I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to MV Dhamma Fellowship and the organising committee for making the trip to Bali for the meditation cum workshop retreat from 10th to 18th December at Braham Vihara Arama possible.
Sister Suriaty ‘Sue’ Simon – the prime mover and her dedicated team with Bhante Raja, our religious advisor and the many participants who had in one way or another contributed to make this trip a success and an eventful one merit mention. It was a memorable experience, at least for me.
The flight from Singapore to Denpasar which took about 2 ½ hours was pleasant. However, the long haul overland trip from the airport at the south of the island heading to the north by bus took almost five hours . As this trip was my first ever overseas residential meditation retreat, fatigue soon crept in and I felt fidgety and perplexed. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and triggered me to question myself the intent and purpose of the trip. I realised my folly that I need to practise patience and recalled patience or khanti is one of the ten paramis or perfections followed by the Bodhisatta in his journey to Buddhahood.
“A man should make an effort until his goal has been achieved. Of goals that shine when achieved, none is found better than patience.” Samyutta Nikăya, Sutta 11 Sakkasamyutta: Connected Discourses with Sakka.
That put me on the correct path for the intent and purpose of the trip and set forth the tone for the rest of my endeavour.
Braham Vihara Arama, situated at about 1,250 meters above sea level, has a conducive environment as a meditation retreat center. Nestled within four hectares of vast greenery and open space, coupled with the cool climate with gentle breezes, it gave me a sense of euphoria.
The infrastructure of the vihara complete with dormitories, dining hall, meditation hall, kutis, open field paved with footpaths for walking mediation, shrine halls, stupas, the platform of the miniature Borobudur shrine and the Bodhi tree are all within short walking distances and within earshot of the clatter of the gong announcing morning call and meal time.
With so many conducive spots scattered around for meditation I was spoilt for choice as there were more than adequate suitable locations for any individual and nobody is deprived of his/her favourable choice
As we observed the eight precepts we had two meals a day – breakfast at 6:15 am and lunch at 11.00 am. The Balinese cuisine was delightfully palatable as it was a change of taste for most of us, or at least for me. The menu consisted of steamed rice as the staple item accompanied by no less than four dishes. In addition to these, we had a wide variety of local fruits such as papaya, watermelon, pineapple, mangosteen, mango, banana, jack fruit, rambutan and different flavors of agar-agar as dessert. Of course we had water and beverages like coffee and tea to wash down the food.
I had to restrain myself from being a glutton and reminded myself to eat moderately and wisely. Aňguttara-Nikăya, IV, XVI, 159 aptly reminds me. “Here, sister, a monk takes food with reflection and judgment, not for sport, not for indulgence, not for personal charm, not for beautifying, but just enough for the support, for the upkeep of the body ……………..”
During the meditation workshop we were reminded by Bhante Raja, that food is consumed to sustain the body and not for indulgence and to be ‘aware of what we were doing in eating, drinking, chewing, and savouring’. (Digha Nikăya, Sutta 22 Mahăsatipatthăna Sutta: The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness).
The training programme drawn up by Bhante Raja was appropriate for meditators of all levels: the beginners, regulars and seasoned practitioners. The daily programme with wakeup call at 4:00 am, exercise at 4.15-4.30 am and ending the day at about 10:00 pm was fully utilised for scheduled core activities like group meditation, workshop and group interview. We had ample time for attending to our personal needs, rest and voluntary additional meditation sessions for the more serious meditators. This flexibility allowed an individual meditator to adapt and manage the activities according to his/her own needs. It is suitable for diligence training, yet not too demanding for the beginners or too slack for the seasoned and serious practitioners.
A verse from Aňguttara Nikăya, VI, VI, 55 succinctly sounds it out: ‘But when, Sona, your lute’s strings were neither overstrung nor over-lax, keyed in the middle pitch, was your lute then tuneful and playable?’ ‘Surely, lord.’ ‘Even so, Sona, energy when overstrung, ends in flurry, over-lax in idleness.’
The daily morning and evening compulsory group meditation sessions and workshops disciplined me to observe the objective of the trip. The rest of the free time for additional meditation sessions allowed me to plan my needs to sustain me through the whole course and for a pleasant and an enjoyable stay.
(a) Vipassana Mediation & Noble Silence
The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are or the true nature of things. It is seeing the true nature of impermanence, the unsatisfactory and insubstantiality or the absence of an unchanging self or soul, which is the basis of the doctrine.
Vipasanna mediation is meditation dwelling on awareness. It teaches me to live with the present every thought moment – noting, watching and observing through the six sense doors, namely: the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind the objects of awareness. I had to be mindful at all times commencing at the first instance when I wake up until my bedtime. To train myself to be aware of every movement and action, I had to maintain noble silence throughout the practice other than interviews with Bhante and discussions during workshop sessions.
Noble silence meant silence of body, speech and mind and refrain from any form of communication by gestures, sign language or written notes. This was only possible in a retreat where everybody observed noble silence in unison to cultivate mindfulness without distraction.
Dhamampada Verse 25, Culpanthaka Vatthu says it all: “Through diligence, mindfulness, discipline (with regard to moral precepts), and control of his senses, let the man of wisdom make (of himself) an island which no flood can overwhelm.”
In Vipassana mediation, I need to choose an object on which to focus my mind. Traditionally, the breath is taken as a primary object to keep our mind focussed and mentally noting ‘in-out-in-out’ as I breathed along. While noting my breath and when the mind gets lost or distracted I made notes of them too, like “thinking”, “hearing”, including my feelings like “pain”, “itch”,etc. I trained my mind to be aware of things that were happening around me that came through the six sense doors.
By focusing the mind on the object of meditation I learn to develop concentration or one-pointedness in order to know the true nature of nama and rupa (mind and body). In order to have concentration I need to focus on one object at a time and on the same object for some time. However, the mind is always restless and difficult to control and I get easily distracted through the six sense doors which then interfered with my mediation. Fortunately, the Vipassana meditation is in fact meditation dwells on awareness and all things are objects for meditation by making notes on them too.
During the mandatory meditation sessions and free time training I did one hour of walking mediation followed by sitting meditation. Though standing and lying down postures were also taught by the Buddha, I could not adopt them, especially the latter, as I would doze off easily.
(b) Workshop and Group Interview
The workshops provided background and great insights into Vipassana meditation as taught by the Buddha based on The Mahăsatipatthăna Sutta: The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness (Digha Nikăya Sutta 22) and Sattipatthăna Sutta: The Foundation of Mindfulness (Majjima Nikăya Sutta 10).
Bhante Raja cautioned that there are some meditation teachers, instructors or masters who claimed to have developed their own genres of meditation methods. In reality the Buddha is the only Teacher who discovered Vipassana Meditation or the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as propounded in the two Suttas. The group interviews provided opportunities for me to check with Bhante the progress and correct method according to the discourses.
Rest and Recreation
Throughout the stay, and in the Theravada tradition, segregation of genders is being observed in the daily practice – be it at the shrine hall, meditation hall and dining hall or any other place. Coupled with the observation of noble silence there was no opportunity for interaction or sharing of experience on personal level, except during workshops and group interviews.
The one day Bali tour to famous and iconic places of interest was the highlight of our post-retreat activity. The outing provided an opportunity for me and the rest of the participants to unwind and re-orientate ourselves in preparation for the return to our mundane lifestyle and face the stresses of our daily living. It also strengthened the camaraderie among the participants.
While the rest of the participants departed for home on 18th December, I remained to continue with my practice and to be the attendant (kappiya) of Bhante Raja until 25th December.
Contributor: Chin Kee Thou (YMBA, 3rd year)