第一次出去乞食是出發後第五天，到一處名為 Walingford 的地方，那天天 氣奇冷；前晚宿於廢棄的教堂裏（得到許可）─我們在城中心，靜默地手托著缽。第一個供養者認出我們是 Chithurst 和 Amaravati 的尼僧，因他曾到過那裏。
用完餐，經過一間小洗衣店；那天早上我們正開玩笑說，衣服需要好好洗一下了。目前看來這不是太離譜的主意，尤其可以坐在溫暖的烘乾機旁。問題是衣服都穿在身上，怎麼洗？還好，洗衣店的女人很善解人意，我們便穿著雨衣，讓衣服洗個乾淨。我們都記得 Walingford 對我們多好！
大約走了十天才到一個叫 Avebury 的小村莊。它以古老的stone-circles，在考古價值上很出名，但很難找到露營的地方。後來才發現 Lord Avebury 是佛教徒。那天寒雨的晚上，我們各處找宿處，在黑暗中至少有兩次經過他龐大的住處。
大約走了兩個星期，我們在 Frome 休息了兩天，恢復疲勞，很不錯，當地的僧友招待我們。過了一星期，經過一座寺院時，又休息了兩天，便開始向 Dartmoor 出發； Dartmoor 那地方很美， 我沒法形容那神奇的風景，各式各樣巨石點綴在蒼綠中，映著廣闊的藍天，給人一種威力和神秘的感覺。馬、羊悠然自在；清泉潺潺流入小溪和彎曲的河中，森林有幾處是稀稀疏疏的，地上多沼澤。如果天氣潮濕，會變得很危險。幸運地，這次我們碰到的是日光假。
我們在 Dartmoor 耽了三天，兩天宿於朋友的好住處，另一天在外露營。那早我們生了火，正坐著啜熱茶，忽然從霧氣濛濛的原野中出現了一隊騎兵，約四十人，全副武裝，揹著背囊，臂下有機關槍；領隊粗聲地催促著他們趕路。他們看起來很可憐，穿著硬繃繃的黑皮靴跑著，很驚奇地發現了我們，就像特大號的女童軍似的。他們為避開泥沼，必須從我們身旁經過；有些兵很羨慕地看著我們輕鬆的格調，熱乎乎的茶；有些很感興趣地看著我們阿兵哥似的睡袋，還未收拾呢！
二十分鐘後另一隊步兵又出現了。我們還在原地看著，難道這是「take-two」of a monty python spit？
「四天了，已走了八十九哩。」「唔！很可觀。我們每天只走十到十二哩，輕鬆多了！奇怪的是別人認為我們的生活方式很苦，然而那些人也自願地做同樣的事！不久，第三隊兵又出現了，我們知道該起身了。我們向海岸的方向走了幾天，然後沿著多風浪的海岸，從 Dartmouth 走到 Torcross，我們在安靜隱密的 Slapton 沙海岸作了最後的露營。或許你還記得這個地方的一段歷史，當年盟軍在此模擬諾曼底登陸，結果造成了一齣悲劇；兩艘船被毀，多人喪生。事前，數哩內的居民都被疏散他處，以便這次的登陸演習得以秘密進行。
黃昏時，我們沿著多石的海岸蹣跚而行，疲乏已極，終於找到一處隱密的石龕。這裏真好，天氣晴朗，不必掛慮侵犯到他人的私產；或要生起營火，吵及旁人，而且睡在平坦的沙灘上，多麼舒適！好好睡了一晚，第二天在海浪衝擊聲中醒來。這兒離海大約五十碼。那天我們沒早起，因為預備在 Joann 的父親那裡午餐，只需走幾哩就到，所以在這兒慢慢用早餐，欣賞這份寧靜。
不久，更多的人來了，一個胖子和他太太，光著身子，我們才恍然大悟這塊沙灘所以這麼引人的理由─不是因為我們。當這胖子裸身在我們面前大搖大擺走過時，我們知道該離開了。我們從頸到足慎重地包裹著，卻要從這些「天然主義者」面前走過，真荒謬！幾天後，我們到達目的地 Totnes，阿姜 Siripanna 預定在 Sharpham 佛教學院演講；講畢我們便到了寺院，開始交接一切。有位和尚留著等我們，以便作正式的交接儀式 ，其他的都先走了。
Being Westerners, and not living within a Buddhist culture however, this practice of alms-round can feel quite uneasy at first. Having been brought up with ideas about being independent and self-sufficient; pulling your own weight; not being a drain on the society and all that, and with most of us coming from a rather middle-class background, to actually stand there with our bowls, defenceless, open to whatever ... can feel quite embarrassing at first. It’s not so easy to learn to be fully open and to ‘receive’ whole-heartedly and unconditionally. But it helps us remember again, in quite a sobering way, what we are doing as Buddhist nuns and what the commitment to this form actually means. Then, in receiving such positive response from people generally, a deep ease arises.
For me, and I think for all of us, these alms-rounds were the high points of our walk. It’s so powerful to receive people’s generosity in this way (especially in Western countries) – such a touching and poignant reflection in that simple interaction for both giver and receiver, and a deep and strong sign in the psyche of the path and fruit of the religious life.
The feelings of gratitude and blessing that can well up within one in those moments are ‘other-worldly’ and feel quite transformative. Memories of those who offered us hospitality in various forms would often come to mind at later times bringing again warm feelings of gratitude and a deep sincere well-wishing towards them. And one knows that they will also feel happiness as a result of their unconditional giving. And when recounting these acts of generosity to others, one sees a kind of ‘magic’ still working as people are both amazed and gladdened to hear that it is possible to live this way, that there are generous, kind and sincere people everywhere.
It was about five days after we set out that we first went for alms, in a place called Walingford. The weather was freezing and we had stayed over night in a redundant church (with permission). We walked into the centre of town and stood silently with our bowls. The first person to stop and offer nourishment actually recognized us as nuns from Chithurst and Amaravati where he had visited a few times.
The weather seemed to be getting colder all morning. After having received ample food, with blue fingers and chattering teeth we walked briskly back to a park we had passed earlier to eat our lunch. Then it started to sleet and snow on us. We continued to eat however, as it was nearly one o’clock (after which time we could no longer take solid food) – our priorities were clear!
Afterwards we walked by a launderette, and having joked all morning about the possibility of somehow getting our clothes washed (which by this time were in good need of such), it seemed now to be not such a crazy idea after all, as it also offered the opportunity to sit against a warm dryer for an hour or so to thaw out and digest lunch. Problem was, we were wearing all our clothes! But with the kind understanding of the woman there and the help of our trusty raincoats, the operation was successful. We all remember Walingford as being good to us.
It took us about ten days to reach Avebury, a tiny little village of great fame for its ancient stone-circles and other archaeological formations. But it should be known that it’s not such a great place to find somewhere to camp! That was one of the more difficult nights we had. We later found out that Lord Avebury is a Buddhist, and we believe we actually walked by his large estate at least twice that dark, rainy, cold evening looking for somewhere to stop.
The following day and evening was rather wet too. We got caught in some storms while walking and our rain gear was beginning to flag. But fortunately the sun came out and dried us in the late afternoon. Despite the amount of rain we had, we actually always managed to dry out before the day’s end. That evening we were having some trouble finding a suitable place to stay – we had been looking for a barn to take shelter in as the storms were still brewing around us. We headed towards some farm buildings in the distance and stopped to ask a woman in her garden about who might be the owner of this hay barn down the road, as we wished to ask for permission to stay there overnight. She pointed us to the cowherd’s place. We walked briskly, directly to the barn as the storm was beginning to break, and in the sky appeared a fantastically brilliant double rainbow... we thought it a good omen indeed. It felt like heaven to reach the barn and see that there was hay (ie.warmth) , a decent roof with walls, and no cows!… the promise of a protected, dry night’s sleep.
When the rain lessened a little, two of us set out to ask for permission to stay in the barn when we were met by the woman we had stopped to talk to earlier. She said she couldn’t bear to think of us there for the night and she and her husband (plus two young boys) invited us to stay with them. They said later that they couldn’t quite believe their eyes when they first saw us, four Buddhist nuns on the road, (actually, we looked more like Franciscans in our long, dark brown, hooded rain coats.) They had a spare attic room and were very hospitable to us indeed. They weren’t particularly religious, just very kind people and very happy to offer support.
It was lovely to walk through some very old and interesting villages on route – those that you would never set out to see deliberately or even know were there but for the fact of accidentally stumbling on them whilst lost and trying to make sense of some twenty year old map of non-existent country footpaths. ’Twas lucky we never really had to be anywhere! As we meandered further south the pace of life became perceptibly slower, the folk we met more open and friendly, often stopping to talk, curious of who and what we were.
About two weeks into the journey we took a two day wash and rest break in a place called Frome with some friends of the Sangha who offered us hospitality. This time for recouping a little energy was much appreciated. We stopped for another couple of days when we walked by the monastery a week or so later. Then, from just outside Exeter we walked towards Dartmoor. This last leg of our walk was a bit more structured. We’d heard the weather report of more rain so we thought it wise to have some contacts on Dartmoor, as it might turn much too cold for us to sleep out up there. But as it turned out, that week brought lovely weather ... a welcome relief for us.
Dartmoor is a very beautiful place to walk. Many ancient stone circles and settlements scattered around and its landscape is quite magical. I don’t think I have the skill to describe it here. Predominantly space; it’s grazed, green form is scattered with rocks of all shapes and stories; it’s great, rocky tors and tumuli evoke a sense of power and mystery against the timeless, wild sky. The ancient Dartmoor ponies, the goats and sheep are quite at home here. Fresh water springs run into streams and winding rivers. It is sparsely forested in parts and the ground underfoot can at times become boggy without warning. But if the weather turns, it can become a dangerous place to be – many rescues have happened on Dartmoor apparently. However this was our sunny break!
We spent about three days and nights on Dartmoor itself, staying with friends on two nights, both in beautiful, magical places, and camped out for one night. That particular morning we sat around our camp-fire savouring a warm cup of tea in the middle of nowhere, quietly taking in the misty landscape of the moors, when suddenly over the hills charged an army squadron of about forty young men in full combat gear, packs on their back and machine gun under arm, their commanding officer loudly and roughly urging them on.
They looked rather tortured, running (some limping) in those hard, black boots. They were quite surprised by our presence I think – probably looking somewhat like over-grown Brownies to them – and they had to run right by us to avoid the bogs, some looking rather longingly at our relaxed formation and our steaming tea, others obviously quite interested in our army-style bivvy-bags still laid out from the nights rest!
“Keep away from them gentlemen”.... the commanding officer shouted, and we watched still silently as they charged over the stream and up the next hill. When the clamour of their manoeuvre had faded back into silence we all just looked at each other and laughed at the impressions this surreal scene had left.
Some twenty minutes later, another squadron burst over the crest of the same hill. We hadn’t moved much at all, and we watched again as the same scene took place.Was this ‘take-two’ of a Monty Python skit? This group seemed a little more chirpy though, and in better humour…
“Good morning ladies, that’s a cosy little scene you have there!”...they all looked quite interested as they ran by.
“How long have you been out?”… I asked.
“This is our fourth day, we’re on our eighty-ninth mile.”
Hmmm, pretty impressive... we were certainly taking things a little easier at about ten to twelve miles a day! Strange to think that people think our lives are too tough, but they do this voluntarily as well! Not long after, a third troop charged over the hill but headed off in a different direction, and we knew it was time then for us to head off as well.
We walked on for several days towards the coast, then from Dartmouth took the blustery, coastal walk to Torcross. We spent our last ‘out-doors’ night at the far, secluded end of Slapton Sands beach. You might remember the history of this place... where the allied troops had their practice runs for D-Day. This turned into a tragedy actually. Two ships wrecked and many lives lost in some bungled operations. All villages for miles around had been evacuated so they could do these operations in secret.
Anyway, we staggered up the far end of this pebbly beach at dusk, exhausted (me at least), to find our own privacy near a rocky niche. It felt nice to be there: clear weather, no worries about private property, having a camp-fire or making noise, and finding the sand quite comfortable...(at last, completely level ground!); to fall asleep and wake to the sound of crashing waves at the shore some fifty yards away. We didn’t rouse early that morning, we only had a few miles to walk to Joanne’s father’s place in time for lunch, so we took our time over breakfast and enjoyed the solitude and relaxed atmosphere for a while.
At around eight-thirty some people started trudging up the beach towards us. Typical British we thought, with wind breaks under arm, not a great beach day but the sun was up and it was the beginning of a long weekend. But why make such an effort to trudge all the way up this pebbly end, there was plenty of beach, about five miles of it?
Soon more people were turning up, then as one rather weighty man and his wife who settled in just a few yards from us undressed, completely, we began to realise what was so attractive about this part of the beach. It wasn’t us. When this man began to strut up and down proudly airing his naked glory right in front us we knew it was time to go. It felt quite ridiculous at the time to wrap ourselves up over both shoulders in dark robes, don packs, and covered from neck to toe walk back past all these ‘nature-loving’ bods! A few days later we arrived at our destination, in Totnes, where Ajahn Siripanna was due to give a public talk at a Buddhist college/community called Sharpham. After the talk, we were given a lift back to the monastery to begin the process of settling in and settling down. There was one monk who waited for our arrival to ceremoniously hand over the Relics and left a day or two afterwards, the other monks had left earlier.
We all felt very comfortable and at home straight away and really appreciated having beds to sleep in and electric kettles again. Over those five weeks, if nothing else, we gained a deep and profound understanding of why it was that humankind began to settle down in houses and create such things as central heating!
The journey is not really finished though – only now we don’t strap on the rucksack and change location, but attempt to maintain the spirit of tudong: of not getting stuck in one place, of not struggling with things that are bound to change, cultivating the heart of faith and the power of renunciation; to keep seeing that the only true stability is non-attachment.