01.10.2007 - 12.10.2007 32 °C
I write this from an island off the east coast of Southern Thailand called Ko Phan Ngan. Yesterday was the last day of the retreat, a half day, and after breakfast I hopped on a bus in Surat Thani to the pier, and took a ferry to the island. I'm staying in Hat Yao, on the west coast of the island, in a bungalow overlooking the ocean. It's only 300B ($10). There was a couple from Winnipeg on the taxi ride over that had been teaching English in Southern Thailand for the last six months. I'm not sure how long I'll be here, but I need some sun and we'll see how it goes.
On to the retreat. There's so much to say that it's difficult to know where to start, so this entry may get a little lengthy. It was humbling, spiritual, informative, intense and ultimately a great time. I wanted to leave many, many times. I'll go through the schedule:
400am: A large bell woke us up every morning. The first few days were actually not to bad, but that's probably because I got a terrible sleep on the train from Bangkok. Not to mention that I was sleeping on a straw mat on concrete with my sweatshirt as a pillow, so it's not like I wanted to roll over and go back to sleep anyway. I think that's the idea. Everyone congregates at Meditation Hall 2. There's a couple candles, but other than that, just nature all around.
430am: Morning reading and sitting meditation. Someone from the group would read something chosen by the monks. Usually they were good, but it was a struggle to stay awake.
515am: Yoga. You can imagine how thrilled I was to do this at 515am.
700am: Morning talk and sitting meditation. Usually the Abbot monk, Tan Ajahn Po, would talk to us for a bit. He's 75 years old and his English is broken, but he's very engaging.
800am: Breakfast and chores. Okay, breakfast. Far and away the worst part of the whole retreat. Every morning we'd have rice soup, which was the goopy mixture of rice, corn, carrots, and whatever else. It was really salty. If you can imagine what a prisoner eats in a movie, tasteless sludge, this was it. We also got yams and bananas, and I mixed these in to sweeten it up. I don't even like bananas, but I was eating four every morning by the end.
Everyone also had to sign up for a chore. I had to sweep the steps and ramps of Meditation Hall 1. Pretty easy. After this I'd head back to the dorm, take a dip in the awesome natural hot spring, and "shower" in the communal well, which basically means you pour cold water on yourself and soap up. I didn't mind this much at all, I found myself pretty refreshed since it was so hot anyway. I also did my laundry by hand, though once I did it at dusk and got bit 15 times in 10 minutes by possibly malarial mosquitoes. That sucked.
1000am: Dhamma talk followed by sitting and walking meditation. The talk was usually done by Tan Dhammavidu, a 60 year old English monk, who was really well spoken, funny and very easy to listen to. I really enjoyed his talks. He talked practically about Buddhism, meditation and life in general.
1230pm: Lunch. Usually consisted of rice, a curry, noodles, yams, fruit and tea. All vegetarian. I stocked up because it was the last meal of the day, save for hot chocolate in the evening. After this I'd head to my dorm for a nap.
230pm: Meditation instruction and sitting, walking and standing meditation. Tan Dhammavidu would help us through meditation training. We learned the technique of anapanasati, which means "mindfulness with breathing". I'll explain a bit more later.
500pm: Chanting and loving kindness meditation. Yeah, you read that right. This was led by Tan Mehdi, a 21 year old Thai monk. He was pretty funny and carefree. We did the Buddhist chants, which took some getting used to, but it was fine. After that, one of the nuns would come and do loving kindness meditation with us. They aren't dressed like Catholic nuns, just black pants and a white top. Some of the nicest people I've ever met. It sounds very corny, but we would basically send love to those around us, family, partners, all living beings in the world. Once I learned to just let it go and do it, it felt great.
600pm: Tea and hot spring. We'd have hot chocolate in the dining hall, and these huge bats the size of your arm would swoop through and feast on the mosquitoes. They were completely silent and would come within a foot of your head. After that, we'd go to the hot spring.
730pm: Sitting and group walking meditation. The group walking was pretty cool. There were two man-made lakes, and the guys would walk around one and the girls the other. There were candles lining the lakes and it was very surreal.
900pm: Bedtime. Sleep and do it all over again, all in silence.
A little bit about Buddhism and meditation in general. The main aim is to reduce your ego or "self" with the goal of eliminating it completely. Buddhists believe that we do not experience the true nature of reality because our experience is clouded by the selfish ego. Everyone has a feeling that we have a "soul" (for the lack of a better term), or that there is a "me" experiencing the world, when really, this is just a concoction of the mind. By getting rid of the ego, we can begin to experience nature as it really is. At the retreat, we were taught the technique of anapanasati, which means "mindfulness with breathing". By focusing on the breath flowing in and out of the body, the body and mind are calmed, and the meditator can focus on the present. "Don't think about the past or worry about the future, focus on being content in the present, and you will accumulate such moments." The attractive thing about Buddhism is that everyone's practice (mind) is different, and you are encouraged to find your own "middle way".
The first three days were pretty tough. I wanted to leave. There was an older Japanese man in the dorm next to me (I found out later his name was Bubba), and he'd talk Japanese in his sleep ALL NIGHT. It was so frustrating. But thanks to a set of earplugs courtesy of Parmel (http://www.parmel.ca), I was able to get some decent sleep. Days 4-6 were much better and were the most productive. Days 7 and 8 were very tough. I was getting restless, meditation was difficult, and my mind wandered. I knew the Canucks were playing too, that sucked.
On Day 9, we only got breakfast, but thankfully it was a more substantial meal than rice soup. I had snuck in a pack of Oreos and I ate them in the afternoon. Does that make me a bad person?
On the evening of Day 10, there was an open mic, and anyone was encouraged to go up and talk about their experiences. It was the first time anyone had heard each other's voices. This was the best part of the whole retreat, listening to people talk about their frustrations, and most felt the same way I did. It's tough to gauge people when you can't talk to them, everyone looks so serious and intense. A guy from Montreal went up and confessed he stopped meditating on Day 6, but he liked the Dhamma talks so much he stayed. There were three Canadians including myself, but there were people from every part of the world. A Swedish guy (I think) went up had the best line of the night. He said in the beginning his thoughts were like popcorn, popping madly every which way. "But at the end," he said, "you know when you're making porridge, it's almost done and you have the heat really low, and there's these little pockets of hot air that come up and go, puh-chsshhhh, puh-chsshhhh. That's what my thoughts were like." You had to hear him do the sound effects, it was perfect. Other people went up and talked about boredom they had and how they passed the time, and other people had some significant insights and learend a lot about themselves. This lasted two hours and was great.
The next morning after the talk and the last sitting meditation, we were finally able to talk to each other. It was strange. People had accents that you didn't think they had. There's an interesting camaraderie that develops between silent people. There was not the usually hesitation or shyness when talking for the first time to someone, we'd all just happily go talk to the next person. I ended up talking the ferry to Ko Phan Ngan with a girl from Los Angeles and a guy from Spain, who turned about to be the chess champion of Europe, of all things. Young guy too.
A couple things I noticed about myself were that during the retreat, my dreams became far less fragmented and jumbled. They were longer and more story-like, they made sense. I guess with the absence of television, internet and the media, your mind is able to just calm down to a more reasonable level. I also have a new appreciation for food. I ate things I never thought I would, and I'm pretty sure I like bananas now.
I don't consider myself a Buddhist, but there a lot of things I took from this retreat that can be applied to daily life. The most difficult thing will definitely be attempting to meditate for a half hour every day, so we'll see how that goes. I highly recommend the retreat to anyone who is remotely interested, and has the means to do so. My life hasn't been transformed or anything, but it reconfirmed my belief in the power of the mind, and it's very motivating. That being said, I can't wait to get on with the rest of my trip.
Anyways, this entry got really long really fast. I applaud you if you've read this far. Here are some pics:
The pathway on one of the ponds.
The pond with Meditation Hall 2 in the background.
The Big Tree. It was massive. Just to the left of Hall 2.
Meditation Hall 2.
Pathway to the Dining Hall.
My room. Frequently shared with spiders, geckos and the like. Note the wonderful concrete bed.
The men's dorm.
The natural hot spring. Really great for the aching muscles after yoga.
That's about it. You know I finished and didn't cheat because they won't allow you to take photos until the last day I'll make another entry soon when I can get some good pics of my bungalow and view, it's raining today. I saw the Canucks got whooped by Philly last game, and Kesler got cross checked in the face. I miss hockey.
Anyways, thanks again for the comments/emails!