Sunday, September 09, 2007

On Retreat Under the Flight Path

Planes from the new Suvarnabhumi (pronounced "soo-vana-pome") International Airport were landing and taking off over our head all day, but the friendly voice of our teacher, Metino Bhikhu, made the harsh sounds irrelevant. The Buddhist monk, known as Wimoak, gave his teaching to about 25 Thai men and women and one farang, along with a half dozen young boys during the morning session, in a two-floor sala on the property of two sisters who built it for the purpose of just such retreats which are held on the second Saturday of every month. Each of the eight walls of the sala contained one of the Buddha's eight precepts written in Thai.

And although Monk Wimoak spoke in Thai, occasionally he would turn to me and explain the point he was making to the group in excellent English. Once I could connect his topics of discussion -- consciousness, mindfulness, awareness, thinking, feeling, body -- to the gestures that accompanied them, I could almost understand his Thai. Even without comprehension, the sounds of his voice, and the dramatic way he presented them, were almost musical. "You westerners focus too much on the object of meditation, the breath, the rising and falling of the stomach, so that your awareness goes out to it and gets lost. It is better to find awareness within and then you can be mindful of the whole."

I was taken to the retreat, a 45 minute's drive southeast of Bangkok, by Sal and her friend Wanna. Sal has a car and driver and kindly helped me look for an apartment during my early days in Bangkok. She had given me the link to Wimoak's web site, Vimokkha Dhamma, and promised to let me know when the next retreat was scheduled. Wanna is one of the owners of Faces Bangkok, an upscale compound of restaurants and a spa on Sukhumvit Soi 38, designed and built with wood in traditional Thai style, that Sal had taken me to see. Her cousin, a retired university professor, has a sangha where she met Malee, one of the sisters who hosted Saturday's retreat. Malee, who is a judge, told me that when she was growing up the house was surrounded by rice fields which have been replaced by factories and warehouses. She took a boat to school on a canal by the house now clogged with water plants, and once it was possible to get to Bangkok by boat. The house remains surrounded by a garden and in addition to the 8-sided sala there is a smaller 5-sided sala and a building with 32 rooms which they rent to students and workers. All of the numbers have some significance in Buddhism. Everywhere I looked were windows etched with precepts and sayings of wisdom from the Buddha.

The shrine upstairs where the morning teaching was given is inspiring. Wimoak, a very modern monk, videotaped the proceedings which included chanting, prayer and group meditation. The Thais sat easily on thin mats while I found even the chair a bit uncomfortable for my aging joints. After the morning session, I was invited for a one-on-one, but had to sit with my legs bent sideways because you can never point your toes at a monk. It's hard to ask decent questions when you feel like an unwilling pretzel. Still, he helped me to expand my vision. The senses are limited, only sensing what is in front of them. But the Observer, the Knower, can be aware of all, the back as well as the front. On his web site, Wimoak writes:
More than 90% of consciousness is lost outside while we are using only less than 10% of consciousness to lead our lives. The result of consciousness leakage is the poor quality of life of a person, a family, a society and a country. Hence the mindful meditation program is an insight approach to restore one's consciousness which is to be applied to any activities of one's life without any leakage so that it can be developed to Supreme Wisdom.
The first step, he said, was awareness of the whole body, rather than a specific part. He demonstrated by squeezing a fist and said that concentration on the fist would dissipate awareness (which I assume is what he means by "leakage"). Don't focus on thoughts or feelings, he told me. Come from an awareness inside, he said, and pounded his chest. "You mean the heart?" I asked. No, he said. Within. This will bring lightness, happiness, rather than the heaviness of thinking. It is important to balance thinking and feeling, and both with the body. Later we practiced body movements out in the garden where I managed to knock over and break a water glass, thereby demonstrating to one and all my lack of awareness. One exercise involved walking backwards with the eyes closed. I managed not to bump into anything.

At the end of the day four of Wimoak's students arrived to read our minds. It was "a test," I was told. Sitting across from each other, the students meditated together with those who volunteered for the testing and a vigorous discussion ensued afterwards, which of course I could not understand. I'm sure those tested learned something about themselves. The monk invited me to join in, but I declined the test, fearing that the student monks would find a very messy mind indeed inside my head.

It is not easy to find my spiritual bearings here. Much of what I see is familiar. But I've yet to begin meditating daily as I once did up to some months ago. The books I brought with me on Buddhism remain on the shelf here in my room, unread. The other night I went to see the dancing girls at Soi Cowboy with Jerry. This morning I went to mass at Holy Redeemer Church. The words to "Here I Am Lord" brought tears of recognition. This afternoon I will attend a lecture and discussion on abhidhamma at the World Fellowship of Buddhist headquarters in Benjasiri Park on Sukhumvit Soi 24. This evening I might go have a beer at one of the bars in Nana. On Tuesday I am going to listen to the British monk, Pandit, speak about karma at Baan Aree Library. But just what am I doing? I'm not about to go put on robes and adopt a vow of celibacy at a Thai temple. I also do not want to become the typical expat alcoholic practicing hedonistic excess in the Bangkok bars. So the Buddhist middle way appeals to me, one that does not require total renunciation, or a total abandonment of pleasure. Although my body is deteriorating as we speak, I am not ready to give it up, and my understanding of both Buddhism and Christianity does not detect any need to hate it as some followers of Jesus apparently do. Perhaps in this place, far from all that I once knew as home, I will find salvation and enlightenment.

1 comment:

littlebang said...

Sounds like a nice retreat. Is it at the temple, or a different place? I like his style of teaching - reflection on the six senses has been the basis of my own understanding and practise - and the observation of how limited consciousness (actually 'cognition')is, and how to step beyond (or 'prior') to it.