The following are a series of reflections from the ten day Vipassanna meditation retreat held at the International Dharma Hermitage at Suan Mokkhabalarama Monastery, Chaiya, Surat Thani Province, Thailand, November 2007. If I had to convey the experience to someone in one sentence, I would say that it was like boot camp, fat camp, basketball camp, and summer camp all rolled into one and carrying with it the best--and worst--of all four.
Since reading and writing were not permitted during the retreat, and time lost its traditional meaning, sitting down in my hotel room now to write about the experience carries with it its own unique challenges. Fortunately I don't follow rules very well and was able to procure a single sheet of paper about half way through the retreat on which to jot bare-naked notes. It made me think about the days when paper was so rare and expensive that you only wrote the most important things and did away with margins and spaces between words.
In a monastic environment the most mundane tasks take on a sacred deliberateness, with little room for wasted words or actions. You don't gobble plates of food; you chew, bite by bite. Even the monks and nuns parred down their speach when they gave talks, since English did not come to them naturally. Their translations for certain words, though, were endearing, especially those of the Abbot (think Thai Yoda). It can be refreshing to eat and hear like this, and I am hoping that writing in this way will maybe keep from giving anyone mental indigestion or migraines.
In writers circles, there is a saying: Writers write. It is a simple but profound mantra, but serves to keep egotism at bay: It is not, "I write, therefore I am a writer," but merely, "I write." If you want to get really Zen about it, you could question, "Who is this 'I' who writes?" But we'll save that for another time; on to the reflections. Photos to come.
* * *
Time for Loving Kindness
First Bell rang at 4am, birthing our consciousness into the world each new day. Without a watch, you live by the bell; it reminds you of your "duty": when to eat, when to sit, when to sleep. You got to know the time by the sun, and by every session's relation to each other.
The morning and afternoon is filled with sitting, walking, and standing meditation, readings, and dhamma talks. By the evening, I am ready for bed. But I would always forget about the session on loving-kindness. After the chanting meditation on the Law of Dependent Origination, I would think, "ah, that was nice." But then K. T_ would come up and say softly, "now please prepare for meditation on loving-kindness" and I would hear this loud "DAMMIT!," like when you stub your toe, and hope I did not say it out loud. Needless to say, my attitude towards loving-kindness left room for improvement.
Jeannie once pointed out to me a big difference between us. While she would start her sentences with "I love" (as in, "I love the snow."), I would frequently begin my sentences with the words "I hate" ("I hate it when it rains"). It's funny now that I think about it.
Someone asked Tan Dhammaviddu how you can tell what your primary defilement is: greed, delusion, or hatred.
"When someone gave me a book on loving kindness with a picture of a fat, white, self-satisfied woman on the cover and I wanted to smack her, I knew I was a hater. Haters go around hating everything. The only solution is loving-kindness."
I burst out laughing so loud I think I scared the girl sitting next to me; I knew exactly what he meant.
What's Love Got to Do With It?
A highlight of the retreat was on the evening of the last day, when people were allowed to give a brief reflection on their experience. This was the "secret weapon," pressurized by ten days of silence, used to expose prejudices. Someone pointed out that it was amazing you can spend a week and a half not talking or interacting with a group of one hundred people and still pick out certain people you "like" and certain people you "dislike." This is very true, and very strange also.
At the reflection a girl from Norway got up to speak. I decided I did not like her most of the retreat because she was a hippie, or at least gave the appearance of being one. But when she spoke she was so funny. She told a story about how she was struggling during the retreat because she loved to dance and sing, and she couldn't do any of these things. She even wore a scarf because she said she loved to smile but felt she had to hide it, so when she felt like smiling she would pull the scarf over her mouth and smile.
"One day," she said, "I get this song in my head. It's Tina Turner. You know? What's love got to do with it? And I cannot get it out.
"I have this character. She lives inside me. Her name is Wilomena (something like that). She is this big fat African gospel lady. And so when I cannot sing or dance, she sing and dance inside me." And the girl closes her eyes and sways side to side and snaps. Everyone laughs, because it is so bizarre and funny.
"And so one day when Tina Turner come into my head, I go to my room and close the door and I let Wilomena out and I say, 'okay Wilomena, 'what's love got to do with it?' And she sing and dance and everything is okay."
I get an image of the two of them (Wilomena for some reason looks like Mrs. Butterworth) snapping and swaying to imaginary music in their room together and can't help smiling. I don't not like her anymore. It's okay to dance, and sing, and smile.
Tired of Running
A girl from Australia shared her story. She looked like she had cut her own hair, but had not done a very good job, because there were big bald patches everywhere. Or maybe it was intentional, and she was a punk-rocker.
"I got a backpack for my 19th birthday. And then I hitched a ride out of town and haven't really been back." After living in Tazmania and sailing around Indonesia, she came to this place.
Craving takes different forms for different people. For this girl it was a crazing always be "somewhere else." Suan Mokkh stopped her dead in her tracks. "When Tan Dhammaviddu was talking about the ice cream on Anji Road, I started to think it was like that--going from place to place to get ice cream. But the ice cream doesn't taste as good anymore.
"It's my 23rd birthday tomorrow. I have to think about settling somewhere; I'm tired of running."
Cries in the Night
One evening as I was washing my clothes at the well I heard someone crying. It was the pimply English kid two doors down. Since our rooms are only semi private, noise is hard to hide. Snoring, burping, farting--these are all accepted as part of living in a dorm with fifty other men.
But among men, crying is not generally accepted. When it does occur, and you are trying to practice loving-kindness in action, your hands are tied. If you ask, "are you okay?," they may feel embarrassed about their private moment being uncovered; if you fail to say anything, you wonder if you are being calloussed, and they may think no one cares about their suffering.
I laid on my bed and listened to him cry. I wondered what he was crying about. Was he homesick? Did he just find out someone in his family died? Did he have depression? It could be anything, and so it was best to assume nothing.
Despite its emphasis on compassion, Buddhism can feel very cold at times. In an environment like this, you must stand on your own two feet. There is no God to save you, and no one can carry you through life. Suffering is at the heart of all things, and so we must go through it in the same way we go through times of joy.
Fifty or so men started the retreat, and I was told about fifteen had left, many after having made it to to seven or eight. Some times all it takes is encouragement. I thought about slipping him a note or something, but figured it was best not to. Anyone who has suffered from depression knows that the worst thing to hear from someone is "are you okay?" I stopped by Kevin's room and mentioned it to him, so that he might want to see if he's okay.
I went back to my room and prayed the rosary and tried to send loving-kindness, though that is still strange to me. Mostly, though, I meditated on his suffering in the heaving of his sighs. It was heart-breaking, and I felt great compassion. Everybody is suffering; some people just pretend that they're not. Like DNA, suffering is the building block and unifying force of our existence.
K. Ben explained to us that in Buddhism, time is not measured in minutes or hours. Rather, time begins with the birth of desire and ends at its death or satiation. That is why Buddha is said to have transcended time--he is free from the hand-ticking clock of samsara. No desire = no time.
Itching and Scratching
When spectres of lust would visit from time to time, I would meditate on the mosquito bites on my body.
When a mosquito lands and bites, a bulbous mound surfaces on the skin. If it is left alone it goes away in time. The body's first instinct is to scratch it to alleviate the itchiness. The craving to do so is very strong, as is the pleasure produced when one begins to scratch it. The mind reasons, "I will just scratch it this once." One scratches to the point of satiation and then reasons, "okay, that is enough," thinking the itch will now subside. But in fact the more one scratches, the harder it is to stop. As long as this continues, the welt, the itch, the scratching, and the madness remain.
This is what is meant by pulling craving out by the roots.
The Chirring of the Locusts
One day I took a different path back to the dorms after doing my chores. It was a dusty red path flanked by banana and palm trees. I heard a buzzing near my ear; I swatted at it, but there was nothing there. As I continued to walk it grew louder and shriller and I soon found myself in what must have been a cicada grove. I couldn't see anything; it felt like pure energy, each producing its own frequency and vibrations.
One of the speakers spoke about a scientist (whose name I forget) who questioned the idea not only that the atom is the smallest particle, but whether or not there is a constituative foundation for matter at all given the very nature of sub-atomic flux (path of electrons, free-floating isotopes, etc.) being recognized in quantum and metaphysics. In other words, the existence of matter is an illusion; as a friend of mine put it, "we are all energy," vibrations, electricity. Chaos and instability at the sub-atomic level should not be surprising. It is dhamma law: Permanence is an illusion heard in the chirring of the locusts.
Watching orange cat squat,
yawning in morning sun--
poop slides out.
Too Much of Anything
My father told us when we were younger: "too much of anything is no good."
Twenty years later, I see now that he knew the Middle Way.
Tan Dhammaviddu told us of a Scottish boxer who said about training: "if you're enjoying it, you're not doing it right." I thought that was very wise--and very true.
Body and Mind
In the tapestry of Dependent Origination, the relationship of mind and body is represented by a man and a woman sitting together in a boat surrounded by water. They are afloat in the sea of samsara trying to get to the Other Shore, which is nibbanna.
Tan Medhi tells us, "they are like man and woman, husband and wife, yes? Must work together. Sea is...very very hard. If no...crash! You know this one?"
It is true. The body is affected by the mind and the mind is affected by the body. They are two wholes of a whole.
Can there be mind without body? This is a thick question. Maybe the best answer is: mu.
Heart and Mind
Someone admitted during one of the question and answer sessions that they did not understand what Buddhists meant by heart and mind, since they seemed to use the two interchangably. Tan Dhammaviddu replied, "There is no difference--they are the same thing."
But it seemed that in speaking and in reflection, each gender identified with one term more than the other; men with the mind, women with the heart. This seemed natural. But whenever someone spoke about the "heart" as if it were a fitting substitution for "mind," my mind's reaction was, "no it's not; we are different, seperate and distinct."
In the end, though, they are just words, what we call "heart," or "mind," or "lotus flower" (as in the sutra) and not worth getting feathers ruffled over.
Figures of Speech
Buddhasa Bhikkhu admitted that he was somewhat self-conscious about his self-taught English. He even went so far as to call it "childish."
But I loved listening to the Thai monks and nuns speak. In conversations or talks, they would sometimes hit a knot in a translation and be forced to adapt a Thai word in the best way they knew how. This applied not only for the meaning of words, but how to pronounce them.
K. Ben and K. T_'s speech was light and gentle. They would always start with a joke or story, and encouraged us to love all sentient beings, even "the creepy crawly things" we find in our rooms.
Tan Medhi was a young monk, always "happy, happy," as he would say. He usually led our chanting and would say we were getting better when the cows stop in the road to listen. He also joked about the wooden pillow, saying, "this is like wooden pillow?" or "when you go home you sleep on wooden pillow."
But the best was the old abbott, Tan Ajahn Poh. He was seventy-five years old and wore big glasses. Everytime I saw him sitting motionless in the dark morning hours, I called him Stone Cold Buddha. He never smiled, but was neither mean nor overly nice. He spoke very slowly, and when he did, he reminded me of Yoda. And so he became Stone Cold Yoda Buddha.
His English vocabulary was limited, so he tended to repeat words a lot. One of his favorites was "defilement." He must have used the word a thousand times over the course of the retreat.
To show you what I mean, a sample dhamma talk might go something like this:
"Good morning...all good frends. Today is last day of you spend time here. Maybe you get body pain. Maybe you wonder, 'why do I sit in sand? Why do I sit with...my mind?' It is because you mind get defilement. Defilement like: drugs...alcohol...liquor...wine. Sensual pleasure. These things enemy of...the mind. These things kill...the mind.
"Many many people...get kill when cross...the highway. If you don't see car to speed you...get kill. Killing is defilement. To not kill, need med-i-tation. Need con-cen-tration. If not these things kill...your mind. Defilements kill...your mind. Things like sensual pleasure. Sexual pleasure. Cigarette to smoking. Please now to sit. Mm..."
Ajahn Poh was a diamond covered in muck.
Life and Death Zen
People who practice martial arts realize that certain things cannot be done with the body alone--they require the concentration of the mind as well. Breaking bricks and wooden blocks with one's hands is one of those things. I don't know much about martial arts, but from what I do know, it sounds similar to anapanasati practice. Buddha used anapanasati--mindfulness with breathing--meditation to liberate his mind from the world of form and achieve enlightenment. He seemed to prefer sitting calmly under a tree rather than putting his fist through it.
The martial arts, on the other hand, seem to capitalize on the mind's capacity for mindfulness and acute concentration for the benefit of transcending physical boundaries--such as brick walls. Tan Dhammaviddu tried to teach us about this slippery concept: I only experience dhukka (suffering) because of my association with form. I only experience pain because my mind creates it.
When I was little I remember one day playing on the swingset in my backyard. I was climbing on the monkey bars and then slid down the chain of the swing like a fireman. It was not until a few seconds later that I looked down at my hands and realized they were covered in blood. It was only then that I began crying and screaming. If my mind was able to concentrate on something other other than pain (such as the breath) with complete focus, it would not experience it.
And so people are able to break blocks of wood with their fists--that is, only if they can maintain perfect concentration through and through. Otherwise you end up with a broken hand. It makes you think twice about "trying" to break a block of wood. Losing awareness of even one breath at this level can mean the difference between living and dying.
Tan Dhammaviddu told us that some of the monks at Suan Mokkh will go out into lion-infested areas of the forest to meditate. Others will practice walking meditation over creeks and gorges. Fear sharpens concentration, so it is not surprising that they would do this: they have devoted themselves not to self-improvement, but to liberation from the self. I put an opened water bottle on my head to keep focused during evening meditation. This seems a little pale in comparison. But I'm sure it looked just as inane.
From Womb to Grave
Everytime I would see an old monk with flabby arms and jowels moving slowly down the street, I would think, "he looks like a baby." Maybe it is being dressed in orange swaddling clothes or the slow padding down the street in bare feet. Either way, I would be overcome by a strong urge to pinch his cheeks.
The Most Important Person
F. Ben asked us, "who is the most important person in your life? Is it your mother or father, sister or brother? No. It should be me, because I am the one speaking with you. And when you are speaking with me, you become the most important person in the world for me."
Barry, the Australian boxing promoter, told me he once met George Foreman when he was on a world tour. He said that when George Foreman shook your hand, "he looked right at you. In a crowd of people, yours were the only two eyes he saw." The most important person in the world.
Washing was my favorite meditation because it was the time when I was most present. Even back home I would sometimes do my laundry by hand rather than take it to the laundromat. Maybe it was the process of making something clean, or the rhythm of kneading, emptying, and rinsing. I wrote a poem once:
Hakuin told me:
Enlightenment comes to those
with a clean toilet.
So I liked washing my clothes in the big blue basins on the concrete patio of the dormitory, making dirty things clean.
Gasping For Air
Buddhasa Bhikkhu once said that one must strive after Nibbanna the same way a drowning man struggles to breath.
Our life depends on our breath; if we are not breathing, then we are not alive. This is samsara--the world of unrealized consciousness. Until a man learns how to breath, he will continue to flail around in an endless sea, gasping for air and swallowing saltwater instead.
Sun in a Bottle
On Day 10 we were allowed to take photographs. In the morning a beautiful orange sun rose in the sky. People were admiring it and snapping pictures. Shooting film. Taking pictures. Why such violent words? Buddhasa Bikkhu said, "we have been thieves all our lives." Best to leave the sun hanging in the sky.
The Shortest Poem
At a cafe in Surat I bumped into an Australian boxing promoter named Barry, whom I recognized from the retreat. He said he had been to Suan Mokkh at least thirty times. It helped keep him clean, since he admitted to being a long time heroin addict. Drugs create a "vicious cycle" of craving that he felt could only be combatted with something like anapanasati (mindfulness with breathing). He said that boxing, also, was like Vippassanna--focus, dedication, and a do-or-die attitude is what breeds champions.
He said he was also in Australia when Muhammud Ali took a blow to the face that send him to "like, a fourth dimension or something."In the locker room after the fight he reportedly began to speak in an ancient African dialect, having never been to Africa before. He became a Methodist minister for a time after that, and was never quite the same after that experience.
Muhammud Ali is reported to have written the shortest poem in history: Me. We.
Meets His Maker
Thomas Merton died in a Bangkok bathroom while visiting Thailand in the mid 1960's. As is the case in most places in Thailand, the electrical work is shoddy, and Merton was electrocuted while standing in a puddle of water after a bath.
Now, with wet feet, squatting on the bathroom floor of my five dollar a night guesthouse in Bangkok, I want to know where he stayed, to see if I might have an hour with him to talk. I still close my eyes whenever I turn on a lightswitch.
Den of Theives
While shopping in Chinatown one afternoon I bumped into a Phillipino man on the street who was very excited to meet an American. He introduced himself as Nicky and said he was living with his brother, who owned an apartment in Bangkok, while he was stationed in Thailand. He said his daughter was with him also. When he asked where I was from and I said Philadelphia, he was very excited--his daughter had just finished nursing school and was getting ready to go the United States to work in a hosptial there, though he couldn't remember which one.
We went across the street and he bought me a drink. He asked me questions about Philadelphia and how much I paid for my apartment and would I be willing to meet with her so she could ask me questions. I said I would, but it would have to be this afternoon because I fly out the next morning. So we took a cab to another part of the city. "It is no coincidence that we met," he assured me.
His brother's apartment was in a nice section of the city on the outskirts of Chinatown. When we arrived a beautiful young Thai servent girl opened the door for us. Nicky told the servent girl to get me ice water and coffee, and he invited me to take a seat on the leather couch. By Thai standards, the apartment was somewhat luxurious, with polished wooden floors, bi-level with a driveway, and, of course, a servent girl.
Nicky yelled to his brother upstairs. "He is very funny," he assured me. He shook my hand warmly, introducing himself as Milo, and offered me a cigarette. He said that I would have to forgive him, but his wife had just gone into labor today. Nicky's daughter and Milo's son were at the hosptial with her, though Nicky assurred me they would be back soon.
In the meantime, Milo talked about his work at the "shipyard." At first I thought he worked for the Navy like his brother, but then it became clearer that he actually worked in a casino on a cruiseship (he had a picture of the ship hanging on the wall). He asked me if I had ever been to Las Vegas. "A lot of money in casinos. I get you a discount."
I wasn't following him, since at one point he was talking about discounted vacation packages or something he could give to "VIP's." He was eager to show me what he did for a living, and suggested we play cards while waiting for his neice to return. We went upstairs to a room with a table and Milo invited me to sit. He started to explain to me how the business worked by drawing a map of the casino floor.
"This," he explained by drawing a series of slashes, "is where the regular players play. But because you are with me, you do not play here. You play in V-I-P section. In VIP section, you play banker, just you." He drew a smaller square to represent the VIP room with a small opening for a door. "I have a guy watching the door, so no one come in, since it VIP only."
| DEALER |
| PLAYER |
"But, you must understand, I can only give you twenty-five percent, since you are my guest. Seventy-five percent is for my 'company.' You understand?" I didn't quite understand. But I thought I'd take that cigarette after all, because it was starting to feel a little Tony Soprano up here. I nodded.
"So, you know how to play this game?" I thought he was talking about poker but it turns out he was referring to blackjack. When I figured it out, I said 'yes,' since I did.
"Okay," he said, pointing to the map of the casino floor. "When you play VIP, there are rules. But Player has no rules; only Banker has rules. You the Player. You understand?" I understood.
He turned over the map and began to write. "For Banker, if cards 12, 13, 14, 15, or 16, they must draw. If 17, 18, 19, 20, they cannot draw. You understand?" Okay, yes, I think so. We practiced a few hands--some I won, some I lost. Milo said this was playing 'chance'--you might win, you might not win, but you don't know.
There were other things too: Banker was always dealt one card up; Player's down. United States rules face cards all value 10. Etc. Milo stubbed out his cigaretted and yelled to Nicky to bring up his coffee. He then went over to a drawer and took out a set of chips.
"There are two kinds of betting for you," he explained: "winning-hand bet, and losing-hand bet. Winning hand bet you bet when you know you are going to win. Losing hand bbet you bet when you know the other person is going to lose." The emphasis here was on the word know. He leaned in and asked me straight-faced: "Remember, you are playing with my money--do you want to play a game of chance, or do you want to play a game of skill?" Ummm...
"Skill," I said.
A big smile broke on his face and he extended his hand. "Very good. Now, let me show you how to play a game of skill."
By this point I had a pretty good idea of what was going on but was to deep in to get out of it easily. I was starting to feel the need to take a shower; despite the sparkling floors and lush decor, things were beginning to feel grimy, like the soot settling over towns like Pittsburgh as a result of booming industrialization. But I continued to play along.
"If you want to know what card I have, how you think to get it from me?" Milo asks. Umm...
He reacts as if it was a mistranslation, even though he was sure of what I said. "No," he said. "And you do not pull your ear like in football coach." Got it.
"You see my fingers?" He started to count off from his pinky: "2,2,2,2...and thumb is 1. My whole fist is 10." So, if I have this many fingers on table," placing four fingers, "how many is that?" Umm...
Again, a pleased smile and warm handshake. In a naive way it did kind of make me feel proud, like I could be the next Blackjack Kid of the Thai Shark circuit.
I was learning to cheat. It was innocent enough to learn, I suppose. The more he spoke about it, the more curious I was. But like all the bastard tuk-tuk drivers and hawkers on the street, I started to wonder what lies beneath the surface of the game.
"Now you look," he said, while picking up the deck to deal. "What card I show you?"
I must have missed it, because I didn't know what he was talking about. He looked disappointed. He picked up the deck to deal again, this time poking the top card out a half inch and flashing it with a quick snap of the wrist.
"Very good," he said. At that point his phone rang. It was an English speaking man whom Milo seemed to be familiar with, asking if he could come by to pick up his "pass."
"That was Mr. ____," Milo told me, showing me the personalized VIP invitation card with the man's name on it. "He is already rich. But he come still because as I tell you, you can make very much money as my guest at the casino--V.I.P."
I was getting tired of these schinanigans. It was becoming more and more apparent that there might not be any daughter traveling to America, no wife in labor. This guy had already wasted enough of my last afternoon in Thailand.
"Now, when Mr. ____ comes, we will play a game. Nicky will play Mr. ___; you just watch." It was like when Christopher was becoming a made-man in the Sopranos. Except that I didn't want to be made into anything--especially a professional sheister.
Despite Milo's sharp pitch and confident persona, there was a crack in his front just big enough to reveal an inner poverty, despite his polished floors and servant girl--it wavered behind his eyes. I'd never met a tax collector before, but I imagined if St. Matthew came back to life, this is what he would be like. Not lust, not pride--the love of money was the nail that needed to be let fall to the floor in order to be free. I imagine Jesus just looked at him, and that was enough.
"No, I think I'm going to get going, thank you," I told him.
"No, no, you just watch," he assurred me.
"No," I said, "I'm going to go."
He could not understand how I could turn down something that promised so much for so little. "Why you don't want to stay?" he asked.
I looked him in the eyes, confident for the first time in our interaction.
"Because I don't want to."
His eyes lowered to the table, but he made a second attempt to persuade me. I responded the same.
The tables had turned a bit and I found myself with some power I didn't really care to have when he saw I meant what I said, and why I was saying it. In a apologetic, but groveling kind of way he asked me not to tell anyone of his 'top secret' operation, since he could lose his job. I assured him I had no interest in doing so, and we went downstairs.
I asked Nicky to call me a cab, which he did. An awkward few minutes ensued while waiting. To add hurt to insult, they asked if I could help them with some money for blood, since Milo's wife was having a C-section at a private hospital. "Lots of money." Money. He asked for 1,000baht. I thought about the beggars with no legs I passed in the street asking for pennies. Disgusted, I gave them 160B and left.
On the ride back to Bangalampoo I stared out the window at the golden bridge over the river, the saangthews choking on the street and ferry boats on the shore, Bangkok in the evening and a settling sadness. I felt like something had been taken from me unfairly. But I also felt like I should have stood up taller, said something more. In the reflection of the window, I stared at my own eyes and saw Milo's eyes looking back, from the outside.
No Mirror, No Face
The Cruel Tutilege of Ajahn Poh
Saved by the Bell
Field Trip to the Lion's Den
White Circle Buddha
Sweeping in the Morning
"With Wise Reflection I Eat This Gruel..."
Tan Medhi's Wooden Pillow