Outside Mae Hong Son, I found a wonderful place to do a meditation retreat. It’s a Buddhist vipassana center and a working monastery. They graciously allow anyone to show up, stay as long as they like, and make a donation when they leave. In fact, it is not possible to make a reservation before you come. So those who are bold enough find the monastery and walk in, about 2 km off the main road.
At Wat Tam Wua, there are 6 monks, including the abbott. One is old and smiley and kind, 2 are in their 40s and a bit inscrutable, one is nondescript (probably the enlightened one) and one is young, in his 20s with glasses.
The things Jack Engler, my first meditation teacher, taught me when I was 18 come back to me now. He showed me how to watch my mind. It is thinking, thinking. Complaining, complaining. Desiring, desiring. I picture him as a young man in Burma, at a place somewhat like this. Actually, probably not very much like this. This place is a deluxe spot for western spiritual seekers. It is besutiful, completely and lovingly created and maintained. All of us help out. I think every person here is a one on the Enneagram, because we’re all so eager to make it clean and perfect. So funny.
I wonder why not many Thais come here. Russians, French, Bulgarians, Dutch, Germans, Americans…we are here, practicing diligently. Wearing white, trying to make sense of the dhamma talks taught in broken English with heavy Thai accents, teaching us things that are so mysteriously Buddhist, Asian, and arcane. For instance, what does this mean, “We bow down to the Buddha, but not propogate.”? Or “We bow to the sun, the moon and dignitaries.”? And my favorite, we “bow to the Exalted One, who is enlightened by himself…”
I wonder, is it true that anyone, anywhere becomes enlightened all by themselves, or do we all have massive amounts of help from invisible masterful beings? Even the Buddha himself is not the only Buddha (he is the 5th one, apparently), so wouldn’t he receive help along his way? When I later ask a monk in Laos about this, he said that the Buddha was the only one up until that time who had enough spiritual merit to become enlightened, and this is what the scriptural passage means.
This is the first time I’ve ever seen with my own eyes someone speak about their mind and touch their heart to show where it is. One of the monks did this during the dhamma talk last night. It touched me deeply. How has the entire western world gotten it wrong? How much suffering has it cost us all?
The bell is ringing. Time for morning sitting and walking. Did I mention that the mattresses are so thin here that they seem almost invisible? No slothful behavior here, and no sensory enjoyment! That’s a distraction to our practice. So the beds are just barely soft enough to sleep. The food just enough to feed the body. I have bruises on both of my wide, feminine hips from sleeping on the hard wooden platform and thin “mattress.” Even with all that, I feel relatively well rested. I sleep from 9 pm to 5 am, then awake and meditate on Bu (inhale) Dho (exhale) until 6. We gather to feed the monks at 6:30, as the sun rises over the jungle.
Feeding the monks is a ceremonial action ritually performed by the entire sangha. We each take a bowl of rice and sit lining the edge of the open air meditation hall (always sitting seperated, women from men). Someone rings a big gong many times and one of the dogs howls lustily, greeting the new day. The monks file past us with their bowls, and one by one we give each of them one spoonful of rice, silently raising our plate first above our heads in blessing. Only the old monk smiles at each one of us. I love to greet them all every morning.
We are counseled in the chanting book not to gaze intently at anything. Just be neutral. We are asked to pass our sight over every object with equiniminty. I try this as we do our walking meditation, slowly in a line, all of us dressed in white but covered in green, red, black blankets for warmth. The men follow the monks, the women follow the men.
I adore walking meditation. We silently chant “Bu” on the right foot and “Dho” on the left foot, neutrally observing body, feeling and thoughts. I have many planning thoughts. Some memories arise as well.
As I breathe and walk, right foot, left foot, I feel the impacts of all the social conditioning I received as a child on my young self. I remember being about 6, when I went to “real school,” and I feel so much compassion for this little girl, and all the children like me. Going to the slaughterhouse. The charnel ground, as the Buddhists would say. I cry some tears for the sadness in those children, in me…walking, remembering, Bu Dho, Bu Dho, crying, breathing, innocence wafting away, no way to control its flight, with the burdens of all the ignorance of Western culture replacing it.
Then, to my surprise, something shocking happens. I see myself in my first grade classroom, learning to be a good and dutiful student, beginning to feel this unspoken heaviness being laid upon me…I feel my tears as I walk along…and then the girl who is me winks at me and smiles!
I wink at myself through almost 50 years of time…and more crucially, through eons of my own momentum of kamma (Pali spelling of karma, used in this monastery). Immediately, I laugh out loud. It’s one of those sacred moments where tears turn over and show their belly of laughter…I love those moments…walking, breathing, right foot Bu, left foot Dho, remembering a few lines in an early poem I wrote:
molecules are dancing,
beings are playing,
and all is well.
As I sat in meditation after walking, I felt my body again. That wink is under the pain in my head I’ve been feeling since I came here. The wink wants to be free. I offer the pain to the Holy Spirit for healing, even though that’s not what they do here. It’s what I do, and it works. Light enters into my head. Softly, a sweet mixture arises of perseverance and tenderness. My legs are fully asleep and it takes all I have to sit still, but I continue with my breathing, with absorbing that wink. I need it for my healing.
Later in the afternoon we went on a new route for walking meditation. The monks took us on a long journey, on a path along the base of the incredible karst mountain that graces this property. There is a meditation cave there and several altars to Buddha and dearly departed wise monks. We walked slowly, breathing bu dhoh with each step. Though my Buddhist friends tell me that states of consciousness will eventually become unimportant, today I felt bliss as each of my bare feet touched the Earth. I felt transported into a heaven realm of the utmost vitality and beauty. The rain forest is rich here, with a gurgling stream, pink and purple jungle flowers and thick ropy vines climbing immense trees. Truly a deva loka. My gratitude spilled out all around me and all over the Earth. How did I get so blessed to be here, right now, in the company of angels and devotees? This temple is truly a light in this world.
I stayed at Wat Pa Tam Wua for six days, most of that time in silence. Many openings and healings happened for me during that time. I know this sacred retreat will be one of the highlights of my entire trip. I am so grateful.