I willingly surrender my mobile phone and camera. My passport, anything that I can read or write on, my pens; into the safe they go. The registration fee for 10 days, including food and shelter, is 2000 baht (70AUD). I give all my money and tell them I will send more. (I meant it at the time; turns out they would prefer me to donate it to another charity as it’s unlikely to arrive through the mail). I sign a form agreeing to follow instructions and abide by the rules completely. Room key 111 is free. A woman hurriedly scans my form, they won’t feed me Dairy. You’re a beginner? At 4pm the Abbot, Ajhan Poh makes a welcoming talk- he tells us; he wants to offer us ‘the best thing in Thailand’- Buddhism. We sit on the stone floor of a large open-air meditation hall, facing 3 ponds surrounded by reeds.
We are at the International Dharma Heritage. A funny little nun leads the tour around the grounds. The men and women have separate sleeping areas, and the boundary is a ditch. There are hot springs, two for men and one for women. The people here are English speakers (or non-speakers, as the case may be). We collect a drink bottle, a blanket and a mosquito net, and cushions for the meditation hall. Our bed is a cement slab raised off the ground, with a ‘wooden pillow’- a block of wood with a bit cut out for your head.
(I undertake the training to intend not to sleep or sit on luxurious beds and seats.) At 6pm in the eating hall we drink ‘tea’; today it’s chocolate milk, they give me sweet juice instead. Because Tal and me arrived late, we sort out details while a video about Buddhadasa Bikkhu, the founding monk, plays on the TV above our heads. There is time for some final question and answers, and then at 7.15pm, the silence begins. We walk wordlessly past one another, heads bowed.
In my cement room, I unpack my backpack. A fellow meditator-to-be leaves her new purple sarong, purchased for a friend, outside my door. I didn’t bring one, and we must bathe completely covered. I hang my clothes on coat hangers on a piece of rope in my room. As well as the allocated blanket, I have the blue blanket from British Airways. The lights go out at 9.30 and silence falls.
I don’t mind the silence, really. I must learn to master my mind though. I came into this with knowledge of the power of the mind, and the hold my own mind has over me. The thought of sitting alone with it scares me. I am wary at the self-destructiveness that will arise in me if I am left to sit with myself.
Day one, day one, start over again… Step one, step one, with not much making sense just yet. I’m faking it, til I’m pseudo making it, from scratch, begin again. But this time I as I, not as we. (I undertake the training to intend not to dance, sing, play or listen to music, watch shows, wear garlands, ornaments and beautify myself with perfumes and cosmetics.)
At 4am the bell begins to ring. Each time it slowly tolls, it sounds like it will be the last time, such is the pause afterwards. But it continues on and on, gently ringing until we are all up. Today, the first day, I wrap myself in the sarong and walk to wash myself. The dorm is a large square, with a garden in the middle and 60 rooms around the outside, facing inwards.
There are two big old trees in the middle on the grass, and 3 large round cement tubs filled with water along each side. At the far end is a row of toilets and the square main cement tubs. I cut the corner and as I walk toward them in the twilight, I find myself stumbling in a drainage ditch. I inwardly curse. On the tub edges are plastic coloured dishes, which you fill with water to pour on yourself. Holding the sarong in my teeth, I pour water underneath. The water is cold. I dress in unfamiliar clothing, not singlets or dresses. I have to be covered from shoulder to knee at all times. When I guess it’s about 430, I make my way in the dark to the meditation hall for the morning reading.
We will sit in the same places each time to avoid confusion. I am in the women’s section, the right, at the back, on the outside. To my right is a section of stone floor, then grass and trees. The weather in Thailand has been so warm and balmy; I haven’t needed my favourite purple jumper, which is with my luggage in Bangkok. Now as we sit for meditation between 4.45 and 5.15am, I miss it. I have such dislike for being cold. (Day 3 I finally approach a nun, she gives me donated jumpers to choose from). From 5.15 to 7am we do ‘Mindfulness in Motion’- this replaces yoga as no one volunteered to instruct. I am disappointed. The sun rises half way through, at 6am. This is the only time are allowed to lie on the floor of the meditation hall and I make the most of it. I follow along at times, and do some of my own stretching. Noteworthy is an exercise where you stand and wave you arms, behind and then out in front and then behind, for 500 repeats. Pushing up in front, letting swing back. And repeat. Apparently the Abbot does thousands of them. At 7, an orange clad monk speaks to us about Dharma and meditation.
At 8, we file to the food hall. A large group of people walking in utter silence, slowly, up a dirt path. Today, everyone is diligent and conscientious, intentionally measuring their steps. We queue for a stainless steel bowl and spoon, and ladle food from a large stainless steel vat. For breakfast, warm rice gruel, with corn and other small pieces of veges floating round in it. A platter of leafy green lettuces and cucumber, a platter of spiky red lychees and small sweet bananas, and a tub of green tea. We sit women to the left and men to the right. The food reflection is read and we repeat, ‘With wise reflection I eat this food, not for play, not for intoxication, not for fattening, not for beautification. Only to maintain this body, to stay alive and healthy, to support the spiritual way of life. Thus I let go of unpleasant feelings and do not stir up new ones. Thereby the process of life goes on, blameless at ease and in peace.’ We are encouraged to eat slowly, to put the spoon down between mouthfuls and not put more food in our mouth until we have swallowed. The diet is vegan and pleases me no end. There is a lot of food and I eat until full. Out the back, four tubs of water; to remove solids, to wash with soap, to rinse, to rinse again. They have asked us to aim to keep the final tub free from any solids or suds. Separate tubs to wash our cups, stacked upside down to air-dry. Around 9, I lie down on my cement slab and stare at the ceiling. I knock on the door of the Thai woman who lives in our dorm to turn off the lights and supervise- I point to the weeping gash on my left ankle. Funny thing, this whole time I have been travelling, I have not injured myself. Until now, very few bruises, cuts knocks or scrapes- I struggle to remember any. She pours Bedatine on it and applies a Band-Aid.
I collect a rake and a tub, move to the area I need to rake. The grass has many roots and is tangled together. Ants crawl on my legs and bite me, getting all over my white fisherman’s pants, which now have blood and pus on them from my ankle. In frustration I pick up the leaves one by one, empty them into the tub, return the rake. The bell rings at 10am for our Dharma talk. A large thin mat, two flat cushions, two plump cushions.
Our feet must not face toward the speaker at any time, it is considered rude. As is lying down in public, much to my disdain. When my lower back is out of alignment and hurting, the quickest way to fix it- flat on my back and relax until it crunches back into place. Not so here. We may sit in lotus, half lotus, or on our knees Japanese style. Small wooden squares make a mini seat, and those with back problems (AKA whingers) can sit by request on a chair at the back. As time passes I become more creative with the cushions. Each day we are spoken to about Buddhism basics, in particular the teachings of Buddhadasa Bikkhu, who founded Wat Suan Mokkh. As I come to understand their point of view: The cause of all suffering, or ‘dukkah’ is ignorant contact, when we forget the basic truths of life- Impermanence, and Not-self. Forgetting the basic truths leads to ‘Upadana’- grasping, clinging, attachment. The aim is to free yourself from this state, through practising Mindfulness of Breathing, Anapanasati.
At 11 o’clock we learn Walking Meditation. The aim is to wholly envelop your mind in paying attention to the movements of your feet. To do this, you must move very slowly. Imagine your foot lifting off the ground, moving through the air, lowering to the ground, pressing down. Lifting lifting lifting, moving moving moving, lowering lowering lowering, pressing pressing pressing, for 45 minutes. The pond to the left of the meditation hall has on it a bridge leading to a small island in the centre. Each day it is well populated with people and I keep it for later. When I eventually venture there, the ground of the small island is covered in ants. There is a low tree and I return often to sit between its branches, wrapping myself around and watching the other people slowly walk. I have one moment where I look around, and everyone is deep in concentration on walking so painstakingly slowly, and I notice the ludicrous, almost insane nature of this (although in truth it is no less sane than normal human reality) but for a clear moment I feel as if I am in a mental asylum.
45 minutes sitting meditation. The wound on my ankle is weepy and in the heat attracts flies while I am attempting to sit quietly. They bite. The water we bathe in is communal tap water, when the sore becomes yellow, I show it to the nun and she gives me saline solution to bathe it in. I attend to small details. Each morning, each break, I apply fresh Vaseline to my tattoo. With a small pouch of washing powder, I sit and wash my clothes in buckets. I use the dishes to fill the buckets and worry about contaminating the well with powder. The clothes dry quickly on the strip of washing line outside my door.
I learn to sleep sitting up leaning back against the pole. I sit on my knees with cushions under them, put my head on my thighs, and sleep. I sit with one leg forwards and one backwards, bend onto my knee, and sleep. I rest my forehead on the floor, intending to rest, and sleep. At 12.30 the bell tolls and we go for lunch. File silently up the path each time, queue and fill our bowls, read the food reflection. This will be our final meal for the day. (I undertake the training to intend not to eat in between after noon and before dawn.) There are a few dishes to choose from, curries and rice, as well as lettuce, bananas and lychees and tea again. Eating slowly until I am overfull, to last all afternoon, with a couple of cups of tea. Doing everything carefully, washing up the plate, cup and spoon. I develop a routine, leaving the cup on the sink, washing the bowl and coming back for the spoon. Minor details.
I experiment with seating, most days facing outwards with my back to the male half of the room, looking across the steel boundary to a dirt parking lot with a rainforest hill. Sometimes Thai workers drive along the road in their tractors, motorbikes or cars. Cats mill around near the kitchen. One such tabby waltzes through the breakfast hall while we are eating in our carefully constructed silence and meows, prompting one of the participant’s response of an aggressive irritable shhh! One day, the renga tall pretty girl who is always playing with the animals, hands me a purring cat. Later I sit with in the courtyard on a straw mat and stair at the roof with the noisy cat purring; it is kind of mangy around the mouth and ears, I think back to Morocco and wonder if I will catch something.
On Day One at lunch, an American guy is yelling at the nuns. They are mild-mannered and do not yell back. His girlfriend’s mother (?) died a week before he entered, and he wants them to give him his phone out of the safe to call her. He has signed a form that he will not use it while he is here. He yells at them they are fake Buddhists. They suggest to him that he can leave. He does not. They give him the phone and usher him outside the gate to use it. His manner shakes me, he swears and is abrasive. I wonder if he is a voice for the frustration of the group. I stay away from him when walking the grounds.
In the breaks after filling my belly, I go to my room to lay down and fall asleep, waking again when the bell tolls to meditate. I do my chore irregularly, sometimes in the morning or afternoon or evening. After the fiasco of the first day, I rake in places where those ants are not. I am unsure exactly where I am supposed to be raking; I check the chore book at breakfast and lunch. There is supposed to be another girl raking as well but I don’t see her; perhaps she rakes immediately after eating. Must be in a different spot though, because each day I have leaves to remove. I take satisfaction in the clear patch of grass immediately to my right when I sit in silence.
The bell tolls for meditation instruction. The British monk speaks to us daily about Anapanasati, working through it chronologically, building our knowledge and understanding to enhance our ‘practice’. (In the afternoons we listen to recordings from the Buddhadasa, which are fascinating but unfortunately usually end with me asleep.) In the space of walking meditation I go into the courtyard around our rooms and walk. I follow the path methodically around and let my mind become restful. I notice details; particular girls clothes, how their rooms are kept. I notice that most of the women have bought large suitcases packed full with many things. Their clothes hang in their rooms and fill the rope. I take comfort in the simplicity in my room; I left most of my things in Bangkok and have only the bare essentials with me.
4.15, sitting meditation. I have never been much of a meditator. I find the pressure of forcing a not calm mind to calm itself distressing. When the lady at check-in asked me if I meditate, I replied, Sometimes when stretching or in the shower. I love to lie in the shower, under the steady beating pressure of the water and let my mind be calm and still. My energy cleansed. The things that bubble to the surface of mind at such times are usually useful. I have read and heard much of the benefit and value of meditation. I don’t want to push myself too much too soon, so when meditation times begin, I focus first on finding comfort and not wriggling too much. I try occasionally to ignore discomfort and pain in my body rather than run from it. It is enough to be here in this time of reflection. I watch my thoughts carefully, I observe, but I allow them liberty to wander. When I am tired, I allow myself to sleep to help the time pass.
At 5pm, Chanting books are distributed and we echo the monk ‘Buddham saranang gacchāmi, Dhammam saranang gacchāmi, Sangham saranang gacchāmi’- To the Buddha, the dhamma and the sanga for refuge we go. All day I have sat with my new tattoo facing up to me. In the breaks I have applied Vaseline, tending to it. Now we chant- Life Does Not Last, Death Is Long Lasting. Inevitably I Must Die, Death Ends The Cycle Of My Life. Life Is Uncertain, Death Is Most Certain. They are willing us to remember the impermance of life. (This I have realised, when I left Norway I wrote to Endre, Life is impermanent, Life is beautiful. One, or the other, why both?!).
The chanting follows with Alas! This Body will not last. When Consciousness Is Gone, They Throw It Away, To Lie, Upon The Ground, Like A Fallen Log, Useless… I don’t want to say it. I only know one dead person and the thought of his body thrown on the ground with dismissal makes me deeply distressed. Tears.
After the chanting is Loving Kindness. The nun speaks of forgiveness, having a gentle heart, love for the family, and such. She recommends exercises and we practice some. She tells us of a young man who ran away from home and lived on the streets. He became a beggar with no food clothing or shelter. A woman took him into his home and he was incredibly grateful for the meal, shower and clean clothes she gave him. He felt eternally indebted to her. And this is what our mother and fathers do for us all our childhood. I can relate to him as I’ve experienced this incredibly gratitude for very small things, and begin to think about my family throughout the loving kindness. Soon I return home to a family I haven’t seen in over 7 months. I feel wary and as the time in here slowly passes, my mind pulls up old memories of them. We will need to talk.
At 6pm we file up to the hall for tea. In the afternoons I sit in a small wooden hut across from the food hall, alone usually. I prefer it, finding the presence of another unsettling. It pulls me out of myself, distracts, and evokes an aversive reaction. I see myself tense and begin to watch myself when another is near, rather then watching my experience. There is a long trail of ants opposite me. The ants here have more character than in Australia, often they are bigger, most are black, none green or red. On a path I watch them quickly gather stones to build a tunnel up and around their track. I absorb my attention in them as I slowly drink my warm cup of tea in the afternoons, and increasingly after meals. On Day 4 when I am Breaking, this is where I sit. I study the ants, their diligence and single focus movements. I wonder what they think- if they think, what their organising concepts look, feel and sound like. I wonder what motivates them. I wonder what it would be like if I had the work ethic of an ant, I wonder what it is like for them to stop and touch each other in the way they do. I’ve since heard that ants don’t sleep. I take comfort in their rhythmical movements, their large sense of purpose held in small forms. I am coming to peace with them. One day I sit and there is a decaying frog that they are taking to pieces slowly. I am repulsed; and then come to accept it for what it is. In chore time, one of the participants is cleaning and moves to remove the frog. I hiss at him and shake my head. He leaves it. Until the next day, when it is gone, swept away. Humans interfering, enforcing their will, resisting the way things are and wanting to change it. (I undertake the training to intend not to take away any breath.)
This time is also allocated for bathing in the hot springs. My hair is freshly dreaded and my ankle freshly tattooed and neither are supposed to get wet immediately. So I delay. Having something to look forward to helps immensely. (With each passing day, it is easier to convince myself to see it out. I habitually resign small pleasures for the following day).
There is a grass path leading to the springs, new territory. It is lined with coconut trees, they are all around and gardeners tend to them. The water in the spring is hot. There are cement steps in, and trees hang over it. Mosquitoes sometimes buzz around. The ground is mushy, laid with wooden planks. The spring appears to be naturally formed, with muddy walls and foliage. I cautiously dip my hair. With undignified, naughty pleasure, I float on my back. To the right is a tree archway, beyond which the planks end and the spring continues. None of the girls usually swim there: I want to. I am afraid of water, of bugs and insects and water creatures. Each day I cautiously venture a little further, frustrated with my own fear. The water is nurturing, calming, and coming out of the pond, even the Thai air feels crisp. There are two showers where the girls get nekked (despite protocol) and rinse.
At 7.30 the bell tolls. We sit and meditate in the hall. At 8.00 together we walk slowly around the ponds in single file. It is surprising and enjoyable, a large group of people walking silently and mindfully under the stars and moon. We pause and face in towards the water, barefoot under the sky in silence. When it rains for nighttime meditation, the woman walk in single file silently around the outside of the main meditation hall. The small nun leads, and pauses to face inwards after sometime. Some girls in the line annoy me, by having clicky hips or by walking with odd timing, or not by leaving even gaps, walking faster than the nun and then making everyone in the line stop when they run out of space. The rain brings the insects alive and the geckos inhabit the silence.
For the duration of the retreat we have remained barefoot inside, as is Thai custom; at the entrance to each building and hall there is a small square foot bath for washing your feet and removing the small sand stones that line the paths. When we walk around the smooth stone of the meditation hall in the silence and night rain, I carry with me a light broom and use it to brush from the path the tiny stones that many imperfectly washed feet have carried onto the stone.
At 8.30, we return to our positions to meditate. The gentle quiet nuns give final instructions, and at 9 we retire to our rooms. The gates are closed and at 9.30 the lights go out. I lay in bed in the darkness, with the gentle rustles of the girls in the rooms around me adjusting their things. The first day has passed and I work to calm my fast beating heart. The wooden pillow isn’t so bad and I am quickly asleep.
On the second morning, I lay awake as the bell tolls. The long pause each time makes me think it has finished, but again, it continues until I am up. I am wearing clothes that are unfamiliar to me, two white shirts I picked up at the charity store, and my comfortable fisherman’s pants. I work at changing clothes often and washing so I can remain clean. The day repeats.
04.30 Morning Reading
04.45 Sitting meditation
07.00 Bells, Dhamma talk & Sitting meditation
08.00 Breakfast & Chores
10.00 Bells. Dhamma talk
11.00 Walking or standing meditation
11.45 Bells. Sitting meditation
12.30 Lunch & Chores
14.30 Bells. Meditation instruction & Sitting meditation
15.30 Walking or standing meditation
16.15 Bells. Sitting meditation
17.00 Bells. Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation
18.00 Tea & hot springs
19.30 Bells Sitting meditation
20.00 Group walking meditation
20.30 Bells Sitting meditation
21.00 Bells Bedtime
21.30 LIGHTS OUT
In hindsight, this experience feels mysterious. I chose not to capture any part of it, to let it all flow away. Fragments, slight variations
There is roughly 40-60 of us, half male, half female. (I undertake the training to keep my mind and body free from any sexual activity). I find myself walking behind one of the guys and staring at the hem of his pants thinking, lets just get married already. You, Me, lets go. The chic equivalent of ‘Lemme throw you down and fuck you right here’.
Each day our numbers fall a little, spaces clear up in the meditation hall, cushions are left and I add them to mine. It encourages me that I am doing well.
Another guy whose pants I liked is sitting outside the female dorm on a water tub; they are whispering to each other and I divert my eyes and ears. (Quickly people relax and become less disciplined. I notice how distracted my mind is by the sound of human speech; it pulls my attention like nothing else.) I need to wash my ankle but can’t get the tap to work- she asks me if I am okay- I nod briefly, smile awkwardly, and go back into the dorm. Later she hands me a note with a smile and walks away. She is leaving and wants me to email her and wishes me luck. Next day they are gone.
I find myself hugging a tree. I have heard about so called ‘Tree Huggers’ and never knew this could go beyond a fondness for preserving nature. I find myself in need of grounding, solid comfort. I push myself against it and find it’s ‘solidness’ exceptionally grounding and uplifting at once. To the left of the mediation hall is a large old tree. The nun tells us they call it ‘Big Tree’. Around it is sand, which is carefully raked by participants each day, they leave patterns stemming out from the trunk, sometimes circles, with their rakes. One day I hoist myself up in the tree and lay on the wide solid braches, my legs dangling over like a sloth in the sun. One of the girls makes a hand movement at me and mouths that it would make a good picture. For a minute I silently lament that it will never be a Facebook profile picture. I watch the ants crawling over the tree. Eventually the nun asks me to get down, I must ‘have respect’.
Much awaits me when I leave and it occupies my mind. The retreats ends on morning of the 11th. On the night of the 11th I will get the overnight train to Bangkok- I have not yet made a booking. My wallet is in Bangkok. I plan to find an Internet cafe, to Western Union some money to myself, pick it up and get the train. Then to find my wallet and get to the airport. Then to pay the flight change fee and get on the plane home. It leaves at 6pm on the 12th of August. To amuse myself I run through the details, backwards and forwards, planning. Increasingly, I think about the vegan restaurant in Bangkok, with their apple crumble and coconut cream custard. It is this coconut cream custard and crispy apple that nearly is my undoing.
I am not hungry, despite the large periods in between food. The food here is filling and sustains me energetically. I awake in the morning encouraged by the prospect of eating. I enjoy the bananas and look forward to the afternoons that come with dark, sweet juice of the kind which I have never tasted before (or since). I enjoy the slow leisurely eating, as I am naturally a slow eater. To keep my mind quiet I count my chews- on one particular instance I remember chewing a mouthful three hundred times. My bowels become regular after only a few days of clear routine. (The toileting is interesting- the retreat has both western and Thai toilets but they are not in the habit of using toilet paper- instead there are taps and round dishes beside the toilet which the Thais use to pour down their back and wash with their left hand. Despite the humidity, in the heat the water dries quickly. We are encouraged to this, although many of the foreigners choose to continue using toilet paper. For small business I find it okay but for big business I stick with the paper. In case you were wondering. I digress.)
For lunch a few dishes to choose from set out in large, stainless steel pots. I fill my bowl full and anxiously look around to see if I am taking more food then others. I notice with judgement that some women, one in particular, consistently begin eating before the food reflection, while the rest of us sit and wait for everyone to be seated. I notice with a little distress and defensiveness the men crossing to the women’s side and eating from our vat when their own is empty. I notice that I don’t usually breathe eating, not properly. I become practised at holding the focus on my mind on breathing while I eat- I bring the attention back, again and again. My peace in eating slowly is disturbed as hot curries begin being served for lunch. The discomfort is too much to eat slowly and I find myself breaking the peace and rhythm and swallowing quickly. The food varies from day to day with small treats, early on there are crunchy vegetable fried cookies that are to die for, and on another day we have some kind of liquid durian poured over rice bubbles in small bowls. Some of the westerners are unsettled by its strange taste and don’t eat it; more for me, I love the newfound, sweet alternative to milk.
What I am now realising on a deeper level then before, is how we use food, like talking, reading, watching TV or working, as an easy way to escape ourselves and our mind. As I pace back and forwards through the events that must occur after I leave here, mentally listing, I decide I will go to Bangkok and back to Khaosan road for the apple crumble before flying home. From the monastery, onto the train, and back to the apple crumble. With coconut cream custard. This is what awaits me when I leave here, and I can leave anytime. I am tempted. I tell myself, just make it until tomorrow, and if you still want to leave, you can go.
There is a shop in the food hall, which sells toilet paper, t-shirts, toiletries, aeroguard, pens and paper, sarongs. It is open irregularly. People line up, buying t-shirts. There is a funny one, of the ‘Monkey mind’, and the girls wear them. I have absolutely no money. I watch the people queuing to accrue new possessions and wonder if they are hearing the teachings of the ego. I ask the nun if I can pay afterwards for a pen and paper, she says yes but questions me whether I really want to do that. I leave the pen and paper in the after-hours supply box. One of the young guys chases after me on the path and asks me if I am leaving. I shake my head. ‘But I would for apple crumble!’ I say, breaking the silence momentarily, then disconnecting and walking to my room. I smile.
Tally leaves a leaf glistening with morning dew.
As the days pass I apply less and less Vaseline to the tattoo and the wound on my ankle slowly heals up.
The women settle in a routine, smiling at each other, cooperating in silence. Gesturing sometimes, although I choose not to. One of them is absolutely beautiful, immaculately presented despite vowing not to beautify herself, with makeup and plucked eyebrows. Blonde hair, curves and large breasts, distracting.
Around day 4, I enter a meditation hall with a floor of sand. In a small shed are brooms and rakes: I get one and during Walking Meditation I painstakingly and repetitively rake the sand, trying to get the surface perfectly smooth, gradually moving my way across to form a square. It reminds me of the small Zen garden on the counter at my work in lotus, but life-size, with the same meditative effect. I return to rake again, this time a man joins me, sitting in meditation at the end while I move with my back to him. Suddenly my rake brushes across a big dead frog and I squeal. He looks at me questioningly and I shrug. I keep raking, and then let out another yelp when the ‘dead’ frog started hopping around. I laugh helplessly at how startled I was. When I realise that all the circular holes in the sand are frogs burrowing, I get grossed out and don’t rake anymore.
Perhaps on day 6, I see a man walk to the woman’s section, and gently place leaves rolled and tied on the pillow of one of the girls. I watch her return and pick it up. Smile. There is a distant meditation hall, open, flat, small and raised but each time I walk there, they are already sitting in it; I wish I could have it to myself.
Allocated question time with the British monk sits in an alternate meditation hall at the top of the stairs speaking freely, Day 3 and 7. We have the opportunity to ask about things that are challenging us, things we don’t understand. Day three, the angry American guy interrupts, asking challenging questions and disrupting the flow of the group. I wonder why he is here. (Soon after, I notice with relief he has left.) I sit and move restlessly up and down the stairs, in and out of the sun and the light rain. I am attentive. I want to hear everything he says. The British Monk (Tan Dhammavidu/ Ken) is charismatic and cynical. He speaks of his previous life, about civilisation and football with biting wit. He jokes regularly. I want to connect and understand. Some of the retreat participants stay behind to ask him questions about their own practice; I linger. The monk tells of the higher meditation experiences- of the ecstasy and joy that can be achieved once the mind is disciplined to become not only still but focussed. Each time I stay right until the end. He is patient. He speaks to the group about how he was full of anger when he was a young man, he tells us of his work on the floor of a factory wearing a beanie, he would keep to himself and spend time sitting in his room. He would get up at 4am in the cold and meditate before and after long shifts, and on the toilet seat at work. He speaks of noticing within himself a long time ago an aversion to people- as they approached him, he would watch inside and find himself affront or withdraw. The monk speaks of his mother in this time, as well as in his talks, about how he hates her. He speaks of how he now walks for alms, and how villagers with a small baby have adopted him as its grandfather. He is interesting and the group sits to attention when he speaks, occasionally chuckling at his surprising comments.
In the food hall there are whiteboards- each day the schedule is posted up, as well as a small thought to meditate on for the day. On day three and day nine there is a sign up sheet with optional sign up for appointment with the monks. Each time I look at it but do not write my name.
As the days pass, the tension in me builds. I sit in meditation and rub Tiger Balm on my shoulder and neck muscles. In Spain Nilla asked me, What are you running from? Now I sit quietly and wonder about that. Myself, probably. We’re all running from ourselves. Each day now we chant that our bodies will be thrown away useless; I rub Vaseline on my tattoo. The Buddhist texts refer to people becoming ‘hot headed’ and on Day Four I am sitting at breakfast with a hot head, slowly chewing, and a patch on my vision begins to blur. I hold my hand in the patch and my hand disappears. I stare at the table and slide my bowl across towards my peripheral vision- it disappears, I slide it back, it reappears. Fuck. Fuck! I wonder if I am going blind. I eat quickly (comparatively), wash my bowl and spoon. I lay on the cement in my room. Breathe.
I feel I have a temperature. I walk back into the hall and the ‘question time’ monk has an empty seat before him. He asks if I have a question and I hesitate, he gestures me to sit down. My eyes are filling with tears and I have questions I cannot articulate. I approach the nun and she takes my temperature. It is normal. She tells me, I am thinking too much. I need to take a Panadol, and rest.
In the meditation hall, Tally gently places a frangipani by my head as I stretch. My heart wells over.
I lay down in my room with my headache. I lay on the cement on this day and cry. I am angry and my body hurts. I don’t want to listen to them anymore about this impermanence, about how nothing lasts and everything must end. About how my body is just flesh and nothing more. No soul, no self, no purpose. I am upset about Ariel, and upset that I am still upset. I am afraid to let go. As I rub the tattoo in meditation I think about what it means. I wonder if the tattoo was an attempt at achieving permanence of something that is gone. I wonder if I have anchored my grief to a little picture on my foot. I wonder what it means that I chose that. I panic that I will not be able to truly move on, let go; now I have a reminder written on me for the rest of my life.
I am lying on my back facing the cement ceiling and my heart is beating quickly. My breathing is shallow and I know better than to go to war to try and force it to be otherwise. I wish it were, though. A warm Thailand evening. I heard a noise; next to my light on the wall is a small, transparent pink gecko. I study him. Close to the light I can see his insides, his small belly rising and falling rhythmically, his hearts’ strong beating. He looks fragile, with everything so obvious. We have been advised there may be spiders, scorpions, frogs and geckos in our rooms, and that they live here too. The other day one of the girls screamed and fussed over a spider. Now I am happy he is here. I sit with him, watching his rising and falling breath. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. It calms me, I sync with him. Girl and the gecko are one.
Next thing, he jumps from the wall and I am horrified to hear a splat. I jolt upright. He has launched himself in a failed attempt to catch a moth attracted to the light. I fear I will find a gorgeous, splatted tiny bub of a gecko on the floor, one who has met his untimely end. Peering over the edge of the bed, I see an unfazed gecko climbing back up the wall. I grin in relief as he retakes his post next to the light for a second attempt. He is more successful this time. I feel encouraged; perhaps I won’t end with a splat.
After an exhausting day I am glad to sleep. When I wake on day five, I find I am much calmer than I have been before. I rake my leaves after breakfast and feel good. As I sit for meditation I find that my mind has become completely blank. Happily, curiously, I explore it. I sit with my eyes closed, focussing forwards, breathing, and watch myself. Thoughts do not come, and when they do, they are quieter, calmer, muted. I am almost wary to be in my own head in case I ruin this lovely place I have found inside myself.
The mind runs backwards and forwards through time to find things to entertain itself with. I see now the benefit in learning how to have discipline with it, for with thoughts, memories and expectations come an arousal of emotion, and in silence with no distractions there is no outlet or escaping. If you want to remain sane, you must learn control.
On day seven, a woman comes up to me while I am looking for the attendant nun and pulls a face. I pull one back and things become dreadfully confusing for a while, with her whispering something I can’t quite hear or understand. I gesture randomly for a while before I realise she is leaving today and would like her purple sarong back. Embarrassed, I return it to her with a ‘thank you’ smile. (At least I hope she understands that’s what it is.) The next evening I walk down the steps into the hot spring full clothed, through a group of women sitting together in dignified peaceful silence. Self-consciously I get into the water and swish around with my see-through, baggy clothes now sticking to me, desperately wanting to explain to them that I don’t have a sarong anymore. Instead I giggle awkwardly and enjoy feeling naughty.
There is a both a man and a woman’s exercise hall; on perhaps the 8th day I finally go here with pillows and lay on the ground looking up to the ceiling, enjoying the solitude and new sights, new possibilities of places to sit.
On the 9th and 10th day, the routine varies. On the 9th, we will only eat once, in the morning we will have lunch food for breakfast. (I read the food meditation). And today, the schedule allows for free time. I wander around, and finally venture to the meditation hall I haven’t yet visited. A group have assembled and after hesitating, I venture there anyway. A man is tracing pictures on a woman’s hands. Tally is with an American guy, I am wary of him. He is speaking and I resent him for breaking the silence. I can feel my heart beat quicker in the presence of people, with the pressure now to speak when I would rather not. They are going to leave and get food and cigarettes- they ask me if I want to speak and I shake my head, they ask me if I want to come and I do not.
But I hang around anyway, in the small open meditation hall. When they leave, I am relieved to return to the comfort and peace of myself, although my heart is still beating quicker, such have I adjusted to living alone. The man and woman who had the gift of the leaves have been drawing pictures; I pick up their pen and a vine leaf from the ground and write.
Holding the mind is like holding a butterfly. You must not strangle the butterfly, nor rob it of air in your attempts to keep it still, calm and quiet. You must cup it in your hands; you must give it air and patiently wait. If you shake the mind it will cling, or flutter about, just like the butterfly, getting very distressed and trying to escape. If you want to hold the butterfly, you must rob it of light and sensory stimulation that will startle it, and patiently wait until it is calm and quiet. That is how you hold the butterfly. But why would you want to hold the butterfly?
Butterflies only live for one day.
We’re all just air and butterfly.
Young, Dark skin guy comes onto my radar. He walks with a little bit of a skip and seems like he is always aware of the attention of those around him. Jitwam, the one who asked if I was leaving. In the final few days I branch out from my little hut and sit in the bottom of the bell tower, and then in top the of the bell tower, and finally in the little hut across the way. He is seated and I take to him my vine leaf, sitting across from him. I hand it to him and he reads it, bemused, places it on the table. Tells me that’s funny, because he held a dying butterfly that was so beautiful he stuck it in his diary. I jump up and run to my room, and come back holding a second vine line, one I didn’t copy down. It speaks of a pond as like a mirror for yourself and if you want to see it clearly you need to let the water settle; how when in love two people spiral together above the water, spinning higher and higher or dropping with a splash into the depth of the cold water. Also, though, it speaks of how you should not try to capture or hold onto a dead butterfly. Funny that.
Walking away from the conversation, my peace is disturbed, a short interaction where I did not even speak stirs up so much emotion and it is obvious inside me; now the inner atmosphere is more aligned with silence than with noise.
For meditation instruction, we gather around an image of the Buddhist wheel. We slowly move through an explanation of the symbolism. Contrary to what most people believe, Buddhdasa and his followers teach that reincarnation and rebirth is not rebirth of the ‘self’ through physical lives, because there is no self, and the ego would only want to have us believe so. As we are impermanent, reincarnation and the related karma is actually the rebirth of the EGO, and karma is the effects we experience within ourselves in this lifetime; the dukkha we experience is a result of allowing the ego. When the British monk first explains this, I feel a sense of relief. He is a rational, almost scientific man. Reincarnation is the only tenant of Buddhism I have struggled to grasp so far, and now I do not need to. This makes perfect sense to me.
The way we walk the ‘Light path’ is Anapanasati, Mindfulness in Breath- and walking and speaking and eating, refraining from chasing pleasures, calming and disciplining the mind and remembering impermanence. As part of this, the monks take a vow of celibacy. The British monk tells us of his solution- to stop conceptualising the body as something ‘beautiful’ and of pleasure and desensualise it to be ‘just flesh’. In India there is a burning of bodies you can view; the British monk instead speaks of once seeing a dead dog on a beach, of it becoming rotten and swollen. He recalls these images and links them to flesh to decrease his desire for sex. Nooo!
On the evening of the 10th, the final day, we are asked to move sand for construction at the monastery, and to ‘sweat away the ego’. Males and females are separated. People begin to speak to coordinate things and I wish they hadn’t. (I undertake the training not to harm others by speech.) After all this time in silence, I have much pent up energy and look forward to shovelling and moving sand. The women however, are complaining, they don’t have shoes, the gaps between them in the line to pass the sand are too long, the baskets are too full, the baskets aren’t full enough, they want to rest, they want to shovel instead, they don’t want to shovel anymore, there are prickles, there aren’t enough baskets. Some work but most fuss and fuss, I tell them- just move the sand! I shovel furiously, while most gossip. I am wearing my ring and don’t notice my finger blister. When they stop passing the baskets, I roll my eyes and carry the sand all the way to the end myself, perhaps ruffling a few feathers as I go. When the bell tolls and time is up, I am disappointed and want to keep sweating and exerting myself- but they can’t get away fast enough.
In the evening at the springs and in the dorm the silence is well and truly broken, although I continue to practice mine. We gather for a talk by the Abbot, and then it is time to share.
I am ready to speak when question time comes, of course. I know exactly what I will say.
And then the boy with the butterfly gets up out of nowhere, sits down before me, and says
‘I feel like I have stepped into the matrix…’ Before it is censored, my mouth blurts out- NO WAY! I can’t believe you just said that! I was about to say that!!’ to laughs, followed by a bashful ‘Oop, sorry, go on’, sitting back in my spot. Apparently I’m not so practised at silence after all.
It’s like choosing between the blue pill and the red pill. And once you choose, once you see through the matrix, you can never go back. That’s all he had to say and I follow. Words flow, sharing about the tattoo and worrying if my mother will kill me, about the journey, thanking everyone, a few jokes. Everyone shares- when they open their mouth, the identities, the accents, the operations of their mind spill out in a surprising way. One girl says she believes she is an alien. (Definitely alienating). We return to the rooms for one more night of ‘silence’, although the girls are definitely relaxed about it now.
On the morning of the 12th day, we gather in the breakfast hall to collect our possessions. We trade emails; a woman gifts me a 1000baht to get back to Bangkok. We donate any unwanted things to the Mokkh; we congregate under big tree for photos.
We walk together to breakfast, a flurry of conversation; At breakfast the boy whose pant hems I silently screamed at sits next to me and tells me that a clairvoyant told him he would marry a psychologist he met on his travel. We suffer a dull tour of the Wat Suan Mokkh grounds, see beautiful art work and I speak with Anushka.
Waiting at the bus stop Tally, Jitwam (butterfly boy) and I sing. Back in the town none of us want to part; we mill around until the group that will stay overnight finds a hotel. I sit next to Tally as she receives some news from the heavens that makes my heart want to pour out to her <details>. Jitty sings a haunting tune that still rings in both our heads, though he can barely remember- I dance and spin around the hotel foyer. I have a heated, passionate discussion with the orange haired girl who handed me a cat in the breakfast hall- she lends me Band-Aids and it ends in hugs.
The serious meditator and me are both headed back to Bangkok. I delay parting until I find Tally to say goodbye, I am sad to leave Winston and jitty. We find a song-taew to get the overnight train. There is a long wait at the station and I am thirsty. He lends me his water. I talk to him and he reads his book. People give me death stares for talking too much as they settle in to sleep. It’s to be expected perhaps.
I feel good. I haven’t seen my face for 12 days as there were no mirrors, and with new hair this is strange indeed. What strikes me when I go to brush my teeth in the train bathroom though, is that my whole face and my skin seems clearer than I have ever seen, but more than that I am taken aback that I seem to be glowing, light, in a way that words fail me to describe. I like it.
In Bangkok, I find my wallet, at the shop where I left it. Less money in there than I expected. We are walking down the street and in the middle of the road I see Lavi, the man who left the leaves and traced pictures on the girl’s palms.
Tally has spoken a lot with him and was amazed by him- I have been cautious and mistrusting, when he looks at me I cannot understand what is happening behind his eyes, it is like there is a wall there. (When I later ask him about this, he explains it as having respect when I chose to remain silent although others spoke). We greet him joyously- I am glad for the chance to open myself to what Tally saw. Without further adieu- Apple crumble and coconut cream custard!!
Lavi speaks with an incredibly gentleness, a calm, he explains he feels he is all the children (people)’s king, here to check on and care for them. I ask him what he thinks anger is, and he explains it as a lack of trust.
*Please note. I did not take the beautiful photos taken in this album, as I left my camera packed away for the duration of the visit. Credit goes to Tally Atkins, Helen Rodionova and Chou Rouge. Thank you for the beautiful memories ladies 🙂
* To the amazing, unique people contained within the square walls of this story: Please forgive me for the liberties of description and for my omissions. I welcome and would love to hear any additions, adjustments or corrections. Memory is a funny thing.
Above all, Bless.
Light, Love and Laughter!
From my heart,
The website with attached readings can be found here: http://www.suanmokkh-idh.org/