Oz Yatra

by Lesley Synge and Winton Higgins

Winton: The dharma yatra is an ancient Buddhist institution. It’s a kind of pilgrimage – a way of walking the earth in a sacred way – and a form of meditation retreat. Australia’s first dharma yatra took place over the first six days of October 2006. Over forty of us (including three small children and three other motorised supporters) gathered at the Dharmananda community, on Terania Creek near The Channon in northern NSW, to begin the walk of around 70 kilometers in all, most of it through rugged bushland. Our starting point was an important early site of engaged Buddhism, as the long (ultimately successful) struggle to save the old-growth forests from logging had its base here in the 1970s.

Lesley: I’m grateful I became one of the yatra tribe. I’m a fifty something Brisbane woman who’d responded to the generous offer contained in a Buddhist e-newsletter: send us a modest cheque to cover costs of food, turn up with your kit, and off we’ll go, a prospect made possible because of a couple named Ronnie and Emma and their friends Tim, Liz, Jay and several others. Ronnie and Emma live with their young family on 80 acres on the edge of a national park northwest of Byron Bay. (International readers may like to check out a map of Australia; once the most easterly point’s been located, go inland.) Since the 1970s, droves of alternative life-stylers have settled this lush hinterland, prompting an unofficial name change from Northern Rivers District to ‘Rainbow Region’. The country Ronnie and Emma wanted to share with us is that of the Tweed Caldera, a once-gigantic volcano now heavily-eroded, Bundjalung country to indigenous people.

Inspired by a yatra in southern France, they assembled a team to support our six-day Buddhist walkabout: two lay teachers, two vegetarian cooks, two drivers (one transporting the camping gear and a water tank, the other hauling a mobile kitchen) and guides to get us across three national parks and various private properties to Tyalgum, our destination. There we had the option of hooking up with a festival being organised by the local Aboriginal community. Although there were no Aboriginal people in our group, the indigenous practice of ‘walkabout’ – travelling the land for a spiritual purpose – was an inspiration.

Winton: From Dharmananda we walked up the hill to the historic Forest Meditation Centre for our first night together, the only one not spent in our tents. We got to know our guides, helpers, teachers and benefactors – not least Sandra, her culinary genius, and her 4WD-drawn mobile kitchen that would rendezvous with us each evening. Carol Perry and Victor von der Heyde (members of the Insight Teachers’ Circle of Australia) gave the dharma talks and led the sits.

Lesley: In the meditation hall deep in wet sclerophyll forest, our teachers convened the first of many circles – they were mechanisms for discussing logistics, agreeing on parameters, expressing experiences, and receiving dharma teachings. As the night closed in and the air grew crisp, we introduced ourselves. In the hotch-potch of individuals there were subsets, often overlapping ones: quite a few educators (some in institutions as well as dharma and yoga teachers), community workers, environmental activists, a couple of city slickers and a good number of locals including two men from Fairyland, a gay community near Nimbin. A number of people were facing serious illnesses, and a number were alternative health practitioners. Most continents were represented, and ages ranged from a babe in incubation to the wisdom of sixty-four years.

Carol reminded us of the generosity of the tradition that had preceded us. ‘We built this hall out of slabs from the trees we felled in the 1970s. No power tools. No generator. Ten of us sanded by hand the hardwood floorboards we’re now sitting on to make it ready for our visiting insight meditation teacher, Joseph Goldstein from the United States. Christopher Titmus from England painted the four pictures of meditation postures you see on the walls. John Seed [who became famous throughout Australia protecting rainforest we’d later journey through], created the mandala.’ Victor von der Heyde encouraged us to be aware of our habitual perceptions. ‘Instead of our usual identities we could as easily see ourselves as just forty mammals moving across a landscape.’

soft sweet somethings
dance on our noses –

After our first group sit, we rolled out our bedding in the meditation hall, blew out the candles, and settled into our night camps. Outside, the wind and the forest played, tossing dark blocks of foliage across patches of stars.

On the second day, we tidied the hall, meditated, ate breakfast porridge and dismantled the camp, all to the early morning twitter of forest finches and the duff-duff beat of a bird far away. Carol advised us to engage with the retreat without grasping for any particular experience; ‘simply let nature do its work.’ Ronnie set a steady pace, a mind-friendly rhythm impervious to distractions and off we went in a wordless transit along dirt roads. Except for a footfall of crunch, shuffle and slide, the group moved in silence and took rests in silence.

The first leg of the journey was short and the sight of a little red catering caravan in a clearing signalled that we’d reached our first campsite. Normally Sandra does a circuit of the ‘Rainbow Region’ markets, supporting herself and her daughter by selling the delicious curries she learned to cook in India. She was now cooking for us purely out of kindness. The luggage van was there too, our kits unloaded onto a plastic tarpaulin ready for us to turn into cosy tent shelters.

Winton: As with most retreats, the day had begun with a bell at 5.30 am, then yoga at 6.00, and a 45-minute sit after that, and each day ended with a sit and a dharma talk. The only difference was that we quickly learned to practise yoga and sitting meditation in bushwalking boots, on uneven ground, and in whatever the weather dished up. What Freud called ‘the narcissism of small differences’ quickly fell victim to the intensity of the retreat experience, of our interaction, and the skilful teachings. We denizens of urban jungles might initially have started off with doubts about putting ourselves in the hands of a bunch of laid-back rural ‘hippies’ in the wilderness we were about to face, but we quickly came to realise that we’d landed in very good hands. Just about every contingency had been meticulously provided for in preparing the yatra, and local bushcraft smoothly overcame the unforeseeable ones.

Lesley: People lent insect repellent, helped erect each other’s tents, and pitched in and scrubbed the cooking pots. The support team’s three children were kept occupied with great indulgence and their laughter and games rang out across the otherwise more silent campsite. Nobody got too precious about the discreet breaking of silence because walkabout logistics necessitated it. ‘These are just the signs of life,’ Carol Perry told us as we sat meditating, while the children ran and shouted, and the cooks clanged their pots, creating a feast of South Indian cuisine complete with mugs of hot, spicy chai for our evening meal.

The Tweed Caldera, an awesome landscape shaped like a giant cauldron as one would expect, became visible on the third day. Mt Warning, a volcanic plug, rose from its centre and became the navel around which we decorated our journey. Ronnie had warned us that we faced two long and difficult days, and the most rewarding. We’d climbed up the southern rim of the ancient eroded volcano and now we walked along it through almost pristine national park forest (Nightcap and Mount Jerusalem), world-heritage forest saved from further logging – as it turned out – by some of the women and men on the yatra. Now sixty-something, they were revisiting a bit of the planet they’d fought to protect (at nearby Terania Creek) when they were young and new to Buddhism.

Winton: Saturating our senses in the grandeur of the wilderness, we settled into the sweatiness and steady rolling rhythm of the long hours of walking. It produced a strong taste of egolessness. Many of us were beginning to experience the yatra process as just forty mammals moving across a landscape, as Victor had suggested, noting too what a strong sense of sangha (community) our walking was generating. We passed a portly three-metre-long carpet snake dozing contentedly in the sun, its coiled body occupying most of the breadth of the track. While most of us knew that this is the luckiest snake species to encounter in the Australian bush, every sense was on high alert as we each walked within 30 cm of that formidable being which greeted the thirty-five pairs of boots tip-toeing past it with exemplary equanimity. It snoozed on in the sun. May all beings be happy!

Lesley: We glimpsed what it might have meant to live off the land, as the Bundjalung people had done before colonisation. What bushfoods did we pass, unheeding? We soon learned we ourselves were food sources; leeches got a whiff of us and arched their ebony bodies in bloody desire for the nutrition we offered. Ticks too, burrowed into our flesh – all too much for one of the women who decided to drop out and head back to the comforts of home. As if proof were needed that we did indeed walk on indigenous pathways, I found some stone tools. The first was a very weathered stone axe-head; two days later a sharp scraper, perfect for cutting through tendons and scaping the flesh from skins of small mammals. Had these tools been lost, or broken, or put down ready for next year — a year that never came? There was a sense that we were a kind of new tribe, linked to sacred traditions which had arisen thousands of years ago – both Indian Buddhism and indigenous Australian.

From vantage points we caught glimpses of our yatra support, the little red mobile kitchen, a sight dear to us because it liberated us to meditate and trek without going hungry. With its vibe of hippie and gypsy, we saw it inch down steep and dusty back-roads with its load of metal pots and sharp knives, gas bottles and eskies packed with organic vegetables. It was a reminder of the impressive knowledge-base which had supported a hunting and gathering existence. Aboriginal people – we felt their absence. And their presence.

in mossy trunks of slain giants
axe gouges
from pioneer loggers

On the third night we camped on the edge of Ronnie and Emma’s land. A cold front brought stormy weather and we now recalled the e-newsletter’s instructions: be prepared for all weather conditions. For some reason my left leg was troubling me, aching so much that I knew I’d have to drop out if it hadn’t healed by morning. It was better. The day was clear.

Winton: Elation and exhaustion peaked the day we climbed up and then descended from Mt Jerusalem. Tim gave an unforgettable dharma talk at a lookout point; it began with the cataclysmic origins of the caldera itself, and ended with its subterranean interconnection of tree roots and leaf mulch today. Life is a series of interlocking networks in process, not a cavalcade of enduring atomized entities – a theme that the yatra itself taught so powerfully. As we ate lunch on the breathtaking top of the mountain we had the privilege of pondering his words.

Lesley: Tim spoke about Mt Warning, Woollumbin in Bundjalung language and meaning cloudmaker or weathermaker: a mountain sacred to the indigenous people, and rarely glimpsed without its wreath of cloud. It had been sighted and named by the British explorer Captain Cook in 1770 to alert seafarers of offshore treacherous reefs. ‘Here you can observe the global relationship between forest and climate. You can see the forest breathing out, creating water. No forests breathing out – no water.’ Waist-high in a snow-bank of flowering ti-trees, we listened and shared in Tim’s understanding of interconnectedness as inspired by the region’s ecology. ‘Just as there is no separation between soil and the fine parts of tree roots, there is no separation between humans. Where do I begin and you begin?’ he asked.

Then it was back to our silent passage through the lost world of Gondwana.

australian spring
and the tender pink tips
of the trees

scribbly gums –
arcane messages left by
the insect yatra

leaf stone
leaf stone

Towards evening we descended from the perfection of the Gondwana realm into white-settler influenced countryside with its cattle and barbed wire fences, discarded farm equipment and barking dogs, but also with a camping ground by a pleasant lake with welcome facilities such as hot showers and flushing toilets.

The pace was as steady as ever as we progressed northwest across the base of the caldera. We spent two more evening camps in places wisely chosen by Ronnie and the team for their tranquillity and isolation, always with the attendant red kitchen with its cooks and volunteer kitchen-hands creating an evening feast. Our meditation circles were now graced by large moons, like the night we camped in a clearing in a tallowwood forest (on a private property offering “adventure therapy for corporations and communities”).

Winton: The night was clear, windless, and utterly silent. If you opened your eyes and took in the sight, you saw scenes from the Pali Canon – scenes of the Buddha and his many followers sitting silently in the forest under the full moon. The roots of our 2500-year-old tradition felt very immediate.

Lesley: Our last night was in Mebbin National Park, another magnificent forest which ‘rainbow’ activists had also saved from further logging. It was now time to play our own part in the generosity of the Buddhist tradition. Many heartfelt thanks were given to the yatra team and bowls for dana (donations) filled with banknotes. Around midday on the seventh day we arrived at our geographical destination west of Mt Warning – Bray’s Creek outside Tyalgum. We’d supported each other through. To bring the retreat to a close, we sat in a circle one last time.

Our teachers had often included poetry in their dharma talks and now Carol read D.H. Lawrence.

When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego,
and when we escape like squirrels turning in the
cages of our personality
and get into the forests again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.

Cool, underlying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power
and old things will fall down,
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like burnt paper

On returning to our homes, Carol suggested that before conveying the stories of our journey we listened well to those who hadn’t come with us because they’d kept the home fires burning. We all spoke briefly – we had a ration of five words each! – and then our teachers led us in a wordless farewell, progressing along the line of the circle and gazing into each other’s eyes to connect with – then release – each of the forty unique individuals with whom we’d shared the week. Tears were shed; then it was back to the world of ordinary talk.

Some continued on to join the Wollumbin Dreaming Festival; some found a bus service down the road on bitumen heading east; and most of us climbed aboard the charter bus to head back to The Channon country. There we reclaimed our vehicles and sped away, winding up and around the moonlit hills, on to wherever our homes were.

Winton: We ended the yatra with that balanced, spacious feeling one gets after an intensive retreat that has ‘really come together’. But the yatra had also been a ripping adventure, and adventures make for very strong bonds indeed. When we took leave of each other at Brays Creek, many tears were shed. We don’t believe Emma and Ronny would have succeeded in getting rid of us if they hadn’t first acceded to our intense gratitude and promised to organise another yatra.

Lesley: Two people returned to the Forest Meditation Centre to sleep a seventh time in the meditative embrace of the first Australian yatra:

frog hullabaloo and night-time peace –
at the channon market in the morning
chai from a little red caravan.