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.

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