So, I’ve emerged from the 10-day meditation retreat at Wat Suon Mok, and am stopping through Chaiya briefly (getting email) before heading over to Ranong, on the west coast of peninsular Thailand. At Ranong I’ll catch a ferry for a day trip to Burma–partly to see a little bit of Burma, but mostly because I need to renew my Thai visa, as I’ve been here for 30 days.
After that, I plan to go diving in the Similan Islands, which are reputedly one of the best dive sites in Southeast Asia; after that, back to Bangkok to get painted by the body painter. Really, life is tough. 🙂
Wat Suon Mok was interesting. Trying to describe a silent retreat in words is completely futile–you pretty much have to do it, to understand. I will say that it’s amazing what you can “see” simply by sitting still. Also that it definitely has its ups and downs, emotionally speaking; while I didn’t mind getting up at 4am or eating twice a day or sleeping on a concrete slab (etc.–lots of etc.), the completely regimented schedule and total lack of anything to do but meditate had me going up the walls by about Day 5-6. A lot of people left around then, but I’m glad I stayed–though I will admit cheating a bit on the rules. It was that, or kill someone, and Buddhism believes very strongly in nonviolence. 😉
Here was the daily schedule:
4am wake-up bell. A faint something, hovering on the edge of awareness, more felt than heard; you come awake in the dark, not quite knowing if the bell’s rung, or if you’ve awakened on your own.
Then one clear chime rings out, then another, gradually becoming louder and louder until it’s ringing continuously. It’s a very nice way of waking up–if there’s any nice way of waking up at 4am, that is–because unlike alarm clocks, it’s a gradual awakening, not a sharp buzz. it’s also got a built-in snooze alarm, since initially the strikes are very slow, allowing time to wake up slowly.
The bell itself is a decommissioned Vietnam War bomb (unused, obviously), cut in half, turned upside down, and used for peaceful purposes. This is pretty much in keeping with the rest of the theme of Suan Mok.
4:30: morning meditation/Buddhism reading, by one of the retreat members. Unlike the other dhamma talks, this one was usually comprehensible….
5:00: yoga (1.5 hours)
7:00: “dhamma talk”–i.e., a lecture on Buddhism or meditation, usually by the totally incomprehensible abbot, Achan Po. (His English wasn’t very good.)
7:30: sitting meditation
A brief word about breakfast: it was always a porridge of brown rice and barley, with bits of taro root, corn, cilantro, and various other vegetables thrown in. With breakfast, as with lunch, we got one large bowl and one spoon for our food, served ourselves from a communal pot, and ate together in total silence, after the reading of a “food reflection”. Silence in this case meant not only not speaking, but not meeting anyone else’s eyes or acknowledging their existence–so you might as well have been sitting by yourself at a table, with a bunch of misty forms, or rocks, or statues nearby. An oddly eerie experience.
The food reflection, which I won’t give here because I’m personally trying very hard to forget it, said that we were only eating the food to preserve our body to stay alive and healthy to live a spiritual way of life. I regret to say that the gruel was entirely in keeping with this philosophy, although lunch was generally better. By Day 9 I was seriously considering skipping breakfast and just eating one meal a day, just to avoid the gruel; if the following day hadn’t been Day 10, I think I would have broken down and hauled out my secret stash of Oreos. I will be the first to admit that I’m no ascetic, especially where food is concerned.
After breakfast we got two hours of free time, which I generally spent in the hot springs.
The hot springs: now, those were nice. Picture a nice warm hot tub, just the right temperature to relax muscles, soak, and forget about everything. Nice, eh? Now, imagine it’s not a paltry little hot tub but a tropical pool, lined with coconut palms, climbing vines, and exotic trees–a good fifty feet long, long enough to swim in, with delightfully squishy, gooshy mud to paddle between your toes. (Don’t like mud? Okay, there’s also a large concrete platform to stand on, but don’t be so prissy: it’s really wonderful stuff, and you’re definitely missing out if you don’t try it. Whatever happened to your inner 6-year-old??)
Float on your back, drifting slowly from end to end, looking up at the sky through palm fronds. Admire the fluttering butterflies and birds. Take a mud bath if you feel like it–there’s clay deposits in the bank, with the kind of clay masque you pay good money for back at home. Or, heck, smear yourself with the squishy mud under your feet, just for fun. The pool is entirely yours–there are other people there, of course, but they don’t see you, being silent–so it’s really and truly yours.
Then, get out and take a cold shower while being eaten alive by mosquitoes. Buddha *did* say that life is suffering. 😉
10am: another dhamma talk, usually by a comprehensible lecturer
10:30-12:30: sitting, standing, and walking meditation
12:30-2:30pm: lunch (still plain, but better than that gruel–anything would have been better than that gruel)
2:30pm: another dhamma talk
3:00-5:00: sitting, standing, walking meditatin
5:00-6:00: Pali chanting, usually led by the very enthusiastic (and very cute) monk Tan Medhi
6:00 tea and free time (I usually skipped the tea, as it was awful & no food was served)
7:30: dhamma talk
8-9: sitting, standing, walking meditation
9:30pm: lights out
If you work this out, it’s about six hours of meditation a day; including the time I spent meditating during the incomprehensible dhamma talks, it probably worked out to eight hours of meditation daily. I’m not going to describe the anapanasati meditation method in detail, but it’s called “mindful breathing”, and has sixteen steps, which apparently lead to enlightenment. I didn’t get past step 3, so I can’t really say–the first three steps are following your breath (watching it as it comes in and out, and observing the body as you breathe, different kinds of breath, etc.), watching your breath at the tip of the nose as it comes in and out, and trying to get a “fixed sign” or mental image to appear.
We were also told to try vipanassa (insight) meditation, which is the predominant style in Thailand and which they described as the “shortcut” method–watch your breathing, then meditate on impermanence–but I didn’t do it, being more interested in getting the mind perfectly focused. As it turns out, I didn’t manage either, but I did get some very interesting insights, so I’m not too upset about it. From what they said about Nirvana, I haven’t any interest in achieving it anyway–the idea, as they put it forth, was to arrive at an emotionless state wherein one realizes that there is no self and hence is totally at peace, totally not reactive, and interested only in duty. So either I’m missing something important, or it’s no fun at all.
Fortunately, as with all religions, Buddhist “theology” and Buddhist practice appear to be almost totally unrelated. (I put “theology” in quotes because Buddhism–at least the variety taught at this monastery–is actually atheistic, in that it doesn’t believe in an animate god, only natural law.) In other words, just because Buddha taught that joy, happiness, etc. were just another form of suffering, and that one should try to take neither pleasure nor pain from any contact, doesn’t mean that actual practitioners don’t enjoy life. I’m not quite sure how this wraps around the philosophy, but I’m not too upset about it either.
Having described all of this, you still won’t have the slightest idea of what the experience was *really* like (especially the silent bits), but like I said, it’s impossible to describe silence in words, so the best I can give you is the format.
I also have to pass on some advice from an English monk who was visiting the monastery, because it was quite amusing. He was lecturing us on how to conquer the five defilements, and quite specifically about lust. Apparently lust is quite a problem, especially for young monks–so, the traditional method is corpse meditation: dig up a rotting corpse, sit in front of it, and meditate on the impermanence of the human body. Per the monk, if the sight of a rotting corpse crawling with maggots doesn’t do it, the smell certainly will.
But, as the monk pointed out in his sardonic English way, corpse meditation isn’t very practical these days, as you really can’t keep a rotting corpse in the back bedroom, just in case. (For one thing, people live longer, so you can’t be assured of a corpse supply, particularly rotting ones.)
“But,” he said, “I found a surefire cure a few years ago, from a German monk. He had asked to watch autopsies–which would have been perfectly understandable in Bangkok, of course–but they said ‘What? Watch autopsies? As part of a religious practice??? What are you, crazy??” so, he had to come up with a different solution.”
Well, it turns out that there’s a German artist, a pathologist or some such, who specializes in taking dead bodies, removing the skin, embalming them, and posing the skinned bodies in various postures, with internal organs exposed or missing. He got a catalog from this guy and reports that it’s an absolute surefire cure for lust, “especially the pregnant woman with the womb opened up and the fetus showing”.
I haven’t tried this, as I personally enjoy my sins and have every intention of continuing to do so, but since I like helping my friends, I thought I’d share. Apparently the exhibit is called Body World, and it’s on the ‘Net somewhere–as he said, there can’t be that many artists using skinned, embalmed, half-eviscerated human bodies as art, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find.
Alternately, if you have a corpse fetish, now you know where to look. But, don’t tell me about it–or I’ll get started on a certain Thanksgiving dinner that I spent listening to…oh, never mind. (No, Joe, I haven’t forgiven you for that yet. Where DID you dig that guy up??? 😉 )
Anyway, it’s getting late and I do want to get to Ranong today (plus I need to get some food–I skipped breakfast today because starvation was better than that interminable gruel–did I mention the interminable gruel?), so I’d better scoot off. More once I get to Ranong–