or other of its neighbours." There ended the lesson.
The third part of the children's performance was a couple of dances by the girls, the movements for which were hand gestures, small steps and bobs. The kids were in their street clothes (bush clothes?) and some of them were making mistakes and grinning in their embarrassment. Nothing flash but there was a simplicity and purity in this cultural gift that, combined with the happy mind our meditation and Dharma teaching had evoked, brought tears of gratitude to my eyes and others too. Before me wee devas were dancing.
Here was another first: a meditation retreat with dancing girls!
Meditation retreats had come to Australia 30 years earlier as austere acts of endurance. Typically ten days of suffering sore legs, no talking and a tumultuous mind, they were good medicine but difficult to swallow. And not particularly effective either as Sangha builders because participants were neither introduced nor debriefed. They came as strangers and left as strangers.
Waking Up in the Bush had combined Acharn Wititj's interactive workshop skills, with improvised rituals and ceremonies, a bush camp, laid back Lao ways, art and culture.
"What a benefit to do it at the Wat," John Allan wrote after the Retreat. "Immersion in a Dhamma culture of a flexible and inclusive kind. Moving between the bush and the sala; between quiet sitting and community activities."
After the dance John and I thanked the Lao Sunday school teacher effusively. Her response to our gratitude was more effusive gratitude. She thanked us for organising the Retreat and for the opportunity to show the children bush Dharma teaching in action. "Good Dharma teaching is precious and opportunities to hear it so rare," she said.
To Acharn Wititj she said: "The cross cultural work you are doing with Aboriginal culture is very, very important."
This was the happy hearted context in which we set off to water the Bodhi tree with water of transferred merit: abounding generosity.
The practice of generosity (Dana) is the first of six perfections (Paramitas) described by the Buddha needed for enlightenment. Dana had been central to the Dharma dialogue in the lead up to the retreat.
Both the monks and John insisted that no fee be changed for Dharma teaching. Okay to charge to cover the costs of food, publicity, and administration costs but it was to be made clear that the teaching was to be supported by Dana.
"There should be no sense of pressure when it comes to Dana," John emailed me. "If there is a sense of pressure then the spirit of the teaching is not honoured."
"Dana is a foundation teaching and attitude. A Chinese teacher says: 'So you want to know about letting go, well then, practice Dana for 6 years.'"
"In teaching Dhamma in western countries the sense of open heartedness at the core of dana is very important to convey. We are entering into very real community building. Building community that is held together by the economy of gift and gratitude. Yes, the other economies of supply and demand and commodity have their place in the world. But we are also holding up Dana. These things are more subtle and profound than might first appear."
If building community for peace in a time of war was our mission, then developing Dana was central to that mission. Peace is not going to come down from above from the corporate rich or their courtier governments. It is not going to come from people caught up in career ambitions and acquiring property. It is not going to come with salaries, corporate sponsorships or government grants either.
Like all the political and cultural movements that have brought peace and justice in the past, it is going to come from lowly people and be dependent on kindness and generosity, called into being by friends walking beside each other, helping each other, companions on the holy path.
Bit of a challenge to promote and organise anything on the dole and without capital, and more so when you cannot charge a fee for service or offer discounted early bird rates. But the Venerable Santitthito gave me faith. We were turning the Wheel of Dharma together and many beings seen and unseen, near and far, wanted us to succeed.
And succeed we did. Generosity prevailed, the bills were paid, everyone associated with the Retreat found benefit from the experience, friendships deepened, and the dharma community broadened.
Wititj, moving through country, had paused awhile at the water hole of Wat Buddhalavarn: ripples upon ripples upon ripples.