Wrapped in Myanmar monastery's silence
There is a huge difference between mediating for four hours and day dreaming for hours. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I'M ON the brink of ten days of no reading, no writing, no contact with the outside world. Sitting outside the Foreign Registration Office of the Pa-Auk Forest Monastery in my white t-shirt and longi (Burmese man skirt), there is no turning back. Though that was the case as soon as the die was cast.
If I knew the first thing about meditation, this might not be such an undertaking, but as it is I'm about to plunge into the deep end of my own mind without the slightest idea of how to stay afloat in the silence.
The Venerable Kumuda hasn't shown up to book me into the system yet. However, a venerable, round-faced monk who clearly knows what he's about has.
“The key should be somewhere under here,” the monk says, moving things on a desk that sits idly outside the office. His hand sweeps under the desk mat for the key, which he quickly finds.
I follow him inside, plunking down on the wooden floor of a small room.
“I've been sick, so I need medicine,” he says, pulling out a packet of pre-packaged medicine to add to the cup of hot water he's poured himself. “Did you hear about the shooting with the Buddhist in Orlando?”
I have not, as I've been out of the news loop for several days now.
“No worries. You're here for meditation. You don't need to think about these things now.”
There is a moment of silence before he resumes the conversation. I am a bit lost for how to respond, knowing I should be reverent, but feeling more congenial, as if talking to a teacher who has become a close friend.
“When a monk has enough food, he just puts his hand over his bowl like this,” the monk says, miming the action. “Sometimes people bring meat for the monks. They think, 'maybe monks would like this'. If you like, take. If not, don't take.”
A young Vietnamese man comes groveling into the room, fervently bowing to the monk.
“What can I help you with?”
The man remains silent, offering only a giant idiotic smile.
Unable to draw a response from the man, the monk asks if he speaks English.
A small notebook appears in the man's hands, along with a pen.
“I'm in Noble Silence,” he writes, crawling forward to show the monk.
There is a time a place for Noble Silence. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“Yes, that is very good. But this is an office. When things must get done and there is need for talking, you must talk,” the monk says, starting in on how even Lord Buddha did not dictate Noble Silence. Yet how some monks try to use it to avoid discussions, despite discussions, at times, being necessary.
Kumuda, a small man with glasses hanging from his nose, bustles into the room with the air of an administrator. It seems that no matter what walk in life one finds themselves on, there is always room for administrators.
Kumuda takes care of registering the Vietnamese man before taking my passport and writing me into the system.
“How long will you stay?” he asks me.
“Have you ever meditated before?”
“Can you sit cross-legged?”
“Okay. Sit. Breath in and out through your nose, focusing just on the point where the air comes in and out, don't follow the breath. Now meditate for five minutes.”
On the hard wood floor I close my eyes and start breathing. Time drags on and I start to wander if he's waiting for longer than five minutes to test me, or maybe I'm just supposed to know when it's been five minutes. Unsure, I keep my eyes closed.
Kumuda hands me a schedule, quickly explaining it to me in his heavily accented voice. I'm unsure if he's using words I simply don't know, but are common place in Buddhism, or if the words are so heavily accented that I don't recognize them. He speaks rapidly in a no-nonsense tone that stops me from asking any questions.
The schedule starts with a wake-up call at 3:30am, a half hour before the first 90 minutes of morning meditation, which is followed by breakfast and a second round of 90 minutes of meditation and then second breakfast at 10:10am. The schedule calls it lunch, though in reality you could call it anything, as it's also the last meal of the day.
It's nearly 1pm, time for the four-hour afternoon meditation session. Unlike many Vipassana centers, there is “only” eight and half hours of meditation a day, which Kumuda tallies up and marks in pen on the schedule for me.
And that's that. I've rocked up without advance notice and no experience, yet within minutes of addressing me, the monastery has assigned me a schedule, place to sleep and ensured that I will be fed. All for free. There was no mention of money, or even the slightest hint about how to manage the donation that I figure I'll be asked to pay at the end of the retreat.
Outside the office, a monk, seeing that I'm a bit lost already, walks me to the Sangha Office. Down a long wooden hallway with wood panel walls that match the doors, I'm shown my room.
It's a small square, room, perhaps three and half meters wide. Inside are two beds and two small chest of drawers. The far wall is a panel of screened windows.
I dump my bags and, with a little further guidance, make my way up to the meditation hall.
The cool marble stairs up to the hall are covered. At the top is the hall, an ornate, two story building, with a capacity to house hundreds of practitioners. The entire forest complex houses more than 2,000 monks, a couple hundred of them foreigners – mostly from the Asian continent – though not everyone chooses to meditate in the hall.
Large round pillars hold up the second floor of the meditation center. Between them are laymen and monks cacooned in freestanding, translucent mosquito nets, each a chrysalis holding a motionless figure moving through a mental and spiritual metamorphosis – or at least trying.
Along the side of the hall are collapsed nets and wedge cushions for meditation. I think I'm supposed to hand the slip of paper that Kumuda gave to me to someone, but who that someone is, with monks uniformly milling about in there burgundy robes, I don't know.
Monks gather at the upper monastery at the meditation hall of Myanmar's Pa-Auk Forest Monastery. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A mat and net folded up in the back, far from a barely visible golden Buddha image, but close to the entrance, seems unoccupied. Only by the end of my days at the center will it occur to me that the mat must have been for someone who had not shown up to meditation that day. However, whoever had previously occupied the little one-meter-by-one-meter square never made a fuss, never said a word. The spot, at least for the next ten days, was mine.
I close my eyes.
My body slouches, collapsing my lungs as I breath in and out.
My mind wanders. It wanders for miles before I realize it. For a few moments it focuses on my breath before straying again. With a subtle jolt, my body becomes alert before I nearly nod off. And so an unproductive balance is struck between the chaos of my mind and the fuzzy moments before sleep, punctuated by the occasional feeling of air coming in and out of my nostrils.
There is a rustling as people get up to leave, many more staying behind. Confused, I stay put.
There is no way it has been four hours already. Awhile later, technically an hour later, there is another rustling as people re-join those of us who have remained seated. Finally, the hall starts to empty. After weighing things up; guessing about when getting up would put me in the middle of the crowd, I call it.
Four hours isn't so bad. I can handle this. However, there is a huge difference between daydreaming/sleeping and meditation.
A western monk with his head freshly shaved meditates in Myanmar. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli