Carol Perry came to the dharma as many do: through questioning. “I wanted some answers about what life was about when I was quite young,” she said, and mainstream life just wasn’t cutting it. So in 1972, she bought some land in New South Wales, Australia, and started a residential farming community, now called Dharmananda.

Just up the hill from the property was a forest, where some of the residents practiced meditation, including visiting teacher Robert Hover, an American who taught in the Vipassana tradition of the Burmese teacher U Ba Khin. Interest in meditation grew, and eventually a meditation hall was added to the forest.

“We really valued what we were learning and decided to make a meditation center in the forest, in the tradition of the Thai Forest monastery—an extremely simple forest center,” Perry said. The hall, though “primitive,” sat sixty people. Eventually, showers, a kitchen, and kutis (huts) for retreatants were added. The dharma teacher Christopher Titmuss, then practicing in Dharamsala, visited regularly throughout the 1990s.

Climate change has been viscerally felt in Australia, and Dharmananda was not spared. In late 2021, strong winds knocked down the sixty-foot trees surrounding the meditation hall and crushed it. In early 2022, catastrophic floods arrived and leveled the nearby town of Lismore. “The town was completely destroyed,” Perry said. “And when I say that, it’s hard for people to take in that it was completely destroyed. And our land was very badly damaged by huge landslides.”

The farming community remains, growing 75 percent of the food needed by its twenty-two residents, including Perry. The farm comprises 260 acres, with ninety acres set aside for reforesting. Perry describes it as a subsistence farm. If the community runs out of something, they don’t run to the market to get more; they do without.

And the wood from the destroyed meditation hall is not going to waste. “We have saved that, and its new life is going to be a building to house the aging people in this community, so they don’t have to leave the farm to die,” Perry said.

“The thing that I am keeping on going with is the dharma.”

After a moment, Perry added, “I want you to put the word ‘death’ in. I don’t want it to be ‘passing’ or ‘lost’ or any of those euphemisms, because I lived in the US for a bit, and my partner was dying there, and it just blew me out how death-averse it was. I saw how death-phobic people were, and so when they can say here in a meeting, ‘We don’t want you to die off the farm,’ it’s just so blunt and beautiful.”

Though Perry founded an intentional community to escape the unappealing mainstream options available in 1970s Australia, this paradoxically led to her professional life in conflict resolution consulting. “The main activity—really the core of what I feel like I have offered in life—is when people gather to live together, it’s not a pretty picture,” Perry said. “We don’t have a lot of skills to deal with things when they go wrong. When I saw the level of conflict and the way people treated each other when they were triggered, I decided I had to go learn how to work with this.”

After attending various trainings, Perry was able to patch together a program that she brought back and used at Dharmananda. “We worked on it together,” she said, referring to the community at large. “And then, in the late ’80s, in the early ’90s, I realized I knew enough to make it a career and become a consultant.” She traveled widely for thirty-five years, earning a living in conflict management, before retiring twelve years ago. She was simultaneously giving teachings in the Vipassana tradition, focused on communication and community.

Perry also worked throughout her life as a climate activist. She now trains younger activists to do the same work, but she admits that even putting climate change aside, the work is harder now.

This is what drives Perry today. “I’m close to 80,” she said. “I just can’t keep going. But the thing that I am keeping on going with is the dharma. I’ve got an incredible fire for getting people to understand the dharma—samvega, spiritual urgency—but it feels like I’m on fire. I just want a huge amount of energy for the dharma because we are in such troubled times.”

But the dharma offers hope even in the worst of times. “We have to find a way to have gratitude for the small things that we have,” Perry said. “We just use the dharma practice of sangha, of community, of gratitude, of lovingkindness, and the understanding that things are much bigger than us and that we can open to the largeness and the mystery.”

Embracing the Tiger

This is the true story of someone who, under great difficulty, got out of their reactive self. When we do this, our natural wisdom arises and we can make wise decisions.

It’s a good metaphor for what we’re practicing, which is radical receptivity. Present-moment awareness is radical receptivity. This was in 1985, in the Sundarbans, which is a jungle on the islands of the Bay of Bengal between India and Bangladesh. The people who live on these islands are prawn fishermen and honey collectors and so on.

The Royal Bengal tiger also lives in that jungle. If you’ve seen Life of Pi, you’ve seen a very good digitally rendered Royal Bengal. It’s a very fierce sort of tiger, and there are not many of them left in the world. In the Sundarbans, they’re protected because it’s difficult to penetrate the jungle from the land side.

A prawn fisherman named Phani Gayen went into the jungle to collect some firewood, and you can guess what happened next. A Royal Bengal tiger leaps upon him and puts his head in its mouth. He said he could feel the saliva dribbling down his shirt. He was 45 years old, and at the time, he was a very strong man. He said, “I put my hand, my fist, on the throat of the tiger—which you would think would be its most vulnerable place—and it felt like rock.”

At that moment, he realized, I’m going to die. Something in him let go. He put his arms around the neck of the tiger—he actually hugged the tiger—and he said the tiger’s neck was incredibly soft. When he did this, the tiger dropped him and ran off into the forest. He obviously lived to tell the story.

I like this story because it raises the question: What are we in battle with? It could be something in our inner worlds or something that’s happening outside of us—something that we know is impossible to fight, but we keep on fighting it anyhow, and it’s killing us.

Our life, our well-being is diminished by the battles that we put ourselves in. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. But when you put yourself in battle with something, the tension of that battle is soul-destroying. What is it that we might be in battle with? What is actually destroying the joy of our life, the ease of our life?

It’s a powerful question to ask yourself, and sometimes it’s incredibly hard to let go of that battle. But the strength of present-moment awareness is the very portal into letting go. When we bring our attention to whatever it is, the tension starts to drop away. We start to see it for what it is: a reactive response. We can see what the mind is reacting to, what the mind is grabbing after.

I leave you with that question. What is the metaphorical tiger in your life? What do you need to embrace that would bring about more ease and well-being for you?

Adapted from Carol Perry’s dharma talk “Present Moment Awareness,” given at Melbourne Insight Meditation in 2013.

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