In the mornings we greet the world outside the house. Standing beneath the old walnut tree in front of the house we pause for a few minutes, feeling the strength of our connection to the earth through our feet and breathing the fresh morning air into the recesses of our lungs, looking out across the green expanse of grass which lies between us and the orchard, and listening to the calls of birds in every direction. Often a cuckoo and a dove vie for our attention, their cooing and cuckooing mirroring one another, the cuckoo to the right in the woods and the dove to our left in the buildings. Other birds fill in the lighter tones between, a twittering of martins, or a chatter of redstarts.
Then bowing toward the orchard, we turn and start to walk. The grass is wet under-foot, glistening with dew, its waving fronds longer by the day, tumbling in on our feet, drenching our shoes and trouser bottoms. We walk towards the clothes line and beyond it into the bonfire field.
Every day we set out in this way. The path has become clear, a furrow of short grass between the tussocks of the field. From time to time I come out with secateurs to trim out the blackthorn and brambles that grow up along the way, but during our morning walk, I simply notice they impertinent persistence, returning day after day, and watch my mind’s inclination to adjust nature.
Sometimes when people do walking meditation they become very self-absorbed, consciously placing each footfall, lost in concentration on the act of meditating. They seem so absorbed indeed that they are almost in a bubble of concentration, insulated from the world by a fortress of focused mental activity. They guard the sense doors ferociously. Here however, we do not meditate, we walk. Nature meditates all around us and our minds are held naturally by the detail. Richard Meyers once wrote of walking in nature as being like lectio divina, the practice of reading a holy book and allowing passages to speak to one. So too, as we walk, the colour of a leaf, the cry of a bird, the insistent drumming of the woodpecker, always in the same wood and never visible, or the daily growth of the orchids which spring up like miracles beside our path, draw us into contemplation of the divine.
The bonfire field is bright with the low morning sunlight, which is just creeping over the oaks ahead and which catches the heavy water drops on every tree and bush, transforming the field into a magical space of silvered foliage and glittering grass stems. Spiders’ webs are outlined in dew drops, their intricate doilies adorning the bushes or draped among the grass stems on the ground in front of us.
Passing the bonfire circle, now greened over with lush spring grasses, we head on along the grassy path to the far side of the field. I notice my anticipation of the vista up through the cutting of the electricity line, a long view to the far side of Amida land. Occasionally we have met deer here, and the mind, always greedy for stimulation, seeks out their lithe brown forms as I gaze.
In the cutting the ground is uneven and large leaved plants are growing in. In notice my dilemma - to walk on them and preserve the path or to avoid treading on the perfect ellipses of the new leaves.
The medieval road brings us into the shade of larger trees and soon we turn off it into the woods themselves. I pause beneath the trees to breathe in the bird song. Light throws shafts of brightness in between the trunks of the young trees, and dancing insects bathe in the pools of morning sunshine between the shadows. Jnanamati behind me has stopped too. I hear the silence of the absence of feet crunching on fallen leaves and enjoy the seclusion of the dark spaces here beneath the tree canopy.
Descending the dance field we are once more out in the open amongst the grasses and once again the water drips are accumulating. My rubber clogs are filling with water which runs into them from the bent over grasses of the overgrown margins of the path. Yesterday’s rain has left the world very wet this morning, but now the sky is deep, deep blue. Hawk weed stems have grown up tall above the rest of the greenery and some flower heads are already showing. We cross the dance circle, now deeply carpeted with fresh growth of grass. It will need cutting soon. The big old oaks are now in full leaf, shading the space, but above us the amphitheatre of the hillside is brightly lit by the morning sun.
The path winds back up the hill through the champ d’avoine, a meandering course between young trees and small patches of bramble or wild clematis. Mostly field maple, the trees are softly clad in delicate young green leaves. Here wild flowers grow in profusion. As we walk these paths daily, we notice the minutiae of changes, and over the two weeks since we arrived we have seen the cowslips petals fade and shrink to seed heads. Buttercups have grown from tiny green rosettes to tall plants, crowned with their golden cups. Here too the orchids have grown from small green indeterminate shoots to long stems, crowned by pink pyramids of flowers. Brambles too have started to assert themselves along the path and I have spent hours crawling on my haunches, clipping them back to keep the walk way clear. Here among the saplings, once again, we pause, listening to the birdsong and the rustling of creatures in the undergrowth, breathing consciously the fresh air, scented with hawthorn.
Through the wooded margins of the field where bluebells carpeted our path ten days ago, we now tread on the remains of their leaves, flattened by previous walking. Here star of Bethlehem is pushing up its flower stems now under the trees on the woodland floor.
We circle the field behind the house along the old meditation walk. A channel cut through the blackthorn which has invaded from the old hedgerow, till we reach the bamboo grove, a place where we sometimes have sat in meditation. We pause a last time beneath the fluttering leaf tops. But then we continue back across the vegetable garden to the yard and from there enter the meditation hall.
Our circuit completed, our minds naturally settle in the silence of sitting. We take our places and enjoy the continuing silence of the sacred space, punctuated only by the constant flow of birdsong. Nature is singing its nembutsu and our hearts open to embrace it in the tranquillity of the ancient building. Birds fly in and out unhindered. Insects explore the spaces between human artefacts.
We conclude our practice with a short service. Chanting the refuges and precepts and calling of the Buddha’s name, finishing with nembutsu and prostrations as we do back in England. But here as we bow, we touch the earth. We feel and breathe the texture of the ground as our bodies descend onto the old carpet, lying directly on the earth floor. Just as the cows which once inhabited these old stone walls, so too we let the clay become our bed and our support. We take refuge in the earth.
So practice here in France is a process of connection to the natural world which holds us here. We open to the elements of which our environment is made and in opening to them allow them to speak through us. Simply walking, the world teaches us its secrets and our bodies listen even when our minds are cluttered or dull. We take pleasure in the foot falling on the path, the breeze drifting across the skin and the movement of small creatures in every moment. Nothing is still, yet within the momentum of growth and animation, our anxieties fade into stillness and the heart discovers the joy of the ordinary.