Sunday (18th July 2010)
I set off from the Cotswold market town of Chipping Campden on a balmly Sunday afternoon in the middle of July. I needed to be in Winchcombe by approximately 10 o’clock the following day for my first alms-round and as it was eighteen miles away I couldn’t linger. I intended to cover about twelve miles that afternoon and evening, find a tree under which to sleep, and then walk the remaining six or so the following morning.
A week and a half earlier I’d been discussing with Luangpor the possibility of taking a break before we entered the Vassa – the annual three-month long ‘Rains Retreat’ that all Buddhist monks must observe. I could go on solitary retreat; but that didn’t appeal. I could take a week in a friend’s caravan; but I needed someone to accompany me and cook. So what else could I do? I could go tudong: that’s what I could do.
But where would I go? Would I get fed? Where would I sleep? How would I be treated? These are precisely the questions that are meant to remain unanswered as a tudong monk hauls his alms-bowl and robes onto his shoulders, and – carrying neither food nor money – steps out of his monastery and into uncertainty. Part of me was buzzing with excitement; another was hoping I’d get the flu beforehand. I didn’t think about what might happen. If I had I’d have probably never gone.
After deciding not to follow a suggestion to have me blindfolded and dropped off in the middle of nowhere, I chose the slightly more conservative option of planning a route. I naturally wanted to keep to the wilderness, but being dependent on alms I couldn’t stray too far from towns and villages. Searching for a path that struck a convenient balance between the two, I eventually settled on the Cotswold Way – a long distance National Trail that stretches 102 miles between Chipping Campden and Bath. Before setting off I didn’t actually think I’d reach Bath. That wasn’t the purpose of this challenge.
So what, you’d be right to ask, was the purpose?
A good question, and one that I am really only able to answer now – having done it, with four principal reasons becoming clear as I try to put the purpose into words.
To comprehend the first we need to understand the practice of a tudong monk. The Thai word ‘tudong’ is a corruption of the Pāli ‘dhutanga‘. The dhutangas* are a set of thirteen optional austere (literally ‘bitter’) practices that the Buddha allowed his monks to undertake. A tudong monk is therefore one who observes some, if not most, of these practices, and to ‘go tudong’ refers to his act of wandering whilst doing just this.
It wasn’t going to be possible for me to undertake every one of these dhutangas; I did, however, do my best to practise seven of them, the second and third of which we observe at this monastery anyway. The seven are as follows: 1. To eat only what one receives on alms-round – whether it be little or nothing at all, and decline invitations to take meals at the houses of lay-people; 2. To eat only one meal a day before noon; 3. To eat only from the alms-bowl; 4. Not to accept extra food after one has started the meal; 5. Not to dwell in a village or noisy temple; 6. To dwell under a tree; and 7. To sleep wherever one finds oneself at the end of a day’s wandering.
So it’s clear that a tudong is not a leisurely walking tour. As well as facilitating the development of a monk’s meditation practice, its purpose is to go against the grain of the defilements of greed, aversion and delusion – to expose them so that they can be observed and understood. Monks often contend with hunger, fatigue, pain, fear, distress and loneliness in order to strengthen the mental qualities of resolve, persistence, patient-endurance and – most importantly – wisdom.
The second reason concerns a particular characteristic which pervades the tudong experience: uncertainty. I didn’t know if I would eat, where I would sleep, what dangers I might encounter on the journey. Living in this way not only sharpens your faculties, it brings you face to face with a reality that is ever-present but towards which we are usually blind when living a settled life. That reality is uncertainty. Although we presume things will continue as they always have: that we will eat tomorrow, that we will work tomorrow, and even that we will wake up tomorrow, there is no guarantee that these things will happen. Ensnared by the delusion of certainty we live at odds with the true nature of things, whereby we form attachments – creating a constant source of tension – and set ourselves up just to fall. To open up to uncertainty; to confront it; to live it, is another reason why I went tudong.
The third reason was, quite simply, because I wanted to go on alms-round. In Theravada Buddhist countries such as Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka the sight of a monk wandering for alms shortly after dawn is a common one and he can expect to have his bowl filled. But in the West the alms-round has yet, understandably, to become our primary means of obtaining food, and is therefore in danger of becoming more of a relic than a living part of our tradition. This is unfortunate because it is this daily act of going for food that keeps us in contact with the people and is a constant reminder of our dependence on their generosity – things which are easily lost living in a monastery where most meals are prepared by a live-in assistant. To go on alms-round was to get back to my roots.
And fourthly – and perhaps most importantly – I wanted to undo some of the damage done largely by the media and re-build my faith in humanity; after all, it was people’s generosity – or lack thereof – that would mean the difference between me eating and going hungry.
Of all the experiences on this trip it was the alms-rounds and the responses of the people I met which imprinted themselves most indelibly on my mind. It is therefore these that form the backbone of this account.
So you now know why I found myself a mile into my first ever tudong. Being my first, I had no idea what to expect – not only in terms of how I would be received when going for alms, but how it would be to walk such a long way carrying the traditional tudong monk’s bowl bag and shoulder bag, both of which were as light and aerodynamic as two sacks of potatoes. Much to my chagrin I didn’t have to wait long to find out about the latter: within minutes of leaving Chipping Campden I was involved in a full-scale battle to keep the blighters in place, and it was all made so much worse when a wretched horsefly began jabbing every piece of my exposed flesh, determined to draw my blood. Thus, having begun the walk in an appropriately restrained and composed manner I was now a sweating, flailing, cursing wreck. And I only had 100 miles to go!
After trying numerous methods of carrying the bags, one of which came close to strangling me (should I have persevered with that one…?), I decided to tie the corner of my shoulder bag to the cord on the bowl bag that keeps the bowl in place, which meant that they didn’t swing around independently. This was as good as I was going to get it and so I settled into the task ahead and was soon into my stride. The tourist trap of Broadway was next.
After pausing briefly below the brow of a hill just short of the impressive Broadway Tower to have a drink, stick plasters on my feet, and send mettā (loving-kindness) to a flock of curious sheep, I approached two gentlemen sitting to one side of the path enjoying the view towards the Malvern Hills.
“Are you a monk?” the older of the two inquired as I went to pass.
I then told him that I was doing the Cotswold Way without money or food, before I answered his questions on the life of a monk.
“Amazing,” he kept saying, shaking his head – inspired by the challenge I’d set myself and by the possibility of living a life radically different from the norm.
The bags suddenly felt lighter as my sense of purpose was stoked.
I decided to deviate from the official trail slightly just before reaching Broadway as it was a Sunday and I’m not one for crowds (though I knew this personal weakness of mine was going to get a good airing many times over the coming week – if I wanted to eat, that is). After finding the trail again it was a sheer climb out of the village, followed by another good serving of steep ups and downs. The walk was already proving to be physically demanding, which was good, because such things help to concentrate the mind. As the miles rolled by I’d occasionally pause to cast off my bags, quench my thirst, and air my sweaty robes.
That evening as the light was beginning to fade I started to look out for a place to sleep. I had only a light sleeping bag and a bivvy bag so I needed shelter and a reasonably smooth surface on which to lie. Finding such a spot didn’t prove to be easy and the walk got longer, the light dimmer, and the sheep noisier as I scoured the land looking for a suitable spot. At last I scrambled over a fence and headed for a crack willow that had ‘Monks Welcome’ in pink neon signs splashed all over it (or was that just a mirage?). I negotiated the nettles surrounding it and found a flattish smoothish piece of dirt just long enough to house my weary frame among the main branches that had peeled partially away from the trunk to come down to touch the ground and form a sort of cavern. Perfect. Sort of. I removed the twigs and stones, unpacked my things, got in my sleeping bag and then bivvy bag, arranged my limbs around the various bumps in the earth, and closed my eyes, hoping the willow wouldn’t live up to its name during the night. I then did my best not to think about what was to be my first ever proper alms-round in England. I’d never get any food… Would I?
Half an hour into the morning’s trek to Winchcombe I passed three fellow Cotswold Way walkers, one of whom was standing contentedly outside his cosy tent sipping from a thermal flask. No doubt there was something hot, sweet and delicious inside. Lucky man. Numerous hills, plenty of sheep, one ruined Christian Abbey, and a group of cheery American ramblers later I came to the stony farmer’s track that led to the town.
But before food I needed water, for which – unlike food – we are allowed to ask. A hundred yards before the track hit the main road I came across a dinky white holiday cottage outside of which was an elderly gentleman reaching into his car.
“Excuse me…” No response.
“Excuse me…” He backed out and turned. Had his eyebrows not been attached to his forehead they’d have shot up into a tree.
“I’m sorry to trouble you but would you mind filling up my water bottles?”
He smiled, took them, and disappeared inside.
“Where might I find the shops?” I inquired, once he returned. He gave me directions, and added that I’d be able to get whatever I wanted. I then thought he might be interested to hear of what I was about to do.
His ears pricked up. “Oh. I’d better get you some food then.”
‘Wow!’ I thought. ‘The first person I’ve come across and they’re giving me some food!’ While he was inside I unpacked my bowl, gave it a rinse, and hung it from my shoulder ready to receive his offering.
“Grapes and cheese OK?”
“Wonderful,” I said through a broad smile. He then popped the bag in my bowl, after which we exchanged websites (he’s a painter), and then I bade him farewell and headed along the track and up the hill towards the town centre, my confidence in humanity now brimming.
I strolled through Winchcombe looking for an appropriate place to stand in order to receive alms. It’s become clear through the experiences of fellow monks in our tradition who have done similar things to this that the customary walking-along-silently-collecting-alms doesn’t generally work in this country as people don’t know what we’re doing. As a result, it’s been found that by simply standing among shops with our bowl before us they eventually cotton on. So that’s what I’d do.
I decided on a Co-Op store, at the opposite end to the entrance doors, where I’d be conspicuous but not in the way. I put my bags down on the worn stone step of an old but apparently little-used doorway and stood facing the street with my robe folded back to reveal my bowl, and I cast a relaxed gaze downwards as our discipline dictates. Hopefully it would be obvious that I wasn’t just waiting for someone.
This was the first time in my ten years in the robes that I had tried this. I therefore had no idea how people would respond. I could have easily drowned in the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘it’ll nevers’, but seeing the whole experience in terms of Buddhist practice I resolved to not anticipate but to stay rooted in the present and allow events to unfold. ‘Whatever happens let it happen. You just don’t know so stop thinking about it.’ I established mindfulness of my breathing and tried simply to observe the movements of my mind.
After about ten minutes a slim blonde woman of about sixty and wearing light blue jeans stopped in front of me. I looked up and smiled.
“Are you collecting?” This was a term I’d hear again.
“Yes. Food but not money.”
“Do you eat cheese?”
She then nipped into the shop. While she was in there a man pulled up in the space next to the pavement in front of me and said hello. We got chatting and I told him what I was doing. He then reached into his boot and broke off two yoghurts that he’d just bought from Sainsbury’s. As he put them in my bowl the lady emerged from the shop and squeezed a carrier bag in alongside them.
“Wonderful!” I said, unable to be anything but very, very friendly. The bag contained a large packet of Co-Op Sweetmeal Digestives and an enormous wedge of cheddar cheese.
‘Well,’ I thought to myself. ‘This isn’t bad at all!’
I stood there for a few more minutes but decided that this would do for the day as the sun was beginning to bake my head. So, I walked back to the edge of the town, clambered over a stile into a deserted field, and parked myself in the shade of a tree. I then tucked in. (My goodness have grapes never tasted so good.) As I broke off pieces of cheese to place on the digestives I would occasionally stop and pause for a moment, shaking my head at what had just occurred.
It was soon time to push on, so I broke up the remaining biscuits and scattered them for the birds as I am unable to keep food after midday and I didn’t think anyone would react well to a robed stranger handing them half a packet of digestives. I’d another long slog of a walk ahead as I wanted to arrive at Dowdeswell Reservoir, just south-east of Cheltenham, by dusk, which was another eleven miles or so away. As things would have it I didn’t make it to the reservoir, which actually turned out to be to my advantage.
The walking on this trip was relentless. I’d be on the move by 8 am and rarely stop before 9 pm, breaking only to eat the one meal and have the occasional drink of water and sit down. People have since asked what the hardest part of this tudong was. Before I left I was convinced it would be the alms-rounds. But, having done it, without a doubt it was the walking. Cumbersome, unpadded bags; bruised shoulders; boots with no cushioning; blisters; a robe that kept unravelling; knees that kept seizing up; and miles and miles of walking.
So there was a lot of walking, which meant that staying concentrated whilst on the move was a priority. If I was climbing a steep hill I’d naturally focus. And sometimes I’d ‘just walk’ – being mindful and aware of body and mind without employing any particular device. But more often than not I needed strategies to keep my mind from wandering. I repeated ‘Buddho’ in time with my steps for short stretches of the walk, but I found it didn’t engage my mind as much as was needed. The method I found most effective was combining deep breathing with my steps: I’d breathe all the way in counting one, two, three, four, five, six, as I took six strides, and then breathe out counting one, two, three, four, five, six, as I took six strides, all the while trying to maintain full body awareness. For the most part this kept me firmly in the present and energised at the same time.
I was also forced to overcome my difficulty with descending steep hills, which can wreak havoc with my dodgy knees. To try to alleviate this I would focus on the air element.
The Buddha taught that matter – this body included – is composed of four primary elements: earth, water, fire and air, each of which are defined by certain characteristics. For instance, earth is the element of solidity; turning our attention to our body we experience this as hardness. Bones, nails and teeth, for example, have earth as their foremost property. Water is the element of fluidity and cohesion; we experience this as liquid and softness. The softer and runnier something is, the more predominant the water element. Water pervades the body in the sense that it binds. Fire is the element of heat and of maturation; we experience it as warmth. Air, or wind, is the element of motion and extension; we experience this as movement, lifting and lowering of the limbs, winds coursing through the body, etc.
Homing in on the air element we are aware of the lightness of the body: if there were no air element this body would be an unmoving, unsupported lump, and if in water it would sink. We become aware of the movement taking place throughout the body, and see how the air element extends to every part. By focussing on this element and excluding awareness of the others, especially the heavy earth element, I thought I might encourage feelings of lightness to counter the weighty plodding that was jarring my knees.
It goes without saying that the element contemplation has a more profound purpose than to simply cope with cranky knees. We do it in order to see the true nature of the body: that it is without self or substance. Developed properly the body is mentally broken down into these constituent elements until the labels ‘self’ and ‘mine’ no longer arise; in the same way as when one separates a car into its various parts such as wheels, engine, windscreen-wipers, etc. the label ‘car’ no longer arises. Desire and attachment regarding the body disappear when we see it in this way, and we are consequently left with peace.
As the afternoon turned to evening I was beginning to feel exhausted. I had climbed and descended innumerable hills that day, all the time wrestling with the unwieldy bags on my shoulders. I kept wanting to stop but finding nowhere suitable to sleep and reminding myself I am a tudong monk I forced myself to carry on. Gates and stiles just a few yards away seemed to take hours to reach. I was searching desperately for a half-decent tree under which I could sleep. Such a state was I in that even the ditch beside the road began to look tempting! Finally, just after the footpath had left a quiet lane, I hauled myself over a dry-stone wall and a barbed-wire fence, where I then slumped under a tree. I mustered the energy to climb into my sleeping gear before I lay there, shivering from what I think must have been exhaustion (it wasn’t cold), and not caring if I remained there all the following day without eating.
About an hour or so later, at about 10 pm, I heard voices in the field. They were getting louder. The people sounded a little drunk. I admit I was too shattered to care what was going on but I nevertheless lay still as the two figures approached. The flow of their conversation suddenly stopped.
“Uhhh! It looks like a body!” exclaimed the woman. The man was silent. They then passed and I soon fell asleep.
Feeling surprisingly fresh on awaking the next morning I was soon winding my way along a quiet lane down towards Cheltenham for alms. But I was apprehensive. Every morning of the trip I would inevitably think, ‘How can I possibly get any food today? Today will be the day when I don’t eat anything.’ But, having confidence in the power of the Dhamma, and in my practice of loving-kindness, I did my best to suspend all thought of the future and concentrate on the act of breathing and walking.
When uncertainty is your only companion the mind cannot help but see the folly of anticipation as it is being constantly proved wrong.
I found myself a bench in a little park filled with well-stocked flower beds just a junction away from the town centre and got my bowl ready. I then crossed the road and, mindful of the crowds, headed for the shops. The busy Tesco Express looked like a good place to stand. I thought that if I was to get anything it would be here. So, I hung my bags on a street sign on the corner of the shop, assumed my position, and waited. It was 10:40 am. A river of pensioners, tourists, young couples and teenagers freshly released from school flowed steadily past my downcast eyes. One or two old couples would occasionally stop in front of me and then whisper into each other’s ears. ‘They’re wondering what I’d like in my sandwich….’ I’d think. Then they’d disappear inside Tesco never to be seen again. At 11:05 the situation didn’t look like improving and so I hoisted my bags back onto my reluctant shoulders and departed.
No sooner had I rejoined the throng when I bumped into a Catholic nun.
“Are you collecting?” She asked.
“Yes!” I replied – the two of us forming a dark blue and saffron island in a swirling sea of bemused shoppers.
“But I can’t accept money,” I added, “Just food.”
She rummaged through her shopping bag and retrieved a packet of twelve tea-cakes.
“Here you are,” and she stuck them in my bowl. “Say a prayer before you eat them.”
I didn’t quite know how to respond so I simply smiled and walked on.
‘Well, maybe it’s just going to be tea-cakes for me today!’ I thought.
I proceeded to the far end of the centre of Cheltenham. After several minutes I spotted with great excitement a branch of The Globe – a chain of Asian supermarkets run by a Thai man we know, an outlet of which we have in Warwick. ‘This is great!’ I thought. ‘There’ll be Thai people in there and they’ll know exactly what I’m doing!’ But the shop contained not a single Thai, just a Chinese assistant who obviously didn’t know the difference between a casual shopper and a penniless bhikkhu with only a packet of twelve tea-cakes to his name.
Disappointed, I turned around and headed back into the centre, unsure where I’d try next, and aware that time was running out. But a certain bearded Englishman carrying two green bicycle pouches was about to enter my life whose actions and words I will never forget – in particular a sentence that contained the word ‘chips’.
“Bhante! Bhante!” (Venerable Sir! Venerable Sir!) “Are you on pindapat?” (alms-round?)
I had seen him out of the corner of my eye crossing the road towards me, his palms joined over his chest.
“Yes!” Who he was I had no idea but he was very, very excited.
“Can I get you something? Can I get you something?”
“But what would you like? OH! You can’t say, can you!”
“Something filling?” I ventured.
“Of course! Sandwiches!”
He then dived into the newsagents next to us and burst out with two chunky rolls and a sandwich. I couldn’t believe it. It turned out he had lived at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in the late ‘eighties as the retreat manager, and so he knew exactly what I was doing. You see, you just never know.
I then asked where I might eat my meal and he kindly offered to escort me to a park. On the way we passed a chip shop.
He stopped outside it and casually asked, “Would you like some chips, Bhante?”
Planet Earth juddered to a halt.
Chips. From a chip shop. I hadn’t had chips from a chip shop in almost ten years! I don’t need to tell you my answer.
After going our separate ways I entered a large park next to the junction of a main road and sat down on my trusty heavy-duty black bin-liner under a cluster of trees, the low-hanging branches of which concealed me from the public eye. I unwrapped the sacred oblong pieces of deep-fried potato and began to eat, again pausing every so often to lift up my head, lower my eyelids slightly, and shake my head as I thought of how things had unfolded: ‘If I hadn’t have left Tesco just at that point I wouldn’t have met the Catholic nun. If I hadn’t have left The Globe when I did I wouldn’t have met that kind man….’
But the joy and gratitude that would well up inside me at every meal that week had to be temporarily suspended as it was soon up, up and away through the muggy suburbs of Cheltenham towards a sun-baked Leckhampton Hill, where, after my lengthy detour, I rejoined the Cotswold Way.
So far the walk had been dominated by austere but beautiful hills with far reaching views towards the Malverns and over into Wales and the Brecon Beacons, as well as rolling farmland punctuated by old rambling Cotswold stone villages. But that was to change as it was now time for the path to plunge into thick beech woodland. Here in this part of Warwickshire beeches don’t take well to our heavy red clay soil and so we are deprived of the muscled majesty of these striking trees. But here they were in abundance, and I allowed myself the odd moment to trace one of the numerous goliaths from its hulking roots to its enormous trunk and up and along the mighty boughs into the canopy of tiny green leaves shimmering in the sunlight far above. I was also conscious that I might have my first reasonably comfortable night’s sleep, with the beech leaves providing a soft mattress. I was correct, but it still wasn’t easy to find a convenient spot as most of the forest was on hill sides and so level areas were few. While I was pressing on that afternoon, in the middle of yet another 12 or so mile slog, I thought to myself: ‘I’ll be ready to join the Marines after this!’ I wouldn’t do that, of course.
Another novelty was that I used the traditional monk’s water filter. I always show this to the school children to remind them not to harm even the smallest creature but I have never actually used one myself. I had seen on a map in my little guide book that I was passing a spring. I have discovered that you really don’t know what those tiny blue circles on the map will look like in the flesh, and so it’s wise not to plan on filling your bottles at them. But luckily this one was at the head of a fast-flowing stream which rushed under the path and tumbled away over the rocks and vanished into the trees. Without further ado I negotiated the steep slope down towards a shallow pool that had formed before a line of stones. As it was late and the place deserted I extracted my swollen feet from their boots and socks, took off my robe and entered the cold water. How refreshing it felt! Afterwards I filtered some water and decanted it into my Coke bottles, before adding a few purification tablets. It was then a short walk to my four-poster bed, sorry – pile of beech leaves – and a good night’s sleep.
Next up for alms was Painswick. I’d seen on the map that I would be passing very close to Prinknash Abbey, a working Christian monastery, and so I considered popping in to say hello. Unfortunately time wouldn’t afford the luxury as I needed to cover six miles that morning and so I pressed on to the town. It looked small on the map – a nice contrast to Cheltenham, but with a fraction of the people would I get a fraction of the food? I sensed chips wouldn’t be on the menu today.
Painswick is very beautiful but there aren’t many shops. A solitary Londis hides in a nook beside a street so narrow that sandwich delivery vans have to hold their breath to pass. Opposite was a pub with a door six foot up the wall – a feature typifying the higgledy-piggledy nature of this place that’s set on the side of a sheer hill. So Londis it was.
I began by standing a little way from the door but after a while moved closer. I parked my bags in an alleyway and waited. One wealthy looking woman – probably retired – wearing Hunter wellington boots and a blue cape glided in, her gaze fixed ahead as she passed me. A minute or so later an old woman tottered by and joined her. I heard them chatting inside for a good while before the first woman glided back out. Several minutes after that a dapper looking man of about sixty strolled in, after whom an old woman, possibly not the same as the first, shuffled out. I can’t remember if this is exactly how events unfolded but you get my drift: there weren’t many people about and none of them seemed interested in me.
So this was it. This was to be the day when I wouldn’t eat anything. There had to be one. I decided there was little point in hanging around and sulking and so thought to leave. A man, a little younger and with a more approachable demeanour than the previous punters, then turned into the alley and parked his two dogs there. They had blue tongues. I decided these unusual hounds were the spark to ignite a conversation. They were, and I soon told him what I was doing.
“I’ve got three pounds. That’s a paper for me and something for you. What do you want?”
I was elated. “I think something filling would be good.”
While he was in there a middle-aged Australian woman with reddish hair entered the alley to stroke the dogs. She then starting talking – half to me and half to the dogs. I had now realised that as soon as people knew what I was doing there was a good chance they would offer me something. So I told her. She then stood up as he put a chunky sandwich in my bowl. She peered in.
“That’ll never be enough,” and she went and bought me two more sandwiches and an apple.
I shake my head even now.
Looking in my book after the meal I saw I had two options: I would either have a short, leisurely stroll that afternoon and pitch up just north of Stroud, going for alms there or in one of its satellite villages in the morning; or I would up the pace, bypass Stroud altogether, and stop for the night a few miles short of Dursley, another candidate for alms. I chose the second and departed.
This was the first day it rained and rain it certainly did. Too shy to ask the good people of Middleyard (a village just south of Stroud) for water as it was closing in on 7 pm, and having a bottle and a quarter left, I took my chances with a blue circle on the map that lay just to the side of a bend in the woodland track. Arriving at that spot I could see no water, but there was a line of trees and shrubs heading into the adjacent field which indicated the spring was at the head of this. I limbo danced under two strands of rusty barbed-wire and descended the slope, only to clamber back up to the fence to grab my bags as I realised I’d have to walk a little way. I didn’t retrieve my umbrella. As I emerged from the edge of the wood and headed over towards the line of trees it began to spit. Sensing a downpour I abandoned my quest for water and ran back to the wood as the pregnant clouds burst open. I scrambled back up the slope, crawled back under the barbed-wire like some bedraggled army cadet on an assault course, and opened my umbrella. But it was too late. I was already drenched. Feeling surprisingly equanimous I decided to take advantage of the situation and held a bottle under one of the umbrella’s shiny metal tips and watched as the water trickled in. As there were no people or houses close by I removed my soppy robe when the rain eased off and enshrined myself in a grey-green waterproof cape. I then pushed on, wanting to be clear of woodland before dark as it was very damp. Shortly after nine I emerged on to the top of a wind-swept hill beside a main road, wandered around for a bit, and then sunk into a sheltered spot beneath an adolescent tree surrounded by long grass, my soggy robe now jammed inside my bag.
As well as our principal robe all bhikkhus have a sanghāti – an outer robe. It’s the one that you see folded and placed on our left shoulder. I decided to wear this before I set off for Dursley the following morning, but being double-layered I was soon cooking. So I found a little clearing in some woodland, took out my crumpled wet main robe, and held it up in the sun. It didn’t have much effect but I put it on anyway and hoped it would dry as I walked.
The man who’d given me the sandwich in Painswick the previous day had told me that Dursley was an ‘industrial town’, which I took to be a polite way of saying it’s not very wealthy and I might not get much food. But I had no choice but to try, and after the extraordinary events of the previous few days, who was I to anticipate anything? He had also suggested that to make my intentions clearer when waiting for food I should remove my bowl lid. “You’re not asking for anything. It’s just a hint. Otherwise it looks like you’re just waiting for someone.” That was useful to hear.
As I bounded over the ridges and hollows of an old quarry, with Dursley emerging far below and the Severn estuary and its bridge connecting England and Wales sparkling in the distance, a runner’s head and then his body appeared as he mounted the hill and raced towards me. It was joined palms again! I asked him what his connection with Buddhism was. I don’t remember his reply but he modestly confided he wasn’t a very good Buddhist as he couldn’t give things up. I suggested he do his best before we bid farewell to each other and parted.
I crouched down next to a garage door at the bottom of a steep drive, the end of which met the road into Dursley, and prepared my alms-bowl. Heading onto the main road and towards the town centre it was clear that this was no Winchcombe or Painswick. How would I be received?
I joined the muted crowd of mostly elderly shoppers and walked through the pedestrianised cobbled shopping area, casting my eyes left and right now and then to identify a place where I could stand. On reaching the main road that cut across the end of this area I turned around and returned to a spot nestled conveniently between an Iceland and a health-food shop, and opposite a greengrocer’s and a sandwich shop. I relieved my shoulders of my bags and, with a growing confidence, assumed the alms collecting posture.
Through watching your mind you come to see many things about how it works, and especially about how it deludes you into thinking things are other than they really are. In other words, you see how you’re not that much further up the line than the lunatic in the asylum who thinks he’s Elvis. While standing in these towns and villages I would generally keep my eyes downcast, and so the information that I received through the five senses about the people that passed was kept to a minimum. Thus there was no way I could accurately say what they thought of me, as all I could see were their shoes. Because of this lack of data from which I could read into the people and my surroundings, my mind’s tendency to make it all up was underlined in bold red. There was what was going on outside, which was essentially the harmless movement of colour and shape, and the cacophony of indistinct sounds in the street; and there was what was going on inside, which was a world of characters and personalities I’d fashion from the most innocuous details, nearly all of whom were suspicious of, and hostile towards, me. It was crazy! But because I could see it was all entirely my own making, I was able to let a good deal of it go. ‘You don’t know, Manapo!’ I’d shout at myself. ‘You don’t know!‘ Using these words to puncture the certainty of my assumptions and perceptions, I kept undermining them until they disappeared. Now the suspicious and hostile characters had more or less returned to the shifting colours and shapes and unintelligible mumblings and murmurs of the street.
Through this experience I was able to clearly see my mind creating my world, but also, and most importantly, how that world had little to do with reality. This process of conditioning, however, is not something that occurs from time to time and happens to only a few people; it is going on for each one of us in every moment from the day we are born until the day we die – unless we are enlightened, that is. And this conditioning is personal to each of us; no two people inhabit the same world. Reading this story, if you are very mindful, you will witness your mind being reflected back at you. In other words, you will see how your mind conditions your experience of this story. As each of us will bring his or her unique conditioned responses to the naked experience, no two of us will read the same story: One person may understand it, another may not; one person may praise it, another may criticize it; one person may laugh, another may cry. So if we are each experiencing a different story, what actually is the story? Is there even a story at all? These questions are answered as we peel away the layers of our conditioning in order to see things as they really are.
So there I stood in the centre of Dursley – externally serene, inwardly locked in battle. After about fifteen minutes a little balding man scurried out of the charity shop to the left of the greengrocer’s and headed straight towards me. He had obviously been watching and realised that something was meant to go in my bowl, which was now relieved of its lid. He raised his hand and attempted to slip some coins in, but I pointed out my rules and so he quickly turned and dashed into the sandwich shop. Moments later a long egg-salad baguette was braced against the inside of my bowl. Then, in the space of about ten minutes half of the town – or so it seemed – joined in. A lady from the health food shop – the owner, I think – popped her head out of the door:
“Oh. I didn’t realise you were collecting.” The baguette was promptly joined by a bag of nuts and raisins and a piece of peanut butter flapjack. One of her customers then added a packet of cheesy oat crisps to the equation. Two middle-aged men then got chatting to me, one of whom was particularly concerned that I had no money, no food, that I could only eat once, that I had to eat before 12 noon GMT, that I was already thin, and that I was walking to Bath. He asked what I wanted.
“A pear?” I pondered.
‘Are you joking?’, said the look on his face, and he headed for the greengrocer’s. While in there an old woman slipped a coin into my bowl.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t accept money – only food,” I said.
“Oh,” and she smiled, retrieved it, and went and bought me an apple. The man then returned and placed in my bowl four apricots, a pear, a banana and two hefty flapjacks. I walked away a happy monk indeed – happy at my lot, but most of all happy at being fortunate enough to witness such spontaneous and unconditional generosity.
But there was more to come. Before I left the main street I asked a waitress serving a customer outside a café if she might fill my water bottles. She was pleased to and on handing them back to me said:
“A lady inside has asked if you would like a sandwich.”
‘Goodness gracious,’ I thought. Though I knew I’d never eat all this I didn’t want to turn her down and so I said I would. After a few minutes she presented me with a freshly made cheese sandwich. Then, just as I was about to depart, she emerged again and asked if I might like some cake to take away. This was her offering, I presumed, as she pointed out to me that the kind woman who’d bought the sandwich but who wanted to remain anonymous had slipped out moments before.
So, loaded with food I hoisted myself along a single road and up a sheer hill and turned down a muddy track to sit on a felled tree. I certainly didn’t go hungry that day, and neither did the birds and deer who were lucky enough to find my leftovers.
It was the fifth day of my walk and I was now firmly installed in the trekking groove. That afternoon I covered about thirteen miles, though I hadn’t intended to, but I simply didn’t have it in me – not to keep going – but to stop. A town called Wotton-under-Edge that I had originally planned to visit for alms the following day was reached at 5:30 pm, which was not a good time for a monk to be wandering about. The shops were shutting, drivers were impatient to get home, and the town’s night-life in the shape of bored teenagers and boy-racers with their wailing exhausts was beginning to assume control. But I passed through unscathed, meeting only a group of four kids by a church gate through which I had to walk. They exploded with laughter when they saw me, but moved to one side and were quiet as I passed.
That evening, as the setting sun cast a golden light over the land, and with only a buzzard’s distant mewing to punctuate the exquisite silence, I passed through a valley the beauty of which is difficult for me to describe. Perhaps I’d bump into someone wanting to give an old stone farm with some woodland to a monk. Well, it didn’t happen. With darkness imminent I turned off the path, waved aside some nettles with my umbrella, and settled into a niche in a hedge on the border of a secluded field. I then fell asleep.
It was now Friday. I had to be back at the monastery by Saturday. It was at about this point that it dawned on me that Bath was reachable.
My book showed the last twenty-five miles passed only through a few hamlets and small villages which I doubted would be able to sustain me. So it had been my intention to take a detour at Little Sodbury into the nearby town of Chipping Sodbury, the size of which looked on a par with Dursley. Leaving the trail and climbing a stile to join a public footpath I saw a man on the other side of the fence spraying his roses and decided to ask for water. As he handed over the freshly filled bottles I asked him the most direct route to the town.
“I’ll get my wife. She’s the walker.” So he got her.
“It’s left after the two fields, straight through the gate, one o’clock at the troughs, right at the road, towards the big house….. No….. Left at the two fields, straight through the gate, twelve o’clock at the troughs…..”
Not sure I had quite got the instructions right, but not wanting to risk clarification, I explained what I was doing.
“Well, I’d better get you something for your journey,” she said, and then fetched me two seed bars and another humongous flapjack – typical walkers’ food and jolly filling at that. I thanked them very much and with some hesitation attempted to follow her instructions.
But after reaching the troughs and spotting the church steeple of the town far off in the distance, I wondered whether it was worth taking such a big detour. I thought I’d probably use up more energy traipsing to Chipping Sodbury and back than I would gain from the food I’d receive there, and I had these three bars after all. So, I decided they would suffice for the day and cut back across the field, joined the road to the village I’d just left, and was shortly back to plodding – ahead of schedule – on the Cotswold Way.
I came dangerously close to ending my tudong that afternoon. For some reason, and without warning, blisters had suddenly engulfed my feet and so walking was verging on the intolerable. The scenery was still stunning though, with the trail crossing manor house parkland and a deserted valley enshrouded with forest. I admit that it wasn’t only the blisters that made me want to stop. I was also sure that I wouldn’t get any alms in Bath. But, being truthful, even that wasn’t the main reason for my hesitation, as I was prepared to go without food the following day just to finish the walk. The principal reason was that I was scared. Yes, scared. Scared of a big city; scared of the gangs in the parks; scared of walking through drug-infested housing estates; scared of being so damn conspicuous. Give your wandering mind an inch and it will take a mile, and that’s what I had allowed to happen. Bath was now the centre of all evil in the universe.
‘Oh you big wimp!’ I told myself, ‘Look at what you’ve done already! Look at how your thoughts have taken over! Just go for it! Stay focused in the present and see what happens! You just don’t know what will happen!’
So that was it. My mindfulness and concentration shifted up a gear as I grappled for control over my mind, and with lungs pumping and teeth clenched I soldiered forth to Bath Abbey – the walk’s official end.
Bath – a city of menace, muggings, gang-warfare and the trampled corpses of Buddhist monks. Well, not quite. After descending the stony path from the golf course next to where I’d spent a lumpy night I discovered it’s a charming place. Hardly big enough to be called a city, surrounded by fields of dozy cows, riddled with intimate winding streets and alleys more fitting for one of the sleepy villages I’d passed days earlier, but with some of the most magnificent architecture in the world the jewel nestled in this crown, it set the perfect scene for a triumphant end as a walker conquers the Cotswold Way. But I was still unsure about alms-food and even whether I’d bother trying to get any. As it happened I didn’t go on alms-round, but that’s not to say I went hungry. Far from it. I was about to end my walk in a way quite different to how I’d imagined.
I took a smooth tarmac path which led off a main road and round to the left before suddenly rising towards a church. As I turned the corner I passed a man and a woman leading a menagerie of children. The path forked at the church. I paused and searched for a Cotswold Way marker but saw none and so shrugged my shoulders and took a chance with the path going to the left. After a dozen paces I sensed it was wrong and so checked my book which told me it was. I then retraced my steps to the corner of the church where I met the family.
“Are you on the Cotswold Way?” the woman inquired.
They knew it very well as they lived only a short distance from it, and so we ambled along together, keeping to the right of the church. They inevitably asked me questions and I inevitably told them what I was doing. It was now about ten o’clock in the morning.
“Have you eaten today?” asked the woman.
“Well, no. I haven’t.”
“Would you like to come to our house for some toast?”
“That would be great.”
Considering I’d resigned myself to the possibility of going hungry toast was a welcome surprise, though I am aware that by eating in a house I would no longer be observing one of the dhutangas.
“You walk ahead with him, Tim, and we’ll catch up in a minute.”
I stepped through their front door and removed my boots, which with hindsight I should have placed outside because they utterly stank. I was then treated to almost two hours of the most warm, considerate and open-minded kindness I have ever experienced.
“Would you like some juice?”
“I’d love some juice.”
“How about some scrambled-egg with your toast?”
“I’d love some scrambled-egg.”
“Would you like some more juice?”
“I’d love some more juice.”
“Would you like a shower?”
For a second time on this trip Planet Earth juddered to a halt.
“I’d love a shower.”
Before I entered the bathroom I explained that I eat from my alms-bowl. Without batting an eyelid the lady respectfully took it and gave it a rinse.
“Would you like some rolls? ….. a banana? ….. some tomatoes?” she asked, after I’d emerged. “Do you need to eat by yourself?”
“Just over there on that rug looks fine.”
I then sat down on the floor of their conservatory and delved in to my first hot meal in a week.
After I had finished I considered whether or not to ask if they had a mobile phone charger. I had taken my phone for emergencies and only that morning had the battery died, and, typically enough, it was on this final day that I needed to use it, having arranged to be collected at 2 pm by my brother who’d never once set foot in Bath. But the charger connection wasn’t a common type and I was doubtful whether they’d have the right one. I was mistaken. Sixty-four percent on the green bar and a conversation about meditation later, I stood up – barefooted – to get myself together.
“Would you like a pair of socks?” (I’d been reluctant to put my soggy nostril-scorchers back on.)
“Well, if you’re sure….”
So for the last time I squeezed my feet back into my boots, hoisted my bags back on to my shoulders, and said goodbye. It was then a leisurely stroll down to the Abbey.
I didn’t go in. I just touched it. No-one would have noticed, but that was the official, and surprisingly moving, end to my tudong.
*The thirteen dhutangas: 1. Using cast off cloth to make one’s robes; 2. Using only the three principal robes; 3. Eating only what one receives on alms-round – whether it be little or nothing at all, and declining invitations to take meals at the houses of lay-people; 4. Avoiding a house where one received tasty alms-food previously; 5. Eating only one meal a day before noon; 6. Eating only from the alms-bowl, without using another receptacle; 7. Not accepting extra food after one has started the meal; 8. Not dwelling in a village or noisy temple; 9. Dwelling under a tree; 10: Dwelling in the open; 11. Dwelling in a charnel ground; 12. Sleeping wherever one finds oneself after a day’s walking; 13: Never lying down.