Bali Vipassana Retreat Report April 2016
A large black bee came into the Dharmasala where I sat in meditation and would buzz around the cushions stacked up in the corner next to me for hours a day. Maybe the cushions blocked access to a job it was working on. I didn't mind it, seemed good training to sit still while it ventured out and buzzed around me. I'd pretend it was there on a mission to keep me alert. It was getting more and more aggressive as the days passed and started bothering guys sitting to my left. One evening I came in after the hot drink break and it was on the floor by the wall faintly buzzing its last. I was surprised - it wasn't trapped and hadn't seemed to be getting tired. Then it occurred to me that a less Buddhistically correct fellow sitter might have whacked it. I bowed to it and left it on the floor to remind me of mortality, the memory of the ceaseless pointless hovering, buzzing, and flying about, a metaphor for the great majority of my thinking.
The Vipassana retreat was at Bali's largest and best known Buddhist temple, the Brahmavihara Arama, located in the less populous north of the island twenty kilometers west from Singaraja, ten west from black beach Lovina - and way up in cooler air. The temple is built on a hectare of hillside with a good share of flat spaciousness and a number of attractive buildings, fountains, gardens. I like to be somewhere that requires one go up and down steps and Brahmavihara Arama is that.
It was founded in 1970 by a Theravadan monk, Bikkhu Giri, whose lifelike seated figure is in the central area open air pavilion by the office though it was hidden behind a larger yet uncrated Buddha statue and some boxes of pamphlets. The makeshift wall of group photos from past retreats has come down allowing for more breeze. This is where we step up to sign in and after that just walk by though some people would meditate on cushions placed on the elevated tile floor in the gaze of a seated Buddha figure. No shortage of effigies.
At the sign-in we can receive a sarong if we didn't bring one. I did and brought my rakusu, bib of Zen ordination, but never used it. The sarong is the holy vestment of respect on this island. Many, especially the women, wore them all the time, but I did the minimum - opening and closing ceremonies, lecture, and interview with the teacher. Other than that, stuck with loose linen pants.
Forty of us fill out a form with some basic info. I urged a young woman not to check here or anywhere especially in Asia that she'd ever taken any drugs. Of course we haven't. Only depraved fiends would have done that. This is where we pay for the retreat. There are two envelopes - one for a donation to the temple and one for the guru (a term used here for any teacher). There is no suggested amount and we are not to ask for a suggestion. They are pleasingly unconcerned. There are a lot of expensive retreats and programs in Bali but this is not one of them.
There's no resident monk or temple priest. There's staff of locals who clean and cook and a lay manager, a nice elderly man with gray hair who is employed by the foundation that sponsors the retreats and there are a steady stream of them all year - and of tourists.
Leading the retreat was Sayadaw U Nyanaramsi, a Theravadan Bhikkhu from Malaysia trained in Burma. He was such a gentle person, it was hard to imagine him ever having been a lawyer. He travels the world to lead retreats, next a couple in China. As with other Buddhist monks, we called him Bhante. We retreatants were called yogis. There were he, we, and a management and observation team of three men and Lily Fistiano, the main person we related to from application to departure. She also translated everything into Indonesian which I enjoyed trying to follow with fractional success.
Katrinka and I separately sit and do yoga at home daily. I had checked out a couple of weekly meditations nearby Sanur where we live cause it's nice to get out sometimes. One emphasized healing, seemed to be all talk but I'm sure there was more later, appeared to be for locals only, had a steep charge to join. Another which was within walking distance and distinctly Buddhist emphasized chakras and exercises. A video of the guru in Indonesian played during half of the meditation. A lot of "May all beings be happy," which was nice. I've gone back there just to sit with others for a change. Went with a local driver friend and his daughter. We've also gone to a park to walk with crowds on Sunday morning and hang out by Hari Krishna chanting. He and his wife and I went an hour away to the Vihara Buddha Dharma in Seminyak for an eve sit with a Burmese bhikkhu. Good but too far. In checking meditation opportunities out, saw that there were a couple of Vipassana retreats and chose the one up north over closer Ubud because it was at that neat temple where I'd been as a tourist several times - the first in 1992 when it was much less developed.
The wake up bell was at 3:45 and we'd be there at the high point walking on the cement paths in the garden lawn and at about 4:30 the young staff guys would come with their Asian brooms and catch-pans whisking up the leaves and jepun (Balinese) kamboja (Indonesian) frangipani (English) and dumping them into plastic tubs.
We walked an hour and sat an hour until 9pm with meal breaks at 6 and 11am and a hot drink at 5pm. Lily would walk around some to make sure we were all there, especially in the early morning, but mainly we were on our own. There were interviews for all on even days and a lecture on odd at 4pm. We'd end up where we started, under the stars, clouds, and moon walking and sitting together. At 9pm we'd all chant in Pali sitting there, except for a couple of rainy nights, outside the Dharma Hall, a miniature likeness of the famous and massive 9th century Borobudur Mahayana Monument in central Java.
There's some chanting before the lecture as well - taking refuge and vows. We'd read from the booklet with Indonesian and English translation. I arrived with two others a day early and a good deal of the time leading up to the retreat commencement I spent sitting in the Dharma Hall studying the words in that booklet in all three languages, something I'd also done on my honeymoon the prior July following that retreat.
Between the early morning and final evening meditations, the women could use the inside of the Dharma Hall and the men a building further below, the Dharmasala. The outdoors was for either and included the gardens and the Mango Orchard with roofed platforms where one could sit under a mosquito net. I didn't want to sit down there because it's next to dense foliage above a creek and looks like a place mosquitoes would inhabit and half the time would be spent walking with them - though where I sat I only heard a few and saw none the whole time. For people who live here, white dotted mozzies bearing Dengue Fever is fear number one, the hemorrhagic variety being A1.
The food was good. White rice, noodles, cooked veggies, raw veggies, tofu or tempeh usually fried, perkadel corn fritters, eggs, fruit, small store-bought deserts, white bread with toaster, peanut butter and jelly for those with such tastes. Tea and coffee available all the time. And something that surprised many: some fish or meat with each meal. The brief questionnaire we filled out had asked if we wanted vegetarian meals or not. I wrote that I eat what is served not wishing to admit anything. At mealtime dog or two would snoop around hoping for a scrap. I'd told Mariola before the retreat started, Don't do that, when she gave a mommy dog something at the table but later I too weakened. The couple of times there were bones dropped mine on the floor. Saw others slip them some. One day a fellow yogi fed his entire food tray to a canine.
We'd been told clearly in a printed guide and by Lily to keep the questions in interviews related to our meditation. No personal history or problems outside of that. No philosophy or comparative religion. Waiting for my group of four or five to sit with Bhante for interview, what I overheard then and at lectures was often not within those limits. As the days went on I could see how narrow and classic Bhante's focus is and how digressing from that area is to throw the proverbial monkey wrench into the exchange. He knows without hesitation how to answer any question. If it's within his system he's on it and if it's not he herds one back in.
Interviews were on the porch of his cabin. I was first in the 9am group of five. I'd bow to the floor to him once and then sit while he reviewed quickly my name and some basic facts I'd filled out. He'd ask how my meditation was going. Sticking to the program I'd say, "Rising falling left right," covering the internal vocalization for both sitting and walking meditation. In the seated meditation one could do rising falling attention to the abdomen and in walking, right and left as the feet lifted and touched down. He wanted to know how long sitting and how long walking. I followed the schedule fairly closely. One can modify the schedule somewhat as long as one continues walking and sitting meditation. I had no watch and there were few bells so sometimes of course I'd be off. Said I preferred shorter sitting periods but admitted the last twenty minutes of the hour's sitting was often the most, sticking to retreat parlance, mindful. He asked if I'd been practicing daily since the last retreat. I said yes but only sitting. He suggested I include walking and try to do at least an hour of sitting and walking daily.
After some brief back and forth on walking and sitting, he'd ask about daily activity. He set a high or should I say a slow and mindful standard for all that varied activity outside formal walking and sitting. He demonstrated - doing a bow with one hand going up at a time in order to be separately mindful of each. Reached very slowly for his water glass, noted each movement to sipping and returning it. Said that there are monks who do walking and sitting meditation for ten hours a day for months at a time but neglect to continue their moment to moment mindfulness in daily activity which some seasoned bhikkhu teach is the most important of the three. He quoted the German Bhikkhu Yanapunika Thera who wrote The Heart of Buddhist Meditation saying that mindfulness meditation was the only way to come to know mind thoroughly.
Buddha, Bhante said, taught two types of meditation: Vipassana mindfulness and Samatha jhana concentration. The later is good to do, calms one, and for the time one is doing it, one isn't adding up more defilements, but the former is taught to be the only way which eliminates defilements and leads to Nirvana. Wasn't the first time I'd heard this, but I forget and it means more coming from a monk who embodies this approach.
When we leave the bodily object of mindfulness and start thinking about something, our thinking becomes the object and we're to stop in the case of walking and, whether walking or sitting, say mentally "thinking-thinking" or "planning planning" or "wanting wanting" and so forth. They're into double wording. I said the Bhante in July had suggested wandering-wandering. He said the specific word doesn't matter. In the first interview he asked what happened after I went thinking-thinking. I said I didn't know. He said then you're not doing mindfulness meditation. The next time I said I kept saying thinking-thinking till the thinking stopped then returned to rising-falling or right-left. He accepted that. I thought that was true but I also thought you've got to tell most teachers something within the realm of what they expect.
I asked (these questions are at different times) if going thinking-thinking when I realize I'm thinking is done to stop the thinking so I can return to my abdomen or feet. He said no - that there is to be no idea of controlling. Just watch and note. He said the idea of self is the idea of control which is an illusion. I said well aren't we trying to control things with this practice? He said just a little bit. He first mentioned body and thought as objects of mindfulness. In lectures he'd elaborate such as saying there were four domains to watch: body-breath, feeling-sensation, consciousness-mind-thought, and dhammas - the list of everything and non thing which he didn't get into but the Abhidhamma does.
There wasn't just the rising falling option for sitting. There was a touching choice too where the hands are brought up from the knees slowly one by one and touched to - I don't remember - the chest? I wasn't interested in it. I liked to sit with hands in a lazy mudra but he didn't want the thumbs touching or almost touching as in Zen. And the walking included standing-standing then turning-turning at the end of each row walked. In addition to right-left-right-left soon added was lift-push-drop and later lift-push-drop-touch-press - five actions in one step to be mindful of. I found the latter a little complicated and hard to say internally at first. They're all one syllable but complex one syllable words. I tried the Indonesian - angkat, dorong, turun, sentuh, tekan - all two syllable words. Used the sort of word combining that Japanese do with Chinese and made the streamlined "ang-do-tu-sen-tek." I substituted it some but out of compassion didn't tell Bhante about that or any of my offbeat practices.
His suggestion was to start with right-left-right-left for a while then to lift-push-drop and then to lift-push-drop-touch-press. I included the additions of first counting of steps one to ten and ended with no internal naming. He indicated to leave the arms down with hands joined in front or in back. I did both and also Japanese Zen shashu with hands meeting at solar plexus. So I'd go back and forth doing each type of naming with each arm position which gave me fifteen combinations and took about an hour when all the stopping was considered. Better than looking at a clock.
He and other bhante I've met don't encourage full or half lotus sitting. One can do it if one wants, but it's not their trip. However like the Zen folk they're quite into don't-move. They won't scream at you or beat you with sticks if you do but encourage not moving and do not see pain as a distraction, just something to be mindful of. Of course they wouldn't be into the don't-move if that teaching didn't go back to Buddha. I had learned that to my disappointment a while ago when reading some original text. I'd incorrectly thought it was just another no-pain no-gain Japanese trip.
I asked if the silent internal vocalizing of "rising falling" and so forth were placeholders for thinking. Clearly we're supposed to focus on the body and not the words. So the reason for including some mental words was to remind us to focus on the body in that way? He said it should be stated in a subtle way and in time can be dropped.
There was very little mention of any rewards for all this meditation. Anyone who signed up surely already had some idea of what they wanted to get out of it - nirvana, enlightenment, bliss, a calmer state of mind. In his afternoon talks Bhante did mention not getting reborn, escaping the cycle of birth and death. He sited the four stages of enlightenment: Stream-enterer, Once-returner, Never-returner, and Arahant, but not much was made of it. In talking about the three marks of existence - no self, impermanence, and suffering or dissatisfaction, there was an assumption that this practice, if sincerely continued, would lead to the blowing out of that flame.
Bhante joined us some - would do walking meditation rather fast, not as he instructed us to do, back and forth over a course of about fifteen steps, swaying side to side somewhat. I'd see him in the distance, looking up as I was not supposed to do, and wonder, What does that remind me of? Then finally, oh yes - the strange fellow who used to do that at Warung Annapurna. He'd walk back and forth in the restaurant, pick up a guitar sometimes and pretend to play a few chords then put it down and walk back and forth and sway. You couldn't talk to him. He was incoherent. He'd bum cigarettes from people. He was almost always there at night. And then Bhante's walk reminded me of him. I thought, Ah, another example of the fine line between the madman and the monk.
Almost everyone would cover up in the mornings and evenings - shawls, sweatshirts, hoodies. It was cooler than what we're used to at lower altitudes and there'd frequently be a breeze, but I think the temperature would never be much below 21 Celsius which is 70 Fahrenheit.
Dogs as usual on this island have more than their share of the airwaves. Barking squealing, snarling coming from distances near and far. That and the ever present sound of motor bikes I'd tune down if I had a knob for it. But the Moslem morning call to prayer from the village below is pleasing and mixes well with the Hindu singing and gamelan just before sunrise and these sounds return at various times of day into the night.
There's a faint eerie sound, especially later in the day, reminiscent of fifties movie flying saucer sounds - thin and warbly. It was there last July too. I never asked what it was. There were only a few hours after the retreat when I could have brought it up. Maybe it's from some electronic device or the wind hitting the hollow ends of severed bamboo used for the pagoda construction - or someone practicing the Theremin.
The hour break for the meals and half that for the hot drink includes the only approved time for bathing and washing clothes which were demanded by the streams of perspiration that flowed. Hanging my shirt at the porch behind the room where I slept, I'd look out on the jungle, thick but with openings enough to expose various distances and hues - so gorgeous. Banana leaves big enough to sleep under with plenty of overlap. Views from anywhere in that large temple are stunning. Various bird calls, darting lizards, and unidentified rustling intrigue, but the most commonly seen and heard animals on the jungle's edge are chickens, roosters, dogs, and cats.
There are two idealized murals in the Dharmasala. The one that was straight in front from where I sat was of Buddha's parinirvana which to a casual observer would be called death. What got me about it is in this mural he looked like he was about twenty. Buddha is said to have died at eighty. I don't recall any art showing Buddha as an old man - or dark skinned or bald as some Buddhist historians have claimed would have been the case.
The mural on the other side had a baby Buddha with a halo and people swooning over him. Made me think of all the todo over the baby Jesus. This sort of mythical deification is inevitable I guess.
Peter from Austria and Anton from Java sat and walked mostly on the porch on the other side of the Dharmasala, the quiet side facing a thick wall of vegetation between them and the seated Buddha on the large round lotus seat under the Bodhi Tree in the circular Lumbini Grove flanked by mainly female devotees on the mural in back. Meanwhile I'm on the porch on the other, the less shady and more public side by the stupa, tourists walking up with their guides explaining what the stupa and pagoda are about in English, French, German, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese. I didn't notice the words much. Occasionally they'd get up on the porch near me. No problem.
A few times whole families decked in ceremonial garb for some special occasion would arrive and see the signs in front in English and Indonesian saying not to enter - meditation being practiced. I'd indicate to them go on in and don't worry about it. Obviously no one makes appointments when they come here. I think some or most who arrive for ceremonies are Hindu. Around here the Hinduism has retained some Buddhist elements and people think of Buddha as part of the Hindu pantheon. And the place is open - not part of any local caste restrictions. There's even a large mat in front of the Dharmasala main entrance atop the steps with WELCOME spelled out.
When people where we live asked where I was going for so long I'd say I was going into a little eternity. That's what it's like for me. Even a single period of an hour can seem like a long time - or a short time. It's like joining the army or taking LSD - just done something you can't get out of - or have resolved not to get out of. When in that first period of walking in the garden, an imaginary carpet extended before me into infinity, a carpet that I was taking the first step on. I snapped my right hand's fourth and thumb fingers. Something I've done since the early sesshin at the San Francisco Zen Center. Once when it starts then again when it ends. How differently perceived the length of time between the two snaps looked from the before and after. Like forever from the first and like nothing from the second.
There's something else I do that has surely blocked my entrance to Nirvana. I do it when I enter into any time trap such as driving a long distance or being in an all day meeting - or a retreat. First I designate a number somewhat rounded to cover the whole thing - miles for driving and hours for a retreat. Then as I proceed I calculate fractions and percentages. It began at six pm and we were to leave after lunch on the tenth day. I'd been sitting and studying the guide book from early afternoon on the first day so I called it 1 pm to 1 pm for ten days - 240 hours. Between periods I would quickly calculate the fraction and decimalized increment that remained. So many great numbers in there.
I might not be mindfuling right but at least I don't leave the spot or the forms except to go to the small room as they call the toilet. And in order to make that little eternity go by more smoothly, I do not lie down except at night to sleep. On the fifth day I awoke so fatigued I was worried I'd collapse. Almost staggering. By mid morning that was gone. A relief.
On the next to last day returning from the hot drink break an echoing voice coming out of speakers. Walking down the steps I could see a throng of locals in their holy day best on the walks and porch, women spreading food out, kids running around the stupa, pagoda, down below in the courtyard. Getting closer, a Hindu preacher dressed in white headwrap and sarong with a microphone in the Dharmasala enthusiastically going at it, the room fairly full of attentive mainly male listeners. Those of us who came to continue our practice had lost our spots and cushions to these guests and made a retreat to the Dharma hall garden where we'd be going in a couple of hours anyway.
Love the lack of concern about organization or sect. I see Bali as basically into its own type of voodoo anyway - black and white checkered material, curses and blessings, good and bad - palm leaf spirit offerings everywhere whether Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim.
Every morning and dusk a woman would come and sweep the stupa area and empty the trash receptacles - both of which had Kuta Selatan written on them - South Kuta on the opposite shore. She'd arrive in the day with offerings for the wonderful thick tree - maybe a type of banyan. No checkered black and white cloth around it though designating it as sacred. Still the palm leaf offerings with flowers and coin from her and some visitors. One left soda in a plastic cup with straw.
How uneven the attention to details. The stupa is beautiful and inspiring in design and the yet finished three-tiered pagoda the same, though less ornate - with thick black majestic coconut husk roof and earthy orange walls. The altars and statues in and out of the buildings are well attended with staff and visitors making offerings. Walks and rooms are swept daily. There's a blessed lack of plastic trash thrown around just anywhere as is the local custom. But many mats in front of the entrances are worn to a frazzle, a skimpy and torn piece of felt cloth in another. Signs about the retreat are printed on size A paper and scotch taped to the sides of some entrances to be ignored by many tourists and I don't know who cares if they come in anyway because once they see people are meditating they're almost always quiet and respectful. Cushions spread haphazardly around the rooms where we sit with no concern where they're left between sittings.
Footgear are not worn inside the rooms, but In contrast with the Japanese way I was indoctrinated into, one can go barefoot anywhere. There's not that Japanese approach where one carefully steps out of sandals from the dirty area onto the clean area with bare feet or into house slippers. And the sandals don't have to be placed neatly side by side and won't be re-aligned to perfection by a host or peer. They can be in any position, scattered, upside down, on top of each other. We're not taught here to be mindful of external objects.
A sandal mystery I never solved was how a particular yogi would leave his neatly with the right one on the left and the left one on the right. How did he take them off to get them in that order every time? We're not to notice and especially not complain about infractions of others but I couldn't help but know that the same fellow who left his sandals thus was at odds with the whole retreat. He was in the interview group before me and honestly told Bhante that it didn't quite fit with his objectives and he wasn't sure what he'd be doing then brought up a book on enlightenment. Bhante went along with him and suggested a web site that has results of tests of mediators and so forth. He got restless and was walking around where I sat on the porch. I went inside to sit and I came out and he had commandeered the place where I was walking. I didn't own it so I just walked somewhere else. Then when it was time to sit he was sitting inside on the cushions I had been using. I realized that I needed to drop the idea they were my cushions and just reached to get some others but when I tried to pull out the large bottom one it stuck to and scattered the ones on top around, one hitting his foot, looking like I'd done that in retaliation.
I felt like Devadata who'd tried to kill his cousin Shakyamuni by rolling a boulder down at him which hit a rock which hit a smaller rock which hit a pebble which struck Buddha on the little toe and drew a single drop of blood thus plummeting Devadata to the lowest hell realm for a while. So following my clumsiness this fellow got off the cushions I had formerly thought of as mine. I wanted to tell him not to move but we weren't to talk. I would have tried to be nice to him but we don't interact - no bowing to each other or eye contact. On about the fifth day he was gone. Still I bet he got a lot out of the retreat. Often it's those who have the most trouble that learn the most.
That no recognition of each other was an interesting practice for Peter and me, both used to Zen sesshin or retreats where we bow to each other in passing. Accidentally ended up sharing a room with this Zen friend in the Shunryu Suzuki lineage like me. We passed each other many times and just ignored each other - rather harmoniously I'd say. Each of us broke the noble silence once with the other. He to tell me with minimal wording that he'd fixed the toilet flusher. No longer were the buckets necessary. The other when I handed him a printed sheet of sesshin rules and said, "It was outside by the door. I guess they're giving them to everyone."
Sitting at the end of the evening for a while on the steps to the room. Most sleeping. No people noises. From the vicinity of the nearest gazebo, a gecko with it's striking characteristic sound. It must be large I thought, considering the volume. One like that in the Dharma Hall too. What a newcomer just off the plane must have thought hearing that piercing strange bird-like call. Other sounds - fluttering and leaves thrown about in the high branch drama of the large tree before me. Black female dog overturning the trash containers, climbing inside. Even then an occasional rooster. Evelyn of Peter and Evelyn up later like me enters her room next to ours and the door creaks with a sound I first thought was another jungle animal - bird or lizard or what - until I realized that sound only happened when she or Rosemary were entering or departing. An ultra high pitch squeak and a tiny mouse darts into a hole in the ground just to my left. Disney quality.
On the Dharmasala porch I sit not only with passing tourists but with much closer and more numerous unimposing ants. They don't climb on to my cushion or to me like the little black ones at the beach do. They're small and smaller. There's a winged grey bug the size of a flattened small pea that hangs out near them and darts in to gobble one now and then. They don't seem to notice that but they do each other, always greeting. One late day an exodus of thousands with eggs along the wall base streaming for hours. There are usually some that run around seemingly without purpose, repeating the same territory. Hard not to wonder why. Mainly they stay on the sides out of my way. In walking meditation there are few enough venturing out into the plain of the porch that I can avoid stepping on them. They go so fast - as fast as I walk. I'm walking slowly but they're so tiny that keeping up with me means they're going at speed they'd get a ticket for if they were cars on our roads - reckless driving for going well over 100. Twice at night I felt a sharp sting underfoot and realized I'd included one in the right-left-right-left.
Near the end, I reported to the managers at their table after lunch that I had a pain in my side that I have been getting for a while and thought I should tell them in case it gets worse. They asked where. Appendix? Nope - too high for that. Liver? Too low. It's muscular Dhammabalo said with some confidence. All agree. I'm being too tense. Relax. Hmm. I thought maybe it was from the sit-ups I do in yoga. I went through 26 positions there every day quickly - half before breakfast and half before the hot drink though it was forbidden along with any exercise or non Vipassanic practice. I get that side ache at home too, mainly when I sit with legs crossed working. But why does it persist and why did it get worse during the retreat? After talking with them about it, it went away.
Showed Dhammabalo a swelling in my neck. Thought it must be a gland. He pronounced it a harmless reaction to the retreat and gave me a little bottle with an herbal Chinese remedy his family uses, even applying the first dose. These retreat managers are full service. They are there representing the Yayasan (non-profit) Girirakkhito Mahathera (named after the founding monk), the sponsor of the temple and retreats. They make sure all runs smoothly, yogis and guru are well fed, medical needs or emergencies are taken care of, and that the bells and gongs are hit on time.
The last full day the first three males to enter the Dharmasala were greeted with a recording of high pitched female Chinese vocal music. Peter was bowing at the Buddha statue, a yogi from Sulawesi was looking around for the source of the music. I walked in and instantly started laughing pretty hard it was so unretreatish. Yogi from Sulawesi said it's an offering to Gwan Yin, Avalokitesvara he thought some women from Taiwan who'd been in there bowing earlier had left. He found the source in a little box and we returned to noble silence. Later in the day Peter returned to that spot to break noble silence and chant - couldn't tell what - bodhisattva vows from home maybe - a fitting deviation from the narrow and straight. I secretly made note of it, another of my deviations.
It's called a ten day retreat so I had calculated it would end on the 24th, having begun on the 13th. I'd forgotten what the emails and website had said and was surprised on the eve of the 21st to be reminded by Lily in an announcement that the closing ceremony was the day after tomorrow in the morning. So there are eight full days sandwiched in between two partial ones. Home a day early. Had to recalculate the percentage left in both decimal point and fractions.
At breakfast after the last morning walking and sitting we could finally talk. The males were still on the male side and the females on theirs - though I don't think that was necessary anymore. The fellow next to me turned and thanked me for giving him the most memorable experience of the retreat. I had no idea what he was referring to. He said that in lecture Bhante was going over problems people have and imitated a student saying his mind was too boring in mediation and I burst out laughing and then Bhante broke character and laughed too.
Group photo before the Dharma Hall with Lily taking additional shots with smart phones and tablets of yogis - communication hardware that had just that morning been returned to us with valuables.
Then the closing ceremony. We chanted the vows and wishings. Bhante answered questions we'd anonymously submitted in writing the previous day. Most of them were about how to continue mindfulness practice after the retreat. One which I found particularly revealing was, "Are body and mind one?" He said no, that the body doesn't follow us after death. This is in distinct opposition to the view of my teachers both at home as a New Thought Christianity influenced kid - they said body and mind are one - and in the Zen world which says both and/or neither or not depending on the weather. Bhante elaborated concluding with, "What follows us into the next life?" He looked at me. "Karma," we both said at the same time.
I sat there thinking, Yeah, and karma is mind? I'd come in my studies and practice to see nothing as moving from instant to instant in this life or any other - nothing but cause and effect. Don't see big mind or nirvana or unnamable whatever as a thing that does stuff or moves in time. But I didn't care about how he saw it or I saw it. To me everything's incomprehensible and can be described any which way. What I'd picked up in this and the prior Vipassana retreat about practicing mindfulness seemed to me of great value and issues like what is mind and body just more clouds floating by. In terms of philosophy he was to me by the book. I'd just thrown in another monkey wrench with that question.
Another case like that was in a lecture when he asked if a person was the same person or different moment to moment. I said, "Both," and he looked at me with incredulity - and we didn't get many looks out of this man. I continued, "The same from the point of view of conventional reality and not the same from that of actual reality." He just shook his head with a brief, What on earth are you talking about? look on his face.
Bhante said that mind was first with intention and body which was slower followed. The only yogi older than I, an 83 year old German named Wolf, asked Bhante if he was familiar with tests that showed the muscle impulse moving before the command impulse in the brain. Bhante just repeated that the mind was first. Wolf too was departing from the program. Anyway, I thought - if it can be tested in the brain it's also the body. Maybe that's just our press release to self and not the actual intention part or maybe there isn't any. And what are body and mind really anyway? Bhante himself had said not to analyze. It's waking up that matters (not his wording).
Lily read the questions and he looked at them each on a separate sheet of paper - the originals I guess. The last question was prefaced by saying that Bhante gives us the teaching as it was recorded in books but could he tell some personal story from his own experience that will encourage us to practice more deeply? He said, "The best encouragement is your own suffering."
When the long closing ceremony was finally over I told Peter sitting next to me not to bother putting his cushions away - just leave them where they are and the menial staff will take care of them and clean the room. It took him a few seconds to grok that. So totally opposite from Japanese and German tidy right angled careful attention to minutest detail that he and I both are steeped in.
What a harmonious time. One reason is there is to be absolutely no complaining about other people. What they do and whether they follow the rules or not is no one else's business. That directive plus the strictly followed rule of noble silence made for a truly unique conflict free stretch of time with a group of disparate seekers.
We ate lunch and sat around. There was some discussion about how well the retreat's approach worked. Some accepted the instruction on how to do sitting and walking meditation and were planning to continue it. Others were eager to get back to different practices. One man from Java was more interested in concentration type mediation with the focus being on the heart chakra or third eye or the early Buddhist meditation technique of concentrating on the breath going in and out at the upper lip. He did not want to be stuck in the abdomen. Personally, I was comfortable with the focus on the breath at the belly going forward and inward labeling the movements with rising-falling, rising-falling. To me it was quite compatible and maybe indistinguishable from Zen's emphasis on the hara with the breathing.
There many thanks and bows to each other, emails were exchanged, respects to Bhante, and few by few we were off and the retreat was over. Good retreat. I've finally gotten used to all the walking which I always had pooh-poohed. Now I prefer it this way. Think it's healthier to walk a lot in a retreat and am for the first time including it in my home mediation. And the practice of mindfulness is much less of an idea of something done by monks far away.
Facing the back exterior wall behind the Dharmasala, the ants were too small to see down there unless there's some big hoopla. One day I saw something moving across a roof tile that lay half on the moss covered cement and half into the greenery on the edge. At first I thought it was a spider. It descended back into greenery then out in the open where I could see it was a dragonfly being hoisted along by a host of much much smaller ants with zillions running around the procession. They spent the longest time getting it into a hole. It was still kicking some and would scoot away when they got near. Of course we're supposed to be sitting with closed eyes and even if open as in walking not letting ourselves be distracted, but I've sat for fifty years with half open eyes à la Zen and these breaks from not being distracted are brief. I forgot about the dragonfly and ants and when I looked back they were all gone - not one sentry or anything. I wondered how much time had passed since I last saw them and where were they now in this realm of coming and going, birth and death, thinking-thinking.
Here's a good short general description with photos of this temple.