THE BUDDHA, THE DHAMMA AND ME
1991-12-18, Koh Pha Ngan
"Once people confront death and the impermanence of everything on an experiential level, they frequently start seeing all of their present life strategies as being erroneous and the totality of their perceptions as some kind of fundamental illusion." Stan Grof; Interview. 'Uncommon Wisdom' Fritjof Capra "If you can see Heaven in a Mustard Seed, then you can be said to know Heaven. If you can see what is going on around you in an hour, then you can be said to have entered Eternity." 'Historical Illuminatus Chronicles' Robert Anton Wilson
Life is Suffering.
Everything is impermanent. The scorpions and centipedes in my room are impermanent. Ants that bite my feet and eat everything that does not move are impermanent. The screaming muscles in my back, sitting erect in lotus position for most of the day, the pain and suffering, are impermanent.
The kraits slipping through the brush around here, Thailand's deadliest snake, could soon prove the impermanence of this body.
I'll try not to be attached.
Outside Suratthani, a sweltering port town in Southern Thailand, where the harbor has daily boats to Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan, you take a bus past the railway station and get off close to Chaiya, at Wat Suan Mokh. All the natives know the way, just ask. They may look at you kind of weird, but never mind. Most people just head for the islands.
I have come to this Buddhist Forest Monastery for the ten-day Anapanasati/Vipassana Meditation Retreat that is given here frequently. It's cheap. About two and a half dollars a day. The commitment transcends money.
I have come to receive the 'Dhamma' or 'Truth' as given by Tan Ajahn Poh, Sister Dhammadina and company.
Suan Mokh is unique among Monasteries here in Thailand. Founded by Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa Bhikku, roughly translated as 'The Venerable Master Buddhadasa, Spiritual Slave', the principles espoused here are austere and conservatively traditional even by Buddhist standards.
They don't preach reincarnation, making merit, karma or the necessity for glorious ritual and ceremony.
Meditation, suffering, quenching of Dukkha, control of the Mind and Nibbana are what it's all about.
Standing in front of a massive cement and stone arch, modestly carved, surrounded by trees, the worn dirt path leading through, then hesitantly stepping forward I have mixed feelings of anticipation and curiosity. Once up to the information and check-in area, I read the rules and outline of the schedule for the next ten days.
Up at four a.m., reading, sitting, yoga, sitting, Two meals a day, Dhamma talks, walking and more sitting. No drinking, no smoking, no sex. Silence and work. This may be more than I bargained for. Nervousness, mixed with a tinge of fear creep down my neck as I wonder what is attracting me to do this thing. Ten days!
After registering and offering a 'donation' for the Retreat, I just have time for one kiss for Jayme, my partner. Men and women have separate quarters, and the monastic rule applies: 'No touching between sexes.'
A truck arrives, I load my gear, along with a group going to the International Hermitage at the Monastery. There are roughly fifty men, forty women for this retreat. Our meditation sitting commences early tomorrow.
"My back aches, my knees hurt, and I don't love Buddha." I have been sitting for hours.
We began with a short Buddhist reading at 4:30 a.m. At first it was nice, getting up early, before the sunrise, listening to a soft melodious voice reading some western parable that has a Buddhist truth buried just below the surface. Just like a bedtime story, only before sunrise.
Now, my eyes won't focus. That sitting in vipassana meditation for forty-five minutes really got to me.
I have a blue mat on the floor, a multicolored cushion for my butt, and another round green cushion for occasional support. Nothing seems to help.
The Asian guy next to me, sitting in full lotus position, doesn't move. He's a stone. I sit cross-legged. Left foot tucked under, on my right thigh. Right foot crossed, folded up on left thigh. My back is, uhh ...... straight.
With eyes open, focusing on my nose, then slowly closing, I just watch the breath.
And watch, and watch and watch. From my nostril to my navel and back. Slow, long breath.
Anapanasati. The word means "breathing in, breathing out with mindfulness". This is easy, just watching the breath. I remember practicing various other forms of meditation before: walking, energetic movement, yoga, gestalt awareness, visual imagery and more. This is easy. Right? OK! For minutes I watch my breath.
Five minutes, then ten. What was that thought? Oh yeah, just passing. Memory of a sweltering hotel room in Suratthani, wondering when I will eat. Just noticing. My right knee is starting to call, 'Bend me, move me!' It's all transient, impermanent. Yet, very insistent! Now my back, a tightness, and it wants support. 'Not here, Bub!' Where is my breath?
I have lost focus and concentration, and shortly my body is screaming. Buddha's belly! Meditation is not for wimps!
Through the next session and the next, in the afternoon, before and after lunch, on into the evening, each sitting between forty-five minutes to one and a half hours. I try to regain my breath, to enter Samadhi, that state of concentration and contemplation. All in vain.
The mental chich, the chatter, a continual stream of disconnected, non-directed, spurious and transitory thoughts and imagery.
The thoughts pour like torrents through my mind. Unquenchable, unstoppable, unbidden. Images of home, of Big Sur, the ocean mountains and friends. Of Indonesia, the islands, hunger, thirst, my current sleeping quarters, past hotels and dives, family, recent experiences, desolation, despair, self-accusation.
Followed by future projections, shoulds and shopping lists, dreams of islands, sun and sand. Dreams of mushrooms.
The bell announcing breakfast sounds, thankfully pulling me out of my obsession. Bowl, spoon and cup in hand, I am silent in the serving line, waiting my turn in the dining hall to fill up on rice and spicy vegetables and fruit, a cup of soya coffee.
The food is plentiful and filling. Twice a day. Sitting on a straw mat, I recite the food reflection with the group. Even here, no vanity and no attachment.
I have noticed the monks, early in the morning leaving for the villages, bowl in hand to beg for their daily ration of food. They take only what will fill their bowl, and take it regardless of what it is.
For them, the variety and taste is meaningless. This food is solely to provide sustenance for this body to pursue the spiritual life.
After breakfast, an all-too-brief rest, we meet again in the Meditation Hall for a Dhamma Talk. These are delivered in English by the monks, expound Buddhist philosophy, stress the importance of personal experience, lay down the law as told by the Buddha, are provocative and often strike chords of discontent along with understanding. They serve to deepen awarenesses gained through meditation.
The monks giving the discourses continually emphasize the Buddha's teaching. They point out that he spoke only about suffering, the nature of suffering and how to get out of it. This entire philosophy, or religion was built around the desire to remove all pain.
Tan Santikaro, a bespeckled studious western monk, is speaking about impermanence. The impermanence of all things. The arising of sadness, anger, fear, happiness and joy. Briefly. For these feelings never last. Like birth, disease, old age and death. Dukkha!
"Life is Suffering." The Buddha's First Noble Truth.
The validity of it strikes like a thunderbolt! It hits home. I feel it, admit it, and know it, somewhere deep inside. Something in my gut gives a tight squeeze as I hear the words and cannot escape. There is nowhere to hide. Everything is transitory.
My senses, my feelings, my desires help to create this suffering. In part, a longing for what can never be.
As I sit, numbed by the words, like a fly caught in the web of acquaintance, I experience a despair that careens through my body, an unstoppable force. This is Dhamma. Truth. The Law Of Nature.
Flinching at my continuing folly and realizing that I am desperately seeking a way out of this dilemma, I want something easier, less sacrifice. Tan Santikaro is oblivious to my distress, he just rolls on.
There is more. The manipulation of the ego. All these games I've played, creating an illusion that supports my existence. Even the pain, an ego trip that becomes comfortable in the coolness of familiarity. Change may be too traumatic.
I can talk about it, act as if I want it, yet, there is a small, powerful piece of me that won't let go. I have to admit, after all these years, still caught in a sticky web of my own fantasy, my movie.
Step by step I ponder transience. Step by step I ponder impermanence. Step by torturous step I notice my breath and reflect upon Dukkha.
Ajahn Buddhadasa, the Big Guy says, "Have only walking, not walker; doing, no doer."
During the walking meditation I try to reflect on all this newfound knowledge. Twenty-five steps straight ahead, in the grass, sheltered by branches from the palm trees, then stop, turn around and walk back. Damn these ants on my legs! Their bite breaking my concentration, my samadhi.
Occasionally I stop. Standing, breathing and noticing. I am weathering a storm of desolation, buffeted by winds of despair, drowning in a rain of hopelessness. Even happiness, even pleasure ultimately turns to suffering.
Haven't I noticed it on this trip, my moods swinging up and down? Feeling like I take two steps forward, then, from nowhere get knocked back, knocked down for some unreal reason or another.
Even all those little things, the small frictions with Jayme traveling on the road and getting stuck in a personal drama like her wanting to go one direction and me another. The tension of trying to get somewhere and encountering all the local hassles, my nervousness about returning home, If I have one that is.
Starting out with this great intention, wanting to encounter and learn from a variety of traditional healers. Yeah, I've met a few, spent time down in the Amazon with Don Antonio or on Bali with Ketut Liyer. That was exciting!
Then I seem just to wander, listless, just going from one scene to the next. Getting a tip, or information about some local wonder worker, that turns out to be baseless rumor, or so hidden in secrecy it's impossible to open the door.
Then, somewhere along the line, I fall from that great elation of accomplishment to the depths, feeling all is lost, that nothing will come of all this.
What can I do? Give up now, join a monastery and hope that may provide relief for the rest of my life. It's like trading in one old broken down car for a new model, yet not knowing if the new one is any better. A part of me is attracted and I don't even know if that is the answer.
I see clearly my attachments, my cravings, my desire. And where it all ultimately leads. Even this seeking, this exploration I have undertaken is an attachment in a way. I identify with it, and realize that I have a craving to end the craving! I am blind to the other side, an alternative. More walking.
She has a smile that is innocence and frivolity, yet her words, her insight, reveal depth and wisdom. Sister Dhammadina, an American, shaven head, shaven eyebrows, was ordained in Burma, and has taken on the brown robes of a forest nun. She shares responsibility for the Dhamma Talks, helps organize, and gives private interviews. At thirty-five, she has worn the robes for six years.
I am curious. What induces a person to become a monk or a nun? What motivating factors lead to the decision to become renunciate? Eshewing the world. Taking vows of solitude, of poverty, of celibacy? Now having tasted monastic life, I understand a little better the gravity of this decision. So I ponder, 'Who turns?'
In private interviews, seeking clarification on meditation, feeling states, right action and mindfulness, I explore these issues in the light of how they affect her, Sister Dhammadina.
She is erudite, spontaneous, sometimes original. Dhammadina relates to me a little of her background, her family, childhood, her years of searching. In the light of seeking my own answers, I probe for what has led her to hers. In a way, ultimately, I feel I have no escape. Inevitability may also be a 'Law of Nature'!
Her dark eyes gleam with wisdom, and the faintest smile. Having heard about the Buddhist view of loving-kindness and compassion, I become curious about intimacy and in a way am pushing her to test her convictions. That connection and deep communication between human spirits. How is it for a nun?
She seems so unattached, even as she talks about her family and friends. Like they are all just passing ships in the night. Sister Dhammadina's eyes light up, she sits up, suddenly erect and proclaims, 'I love being a nun!'
Day stretches on into night, night lingers into day, followed by night. By the third day a monotonous, tiring, trying routine develops with continual hardship. I wonder if I will make it to the tenth day.
That now seems like an eternity away. And I feel stuck. Deep in Dukkha, and pain. And as Sister Wendy, another western nun declaims with a happy smile, 'We are all here together, alone!'
She explains the Thai way is Theravada, the Buddha's original teaching. It's about taking personal responsibility for one's life and actions. Indeed, the whole doctrine of the Eightfold Path that we are imbibing is a kind of guidebook to right action, right behavior and right morality.
If there truly is a way to find freedom out of this I want to explore it. Coming here has been a watershed for me already. Although most of that has been the pain and confusion that was ignored for so long.
I am not sure I buy the whole book yet, however, what the monks have been stressing about those hindrances - ill will toward others, laziness, becoming caught up in sensual desire, restlessness and that pervading doubt creating a roadblock - are undeniable.
It's just that all these rules for leading a pain-free guiltless life seem so rigid. There seems no room for compromise, or flexibility. Maybe this is my doubt, or laziness coming up. I have this feeling that life would become unbearably boring.
I feel caught in a circle, and sense there is a trap.
Each of us have tasks. Work to perform. Some sweep the dining hall, others ring the bell during the day announcing mealtimes, still others clean toilets or the dormitory area.
There is even the job of removing all the scorpions and centipedes we find in our rooms at night! These get released in the brush, still alive to find their way back every day to our beds.
I have already captured five of the little pests. And I am learning to ignore the mosquitoes, even though they are the biggest nuisance, the little bloodsuckers. Buddhists don't kill anything, even if it is killing them!
I lead a morning yoga for the men at 5:30 a.m. At least this provides some contact with others. Since I already have a practice, I am enjoying sharing that experience, and it gives me a chance to communicate a little with others.
Even in silence, not knowing my fellow meditators, there seems a real coming together of the community. This is the Sangha. Community of spiritual seekers, here to support one another. We represent a closure of the circle, the three steps for spiritual growth. The Buddha, The Dhamma, and the Sangha. The 'Triple Gem', to which we go for refuge.
This closeness between us is surfacing naturally, in some obscure way. I don't even know these guys! We all get up about the same time everyday, take a morning bath, clothed in underwear, all that 'modesty' business, then head for the Meditation Hall. Then we sit, alone with ourselves and whoever else is 'inside'.
Yet there is another subtle energy working here as well. I can feel it. We are supporting one another on a psychic plane. Giving acceptance to each other's travails.
I don't even need to know what the other guy is going through now. As we pass each other along the path, a slight smile and knowing glance of beingness, of respect or encouragement crosses my lips. And I've felt this has helped my personal meditation as well. There seems to be a resonant energy in the hall when we all sit together.
On some level, not even knowing a name or country, I have this impression that we have entered together a deeper intimacy simply through the silence and meditation.
All the other usual means for communication, all that talking and building a box or picture around our lives, has become meaningless. A surface snapshot at best.
Like the other afternoon, during lunch. We had just left the hall after one of Sister Dhammadina's talks on the illusion of pleasure. I was trying to come to some clarity about being trapped by the senses as she explained that animals have no feelings, it's all just existence for them.
Then as a group of us are sitting just outside the dining area slowly eating that meal, just nourishment for spiritual pursuits, a hawk glides close by, near the trees.
The hawk suddenly flips backwards in midair, catches a branch with its claws and hangs upside down, shaking the limb! Fascinating! Never seen a hawk do that.
It drops from the branch, does a double somersault in midair, then flies off toward the forest. And returns a moment later, high above us all, with a screaming animal in its claws!
The hawk hangs in the air, motionless, then drops his still-living future dinner. Allowing the terrorized animal to fall for a moment, the hawk suddenly drops out of the sky, folds wings and dives after his morsel, catches the screaming thing, then swoops back up!
Slowly circling higher, right in front of us, his audience, the hawk plays drop-and-catch with this little creature for fifteen minutes. Sure looked to me like he was enjoying himself! Finally he swoops off for his own lunchbreak, carrying his lunch. I wonder if the hawk knows how much Dukkha he's in as I swap knowing glances with my meditation companions. I get the feeling we all had similar thoughts!
Tan Ajahn Poh, Head Abbot of Wat Suan Mokh, gives our afternoon talks. He provides instruction on Anapanasati, the breathing practice with awareness. Swathed in orange robes, a round gentle face and glasses, Ajahn Poh began this International Dhamma Hermitage.
He speaks slowly in broken English. Each day expounding and adding to the lessons of the prior days. He teaches the sixteen steps we must internalize and experience for ourselves in order to reach Nibbana.
"The breath is the body conditioner. The breath is the Mind conditioner. Control the breath to become liberated!"
We learn about controlling the breath, how the breath affects the body and the mind. How to experience and control feeling states, witnessing our own desires, letting go. The process is long and arduous. Even here, one must be willing to detach, even from the process.
The toughest part is getting beyond the body and the mind. All that physical pain, then the mental chatter. It still comes and goes, yet I can go deeper now, witnessing the impermanence and transitory nature of existence.
I am beginning to experience a spacious quality like stepping back, just observing all the little happenings without becoming intimately involved. When I can maintain this focus it feels like a sunny day at the beach.
By the fifth day I sense I have settled into a level of acceptance. This, here, is my life now. Waking, meditating, yoga, eating, tasks, and more sitting. Somehow I am not so frantic. I'm grateful it's downhill now, only five more days. Yet even that does not seem to matter.
I have now began to refine my breathing, hone my concentration, submerge deeper, and for longer. The pain is still there. There are periods I can tune it out along with other outside distractions. Even if briefly, I sit in contemplation, sit in contentment, maybe even in 'Piti' or rapture, and in 'Sukha', happiness.
Slowly, I find myself contemplating the illusion of all things. What the Monks call 'Mara'. Now with some detachment. It is becoming easier to witness more of what I create and get caught up in. Deep in meditation, I can observe all those little games I play, noticing my attachments without judging or getting caught up in the drama so much.
I notice how I build an image of myself for others, and maintain that image with all these funny little devices. Takes a lot of energy to do that, doesn't it?
It's difficult, yet with nothing else to do I find I can let go for awhile. This feels like a breath of fresh air! Ahhh ...... Freedom!
I notice even as I sit in Bliss, deeper in Samadhi, time becomes meaningless, yet, somewhere I can somehow tell exactly when the bell will ring, signaling the end. There are times I do not want it to ring.
Late in the afternoon we sit in the Meditation Hall with Tan Ajahn Maha Dhammarantum, 'The Chanting Monk'. He is an especially gay and playful Thai and always comes to these sessions cheerful, lively and full of life. His thin face, bright eyes, expressive. He seems to me a living inspiration as he leads us in chanting, another form of meditation.
There is a tonal monotonous quality to the Pali chants, and the words are often difficult to pronounce with the correct inflection. The Ajahn just laughs at the numerous mistakes and encourages us to proceed.
When it all comes together, Bliss!
The whole group in a united meditation using our voices. We merge into an energetic field that is akin to the misty rain falling lazily on a cool mountain morning. A kind of rhythmic trance emerges and I just blend in and flow with the sound. No thinking, no noticing, just one voice, one vibration. I am lost in a reverie, no worries or chatter touch me.
Two more days. My Samadhi has developed deeper. Vipassana, or insight is emerging as I maintain an object in my mind. I can now discover more fully my process, in light of the Buddha's teaching. In some instances I begin to let go of attachments and desires.
There are many snakes here at Suan Mokh. Not all crawl on the ground. During walking meditation I have noticed a few casually slipping through the grass. The monks emphasize that they all are dangerous.
My walking meditation was interrupted by one as three women walking nearby became very frightened and disturbed by a particularly large reptile. I came over to observe and found a beautiful bright green and brown snake slithering along the grass between two palms. He finally climbed one of the trees and disappeared.
As I returned to my contemplative steps I felt this tremendous energy, a hard irresistible sexual excitement. I needed to fuck not only my partner, but at least half a dozen of the women here.
Being cooped up for days in the men's dormitories, separated from all those women, then encountering them constantly around the monastery, yet not relating with them. Frustratingly there, yet not available.
Meditate, walk, meditate. Eventually, becoming conscious of the source of this lust, my attachment to sensual pleasure and distraction. I have done it all before, it is so unconscious that a pattern of relating develops and is habitual.
And I could see the Dukkha, or suffering my lust was leading to. The attachment dissolves. For now.
I feel as though I have become a monk. The daily routine has entered my system so completely that this has become a way of life! Just the Monastery and the Sangha. Fifty of us men in this dormitory, sparse rooms, straw mats on a concrete bed for sleep, bathing all in our underwear, for 'modesty'. Who are they?
One man shaved his head completely yesterday! What was the motivation?
"Hey Bro, be cool!" Images of hip blacks, on the streets of Atlanta, where I grew up, enter my mind. Their greetings, salutations, way of life, way of being. Aspiring to 'Be cool!'
Nibbana, that elusive state of being, the dropping of all Dukkha, all suffering. Nibbana, translated from the Pali language means,'To be cool, coolness'!
It is here, in the absence of material, earthly desire that heaven resides. This is the ultimate object of meditation, the state of grace the Buddha achieved. Enlightenment. Nibbana, 'Be cool'!
Entering the final day, I reflect upon all that I have learned. Let's see: There are the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, The sixteen steps of Anapanasati, the five Khandas, the Triple Refuge, the Five Precepts, the three Sikkhas, the Five Hindrances.
There sure are a lot of numbers in Buddhism! All this and more comprise 'The Middle Way'!
Who am I? Sister Dhammadina says that I am nobody! "Non-attachment is the void mind. Void of I and mine, values, desires, judgments."
She emphasizes that even here, this inner core I must ultimately detach from. That I have no-self. This is the strangest yet!
In meditation I dissolve into a voidness, a kind of aware nothingness, and when I come back, there is still me! I am not there yet, and not willing to let go! Perhaps this is the most difficult thing to do.
While I have felt the cold knowingness of Truth, through experience in much of the teaching, at times I feel the Western monks display what I call 'spiritual arrogance'. "This is the Way, the only Way!" And even while encouraging personal experience, there is this sense, I feel, of elitism. "We are here, you are there." Maybe that's just the heightened sense of non-attachment ringing through.
Indeed, I am not there, yet!
After breakfast, after the morning meditation on the eleventh day, we can finally speak. What to say? I feel a sense of loss, it is over, and yet, somewhere inside, a piece of me, this self that is not-self, wants to continue. I have become accustomed to this life. Hard, basic, yet full and fulfilling.
We slowly, tentatively engage each other. Share names and experiences. Surprisingly, many experiences the same. I feel happy, content, changed in some unaccountable way.
Knowing all is transient, impermanent, I experience this desire to travel to the islands. Sun, sand, beach, the material world. And, this awareness inside, that again, I see with new eyes, I am creating the world, my world, every day. And will maintain a place in this world to sit, to breath, to let go and focus. Who knows?
Nibbana may come among the sands of Koh Samui!
" ...... He knows he has somehow caught sight of the great flapping beast and is somewhere beyond this side of the screen and into the true old full bare essence of the Thing ..... He is onto what is popularly thought of as Enlightenment ...... " 'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test' Tom Wolfe
Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman
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