The following relates to the meditation retreat I did at Suan Mokkh (rhymes with “broke”), monastery from August 1 through 10, 2019. (I had done the retreat once before in 2002–before moving to Thailand in 2006.) The first part is three “vignettes” from the experience. The second part is a long, somewhat disorganized reflection about it that I originally wrote for my friend, Tim, who has done some other retreats.
Suan Mokkh Vignettes
On the last night of the retreat it’s customary to let participants break silence to share their experiences with the others. A couple people took their 3-minute turns, then I got up to say a few words. After introducing myself (“You guys have probably been wondering who the little geezer with the pointy nose is”), I said the following (though in a more abbreviated manner).
I don’t have much time so I’ve decided to relate just three stories, which I’ll call, ‘Sand, Sweeping, and Salvation.’
I got to Suan Mokkh monastery, across the highway from the road to the retreat center, the afternoon before registration day. [There’s no advance registration possible; just first come, first serve, at 7:00am the day before the retreat starts. So, it’s easiest to arrive the day before that and stay for free at the monastery].
Around 5:00pm that day, somebody said if I wanted to eat I’d better walk outside the monastery gate and get something from one of the stands. There was one selling “kao gang,” which is a variety of curry dishes on rice. Well, I know from experience it’s best to eat at these places around noon, just after the stuff has been cooked. It was now close to 6:00pm, and the items had probably been sitting in their trays for many hours. Still, the chicken and carrot curry I had was tasty enough, I thought.
I made it through the registration and orientation day and, when the tower bell rang the following morning at 4:00am, I dressed and walked to the main meditation hall, which can accommodate around 100 people sitting on cushions in the sand. (Though this low season group was only 57 people: 38 men and 19 women from countries all over the world.)
Chairs are allowed, in the back, for those who need them, which included me and a couple others. Two of seven volunteers (people who have done the retreat before and agree to help out), were seated close to me: a squatty, former boxer from Australia named Barry in his fifties and Torben, a thirty-ish guy of average build from Germany.
The first half hour was a welcome, plus meditation instruction from Khun Tai, the English speaking nun who lead the retreat. Then we were instructed to try meditating for the next 30 minutes which, of course, I’ve done innumerable times before. But something seemed wrong. Was it the fact that it was still pitch dark, outside of the four candles on stands, one in each corner of the meditation hall? I stretched my back toward the ceiling, as you’re supposed to do, to straighten your spine. I felt odd, but would only later realize the correct term was “lightheaded.”
Then next thing I know, Barry and Torben are standing over me. “You fell over,” whispered Torben, trying not to disturb the others who were trying to meditate in silence. Indeed, once I came to sufficiently, I realized I had done a face plant right into the (thankfully), soft sand that was around me. I have no memory of blacking out, but I had indeed fainted.
My memory of what happened directly after is vague, but soon thereafter I wandered back with my flashlight to my room in the men’s dorm and laid down. Barry, who was the dorm manager, told me to just take it easy and not worry about going to any more activities until I felt better. It was good to lay down, but after I’d rested a bit I realized I’d gotten quite a bit of sand in my eyelashes and ears (but none, luckily, directly in my eyes or mouth).
Barry came to check on me before the 8:00am breakfast, but I told him I didn’t feel like eating. I think I made it for lunch (the final meal of the day), at 12:30, and had enough energy to do the easy chore I’d signed up for, which was sweeping out the three salas (small pavilions for sitting), near the dining hall. But I had a headache and felt weak, so don’t think I made it to any other activities that first day.
The next day I again only made it to one meal. I realized it must have been the curry I’d eaten by the monastery which had a slow-acting type of bacteria that had stricken me. I’d had food poisoning plenty of other times in the years I’ve been visiting and living in Thailand, but they had been just two types: most commonly, a few hours of diarrhea, but a couple bouts of full-on vomiting and bedrest for a couple days. This current poisoning was quite inconvenient; I only once briefly felt an urge to vomit, and there was no diarrhea. But my gut was churning and I (stupidly), swallowed a couple ibuprofen on an empty stomach to try and ease the headache.
It was also a drag, lying on my inflatable camping pad on the concrete platform in my ‘monk’s cell,’ with no fan the first few days, which turned out to be the hottest of the retreat. Everyone was required to surrender their electronic devices on registration day and no books or even writing materials were allowed in rooms. So there was nothing to do but look up at my mosquito net or try to sleep.
Finally, after breakfast on the third day, I went to the office to speak with Khun David, the main men’s volunteer, to say I thought it might be better for me to leave the retreat and go recuperate at home. He replied, however, that I was perfectly welcome to do my recuperating here at the retreat, and related how, during the time he’d been doing his intensive 6-month seclusion at the nearby men’s hermitage that he’d been sick a couple times and couldn’t join in any activities. He also said there happened to be a nurse among the women participants and that he’d ask her to speak with me, if I wanted. I finally agreed with that so, just after lunch, she came to the office and I told her what I thought was happening with me. I was a bit worried that the bacteria or whatever it was might need antibiotics or something. But after hearing me out and asking a couple questions she said she thought it would run its course but just make sure to keep well hydrated.
Well, indeed, that evening I felt strong enough to attend a few sessions. And the next day I joined all but a couple. By the fifth day, all my symptoms were gone.
Everyone is required to do some short chores everyday, so on the list I signed up to sweep out the three meditation salas near the dining hall. This was very easy and could be accomplished in about 15 minutes, right after breakfast. One of the salas was actually the ground floor of the bell tower. A staff member walked up the stairs to ring the bell several times a day to alert us to come to the main meditation hall, before meal times and, of course, to wake us up at 4:00am. It was also my duty to sweep out the bell tower.
The conical bell itself is about three feet long and looks something like the nosecone of a missile. It is probably as old as the retreat center itself (about 32 years), and is covered with a brown patina. It hangs from a chain to about shoulder level of the average Thai, or about 5 feet off the floor, so you need to be careful not to bump into it when sweeping with a short handled Thai-style broom.
There were a few stubby pieces of angular tree limbs laying on one of the concrete benches that encircled the bell that were used for the actual striking, along with a set of airport runway ear muffs to protect the ears of whoever does the tolling. (Even on the ground I had to plug my ears when walking by while it was being struck–that sucker is loud close up.) The tone is full, round and quite pleasing. One ring lasts about 15 seconds, at which point it is rung again. This continues a half dozen times; then the pace is gradually sped up with progressively softer strikes. Then the whole sequence repeats a couple more times.
So, on about day four of the retreat, when I was starting to feel stronger again after the food poisoning, I was sweeping, bent over slightly, around the bell when I heard–and felt–a resounding bell strike. As you have doubtless guessed, I had dropped the ‘mindfulness’ we were meant to be continually practicing and had tolled said bell with my noggin. Those in the compound must have thought, ‘What, lunchtime already?’ I tried to quickly dampen the bell. It actually didn’t hurt that bad, and must go down as the most hilarious and slapstick mistake I’ve ever made. (It did leave a fair sized goose egg, however.) Ensuing days, I made sure to hold my hand near my head when sweeping around it. Just in case. As the Buddha said, we usually create our own suffering.
My last tale concerns something that happened on, I think, Day 7 of the retreat. After the 12:30 midday (and last), meal, Buddhas-in-training have time to do laundry, finish chores, or take a short catnap until the next bell tells us to be in the Main Hall at 2:30, which is the beginning of a mini-marathon of dhamma (Pali spelling of ‘dharma’) talk/sitting meditation/walking meditation/chanting until the bell rings again for 6:00pm ‘tea time.’
Chanting instruction begins at 5:00pm. The diminutive Khun (Miss) Tai (her Thai nickname), leads us in chanting from Pali Buddhist booklets that are distributed to everyone. First we do our best to follow her Pali version, then we go back and read the English translation. All chants are on standard topics such as impermanence, suffering, loving kindness, etc. At first it’s frustrating and tedious to try to read and intone these meaningless, ancient words. But Khun Tai always gives background to each chant, so that after a few days you start to enjoy and appreciate the effect of repeating these short ‘poems,’ mantra like; you begin to memorize them and become imbued with their meaning. Plus, it makes you appreciate a monastic tradition that dates back millennia.
On the morning of the sixth day the skies above the meditation hall were mostly sunny, and Khun Tai suggested that in the afternoon we take our cushions out under the trees lining the field adjacent to the hall, which had been freshly mowed, for chanting practice. As it turned out, a few hours later the Thai rainy season earned its moniker, as the skies opened up and we were all forced to use our umbrellas to get to the hall by five o’clock. Khun Tai made a joke about it being an example of impermanence, but that we might try again another day.
Sure enough, our chance came the following day, so we picked up and moved out on the ‘lawn’ of the large field, in the shade of some of the trees. Khun Tai had brought a small mobile mic and speaker, which was ridiculously underpowered, but did amplify her gentle voice a bit so if you listened intently, you could hear her.
Lined up in strict rows in the hall, you don’t get much chance to notice the faces of, or hear the voices of, those around you. Here on the grass, we were arranged in much looser and closer proximity, while still having men to the left and women to the right. At sixty-three, I was definitely the oldest member of our sangha (Buddhist monastic group) and, even on registration day, I remember feeling heartened that so many ‘young people’ had gone to the extent of flying from places as disparate as Poland, Turkey, Canada and Australia to spend ten days in this ‘meditation bootcamp,’ in order to deal with whatever demons or troubles they had found themselves clouded with. And as we would all say later, even though we were not allowed to talk to each other, we had somehow gotten to know each other, sharing peaceful smiles (or sternly concentrated looks), as we strolled around the grounds and halls over the last week. We had inadvertently begun to bond over the hardships of getting up before dawn, having to sit bolt upright for eight hours a day, and sleeping on a straw mat on a slab of concrete.
The hour of chanting always ended with a few pieces centered on “loving kindness.” Our leader had taught us the following little song that she sang in her quiet, gentle but heartfelt voice, and by now most of us could sing along fairly well.
Breathing in, breathing out
Breathing in, breathing out
I am blooming, as a flower
I am fresh, as the dew
I am solid, as a mountain
I am firm, as the earth
I am free, I am free, I am free
Breathing in, breathing out
Breathing in, breathing out
I am water, reflecting
What is real, what is true
And I feel, there is space
Deep inside of me
I am free, I am free, I am free
Out of context, it seems idealistic and Bohemian, but in the peace and tranquility of a comforting tropical breeze, one finds oneself surrendering to its lofty merit. (You can’t improve yourself without at least first visualizing a better state, after all.) And it was around this time that again, I was taken aback at this little Thai nun, who having, as she said, grown “world weary” while working in Europe and had come to Suan Mokkh, spent two years meditating in seclusion, and in the process shed the illusion of self, but gained what I can only call a “PhD in life.” I’ve never heard anyone utter sentences as sincerely and moving as she.
Still, I was surprised when the session was over how elated I felt. Though we’re really not supposed to even communicate by gesturing with others, I couldn’t help giving the fellow next to me a big thumbs up as we walked back toward the main hall with our cushions. And I also pointed to our surroundings, to imply that the gorgeous setting had also contributed to the magic. He smiled back in understanding.
But even more surprising was what I experienced the following day during walking meditation. I’d been meandering over by the “reflexion ponds,” just enjoying another clement day…watching the ants do their thing, noticing the variety of trees, grasses, etc. The bell had rung once again, signaling that we should start moving back to our spots on the sand floor of the main hall. The still vital 87-year-old abbot of Suan Mokkh, Achan (“teacher/master”) Po, would be making his way from the dining hall at his turtle’s pace to sit cross legged on the dais, and tap the bell three times to start another 30-minute session. As he was still nowhere in sight, I knew I could take my time getting back to my spot. I shuffled on a few more yards and found myself standing near the spot where the day before the entire sangha had sat around Khun Tai under the trees. I stopped to just look at the spot. I felt a dryness forming in my throat and a feeling catch in my upper chest. The next thing I knew, tears were streaming down my cheeks. It’s one of those things that are truly difficult to put into words, but a few years ago I realized what causes things like this: Truth is the only thing that can make you cry.
Yeah, at Suan Mokkh they also said you were not to have any books, paper, pen…they wanted you to just be in the present. Still, I noticed a few guys keeping notes, even during dhamma (dharma) talks. I didn’t really feel the need…I was able to remember most of the things I wanted to.
On the plane ride to Surat Thani I wrote a few notes about what I was kind of hoping would happen, etc. Here it is (just a loose brainstorm). I should say that I wasn’t feeling too bad before doing this, but that I was quite sure I would still get much more ‘on track’ by doing it.
– to consider my older life
– get calmer
– find my intuition
– look at the nervousness in my gut
– to not drink for ten days
– eat only veggies and not later in day for ten days
– to get more discipline, control over my life
– look at my issues with cellphones, dogs
– consider my death
– consider leaving Thailand
– consider selling my guitars
– keep my tutorial site?
– see if dry throat goes away
– try to loosen muscles in neck, back, etc
– lose big gut
– lose fuzzy, foggy mind
– feel more joy…
Obviously, some of these things are pretty indirectly related to a 10-day meditation retreat…but briefly, here’s how I feel about this ‘wish list’ in hindsight after the retreat:
I definitely feel calmer, less nervous, more joy, a bit more disciplined/in control. My dry throat, tight muscles in neck/back, big gut, and foggy mind all improved tremendously. I guess I’d say I even got a better perspective on death and have a stronger intuition about what to do in my ‘older life.’
What probably stayed about the same was • my issues with dogs and cell phones. My doubts about my guitars and my lesson site remain, but these are not really problems.
So, overall yeah, I got a lot of benefit from the retreat. (Now in BKK, the ‘afterglow’ is actually continuing longer than I thought it might. However, it probably won’t last unless I get myself to get back up on the roof to do my meditation/stretching/treadmill. Which I probably will. But it’s a bit of a hassle, since you then need a shower because of the sweat….)
But honestly I think much of the benefit was simply from…
– 10 days with no alcohol, caffeine, sugar, meat, wheat, dairy, processed foods…
– instead, just 2 vegan meals per day at 8am and 12:30pm
– this ensures almost 20 hours of ‘intermittent fasting’ every day. So you go to bed on an empty stomach each night, giving your body ample time each day to clear out some of the old bloat and toxins…and not allow more to build up
– getting to bed at 9:30 and up at 4am, which is better for the body’s circadian or diurnal rhythm than my usual 11am to 2am waking hours
– being in a beautiful ‘forest’ in a tropical country with no dogs, pollution, cellphones or computers or TVs, etc.
– having nothing to do but relax, move as slowly as possible
– an hour of ‘yoga’ every morning
All of this is incredibly healthy and in itself can reverse a lot of the damage done by modern city living–even without the actual meditation practice.
In fact, Khun Tai, the nun who led the retreat, stated that it was far easier to meditate successfully on a deserted beach or a mountain top, than in most places in the modern world. I more or less expect now that I’m back in my usual environment that many of my problems will eventually return. I guess I knew this before doing the retreat, but it just reaffirms it. So, I know even better than before that, if I want to stay feeling good/positive I need to…
– spend even more time meditating and stretching, etc. on the roof of my building, etc.
– make sure I take breaks from sitting in front of the computer
– don’t eat or drink too late in the evening
– limit my caffeine, sugar, meat, dairy, wheat, alcohol
In a way, it’s too bad there are such things as ‘meditation retreats,’ or even Buddhism itself. It doesn’t have to be so complicated or involved. What are we concerned with anyway?: Feeling good/calm/centered.
1) In one of the Shunryu Suzuki books, there’s a story of a woman on a retreat at, I think, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center south of San Francisco (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tassajara_Zen_Mountain_Center). She’s standing on a bridge over a ravine taking in the view. Suzuki happened to walk by. “Stay just like that,” he said.
2) On about the 6th day of the retreat (despite missing the first couple days to illness), I’d already accomplished the first few stages: seeing a ‘mental image’ and choosing one image to focus on (‘single-pointed focus’). I’d read in one of the books in the dining hall about the ‘next’ stages, but wasn’t sure which order they were to be tackled in. So, I decided to break silence, go into the office, and ask David, the top male volunteer (who had spent 6 months practicing in the nearby Don Tien Hermitage), what to do next. He said at this point there was no well defined procedure, but that I could work on the ‘higher states’ in any order or all at once if I wanted.
Then we got on the subject of ‘glimpses of enlightenment (nibbana/nirvana).’ He said many people have had experiences of it without knowing. I asked for an example, so he told me about being in New York’s Central Park with a lady friend one sunny day. He said they both sat down but then didn’t speak for about one hour. They both confided later that they had been totally immersed in just ‘being’ in the moment. He also said that, as wonderful as it was, when it was past, they just let it go, without feeling the need to cling/attach to it.
What these two examples show, I think, is that one doesn’t necessarily have to do formal meditation to experience some of the states it can bring.
Let me put it another way. In the retreat, there was repeated reference to two important ideas: 1) Buddhism is the “Middle Way;” i.e., moderation is key in most things, and 2) “Not too tight; not too loose.”
Once I started sitting with the group around Day Three, I spent the first couple days just getting back into the groove of meditation. First we would listen to a dhamma talk by whoever was on the dais at the front of the group (Khun Tai, Abbot Po, Khun David or an Indian monk), then we would keep some of those things (techniques, ideals, etc.), in mind while we meditated. However, the result was that my meditation was too “tight;” i.e., I was trying to achieve something, rather than just letting myself be.
This actually became a bit burdensome by around the sixth day of the retreat. Yet Khun Thai also stressed that meditation should also be enjoyable, if not joyful…and we had also been learning that, after the early stages, there can be stages which include • ‘experience without an experiencer’ (breathing without a breather), • joy, • bliss…then • rapture…and finally • peace/calm, and • equanimity/acceptance (dropping of positive or negative feelings)…and finally a feeling of • coolness (which is what ‘nibbana’ [nirvana] means in Pali).
As my illness subsided and I started spending more time sitting on my stool (with no back), in the back of the sand-floored meditation hall, I started to get the same nagging problem I’d experienced during my first retreat there in 2002: an aching knot in my middle-left back. Standing meditation was also allowed, and a few people were also doing it, so I spent about half my time doing that to help with the pain in my back. (Incidentally, the morning yoga sessions, which I did on my own–a new option–also eventually helped a lot with the back pain…as did, probably, just getting beyond the first few days of not being used to sitting for such long periods…we spent about 8 hours each day meditating and listening to dhamma talks in the main hall….)
Anyway, from about Day 6, I decided I’d do whatever it took to make my meditation more fun, and less of of burden, as a strategy to make it through the rest of the retreat. I think this ‘looser’ strategy actually helped to produce deeper meditative states.
While I was often able to achieve ‘single-pointed focus’ on a small ‘sun’ or ‘moon’ or ‘diamond’ or ‘star’ image in the meditation hall, I had some of my best experiences during the three daily walking/standing meditation sessions.
I’d walk to a part of the grounds where I was relatively alone (usually barefoot), then just plant my feet about shoulder width apart and gaze at some beautiful scene. These included 1) a fairly regular pattern of the unusual grassy ground cover, 2) shadows coming through the trees onto the grass, 3) the surface of one of the reflecting ponds as the wind was creating ever-changing ripples across it, etc.
I wouldn’t try to ‘meditate;’ I would simply ‘be’ with the given scene. On several of these occasions I experienced several minutes of greatly reduced awareness of self. Another thing that can happen when I’m in this ‘zone’ is that I stop seeing the scene as ‘a tree’ or ‘grass’ or ‘the surface of a pond.’ Instead, it becomes more a pattern of relatively meaningless colors, and the experience can change in other ways. For example, I remember noticing when all of a sudden the pattern that was created by the shadows of the trees on the grass inverted…it was kind of like, whereas before, the light seemed to be the object of my attention, now the shaded parts seemed more substantial.
Or, how when looking at the surface of a pond one day under my umbrella (it only rained a little during the retreat, thankfully), when the light sprinkle started to get heavier, the surface of the pond seemed to ‘boil.’ (Actually, ponds, the ocean, etc. seem to be quite good spots for meditation.)
(After re-reading the above, I want to interject a thought.)
One thing that has occurred to me after I experience some ‘special state’ like this is, “Well, that was entertaining.” I mean, okay, so I was able to temporarily erase my sense of self and “become one” with my surroundings…and it almost always feels good/is a welcome break from my usual anxious, egocentric life. But is it nothing much more than an interesting temporary ‘trick’ that one can learn to create for oneself?
Well, I guess after reflecting on this now a bit I’d say no; something happens in/as a result of this state that is important/substantial. I’m glad I’ve learned to create/experience it…it is deeply calming, and lets me experience the world in a way that not many are able to.
Still…when I got back to Surat Thani after the retreat, I wanted to look up a variety of things about meditation online…. One of the first things I came across on youtube was a podcast by Sam Harris I’d actually listened to before (https://youtu.be/xOkxIcrCLEI). He speaks with Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson who are, I think, both Harvard professors, and who have both done intensive meditation practice in Asia, and have both written books on meditation and the science behind meditation.
Anyway, in the podcast one of them talks about the difference between “‘altered states’ and ‘altered traits.'” What he was interested in, he said, was if the ability to experience ‘altered states’ during meditation actually impacted on or changed the person’s life over the long term. Did the ability to achieve higher states of meditation during a retreat have positive and long lasting effects on their lives once they returned to the ‘real world,’ or conversely, did the experience create no appreciable improvement to their lives? (I actually can’t recall his conclusion…maybe this was just something he was hoping to build into his next academic study?) But it’s a good question. And I think it’s also kind of related to my general skepticism about the expectations a lot of people have going into a meditation retreat of the type I just finished. Because clearly many people do have “expectations” about what they will experience/what will happen to them during and after such a retreat. I guess what I try to advocate is, as difficult as it may be, people should try their best *not to have any expectations at all* from such a retreat. Yet I imagine this is nearly impossible, largely because of the whole setup:
– you (in many cases), get on a plane to an exotic land
– you get off the plane in a totally new, hot, humid, dirty, noisy culture
– you ride to a monastery based on millennia-old traditions where it is mostly silent and very stoic
– you meet people who speak with a very strong accent and who behave very differently than what you’re used to
Given the above setting, how could the average young person manage to retain a healthy dose of skepticism about what is about to transpire? Many, I’m sure, have a strong preconception that these monks and nuns must view the normal world with a halo around it. Or that over the course of the next 10 days, they may feel moments of magic, as if they are levitating. And so on. Unfortunately, complete beginners will “try” to clear their minds in meditation, since that is part of their preconception.
You’re warned throughout the retreat that our minds will play games with us and try to convince us that we should leave for a variety of reasons. Sure enough…besides the early disappointment of being ill…on around Day 4 I just felt kind of sad…but luckily I realized it was just a result of getting deeper into meditation. (I try to meditate every day when I’m in Bangkok, but realistically I do it about every other day. Then, I’ll do from 15 to 45 minutes. So, sitting for a few hours every day at the retreat quickly paid off in accessing deeper levels of myself.)
On the morning of Day 5, Khun David let us know we were now “half way, plus a little,” through the 10-day retreat (since we had kind of started on Day Zero, registration/orientation day), and that this should give those of us who were still there (11 of the original 57 participants left early), some motivation to carry on with the remainder.
But even though I knew the whole thing was ‘just 10 days out of my life,’ I did now sometimes feel like it was getting quite tedious. And, though I’m glad I did stick it out the entire 10 days, I do think I’d gained most of the benefit after say, the first 5 or 6 days.
As you know, the subject of enlightenment is problematic for me….
This time, I was reminded again at how amazing (for lack of a better word), it can be to be in the presence of someone who has really devoted themselves to Buddhist meditation.
I’ve been around a few Buddhist monks before. I guess because they’ve done a lot of work to reduce their concept of self, they almost seem like a ‘nobody.’ It sort of feels like sitting in front of a mirror–they simply reflect back what they see/experience. So it can be kind of weird/intimidating/inspiring. Plus, they are usually wearing the traditional garb of their order (e.g., an orange robe for male monks in Thailand), and the circumstances strongly communicate that this person is to be revered and is somehow ‘special.’
Anyway, though I never did meet the nun Khun Tai face to face, she was still very impressive. But was she ‘enlightened?’ Regardless of how we might define that word, I think it was clear that (as she disclosed), the two years she’d spent in almost complete seclusion had allowed her to greatly reduce her sense of self and to manifest many of the other benefits discussed during the dhamma talks, namely: • a higher sense of the suffering of ‘sentient beings,’ including humans, resulting largely from the facing of her own suffering (“dhukka” in Pali, which also can be translated as ‘unsatisfactoriness’), • compassion (“meta” in Pali), or loving kindness, which resulted from the closer look at suffering, • joy, patience, liberation, coolness, sincerity, etc.
As I said in my first email, I’ve never heard anyone speak with such sincerity and authority. It catches you by surprise to hear “the truth” spoken so plainly. It literally brought tears to my eyes on a few occasions.
Do I want to become a monk?
I’d have to say currently, no. On the last day of the retreat we men of the sangha were led by Khun David 1.5 kilometers away from the retreat center into the nearby Don Tien Men’s Hermitage to do some ‘tamboon’ (merit-making or appreciative), raking and sweeping. Khun David started to get looser with us at this time, since we were getting very close to the end of the retreat. He showed us the dorm there, deep in the woods, which had rooms for about 12 monks or those who wanted to do intensive personal practice. There were an equal number of concrete “kuti” huts spread throughout the woods for each of the residents where they could go to practice in complete solitude. David had been living and practicing here for the last six months, he said.
After giving us a short tour of the area he asked if there were any questions. I asked if he thought he would become a monk. “Absolutely not,” he replied. “I like wine, chicken and women,” he said to laughter.
I feel the same way. In fact, I kind of think there is something unnatural about the monastic life. Like Khun David, I also enjoy too many things in ‘normal life,’ and think, as long as they are enjoyed in moderation, they enrich life and are not really the ‘defilements’ they are made out to be per the precepts one must swear to when one takes the vows of monkhood. Again, moderation is the key. It’s easier said than done, but does that mean we have to curtail them completely? Well, in my case, apparently I do need to, occasionally, divorce myself completely from contact with them. So I’m pretty sure I’ll decide to do another retreat or detox or similar again (and again) in the future. And, keep trying to find ways to improve my current environment and willpower such that I can stay calm and healthy for longer periods of time between retreats.
Good, But Not Perfect
As Khun Tai said one day, even Suan Mokkh is not perfect. Having done two retreats there now, though the overall feeling was quite similar, there were some differences.
The retreat of 2002 was stricter. The dorms were locked when participants were supposed to be in sitting/walking meditation or listening to dhamma talks. If you felt lazy and tried to stay in your room, a knock would come on your door and you would be reminded that you had signed a form on registration day that you would participate in all activities. Now, dorms are left open so, if you play hooky during one or more sessions, there’s a very low chance anyone will tell you to stop being lazy. (Still, very few people in the men’s dorm occasionally skipped sessions.)
A main difference was that this time many of the dhamma talks were played from CDs and, unfortunately, most of them were terrible recordings. The worst was a series that was played almost every day in the afternoon session. Apparently they were recorded where Achan Buddhadasa (the monk who started Suan Mokkh and who passed away in 1993 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhadasa)), stayed and, as he was fond of animals, there were a few roosters right next to where he was speaking. As a result, all the recordings are constantly peppered with loud cock crows, as the birds must have been within 20 feet of the microphone and all recordings were made in the early morning.
These recordings consisted of the English monk who goes by the name of Dhammavidu (I’d met him during the first retreat; apparently you can now find him on youtube), translating the speech or writing (I’m not sure which), of Buddhadasa, while the founder himself sits next to him (and it sounds like they are both in front of one of the early International Dharma Hermitage retreats of the type I attended).
The first time, at the latest retreat, I heard this, I just couldn’t believe they expected us to sit in silence and listen to it. And when, on about the seventh day of the retreat, Khun David announced he’d put out a ‘comment book’ for us to leave our thoughts in, I shared, firmly and directly, how I thought “forcing beginning meditators to listen to these CDs was neither loving or kind,” and how I thought, 1) they should definitely be re-recorded (“teenagers around the world with a laptop and a $20 microphone produce recording far better in their bedrooms”), and 2) they should also be re-written and summarized, instead of the current rambling, redundant style.
There were also some CDs, however, of Khun Tai speaking in what sounded like a bathroom. These were played as our group would start into another sitting meditation. Her voice was meant to be quiet, soothing, almost dreamlike…they might include a ‘body scan’ (progressive relaxation technique), helping us focus on relaxing parts of the body one by one. Though she’s a very good English speaker, she’s not perfect and, as luck would have it, sometimes she’d say something you think might be insightful…but then, because of her pronunciation, or the wispiness of her voice, or the unfamiliarity of the word, you’d miss it. True, meditation often means having to deal with ‘unsatisfactoriness,’ frustration and even pain, but why in the world *create* more pain for those who are simply trying to understand the process?
Though the 2002 retreat was stricter, I’d have to say it was conducted better overall. First, there were no recorded lectures. Instead, there were four or five monks and one or two nuns who got up and told us how it was they came into the order. All of these stories were incredibly interesting and inspiring, if not downright moving.
Also, the current retreat seemed to be overly Buddhadasa-centric. During the 2002 retreat, I guess I learned about the founder and that he was highly respected. However, the thrust of the retreat seemed to be on Buddhist meditation in general. Anapanasati, or ‘mindfulness with breathing,’ which was the main teaching of Buddhadasa, was taught, but there were also readings by Thich Nhat Hanh, Shunryu Suzuki and even the controversial Tibetan Chogyam Trungpa. (This time, there was one wonderful reading from Eckhart Tolle’s “Power of Now,” however. There were also a couple readings from the American (Tibetan lineage) Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pema_Chödrön).)
But, to me, there were far too many readings and recordings of translations of Buddhadasa. It would be one thing if he were an engaging writer but, unfortunately, he rarely is. In fact, I got the feeling that, coming from a near-Brahmin class Chinese-Thai mercantile family, that he was sort of bred to be the head of some institution or other as an adult, and felt natural in the role of creator and leader of a rather rebellious branch of Thai Buddhism. That said, I do definitely admire what he accomplished in his life, and especially his “three wishes,” which were
“1) Help Buddhists or followers of any religion attain the deepest meanings of their religion.
2) Develop good understanding among religions.
3) Usher fellow human beings out of the influence of materialism.”
We were made to watch two or three DVDs on the small TV screens in the dining hall that were dedicated to showing what a great man he was. The last one was an hour-long documentary on his illness, death and subsequent cremation. Apparently, according to his will, his funerary rites were made far simpler than they might otherwise have been. But still, I got the feeling at Suan Mokkh that, Khun Tai and Khun David at least had “drunk the Kool-Aid” when it came to Buddhadasa and his particular brand of Buddhism. Sorry, but to me, people are people. Some are better than others or have had more influential lives. But we’re all just people; not saints.
When I arrived from the monastery across the highway on registration day, one of the first people I met was Barry, the stout former boxer from Australia. I told him I’d done the retreat 17 years before and we started talking about some of the changes since then. He asked me if I knew the monk known as Dhammadivu (“revealer of the dhamma”), and I said yes, that he had been part of the 2002 retreat and that I’d even had a ‘personal interview’ with him on day 8 or 9 of that retreat, which was an option for those who wanted to.
Barry told me that Dhammadivu was “no longer allowed” to speak during the retreats at Suan Mokkh. The reason was that he had been straying too far from the teachings they were trying to impart to the participants. With hindsight, it seems pretty clear that someone with some clout (Abbot Po himself? Khun Tai?), had decided (unfortunately, I think), to ‘reform’ the content of the retreat.
And, the fact that now much of the retreat was listening to dhamma talks and readings on CDs, and the fact that there were fewer actual people featured, seemed to show a need to simplify, or perhaps even to tighten the purse strings, due to limited funding or available manpower? Certainly, at THB2000 per head, to cover all meals, accommodations, etc., it couldn’t be much of an earner for the monastery. But the overall impression was that it was now something of a routine that no one thought too hard about; they just did it, from the 1st to the 10th every month, like clockwork. It was definitely still powerful and important. But it lacked the personal touch of the retreat I’d done in 2002.
A Good Life
What I think most people want is not a “perfect” life; just a “good” one. We don’t need to have the ‘absolute calmness’ of an ‘ascended being,’ we just don’t want to feel anxious all the time. We don’t necessarily need to extinguish all sense of self, we just need to stop thinking that life is all about ego aggrandizement and that ‘whoever has the most toys when he dies, wins.’ We don’t really expect to be able to love every single ‘sentient being’ who shuffles or scurries around town, we just want to stay more or less balanced and open minded in our dealings with others.
First of all, I don’t like religion. So, to the extent that Buddhism is a religion (and it is), I don’t like that aspect of it.
How does that manifest itself in Buddhism? Well, the very tradition of the monastery itself. The idea that some people should cloister themselves from the rest of society seems unnatural and extreme. In a religion that purports to advocate a “middle way,” this is not a moderate way to live.
And, though some religious rituals can be beautiful and moving, the trouble with them is that, whatever value they may have had when they were first created can become lost, so that the value of the ritual seems to be “to perform a ritual.” This too easily becomes a form of brainwashing or is meaningless or even soul sucking and has nothing to do with living with sincerity and integrity.
One good thing about Achan Buddhadasa’s Buddhism is that he refused to go along with the superficiality of the majority of Thai Buddhism which, for example, supports the idea of “merit making” which is central to many Thais. That’s the idea that, put in simple terms, if you give gifts regularly to the monks at your local temple that after you die you’ll go to heaven or be reborn rich enough to own a Mercedes. Apparently Buddhadasa also clearly saw that most Thai monasteries in Thailand disregarded many of the primary teachings of Buddhism, as if the abbots had never read or comprehended the main points of the original sutras.
What I do like about Buddhism are many of its tenets. I think the “Four Noble Truths” are, essentially, true. There are different ways to interpret them, but here’s mine:
1) If you’re alive, you’re going to suffer (in big ways and small ways).
2) One of the main reasons for this suffering is that we often think that we shouldn’t. We become attached to the idea that we shouldn’t suffer. We also become attached to people and things being a certain way, and when they change, we also suffer, because we expect them not to.
3) A way to end a lot of unnecessary suffering is to learn to stop being attached to things, people and ideas. You will still suffer at times, but nowhere near as much.
4) The way to learn how to stop attaching or clinging to things, people and ideas is by studying the dhamma (variously translated as Truth, Nature, Buddhist Teachings, etc.). The main activity in ‘studying the dhamma’ is meditation (which, as we’ve seen, can be done in various ways).
There are lots of other ‘lists’ in Buddhism (the Triple Gem, Eight-fold Path, Five Defilements, etc.).