I recently did some hard time at a Buddhist monastery – Wat Prathat Doi Suthep on the mountain outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand – in a meditation course for foreigners. It lasted fifteen days, there were a lot of rules and there was no dinner. While there I learned some tricky things about Buddhism and some tricky things about myself.
The Buddhist religion is serious business in Thailand. People are quite devout and respect the monks. When you enter a temple, you prostrate 3 times to the Buddha image and the monks. The monks humbly let us know that it’s not them personally the people are honoring when they bow; the people are showing respect for all the rules that the monks keep. We meditators had to keep about eight rules. Lay people keep five. Novice monks keep ten. But full grown monks, they have to keep two hundred and twenty seven rules. So quit your bitching, in other words, was their message to us.
Here are the rules we had to follow:
#1 – No Murder We had to refrain from killing, even bugs. This was hard as we were in a forest in a tropical country so there were a fair number of creepy crawlies. The head monk, Phra Buddasak, was quite clear that if you kill a mosquito by accident while sweeping the floor, that’s okay; but if you kill a mosquito that is stinging you with the though in your head “You Die!!”, then that is definitely bad karma. So I grew careful of bugs. Pra Buddasak said that when you have to think about it before you kill something, you examine closely the energy of killing and the energy of anger and how much of it you have in you. Instead of killing the mosquito that is bedeviling you, you should thank it for giving you the opportunity to observe your own violent nature with detachment. So thank you, mosquito, for turning my legs into a five star restaurant.
#2 – No Thieving We had to refrain from stealing. Those 30 meter high Buddha statues looked pretty heavy, so I didn’t think this one would be a problem.
#3 – No Mouthing Off We had to refrain from wrongful speech and keep silent. Phra Buddasak’s told us that his advice to many of the lay people who came to see him with problems, especially wives, was “don’t talk alot”. This one wasn’t hard for me since I have been traveling solo for a few months and not talking to anyone anyway. But right after the course I talked a lot and I then understood why we were silent during it. When most of us talk, most of the time we are really just having this conversation with ourselves that goes something like this “me, me, me, this is what I have, this is what I know, this is my precious opinion, I’m not afraid, not at all, not at all, I feel great plus I’m better than you”. Don’t take my word for it, check that out for yourself. This talking we do is mostly idle and leaks energy like a car tire with a nail in it leaks air. So the monks had us keep silent to conserve our energy, for the strenuous task of sitting still all day.
#4 – No Sexting We had to refrain from sexual activity, even flirting (written up in our manual as “no flirting with the opposite sex”, which makes me wonder about the social life at these boys-only monasteries). This was a pain because there were at least two cute guys there. And furthermore, what better place to meet a great boyfriend than a meditation retreat? But again I could see the logic in this. That particular dance would have totally occupied my mind. I would have been posing while meditating, wondering if the white orderly uniform I sported showed off my butt well enough to attract the attention of that pleasantly serious looking chap on the meditation cushion two feet behind me.
#5 – No Looking Grown & Sexy We had to wear white clothes only and no make up. This was about giving up beautification. This was hard for me. I cheated. I still put on my Retin A cream every night. It was a tough task with no mirrors and in a cold, dark room but I persevered. I though – “Screw you, monk, you don’t have to live in the real world where women are judged and rewarded primarily on looks. Now pass me that eye cream.” But as I stood there shivering every night in the dark applying various different lotions, I did start to feel a little silly. Was I putting the foot cream mistakenly on my eyelids, and what effect would that have? Did it take me this long every night? Didn’t I know I was going to get old and wrinkled no matter what I did? Was I, the one who dresses primarily in unisex Polo shirts and who never wears makeup, in fact Super Vain? Phra Buddasak in one of his Dhamma talks declared with a straight face that Buddhism was good for your skin. You would not need wrinkle cream because meditation was cream for your mind. You can therefore drop the creams and just meditate instead. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll go down to just two.
#6 – No Foursquare Checkins We couldn’t use the internet, listen to music, read books, make calls or write. This was to avoid diversion, and this was the one I originally feared the most. It turned out easier that I thought it would be. First of all, this rule ensured that you practiced plenty of meditation as there was nothing else to do. Second, with no more outside thoughts going into my mind, I did eventually feel like I could hear myself better on the inside. Too bad my inner monologue turned out to be as whiny and convoluted as KPRW Los Angeles public radio. Still, it was starting to quiet down on the inner talk radio airwaves in there by the end. When I got out I went online and after one hour I had to get off. It made my head hurt. Maybe it always did and I hadn’t noticed.
#7 – No Nap Time We had to refrain from oversleeping. Which meant no laying down during the day and no going to bed before 9:30PM. A kind of reverse curfew. We woke up at 5AM sharp for Dhamma talk at 5:30AM with Phra Buddasak. I cheated on this one every day and was in bed by 8PM. I was lying down to do my laying meditation, I told myself. More like lie-ing meditation. Even though I didn’t get this one emotionally like I ended up understanding some of the other rules, I saw the logic intellectually. Meditation made me sleepy and the temptation to take a nap instead of meditating was always strong. I do wish I had meditated more at night, I would have got more out of the program for sure. Or at least had fewer strange dreams.
#8 – No Dinner! But the toughest rule of all was that we were to refrain from overeating, and to support that we got two vegetarian meals a day, breakfast and lunch. No eating after noon. No dinner. I thought I would have this one in the bag easy as I had just come from off a four day fast. But this was super hard for me. I was hungry. Really, really hungry. We were supposed to eat mindfully with the purpose of sustaining the body and not for intoxication and entertainment. Notice every bite. Feel when it hits your stomach. Phra Buddasak even told us to chew 10 times, just like Mom used to say. Every day we read or chanted a verse in Pali reaffirming a wise reflection on food before we ate, that we should use food to only sustain the body and not for entertainment. Then when we ate to destroy hunger, we wouldn’t be creating a new undesirable feeling of overeating. Or as Biggie might say: more food, more problems. So instead of dinner, everyday at 6PM we chanted Dhamma verses together in the original Pali. I had no idea what we were saying, but it did take your mind momentarily off the dinner you weren’t having.
Rules is rules, and big meals are totally “an obstacle to the practice”. Grudgingly, I began to observe this directly. For the first few days I overate lunch desperately, and meditating after lunch was a nightmare of sleepiness and hostile free floating anxious day-mares. But one day I had tried just eating a regular sized lunch and meditation after lunch went much better. The monks explained to us that we were all lucky to get two meals a day; when the Buddha experienced enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree after giving up his starvation routine, he decided to be moderate and allowed himself one meal a day. And we were getting two so in other words, quit your bitching.
I was starting to understand why you don’t see many fat people in Thailand. Buddhism is secretly a weight control program. But I am not Thai, I am African American and I was hungry. Every day I stared at my plate of lunch forlornly, knowing this would be my last meal for 17 hours. Every day I also went up to the gift shop by the main temple to stare down a Snickers bar.
On the 11th day I broke and bought and ate one (although it was still before noon, so I thought I was beating the rules on a technicality). It made me sick. Snickers had always satisfied me before. WTF? Again, when I was released from the program immediately I went and satisfied another craving, this time fried spring rolls. They made me sick too! I could feel them in my mouth and the oil felt rancid, and I could feel them hit my stomach like a brick. I thought I liked spring rolls. I guess my body and mind had agreed to disagree on that point and I had never noticed. But now eating mindfully I was noticing.
I think they broke me. You know what I can eat now that doesn’t make me sick? The same thing we ate every day at Doi Suthep. Rice and vegetables. I am going to fight this one though and I intend to have roast pork in Bali, even if it’s just one mindful bite.
WTF was allowed? So in short there was a lot of stuff we couldn’t do, some I understood and some I struggled with. But what could we do all day with all that newly liberated free time not spent sleepy, preening, gossiping or in a food coma? Meditate, meditate and meditate some more. Meditate in the practice room. Meditate outside in the woods. Meditate in the chanting chapel, up at the main temple, in our rooms. On the terrace, during lectures in languages you didn’t understand, while waiting for your check in with the teacher. Meditate in the four major postures: walking, standing, sitting and laying. Boring, boring and more boring.
These monks are pretty clever. Turns out being bored is difficult. Just simple walking, sitting, laying down and standing are extraordinarily difficult, when you can’t let your mind wander off. I could barely do it. At times I wanted to gnaw my own leg off, or run screaming out of the temple. Once I did do that, actually (it was a silent scream, like that famous painting). When you have to just concentrate on a mundane task and you aren’t allowed to let your mind wander around like a crazed dog off the leash, you realize that in fact your mind is a crazed dog off the leash and you are not in control much of the time in real life. You are just going in circles in your head. The plane is circling the runway in a holding pattern, waiting for clearance to land. Pairing down your activities to the bare essentials illustrates this powerfully. Smart monks.
I think everyone discovered some individual personal demon running around unattended in their head. I personally was plagued by paranoid thoughts that people were plotting against me. I made up dramas and resentments about people I wasn’t even allowed to talk to! She took the pineapple slice I was looking at. He sat in the seat I usually sit in, on purpose. She’s hogging all the good meditation cushions. He used the last of the hot tea water just when he saw me coming. Jesus. I did realize sadly that I bring this energy to situations, it’s inside me and not out there coming from unfair bosses and bad boyfriends. Great. Just Great. I can quit those other things but I can’t quit myself. Nikki, I wish I knew how to quit you (Brokeback reference!).
But that’s okay. We learned that the purpose of meditation is not to eliminate these feelings (lucky it’s not, ’cause it don’t) or even to get calm. The purpose of meditation is kinda tricky, actually. On the last day of monk prison, after check out, I went to the english library in the meditation center and encountered a book on mediation by the monk who established the particular style of vipassana (insight) meditation that we practiced at Doi Suthep, the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw. I found a passage where he was describing what it feels like when you try to sit for an hour. Basically he admits that it’s impossible to sit still for an hour! You are always moving and minutely squirming, adjusting. He instructs to bear it as much as you can, and when you can’t you’ll move. The same with thoughts, observe their coming and going, don’t try to stop them. Just sit there and suffer through it.
According to Mahasi Sayadaw, the purpose of just sitting with this crap is not to eliminate it, but to realize that you are not in control of your body or your mind. They have urges you can’t do much about and it causes suffering you can’t control. So if you can’t control them, then “you” are not your body or your mind, or any of the other aggregates of existence like consciousness, will, thoughts, sensation. You can’t control any of these things perfectly, so logically “you” are none of them. Which means “you”, the unmoving mover, don’t really exist as such. As Gertrude Stein said (unfairly) about Oakland, CA – “there is no there, there.”
Sounds scary, but this is actually the good news. It means “you” don’t have to be so selfish and fearful anymore, trying to prop “yourself ” up. “You” can let go. And that’s the whole point of vipassana meditation.
I thought it was about reducing my anxiety on flights with deep breathing exercises. Oh well.
Parole. Despite all the rules, a feeling of satisfaction set in for me at Doi Suthep. And getting out was like getting out of prison. I felt great feelings of recidivism coming on, and a friend I made there (silently) who I hung out with afterward shared that she felt the same (that friend has since gone in for another 3 days at a different monastery up north). The outside world had too much shit going on in it, meaningless shit. Going to the market to pick out stuff to send home to friends – too many choices. Who needed all this junk? Chiang Mai tee-shirts? Hill tribe knicknacks? Going to a restaurant to eat: why is this menu so long? I just want rice and vegetables. Checking into the internet to let everyone know about how cool I am and how awesome my trip was? Equally boring. Who cares what I think of myself? I don’t even care much. And why did I have so many things to do on me? Books, music, iPhone games, TV episodes. At Doi Suthep I was satisfied wearing the same thing every day, eating the same thing every day, and doing nothing but focusing on learning how to better walk across the floor at the speed of one eigth mile per hour. The outside world was too much. I wanted to commit a crime so I could be sent back to my little one room cell. How could I get back? I could ordain as a nun . . .
But then I remembered I would have to shave my head to ordain and I got to thinking of alternatives. After all, Buddhism is not supposed to be just for the monks. Its supposed to be for lay people, too. You are actually supposed to go out into the world and deal with reality (monks too, because they are supposed to be kind of like welfare/social services for lay people). Another of our rules was that we were supposed to keep mindfulness in the minor postures. So the major postures were the four meditations. But the minor postures were everything else you did all day long. That way, you could train your mind all the time and prevent foul states of mind from influencing you to do bad things. You didn’t have to be at a monastery to do that.
So, no going back to the monastery for me, at least not just yet. I will attempt instead to practice on my own, and practice mindfulness in the minor postures as well. I will attempt to not hog the airplane armrests so that I can spread loving kindness and be less of a grumpy curmudgeon. I do this not for the world, but for my own liberation which apparently nobody is going to help me with and which is not available on order from Amazon.com. I won’t have the beautiful temple or forest or icy cold showers to help me get back into the mood. But I still have my feet, and I still have my aching crossed legs. And I can always skip dinner.