I've just come back from a brief retreat so I thought I might share my experiences and learnings, in the hope that they may be of interest and or benefit to others. I am a Theravada practitioner, but that doesn't mean there might not also be something of interest for those on the Mahayana or Vajrayana paths.
As you may know from a previous thread, I have been...
Preparing for a short self-guided meditation retreat
I had a plan and it seemed like a good one, copacetic even, according to venerable Appicchato. Well, sometimes you just have to go with the flow...
I arrived on Friday night, had a quick walk around the gardens with my wife and son before bidding them farewell. The (non-abbot) bhikkhi, venerable Sila showed me to my quarters where I would be sleeping. It was a nice little room in the back corner of the temple, with a sofa bed that made for a nice couch. After setting my things up, I went to the bhikkhu's quarters for a cup of tea and had a nice chat to venerable Sila, who was lovely. He is over from Sri Lanka for the year - he is 27 years old, 20 of those in the Sangha. The abbot, venerable Santidriya returned from some business and we had a quick chat about my plans for my stay and logistics such as meals, amenities and so on. I gave a dana envelope, took the eight precepts (first time ever in Pali, first time from an actual bhikkhu) customary bows and then went to take rest. I didn't get a lot of sleep that night because I was very enthusiastic, much like the first night of my Goenka retreat in 2007, very keen to make the use of this valuable opportunity, but unfortunately enthusiasm and earnestness that led to a less than satisfactory sleep.
I woke at 5am, and in my quarters I did anapanasati as planned for an hour, and then switched to walking meditation in the gardens as the sun slowly prepared to rise, amidst fluttering Buddhist flags. I went to the bhikkhu's quarters in readiness for breakfast and as I did, the dana providers for the day arrived, and after being involved in the offering of food to the Buddha, I then had the first of many delicious Sri Lankan meals. After the meal I went to the shrine room and set myself up with a couple of cushions and so on and set about continuing with anapanasati practice. It went OK, but not great... I suspect the lack of sleep overnight was fueling a bit of 'sloth and torpor' even though I was feeling quite mellowed. I thought maybe some coffee would be a good idea, although whilst Sri Lankans are renowned for their tea, the coffee on hand wasn't quite so great... noneless, functional! As I would do throughout my time there, I alternated with walking meditation when the continuous sitting was getting too much on my knees, hips or back. The bhikkhus were out doing dhamma talks, performing services for a lay supporter who was offering dana at their home, as per traditional practice in order to transfer merits to a deceased relative. I was 'home alone'! Thankfully, although the bhikkhu's quarters were locked, I found where my lunch had been placed and managed to eat it before noon.
Return then to the shrine room where I was persisting with the meditation but something wasn't quite right. I had moved to satipatthana and was watching my mindstates and observing them... I saw the full complement of thoughts rooted in greed, aversion, generosity, lovingkindness etc. but against the negative ones, began feeling rather helpless about them. It was all very well seeing their rise and their passing away, but they just kept rising, kept passing, kept rising, kept passing... I started to wonder how I could ever stop their rising and began to feel defeated. Seeing futility in this, the mind struggled to find the incentive to be sharp, and be on the ball, as I'd expect during a meditation session like this. I went to the bihkkhu's quarter to ask for some advice but there were no bhikkhus to be seen (although they were back now, the door was unlocked). I made a cup of tea (now black, post noon) and a tiny little Dhamma book caught my eye...
Nothing Special by Sister Ayya Khema
http://www.enabling.org/ia/vipassana/Ar ... Khema.html
The following pretty much answered the question I had came seeking from the bhikkhus....!
As we dislike our own dukkha, hate arises at the same time which results in "double dukkha."
Using insight into self-made dukkha as our next step, we have a chance of changing the discomfort within ourselves from dislike and hate to, at least, acceptance. Eventually a feeling of being at ease with oneself arises, without which meditation cannot flourish.
These are fundamental aspects of ourselves which we need to investigate and experience. Spiritual practice involves one's whole being and the exploration of our reactions, developing sensitivity and vulnerability to others and being able to roll with the punches. We begin to realize that there are certain necessary learning situations in our lives and if we don't make use of them, we will get the same ones over and over again. If we look back for a moment, we may be able to see identical situations have arisen many times. They'll continue to do so many lifetimes, unless we change.
Spiritual practice is not just sitting on a pillow but more an opening of the mind to what is actually going on inside. If that opening is closed the moment we stand up, then we haven't really been meditating successfully. It is not so much how long we can attend to the breath or the sensations but rather how aware and how awake we become. Then we can use that awareness in our everyday reactions and thinking processes.
There is the Cartesian view: "I think, therefore I am." Actually it's the other way around: "I am, therefore I think." Unless we can get some kind of order into our thoughts and emotional reactions which follow the thinking process, our mind will constantly play havoc with our inner household.
The realization of where our dukkha comes from must be followed by the understanding that disliking it will not make it go away; only letting go of wanting makes dukkha disappear, which means unequivocal acceptance. Accepting oneself results in being able to accept others. The difficulty with other people is that they present a mirror in which we can see our own mistakes. How useful it is to have such a mirror. When we live with others we can see ourselves as if it were a mirror-image and eventually we learn to be together like milk with water, which completely blend. It is up to each one of us to blend; if we wait for others to do it we are not practicing. This is a difficult undertaking but also a very important one.
Eventually we will create the inner comfort to expand our consciousness and awareness to an understanding of universality.
Well, there we go. I realise at this point, reinforced by the following meditation session that I'm far too hard on myself and my imperfections. I have a decent conceptual understanding of the Dhamma and have already received many benefits from my practice, but I should not expect to be perfect just yet. Having aversion towards my imperfections is actually a roadblock on the path. "Getting down" on myself for having defilements isn't going to make them going away. After a significant emotional release and great reverence for the Buddha, I was feeling tired, but also calmer and happy... determined to be kinder to myself, smile at myself, accept myself and less self-critical. I walked through the garden, being kind to myself, and even went down to visit the cows over the back fence and feed them some weeds that were tantalizingly out of their reach - I wished them happiness.
Later that night, people arrived for meditation and Dhamma talks and the children were being taught in the main shrine room where I was endeavouring to meditate. Not too intent on pushing too hard I just tried to be mindful and actually found myself listening to the abbot's Dhamma talk to the children where he was teaching them the Pali version of Dhammapada - verse 16 ( http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .budd.html )
The doer of good rejoices here and hereafter; he rejoices in both the worlds. He rejoices and exults, recollecting his own pure deeds.
That was nice. It was nice hearing him asking the children about what good deeds are, getting them to give examples, explaining to them what "here and hereafter" means. It was nice to see and experience this sense of Dhamma community. It also got me thinking about the concept of merits. Combined with the days earlier learnings, I figured I really should embrace the concept of making merits more. Sometimes 'merits' get painted as what people do who have conceded spiritual defeat in this life and will hope for better hope (worldly and spiritual) in the next. However, it started to become clearer that this need not be the case at all. I got up from the children's Dhamma class to read a small Dhamma book on gratitude... something I was full of with regards to the Buddha earlier, and also to this Dhamma community and those who have played a role in making it what it is.
Gratitude in the Buddha’s Teachings by Ven. Nyanadassana, Bhikkhu
http://www.buddhistelibrary.org/library ... adpath=360
Some more gentle meditation after everyone had departed and then preparations for sleep. Being kind to myself, I actually slept a bit better and started the day happy and ready for meditation. I started with walking meditation and got the bhikkhu's quarters in time for breakfast, though I missed the food offering to the Buddha, but that's OK... I'd made plenty of offerings and devotional thoughts towards the Buddha to date, there was no shortage in that respect. After breakfast I was meditating in the shrine room and that was all going well, again, alternating between sitting and walking meditation though my hip joints were feeling sore... possibly from all the sitting, possibly from the sofa bed. People again eventually arrived and joined me in meditation, before we went for lunch. After lunch, there was a tri-lingual (Pali, Sinhalese, and English for the benefit of myself and two Malaysian girls who had come for the sessions) presentation on...
THE 16 DREAMS OF KING PASENADI: Based on Jataka Tales No.77, Mahasupina-Jataka
Now, you may know I don't consider Jataka Tales to be actual Buddha-word, but I thought I'd go with it and see how it went, accepting that they can still nonetheless provide valuable Dhamma lessons. It was a very interesting recital and presentation when in English (and Pali), and an opportunity to maintain respectful mindfulness when in Sinhalese. The general thrust of the presentation was that the Buddha's predictions on the future are already coming true to some extent as society moves from being virtuous, wise, respectful and grateful... to self-serving, unwise, lustful and mean. Best then to focus on developing one's merits and one's wisdom, because these are all that is truly one's own property, and will be good protection when an unwise society flushes itself down the toilet.
It was then tea-break time, and I used to break to buy a few trinkets in support of the vihara and to avoid temptation from the people offering me biscuits and date slice. In fact, keeping to the eight precepts was easy... I had no desire or inclination to steer away from them. After the break there was to be another Dhamma presentation, this time only in Sinhalese. I didn't much fancy that, besides I felt I'd have enough with hearing about merits... I wanted to make some merits! Earlier whilst being in the gardens I'd noticed that quite a few weeds had been popping up. I also remembered what Venerable Sila said on the first day when he told me that he has to do certain tasks (like welding) himself because there's not often lay supporters around to do such things and whilst if they were asked, he knew they would, the bhikkhus did not want to keep asking the lay supporters for favours. Putting these together I asked venerable Santidriya if I could do some weeding during the Dhamma presentation and he said "of course" and got me a pick, gloves and bin.
I set about working selflessly in the garden, ensuring it was genuine self-sacrifice and not just a means to bolster the ego into thinking how great and generous I was being. I worked in the garden, picking out weeds, accepting my imperfections, though working on replacing any mindstates of greed and aversion with lovingkindess and generosity. Happily working without greed, and with 'all the time in the world', it was a valuable experience. Alas, the sun didn't have all the time in the world and I had to find a location where the weeds were very evident and not so subtle. I heard my name being called, as one of the layfolk had been advised to come and find me for the puja. It was a brief puja (compared to when I came to the vihara last year) but still had little boys making some nifty rhythms on the drums, people making offerings, and recitals. All very nice.
One people left, I was advised by venerable Santidriya that I could remain in the shrine room and continue with my practice. I did, and it was probably the most blissful and insightful meditation session I have ever had in my life. I have little doubt it had to do with the preparations and events to date - the happiness and the merits. Now, I'm not prepared to put official labels on anything I experienced, but I came out of it, both happy and content, and also totally disinterested in craving for objects of the worldly six senses, though to be fair, I'm sure there was (despite my best efforts) still some sort of craving for those blissful mindstates.
That night I slept really well, save the for mosquito that buzzed me occasionally. On waking I had my breakfast with the bhikkhus, packed up my things, and meditated in the Shrine Room for an hour and a half. Beyond that I didn't really feel like more meditation was the key. My family were coming to pick me up later and I should start transitioning back to regular functioning. This gave me an opportunity to continue in the garden where I left off, taking binful after bunful of weeds down to those black cows... my gardening interuppted only by lunch and the eventual arrival of my family. I gave the abbot more dana towards vihara expenses on behalf of us at Dhamma Wheel (share the merit, friends!) and then set off with my family back home.
If you compare what transpired to my original plan, you'll see it's actually quite different. However, I think it's exactly what I needed. It's useful to be reminded that the Dhamma isn't like some kind of Rubik's Cube that we're trying to solve with sheer willpower, mindfulness and dry wisdom alone. There is also the need for happiness, generosity, making merit, being reverent, giving thanks, showing appreciation, and rejoicing in the happiness and merits of others. These aren't just 'optional extras' to the Dhamma, inferior to the "real deal".... they are the heart and core of the practice. Without these, there will be no true realisation.
Dhp. 183 wrote:To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.