how to build a log house: a history of impossible efforts

In 1996, Eric first met Ajan and became his student. (I have already written the story of how that happened in a previous post here, and I have told the story here of how Eric’s house burned down, and why he then decided to build a place where Ajan could practice and teach.)

For now we’ll begin just after Eric finished his course of meditation, which he cut short in order to go to a Christmas Party that he had promised to attend (this turned out to be a very bad mistake, and not worth it either, but Eric wasn’t to know it at the time.)

Very soon after this, Ajan moved out of the temple and into the small apartment that he had rented. Eric hadn’t known about it at the time he started his course of meditation, but Ajan was already on the point of leaving the temple when Eric became his student, because he was not welcome there. This was mostly because his behaviour was rather unconventional and not what was expected of a Monk with a capital M – especially his refusal to take part in daily ceremonial chanting.

From that point onwards, Eric continued to visit Ajan once a week or once a fortnight, bringing a huge 75-pound sack of carrots at each visit, for Ajan to turn into carrot juice, his favourite drink. (He drank so much that his skin and nails turned yellow from all the carotene.)

Eric wasn’t the only one; Ajan had a considerable group of supporters and students who followed him from the temple, most of them people from Sri Lanka and other parts of Asia who were brought up in a tradition of giving service to monks. They came to hear teachings and between them brought far more food than one man could eat.

Ajan was rather unhappy with them as students, however; to most of them, the Buddhist philosophy was really about the dress of the monk, the statue of the Buddha, and daily chanting; they couldn’t really understand the philosophy because they were so sticky to these objects and traditions, no matter how many times Ajan tried to tell them that these rites and rituals really were worth nothing, and actually a block to real understanding. When Ajan decided to remove his monk dress because it no longer made sense to wear it in his surroundings, this lost him quite a few students.

“If I put this dress on a monkey, will you salute the monkey?” he asked them. It seemed the answer was “yes,” because they did not come back.

The fact that he absolutely refused to allow any statues of the Buddha in his place was another cause of problems among some of his group of students; they were very uncomfortable about it and never stopped asking him if they could bring him a Buddha statue. He never stopped saying no.

One evening, a large group of them had a Serious Meeting together to talk about the issue. After the meeting, a young woman whom Ajan considered as one of his best students was sent to ask him, if they could not, please, have just one tiny little Buddha statue – such a little one, you would never even see it… in the corner…?

Enough is enough, said Ajan. He told the girl to leave along with all the others. Then he called Eric and told him to change the locks on the doors, and bar the back window to stop people coming in that way. “They have understood nothing I have told them. I won’t waste my time any more.”

From that time, he allowed only Eric, and one other student named Sarid to come and see him. (Sarid was from Cambodia, and had been living with Ajan at the temple but was not really interested in being a monk. Ajan would never give up on him: it was he who had first led Ajan to find his teacher through a strange series of events, which is another story altogether.)

Eric and Sarid continued to support Ajan together. At that time, Eric had already decided that he would build somewhere for Ajan so that he could teach. At that time, the only land he could afford to purchase was a place in the middle of the forest, where there was nothing but trees and an abandoned sandpit. The owners of the land had sold all of the topsoil in one spot, leaving nothing but sand and rock, a hole in the earth where nobody ever came but hooligans dumping their stolen cars.

Eric had already begun to cut the logs one by one for the log cabin he wanted to build for Ajan, and, and to pile them up in the sandpit. His house, the one he had just finished building, had been burned to the ground, so he moved into a little flat in a village nearby where he had bought the land for the log house. One day he got a strange phone call from a woman he didn’t know.

“I heard your house burned down and I want to help you!”

“O? Who did you hear that from?”

The woman mentioned the name of another person Eric didn’t know. “But anyway, my house is empty – and I want to rent it to you. I wouldn’t rent it to anyone else, but I want to help you, seeing as your house burned down.”

Eric still didn’t know who she was, or how she had come to hear about what had happened to him, but he gave up asking, and accepted her offer and moved into her empty house.

Almost two years had passed since he first took his course in meditation. That winter, he continued to chop logs and go to see Ajan in Montreal as often as he could. One very cold night in January, he received a call from Ajan.

“Eric, can you come and get me? I have to leave by the end of the week.” He didn’t say why he had to leave, but Eric came and picked him up anyway, and brought him to stay in the basement of the house he was renting.

That week was the week that a massive ice storm hit Montreal, leaving most of the city without electricity and many parts impossible to access for weeks. In the village where Eric was living, they still experienced the ice storm, but it was not nearly as severe there as in Montreal.

Montreal was in such chaos that Ajan could not go back to the flat where he had been living. Instead he stayed with Eric, living in the basement of the rented house. (Here, Eric’s young son would occasionally come to visit them, where Eric had a difficult time making him understand that the basement now belonged to Ajan and he was no longer allowed to take over the big armchair there.)

One day the owner of the house came back unexpectedly to visit, arriving at a time when Eric happened not to be home and the only person in the house was Ajan. Eric had not told her that Ajan was staying there, and it was hard to tell which was the bigger shock to her; the monk living in the basement, or the state that the basement was in. People working like donkeys to prepare materials for a log house, and doing building contracts from time to time to pay the rent, did not have a lot of time to do housekeeping.

Eric telephoned her and made some very long and sincere apologies, and she calmed down a bit. But he understood that they should not stay there for too much longer.

That summer, they both moved out of the house in the village and came to live on the land where they would eventually build a log house.

The land was really in a state. It had been owned by a family who gave less than a damn about it, who sold all the topsoil in one section for barely more money than it cost them to remove it in the first place. Eric was buying the land by hire purchase, and he discovered afterwards that he was the third person to wish to buy the land: both of the previous buyers had at some point failed to keep up their payments. The owner didn’t expect Eric to keep up his payments either; otherwise he would not have entered into the agreement.

They spent the summer in that place, Ajan living in the box of a pick-up truck and Eric living next door in the back of a moving van. Eric tried to teach Ajan how to use a chainsaw and cut down logs; an effort that finally proved to be useless. Instead, Ajan was put in charge of the bonfire that they kept constantly stoked with the branches of the trees they cut. That went mostly rather well; (apart from one time when they accidentally set fire to the forest.)

Building the house was a monumental effort. At one point Ajan calculated that for each log of the house, there were 8 hours of labour, before any actual construction started. Each tree had to be cut, the branches removed carefully one by one, the log transported, piled, transported again, varnished and I don’t know what else.

Towards the end of the summer, the wood was prepared and they set to work clearing the site for where the house would be built. The place that was originally planned for this is not where the house ended up: On the day that they started the work to clear the space, they had barely begun when Ajan remarked that there was in fact more sun reaching a different spot on the opposite side of the valley. So they moved the operation.

Throughout that time, Eric continued to accept occasional building contracts to keep some money coming in, but he worked progressively little. They were as poor as church mice. In fall of that year, Ajan’s mother died. There was a small inheritance; it meant that they could bring machinery to dig the ground in order to make a basement for the house.

There was one day when, despite all their effort, they thought that they would not be able to make the basement at all. There was a truck of concrete due to arrive, to be poured inside to make the roof. It was late, cold, and the truck was late arriving. The cold weather gave them a time constraint, and Eric knew that alone he would not be capable of finishing the job. So he tried to think of whom he could ask for help.

His first thought was to call on an old friend who lived not far away and was desperately poor, so much so that he barely had money to feed and clothe his children. Eric had stopped work on the land earlier that year for a time, to go and do some reparations on the house of this friend, because he didn’t want the children to suffer from cold. He called him now and said “You know, I could really use some help tonight. Do you think you could come?”

But he man said that sorry, he wished he could come but he wanted to finish the children’s bicycles for tomorrow, and he was tired, and…

Eric at first had no idea who else to ask. Then he thought of another old acquaintance, who also happened to be a close relative of the previous owner of the land. He didn’t have high hopes, as this fellow was usually as selfish as anyone you would ever meet. However on this occasion, he came to their rescue; he agreed to come and help Eric to pour the concrete for the basement.

So as winter took hold, they had a basic structure of a basement but nothing inside, water from a well, but no electricity. Eric lived in the structure of the basement with a little chimney for a fire, and one window he made in the roof to let in some light. Ajan’s house for the winter was a mini log shelter that Eric had built close by in the forest. He had a stove to heat the place, and that was about it; and he was always either far too hot or far too cold because the fire would give out an enormous amount of heat, become cold fairly fast and was difficult to control.

It was a cold winter too; it reached -47 Celsius that year.

With snow on the ground, of course any construction work on the house had to come to a standstill. Instead Eric worked on other projects indoors, such as cutting all the fine round tiles of wood to make the floor in the basement. For this, he made a structure that would block the chainsaw and keep it always cutting the same narrow section of the log, so that all the pieces would the same thickness. They could then be placed into concrete like tiles, to make a floor. Ajan helped him by holding the log in place, shivering and complaining to Eric through chattering teeth that he never wanted such a huge project; a little room in the forest with a few windows where he could meditate would have been enough for him!

In this way, slowly the winter passed, and spring came and allowed construction of the house to finally begin.

But not before they had been granted planning permission by the city to build there. This was a saga that lasted a surprisingly long time. It involved making plans, bringing them to the city, having the city refuse them multiple times because they lacked the seal of an architect, planner or technician, or they had the seal of the wrong kind of architect, planner or technician. It was difficult for Eric to even manage to go into the city to do all this, because he didn’t have a car.

One day he was offered a lift from a passing traveller and he accepted. The man was willing to drive him all the way home, and followed Eric’s directions all the way up the little laneway into the forest, into the driveway, but was a bit confused to see that there appeared to be no house there. “It’s there, I promise!” said Eric, who found this quite funny. “I’ll even show you, come, come and see!” But the moment he got out of the car, the man backed away down the driveway as fast as he could and drove away. That was how Eric found out why nobody ever came near them, and even with all their belongings completely unprotected they had never had any problems with thieves: people had already found the place scary when it was just a sandpit, and now they were even more afraid of it with Eric and Ajan there.

To cut short a rather long story, they managed eventually to get planning permission for the house, and construction work could begin. Eric had in fact already started putting the logs together for the base of the structure, but he put them together elsewhere. Now the base of the house was moved to its final position, and Eric started to put the house together on top of that, log by log.

It took the whole of the summer to build the basic structure of the house. It was originally supposed to be higher than it finally turns out to be, but in the end there were not enough logs to complete the original design. Instead of a top floor with a library and sitting room, there is just an attic. The roof was built from recuperated tin which Eric found when one day he happened to drive past a van full of roofing material that was being sent to scrap. (He had in the meantime acquired a $200 car which wouldn’t start by itself and had to be rolled down a hill or pushed to get it going.)

One day they were visited by an inspector who informed them that their galvanised tin roof was against the Laws of Beauty of the village: it had to be made, he was careful to specify, from “Pre-Painted Tin.”

“It will be Pre-Painted when you come back,” Eric told him. The man shook his head and made a growling noise, but did not object, and by the time he came back for his second visit they had managed to buy paint and finish painting the roof.

With winter again on the way, they still had no electricity or hot water, but at least they now had walls.

Looking at it, it’s hard to believe just one man built all of that from nothing. I’m sitting right now in the basement that they built, and suddenly I’m overcome with awe and admiration for the work that went into it. Each beam above my head is thicker than my waist, some of them much thicker. The walls around me are made of stones set into concrete. The floor is all patterned with those round tiles of wood that they cut during their first winter. Everywhere you look is hours of work, effort and attention recorded in every detail.

No wonder that nobody understood what was going on, that people who witnessed this work were universally confused by it. No wonder that people came up with bizarre stories to try to explain to themselves what Eric was doing there with Ajan. Such a magnificent act of generosity, gratitude and respect is simply unheard of in this world.

One Reply to “how to build a log house: a history of impossible efforts”

  1. this is a great story, and well told…
    I laughed out loud when I read- ‘It will be pre painted when you come back!’

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