10 Days of Silence in Thailand, Part 1
Suan Mokkh Monastery Retreat, Day 1
Imagine waking up to the sound of a bell at 4am, not a jarring bell, but a beautiful melodic one, gentle but insistent. You wonder where you are. Your wooden pillow & straw mat in a cement room are good reminders that you are at Suan Mokkh Monastery in southern Thailand. You shine your flashlight out of your white veil of mosquito netting, scanning the floor for spiders before you set foot on the cool cement floor – you’ve already escorted a big black one out of your room the previous night.
A movement above your bed catches your eye and you see the curved s-shape of a foot-long lizard stuck to the wall, next to what look like a bunch of fat white grapes, or a patch of opaque bubble wrap, the large size. You are reminded of the crunching noise you heard in the night above your head, and you wonder if the lizard was eating something in the eggs or if something was eating its way out. Giant spiders? Scorpions?
You shudder, and break the vow of silence already, as you ask the passing dorm host what they are. “You are lucky!!” she informs you cheerily. “The gecko will not harm you, and she eats mosquitoes. Those are her eggs – in all my life I have never seen these!” Apparently you will have a very mosquito -free room.
You brush your teeth and wash your face with cold water from a bowl dipped into a waist-high rectangular cement reservoir (think stacks of colored plastic bowls, like Tupperware in the 60’s), use the toilet, which doesn’t flush, you just scoop a bowl or two of water and dump it in. And you’re glad you remembered to bring your own toilet paper as none is provided – it clogs up the plumbing. The Thai way is to use the bowl to pour some water over yourself. To accommodate westerners, they provide tiny covered waste baskets to deposit your paper.
Then you slather on some mosquito repellant, slip on your baggy cotton elephant pants and pad barefoot to the entrance where you slip on your flip flops (they don’t allow shoes inside any of the buildings.) You haven’t been barefoot this much since you were a kid.
In the dark, under a bright moon and sky etched with diamond-sharp stars, you walk on the crunchy sand and leaf strewn path to the open air meditation hall, a large rectangular roof held up by many cement columns. You kneel or sit cross-legged on your mat and cushion on the women’s side, with only 4 candle lanterns for light, one flickering at each corner of the hall.
An old be-speckled, saffron -robed monk lectures you on following your breath & letting go, and you focus on your breathing as you try to clear your mind for a half hour of silent meditation. Of course, this is easier said than done, as your monkey mind takes over, desperate to take you back into messes you’ve made in your life in the past, or potential future worries that will most likely never happen, anything for entertainment. You keep bringing your focus back to your breath – breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, oh my God, what am I going to do for a living when the money runs out, oh, yeah, the breathing…breathe in, breathe out, can’t believe I dated that guy, what was I thinking?! Wonder where that woman got her batik pants, they’re so pretty, oh, wait, breathe!! And so on, until the little bell rings signaling it’s 5:15, time for yoga, and you follow the line of silent women to the yoga hall. Really? At 5am? What were you thinking?!!
Your yoga instructor is a beautiful young raven -haired woman with a sweet smile & soothing voice who gently leads you into stretching your neck, side to side, slowly, up and down, flexing your ankles, hey, this isn’t so bad. Why are those 9 women in the back sleeping? Then you start bending over and your back protests. By the time she’s tricked you into downward facing dog, many other body parts protest as well, and you think, I have 9 more days of this?! By the time you finish, an hour and 1/2 later, the sun is rising in front of you, the bright peach sky silhouetting your yoga teacher and the trees behind her.
The men appear, and people stand scattered in the grass as a big red ball rises up over the treetops, and mist rises from the pond. The bell gongs and you reluctantly leave this beautiful scene to head back to the meditation hall for an hour of dhamma talk and more meditation. By the time the next bell rings, it is 8:30, you’ve been up for 4 hours, you haven’t eaten in 20 and you’re starving!!
You line up on the women’s side of the table and scoop your rice porridge into a metal bowl, choose some stalks of green herbs from the platter, and pick up a metal cup of “tea,” water with some green herb leaves floating in it, then you choose one of the old green metal chairs and try to wait patiently, silently, as everyone must be seated and the food reflection must be read before you can eat.
Once you’re allowed to eat, there’s an impulse to devour every bite as quickly as possible, but you squelch it and eat each bite slowly, contemplating the scattered cubes of carrot and floating kernels of corn as you chew. You’re surrounded by 140 people, but no one says a word. You stare out the side of the hall towards the coconut trees, gaze at your gruel, glance at the women sitting across from you, who share shy glances and smiles. You aren’t allowed to talk, write notes or use body language to communicate, but you are allowed to smile.
After breakfast, you read the morning inspirational notes on the board, encouraging you to remember your breath, then you head off for chores – you signed up to sweep the walkways surrounding your dorm. With fan-shaped broom in hand, you walk slowly, swishing back and forth, back and forth, scattering the leaves and tiny ants that litter your path. Your back hurts a bit from bending over – the broom handle length is made for a munchkin, but you think about how glad you are that your chore isn’t cleaning the toilets or emptying the scorpion bin.
At 10am the bell sounds and you’re back to the meditation hall for a dhamma talk, the monk reminding you of the importance of letting go, and you sit silently once again, trying not to let the jumping spider on the nearby column distract you. Then it’s time for walking meditation, where you take one long breath in, each time you lift a foot, one long breath out, each time you lower it. At this rate, you cover 12 feet in about 20 minutes, but that’s not the point. You realize how off balance you are right now, as you try to stay silent and not topple over. Then another session of guided meditation. You’ve easily meditated comfortably in the past for an hour at a time, but that was at home in a comfortable chair, not cross-legged or on your knees.
You are pleased when the lunch bell rings, even more than you were as a kid in school. And you’re even more pleased when your special, mushroom-free lunch is not just fruits and vegetables, but a beautiful Japanese squash curry with rice, and a bean sprout and tofu dish, just like the others, only minus the fungi, since you are deathly allergic. You were almost unable to attend the retreat, when you heard at registration that all of the meals contain mushrooms, but just when you resigned yourself to hanging out in a hammock on an island beach with a beer for those 10 days instead, the person in charge informs you that you can stay and eat plain rice, fruits and vegetables. But it turns out there’s a German woman there who is also allergic to mushrooms and the wonderful cooks are accommodating you. You will have to remember to thank them when you’re allowed to talk or write again.
You cut your finger on a rusty bathroom stall latch and are glad your tetanus shot is up to date, then you head to your room for a short nap before the afternoon sessions, so hopefully you can stay awake and not embarrass yourself falling over during meditation.
The afternoon is more of the same, dhamma talk, meditation, walking meditation, seated meditation. A monk tells you to avoid pain, you should swing your arms 800 times between meditation sessions, but since you’re beginners, it’s ok to start with 100. Then there’s afternoon chanting with a very funny monk, who tells you that sleeping on a wooden pillow is a very good thing to help you be happy to get up at 4 in the morning.
There is no dinner, but you have evening “tea” at 6, which is actually rich, sweet hot chocolate. Really? Who drinks hot chocolate in 90 degree heat in a jungle?!! But you drink it gratefully, while watching monkeys cavorting nearby across a corrugated metal shed roof, a tiny baby monkey in tow.
You have a little free time now, to soak in the natural hot springs, an emerald green pool set amongst coconut palms and giant ferns, now filled with colorful sari-covered women, smiling at the pleasure of the hot water and slippery, silky algae underfoot. You are not allowed any bathing suits and nudity is also forbidden, even though the men have separate hot springs, but they provide you with oversized tubular cotton flowered saris, which you also have to wear while bathing with the bowls, an awkward process trying to hold up the sari and lather and rinse yourself with only 2 hands. The hot springs felt much better than the bowls of cold water you fling on yourself.
The bell rings again, and you head off, now in the dark, for even more mediation, and you wonder if you can really do this for 10 days in a row.
After a lecture the day before about never walking in the dark without sandals and flashlight, in order to avoid stepping on spiders, centipedes, and scorpions, you are instructed by the monk that evening that walking meditation is barefoot with no flashlights or lanterns. You are horrified!! “No need for flashlights, there’s a giant one in the sky,” the old monk tells everyone. He is right in that the moon is bright enough to show you where you’re going, but not what you’re stepping on. You reason that if you walk in the middle of the line, anything biting will already have been stepped on, and you set off with some trepidation on what will be the first of many such sojourns, that turns out to be a favorite part of your day. It is beautiful, with black trees reflected on black pond, 4 burning lanterns and several stars reflected as well. At 9 the bell rings, and you head to bed, a half hour allowed to brush your teeth and wash the sand off your feet, then you climb into your mosquito net cocoon to sleep. Until the bell rings at 4am, and you start all over.