As a number of you know, I went to see my son Patrick in Vietnam last year following the death of my wife Anne, and he suggested I make a side trip to a “Silent Meditation” retreat in Thailand––something he himself had done when he first came to Southeast Asia––to help me sort out some troubling thoughts.
When I think I could have spent the last four weeks sitting alone on Paulina Avenue feeling sorry for myself, I’m really happy Patrick and his wife, Ha, had the presence of mind to invite me, although I’m not sure the Buddhist monks at the retreat shared my euphoria.
The retreat took place over a 10-day period at Suan Mokkh Buddhist Monastery outside Surat Thani in southern Thailand. The attendees came from around the world, and because it was designed to introduce foreigners to Buddhism, the monks conducted sessions entirely in the English language.
I arrived a day early because I wasn’t sure how the registration process worked. I wanted to make sure, having traveled so far, that I got into the program, which you had to register for, in person, so I slept my first night about two kilometers away in a dormitory at the Monastery, which runs the retreat.
The White Dog Prowls
One of the first things I discovered right off the bat is that I wasn’t exactly the highly evolved participant they were looking for, especially when it came to never engaging in violence or harming any breathing thing.
That first morning, I walked out of the dorm with a Mr. Suzuki, who slept on the bed next to me that night, and as we walked up a path from the dormitory, he stopped and said in a low, wary tone, “There’s that white dog!” Ahead of us, I saw a classic “third world” scrawny dog coming up the path.
“There are two white dogs here,” Mr. Suzuki whispered. “A good one and a bad one. That’s the bad one.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yes … yesterday this one tried to bite me!”
Just as he said that the dog leaped forward and wrapped his jaw around the bottom of my leg. I jumped back as he snapped. Fortunately, his teeth just lightly grazed the skin under my pant leg.
“Holy Moley!” I shouted.
“Look what he did to me yesterday,” said Mr. Suzuki, pointing down at a huge tear in the bottom of his Levis where one of the dog’s rapacious fangs had obviously become ensnared.
“That’s a bad dog,” Mr. Suzuki repeated.
We hurried on our way up the path and inquired about getting a ride over to the Meditation retreat. A half hour later, as I was heading back to the dormitory on my own, looking down to make sure I didn’t trip on the huge roots traversing the path, I heard chanting above me.
I looked up and saw about 20 monks sitting in a pagoda praying. When my eyes returned to the path, there was the white dog waiting for me. I looked about on the ground and spotted a fallen limb from a tree that had good weight and made a perfect cudgel. I lifted it and thought to myself, “If that dog tries to bite me again I’m going to bash it in the head.”
Let me interject at this moment in self-defense, I am not prone to violence. But I have been bitten by a dog before and there was no way on earth I was going to let a wild dog in a forest carrying God knows what kind of germs and disease bite me.
“I’m going to hit him,” I repeated to myself, and then glanced up at the monks chanting no doubt about the necessity of respecting all living things. It struck me that my standing there with a big club in my hand wasn’t exactly in harmony with the reverent spirit of Buddhist tolerance. I had suddenly become the Neanderthal wandering among Cro-Magnons.
But my menacing demeanor apparently worked on the dog. He stood up and wandered off back down another trail into the dark of the woods.
No Place for Blabbermouths
That was just the first inkling that perhaps I was in the wrong place. If you have trouble imagining a congenital blabbermouth like myself submitting to ten days of silence, you’re right on target. I’m ashamed to say I did not get a gold star in the “silence department.”
On registration day, people drifted into the Meditation Center from all over the globe. Everyone underwent a pre-admission interview to help the staff weed out the obviously disturbed, We registered and turned in phones laptops, passports and other valuables. They were put in large folders that were locked in a safe. Then we were given the keys to our rooms. We were told there would be an orientation assembly at 4 p.m. and that attendance was required.
At that meeting we were given the agenda for the next ten days: We would rise at 4 a.m. and the lights would go out at 9:30 p.m. There would be separate dorms for the men and women, and they were sacrosanct. Men and women should in no way fraternize. Each group had separate bathing areas along the “hot spring” that ran through the retreat grounds. Although they were connected by a common road, no one should walk down that road lest they come upon the other sex bathing. And no one should talk to no one, as we say in Chicago.
Silence: A Unique Experience
Let me say, it is very odd to spend 10 days in such intimate contact with so many people (there were about 70 of us, evenly divided by gender) and never say a word.
When people are living under forced silence, they put up defensive facades, like we all do when riding in a crowded elevator. I wouldn’t liken it to “the walking dead” exactly. But there is a sullen quality, mixed with fear – lest you do reach out to somebody who doesn’t want to talk and not only break the code but reveal yourself to be an insensitive infidel as well.
Language, being such a critical marker and vital part of the way mankind has learned to share its humanity and live together in some semblance of harmony, I – who spent the last 40 years as a journalist and TV producer where my job was to talk to people and discover their stories – found the silence disturbing. But most of the participants had not come to get in touch with other people, but with themselves.
The next day, during the morning break, I found myself walking back to the men’s dormitory, which was just down the road from the woman’s Dormitory, not far from the main dining hall.
The dorm was totally empty, which surprised me. When I got to my room I put the key into the combination lock on the door and it wouldn’t turn. I tried again but then feared breaking the key off.
“Damn,” I muttered, the closest I’d come yet to speech.
I looked at the key, it said “236,” and then up at the door which said “136” and it struck me that I had mistakenly walked into the woman’s dormitory.
This, I thought, would certainly be frowned upon by the authorities. I envisioned their summarily packing my bags and escorting me out the front gate. I looked around. It looked exactly like the Men’s dorm. They were identical twins. The only sign, beyond a person, that would have revealed it was the wrong dorm would have been clothes on the lines, but this was the first day and no one had yet washed any clothes.
I started walking back towards the entrance, at a good pace, when suddenly a young woman turned the corner and came upon me. She had the startled, frightened look of a deer caught in headlights.
“Don’t worry,” I said, breaking the code of silence for the first time. “It’s not your fault. I walked into the wrong building.”
“Oh,” she said with a great sigh of relief. “I thought I did. I was so scared.”
We smiled as I walked past her and exited the building.
Walking Through Rain
It rained the first five days. I’d brought an umbrella and asked my son if he thought I should take it to Thailand. “Nah,” he said, with the assurance of an experienced Asia hand, “you won’t need that. The rainy season is over.”
These were the tail end of the torrential rains that had caused such flooding in Thailand the month before. One after another, the fields around buildings were flooded and we had to pick up the pillows, stools and mats we’d been given and move them to a new location on higher ground. The buildings all had tiled floors, which became quite slippery when wet and I almost fell but caught my balance three or four times. I realized this was a dangerous situation.
One session the instructors set out to teach us how to do “walking meditation.” It involved either three or five count heel-to-toe or toe-to-heel steps. The steps were extremely slow and methodical. I thought, “This is stupid. We’re just walking,” especially when, because of the rain, they made us walk in a line around the inside of a meditation hall.
One afternoon I stepped out of a hall onto the wet tiles and slipped, tumbled down a flight of seven or eight steps and cut two huge gashes into my left leg and a good scrape on my right elbow. Others standing around under the portico of the building saw me crash down the steps but nobody said a word.
“Fuck!” I exclaimed, struggling to my feet, oblivious to the fact I was talking. “If this keeps happening, I’m going to really hurt myself.”
I limped away and went to the dining hall. Werner, the chief administrator of the retreat and Luis, the Men’s Dorm supervisor were standing inside the office, just beyond a large window and desktop that opened up into the dining area. I went inside and showed them the bleeding gashes on my leg and arm.
“We have to dress this,” Werner said. “It’s very dangerous to have an open cut in a tropical rain forest. We have to put antibiotics on the wound and cover it up.”
Pacing, Pacing, Pacing
The next day we practiced our walking meditation around three huge ponds at the back of the meditation compound, and I found myself actually beginning to meditate as I walked. I keep falling, I thought. I’m obviously having a problem with my balance. I have to be more careful, more mindful, I guess. I should think about this, and as I slowly walked around the grounds, I reflected on how walking in a way resembled breathing, the other fundamental function Buddhists employ to focus meditation practice.
Breathing and walking — we start doing both at the beginning of our lives and give them little thought but in their pervasive regularity they offer us an unending avenue of concentration, a path away from the other thoughts, many of them negative, that frequently crowd our mind.
We don’t think much about the miracle of walking because, once we start, it just becomes second nature. One of the things that must make that possible is that walking at a normal pace has more motion in it than walking slowly — the kind of motion, perhaps, that permits a gyroscope to balance on the head of a pencil – and it is the motion that helps us unconsciously achieve that balance.
But here we were being asked to slow down our walk, to spend more time balancing on each individual foot, and it became much more difficult to do than I would ever have thought, as I had never even tried to do it before. I started thinking about what I was doing, my posture, the relationship of my head to my toes, my center of gravity, my arms, and slowly discovered that I could walk slowly and, after a while, maintain my balance.
A Good Balance
And suddenly I was contemplating balance, and realizing how fundamental balance is to so many aspects of our lives. What in a good life does not depend upon balance? And my heavens, balance begins in the mind. I’m using my mind to analyze how to balance myself while walking slowly, I thought. If this is the kind of progress meditation can bring, I suddenly, for the first time, see its value. And I see that my willingness to dismiss it as something stupid said much less about the practice of walking meditation than it did about the quality of my own consciousness.
About the fifth day into the retreat the rain stopped. The sun broke that morning in a glorious warm glow and everyone’s spirits were lifted. During the morning break I decided to wash my clothes. I carried them out to the concrete cistern in our corner of the dormitory grounds, there were four of them, one at each corner filled with fresh rain water, dumped a portion of a small plastic bag of laundry detergent I’d bought at the shop into a large plastic tub at the base of the cistern, and began to scrub my clothes.
No Place for Singing
I felt so good, warmed by the hot sun and cooled by the wet, soapy water that I started to sing. I consciously kept my voice down, but the rhythm helped me rub my clothes together and made me feel good. “Oh, it’s only a paper moon,” I began, sotto voce, “hanging over a cardboard sea. But it wouldn’t be make-believe, if you believed in me.”
I looked up and saw the door to a room two doors down from mine fling open and smash against the side of the building. A man stepped out and glowered at me. “This is a silent retreat!” he whispered, with menacing intensity.
“Oh,” I said, startled, surprised that my subdued voice had carried into his room. “Could you hear me?”
“Everybody could hear you,” he said, adding a growl and grimace to his glower.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, feeling truly bad that I’d upset him.
A half hour later, as I sat on my mat in that morning’s meditation session, he walked over to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and whispered, “Sorry. It’s nothing personal.”
“Thanks,” I whispered. “I appreciate that. It won’t happen again.”
The next day when I walked into the dining hall, Luis, on the other side of the window, motioned for me to enter the office.
“Yes,” I said. I liked Luis, he was from Spain, where I’d spent time in my youth, and we spoke Spanish one day and I thought we’d established some sort of bond. “What is it?”
“There have been complaints about you,” he said.
“Complaints?” I said, surprised. “What did I do?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling a little embarrassed, and a little silly, as if I’d just been called into the principal’s office and admonished for what was clearly a punishable offense. “This won’t happen again.”
A Monk’s Existence
Each day, we were surrounded and lectured by Buddhist monks in their saffron robes, and an array of provocative yet gentle lay meditation guides. We lived like the monks, slept on hard cement slabs with wooden pillows, lit candles for light, learned how to clean our butts without toilet paper and wash ourselves and our clothes in big vats of rain water. We awakened at 4 a.m. each day to begin meditation at 4:30, did 1 and 1/2 hours of Yoga each morning (that was great!) did sitting, walking and standing meditation five or six more hours during the day until “lights out” at 9:30 p.m. , all in pretty stark silence. No food in the rooms and no eating between the vegetarian lunch and the next morning’s vegetarian breakfast. I lost almost 10 pounds.
The Power of Light
One thing about living under such simple conditions: It does put things in perspective. Waking up at 4 a.m. in the dark, for instance. There is no electricity in the room. It doesn’t go on until the evening hours. We are given a candle lantern, and must buy candles at their little shop with the caution not to set our mosquito netting on fire. You crawl out from under the mosquito net; find a match where you’ve placed it the night before and carefully light it, and then the candle.
It’s amazing how little light it takes to change the nature of reality, how the light from a simple match or a candle can fill one with comfort and hope. The presence of light, or enlightenment, if you will, is what has always driven away superstition and ignorance and fear. It gives us warmth and safety from predators. It helps us make plants and meat more edible, and extends the day into the night. There is infinite power in a spark. It can light a fire, or ignite gunpowder, which is why we call it firepower, and has given us increased security in a dangerous world. It doesn’t take much. It doesn’t take Com Ed and a huge electric bill every month to make a little bit of light, and that is something worth remembering.
The monks choose to live this way to remind themselves where we have all come from, how man lived through most of human history, of how much we give up when we become so “attached” to so many things which may or may not have all that much to do with a good life. This, “attachment,” is one of their big themes.
I always thought Buddhism, and Nirvana, meant striving to enter a state of “desirelessness,” which struck me as somewhat foolish. How can you go through life without desires, without ambition to live fully? They argue it is not a lack of desire that we should be striving for, but avoidance of attachment to our desires. It is the resolute attachment that we have to so many things that brings us suffering. They argue everything is impermanent, and the recognition and acceptance of this is the beginning of wisdom. This may sound like “hooey” to some, and perhaps it is, but it is a little bit different way to think, and therefore interesting, and maybe even helpful.
Let me digress one moment to tell you about the ants.
The retreat is held in a pretty deep forest, filled with stunning wildlife, one of its most fascinating denizens being the most unbelievably aggressive colonies of ants I’d ever seen. The ants were tiny black specks, but if one of them crawled up your leg, it could give you the most ferocious bite, and they found your legs very quickly.
The day after I fell down the steps and had my cut leg treated I felt something and lifted my pants leg to discover that a little blood had seeped through the gauze dressing that, to my dismay, was now covered with ants.
Learning from Ants
Recognizing that I couldn’t escape the ants, I found myself drawn to them because they were so fascinating. They dug deep trenches across all the roads inside the monastery compound, going back and forth between the forest floor that lined the roads, tens of thousands of ants at a time, marching in columns converging on one another, carrying grains of sand out of their nest holes in the ground and dead flies into the holes, zigging and zagging and miraculously missing head-on collisions with every step.
When I looked down upon them I thought, “this has to be the closest Nature has ever come to approximating a typical traffic pattern on a Saigon street.”
One day I was standing at the vat of rainwater outside my “cell” when a neighbor I’d never noticed before stepped through his door and distinguished himself by the anxious look in his eyes and his unabashed and voluble speech.
“Can I talk to you,” he asked, in anything but a whisper. Several others gave us stony glares.
“Sure,” I said, “what’s wrong?”
“Bananas!” he said, in what turned out to be a Swedish accent.
“Yes,” he said. “I did something stupid. Last night I brought two bananas back from the dining room and put them at the head of my bed, thinking I’d eat them this morning. Look at this!”
He led me into his room. His sleeping area, on both sides of the mosquito netting, was swarming with ants. I looked down. The floor was crawling with ants. A column of ants connected the ant-ridden floor with the concrete slab of the bed.
“I woke up in the middle of the night with them all over me. I couldn’t get rid of them. I had to go into the toilet to get away from them and I slept there for three hours.”
The lack of “mindfulness” strikes again.
Here’s another incident that brought “mindfulness” to mind.
Lose Your Mind, Save Your Soul
On the next to last day of the retreat, I walked past one of the men in our group. He was kind of a sloppy guy, his shirt was always spilling out under his big belly, and I rather quickly, in my mind, dismissed him with one word, in Yiddish of all things, a language which I’d heard as a child but most of my life, perhaps to my discredit, studiously avoided. The truth is, confirmed by the fact that the word bubbled up from some deep recess of my psyche, it is still one of the very best languages for expressing this kind of thought: “Schlub!”
As I passed him, I saw that his inventive use of a pipe for hanging clothes, which ran around the perimeter of a field inside the dormitory, had allowed him to twist virtually every last drop of water out of the blanket he had just washed. I stopped and whispered, only half forgetting I was breaking the code of silence, “Wow! That’s a great idea. I’m going to go back and do that myself.”
Suddenly, a huge and warm smile broke over his face like a sunrise. “You think so?” he asked. “I just had the idea.”
“Yeah … I tried to wring out my blanket with my hands,” I said, “but I have a bad wrist and just couldn’t get the water out.”
This was important because we were leaving the next day and needed to dry our blankets before returning them to be stored for the next session, and the humidity made it difficult to dry anything in that clime.
Having broken the ice, he and I talked again a little later. He asked me how old I was. I said “71.” As it turned out, I was the oldest of the 70 people attending that session.
“Oh, Uncle … That’s great. My father is two years older than you but he would never have the courage to come to anything like this. And I know it would be good for him. I’m so proud of you.”
I asked him where he was from and he said, “My father is from Burma and my mother from Italy.”
“Really … my son did his junior year in college at the University of Chang Mai in Thailand and sneaked into the guerrilla camps in northern Burma to write a paper about their fight against the military regime.”
“My uncle paid for those camps,” he said. “I am from the Shan family. The army killed my grandfather and many of my relatives in their military coup. We were a prominent family.”
Too Quick to Judge
As we talked he shared the following facts. He owned two rubber plantations which were devastated in the flooding in Thailand last spring and a total loss; he’d graduated from Cambridge University in England; he spoke 10 languages.”
“You know,” I said, the last ten days I’d pretty much written you off. I just thought you were a ‘Schlub! Do you know what a Schlub is?”
He looked at me with a wry smile. “Uncle. I speak 10 languages. You don’t think I know what a Schlub is?”
We both laughed.
“I know I’m a mess,” he said. “That’s why I came here. I hurt my hip and was convalescing for three months with my brother in Hong Kong. He’s a playboy. All we did was eat and smoke pot. I got fat.”
This was another moment when the Buddhist lesson of being “mindful” kicked in, driving home the point that I had not been thoughtful, or reserved my judgment, in considering him; I had just summarily dismissed him with a negative word, not realizing what an accomplished and interesting person he was.
How often do I, do we all, do that to people? And it was encouraged, to some degree, by the enforced silence. Since we could not exchange one word, all I had to go on for ten days was the insufficient data of rather superficial observation. At that point, I resolved to try to remember to be more mindful of how I processed information, especially about other people.
All Together Now
I love a quote I picked up once while producing a documentary on “regionalism.” I set up a camera in front of Chicago’s traffic court on La Salle Street and just caught people going in out and asked them what their thoughts were on the subject. One African American woman stopped, listened to my question, and then said, “I don’t know nuthin’ about regionalism … but I can tell you one thing I know for sure.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“We’re all in this mess together!”
I loved the quote because it’s so true and could be applied to all of us in so many ways.
I learned something about Buddhism on this trip.
Buddha never considered himself a messenger of God, or having launched a religion, but the Thais have turned him into a divinity, and his teachings into a religion, which seems to be one of the things people uncomfortable with no definitive answers to the imponderable questions of life tend to do.
Go Forth . . . And Keep Going
One morning, the 84-year-old “Ajahn,” or most venerable teacher at the monastery, came up to the microphone in one of the meditation halls, took off his flip-flops, set down his umbrella, assumed the “lotus” position with crossed legs, looked out at the torrential downpour he had just emerged from and said: “I walked two kilometers to come and talk to you this morning. This is a terrible rain and it could have been a terrible walk. But I decided to use my mind to look for all the beautiful things in the forest on the way here and it turned out to be a beautiful walk.”
The next day a lovely nun during a “meditation” talk gave an example of why it was important to let painful thoughts go. “If you were someone who was abused in some way as a child, and now as an adult you’re still troubled by thoughts of anger and victimization and hatred and fear, the truth is you’re no longer dealing with that child abuse, which happened in the past and which you cannot change and which you really should let go. What you’re now engaged in is self-abuse. And that’s something you can change.”
I thought both of those quotes were profound, and came away from my 10 days with what I think are the three worthwhile concepts Buddhists have enunciated and embraced:
- Be Mindful in the Present;
- Let Go of the Past; and
- Have an Open Heart.
I don’t think any of us needs much more than that to navigate the choppy waters of life.
I came across one other quote I like from Gandhi, especially in this season when we’re hearing so much talk about “politics,” as if that were the answer to all our problems. Gandhi said, “Make the changes in yourself you would like to see in the world.”
This has been a productive and provocative trip for me in many ways. I’m glad I did it. I hope all goes well with all of you as well.