Tuesday, September 14, 2010

10 Days of Silence: Part I

"He wake up at 4 a.m."

"He sleep on wooden pillow."

"He walk everywhere."

Saffron-robed monk Tom Medhi described the personal habits of Ajhan Buddadasa, the founder of Suan Mokkh monestary, who was directly inspired by the example of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. And apparently, because these guys liked to arise while even the roosters still slumber, the monestary bells woke me up at 3:58 a.m. for eleven consecutive nights.

The motto of Wat (Temple/ Monestary) Suan Mokkh in Southern Thailand is, "Live simply, aim high." And live simply did I. To participate in a retreat at the International Dhamma Hermitage, I agreed to the "Eight Trainings," which are:
  • Not to take away breath. This included not killing mosquitoes, which are ubiquitous and constant.
  • Not to take what is not freely given. Basically, do not steal, but also do not borrow without permission.
  • To keep my mind and body free from all sexual activity. Men and women were segregated nearly all the time.
  • Not to harm others by speech... by keeping totally silent for 10 days. In fact, silence in all activities was maintained as far as possible. I also avoided eye contact.
  • Not to harm my consciousness with intoxicating substances, not even caffeine.
  • Not to eat between afternoon and dawn of the next day. I ate two vegetarian meals, one at 8 a.m. and one at 12:30 p.m.
  • Not to dance, sing, play or listen to music, watch shows, or wear jewelry, cosmetics, or perfume. All distractions, including electronics like cameras and even personal journals, were given to the office for safe-keeping during the retreat. I did not read anything, except for the provided daily readings, and I did not write anything, except notes during talks.
  • Not to sleep or sit on luxurious beds or seats. So, I slept on a straw mat on a concrete sleeping platform, and used a wooden block for a pillow. I woke up at 4:00 a.m. I went to sleep at 9:30 a.m.
Why would anyone agree to these rules, plus dedicate between 5.5 and 9 hours per day solely to meditation?

To answer this question, it helps to understand a little bit about Buddhism.

As the story goes, Siddhartha Gautama was a prince born about 500 B.C. As a child, he was completely insulated from the hardships of the outside world, including the realities of suffering and death. As a young man, he left the palace. He saw a sick person, and was shocked by the suffering. Then, he saw an old man, and was shocked by the process of aging. Finally, he saw a dead man, and was shocked by the reality of death. Deeply shaken by this experience, Gautama left his wife and children to adopt a life of extreme poverty and self-denial. He lived as a wandering mystic, but he could not find the answers to the questions of life. He soon realized the wisdom of taking "The Middle Way," and abandoned his extreme practices.

He sat alone under a bodhi tree and concentrated his mind. Bit by bit, he was able to clear away the delusions and misunderstandings about the nature of the universe and life that had plagued him. He reached the state of perfect concentration, clarity, and understanding: the original, luminous mind, nibbana or enlightenment. He realized the true nature of all things. All things are impermanent and change constantly. All things are hard to endure, involve suffering, and are ultimately unsatisfactory, precisely because they are constantly changing. All things are compounded from and depend on other things. In summary, all things are process, not entity.

For example, if you ask, "What is a tree?" you could answer that a tree is a trunk that draws water from the ground, the rain that fell from the sky to water the trunk, the clouds that produced the rain that fell from the sky to water the trunk, the bird that decomposed to release the nutrients to dissolve in the water to feed the tree, and the bird that will eventually eat the insect that eats the decaying trunk of the tree after it dies, only to lay eggs in a nest of another tree grown from the tree's seed. A tree is all of this, plus infinitely more than our minds can realize in their current state.

As he sat under the bodhi tree, he realized Four Noble Truths. First, he realized that suffering exists, and not only the suffering of birth, aging, sickness, and death that afflict all living creatures, but also suffering because humans misunderstand the true nature of all things. Second, he realized that suffering is caused by attachment, clinging, and craving to things that humans cannot possibly ever possess, attain, or achieve, again, due to a misunderstanding of the true nature of all things. Third, he realized that there was a state opposite to the misunderstanding, in which the mind would clearly see the true nature of all things, and this was enlightenment, the state that his mind had taken. Finally, he realized that there was a path to this mind state, which has become known as The Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path is as follows:
  • Right view: wisdom about how life and nature work, such as karma, and dependent origination, and The Four Noble Truths
  • Right intention: committing oneself to mental and ethical development
  • Right speech: no telling lies, not causing discord or being divisive, not using words to hurt someone, and not getting involved in idle chatter or gossip
  • Right action: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct
  • Right livelihood: avoiding occupations that involve trade in weaponry, human beings (prostitution, trafficking), meats, intoxicants, and poisons, or any other occupation that would require one to violate the eightfold path
  • Right effort: making a persistent effort to avoid and abandon unwholesome mental states and to cultivate and maintain wholesome mental states
  • Right mindfulness: being constantly aware of one's mind state and things that might affect it
  • Right concentration: developing the concentration to achieve insights into the true nature of things for oneself
Buddhists meditate because it helps to clear our minds of "defilements," like anger, greed, and delusion, that keep us clinging to things and hence prevent us from realizing enlightenment. Meditation makes it easier to follow the rest of The Eightfold Path, which is good for individuals and society. Non-Buddhists will be interested to know that meditation calms the mind, promoting tranquility and happiness in the present moment. It also calms the body, lowering blood pressure and resting heart rate and delivering plenty of oxygen to bodily tissues.

It can be difficult to establish and maintain a strong meditation practice in "the real world." There are always errands to be run, arguments with spouses or children to be had, and personal committments to follow us. There are constant interruptions and distractions from text messaging beeps to car honks to the cry of a hungry toddler. Who can find an extra hour during the day to devote to sitting still, watching the breath? Even if an extra hour can be squeezed in between the business lunches and the rec soccer league game, it's hard not to watch the minute hand of the clock while your mind spins between the nasty thing your colleague said two weeks ago and the future you may or may not have with your boyfriend, jumps between the ache in the lower back and what's for dinner in an hour.

A retreat provides a time and a space optimized for meditation practice. It minimizes the disruptive parts of the "real world:" distractions, choices, obligations, pleasures, procrastination, slacking, and limitations.

There are no distractions; when you're bored, you can't shop, surf the internet, or eat. You must observe the mind in its bored state and realize how this state causes the mind to crave certain things. There is no choice regarding what to do, when to do it, or what order to do it in. You simply follow the schedule that has been made for you, and if your mind rebels, observe the reaction. You have no obligations while in retreat, no worrying about how to put a roof over your head or food in your belly. All personal business must be settled—all plane tickets arranged, all phone calls made—because there is no contact with the outside world. If the mind seeks out obligations during the retreat, you observe the mind looking for a reason to carry the weight of the world on its neurons.

Somewhat controversially, the retreat minimizes worldly pleasures, like a soft bed, a meal in the evening, and anything sexual. Chasing after worldly pleasures is another form of distraction, one that leads to yet more attachment. If the mind causes the body to crave pleasure, you observe "who" or "what" is actually in charge of "you." There is no procrastination, putting off your meditation until later, and no slacking off, since everyone meditates at the same time. If your mind doesn't want to participate, you observe your mind's anxious state. Finally, a retreat gives you a much longer period of time for dedicated meditation practice, much longer than you could manage on your own in the "real world." This allows the mind to go deeper and farther into concentration, perhaps leading to insight.

I was interested in participating in a meditation retreat for several reasons. First, I'd never had formal instruction in meditation techniques. I had learned some from books and recordings, but I didn't know anyone who could answer questions or give advice.

Also, I'm quite the lazy, err, "relaxed" meditator. If I'm tired of sitting, but the timer hasn't gone off, I'll just get up, instead of working on patience and endurance. Sitting with a group with a formal schedule is good for people who tend toward "relaxed" practice.

Finally, I wanted to be part of a religious community, even if only for a short while. There are Tibetan Buddhists and Zen Buddhists in Ithaca, but I never attended their centers because I felt too awkward, as their Buddhism is steeped in their respective cultures. Davo, my boyfriend, will meditate with me, but he is Jewish. While organized in the Thai Theravada tradition, this retreat at International Dhamma Hermitage is open only to foreigners, people like me, who grew up with a church on the corner instead of Tibetan mandalas or Zen gardens.

So, what is it like to spend 10 days in silence? Read on to Part II to find out.

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