Myanmar Monastery: You can check out, but you can never leave
I prepared for my final meditation sessions at the Pa-Auk Forest Monastery in Myanmar. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
ON DAY nine the spell is broken. The Indian monk, Ven Girimananda, comes by the room to see if Aroon wants to go on a walk. Aroon is in the shower, so I invite the monk in to wait. We talk about meditation
Somewhere in the conversation the spell of silence snaps.
The ten day retreat was quickly coming to a close. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Aroon joins the conversation after his shower. When Ven Giimananda, who checks his email twice a year – the first week of July and the last week of December – leaves, Aroon and I continue the conversation.
“You clearly were wanting to talk, so I kind of felt like a dick for not talking,” I tell Aroon as I pack my bags.
“What? No, it was good. The Vietnamese guy before you was really chatty. He didn't speak any English and I don't speak any Vietnamese, but he was very talkative,” Aroon explains.
Well, I read that one wrong.
Outside of our room, the silence remains and carries into my last day, but the magic it held dissipates.
I ask at the Sangha Office if it's possible to get a taxi back in town. It's not.
Aroon has run out of credit on his phone, so I can't even call The Breeze Guesthouse to have them send a taxi.
It's suggested that I wait until the morning of my 11th day and hike out of the monastery to catch a ride along the main road. However, after several rolls of the die, it's determined that I need to catch the train to Yangoon first thing in the morning; I'm ready to get a local SIM card for my phone and re-connect to the world.
In a last ditch effort, Aroon shows me a building where a couple computers that are connected to the internet are located – the monastery does have an active email address.
I walk up the stairs.
Inside the room at the top of the flight of stairs is a young monk who is working on something for the facility on a computer and older monk who is shuffling through some files.
There is a bit of back and forth between the two until it's concluded, that no, no internet. Not that there isn't internet, mind you, as the young monk is clearly getting some things done online. However, there is no internet available to me.
Back out on the road by the Sangha's Office, watching a couple of the scarred dogs that call this particular patch of the monastery home, I start to hear Don Henley's voice.
“Last thing I remember, I was running for the door. I had to find the passage back to the place I was before.
“'Relax,' said the night man. 'We are programmed to receive. You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!'”
Filling the silence after the words echoing in my head fade is a familiar, wailing guitar solo.
Standing there in the sun, it's hard to know exactly what to do at this point. It's hard to imagine that they've managed to put all these facilities and systems in place, but nothing to assist people leaving.
A motorbike taxi driver from in town, waves to me as he pulls into the cul-de-sac. Ridding pillion is a tall, thick Frenchman with a Cannon DSLR camera hanging from his neck.
“Can you give me a ride in town tomorrow?” I ask the driver.
“No, tomorrow evening at 8pm,” I say. I want to leave after the evening meditation session.
“Not in the morning?” asks the driver, Jimmy.
“It's at night. So that's more. Maybe five or six thousand Kyat. Is that okay?”
“Perfect,” I'll see you here tomorrow.
Even if Henley was going to leave me, Jimmy's got my back. I take Jimmy's number – though without reception or access to a phone, I'm not sure what I'll do with it.
With my mode of escape established, I pop into the Foreign Registration Office to talk with Ven Kumudos, the clerkish-looking man who put me into the system when I arrived.
There is tension in the room when I come in, head low, eyes diverted. I sit down and wait for the situation to be resolved.
“I'll think about it,” says the western monk, head shaved, body draped in a burgundy robe.
It's an issue about his housing. It appears that he's being moved or wants to be moved to a specific room, but isn't getting what he wants. Walking in at the last moments of the conversation, I can't get a full grasp for what's happening, but clearly Ven Kumudos isn't happy as the monk stands and leaves.
“Yes?” he asks.
“Um... is there anything I need to do to check out tomorrow,” I ask.
“Do you have your passport?”
“It's in my room. I can go get it really quickly.”
“Ten days, right? Okay, you can leave tomorrow,” he says.
“What about a donation? Can I make that here?”
Ven Kumudos seems nearly disgusted by the idea. Of course, I couldn't hand him the money directly, as monks aren't supposed to handle money, but I figured that there was something in place that allows him to manage these things.
“Yes, a donation.”
I'm not sure if it's the residue from the previous meeting, but it's clear that he doesn't want my money. Given the massive donations that come into the establishment – people donating more than 4,000 dollars worth of food every day or covering the electricity bill of the entire monastery for a day – my hundred dollar or so donation really wouldn't even be an entire drop in the bucket.
“You can make a donation at... office,” he says. “Anyone can show you were it is.”
Anyone but the Ven Kumudos.
I don't catch the name of the office.
I try to clarify, but fail.
Fair enough, this extraordinary experience has been complete sponsored by the Buddhist of the world. I resolve to be thankful, trying desperately hard not to take to heart Ven Kumudos reaction to my attempt to make my small donation.
A single man sits in the empty dinning room. I approach him, quietly letting him know it's probably time for food. It's a faux pas. I should have left him to his thoughts. He murmurs something and remains seated. I go for food, feeling a little guilty for having spoken, my tongue loosening as my departure quickly approaches.
After lunch, my last delicious meal at the monastery, I start to wash my dishes, scrapping a fruit pit, bit of fruit skin and a chili into a plate set by the sink.
“Come on. At least put it in the bag,” comes the whining, passive aggressive voice of a man waiting to wash his dishes after me. “The guy just bagged everything.”
A little sign by the sink clearly states that no scrapes are to be left downstairs. In fact, a swarm of fruit flies has appeared over the last few days after the scrapes plate remained in place over night. However, as with everything, I've formed my habits here based on observing the status quo. I suspect that me walking around snapping photos of monks all morning, primed him for the snide remark, already suspicious that I was being inappropriate, which was not the case.
“I'll take care of it,” I say, aggressively turning on the man.
The best response would have been to simply turn, silently acknowledged him and return to my dishes. But that's not what happened.
I, of course, originally wasn't going to take care of it. I've been doing this, like everyone, for the last ten days; I wasn't stepping out of line, which is how the scrawny bald man made it seem.
“Just make sure you do,” he says.
“Is there a problem? I appreciate your silence,” I quietly snap back after starring him down.
It feels like it takes forever for me to wash my dishes, as if I'm passive-aggressively going slower than necessary, holding up the man and Aroon, who is behind him. However, that's not the case. I'm just doing a final washing before putting my dishes away.
I take the bag of scrapes and plate with my scraps upstairs and throw them into a bin. When I return, the man is wiping down the counter. He leaves a soapy mess behind.
Disappointed with my own reaction, I avoid saying anything to Aroon. I clean up the soapy mess the man left and step outside, resolving to give the man a slight bow and genuine smile if I see him again, so the encounter is something he doesn't carry with him. I'm already on the verge of letting it go.
Excitedly, I hike up the marble stairs to the meditation hall in the warm, golden light of the setting sun. It's my last session before I head back into the 'real world.'
“You are leaving?” questions a plump monk who I've noticed numerous times due to his big smile.
“Yes,” I happily say.
He's not the first monk to ask me if I'm leaving, with both interest and familiarity. It's as if they have taken notice of me and my consist, semi-unstable grin over the last ten days – and decided they like me. Totting around the camera all day today, apparently brought everyone up to speed with my plans, which I didn't imagine any of them would even care about.
At the top, I situate myself under the white mesh of the mosquito net, crossing my legs, a bit fearful of what might happen.
Last night, after evening meditation, during which my legs had fallen into a deep sleep. I assumed they would wake up by the time I made it to the bottom of the 220 stairs between the bottom of the valley and the meditation hall. They didn't.
I tossed and turned that night, getting up in the darkness to go for a slow walk, hoping that the numbness that was still settled deep into my right foot could be shaken loose. Eventually, I was forced to go back to bed, without the feeling fully returning.
The chanting during my last meditation session comes to a stop. The lights loudly click off.
I change positions. If was able to Google the symptoms of my legs falling asleep, I'd be fine. But as it is, I'm concerned about blood circulation.
I change positions several times in the darkness, but manage to enjoy the silence, the darkness – at least to a degree; at this point, my head is already back in Mawlamyine.
The lights come on, sharp as they hit wide, black pupils.
Outside of the hall are several posters. Many of them calling for metta.
Metta is loving-kindness, amity, friendship, good will and active interest in others. It is the first of the four sublime states (Brahmavihāras) and one of the ten pāramīs of the Theravāda school of Buddhism. It is used to bless people and cure them of diseases.
“Request for Metta and Blessing,” reads one poster. “Venerable Sangha and all meditators, Venerable Ariyadhamma Bahathera (Sri-Lanka) will be receiving a heart surgery on 21 July at 7:00am (Myanmar time) because of four blocks found in the heart... Therefore, venerable Sangha and all the meditators, out of compassion, please kindly meditate Metta to him and pray for him from now on for the surgery be successful surgery, especially at chanting time.”
Another called on us to help a four-year-old boy, Mg Agga Min Tint, who is in the emergency room in Yangoon due to a “nervous system disease.”
Another is for a man suffering from “dry eye problem from his left eye”. His right eye is “100% blind, bleeding and pain.”
“He, his family wants to receive metta from Sanghas ans all members of the monastery.”
There is also a poster showing the path toward Nirvana, in the shape of a pagoda, that is in line with Theravada school of Buddhism. The poorly designed phallic explanation has Nirvana blasting out of the tip of the head of the pagoda – something I noticed on day one of the retreat. Nearby, is a less suggestive rendition of the steps toward Nirvana.
It's not hard to imagine a better design for the celibate. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I step away from the posters and head for the stairs. At the bottom of the marble steps, in the orange light that fills the path back down to the road, a young monk with a blue rag sitting askew on his head, asks if I'm leaving.
“Yes,” I say.
He runs off to his kudi. Moments later, he's back with a handful of DVDs and a laminated card explaining more of the theory of Buddhism. The burned DVDs are English-language lectures: Dharma talks.
He silently hands the parting gift to me, before turning around and returning to his home.
It had started to rain during the final evening meditation. And, unfortunately, Jimmy hasn't arrived yet.
It's not 8pm, but given the rain, my faith in him showing up has been diluted.
“Man, its raining. Are you sure you want to go tonight? Maybe go in the morning with the food trucks after the drop off breakfast," suggests Aroon.
He has a point, and the plan would still fit within the confines of the dice. However, I've already basked in the bitter-sweet feeling of leaving and I'm ready for the internet. I've got a list a mile long of projects and things to take care of before I catch the train to Yagoon tomorrow morning.
“Here take my rain coat,” Aroon says, after I explain there is no turning back. He grabs his nice rain jacket for me without hesitation.
“No, no. Thanks man, but I have one packed. I'm just being lazy,” I say. It's more spitting outside than raining; I can't be bothered.
Aroon carries my drone bag outside for me. We stand for a few minutes in the dark before I heave my backpack on, situating the hip straps above the knot of my longi, shake his hand and head down the partially lit road toward town. Hopefully, I'll find Jimmy on the way or at least someone who can give me a lift in town.
As I explained to Aroon: this feels like a bad idea – though it's not late, it feels late – but that's how stories start.
About ten minutes down the road I see a motorbike.
“Wow, patience, patience. I'm coming,” sings Jimmy as he pulls up.
“Sorry, I thought you would wait. I had to drive slow because of the rain,” he says offering his big bettle nut stain grinned.
And so we're off, back to the greater world, as my mind returns momentarily to the monastery.
It's amazing what can be accomplished with an overactive imagination in ten days: I shot dead a Somalian pirate; was kidnapped by Kenyan bandits; left dead in the middle of nowhere; engaged in an elaborate, long-term magic trick to impress upon my creative writing students at Cornell University the importance of suspending reality in fiction; developed two new book ideas; concocted a viable business; drew up the plans for a new magic trick; detailed a stand-up comedy routine; and did a little meditation as well.
Framed paintings were placed over wall paintings on the stairs leading up to the meditation hall. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli