Friday, August 19, 2016

How to Meditate

For Amélie

There are many different ways to meditate. The method I’ll describe here could be called breath meditation or a variation of vipassana, or insight meditation. It could also be called zazen. It’s more or less how I practice most of the time, and it’s compatible with methods taught by people like Joseph Goldstein and Ajahn Amaro, two meditation teachers whose books and talks I highly recommend.

  1. Posture
  2. Preparation
  3. Attending to the Breath
  4. Getting Lost
  5. R.O.A.R.

I. Posture
First, sit in a comfortable cross-legged posture. It's possible to meditate sitting, standing, walking, or even lying down, but for most people a cross-legged sitting posture is best because it's stable enough to allow one to become very still, while energizing enough to keep one from falling asleep. I usually sit in half lotus, occasionally in full lotus. Read the article for pointers on alignment. Basically, you want your chin and nose in line with your navel, your shoulders over your hips (leaning neither forward nor back), and your spine gently elongated so you feel some uplift at the crown of your head. Your back should be fairly straight, but preserving the natural curve of the spine, and the overall feeling should be one of both relaxation and alertness.

II. Preparation
Once you're sitting down, the body and mind have to prepared. Meditation is an opportunity to reset, rather than just a continuation of whatever stress you were involved in before. So first take some time to let the body relax. Breathing in, feel around for tight spots. Breathing out, let go of muscle tension. You can start at the forehead, eyes and mouth. Then relax your shoulders, back, chest, belly, everything. Allow tension to drain out of your body. Feel waves of relaxation wash over your body like a warm shower.
Just for the duration of your sit, let go of all your thoughts, plans, and worries. The mind naturally scans and plans for threats and opportunities in the past, present, and future--but just for these few minutes, let it rest. There will be plenty of chances to think, analyze and worry when your meditation is over. We can't will ourselves to stop thinking, but we can allow ourselves to stop thinking. We don't throw thoughts out of our minds. Instead, we open the hand of thought, allowing them to come or go as they like.

III. Attending to the Breath
Now simply observe the breath without trying to control it. There are countless techniques for working with the breath, and you can choose a more specific one if you like. But the basic technique is to observe the breath coming in and going out. You can pay attention to the sensation at the nostrils ("guarding the breath"). Sometimes I follow the sensation of the breath as it enters the nostrils, passes through the chest, expands the belly, and then reverses its course ("following" or "chasing the breath"). Sometimes I count the breath. You can count your inhalations, exhalations, or even the spaces between breaths. Try different things until you find a way of being with the breath that feels good. Settle into a state of mind where the breath is in the foreground and sounds, sensations, feelings, and thoughts are in the background. 

IV. Getting Lost
Inevitably--and probably immediately--distractions will arise. You'll find yourself lost in thoughts about the past or future. This is to be expected. How we respond to distractions is very important because if we have the wrong attitude, we'll get frustrated and stressed out, and our meditation will not unfold as it otherwise might. We have to play a little mind game here: Although we are trying to train the mind away from unwholesome states and towards wholesome states, we have to pretend we're not. Ultimately the way to discipline the mind is to give it enough space to do whatever it's going to do. So how do we respond to the endless distractions it produces? There are many ways to describe the basic attitude and method, but the one I like is "R.O.A.R." because I can actually remember it, and because it makes reference to "the lion's roar." 

V. The Lion's R.O.A.R.
     R. Recognize -- Recognize that you have strayed away from the breath.
     O. Open -- Open to the reality of what's here now. "It's like this." Acknowledge the distraction. Note it. One form of noting is called labeling. You can label whatever has grabbed your attention. "Thinking, thinking...." or "Hearing, hearing...." If you have repetitive thoughts (tape loops), giving them names helps derail them: "Poor me," "Thinking about the future," "What will I wear?" etc.
     A. Accept -- Opening and Accepting are two ways of describing the same attitude. We practice willingness to be with whatever arises from the depths of the heart and mind. Nothing is excluded. Whatever arises, beautiful or hideous, we Recognize it and respond with patience, Openness, and Acceptance.
     R. Return -- After taking a moment (sometimes longer) to recognize and accept whatever has pulled the attention away from the breath, we return to the breath and start again. Meditation is a endless process of beginning again. There's no winning, no losing--just beginning again. In fact, each time you Recognize, Open, Accept, and Return, you've strengthened your meditation muscles.

That's it. Buddhist meditation is endlessly rich and rewarding. Once you start studying and practicing, there's no end. But this method is enough to keep you busy for at least a couple years while you patiently and diligently sit and watch unprocessed garbage from your past (karma) rise like bubbles to the surface of consciousness and burst, "self-liberating in the light of awareness." Over time, you can expect to become much more patient, more emotionally stable, and more aware of phenomena as they come and go. You'll learn how to relax and how to let go, and letting go is the whole game:

"If you let go a little you a will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.”

― Ajahn Chah

One More Thing
     Practicing with other people is a powerful catalyst. It's no accident that sangha (community) is considered one of the "Three Treasures," one of the three legs of the tripod without which Buddhism can't stand. Look up local Dharma/meditation groups in your area and go sit with them. For sitting alone at home, I highly recommend Insight Timer. This free app motivates you to sit consistently, helps you feel connected to other meditators worldwide and in your area, and provides a conduit to a variety of teachings. I use it when I sit at home.


Friday, August 28, 2015

Impressions - Nothing More! - Of Myanmar

(Rambling Blabber of a Photo Essay)

*PART ONE!* exciting airport

Past vast brown expanse of flat floodfields, touch down on weedy strip. One-storey concrete terminal and, looming like the fake historics of Las Vegas but real, golden pagodas. No shadows.
Past desultory customs officers, disgorged into lobby. "Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?" Swarmed, taxi drivers crawling into ear-holes, eye-holes, nose-holes. I make myself small and seek money-changers. They will not change half my hundred, only all of it. This I can not do: for complicated reasons I cannot understand, I need dollars and Myanmar kyat. I try the five ATMs. Of the two that are in service, neither will accept my card. This will not change during my 28-day visit. I will come to rely upon Western Union. 
Stranded and unable to purchase so much as a bottle of water, I sit on my shoes. I hear people taking pictures of the foreigner meditating in the terminal. Do they know I'm contemplating how to get back to Thailand, how to buy a ticket without wifi? (The only card I have with a high enough limit is sitting at a temple in Chiang Mai.)
I find a money changer that will change half my hundo. I am in business. I enter a verbal contract with a taxi driver. He will drive me into the city for a sum. On the way, out of sheer sociability I take unidentified "medicine" offered by friendly driver. Hurroo!, Ee!

It rains a lot, and I fall in love with an Austrian. The streets are a disaster. Street stalls boil oil on charcoal fires. There are attempted poisonings by durian, which continues to be denied food or fruit status.

There is a two-and-a-half-week stay at Pa Auk International Forest Buddhasasana Centre - or something like that - in Thanlyin. It is an hour from Four Rivers Hostel by taxi. (If you want to practice there, email me for specifics.) Highlights: Kindness! Generosity! Solicitude! Goodwill! ! Air conditioning! At one point, I have 26 bananas in my room.

My A-hole roommate wouldn't shut up about his plans for the future.

The minor drone of a Burmese Morrisey blasting from (I can only assume) the tattered speaker of some forty-year-old megaphone transports me. I am inspired. I begin writing my "Small Boat Poems," on account of which I go on to achieve a tastefully moderate level of fame, though the expected remuneration never lands in this age of digital piracy.


Taxi ride from Thanlyin to Yangon!@ LIsten: Ladies ride side-saddle motorbikes wearing Third Reich-flavored steel pots, and it hits you that once you're outside Yangon it's impossible not to love Burma. The people are beautiful and surprisingly ethnically diverse. Thanaka (a white paste made from bark, I'm told) flatters the faces of all sexes and ages, creeds colors and kinds (not true but has a certain ring). The kids, who are everywhere in a country that one must presume has limited options for baby control, are so picturesque it kills you.

The music comes tumbling tinnily rusted from unseen public address systems and it is good. Even the modern-rock radio is okay, certainly better than in Thailand, Japan or Korea, places where Rock and Roll sells more soul than it bares. The language is easy on the ears, and though there are always certain human noises popular in Asia that drive one bazootsoid, you are learning to cope.

The food is rice and things, curries. It goes down smooth and easy, salt and greasy. Someday you will learn to make pea crackers. In the meantime you enjoy paying extremely low prices at places that don't have English menus:

- 30 centavos (US) for Shan noodles!
- 50 centavos (US) for kow soi (curry noodles), milk tea and "dough bread" (churros).
- 30 centavos (US) for a bottle of water or can of Yangon-bottled Coca Cola.
Otherwise, $1-2 for a veg meal, and maybe $1 for a fruit shake.


And I haven't even mentioned the weird things like motortruckcycles and Chinese trucktors:

Yangon streets choked with Japanese box-cars: The Probox, the Fielder, old Corollas. Retired Korean and Japanese city buses, sardined with kids and worn smooth with time, mudded, engine panels flapping like longjohn buttflaps of yesteryear exposing steampunk gears and hamstered flywheels beneath inches of clinging dust. Traffic cascades and spills around itself with an astounding and audacious fluid intelligence, a languid but propulsive shunt. Sidecar-ed rustbikes ferry patient ladies amidst black exhaust and splashing puddles. Elsewhere, otherbikes with sidecars strapped 270 degrees around with boxes, water bottles, or anything strappable. Lanes are not lanes and lines are not lines, Traffic sorts itself like paintballs in a hopper, shapes in a sorter.

The roads fade marginless into lush tropical verdure which, like its human and motorcar neighbors, overlays where it can. You want to wax philosophical and say, "Myanmar is a land of overlap," et cetera. You realize that you had been thinking of Myanmar as part of Southeast Asia, which it is not. Abutting Bangladesh, China, and Thailand, it's where South blends into Southeast. Everything has a half-Indian feel - and you realize quickly, gratefully, that it is the better half. A country that still uses sticks for things whenever possible, an entirely practical shameless frugality. Bamboo truck bed. No frills, often no conveniences where you expect them, like the ergonomically placed handholds on Thai songthaews. Yet you don't get the bleak sense that life is cheap as in India. These are happy people who love life. Wading through helter-skelter traffic is a serene act of trust rather than a fatalistic dance of death. Burmese "trust falls," society-affirming ritual done daily.


Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw are too lovely to write about, least of all in this silly irreverent mood. Here, have a look at these humans and things!

chewing spitting red teeth. Wading into traffic like warm water, child labor. Last minute culture captures in the taxi to the airport. Motorbikes improbably strapped to baskets, propane canisters, snacks, human beings...whatever the mode of transportation it has been loaded past credulity. You'd say "bursting at the seams," but there are no seams. As with everything in Burma (even its name), there's no clear definition. Looking out now across Mandalay's flooded lowlands near the Irrawaddy River, I see hillsides pimpled and peppered with golden pagodas. The taxi driver takes his hands off the wheel for a quick anjali.

No Conclusion.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Blood Under the Hood: Why I Don't Blog Personal

Crossed wires

On July 16 I bailed from Wat Ram Poeng to attend to incipient symptoms of depression. If this is failure, it's one I planned for--I'm practicing as a layman in Thailand in order to avoid sangha responsibilities and maintain the freedom to take care of my health as needed.

As a much needed counterpoint to my soapboxy megaphonic sabre rattling, here is a look at the bloodslime under the hood.

Here is the necessary musical accompaniment.


July 15. That it hurts my pride so much to give in is further evidence that leaving retreat is the right choice. But what if it's not depression but just the "temporarily arising condition of meditation," or the dukkha nanas? Could well be, but for once I'll err on the side of caution and baby myself before depression gets the upper hand. The negative consequences of unchecked depression far outweigh the basically negligible ones of leaving retreat earlier than I had planned. Besides, if all I need is some rest and relaxation, there's plenty of time to come back for a 10-15-day retreat with batteries fully recharged.
For three days the Cayetana song that goes "I know you really wanna make it out alive / Kid, you'll be okay..." has been on repeat inside my skullifer.
I'm embarrassed for having to bail, especially after talking big on the internet. I bet even Mahasi had to pace himself, and if not, well...F him.

What happened, you ask? Such incisive questioning! You'll make it far in this world.  What happened is that yesterday I started noticing very depressive thought patterns and a loss of hope. I don't want to validate those thoughts, but their complaints are that practice here (at W.R.P.) is designed to make you feel bad all the time, more or less, that sleep deprivation (4 hours a night, with periodic "determination" periods where you go 2-3 nights without sleeping) induces a persistent, pervasive sense of dysphoria. It's like the entire reward system in my brain had been disconnected and there was simply no chance of feeling good.
Instead of going, "Oh, I get it, there's no refuge in sense pleasure; I'll go deeper and deeper into renunciation," the effect was the opposite: "There's no refuge in the Dhamma, only pain and more pain--I'll flee into the simple pleasures of life!" So the mind rebounded towards any semblance of comfort. ...

It's worth noting that Wat Ram Poeng is exceptionally fierce in denying the meditator any insulation from "reality" (the three characteristics of reality, dukkha, change and essencelessness).  As in Okumura's "sesshin without toys," there is minimal ceremony, study or work to distract a meditator from the matter at hand. The sitting technique is, to me, very distasteful--In fact I F*ing HATE IT. Attending to abdominal movement elicits tension, tension which the WRP meditator (unlike in other techniques) is not allowed to alleviate in any way but only acknowledge. Next come the touch points. Most sittings, I'm too sleepy to get past the first few, as mindfulness quickly drowns in the deep drop-off at the first two points. Even when sati (mindfulness) is present, I find cycling through the points mechanical and meaningless, unsatisfying. And it's hard--probably impossible--to get the jhana (deep concentration) factors or the factors of enlightenment established on a meditation object that you basically can't stand.
Whereas in Zen I'm able to take heart and uplift my spirit ("gladdening the mind," in the Buddha's language) by taking in the smell of the incense and tatami, the echo of the han, even the thought that "I am a Zen monk!" there is little of that kind of beauty here. Maybe affinity doesn't count for much, but when it comes down to the wire it can make the difference.

The Buddha teaches that the jhanas (blissful states of deep concentration)  provide what he calls the "joy of renunciation." He proposes giving up attachment to sensual pleasures for something much better--not just giving them up to feel terrible. In the long run, you (I) need jhana/samadhi to keep me on the path. Because after 4 years of austerity, I am very tired. I need something sweet, something good, something beautiful.

I'm hanging a lot of hope on Pa Auk [forest monastery, Burma].


July 16

Reading Kamo no Chomei's "Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut," I'm reminded of and chastened for how weirdly ambitious I've become. Always wanting to call the shots, tight from being hurt enough. Cringing at the balled fist of the world, striking first in fear. I've gotten to believe that my margins are so narrow I can't afford a single of jot of further misfortune. So I make of myself an iron wedge--where is the Dharma in that?
These 20 days I've overspilled my cup with thoughts of "my Zen future": Daigaku, St. Louis, Hosshinji, a Japanese master, 12 sesshins a year, Burlington, Soryu, Shinzen, mindfulness in schools, Portland, grad school, Great vow, grad school (again), Olympia, Bellingham, Waldron, Anacortes, and so on....But the gist is always, "I will control my life...." Desperate, demanding, and entitled.
I hate to say it and don't yet even really believe it, but maybe even to want enlightenment is too much.
--But monastic life is just SO FUCKING HARD. How can I put myself through that year after year without any hope that someday it will become worth it? It will. Of course it will. BE PATIENT. Be diligent, kind and patient.


July 17
And how about the vast no-man's-land between a rewarding daily practice and enlightenment? That bleak area of life where you have given up everything and gotten nothing in return? [Merton knew it well.] And at some point will I be called to task, to make a life?
Relax. The bun is in the oven. Be wise.


July 19
Heard a bossa nova version of "Come As You Are" yesterday, dreamed of dear Kurt Cobain, Kurt Cobain! RIP Kurt Cobain, friend somehow in my heart, always, eyes misty.
I felt weirdly sick yesterday and spent 4 hours in bed and three more with a blinding headache. Afterwards I wandered the rainy streets and bought little gifts at the Thapae Gate market. I bought myself a blue T-shirt, so now with my salmon-colored shorts I am wearing so many colors more than black.


July 20
Went up the mountain to Wat Doi Suthep. I've been taking a lot of pictures, messing around with double exposures. Fell in love more than once, but this one Japanese girl who asked me to take a picture of her with her friend...I was mumbling, "Is this an iPhone? Wow, it's beautiful...YOU'RE beautiful...." Then she offered to take my picture with my camera. I hesitated full of shame at my dumb half-inch of hair and disgustingly scrawny monk physique. I need one of those trilby hats. That'll make everything alright....

All of this is too noisy and too busy for me by far! A hut of a house in Eugene Portland Olympia Seattle Anacortes Belilngham! To sit in a place I belong to, whose couches dent the shape of MY butt. Tea-steam rising in the slanting sunrays, mist dripping collected from eaves. Cats, bikes, blueberries, baristas....
Lord break me through quickly so I can go home!

I read a recent report of one foreigner's experience at Pa Auk. Heat, noise, bed bugs in the meditation hall! It sounds quite bad, quite unsuitable. Better to be disillusioned now, I guess... Biding time, planning travel; coffee and meals and money and things to do and buy, Oh! I'm sick of it. Noting irritability, noting annoyance....Be grateful to be supported to be on the path. Everybody feels bad sometimes.


July 22

Time passes in the land of dreams. PM Black Canyon Coffee. Even here, insulated from the piercing prattle of a thousand tuk-tuks and their ugly fumes, I'm troubled and benoised by the clamor of one hundred Chinese children! I hide into the thick synth folds of Mount Eerie, Sauna. God keep me. This town is killing me. Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!
Oh, hut!
So this episode ends with me beachwrecked on the horrible sand? Really, this again, after so long? Does seniority count for nothing? Do I want too much? Is the sanity I seek unsimple and overspecified? I'm tired of the wheel, God rest me, I'm tired of the wheel! I'm tired, I'm tired!


July 23

AM BeBeez Cafe with the news grating out there beyond my earbuds. Inside here, Chris Staples and everyone good.

I shot into the sky when a girl with Norwegian eyelids smiled at me coming down the stairs. But I won't talk of happiness, which reputedly flees at the sound of its silly name.

Take what you love most:
    - love-smiling eyes, flesh
    - cool mountains rain trees
    - plaid
    - music shaking your breastbone, soaking through
    - poems
Do without, and do without again.

My point is a wayfarer can't survive so exposed--where is shelter? Monks have each other and a teacher and a home. I am tired. I can't find a way to be. I'm a mobile device, yea, with no place to charge.


See now why I yell about the importance of enlightenment instead of telling you how I'm doing?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

ATI Profiles! The Meaning of Life Walks Into A Bar Graph...

Part o/t "108 Theses" series

I just spent way too much time on retreat mulling over Shinzen Young's Three Jobs, Appreciate, Transcend and Improve. Every great thinker has weighed in on the issue of what is the one essential task of a human life. Kurt Vonnegut generously quipped, "I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." (Appreciate?) For Epicurus it was sensuality (Appreciate), for Rinzai, enlightenment (Transcend), and for Marx and the like, Improvement of material conditions. I could easily generate many examples for each category. Kierkegaard looks at each style of life in turn, finally rejecting the aesthetic (A) and the ethical (I) in favor of the religious (T). Shinzen flies in the face of a couple thousand years of tradition by casually admitting not one but three essential jobs.

To Every Thing, There Is A Season
Many philosophers have settled on an answer that is both singular and static. There is one thing to do, at all times. This is not, however, the way life usually works. It's helpful to look for an answer that is plural and dynamic, dynamic meaning that it interacts with other facts of life and changes through time. Life Stages models do this well, the best example being the classical Hindu model: Youth is devoted to pleasure (A); maturity to wealth, power, family, and responsibility (A and I); and old age to spiritual practice. (T)

Appreciate this Chiang Mai street art. 

(A Digression on) The Myth of Static Balance
So we want to Appreciate, Transcend, and Improve. I don't know if it's a contemporary American thing or more widespread, but the instinctual response these days is, "We must balance them. If we can balance the three, we will be happy." There are two problems with this though. The first is what I'm calling the Myth of Static Balance. Google "Zen" and you will find a hundred photos demonstrating the myth of static balance--perfectly smooth river rocks stacked just so, forming a beautiful, elegant tower. And we want our lives to be like this, all our ducks in a row. Problem is, our lives are not rocks, and only dead ducks stay put. Movement and change are a part of life, and as long as we are alive we will never experience that kind of balance.
As far as balance goes, we need a more dynamic image. Picture a surfer, alive and moving in harmony with forces infinitely greater than herself. In other words, verb that noun: It's not balance we need, but balancing. We need to keep balancing.

Please, not this.

Unfortunately even this tweak to our notion of equilibrium does not answer the question of how to live a life of Appreciate-Transcend-Improve. The second problem is that a balanced ATI Profile will never break through to Transcendence.
It's a matter of concentration or focus of force. You can't use steam or liquid water to puncture a balloon, but freeze it into a needle-pointed (single-pointed, ekagatta) icicle, and you are in business. Just so, a flat profile won't do it; you need to spike the T to break through. That means a period of min-maxing. A period of min-maxing, that's a crucial point. A period of time, not a lifetime of min-maxing.

Your Crackerjack prize!

ATI Profiles
I've been plotting the three dimensions on a three-point scale, being cautious not to let precision outstrip accuracy. Off the top of my head I get numbers like these: Rinzai (131), Theravadan Monastery (133), conventional life in consumer capitalism (101, considering the difference between frantic consumption and appreciation), academic religious studies (300), psychotherapy (203).

Warning: May contain graphic sexual imagery

What's the Use?
ATI Profiles are a big picture, zoom-out tool that make it possible to talk about something slippery and to make very generalized comparisons. It's questionable as to whether something as seemingly obvious as ATI Profiles will be of any help in the future, but they have already helped produce four insights, the latter three of which are closely related.
1. That a party may avow one profile and practice another. Certain spiritual communities I know adopt the prestige-language of Transcend but actually practice community-oriented self-help. This points to a serious problem with Transcend language, namely that it is sexy: A teacher who can speak Transcend will go far.
2. That profiles differ amongst different roles and stages within a given system. For example, a master's profile is dramatically different from a student's. We can't talk about a "Zen ATI Profile" without taking into account these differences (not to mention the dramatic differences between Soto and Rinzai approaches).
3. That different stages in life and learning call for different profiles. Specifically, that it's good to work on A and I before T, and even better to work on them after. A caveat is that you don't want A and I to be neglected for so long that your mental health, social skills emotional intelligence and so on actually diminish. It's okay to set these concerns aside for a few years, but it's not okay to damage yourself.
4.Temporary min-maxing (producing a spike in one area) is necessary to produce enlightenment, at least if you want it in less than thirty years. Any real practice monastery will have a spiked profile. In most monasteries you'll also find a periodic spike within the spike. Sesshins or meditation retreats really really really set aside Appreciation and Improvement in order to focus wholeheartedly on Transcendence. Why? Because it works, of course! It ain't pleasant, but it works.

"The Glory of God is man [and woman] fully alive." - St. Irenaeus

What's the point of Transcendence again?
I could give all kinds of overly clever answers, but in this context it's simply that having completed the stages of the T task, a human being is free to Appreciate and Improve fully, making a vibrant 303. The Zen arts--perfection in painting, poetry, archery, tea ceremony and so on--represent such a flourishing in the Appreciate realm. When applied to Improvement, it can look like the selfless, literally divinely inspired activism of figures like Gandhi and Mother Teresa. It's astonishing to consider that we all have this potential within us. All we have to do is liberate the pent up life force that is currently getting leeched in enormous quantities by the background processes of creating and defending an indefensible, imaginary, separate self. Are you up for it?

On the horizon...
"Kicking Ladders and Cutting Ropes: When Not To Listen To Your Teacher"

Monday, June 15, 2015

Living La Vada Loca: Wat Ram Poeng

Hi friends. I just got out of my first "long" retreat, twenty-six days of silence and meditation at Wat Ram Poeng in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It is a daunting task to write about a 26-day retreat--probably harder than doing it. But just like a retreat (better: "intensive"), you just take it one moment at a time. 

I suppose the Zennists among you will be curious about how this particular Theravada intensive differed from a Zen sesshin. I was curious too, but to me the similarities have resonated more loudly than the differences, giving me a comforting sense of continuity and still-belonging. It's easy to get caught up in difference when you're ensconced in your own community and looking at another one from afar. Differences in doctrine and metaphysics and rules and schedules and forms really seem important. But those are just the externals. The practice is so excruciatingly simple (Pay attention to the present moment), it remains the same across the board. So yeah, we bow a little differently in Thailand and chant in Pali instead of some novel Indo-Sino-Japanese amalgamation. We wear orange (or white in the case of lay meditators like me) instead of black (OITNB?), and we eat once or twice a day instead of more as in Zen. At the end of the day though (and at the pre-dawn beginning), monastic life is monastic life, and I think I'd acclimate more quickly to a Benedictine monastery than its opposite--say, Bangkok.

Wat Ram Poeng is a very convenient place for a foreigner to practice. You have almost no responsibilities whatsoever, except of course meeting the rather rigorous practice expectations! It's a noisy place with tons of Thai visitors and meditators, but their sounds were white noise to me. I just kept my head down and did my thing. The facilities were kind of jaw-dropping after the rustic places I'm used to. You get your own very spacious room (en suite) that comes equipped with a bed with a mattress and pillow (cf. Wat Suan Mokkh IDH) and even a fan. The meditation hall for foreigners is beautiful and fairly cool, and after a few days you can begin to hide away in your room. I basically spent three weeks alone in my room, and it was rad.

Anyway, here's the schedule. It's simple because we just meditate all day. No days off, no complications. Wan Phra, which occurs once a week, is a little different, but it only flubs the schedule for about 4 hours.
  • Sleep 4 hours. You decide when. I slept from 10 pm to 2 am. Yes, okay, I'm trying to scare you. You start off with 6 hours a night and work your way down to 4 after the first week.
  • 6:30 am: breakfast (Optional. Since it takes too long and it's only a few more hours until "lunch," I just have some caramel peanuts and soy milk from the little temple store.)
  • 10:30 am: lunch (Also optional.)
  • Half an hour or so of sweeping leaves around your excellent lodgings after meals
  • Some time in the afternoon there is "reporting." This means a brief check-in with Ajahn Suphan or Ajahn Nawi. Reporting is quite different from both Zen dokusan/sanzen and California Zen practice discussion. It generally lasts for five minutes, maybe as long as ten or fifteen. One of the Ajahns asks how we're doing, how our meditation practice is going. The savvy among us would be brief and to the point, which was usually that there was a tremendous amount of "sloth and torpor" (one of the Five Hindrances), lots of thoughts (restlessness, another hindrance) some physical discomfort, and generally "not much happening." We get some very skillfully chosen, encouraging words, reminding us to stay with what is arising and passing in the moment, as it is, and to be compassionate and patient with ourselves.We're reminded that everything is impermanent that "the less sleep the better," and to meditate 12-14 per day. (Really, what else are you going to do with your time? No reading, no writing, and they've taken away your digitals.)
Thus passed twenty-six days, or so it seems. I can't really believe it happened. At times it seemed like forever, but by the time it was over it was like nothing happened. Four sesshins. Weird phenomena, sure, some--especially during Adhittana, "Determination." But for the most part, just your average four-sesshins-in-a-row.

Adhitthana: Maybe you've heard of this? I ran into a guy at Green Gulch a few years ago who mentioned it to me and I've been looking forward to it ever since.The long and short of it is that you don't sleep for three nights in a row. In fact you don't even leave your room. They bring you your food in rubber-banded plastic baggies in that charming Thai way. You just alternate sitting and walking for 72+ hours. Alas, I only made it 68 hours before collapsing on my floor and throwing in the towel. Why this practice of adhitthana? That was one of the many Dhamma questions I had throughout my month at Wat Ram Poeng, but it just never seemed appropriate to ask such a theoretical question. Besides, I think I already know the answer: Because it works. 

I have a big bunch of thoughts. Despite my better judgment I broke edge and wrote them down in a cute little notebook. I thought this blog was going to be my "Disconnected Discourses," a big Dhamma barf. We really dodged that bullet! I've got plenty of material brewing though, so you can look forward to discussions of
  1. "Dual Track" Buddhism. Seems like the Buddha taught two separate paths, one leading to conventional happiness (lokiya magga) and the other leading to ultimate happiness (lokuttara magga). As much as I wish they didn't, these two paths often diverge. What to do? And how do you share the Dhamma--that is, which Dhamma do you share? With whom do you share which Dhamma? Cuz every time Dharma Lite is passed off as Dhamma, a would-be ariya-puggala turns away in disappointment and despair.
  2. Buddhist Zen. I finally dipped into Critical Buddhism a month or two ago. There are good arguments to be made that Mahayana and Japanese Buddhism especially are "not Buddhism." Mahayana metaphysics and methodology are very different from what the Buddha taught, and very often fly directly in the face of even the spirit of his teachings. I'm sorry, but it is so. Pick up a sutta, any sutta, and you will see this. However! As weird as Zen theory is, Zen praxis is solid. It works and I love it. So my little pet intellectual project is to code a version of Zen that's backwards-compatible with...Buddhism. Just for fun, you understand.
  3. Zen Priesthood and the social contract. All the good non-enlightenment roles of a priest, like, "A priest is a pillar that looks like a pillar so people know where to lean."
That's all for now. I'm gonna get some wisdom teeth yanked, go to Bangkok to extend my visa, and return to Wat Ram Poeng for another long retreat. Then, who knows? Probably do that until I realize my first spiritual goal, but may head over to Pa Auk first.

Okay loves. Thanks fer listening.