I took a photograph of world-renowned Buddhist monk, scholar and global activist Bhikkhu Bodhi at the People’s Climate March in New York on September 21st. The banner he and others carry names the monastery in up-state New York which has become his home since returning to this country from Sri Lanka several years ago. Nearby, another group carried a banner with the name Buddhist Global Relief Organization, which he founded to address the ache in his heart caused by the sight of suffering caused by worldwide hunger. Around him in the march were approximately 349,000 people carrying banners, signs, smiles, babies –– a lifetime of caring. The atmosphere was that of a festival, a celebration of wise action. People of all ages, races, religions, and countries of origin joined to walk together with the shared intentions of “climate justice,” “earth care” and sanity … now. Our shared walking also carried the commitments to kindness and patience and to “fierce compassion.”
I have always enjoyed that the first benefit listed in the literature for formal walking meditation practices is, “Develops endurance for walking distances.” Increasingly, I have understood this as a metaphor as well as a physiological truth. The endurance we see so clearly embodied in Bhikkhu Bodhi encompasses a lifetime of “long distances,” mentally and physically; it is a patient endurance that gives birth to resiliency, joy and the empathy from which compassion arises. It gives rise to addhithanna, an unshakable resolve. I am taking back a regular practice of outdoor walking meditation this fall after sitting a weekend retreat with Ajahn Jayanto, the abbot of the new Buddhist monastery in Temple, New Hampshire. In the Thai Forest tradition of Theravadan Buddhism, walking outside is as important as seated meditation.
The other benefits listed for walking practice are that it is: 2) Good for developing resolve and overcoming drowsiness; 3) Good for one’s health; 4) Good for one’s digestion; 5) Helping to develop and sustain concentration and a peaceful mind. The first several of these benefits likely occur when we are walking for exercise or simply to get somewhere, and they are all greatly enhanced when we are mindful of walking. It is with mindful awareness that the walking becomes an awakening practice. The body sensations aroused in walking are much coarser than those that occur when we are sitting. Because of this, they are more accessible to our minds. We walk in many of the activities of our lives, and as we develop the habit of being aware in this ordinary activity, we increase our chances of being mindful in any moment.
“Having developed the practice of walking meditation in a formal context, then when we are walking around in our daily lives––going to the shops, walking from one room to the other or even walking to the bathroom––we can use this activity of walking as meditation. We can be aware just of walking, simply being with that process. Our minds can be still and peaceful. This is a way of developing concentration and tranquility in our daily lives.”
Ajahn Nyanadhmammo, Walking Meditation
Walking meditation is called cankama in Pali, and there are many, many ways to do the practice. It is an activity in which one can focus and concentrate the mind or develop investigative knowledge and wisdom. With formal practice it is best to designate a path of twenty to thirty paces on which you walk to one end. Pause, turn, and then walk to the other end. Repeat the pattern for a set amount of time, which you will have determined before starting. Though the practice can get slower at times, it is recommended that we walk at a normal pace and have the eyes open. As in sitting, we are practicing cultivating a spacious, alert awareness, and as in sitting, we can work with or without a specific object to help stabilize our attention. One can use the contact of the foot with the ground and the changing sensations as the object or simply be aware of the overall sense of the body moving through space. At times, one might want to bring a contemplative flavor to the walking practice by using such focuses as the phrases from Metta or Compassion practices, connecting them to the rhythm of your steps; or one might name the Paramis, one with each length of the path or with each step or two; or one could be aware of the breath and its connection to the walking. For more ideas, go to the Insight Meditation Center web site here or here. You will want to stay with one of these subjects for a designated practice time.
Although one can do walking meditation indoors, at the retreat in early September Ajahn Jayanto encouraged us to do it outside whenever possible. He told us that in the Thai Forest Tradition each monk has an open-doored hut, called a khutthi, in which to do seated practice, and a path in front of it on which to do walking practice. He said that in the lore it is said that if the meditation paths of a particular monastery are well worn, it is a sign that it is a good monastery, one which is following closely in “the footsteps of the Buddha.”
“If you read about the lives of the monks and nuns at the time of the Buddha, you will see that many obtained the stages of Enlightenment while on the walking meditation path.” –– Ajahn Nyanadhmammo
I have been heartened by the suggestion to practice outdoors. I had been doing sitting practice outside quite a bit this summer. As it has gotten colder, I have transitioned to walking in a relatively secluded spot behind my barn. I am so grateful to be closely involved in the changing of the season in this way. Impermanence and instability are very apparent as life fades. Walking regularly in this specific place replaces my outdoor sitting practice as a way to be mindfully immersed in the nature of things.
One can also do a less formal walking practice, one that extends awareness further and more generally into the world, by bringing mindfulness and clear knowing along as we walk about. Whether we are walking to the library, store or post office, or getting to work from the car, or walking the dog, we can bring awareness to the movement of the body, the sights around us, the sounds, the smells, and the changing nature of the breath. When going for a walk without a specific purpose, I will sometimes vary a focus on these sense experiences every few minutes; or, I will let it all go and simply do what our teacher Taraniya called “non-walking-meditation.” The Forest monks refer to this wandering through the world as tudong (dhutanga). It is a very precious and important activity: wandering through the world with full awareness. The quiet clear-seeing opens and establishes our minds and hearts towards compassion and wisdom.
Andrew Goldsworthy, an artist who creates sculptural works in collaboration with nature and then returns to photograph them over time, was asked how he accomplishes such magical beauty in the synchronicity of light and happenstance. He said: “I get myself out there.” I would add: With full attention.
May our paths be well worn and our wanderings be peaceful, and may all of our walking in this lifetime nourish our capacity for empathy.
See photos from the People’s Climate March on the VIMS Engaged Buddhism web page