Tudong – a Journey into the Unknown

Trees in Golden Light

Sometime in the recent or distant past I copied this explanation of the dhutaṅga practices, but I now cannot remember the source. If someone knows who wrote this please tell me so that I can attribute the credits!:

The Buddha designed the thirteen dhutaṅga (‘tudong’) practices for monks who were prepared for extra austerity. They are not compulsory (although if one wants to live with a teacher who upholds these then one is expected to do the same), but the Buddha often praised the monks who followed them. Venerable Mahā Kassapa was named by the Buddha as the monk foremost in keeping these practices. It is not possible to keep all thirteen at one time, since some cancel each other out, notably living/sleeping out in the open (with no cover or screen) and living/sleeping under a tree. I don’t know if it’s documented whether Ven. Kassapa ever slept in a room (one practice is to accept whatever lodging is assigned), but one can assume that he spent the majority of his life out in the jungle, living exclusively off almsfood and wearing rag robes (collected at rubbish heaps and cemeteries). Again, I don’t know if it’s documented to what extent he practised refraining from lying down. Ven. Kassapa was a renowned teacher and I imagine that he had many disciples, although like with Ajahn Mun and his disciples, he probably sent them away regularly for solitary practice.

There is no rule insisting one change residences, but probably already in the Buddha’s time the dhutaṅga rules were associated with an itinerant lifestyle, not getting ‘domesticated’ and seeking out new areas of wilderness. Therefore the modern Thai expression of ‘tudong’ almost always refers to wandering.

It is my belief, although I can’t remember ever seeing documentary evidence, that monks have practised these dhutaṅga rules throughout history. They are such an important aspect of the scriptures that it’s hard to imagine otherwise. And because the forests of Southeast Asia lent themselves to a life of wandering (with no cross border visa requirements!), I assume that there were forest monks in this part of the world for centuries. Perhaps Aj. Mun’s biography can verify this, but I don’t think that he and Aj. Sao created the modern Thai forest tradition from scratch. They probably drew upon traditions that were in practice, and maybe ‘tidied them up’ by aligning them with the Paṭimokkha rule and discarding later accretions.

(Author unknown)


To continue on the pilgrimage into the unknown was nothing heroic; it was the only real option—to keep walking away from the familiar, the patterns and processes that affirmed my identity. Away from the Buddhist holy places and into my own uncharted landscapes.

And that was actually part of the tradition. In Thailand, such journeys are known as ‘going tudong,’ from the Pali word dhutaṅga meaning ‘that which shakes off’—‘shakes off’ the protective skin of your normality, because whatever is habitual becomes dead tissue, dressed up as ‘me,’ ‘myself.’

(Ajahn Sucitto in ‘Great Patient One’)


Finally, I add this diary of a tudong I made while I was a monk at Hartridge Monastery in Devon. I believe any monk who has set off on such a journey of trust into the unknown can testify to the moments of magic which manifest unexpectedly. But as my dear friend Bani Shorter used to remind me: ‘Be prepared for the unexpected encounter with mystery’:

A view of Otter Valley, Devon

Otter Valley

Glastonbury Tales 

Pilgrimage − 2005   (Aug. 29 – Sept. 4)

Make hay while the sun shines.

For the journey to become a pilgrimage a person must be open to the transformative power not just of the goal, but of the journey itself: deprivation and danger, and most importantly the breaking of all patterns of habit, the constant necessity to be alert to new situations. The pilgrim’s path purifies the heart, leaving the traveller able to experience something far greater than his limited self.

 (from the book ‘Tibet’s Sacred Mountain’ on Mount Kailas)


The search for the Grail is symbolic of the timeless spiritual search for perfection and salvation. 

Monday: After a large bowl of muesli a farewell from Dhamma companions, and I’m off down the sunny lane. Meet Des the carpenter walking his dog by the River Otter. The Upottery church bell strikes 9:45 – then 10:00. Time slows.

The cusp of summer and autumn. The sun is strong, the foliage thick, yet the harvest is bursting and nature is starting its languid colourful decline. Tinted field maple; goldfinches eating thistle seed; acorns; conkers; berries, berries − elder, blackberry, hawthorn, gelder rose; walnuts; apples.

Each day I hear the uplifting cry of buzzards. Perhaps a single individual bird is following me as a guardian.

Past Watchford Farm & Brown Down Lodge. Kamala’s packed lunch on Robin Hood’s Butts (hmm). Speak to some farmers at their free range chicken farm. Into Britty Common. Ask for water in Curland from an electrical technician. ‘I let my wife do the praying.’ Rest by Hatch Beauchamp. Past Frog Street Farm and into Beercrocombe. Two hares cower and then prance in the evening light. Around Curry Mallet (makes me think of supper). In the last fading light I bivouac in a field outside of Fivehead, surrounded by round silage bales.

The heavy clay of Fivehead is ideal for growing teasels, used to raise the nap on fine woollen cloth. The RSPB reserve has one of the largest heronries in the country.

Leave the bivy bag unzipped a section to act as a breathing hole and a window to the stars. Mars is bright this month. Too dark to spot herons.

Heron in Flight

Tuesday: Wake in a thick mist with a faint crescent moon. Up to the A-road from Taunton along Crimson Hill. Past Curry Rivel looking for curries.

‘Curry Rivel was once a centre of withy growing on the moors. On old Christmas Eve an ashen faggot is burned in the hearth of the King Bill, with much wassailing and drinking.’

‘Wassail, oh wassail, to scare away Satan, and chase the old beggar away down to Drayton.’

Reach Langport, ‘The Heart of the Levels’, by 9am. Mist begins to lift.

Langport has been an important port and crossing point on the River Parrett since Roman times. In the early 18th century 20% of all salt consumed in England passed through Langport…. In the 17th century the manor belonged to the Sexeys of Bruton, and later sold to the Hoares of Stourhead…(sounds racy). The excessive number of pubs in old Bow Street may explain the drunken angle of its houses.

Discover a Tesco on the far side of town, already busy with customers. Reconnoitre. Find an alcove to stand in where people can see me as they arrive. William offers two apples. A business man parks and tries to offer money; as he is in a hurry William takes the money and returns with cashews, bananas, and tarts. Things looking bright. Ah, but soon I notice two Tesco officials approach. ‘Are you begging?’ I am asked to move to the public domain (at least they didn’t chase me to Drayton).

Fortune is so variant, and the wheel so moveable, there nis none constant abiding.

(Sir Launcelot in Le Morte d’Arthur)

Return to the village square, where I stand by an old fountain. A friendly street-sweeper asks what I’m doing: ‘No money − bloody hell.’ A fit-looking elderly man approaches: ‘Sixty years ago I was stationed in Burma during the war, and I saw you monks. God has kept me healthy, or perhaps it is your Buddha.’ He offers a Tesco loaf of bread. A shy woman tries to offer money and gets flustered when I don’t accept. She flags down a pedestrian to buy me a loaf of bread. Julia, who sells Buddhist inspired cards, apologises for not getting me any food (sales have been low) but gives me a card:

Want what you have, and don’t want what you don’t have. Here you will find true fulfilment.

(Jack Kornfield)

Peggy, who has recently returned from pilgrimage to Lourdes, offers four bars of chocolate. Enough food for the entire week.

Lunch by the river. Hot! Give the remains to a grateful builder in Combe. Over Hext Hill. Lost in a maize maze below Dundon Hill. Up to Wickham’s Cross; first sight of illuminated Glastonbury Tor through a gate in the hedge. It beckons.

Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’s great-uncle, is said to have visited Glastonbury, and while resting on Wearyall Hill his staff of dry hawthorn took root and began to bud.

Glastonbury Tor from Afar

Down the ancient mile-long lane of Lebanese Cedars by Butleigh Court, into the Vale of Avalon. Golden evening light along the embankment of the River Brue. In the blanket of dusk I find a lone hawthorn on the edge of a field in Kennard Moor, nine feet above sea level. The Tor is less than a mile away, silhouetted up in the Western sky.

Glastonbury was anciently an island encircled by broad fens, the steep conical hill called the Tor rising there to a height of about four hundred feet.

Wednesday: Wake to a clear morning. A barn owl sails through the fine mist − the ‘dew from heaven’ − looking for a final snack before returning to its roost. Walk past some squalid caravans, and then up the Tor as the sun rises. A woman performs a private ritual by standing in a sunlit corner of the Tor holding a feather. Brilliant sun, yet windy! I sit for an hour and a half admiring the morning. More than a hundred house martins frolic close to the ground. Then as if called they all rise to the tower’s top, many of them alighting on the cornice and parapet, dancing and chirping. After a couple of minutes they cascade in unison, leaving the tower empty.

The earliest record of a Christian church on the Tor comes from 1234, when Henry III gave his royal seal of approval for a fair to be held ‘… at the monastery of St Michael on the Tor.’

Glastonbury Tor from Below

Carrying a pack up here is work enough; who toiled to transport enough stones for a church? Descend the Tor and enter the town for alms. Down High Street lined with New Age shops, and into Magdalene Street. Stand in the large arched doorway sealed by an iron gate next to the main entrance to the Abbey. Alan Gloak, a county councillor, greets me and says, ‘You look like you’re going somewhere.’ He goes off to buy me some apple & cheese sandwiches and juice. ‘You’ll eat well today.’ He also gives me his card and says that I can show it to the steward at the Chalice Well Gardens to get in free. A woman offers some oat cakes: ‘Namaste’. Ah, but here comes the Abbey official, who sternly asks: ‘What are you doing?’ He says that the Abbey has too much trouble from weird and wild locals, and asks me to move elsewhere. I apologise for any disturbance and depart.

For manhood is not worth but if it be medled with wisdom.

(Sir Tristram)

Among all the great churches of England, Glastonbury is the only one where we may be content to lay aside the name of England and fall back on the older name of Britain. When at last the West Saxons captured Glastonbury there already existed there a group of small churches built in typical Celtic fashion and occupied by British monks.

From St. Dunstan’s date until the Norman Conquest the Benedictine abbey prospered exceedingly, but in 1077 Egelnoth, the last Saxon abbot, was deposed by the Conqueror, and Thurstan, a Norman monk of Caen, installed in his place. The new abbot at once began to change the liturgy and chant. Violent disputes followed, which in 1083 ran so high that the abbot, to enforce obedience, called in armed soldiers, by whom two or three of the monks were slain and many more wounded. 

Glastonbury Abbey Seal

In 1086 Glastonbury Abbey was the richest monastery in the country.

In the 14th century, as the head of the second wealthiest Abbey in Britain (behind Westminster), the Abbot of Glastonbury lived in considerable splendour and wielded tremendous power.

In 1536, during the 27th year of the reign of Henry VIII, there were over 800 monasteries, nunneries and friaries in Britain. By 1541, there were none. More than 10,000 monks and nuns had been dispersed and the buildings had been seized by the Crown to be sold off or leased to new lay occupiers. Glastonbury Abbey was one principal victim of this action by the King, during the social and religious upheaval known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This act gave the Tudor monarchs immense wealth – perhaps one third of the Land in England.

Letter of the Visitors Sent to Examine the Abbot of Glastonbury (Richard Whiting), to Thomas Cromwell, September 22, 1539:

‘Please it your lordship to be advertised, that we came to Glastonbury on Friday last past, about ten o’clock in the forenoon…. We advised the abbot to declare the truth, and there of new proceeded that night to search his study for letters and books; and found in his study a written book of arguments against the divorce of his king’s majesty and the lady dowager, as also the counterfeit life of Thomas Becket in print. In the answers to his examination shall appear his cankered and traitorous heart and mind against the king’s majesty….’ 

Abbot Whiting, frail and elderly, was charged with high treason. He was strapped to a hurdle and dragged by horses through the streets of Glastonbury and up the steep sides of Tor Hill to the foot of St. Michael’s tower at its summit. With him were John Thorne, the Abbey treasurer, and a young monk called Roger Wilfrid. It was a bleak November day, the wind whipping around the Tor. At the summit were three gallows. Here all were hanged, their bodies beheaded and cut into quarters. Each of the quarters, boiled in pitch, was taken to a different town − to Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgwater − and displayed in a public place. Abbot Whiting’s head was stuck on a spike over the great gateway of his ruined abbey as a ghastly warning of the punishment prepared for such as opposed the royal will. 

From the Town Hall I call Vanessa. Her partner Renchy will come and show me a pleasant spot to eat lunch. While waiting Martin Brown arrives; he has driven from Westbury to look for me. Renchy leads us to the Chalice Well Gardens, where Martin and I enjoy a lunch in the meadow. We drink from the ferrous, sanguine water at the Lion’s head. Chthonian communion. After lunch Martin invites me for a caffè latte on High Street before we bid each other farewell.

The doorway panels in St John’s church: on one side a woman milks a cow; on the other St. Michael weighs souls.

Through Queen’s Sedge Moor. Louis, a gentle 15-year old, stops his tractor to come and have a chat. He lives on Harter’s Hill Farm. ‘What’s a monk?’ He will drop out of school next year to work full-time on the farm. His younger brother Ryan (age 10?) chases the cows at high speed with a Quad, herding them in for milking. Dozens of jets and helicopters on war exercises – Iraq is not far away. Thunder in the distance.

Rain begins in North Wootton, pauses, and then buckets down with crashing lightning. Huddle under a small umbrella in a dense grove. The storm soon passes; walk on under ashen skies.

A rest at the delicately carved Church of St Michael & All Angels. Past the Dinder ducks, who are happy not to live in Cannard Grave down the road.

When I were a shepherd in Dinder

They said I was smart with the sheep

But when Sally looked out of her window

She made all my flesh go a-creep

For I loved ‘er, and couldn’t forget ‘er

But I weren’t a talker yer see

And all I could say when I met ‘er

Was ‘Mornin’ and ‘‘ow do yer be?’

Up, up the Mendips in the cloak of evening. Past Chilcote Manor with its clock tower, and the neighbouring farm with sticker outside, Hunt On – I’ll keep my head down. In the dying light past Washingpool I enter an inviting field, and lo, a barn in the corner. Up a crevasse of hay bales and up to a platform ten feet above the ground – a queen-sized bed high and dry.

Thursday: Walk down to Wells. Into the cathedral gardens and admire this awe-inspiring place of worship. Inside I am the only person as early morning sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows. The medieval clock, depicting a pre-Copernican universe with the earth at its centre, strikes the quarter hour with miniature jousting knights.

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral

Wells got its name from the natural springs found in the garden of the Bishop’s Palace.

Bishop Reginald was responsible for initiating the cathedral’s construction c.1180.

At the top of the internal columns, stone foliage shelters carved birds and animals, mythical beasts and ordinary folk going about their everyday lives in the England of the 1200’s. The scenes include toothache sufferers, and a fox running off with a goose.

The magnificent west façade, built between 1209 and 1250, is 100 ft high and 150 ft wide. There are niches for 603 figures of kings, princes, prelates, and nobles.

Some of the master masons were visionaries in their own right and were far ahead of their time.

The Commonwealth period under Oliver Cromwell saw great dilapidation and indifference towards the fabric of the Cathedral. No dean was appointed, the bishop was in retirement, and some clergy were reduced to performing menial tasks or begging on the streets. Thieves made off with lead and moveables.

Bishop Kidder was killed during the great storm of 1703 when two chimney stacks in the palace fell on the bishop and his wife asleep in bed. This same storm wrecked the Eddystone lighthouse in Cornwall, and blew in part of the great west window in Wells.

Walk past the Vicar’s Close and the sterling houses of the Cathedral School (alumni are called ‘wellies’). Stone, stone, the city is a celebration of stone.

Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury (14th cent.) built Vicars’ Hall and Close, to give the men of the choir a secure place to live, away from the town with all its temptations. He enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the citizens of Wells, partly because of his imposition of taxes, and felt the need to surround his palace with crenellated walls and a moat and drawbridge.

The Vicars’ Close is one of the most perfectly preserved medieval streets in Europe. It was built as the quarters of the vicars of Wells, who, as subordinate members of the Cathedral, established a college in 1348.

Determined to find a place to stand for alms where I won’t be evicted. Speak with Steve who sells the Big Issue with his trusty bulldog. Meet Nahm, a Thai woman, on Queen Street. She has heard of Hartridge, and promptly buys sandwiches and cake. She seems as delighted as I am about this fortuitous encounter. Go and sit on the wooden bench in the Penniless Porch under the sign: Built about 1450 by Bishop Bekynton. Here beggars used to ask for alms, and graffiti: Psycho Cid and Terror Crew. Next door is the Arcania Apothecary with Buddha statues and pictures of the Dalai Lama. An old woman tells me that her niece is a Buddhist nun in Preston: ‘She’s got a good heart’. Later she returns for another chat. Another woman: ‘Fancy an apple?’ An elderly rotund scholastic-looking gentleman, weighed down by his briefcase, does a double take, and finally asks, ‘Are you a Franciscan monk?’ Upon my reply that I am Buddhist he says ‘Ehew’ in disgust and walks off. Little did he know that I commune with birds. A young girl carefully and joyously places a bottle of water into my bowl. Ryan, the young farmer boy from yesterday, and his cousin Luke ride up on bicycles, happy to make contact. ‘Do you believe in God?’

Bishop Bekynton (1443 – 1465) was a good bishop, a distinguished diplomat, and a prolific builder. He was first tutor, then secretary of state to King Henry VI, acted as his ambassador and travelled widely. For the king he oversaw the building of Eton College and was one of the founders of Lincoln College Oxford.

In Wells, among his works, Bekynton built all four gateways still in use, houses along the market place, almshouses for the poor and a complete water system for the city, piped underground from the wells in his palace garden. He even left money in his will to heighten the chimneys in Vicars’ Close so that the smoke from winter fires could be carried far into the sky and not affect the men’s voices. He left to posterity his striking ‘momento mori’ tomb which he had built fifteen years before he died.

Medieval gates around the close include Chain Gate, Brown’s Gate and the Penniless Porch where beggars once sat to accost people on their way to or from the market.

Eat on Tor Hill, bald as a monk’s Roman tonsure. By the Bishop’s Palace Mark from Wales offers his carton of grape juice. He tells me that several years ago an adder bit him and he lost much of his memory. Each time he returns to Wells he remembers lost fragments of the past. Bid farewell to Wells, following the Monarch’s Way south.

Monarch’s Way is Britain’s second-longest signed walking trail, a lengthy, meandering route following the flight of Charles II after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, and including many sites of historic interest.

Seek shelter in a barn from a passing shower. Reach West Bradley by evening. New moon at Hunter’s Moon, Bill & Nueng’s mauve, mahogany-laced home filled with antiques from around the globe. After two cups of tea and a pleasant talk, retire to the newly built garden kuti.

Friday: Morning meditation in the shrine room (mauve, of course) shaped like an inverted boat. Welcome the rising sun. Delicious breakfast of coconut porridge, toast, and sweet plums. Walk with Bill to the pools where medieval monks may have come to wash their garments. Past the dead cow (perished from a ‘poor heart’), and sneak through the hedge to avoid the petulant bull. Rest my legs on the sofa. Apasara comes to help Nueng prepare a scrumptious meal. In the early afternoon after heartfelt farewells the pilgrimage continues. Shaven, showered, and with laundered clothes.

Turn west at Stone. Herd of Frisians sired by an inquisitive bull; detour required. Walk parallel to the Fosse Way, now the A37.

The Fosse Way Roman road linked two legionary fortresses and probably delimits the territory gained during the tenure of Aulus Plautius, the first governor of Britain.

It traversed Britain from southwest to northeast, extending from the mouth of the River Axe in Devon by Axminster and Ilchester (Lindinae), passing Bath (Aquae Sulis), Cirencester, and Leicester, to Lincoln (Lindum).

Meet Ilene and her German shorthaired pointer Uli on the footpath outside Keinton Mandeville. As I walk into the village Mike her husband waves me down; Ilene had rung him on her mobile phone to invite me in for a cup of tea. She soon returns and we exchange stories.

Over the River Cary in the fading light. A bed of freshly mown hay on a hill outside of Kingsdon.


Saturday: Past Catsgore, Long Sutton (jackdaws circle the church tower in the mist), Long Load (by the River Yeo), and into Martock. 10 o’clock – the mist clears. Stand for alms within sight of the busy bakery. A woman peace campaigner: ‘Are you just passing through?’ She has recently been to Holy Island and met with one of the Tibetan lamas. She returns with a tin of baked beans, peanuts, whole-wheat rolls, and fruit – a feast. Sit in the old Market House and watch the bright morning unfold. Exit past the Court and Treasurer’s Houses.

The Market House dates back to the 1750’s. A butcher’s shambles occupied the bottom floor and the top floor was used for public assemblies. For some years it was used as the local fire station and also for distributing bread from the local Bread Charity.  The stocks were located here until 1853.

The Treasurer’s House is the oldest known property in Martock.  It was built in about 1262 and then occupied by Hugh, Treasurer of Wells Cathedral and Rector of Martock.  It is the oldest inhabited house in Somerset, apart from the Bishop’s Palace at Wells.

The door of the 16th century Court House carries the motto – ‘neglect not thy opportunities.’

Lunch and a nap under a large oak. Over the River Parrett and through the apple orchards of Lambrook. Lie next to Martha Taylor (d. 1868) in the churchyard at Shepton Beauchamp. William, who offered food in Langport on Tuesday, stops his car and offers some water. He has an affinity to Taoism, but admits, ‘I’m usually struggling against the way things are.’ Rest under the Kingstone yew. Pick up the trail of last year’s pilgrimage into Chard. In the shimmering dusk, after a 21-mile walk, Harry (and trusty Dylan the hound) find me several blocks from their home. Outside is posted: ‘Pilgrim’s Rest House – One Vacancy.’

Sunday: After a hearty English breakfast, a massage of foot cream, and TV images of New Orleans, Harry & Mac see me off to the Toll House. Past Wambrook. Up to Godsworthy Farm, perched high near the heavens, with its burly, burnished and excitable South Devon cows and pride of friendly sheepdogs. Lunch by the River Yarty, including organic Green & Black’s milk chocolate, and inorganic but equally tasty Mr. Choc’s Peanut Choco. The Dorset sign on the bridge:

Any person wilfully injuring any part of this county bridge will be guilty of felony and upon conviction liable to be transported for life by the court – T. Fooks

Over the A30 and through Wellsprings Wood, the ancient woodland now protected from development. A welcome shower begins on the last bend. Return to the monastery enveloped in afternoon quiet.

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