When we were researching places in Thailand to go for meditation, our original plan was to go north to Chiang Mai to spend a few weeks at one of the many Wats there. However, after we realized that coming in overland only gave us a 15-day visa exemption, we had to scramble to change our plans. We had read about Wat Suan Mokkh (in the town of Chaiya in the south) as a place that held 10-day retreats beginning on the first of every month, and which we could simply show up on the day before to register for. Although the main forest monastery was established in 1932 by the Venerable Ajahn Buddhadasa, due to increasing western interest he established the Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage in 1989 as a place specifically for westerners to come to learn how to practice anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing). We had also heard that the 10-day course was catered to a mostly European and Russian crowd coming in large part from the nearby Thai party islands of Ko Phangan, Samui, and Tao. As such, it was already kind of our fall back plan in case we hadn’t received confirmation from one of the Chinag Mai wats. When we first discovered our visa status, the Suan Mokkh option rose to the top of our list, especially after discovering that the retreat would be completed on the very day we needed to get out of the country!
Also, given the facts that neither of us had sat for any significant length of time since Tassajara practice period back in March of 2012, and that I had largely left Tassajara due to having developed a labral tear in my hip (which made it incredibly painful and difficult to sit for any length of time), a “beginner’s retreat” sounded gentle enough for me to try. I also had some fears concerning doing any kind of serious sitting practice given my recent foot sprain back in Ooty. But here we were, and both of us were really looking forward to the opportunity to settle after traveling for the past seven months through India and Asia.
We arrived in the morning, registered early, and had some time to walk around the grounds and settle into our rooms. There were male and female dorms in which each room was a basic concrete bunker with a padlock-able wooden door, one little barred window with a wooden shutter, and air holes in the concrete walls between rooms as well as to the outside of the dormitory compound for ventilation. Inside the room there was a raised platform with a bamboo mat, a wooden headrest (they called it a “pillow”), and mosquito netting. Within the dorm there were about 60+ identical rooms connected by a walkway that encircled a large open grassy courtyard with a few tall trees and an area for drying laundry. It had six communal laundry washing pools with buckets as well as one common bathing area adjacent to a row of toilets.
We dropped our belongings off and set out for the meditation hall to place our cushions, which we provided by the center. When we arrived we were astounded to find that the “hall” was an open air (no walls!) building with a sand floor and burlap sacks on which to place a thin mat and sitting cushion or bench. This would be where we would be spending most of the hours over the next ten days, and while it was appealing to think of doing our meditation outdoors, I was also a little concerned about what it would be like to sit on sand and with the mosquitoes!
We returned to the main dining hall (also completely open-air) for our orientation meeting and to see the group of other participants for the first time. There were about 120 people altogether, a mostly younger and slightly more male crowd with a handful of quite experienced sitters (they call them old friends). After a brief introduction, and after having to check in any cameras, phones or other electrical devices, the men and women were separated and each group was given an orientation to the location of things, the rules of conduct, and the schedule. What we had heard about the party crowd rang true, and after living at Tassajara monastery for the past decade it was a little funny to see all the strapless tube tops, tank-tops, thongs visible through sheer fabric, and super short-shorts (yes, living in the monastery does change your perception of things). In our orientation the women were asked to dress modestly: no bare shoulders, no exposed cleavage, skirts or pants below the knee only, but more often than not people seemed to consider it modest enough to simply throw a loose scarf over their spaghetti straps! I was beginning to completely understand why they separated the men and women (even if it does not address the issues of those of all sexual orientations). After the retreat Graham and I compared notes on dorm life: he described a bunch of young well-tanned and muscled men walking around in their underwear while working out, bathing, and so forth. As for myself, I often wished I had my camera! There was one particular shot I would have loved to have been able to take: seven brightly colored and lacey thongs in a row on the laundry line! Please note, I am in no way supporting or opposing anything in particular about the lifestyle or clothing choices of mainstream westerners here, but merely expressing my own awe. I realize it both dates and places me, and I found the whole thing (including my own reactions) both humorous as well as slightly disturbing!
The retreat would officially begin that evening with our first sitting, and in the morning we would embark upon the schedule and rhythm of the place:waking up at 4am, sitting for an hour while listening to a short reading about practice, then off to a one and a half hour yoga class (perfect!), then back to the meditation hall for an hour lecture (or just more sitting), breakfast gruel, fruits, leafy greens, then chores (soji assignment) followed by a half-hour break, then back to more sitting interspersed with solitary walking meditation through to a very delicious many-course Thai vegetarian lunch, another break, then more sitting and walking until another talk, then sitting, walking, an optional chanting and loving-kindness session (or more sitting), then a tea break (usually hot chocolate), a brief soak in the natural salt-water hot springs (did I mention those?), then sitting, walking in a group around a pond, then one last period of sitting before concrete bunker time. All of these activities are sex-segregated, mostly with men on one side and women on the other (for sittings, lectures, and meals) and completely segregated in the hot spring visits, living quarters as well as different yoga class locations.
As it turned out, the sand floor meditation hall was surprisingly comfortable, especially if you had some serious mosquito repellant (we were to find that those with only citronella kept leaping up every few minutes to reapply)! Thankfully, I found the burlap sack atop sand was soft and yet firm enough to take care of both my hip and foot injuries. Someone had the chore of smoothing the sand each morning after breakfast, and when we returned to the hall little sand creatures (which you only ever saw by their flinging of sand) would have drawn intricate designs in the sand as well as started to create cute little cone-shaped holes in which they waited for their prey (at least I thought they were cute until I saw an unfortunate moth find itself in such a hole). The soundscape of the place was incredible, with cuckoos throughout the day, an ominous hooting in the lofty treetops, a night and early morning descending “QUACK-quack” of some other bird, lots of crickets at night, mosquito whines, and this one guy who blew his heavily congested nose long and loud and at those most inopportune times (like when Ajahn Po was about to begin his talk) throughout the entire ten days! And for me, my adjacent sitting mate would sigh loudly and fling her hair about.
There were a number of different people giving talks throughout, a few western laypeople, the former Abbot Ajahn Po (who was instrumental in getting the Internation center established and maintained) as well as the Venerable Dhammavidu (a.k.a. “the English monk”) who was bordering on cantankerous, but he really knew his shit. He would show up to each talk without any notes and appear to be just winging it, but in each talk he was incredibly knowledgeable, organized, and full of great insight and personal stories. Towards the end of the retreat he gave a great talk on the 12-fold chain of dependent origination from both the perspective of reincarnation as well as from without. Ajahn Po’s talks in the first part of the retreat were very basic and somewhat difficult to understand, but remarkable in his presence and simplicity of instruction.
Physically, my body did alright with all the sitting, and as I got more concentrated (and as the yoga also worked on loosening me up) I began to sit longer and longer, forgoing the long walking meditations, chanting session and loving-kindness session in order to remain sitting. Even with my semi-recently sprained ankle, even with my labral hip tear, this was really good news to me. The heat was terrible, and every dharma talk that Ajahn Po gave he mentioned how bad it was that month. At night there was about an hour where the air seemed to stay completely still, and I felt I could just drown in all my sweat! But even that was not so bad overall, given our easy access to laundry and bathing facilities as well as ample break time to wash. My biggest affliction seemed to come up around the bathing (which I did about three times a day). As all washing happened in a public space (and this was not Tassajara), we were asked to wear a sarong whenever bathing or going to the hot springs. Having never tried to wash myself while wearing a loose but incredibly clingy garment, I found that trying to use soap in one hand while holding the sarong up in the other (so as not to expose myself) and wishing for a third hand for the application of small buckets of water was surprisingly infuriating! I definitely lost my meditative calm more than a few times at the washbasin.
In terms of the meditation, although I have sat many sesshins (zen sitting retreats), this was my first time at a straight anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) retreat. The initial instruction is very basic: pay attention to your breath as it moves through its perceived trajectory from nose-tip to navel and out again, continuously, with some details on how to go about doing this. It sounds very simple, but it is extremely difficult to do! Of course our minds find this activity extremely dull and will create all sorts of more intriguing scenarios to get involved with. The same is of course true for zen. However, in the practice of zazen there is no particular object of awareness. You might count or follow the breath just to get settled before getting down to the business of “just sitting,” which means not doing anything else. This includes not relying on any particular device or technique or method. There are countless poetic images that nod in the general direction of instruction, like “drop off body and mind,” or manifesting “your original face before your parents were born,” or “actualizing the fundamental point,” but practically speaking it comes down to opening your field of awareness to include anything that arises in consciousness, while not getting involved with any of it.Often (but not always) I have found a certain trajectory over the span of a sesshin: the first few days can be a little rough, with sleepiness, body aches, and general distractedness. By around the midpoint you can hit a low where everything either annoys you or hurts and you may get to the point that the only recourse you have is to surrender to your wretchedness. At that point there can be a kind of breakthrough and release. Your body may appear to become lighter. You may notice a general sense of well-being and ease all the way up to feeling filled with joy and wonder at every facet of your experience. Perhaps these feelings are only fleeting, but sometimes they can last for days. One thing I noticed during this anapanasati retreat was that I did not experience and real highs or lows. While my monkey-mind did settle down a little bit over the span of ten days (with around 10-12 hours of meditation each day), I did get a little bummed out about not making it to any kind of meditative absorption to speak of. I must admit that for the first half of the retreat I simply could not follow my breath for more than maybe a few minutes at a time before I was off on some other adventure. It really seemed that the more insistent I became at dragging my awareness back to the breath, the more and more inane and ridiculously unimportant were the topics my mind seemed drawn to. I did not try to do anything except to follow the instructions as given. But this was the first time I have ever meditated with something specific to be attained! First there was the basic constant awareness needed, then the appearance of the nimitta, then the first through fourth jhana… and all of this was needed before moving on from the Samatha to Vipassana practice, and I was getting nowhere!
As the days progressed we had fewer talks and practice instruction and more time for meditation. On day nine we had a mostly unstructured practice schedule with only one meal instead of two. This process felt really gradual, with a lot of initial hand-holding leading up to the space to find your own rhythm, which I really appreciated. At one point on that day I abandoned the continuous attempt to focus on the breath and simply opened my awareness to my entire present experience (what my training has been throughout my zen practice). Although it is difficult to describe, I can say that the mind fell almost instantly into an incredibly concentrated state wherein there was no-thing, no-object, no-attainment but only awareness. Ah zen. After being in this peaceful dwelling of repose and bliss for some time I gradually oriented my attention back to focus on the breath with a little more of that effortless effort that can be so elusive. When I lay down on my bamboo mat and wooden pillow later that evening I fell asleep at ease and with a pervading sense of well-being.
The last day was similar but with the inevitable wrapping up talks, instruction and preparation. On the last evening of the retreat the participants were given the opportunity to get up and share something of their experiences. Some of the heartfelt descriptions of people’s first time with meditation were really sweet, and I went to sleep that last night feeling so appreciative of Ajahn Buddhadasa (who died in 1993 but has left behind a great many writings on Anapanasati as well as on Buddhism and no-religion) and Ajahn Po for establishing and maintaining such a place of practice for newcomers. In the morning after the first and last sitting of that day we checked out, picked up our passports and cameras, revisited some spots on the beautiful grounds, then walked out to the main road with our packs and caught a share-truck headed back south to Surat Thani where we would catch a bus to Hatyai to board our reserved overnight train back to Kuala Lumpur. While my body was slightly sore, the fact of the matter was that I had been able to sit long hours for the first time in quite awhile, and mostly without pain. This was a wonderful discovery, as sitting at all had been a problem for my last year at Tassajara! Graham and I shared stories of our experience and talked about ways to return someday to the Garden of Liberation in Chaiya, Thailand…