Meditating at Suan Mokkh - My apologies, this is very long...I've just read it back and I don't even talk about meditating really. Tut tut. But it is what it is, so if you get through it: well done.
It doesn't matter how often you're told not to have any expectations about what will happen at a retreat, the reason you're there is to stop your chattering monkey mind from fretting about what might happen, what will happen, what has happened and what the hell you're going to do about it (or what you should have done about it). So while the advice is essentially correct, it's near impossible to follow. If you’re capable of having no expectations then you probably don't need to go on the retreat.
The first one I attended at Suan Mokkh was back in 2001. I arrived fat (16 stone I think...) and quite miserable, with terrible insomnia and a raging alcohol habit. By the time I left Thailand I guess I had lost about 2 stone - and would lose 2 more as I travelled through Australasia - and I drank a lot less: about a quarter of my previous intake. More importantly, I felt happy for the first time I could remember. If I think about that time now, I didn't fully understand Buddhism – this latest retreat, and one monk in particular has clarified many things for me - but I understood the calm that resulted from focusing on my breathing and from attempting to look beyond my very ego driven character; ego that was born of insecurity: a defence mechanism. I learnt on that retreat that to get annoyed with other people was a way of damaging myself. Being angry with someone doesn't affect them, it affects you. I resolved then that I would be more accepting - for purely selfish reasons: my own well being. The overall effect though is the same: you don't allow people to get to you, you treat them as an even better friend if they cross you. And by jove it worked. The problem is though, that you gradually creep into old habits and after 7 years, although I still felt the same intellectually, I wasn't living my belief system any more. Theravada Buddhists are clear that 'understanding' Buddhism and experiencing it are very different things. In many ways an intellectual understanding of Buddha, Dhamma, Dhukka, the 4 noble truths, the 8 trainings and all the rest of the teachings ‘in and of itself’ is worth nothing. The Buddha never asked anyone to believe his teachings, he asked them to meditate and find the truth of his teachings themself, and not to believe anything he or anyone else said unless they could verify if through their own experience. Which is why I was back: to rediscover my practice.
The effects of that first retreat were astonishing and I couldn't hope to have such a life-changing experience again. And I didn't. Instead, I found my own 'middle way' (a popular phrase in Buddhism) summed up in one of the readings as: 'not too loose, not too tight'. It's basically about understanding that some people need to be quite firm with their minds and some people need to give themselves a break; generally it's the opposite way from however you operate normally, so if you are quite a militant control freak you need to learn to allow your mind to wander, not get angry, bring it back and accept that it's ok. If you're a free spirited wandering hippy type, you need to be firmer with yourself, rein in your mind and force it down the path; but not TOO hard. I wasn't sure what type of person I was (I’m sure you have your own ideas), and indeed most people are somewhere in between, but on balance I think I'm more of a control freak. So last time (when I didn't really know about the 'not too tight, not too loose' philosophy) I was very very hard on myself, concentrating intensely all day and causing much stress and anger along the way. It was exhausting. This time, I gave myself a break. When I was meditating I was militant, but sometimes - rather than flogging a dead horse - I allowed myself to indulge in a half hour of completely abandoned daydreaming. Aspirations, plans, ideas, concepts, flights of fancy, whatever I felt like. It was bliss. So whilst I didn't meditate ALL day, I probably meditated 60% of the day very successfully and then rather than waste 40% on fruitless meditation and frustration I wrote songs, planned whole chapters of my book, imagined possible exciting futures, reconsidered the past. All of this is something you are explicitly NOT meant to do as part of Buddhist practice. Unless of course, you recognise that finding the right path - 'not too tight, not too loose'- means finding a workable solution that you can use in the real world. It also made me realise that in planning chapters of my book, I need to do more sitting with my eyes shut imagining scenes and scenarios rather than staring at my laptop.
This middle way sounds simple doesn't it? The problem is that Buddhism in the west can often be taught in a very hard and unforgiving way: do this, not this; this right, this is wrong. Many western Buddhists I've met seem very uptight and un-accepting of practice outside of their understanding. Thai Buddhist monks are really fun-loving, playful, and funny and will rarely criticise anything. They will tell you if something breaks a rule, but they won't scold you for it. Often they'll just laugh. One particular monk at Suan Mokkh this time was a perfect example of this, and he was incredibly inspiring.
Tan Dhammavidu & Ajahn Poh
Tan Dhammavidu is the Thai name of the inspiring British born monk who delivered many (off the cuff) Dhamma talks at Suan Mokkh. In common with many Western monks you meet in Thailand, he had been a hedonistic traveller type and travelled the world getting off his tits and shagging anything that moved. His life philosophy was completely anti-establishment: fuck the system, enjoy yourself at all costs. He then came to Thailand, gave it all up and now lives in a cave in the forest. Dhammavidu's tone was amazing; he's quite cynical about various aspects of Buddhist teaching. He is a scholar of Dhamma (Dhamma means a lot of things, but fundamentally it means 'nature' or the relationship we have with 'nature' but it's bigger than that because, of course, we are part of nature so it kind of means 'the relationship of everything in the experienced world'...is that helpful? Probably not.) and has issues with mistranslation and the like which he doesn't avoid mentioning in talks. He's also clearly still a rebel. He said that there were few Thai monks who could refuse fried Pork, and also confessed that he has one of those Italian coffee maker jobs and drinks coffee. The consumption of both meat and caffeine are forbidden as part of the 8 teachings, so Dhammavidu's confessions definitely contributed to the opening up of a more liberal 'middle way'. And in the summing up feedback discussions at the end of the retreat it was universally agreed that this had been one of the 'loosest' retreats they'd ever had. It sometimes felt that we were running our own retreat, the staff and monks ‘policing’ of the retreat was much softer than it had been on my previous retreat and I appreciated this enormously. It was exactly what I needed. I think it was Dhammavidu's teachings that contributed most to this ‘mood’ of the retreat. Thai monks teach in quite a specific way, which can be summed up as 'repetitive Yoda'. The abbot of the monastery Ajahn Poh teaches in this style; he also looks and sounds very like Yoda, beginning every session with the endearing greeting: '(clears throat) Good morning, every-good friends' - I love idiosyncratic English when spoken by someone as a second language. Ajahn Poh has an incredible presence: on several occasions he came down unannounced to join us in the meditation hall and, with my eyes closed, I could feel the room change when he arrived. When he teaches however, it can be a little difficult to maintain concentration, as he will tend to repeat many of the same things, coming at the concept from many angles to reinforce the point. This is the general style of Buddhist teaching in Thailand, so it's churlish to criticise it, but it does require supreme levels of concentration when you come from a culture so steeped in fast cut editing, soundbites and information overload. Often you could sum up a talk in 2 sentences, but that's not the Thai way. Dhammavidu on the other hand would weave around the subject like a stand up comic or a jazz improviser, stopping off for a little amusing detour that may or may not be related to the talk. Remarkably though, despite anecdotes about killing squirrels by twisting their necks, living naked on a Greek beach and looking at pictures of rotting corpses when you fancy a wank, the subject of his lessons somehow seemed to stick.
Interestingly, Dhammavidu mentioned that many elderly monks have had strokes in Thaiand; he put this down to their diet being bad. It struck a chord with me though as it pertains directly to my book. I'm wondering whether a lifetime spent repressing the ego/analysis/logic centres of the brain (generally consdiered to be in the left hemisphere of right handed people) causes that part of the brain to be more susceptible to strokes. This would help explain why my composer has essentially become a Buddhist but without doing any practice: he has damaged (in his stroke) the part of him which Buddhist work to calm through practice. It seems nobody has looked into this connection. Many monks have been analysed meditating (at the behest of the Dalai Lama who aspires to bringing Buddhism and Science together) to ascertain just where meditation happens (or doesn't happen), but nobody has examined why so many monks have had strokes. In fact, I'm not sure whether this fact is even known. Either way, I'm damn well using it in my book.
The monastery is the middle of what was once a swamp and is now a forest. It's teaming with wildlife and you kind of have to get used to the scorpions, spiders, snakes, centipedes, millipedes and (the worst of the lot) the damned ants. My god the ants don't half bite. It really challenges your commitment to not killing anything. Just one or two ants will cause you an immense amount of jumping about and trying to get them out from inside your trousers. I must confess that I did kill one without a moment’s hesitation when it bit the end of my penis. This was very painful indeed. I was in the process of hanging out some laundry and then I suddenly had to pull it out and hit the end of it. It did make me think of that Billy Connolly joke about being caught masturbating and making up a story to try and explain what you were doing: 'there was this ant right? Massive it was, huge fangs and it BIT me and quick as a flash I got my todger out and was hitting it rhythmically to get the ant off when you came into the room and...etc'. I must also point out that I was inside the men's dorm at the time, I wouldn't have exposed myself in the meditation hall for instance.
I adapted to the general living conditions remarkably quickly this time. You sleep on a concrete shelf with a thin rattan mat and a wooden pillow. I must confess that the first time I didn't really use the wooden pillow, but this time: it was great. It has a curved head shaped dip in it and you really can ONLY sleep on your back. The morning bell is sounded at 4.00am (you have to be on your cushion by 4.30) and the moment you wake up, you wake up. There's no sense of wanting to stay in bed or turning over and ignoring it – the pillow is all the incentive you need to get the fuck out of bed. I've actually had a sore back since I left the monastery and slept on a normal bed with pillows and a mattress. It was fine at the monastery, but now… One night I decided to sneak my meditation cushion back to my room for the night instead of the wooden one. Big mistake. Woke up with an incredibly painful neck and decided to move back to the wooden pillow for the rest of the retreat. Karma was definitely at work.
There was a lot more and better food this time (including some tasty but very weird looking desserts: one a strange green lime-ish flavoured frog spawn in coconut milk) and in the evenings there was hot chocolate rather than insipid tea. Luxury. Washing was still accomplished by tipping bowls of cold water over your head from a huge concrete water bunker, which is a shock to the system at 4 in the morning, but it definitely wakes you up.
The retreat started with a record 140 people and also ended with a record drop off at the 80 mark. Quite a difference. If you look at this picture of the meditation hall, it's got about 40 people in it; imagine it with 140. We were packed in. Most of us were glad to lose so many people. Interestingly, most of them left on day 8 and 9 and just over the water on Koh Phagnan on day 9 there was a full moon party happening. Conicedence? I did briefly contemplate leaving and going to the party, but I had to remind myself that I’ve been to 3 of them and I think they’re massively over-rated; if you’ve been to a decent party in the UK then you’ll be disappointed by a beach bound outdoor rave circa 1997 filled with English piss-heads passed out and lying in their own and others piss. Anyway, the full moon was great for us at the monastery. Every night we would go out on a group walking meditation where we'd walk in single file with bear feet around the monastery - the boys would go one way and the girls the other. This was a bit scary at first as you just imagine the many things you could stand on as you walk into the darkness; but you get used to it surprisingly quickly. If you know me you'll know that I hate wearing shoes anyway, I didn't wear any for the whole time I was at the monastery. On day one it was pretty dark on the walk, but they had a bunch of candles around the site which gave just enough light to stop yourself falling into the lakes. They also contributely hugely to the serenity of the evening walks. We would walk around for about 20 minutes, stop and look out over the lake en masse. Looking out into the darkness and seeing 140 people all standing in silence gazing across the lakes was incredibly beautiful and was one of my favourite parts of each day. With each passing day the moon was getting fuller and fuller and you could really see the difference in light quality each night. It reminded me that this daily connection and conscious monitoring of natural phenomena was and is a crucial part of living; but one we've replaced with technology. It's no wonder ancient cultures had more of a connection with the world round about them. Observing the wildlife, the sun, the moon and all the other naturally evolving phenomena is the only way you know what's going on, what changes are taking place. As soon as that is replaced with an abstract concept such as 'the time' you are no longer connected to the world around you. Time doesn't seem like an abstract concept, it seems fairly concrete, but of course this is an illusion. When you arrive at the monastery you deposit watches and mobile phones at the reception, so you have no idea what time it is, you just go to the meditation hall whenever the big bell rings. Gradually the notion of what time it actually is becomes less important as your day is structured by what you're doing and the quality of the light around you.
It was on one of the evening walks that I first noticed Al. He was walking in front of me on a walk and, I must confess, I was finding him very annoying. He was tallish about 6'2", I guessed in his 60s or 70s, bald head, white beard and tinted gold rimmed Aviator glasses. What drew me to him - and what annoyed me - was that he kept pointing at things during the walk. He would see a firefly and point at it, see an Owl and point at it, see a snake and point at it. Generally, when one is walking you 'note' things you see: this is natural. You don't generally point it out, but especially not on a silent meditation retreat because it's a type of communication. The thing is, the silence at a retreat isn't a meaningless piece of dogma to be adhered to at all costs, you need to apply a bit of pragmatism to it: understand why we do it rather than just slavishly adhere to it. This swings both ways. I noticed several times people trying to communicate some slightly abstract or complex concept when doing their chores through lengthy and complicated routines of pointing and miming when they could have just used one sentence, got the point across and carried on. Communication, silent or not, is communication, and sometimes its pragmatic to make communication short and to the point by using a few well placed words rather than causing a huge kerfuffle of confusing gestures which is way more distracting to a meditating mind than the words: 'you do that bit, I'll do this bit and we'll put the rubbish over there'. Al spent the whole retreat trying to communicate to the world around him: I watched him crouched next to a massive spiders web for about half an hour, trying (successfully) to attract people’s attention so they would come over to him and join him in looking at the web. During one of the walking meditation sessions he noticed some sort of animal in a ditch and crouched with his torch aimed at it. Bear in mind that walking meditation is done collectively, we are all following the person in front and operating as a unit – except when the person in front of you is crouched in a ditch breaking the group into 2 with 50 people all wondering why they’re not moving and the rest of the group is on the other side of the lake.
Once when we both happened to be meditating near the same spot, the bell rang to mark the end of the session and he jumped up and said 'ALL RIGHT!'. I wasn't impressed, it totally ruined my own calm and I instantly got angry, but then stopped and wondered why I was getting so angry. I let this sit for a few days and eventually I turned a corner. After seeing the approach of the Thai monks to life generally, I decided that I wouldn't be annoyed, I would observe him and enjoy his idiosyncratic ways, and when I did he gradually became my favourite person at the retreat. He couldn't help his personality spilling out everywhere and I deliberately began to make sure I was near him during walks. When he pointed, I noted, he didn't point the way people normally do; he didn't follow his pointing finger with his eyes. He would point, but with a blunt meaningless point. As soon as he pointed he was already searching for something else to point at, so he didn't concentrate on the first subject. It was like he was mentally compiling a checklist and was ticking things off on it (grass: check, trees:check, sky:check). I watched him a lot. He sat just to the left of me, three people along and on quite a tall stool. On the final day, during the final meditation session of the entire retreat, we were nearing the end of the half hour session (I can time a half hour to within 20 seconds in my head now) when I heard a strange noise; a repressed strangled cry coming from the left. It was dark so I couldn't see much, but when I opened my eyes I saw Al jump from his stool and fall to his knees on the sand outside the meditation hall his head burrowing into the sand, a muffled cry coming from between his legs. 3 or 4 people ran to him and as they reached him the bell rang 3 times to signify the end of the retreat. And, of Al's life.
Not really. I don't know what happened, but he didn't die. It was VERY dramatic though and it would have been a glorious reminder of the impermanence of life if he had died, but he didn't. He later gave a 5 minute talk about his experience at the retreat, which was mostly a fascinating précis of his life. He had been in the Air force, he had set up various businesses, was now based in Bangkok and, most fascinating of all, he strongly believed that one should have clear life goals and really stick to them (the fascinating bit comes next BTW). His current goal, I kid you not, was to find a way of defeating gravity in order to help the environment by inventing transportation means that don't use damaging fossil fuels. I thought it was tough trying to write a book, but Al is working to defeat gravity. That is mint. I was glad that I had already decided to like him, because at the end of the retreat I felt like he was my best friend. He even invited to go and see him in Bangkok but I forgot to get his card when I left so...sadly, I won't be seeing him again. I would have loved to go out with him in Bangkok. We could have wandered the streets pointing together. If he could find so much to point at when he was at a forest monastery, think how much he could find in central Bangkok.
The Celebrity Game
I don't know if you ever play this game, but whenever I'm in a crowded place I like to pretend that I'm at a celebrity event and find people with only a vague resemblance to someone famous and commentate on the event as if I'm a presenter on ITV2 (say Kate Thornton or that smarmy kid who looks like an estate agent: Jamie something…maybe). So you spot someone and say something along the lines of: 'And over on the left we can see Kate Moss arriving with Janette Krankie. Kate's not wearing her signature pieces today, preferring to dress down in a pair of British Home Store slacks for that casual look, Janette's also out of her civvies today in a pair of slightly too small snow wash denims circa 2003, but she is of course wearing her trademark smirk - it's great to see them here today'. Whenever we were having tea (actually hot chocolate, as I said earlier) in the evening I always played this game, and what an odd bunch of people were at the retreat. Tennis Player Greg Rusedski; Director Steven Spielberg; The Italian Bepe DeMarco bloke from back in the day in Eastenders; Another Tennis Player Leighton Hewett (must have heard about it from Greg); Captain Birdseye; Frank Butcher; Naboo from The Mighty Boosh; Tom Selleck; radio jock Pat Sharpe. There were more but I don't have my notebook with me. Will add to the list later.
So there you are, that was the retreat. Kind of. I feel great. Am just in the midst of transferring the MASSIVE video file of the Bays video that I edited whilst out here - it's about 3Gb and therefore is going to take about 20 hours to transfer, but once it's done then (fingers crossed) it's JUST the book I have to worry about. Am gutted at missing my sister's wedding on the 28th (same day as my birthday this year), but I couldn't get a return flight this way round for less than 950 quid...which is just a tad too much really. I think she understands. I'm going to this place tomorrow
for a few weeks so should hopefully get a serious amount of writing in - there being nothing else to do. Love to you if I know you (I seem to have lots of people reading this according to the stats.) and love to you if I don't know you. As the unhelpful bear once said to me (I think it was him anyway...) ‘if you want to know what to do with your life, make a list of stuff you want to do, and if you haven't done it DO IT! And when you’ve done it just cross it off the fucking list’. It was something like that anyway, but the point is pretty simple and summed up by Mr Miyagi in Karate Kid much more succinctly: ‘There is no try, only do’.