At 5am the train arrives in the southern village of Chaiya, Thailand, and an hour later I’m at Wat Suan Mokkhabalarama, for ten days I will be learning to meditate, total immersion in the original Buddhism – Theravada.
I stay at the forest temple until the retreat starts: the mosquitoes are fierce, roosters and dogs wake me early, and on a damp spot in my room, a frog lives. Three days later I walk five hundred metres to the Dharma Centre where I’m assigned a room and daily task.
We’re warned: ‘Retreats are a challenging exercise. The conditions are the same as the rigorous lifestyles followed by monks and nuns. Talking will stop when the Venerable Ajahn Poh welcomes you this evening’.
Now, two days into the retreat, I’m wondering why I’m inflicting such pain on myself. I do not believe the monks when they say that all, pain included, is impermanent and that this too will pass. Perhaps my body is built differently to those who are sitting so calmly, straight backs, perfect lotus, hands resting on their knees, eyes half-closed and gazing downwards, just as Buddha images do.
My legs are going to snap. I have lifted, pushed, and shoved my left ankle onto my right thigh and now struggle with the other. It’s not possible. My hip will dislocate if I move another millimetre. The lotus position and I are destined to remain strangers – my body is too old, too unfit, too used-up by years of a self-indulgent, dissolute life.
The bell rings and I carefully unwind my legs, massage the joints, and with circulation returning, slowly walk to the dining room.
They also said food is merely fuel to support our bodies. We eat twice daily and it’s more than just energy for me: I ‘m attached to the nutty brown rice, aromatic curries, leafy vegetables, banana, and papaya, despite the Buddhist goal of non-attachment.
Although I agreed to obey the precept of Noble Silence I long to tell someone I’ve moved up two levels in my walking meditation, However, I’m also aware the conversations I wish to indulge in are ego-driven and trivial: “Isn’t the sunrise amazing?” “The pond beautiful.” “The food yummy.”
The other precepts, the basic rules that trainee Thai Monks and Nuns follow, seem possible: not to kill any living thing, not to take that which is not freely given, not to have sex, not to harm others by speech, and to have no intoxicating substances. OK – can do.
However as well as silence, we’ve also committed to ‘no eating after midday, no jewellery or perfumes, and no sleeping in an over-comfortable bed’.
Meal over, it’s hot, I hope for a snooze, but first have my task to attend to and approach the scorpion bucket with trepidation. Will it contain a dangerous creature for me to bless and return to the forest, or not? The orange bucket, with its slippery sides, is where they go when we find one in our rooms. This time nothing’s there, so climb under the mosquito net and collapse on the bed – a raised concrete slab; the mattress is a flax mat, the pillow a brick-sized block of wood with a bite out of it.
An hour later I wake for today’s third bucket-bath at the outdoor concrete tub. The water’s unbelievably cold on my sticky body and minutes later, I’m back in the meditation hall – coconut-palm grove on one side, bayan tree the other, and reflecting pool in the front. When Ajahn Poh, arrives he gracefully moves into a lotus, re-arranges his orange robes then taps a brass bell three times.
“Good afternoon good dharma friends”
He talks about vipassana- to see clearly, the way to end suffering. It seems impossible that my suffering will end as my voluptuous body finds boney bits – making it hard to concentrate. While the monks sit motionless, I stretch one leg, scratch a shoulder, arch my lower back, and surreptitiously observe others from half-closed eyes. A barrage of thoughts run through my mind: wonderful, witty words for my journal rise up, or I rush into the future or relive the past – a monkey-mind with ideas jumping and swinging from branch to branch in my head.
Struggling with the concept that all is impermanent, that anything I’m attached to will cause me pain I try to stop thinking as they also tell me that mindfulness is not thinking but being fully present, aware of what’s happening right now.
With yoga each morning my hips seem more forgiving and tonight sit, albeit briefly, in a full lotus position, but we will never be good friends.
Ajan Poh said ‘Completing the course, like life, is rather like swimming across a river. It’s good to get to the other side.’ It was.
© Heather Campbell Hapeta (first published in the NZ Listener)