Buddhism has been part of my life since I was a teenager. Now I have just passed my seventieth birthday. In the intervening years, I have been fortunate to study with some of the leading teachers of the age – Chogyam Trungpa, Kennett Roshi, and Thich Nhat Hanh among them. along with some lesser known but equally great figures who have had a profound effect upon me – Minh Choa, Saiko Gisho, Nai Boonman, Viradhammo, and others.
At one time or another I have explored most of the modes of Buddhist life – the householder, monasticism, the wandering teacher, community living, socially engaged ministry – and now I live as something of a hermit in a remote area of France – la France profond.
Berry is geographically situated in the upper Loire valley. The lower Loire is famous for its chateau, but we are off the regular tourist track here in a region of big rivers and forests and gently rolling countryside. It is a tranquil area where nothing much happens other than the procession of the seasons, which are, here, strongly marked. Winter is cold and crisp. In spring you can virtually see things grow and there are carpets of bluebells in the woods. Summer is hot and dry, with occasional dramatic thunder storms. Autumn is veritably the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
I live in a somewhat primitive house. there is no central heating. For cooking i use bottle gas. There are wood burning stoves and I cut the wood from the forest myself. In the warmer months I get visitors, but those who dare the cold times are rare. I find it easy to identify with the hermit hijiri of old Japan who wrote poems about beauty and desolation.
There are paths through the surrounding woods. It is not a difficult matter to stay in tune with nature here, in fact, difficult to avoid doing so. It is a meditation simply to step outside the house and gaze at the walnut tree in the field. I see the phases of the moon advance and note the turning of the starry heaven. The sunrise is orange and the sunset pink, or sometimes even a fiery red.
These natural elements take on a divine appearance and one senses deities in every direction. In addition to Buddhism I have a sensitivity for the ancient Greek religion and one it seems a great deal more than myth when one lives in such a place as this.
By way of formal practice, I call the name of Amitabha a hundred thousand times a month and it seems that the elements say it back to me each in their own way. The locals probably think I am an odd eccentric, but then, I suppose, that is what I have always wanted to be. Buddhism has a place for such things.
Though remote, I am not entirely isolated. There is a very small settlement of friendly Dharma companions about 15 kilometres away and we meet once a week to practice together and enjoy the company.
There are times when one walks out on a frosty morning or sees the glow worms shining in the evening or stands beneath a centuries old oak when the impression that there is nothing better overwhelms one. The Buddha often praised solitude and, although he lived in a country with a different climate, I feel he must have experienced similar joy in order to recommend it to us.