The French Yatra – a sacred engagement

The great passion of life manifests itself in movement. We express ourselves in a silent and intimate way with the nature through walking, not with a specific destination in mind, rather, the sacred engagement in the act itself. We formed a long single line with 120 of us participating collectively in a step-by-step activity beneath the immense umbrella of the sky above and the rolling, winding pathways, as we guided ourselves among the hills of the Pyrenees earlier this month.There is very little hardship, perhaps the occasional blister, the odd aches and pains and changeable weather patterns. We had camped around the second night at a modest 2000 feet above sea level and we felt the coldness of the wind rushing across the valleys and a torrents of rain bucketing upon us. Adults and children kept in remarkably fine spirits despite frequent breaks from sleep, wet clothing and sometimes tents unable to withstand the battering of the rain.

The connectivity of the nomadic spirit coupled with the teachings of practising to stay steady with whatever arises enabled us to cope with the discomfort and bouts of hardship. Besides, the pursuit of pleasure, the attempts to maximise security and the avoidance of anything that might remotely be called challenging inhibits an authentic and genuine expression of our humanity. Time and time again, the occasional outbursts of music and song coupled with good humour lightened the collective load when the day seemed long and the night camp appeared to be on the distant horizon.As we descended down hill, guiding our steps mindfully through narrow pathways and barely used tracks, we spotted with much enjoyment the patches of blue squeezing in between the ominous rain clouds that had collided above our heads from time to time. Our appreciation for the descent of the blue sky noticeably increased as we left the harsh wind and the storm clouds behind. After our yatra (pilgriumage) came to its conclusion at noon on the 10th day, and the pilgrims set off in different directions towards home and other environments, I found myself recalling two moments in the myriad number of moments that had transpired over the days.

The first recollection involved our arrival on the sixth day at a large lake resting in green hills, with barely any sign of a house for kilometres all around. Permission had been given to us to camp beside the lake. The mayors in the villages of France use their authority to show visitors an exceptional degree of support and hospitality. Our organisers were advised to inform all of the participants not to swim in the lake. It created several minutes of collective discussion. Did it mean that to inform participants that swimming was absolutely banned or informed people while leaving individuals the inner space to make their own mind up.

I received very strong assurances from our beloved French organisers that such a statement in the letter would protect the local authorities from accountability in the unlikely event of something untoward happening to someone swimming in the lake. As the senior teacher on the yatra, I had to make the decision whether participants could swim or not. I read out the sentence from the letter that gave us permission to stay in the fields leading down to the lake and read simply read out the statement from the local authorities. A great cheer went up from the participants — the clothed, those in swim gear and the naked made a rush into the warm waters of the lake.

The second recollection concerned the end of the yatra. We had the challenging task of raising some €12,000 plus to cover the widespread costs. Keeping faith in the dana, we put out an appeal, plus boxes for people to place their donations in for the yatra, managers and teachers.Benoit took care of the administrative and accountancy details, set up an Internet connection in a nearby barn with three or four laptops and invited people who offer donations through online banking. By the evening time, after the flow of donations had finished, we were still some €2000 – €3000 short if we were to cover all of the costs. It meant that I had to encourage the group to dig deeper into their pockets as we do not have a wealthy benefactor to make up any shortfall. After breakfast on the final morning, I happily announced that once again we had covered all the running costs for the yatra. Another huge cheer went up.

We are not a wealthy Sangha. One of the teachers, Christelle, also a beautiful singer, lives in a very modest yert (Mongolian tent) that we walked past on the yatra. Teenagers, single parents, India wallahs, regular retreatants, pensioners as well as many who have to take care of their finances form the vast majority of participants. We cannot express enough appreciative joy for the quiet determination to ensure all the costs are covered and thus guarantee we can confidently prepare for the 2009 yatra. One huge thank you. The Sangha is truly worthy of respect. Namaste.

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