10 Days of Silence in Thailand, Part 2
Suan Mokkh Monastery Retreat, Days 2-10
The schedule was virtually the same every day, however each day was also different.
Day 2 you were given bananas with breakfast, and your new friend Sabine handed you a beautiful yellow flower in passing. And you got to go shopping! 2 rolls of toilet paper and a tiny package of laundry detergent from the little dining room store so you can wash your clothes in a basin. Since you can’t talk, you just point to what you want.
Day 3 you are really happy you balled up your fleece jacket into a pillow and bought that cheap plastic air mattress at the beach in Hua Hin on your way to the retreat. It is apparently allowed to bring a sleeping mat (a friend who’s attended before messaged you the night before), but since you’re not traveling with one, you improvised. Best $5 investment you’ve made yet, although it squeaks every time you move.
You like the morning reading selection by Pema Chodren, where she says that meditation is like turning on a light switch in a dark room, you see everything more clearly. You think to yourself that you see clearly that you are not cut out to live like a monk long term.
You are hot, sticky, covered in insect repellant and sun screen, chased by mosquitoes and your unsettled mind, stiff from sitting, sweeping, and bending in yoga, and not thrilled with drinking bitter green herbal goo to counteract the effects of too much rice, bananas and inactivity. You are sleeping on a squeaking green plastic air mattress in a 7×11′ cement cell with a large lizard and her eggs for roommates, but you are not too uncomfortable. You’re bending your body and mind in unfamiliar ways, and that is uncomfortable, but not unbearably so and will feel good, you think, in the long run.
You, and all of the others, are extremely disappointed when the evening tea turns out not to be hot chocolate, but a thin orange liquid instead, but it tastes sweet and nice and fruity. And you found a white feather on your mat in the dark.
Day 4, just when you are getting really tired of the whole routine, you saw the most exquisite pink, green, yellow and white fragrant flower dangling from a vine on a tree and you smile. You notice all of the sounds around you, familiar ones like a cow lowing, roosters crowing, cicadas chirring, locusts buzzing. And then a myriad of unfamiliar ones, monkeys chattering, birds or lizards calling out, “uncle, uncle, uncle,” “what’s up, what’s up,” and “chi chi chi!” You hear monks chanting and metal bowls clanking, and the scratch scratch of rakes endlessly moving the sand and leaves around. There is the scraping of over a hundred metal chairs across cement in the dining hall, and of course, the low melodious bell ringing. And you swear you hear a bird call out during meditation, “you just breathe, you just breathe, you just breathe!”
There’s also the rich sweet scent of that exotic flower as well as the strong smell of urine from the meditation cushions (how many sweaty people have sat on them in this tropical heat?!) There are damp smells of jungle vegetation and the spicy scent of pumpkin curry.
Day 5 at 4:30am on your way to meditation you are inspired to write a haiku:
Full moon between two
serrated palm fronds snipping
the dark pre-dawn sky
You are extra tired, as yesterday was some kind of Buddhist holiday where the monks stayed up all night meditating and you heard what sounded like boards clacking till dawn, you’re guessing maybe to help them stay awake. And so with the noise, you stayed awake as well.
You think about how this is no place for addictions – caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol, the internet, all are not allowed, and you feel glad you have none of those habits to miss (well, ok, maybe a bit of Facebook, and you do like a good glass of wine…) You also contemplate the way of the monks, a life of deprivation of sleep, of food, of sensual pleasures, and how it isn’t your idea of a rich life, however you are also not in favor of excess. Balance is your key word, and you are surprised when the dhamma talk is about balance and about how the “middle way” can be different for each person.
On your way to yoga, while shining your flashlight on the roots of the giant banyan tree so as not to trip, you walk right into a huge low branch and whack your head. You will hear others make this same mistake. You only make it once.
You see so many images you want to capture, but have no camera, so you snap them in your mind – a white feather wisp of cloud and red brick building reflected in the early morning pond, and the perfectly round orange sun rising in a lavender sky, so beautiful that a dozen people stop on their walk to meditation just to stare.
Today marks the half way point and though you’re not crazy about the gray cement of your cell or sharing it with lizards and spiders, bathing with cold water dumped from a bowl, or pleased with the pain in your back, or especially getting up at 4am, somehow it feels worth it to be here.
You listen to the dhamma talk on loving kindness, how we should emanate good will toward all things living and non, that our friends, relatives, teachers and yes, our enemies, should be joyful and free from stress and worry. You think if most people practiced this, what a wonderful world it would be.
You haven’t had any major epiphanies, but today it does come to you that, like in your past becoming an artist, you must continue to follow your dreams, despite the risks. You must keep writing and shooting pictures, traveling and telling stories, maybe even painting again.
And just when you think that the day, a repetition of all of the other days of meditation, isn’t going to bring anything else new, a huge 8 foot long black lizard saunters past the pavilion, between you and the pond, its thin tongue darting in and out. You all are speechless (well, you’re speechless anyway, since you’re not allowed to talk) as it heads towards the women’s bath house.
Day 6 you wonder why, after 30 years of meditation, that for the past couple of years you’ve found it hard to concentrate, your back hurts, and you keep falling asleep. Is it getting older? You can sign up for a 15 minute interview with a teacher to ask questions about your meditation and you debate between the old be-speckled monk, the funny chanting monk, the quiet walking meditation teacher, or the sweet office lady who arranged your fungi-free meals. You opt for the woman, figuring you have more in common and she can maybe relate. And she can! It turns out you are almost exactly the same age and she’s had the same issues. But age isn’t the crux of what’s going on. “The craving has bite you!” she informs you wisely. It seems after having such amazingly good feelings from meditating, like peace, joy, and a total lack of stress, you want that feeling again. So instead of remaining unattached, you start to desire, to crave that state, and are frustrated when it eludes you. You have let go of almost all of your material, external things, now you need to do the same with the inner, less tangible ones as well. She reminds you that even if you don’t think you’re making progress in your meditation, as long as you are practicing you are.
At your 2nd sitting, a writhing mass of small brownish red ants take over one girl’s sitting mat. A couple of women pick it up as quietly as possible, carry it out and shake it off. But the ants keep pouring out of the sand and move their colony to the next girl’s mat. She watches, horrified, as they flow like a brown river, under her mat, but then they continue on and the next woman, Songyi, watches, fascinated and smiling, as they form a straight line and march across her mat and out to the jungle.
Tonight the moon stops you in your tracks. It rises large and low in the sky, a big glowing ball of rusty orange. Later, it is high and bright, a white dot pasted on a black sky, a matching white dot floating on a dark pond. You feel the cool rough sand alternating with prickly grass on the soles of your feet, the night breeze wafting through the sari you have draped over your head to keep the mosquitos from buzzing in your ears. You hear the splash of something large in the pond, along with the chirping of crickets, cheeping of night birds and twang of frogs, and notice the moon shadows of the long line of women.
Day 7 catches you in the back of yoga class with the slackers, something you told yourself you wouldn’t do, but after a week in a row of 5:15am yoga classes, your body needs sleep more than another downward facing dog. You lay cocooned like the rest of the back third of the class, wrapped in your saris, colorful shrouds covering prostrate bodies, while other, more energetic souls twist and bend their bodies.
When the sun finally rises, a bright circle of orange behind leafy jungle fronds, you feel like you’ve fallen into a Rousseau painting, all it needs is a tiger stalking by.
Breakfast rice is getting a bit boring but after 20 hours of fasting, you’ll eat just about anything. You are grateful to have food and a safe place to sleep, grateful for the $62 affordable price tag for the whole 10 day retreat. Yes, it’s about $6 a day for room, board and instruction. You contemplate volunteering longer term, but decide against it for now.
You keep trying to let go, just breathe, live in the moment, and wonder why humans are so prone to dwell in the past or fret about the future. And if you’re going to dwell in the past, why not pick the pleasant times to think about? Like sitting on a rock by the sea in Stockholm, Sweden, or sipping wine and eating bruschetta in Tuscany? Why give your precious time to bad relationships better left in the past? As for the future, why waste time worrying about being destitute and sleeping on a park bench when you can choose instead to visualize being a successful writer, living in a cozy little home of your own? You are convinced a big key to happiness is living in the present moment, and it takes discipline to tame the mind. Meditation helps you do this.
Today a metallic gold spider climbs up your arm, and tonight, just when you thought you’d never see it again, hot chocolate appears for tea. The banyan tree rises like a ghostly medusa from the sand.
You contemplate how much time women save not applying make up, blow drying and flat ironing hair, shaving legs. You like shaved legs, but cold water creates goosebumps the size of small mountains, not conducive to shaving.
Day 8 and you’re writing haiku again:
Black confetti birds
flung against lavender sky,
burning ember sun
You’ve slept really well on your squeaky air mattress and are able to make it through yoga. You notice just the head of the giant black lizard skimming the surface of the pond as it crosses, its quick darting tongue dining on early morning insects.
Several people have left the retreat, you notice many open patches in the sand of the meditation hall, about 25 of the 140. You are glad you have stayed. At breakfast they announce they desperately need people to fill in open chore slots from those who have left, but when you look at the sign-up list, you see all of the chores are for men. You wonder if it’s the ban on coffee, cigarettes, alcohol and sex, or maybe it’s cleaning the toilets and kitchen that induced them to leave early.
You have several insights today while practicing walking meditation alone at the hot springs:
Duality – You notice if you look a certain way at the water, you see coconut palms and ferns and the sky reflected, but if you look again, those are gone and you see the slippery green algae and rocks on the bottom. You are looking with the same eyes at the same water, but see 2 different scenes. They talk a lot about duality in Buddhism. In non-duality, “things are just as they are (impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self) regardless of our likes and dislikes, suppositions and beliefs, hopes and memories.”
Impermanence – I watched a blue-white butterfly flutter by, marveled at its beauty and its short life. Impermanence is talked about a lot as well. Everything is impermanent – our houses, our cars, our clothes, our children, our bodies. Most people ignore this fact, that everything we see, hear, taste, smell and touch will eventually be gone, even mountains and rivers. They say everything is unstable, in flux, conditioned things are ever-changing, in ceaseless transformation and constantly arising, manifesting and extinguishing. “All concocted things decay and pass away.” If we truly think about this, including our own mortality, we might live our lives quite differently.
Non-attachment – I thought about how much I was looking forward to the next meal. Attachment causes craving, and craving causes suffering. Suffering ends when craving ends, or so they say. Attachment is “clinging, grasping: to hold onto something foolishly, to regard things as ‘I’ and ‘mine,’ to take things personally.” They say it is an illusion that there is some personal separate “I” in life. It’s sort of like when you’re in the shower and from a hot water heater of one mass of water, each separate drop comes out of the shower head, then returns to one pool at your feet. We feel separate, but are all one.
Tonight, another surprise, when a little gold frog with big black eyes leaps out of the cement reservoir where you bathe, wash your clothes and brush your teeth, onto the flat, waist high edge, and sits staring at you.
Day 9 and the schedule posted for the last 2 days shows mostly time to meditate on your own. You are thrilled to have this freedom – preparation, you suppose, for re-entry into the outer world.
You are not so thrilled to read that today you get only one meal, like the monks. “It’s a hearty breakfast,” they reassure the grumbling crowd (you discover that it is possible to grumble silently). That 8:30am meal will have to last you 24 hours, although they do give you a cup of hot chocolate at noon and again at 6pm.
You feel gratitude for all of the good weather – sunny and blue sky every single day. Hot, yes, but you’ll take the heat over frigid winter anytime.
You try to be present in the moment, notice that one yellow leaf in a tree full of green and the interesting shape of that tamarind pod.
Day 10 is your last full day at Suan Mokkh. The sun rises golden over green trees on the little island in the middle of the pond, the thin bridge like a finger pointing to a new day. Sleepy people in baggy clothes spread across the grass, standing in silence. Last yoga class, last talk by the old monk to you, his “good friends,” who have traveled to Thailand to learn meditation. “Be mindful,” is his advice, “practice non-attachment, and meditate twice a day for at least 15 minutes.”
It’s a bittersweet day. You’re ready to be done with cold baths out of plastic bowls, checking your room for spiders and scorpions, and eating rice porridge. But you will miss the peace of this place, the silence of no talking, no cars, no electronics. You’ll miss the lovely flowers, the crazy huge banyan tree, yes even the enforced meditation. You hope you keep up some trace of this mindfulness and meditation in your life.
You wash your blanket and turn it in with your mosquito netting in the little brown cloth bag, and you leave a surprise in there as well for the next participant – your deflated air mattress, folded up into a square. Then you try to fit everything once again into your backpack, realizing that even traveling with so little, it’s still too much.
Right after you bathe and dress, you get one final surprise, a request for help from the monks and staff. You are all taken to another side of the property, men and women separately of course, given hoes and plastic baskets and asked to help move 4 giant piles of dirt, to scoop it and carry it and spread it around on the low parts of the property, an hour or so of hard labor in 90 degree heat. But you willingly pitch in, the least you can do after such an amazing experience for less than most people spend on their weekly coffee habit. And then, the next morning, once the silence is broken, you say good-bye to your new friends.
You read a note on the board, a message that seems written for you, and a fitting thought to take with you back out into the world:
“Remember you don’t meditate to ‘get’ anything, but to get ‘rid’ of things. We do it, not with desire, but with letting go…”
An end note: Since we were not allowed any phones or cameras during the 10 day retreat, all of the photos on the 2 Suan Mokkh posts were taken on registration day before turning in my phone, and on the 11th day when we were allowed to get our valuables back.