Pilgrimages down the lane

At a time when I did more exploring on foot, one day I headed out of North Lismore and decided to brave the oncoming traffic by walking up the hill to Tullera. After going through most of the village, eventually you reach a dirt road on the left that passes through a gateway of mature trees into a shaded unknown. It was too enticing to avoid.

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Being only a few kilometres away from Lismore, Bentley Road later became a regular habit. After numerous walks, I got to know the wildlife and where it would be encountered – the pademelons, Emerald Doves, Azure Kingfishers, Spangled Drongos, Golden Whistlers, Superb Fairy Wrens, Red-backed Wrens, and kookaburras. Once I even saw a koala in a large gum tree near the creek.

Some time later, china ducks started appearing at the tops of the road’s embankments, presumably left in these locations by an eccentric anasaphiliac local resident. A home-made sign warning about ducks was attached to a convenient tree, even though the only ducks to be encountered were made of porcelain. Over time, the sign came down, and the ducks eventually disappeared, marking an end to that chapter.

At the bottom of the road, before it heads up the opposite hill, was a blue-painted house set far back on the right. It attracted my attention, partly due to the bright colour, and partly for being the first house after the turnoff. After a while, a monastery sign was erected close to the entrance.

Today, combining a walk down Bentley Road with a visit to the monastery seems like an ideal match. It is a blue cloudless day in August, and not too cool.

Parking round the corner from the Dunoon Road turning, there are paddocks on both sides. On the left, these are visible through the roadside trees, a dense mixture of camphor laurels and natives. A kookaburra hunts for prey. Out of view, a few black cockatoos call from behind the trees. Soon they come into view, yellow-tailed and flying off from the branches of a large hoop pine.

Here the road bends to the right and undergoes a transformation. To the right, running up the slope is a stand of forest, while the left is developing into a steep drop down into the small floodplain below, with distant scenic views through the tree screen. The faint sound of running water rises up to the fence line, marked here by a stretch of rusty antique barbed wire. One byproduct of the vertiginous slope is that the lack of access has resulted in a healthy biodiversity, including some invasive species.

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Trees join together overhead, making the experience a little like walking down the aisle of a cathedral. Audible in the trees is the twittering of numerous invisible small birds. A gap appears on the left to appreciate the panorama of gentle ridges and forest in the distance that has a European feel.

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An old rug with a footprint design in blue on a white background has been mysteriously slung over the fence. Occasional passing vehicles send up dust plumes. A Bar-shouldered Dove out of view calls ‘a-hu-a-a-hu-a’, followed by a more strident ‘hu-wac’ repeated a few times.

On the right, the stretch of thick vegetation thins out and the fence disappears, marking the start of the monastery’s land. The road crosses a spillway where Booerie Creek passes underneath through a pair concrete pipes, in its upper reaches long before it flows down to join Leycester Creek just upstream of Lismore.

A few metres past the creek, the Bodhi Tree monastery turnoff has an attractive simple carved wooden sign just inside the gate.

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As a result of newly planted trees, the two main buildings are screened off from the entrance, and are accessed down a short driveway. The main house has been painted brown, and even the 4WD parked outside is a shade of khaki.

I had visited the monastery once before, but this was my first proper look around. The head monk and founder, Venerable Pannyavaro (Pannya), appears and we go into the office located under the house. This residence has an interesting history, being the first to be constructed in Tullera. It was built around 1860 by Isaac Flick, whose descendants still live in the village. More recently, at an unknown date, it was moved down to its present valley location from Dunoon Road.

The philosophy behind the colour brown is that it blends into nature well. To make a Buddhist analogy of my own, brown could be taken to represent letting go of the ego and merging with existence.

The project began in 2006 as a not-for profit association, the Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc, and is a retreat centre based on the Mahasi Sayadaw Vipassana tradition from Myanmar (Burma), Vipassana being a particular type of mindfulness meditation technique. The monastery offers workshops and ten-day Vipassana retreats that are free of charge, with donations invited.

Pannya emigrated long ago from the UK, and has been engaged in Buddhist practice for 43 years, in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar. For the past 30 years he has been a monk. He continues to travel overseas in order to teach, especially in south-east Asia.

At the rear of the house is a small mediation hall, sparsely furnished, with four Buddhas at the far end, three of which are from Thailand and one of which is Malaysian. Two of the large gold Buddhas are nearly identical, and have the same distinctive characteristics. These are known as the Sukhothai style, named after the former capital of Siam, today’s Thailand. One of these, together with some historical relics, was indirectly a gift from Thai Royal Family. Below the central Buddha is an ornate wooden wheel symbolising the dharmachakra, the wheel of dharma.

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Outside are wind chimes tinkling in the breeze, and a stupa-shaped gong that Pannya strikes. We walk through the grass, past an empty caravan, to the creek that merges with Booerie Creek before reaching the spillway. Lacking an unofficial name, Pannya has thought about calling it Bodhi Tree Creek. On the other side, sweet potato, pumpkin and corn are being cultivated to supplement their food supplies. Walking around, Pannya points out native hibiscus with pink flowers, and native frangipani with yellow flowers and the trademark strong frangipani smell.

The monastery is a work-in-progress, and Pannya tells me that it is ‘here for the long haul.’ At present, the big project underway is a Vipassana retreat centre that is currently under construction up the hill on the Tullera plateau, fairly close to the property’s northern boundary. With a pagoda design, this will be on three levels, and will be surrounded by accommodation units. It will hold up to 44 meditators, and will be a place where monks can be ordained. Plans for an adjacent stupa are on hold at present.

We drive up the track to have a look. A distant fire from burning-off is spreading grey smoke across the largely windless sky in the west. Two of the accommodation units, constructed adjacent to one another, have already been built. Like these two, all of the others will face inwards, a metaphor for the essence of the retreat process. The foundations of the future pagoda, which are being laid down at the moment, are a matrix of yellow concrete stubs.

From this elevated position, there are views of the Tullera ridge, and further in the distance the communications tower at Parrot’s Nest, south-west of Lismore. Both Lismore and Goonellabah are hidden from view. Pannya mentions that the exposed sky here makes it a good place to watch the stars. At present, it is warm, and the blue sky is dotted with a few small fluffy cumulus clouds.

Completion of the project depends on further donations, that Pannya hopes to solicit. Quite a lot of help has already been given by Sydney’s Vietnamese Buddhist community.

Heading down the hill to another area of the property, we stop at the top of a slope that looks down on Booerie Creek that is home to platypus. Chiming sounds emanate from an adjacent tree, and I look around for their origin, eventually locating the wind chimes hanging from one of the lowest branches, at about head-height.

Close by is a lone palm tree with a tough and gnarled base. This was planted by a Sikh who was squatting there in the 1930s while helping the owner, and who was known locally as Bindu the Hindu. Nearby, part of an iron bedstead, old bottles and a metal post were discovered just lying on the ground. If there used to be a wooden shack here, it must have rotted away.

Down the hill is a peaceful pool with a small length of rapids flowing into it. The bank area behind was cleared of privet and lantana, and is now home to native plantings and a small Buddha statue. This side of the creek has Zen-like wooden viewing pavilion whose users are asked to first remove their shoes. Being here is a meditative and relaxing experience, and it is easy to spend longer than you intended, listening to the gurgling water and watching the sun slanting through the trees far up the opposite slope.

Pannya has seen an aerial photo of the land from 1955 or 1956, a time when the property did not contain a single tree. Attitudes have changed a great deal since, and there had been a major increase in forest cover before Pannya arrived here.

The monastery’s total area is about 32 hectares (95 acres), and its philosophy is a custodianship of the land. Seven thousand rainforest trees, most from Firewheel Nursery at Dorroughby, have been planted. Elsewhere, eight hundred koala food trees, donated by Friends of the Koala, have been put in to form a koala corridor. Clearing of invasive weeds and tree plantings have been carried out by Envite, the Green Army, and the Tullera Landcare Group.

Numerous food trees have been planted to supplement food supplies, largely tropical fruits plus some pecan nuts, bunyas and olives. Paradoxically, Pannya says that more farming is now being done on the land than ever before. Fittingly, the property has six Bodhi trees (sacred figs, or Ficus Religiosa) that are descended from the original Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha sat when he reached enlightenment.

The property generates some of its own power from a few solar panels on a shed, and has a dry compost toilet and a reedbed greywater system. Pannya’s vision of the land is a wildlife sanctuary with native forest restoration, in addition to being a healing centre focused on long-term Vipassana meditation. He views its environmental contribution to the big picture as ‘a drop in a bucket’, but seeing the place personally, it feels like more than that.

When it is time to go, Pannya says goodbye by holding up his hand. It’s getting late and the sun is fairly low. On the way back, a large flock of Golden Whistlers twitter in the trees.

For more information, and to make a donation, the monastery’s website can be found here.

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