10 days at the meditation retreat.
The bell rings at 4 am. It’s pitch dark outside. I remove the mosquito net, switch on the light and check if any unwelcome visitors like scorpions or centipedes have invaded my little cell over night. It happens, and you have to be careful.
I have 20 minutes to get ready, so I go splash some water over face and body. Next to one of the wells, I brush my teeth. I get into my knee-length sports pants and t-shirt, lock my cell door and walk through the darkness towards Meditation Hall 2.
At 4.30 am, the small bell on the speaker’s table rings three times. The day begins. One of the retreat’s participants does the morning reading, mostly nice and interesting texts. After that, there is a 30-minute sitting meditation, concentrating on my breathing. It’s all about utilizing the best time of the day for meditation, “when your cup is still empty.” At least that’s what I am taught here.
The bell rings again, after 30 minutes. Everyone wanders off to Meditation Hall 3. I put my yoga mat on the floor and get ready to do 90 minutes of yoga, basic stuff, nothing fancy. Warm up, 6 sun salutations and a score of exercises on the ground. It’s my number 2 favorite part of the day, always loved yoga. During the second half of the class, daylight arrives at the monastery, and with it scores of mosquitoes that torture me while doing yoga on the floor.
At 7 am, after yoga, we all return to Hall 2. The abbot of the monastery gives his lecture of the day, followed by a 30-minute sitting meditation. The morning air smells nice and clean, the sun shines, all birds are up calling each other. I am not supposed to notice this while meditating, but it’s hard not to. Afterwards, breakfast is waiting.
Wat Suan Mokkh is a monastery in Southern Thailand, just 20 minutes away from Surat Thani airport, situated near the little town of Chaiya. It is very well known in Thailand: its founder, the Buddhist monk Buddhadasa Bikkhu, was one of the best known Thai monks of the 20th century. He tried to bring Buddhism back to its roots, the writings of the Buddha, its simplicity and originality – away from money donations for merit to achieve rebirth in a higher form. He founded the Suan Mokkhabalarama (The Grove of the Power of Liberation – short Suan Mokkh) monastery in 1932. He stayed there to teach and pray until his death in 1993.
His last project was the establishment of an international Dhamma hermitage – a place for retreats to study meditation and Buddhism, for Thai people, but also for foreigners. Since 1989, these courses are taking place, all year round, with up to 150 people attending the monthly 10 day silent retreats – foreigners and Thais separate from each other.
Breakfast is served at 8 am. It consists of a thick rice soup with brown rice. I can add some greens, tasty leaves and cucumber, but nothing else. Two or three little bananas and a cup of nearly tasteless tea complete the breakfast, which I consume – in silence, as everything else – in a sort of mess hall. Men and women sit at opposite ends of the hall. We even receive our food from separate containers, so that the genders don’t mix.
After breakfast, it’s time for everyone’s chores. I have to clean two foot wash basins outside a meditation hall. The job takes me no more than 10 minutes. I then go back to my room and sleep for another hour – there’s not a lot else to do in the morning.
At 10 am, I am back in the Meditation Hall, for the morning Dhamma talk, a one hour affair, followed by a sitting meditation and an individual walking meditation. By 12.30, lunch is ready, and everyone silently wanders off to the mess hall.
Lunch is the last meal of the day, no more solid food until next day’s breakfast. Usually, lunch consists of boiled rice and a nice vegetarian curry, with a third dish like glass noodles or veggies to be added on top, all in one bowl, eaten with an Asian spoon. There’s also dessert, Thai style, bean-based stuff in coconut milk, quite nice – especially as there is no chance to get anything else to eat. Keeping food in the room is a no-no, not allowed on one hand, and a sure thing to trigger an ant-invasion on the other hand.
After lunch break, more free time, until 2.30 pm. Sleep, or do the laundry, or finish chores. No reading, no talking, no writing – for the whole 10 days.
Attending a ten-day silent meditation retreat is not for the faint of heart. Some of the participants at first do not realize what they got themselves into, in Suan Mokkh. The retreat is supposed to make one experience life as a monk – well, at least in its basics, as I am still being fed twice a day, very un-monk-like. There’s just one day when I am actually in “full monk mode”, with one solid meal, no lectures and a total of 8 ½ hours of meditation.
I stay in a room that makes a prison cell look comfortable: it has an elevated platform made out of cement, a clothes line to hang up stuff and a bare light bulb. I sleep on the cement bed, which has a wooden slate for cover, and a mat made from coco fiber, about 0.5mm thick. The pillow is made of wood, a rounded, rectangular solid piece of tropical wood, with soft edges. You stick this under your neck to sleep – I am happy to have brought my pillow. I have a single blanket for cover viagra 100 mg http://viagrasstore.net/generic-viagra/. The mosquito net completes the room’s furnishing; it is the most important part of the room, not only for keeping the mosquitoes out, but also any other visitors that might want to crawl into my simple bed. Some, like the scorpions and the centipedes, are viciously poisonous; others, like the big spiders, just look scary.
Water for personal use comes from large wells. I use little plastic bowls to splash it over my face and body – a very basic shower method. The toilets are flushed by means of little bowls, too. Signs are propagating the paper-less method of using a toilet, stressing the environmental issue. I have never ever experienced anything that basic – military service felt like a luxury hotel in comparison. But there’s a reason for all this: after a few days, I stop thinking about the hardship of the stay. I stop complaining about my bed of cement, because (a) I sleep just OK on it, especially after a day full of meditation, and (b) there is nobody I could complain to.
The lunch break ends at 2.30 pm. Time for another lecture, this time on meditation itself, and meditation technique. An English cynic Buddhist is the star lecturer here – it’s also easier to understand a native English speaker. But it’s the entertainment he provides that makes him and his lecture unique – a British sense of humor, nicely applied cynicism and some very good insights on the breathing meditation we practice all day. The Lord Buddha himself practiced Anapanasati (or “mindfulness of breathing”), and the founders of Suan Mokkh followed this tradition, and are now teaching it to the retreat guests.
Time for another walking meditation, somewhere on the vast grounds of the monastery. I had studied the very special technique of walking meditation 10 years ago, so it was not that hard getting back into it. I was able to practice at a rather regular walking speed, meditating around the pond for about half an hour. Walking meditation is not as intensive as sitting and breathing. It is, however, a very refreshing meditation alternative that also helps focus my mind very well.
At 4.15 pm, another sitting meditation follows, and then an hour of chanting old Pali chants, while fighting against the mosquitoes who make their second appearance of the day. At 6 pm, for the tea break, hot chocolate is served in the mess hall, a welcome refreshment at dusk, accompanied by a bunch of bats who give an aerobatics show in the hall. The time after the tea break is the best opportunity to visit the hot springs of the monastery, located on the perimeter of the grounds. There are pools with hot water, bathtub-hot, and I spend a few minutes in there, soaking my outside in addition to all the internal mind cleaning happening all day. The water in pool number 1 is already very hot, the second basin is even hotter – I just dipped my toe in there and knew I couldn’t stand it. On most days, I use the rest of the break to shower and wash and get ready for the evening program.
What can you realistically expect from a ten-day silent meditation retreat? When you enter the program, the organizers tell you not to expect anything – which is the correct approach.
I had some expectations, though, but they were rather atmospheric as opposed to a firm set of objectives – I expected some insights to help me think through my particular situation, some guidance to return to a steady meditation discipline. I wanted it to be a ten-day psychoanalysis session with myself – the guy who knows me best. I also thought it would be a good idea to stop smoking (because I can’t for ten days), and get some control of my electronic gadgets use – which seems to have gotten out of hand.
And it happened exactly how I expected it to. In the first few days, I – like many others – was a little bit fixated on the exterior circumstances. I had to make friends with the meditation routines and techniques, all quite hard on you. But after 3-4 days, everything clears up, in an amazing fashion – towards a clarity of mind rarely achieved.
In meditation breaks, I was looking at topics that I thought I needed to deal with. My mind, eager to do something other than meditating, jumped at every single issue, solving them in no time, with crisp decision making never experienced before. A natural order of issues emerged. Sometimes I had to revert to walking meditation just to take my mind off all these real life topics and go back to relaxing.
The ten-day retreat is the ultimate egoist experience. I only spoke to and dealt with myself. There was no communication with any of the other participants. The rest of the world becomes utterly unimportant; I myself am the only one who counts. Once I returned to the world, I found that my egoist approach had actually given me a much better view of the world, and changed my approach to other people – in a much less egoistical way than before. Even though I didn’t need to subscribe to Buddhism, its values somehow permeated my mind and mixed nicely with the values I hold and cherish. My relation to the world became more harmonic and balanced. My mind is sharp like a dagger of Damascene steel. My addictions have gone, unnoticed, without any withdrawal symptoms, including gadget lust. A work plan emerged, issues that need to be taken care of, after the retreat, all very logical and intuitive at the same time. Amazing.
7.30 pm brings the last round of meditation sessions, my favorite part of the day. It’s like a 1-2-3 punch, before going to bed. 30 minutes of sitting and breathing. A group walking meditation, around the pond: under the amazing starlight of the tropical night, 45 men walk, one behind the other, deep in meditation, for 30 minutes. Finally, back to the hall for the final 30 minutes of breathing meditation. This got me personally the best meditation results – including rapture experiences I don’t want to miss. At the end of this session, at 9 pm, I felt as if I were a bit drugged. I walked back to the dormitories very slowly, in a group of people that all moved like a bunch of zombies searching for food. Meditation so strong you have to walk slow.
Each night, after this session, I crawled onto my cement bed immediately after returning to my cell. I tucked the mosquito net under the mat, turned off the light – and within a few minutes, went into a wonderful sleep, with 3D Technicolor dreams, for nearly 7 hours, as the bell will ring again at 4 am, for sure.