Posts tagged bardsey apple

Merlins Apples – The story of Bardsey Island and the Mother Tree

The Bardsey Apple

We took a drive one day in the direction of the setting sun, along Llyn Peninsula we meandered until we ran out of land.  From the tip of the peninsula, way past whistling sands, we saw cardigan bay and the silver sea, its shimmering platinum surface pierced only by one blade like crag.

This was the wild and sunny Bardsey Island (Yyns Enlli) the ‘island of the 20,000 saints’ who, according to legend, lie buried below its fertile soil.  The ‘island of bards’ named after the Viking cheiftan ‘Barda’ whos tiny population served a king named Love Prichard (see next post for more).  I was inspired and needed to know more, so into my life unravelled the wonderful story of the rarest tree in the world, merlins apples, sea squirts and a heroic orchard dweller named Ian Sturrock.

The narrow, bramble clad, country lanes that we rolled along were the same used by ancient pilgrims and pagan wanderers.  They were following the setting sun west and regularly made the treacherous two-mile leap over to Bardsey Island, with faith in wee rowing boats.   Here they found a chapel built by Saint Cadfan in 516AD and a wonderful orchard planted by hardy monks, although the island has been inhabited since neolithic times, the hut outlines still visible today.

Pre Roman Celts used this island to pray and die on, its most remote Westerly location deemed sacred and safe from persecution.  Bardsey is a Holy Island, similar to the islands of Lindisfarne and Iona.  Spiritual practice could be carried out in isolation, away from the barbaric nature of the main island.  It was known to the Bards of the time as “the land of indulgences, absolution and pardon, the road to Heaven, and the gate to Paradise”.

There were many early Christian pilgrimage routes that ended here, dotted along the Welsh coast, where little settlements and churches peep out from wind-swept valleys and isolated coves.  Three trips to Bardsey was considered equal to a trip to Rome.  If you are buried on Bardsey, you will attain eternal salvation.

The religious history of Bardsley is a good example of the nationwide struggle between the earlier Celtic church and the newer Roman system.  The canons of St Augustine eventually bringing the Roman Church to the island and in the 13th Century extended the abbey of St Mary.  However the Celtic Church lasted well into the 12th century in Wales and there are still examples of the Celtic cross standing on the island.

A group outside the Abbey on Bardsey Island, c.1881

A group outside the Abbey on Bardsey Island, c.1881

Until recently, Wales was a very pious area, in 1870 the locals spent precious funds on a re-building the original chapel on Bardsley, which had been destroyed by Henry VIII in 1537, rather than a much-needed harbour.

On the island now is the remnants of St Marys abbey, an old houses, a curious square lighthouse, the Bardsey apple tree and a large graveyard.  The island is also home to Britain’s first bird observatory, built in 1953.  It hosts many winged migrators who use the island as a stopover, with some choosing to nest.  The manx shearwater and the rare chough can be found here in abundance.  Other brilliantly named visitors include the willow warbler, guillemot, razorbill, chiffchaff, sedge warbler and the spotted flycatcher.  You’ll find leaf cutter bees cutting neat holes in the many rare plants; rock sea lavender, small adders tongue, purple loosestrife and the golden haired lichen.  Riso Dolpins and Grey Seals, mainly eating lobsters, make a regular appearance between the icey waves, strap seaweed and sea squirts of the rough sea surround.

In 1998 a chap named Andy Clarke was catching said birds in order to tag them.  He picked windfall apples from below a gnarled tree beside Plas Bach (one of the islands houses) to use as bait in his nets.  He is a keen organic gardener and noticed that the tree and apples were completely free from disease.  He collected some and sent them to local orchard expert Ian Sturrock, who was unable to identify them, sending them to Dr Joan Morgan, the leading fruit historian in the UK.  It was declared that the fruit and its tree were unique, ‘the rarest tree in the world’.  Afal Ynys Enlli, the bardsey apple tree.  Joan claimed the fruit to be ‘boldly stripped in pink over cream, ribbed and crowned’.

The mother tree

Since then Ian has championed the cause of the Bardsey apple.  The mother tree grows in a slight recess of a house, pruned by the salty gales.  The trees age is unknown, but Ernest (71) the last person to be born on Bardsey, says it has ‘always been there’.  Which may be true, some believe that Bardsey was the apple variety Adam offered to Eve.

We have no idea of the trees origin or history, but locally it is called ‘Merlins Apple’ as in the cave on the island, high up on the hill, Merlin is said to be buried in a glass coffin.  One medieval legend places Avalon on Bardsey, the place King Arthur was taken when injured in his final battle.

The trees disease resistance may be due to the skill of the monks of the early middle ages, for hundreds of years they used their blessed horticultural talents to select only the disease resistant trees.  Ian has used the technique of grafting and with great care, nurtured thousands of new trees which have been sold all over the world, mainly in the U.S.  He believes that the bodies of the many saints (20,000!) buried on the island has filled the soil with nutritious ‘bonemeal’.  For over a thousand years this has given life to the soil and its fruit.

Apparently the apple cooks to a delicate light golden fluff and needs no sugar.  I have not had the pleasure of crunching into one yet, but have had a sniff.  They smell intensely apple blossom with a big kick of pungent lemon glory.   The juice is a light pink and has been made into cider, with potent results.

Of course, you can buy one online-  There is also much info about Ian and his family of orchard experts.  He has been responsible for a resurgence in interest and growth of many rare Welsh varieties of fruit like the Angelsey Pig Snouted cooking apple or the Snowdon Queen pear.  We had the pleasure of visiting a local Apple festival, Ian was there (he was the festival!), surrounded by admirers of his saplings.  He was beaming from ear to ear behind a table of apple specimens and a giant cheese sandwich. For 30 pounds you can pick up a cutting and grow your own magic apples.

The re-birth of the Bardsey Apple is underway and seems to be prospering far from the walls of Plas Bach.  Ian reminds me that we can do anything with our energies, if we are focused and passionate.  In these ‘Tesco’ times we need these examples of individuality, fruit and veg heroes, who are fighting the good fight in orchards and veg patches all over this fair isle.  Praise for them should be sung loud from every megamall roof.

Something is happening in the countryside, it always has been and it gives me a great pleasure to be out here witnessing it.  People are living connected with nature, not apart, and are preserving its wonderful diversity.  I am imbued with a great sense of hope for our apples, pears and prosperity.  Other great news, real beer (brownish nectar, our local tipple is named Purple Mouse) is now selling more than fizzy lager ‘pop’ (liquid sock fermented and injected with burps by robots).  The tide is shifting.

Thanks Ian for dedicating yourself to something that is truly important.  Magic Apples.

Buy a tree, grow an apple!

Old postcard of Bardsey Island

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No Religion – Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Chaiya, Thailand – 7th June 2011

Buddhadasa Bhikku

“The morality of the young

is peace for the world” A.B.

“No Religion, no selfishness, no boundaries, only compassion. This is the message that will lead us away from suffering and pain.” These are the words of the Venerable Ajahn Buddhadasa, founder of Wat Suan Mok in Southern Thailand, which opens its doors once a month to foreigners seeking solitude, peace an insight into Theravada Buddhism.  I joined the 10 day meditation course in June and would come to realise the importance of silence and sitting still.

Below is a little about the life of this incredible monk and a summary of some of my favourite teachings of his.  It is impossible to give a fair reflection of the Buddhist Philosophy on this little blog, mainly because Buddhism is so vast and profound.  Also I know very, very little!

For each visit to Thailand and most of my time in S.E. Asia, I have had little understanding of Theravada Buddhism (the form of Buddhism that spread from India to Sri Lanka then Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and kind of Vietnam).  I had seen the many elaborate, flashy temples and shared a few brief connections with the orange robed monks and nuns.  They were more withdrawn and shy than their Tibetan counterparts, less eager to share.

I had been baffled by the relationship that Buddha’s teachings seemed to have with a populace worshipping false golden idols, lighting a few incense occasionally and giving alms to monks, but generally looking for something in return.  It seemed shallow, merely rituals.  Promotion, more money, health to family members etc was asked for.  Demands made.  Was this really Buddhism?

The core philosophy of Buddha’s teachings seem to be lost in the modern Buddhist world, the same could be said of every modern religion however. The original enlightened few, who taught with purity and great wisdom, have had their words manipulated and altered to suit the few rich and powerful men controlling the masses.

I realised quickly that Buddhadasa was quite different, he set about re-educating Thai society and translating Buddha’s true teachings.  Making it his life’s quest to reveal the truth behind Buddhism and how far it had deviated and in doing so bringing all religions and people’s together to live in peace, harmony, beyond suffering.  He believed world peace is possible, if we can conquer selfishness (at the route of all conflicts and trouble) and that the world’s religions are the vehicles to propagate such unselfishness.

Some may say he was a maverick.  A monk from humble beginnings in the poorer south of Thailand, who thought independently and deeply understood the dangers of societies movement away from truth and compassion, towards confusion.  This was in the early 20th Century, what would he make of Bangkok now?!

He left his monastery in Bangkok in 1931 in his 20’s, disillusioned by it all and finding no peace, he headed to the jungles around his hometown of Chaiya in the South, not far from Malaysia. He set up a small Wat there calling it Suan Mok (The Grove of the Power of Illumination), living simply and closely with nature.  He spent many years living alone in the wild jungle, conquering fear, mosquitos and hunger.  It was one of few places dedicated to ‘vipassana’, or mental cultivation leading to ‘seeing clearly’ into reality.   At this time he had a desire to constantly experiment with ideas, knowledge and experience, always investigating the Buddha Dhamma.

Following his core belief of compassion and love to all living things, he lived an austere existence and followed Buddha’s teachings with deepest piety. He revered rocks and chickens, not golden Buddha’s and complex rituals.  He began to translate the Buddhist Tri Pitika (holy texts) from Pali (a route of Sanskrit) into Thai and was a fine scholar. He revealed much of the truth that had been distorted. The main mistruth being that Buddha spoke of ‘re-birth’ when actually he spoke of ‘birth’.  Not necessarily the birth of a person or self, but the birth of a thought, an emotion, a desire.  This was and is a huge issue and very contentious in Buddhist circles. But the truth, following the ancient scriptures, Buddha never mentioned reincarnation of a ‘self’.

He ruffled the feathers of the elite and for many years was classed as an outcast, the people always respected his views however and the Wat and Monastery grew over the decades.  People always responded to his straightforward, practical and scientific approach.  Even though many in the government viewed him as a potential communist (around the second world war)!  He worked tirelessly spreading the true word of Buddha and ‘Annapanasiti’ or breathing with mindfulness. The integral practice used to focus the mind.  The essence of Buddhas teaching revolved around breathing in, and breathing out. Breathing in, and breathing out (repeat).  Simple and profound. I was to learn how difficult this seemingly simple practice is to carry out.  The mind wanders……..

Wat Suan Mok is famous throughout Thailand, a world centre for meditation.  It has extensive grounds, a forest monastery home to 40 monks.  At its heart a hill top, named Buddha Hill, a forest amphitheatre set in a clearing of tall trees.  There is a idiosyncratic library shaped like a boat, a spiritual theatre, tranquil ponds and thriving monastery buildings.  Ajahn Po, B.D.’s disciple, who is now in his late 70’s and still give daily dhamma talks, oversaw the building of the International Dhamma Hermitage.  A compound that had grown to accommodate five spacious meditation halls and two large dormitory buildings (male and female).  Ajahn Po and countless volunteers, converted a marsh land into a beautifully landscaped area for Foreign and Thai lay people to seek solace in the truth of Buddha’s teachings and propagate mental cultivation.  No boundaries, only compassion.  It is said that the helpers of the retreat take better care of the foreign visitors than the locals and monks!

A.B. wrote extensively throughout his life, dedicating each waking moment to the teachings of the Buddha, Buddhadasa Bhikku translates from Pali as ‘Slave to the Buddha’.  He was an amiable chap, with time for everyone and after travelling extensively throughout the world spreading his message, he spent the last years of his life in the Wat.  The Dalai Lama paid a visit and many other revered sages and seers from across the globe.

He lived in a small room beside the reception of the Wat, referred to as the ‘cupboard’.  He sat each morning on a simple bench and offered regular dhamma talks to students and visitors.  He fed the fish and chickens.  He only ate once a day, but did get plump due to a weakness for chocolate and cheese. He took a cold bucket bath from a tap behind his room.  He always slept with a wooden pillow and on a hard bed.  Never straying from his the true Buddhist way of life, the central teachings being:

The Four Noble Truths

1 – Life involves suffering.  All beings are subject to old age, sickness and death.  They will inevitably experience some disappointment, discomfort, sadness, anxiety or pain.

2 – The root cause of suffering is the craving for sensual pleasure, for existence, for non-existence of for things to be different that they are.  Craving is fuelled by likes and dislikes, driven by the illusion of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, which in turn is due to misunderstanding the true nature of reality.

3 – Suffering ends with the ending of craving.  This is the attainment of Nibbana (Nirvana).  Enlightenment is the complete letting go of the illusion of a permanent and independent soul or self.  An enlightened person is called an Arahant.

4 – Enlightenment is achieved through the gradual training,  a part called the Middle Way, or the Noble Eightfold Path.

White Lotus

And elaborated further as:

The Noble Eightfold Path:

1 – The perfection of understanding: right view of the basic truth of existence (there is no self).

2 – The perfection of intention: thoughts motivated by loving kindness, compassion and renunciation.

3 – The perfection of speech:  truthful, harmonious, gentle and meaningful.

4 – The perfection of behaviour: non-violence, not stealing, and responsible sexual conduct.

5 – The perfection of employment: earning a living in a way that does not harm of exploit others or self.

6 – The perfection of effort: cultivating and maintaining wholesome states of mind while overcoming unwholesome states and keeping them at bay.

7 – The perfection of conscious awareness: mindfulness of one’s body, feelings, mind and objects of mind.

8 – The perfection of meditative concentration: deep unification, peace and purity of mind.

When all eight factors are brought to maturity, one penetrates the true nature of existence with insight and reaps the fruit of the Buddha’s teachings: perfected wisdom and unshakable liberation.

‘No Religion’ was a dhamma talk that Buddhadasa gave in 1967 and became quite famous for its revelatory content.  The concept of which requires an understanding of “Dhamma’ or the true nature of reality.  Essentially there is no such thing as religion, Christianity, Islam, Judaism.  They just don’t exist and at the heart of all religions this is agreed.

A simple example of the language of materialism is that of Water.  People view water as having many different forms, not related to each other. Rain water, sewer water, gutter water, diarrhoea, urine etc appear different to most people due to their physical appearance.  However, a person with knowledge understands that pure water can be found in any form of water.  Sewer water distilled becomes pure.  The parts that make water impure are not water, they combine and change the appearance, but they are not water.  The essential nature of water is always the same and never changes.  If we view religion like this we can see that essentially they are all the same, only appearing different externally.

Taking it to the next level, we can look at pure water as consisting of only two parts hydrogen and one part oxegen.  There’s no water left.  It has disappeared, it is void.  The term ‘water’ can no longer be used.  Penetrating to this level of truth, water simply doesn’t exist.

In this way we can see through religion and realise that there is simply an inherent nature underlying everything.  Given different names, Dhamma, God, Truth etc. it should not be clouded by concepts or labels.  It just is.  People who only reach the external levels will never see this.  No great teacher ever gave a name to his teachings, men did that much later.  The true nature of things has no characteristics, no qualities, nationality or race.

Real Buddhism is to know how to get without getting and take without taking, so there is no frustration at all.   At the heart of Buddhism is ‘non-attachment’, not seizing or grasping to anything, anyone, an idea, state, teacher or even Nirvana (Nirvana actually means ‘cool down’) itself.  Eventually there will be no attachment to ‘I’ or being ‘self’.  Since there is no ‘I’ there can be no suffering or dissatisfaction.  Being without ego is the highest form of happiness.  After that there is ‘voidness’, that’s where it all slips away.  Just nothing.  The meaning of ‘Void’ is regularly mixed up, because our language seems incapable of adequately describing it.  It is only empty in the material sense.

When we attach to happiness we immediately turn it into pain and suffering, ‘wanting’ to be happy is different from ‘being’ happy.   When we realise it is all just natural phenomena, ordinary stuff, all inherently empty of everything, including pain etc, life becomes easier to handle.

Older (sorry oldies) people become more egotistic due to a longer attachment with ‘I’ or ego, it becomes deeply rooted, difficult to remove or even budge.  Children show very little sign of ego.  Old folks be alert, practice at being children again.

Never quarrel this is losing sight of what it is to be human.  People who argue are the lowest form of human.  A true Buddhists can never condone such an action.  We are all the same, looking back at the water analogy.  Only the ego sees differences and confusion.  Don’t hold onto ideas, ideals as if you own them.  Our duty is to cool these things down.  Do not drink that dirty water, don’t swallow that filth!

Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion, more a science with practical results.  He just figured something out himself, after sitting under a Bodhi Tree for a while.  Through correct and devout practice of the eightfold path, the four noble truths and progressively deep states of meditation, results within the mind and body become noticeable.  There are 16 clear steps to enlightenment.  It is of course, not easy, but achievable in a lifetime.  We know this because a few have succeeded.

The mind becomes increasingly ‘one pointed’ and feelings of intense, unimaginable joy follow.  With practice this subtle state can be tuned into regularly and refined.  Scientists have discovered that the very make up of a Monk/ Nuns mind alters after years of living a monastic life.  They are evidently more at peace, their minds become more pure, altering on a molecular level.  Buddha said it himself, don’t believe in me, go and find out for yourself!

I had the distinct pleasure of spending time with and listening to many incredible Monks and Nuns whilst at the retreat, all practising the teachings of A.B. (the ‘fat old man’ they call him, this is Thai humour).  Hopefully I can post some of their Dhamma talks below or around.  Look at their eyes and their smiles.  It all becomes very clear.  They made us laugh and cry, each day filling us with profound inspiration.

With the growing popularity of Buddhism and meditation in the world, the importance and relevance of A.B.’s teachings grow, as we move further away from a society based on positive, ‘humane’ virtues.  There is no space for guilt or self-hatred in Buddhism, only hearts cultivated with harmlessness.  No war has ever been fought to spread Buddhism since Prince Gotama attained enlightenment 2600 years ago in Bodhgaya, India.

Buddhist societies, in theory, are based on tolerance, loving kindness and forgiveness, essential for world harmony and individual happiness and all generated through virtuous behaviour and meditation. What Ajahn Buddhadasa cultivated in a too short lifetime is quite incredible.  The setting up of Wat Suan Mok is widely regarded as one of the key events in the history of Thai Buddhism and his books fill an entire room in the National Library.  After a recent poll in Time Magazine where he was nominated as one of the ‘most influencial people of last century’ it appears even the politicians are showing a great interest!  His positive, selfless legacy will live on for generations, to see a new dawn for humanity, where we all realise the truth.  No religion, no boundaries, no selfishness, only compassionX

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