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Letter to Jim 5 : The Siam Silence
by Guy Hormel
The retreat was held about forty five minutes outside of Suratthini near the town of Chai Ya at the Suan Mokkh Temple's International Dharma Hermitage. For the first ten days of every month there's a foreigners' retreat in silence. Lectures and all other essential speech are in English.
Buddhdasa Bikkhu (Bikkku means servant or beggar) was ordained in 1926. Convinced that innocence is hard to find in an urban environment, he traveled from Bangkok back to his hometown in southern Thailand and founded Suan Mokkh Balarama. Literally "The Grove of the Power of Liberation." It was the only forest dharma center in Thailand at the time.
Suan Mokkh is surrounded by rice fields, coconut palm groves, and rubber plantations. Buddhadasa would agree with Bertrand Russell that all great ideas manifest in a natural setting. Suan Mokkh was created to be a place to release one's self from the tyranny of "I, Me, Mine." It's a bit like a park. There's no imposing or ornate temple building. The "temple" is a small hill scattered with rocks. Trees are the pillars. The sky is the ceiling. As in the early days of the faith, there are few images of Buddha. It wasn't until Alexander brought Greek sculpting talents to India in the 4th century B.C.E. that idolatry became common. The atmosphere at Suan Mokkh is informal and friendly. A lot of teaching is accomplished by simply being there.
Buddhadasa's goal was to return to a more pristine spiritual practice akin to Buddhism roots. The heart of that practice is anapanasiti: mindfulness with breathing. The breath being the road to liberation from ignorance, selfishness, and misery. By the 1960's Buddhadasa was so popular that his books and transcribed lectures filled an entire room in the Thai National Library. Many of those books are still popular in commercial bookstores, favored as gifts for the Thai cremation ceremony believed to release a loved one from suffering. Buddhadasa's teachings are considered precursors to the socially engaged Buddhism of contemporary thinkers like Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
Buddhadasa welcomed those of all faiths. His believed at core there is no religion, only authenticity. He wanted to unite spiritual seekers to work together to lift humanity out from under the yoke of materialism. His last project was starting The International Dharma Hermitage to introduce foreigners to basic Buddhist principles and practices.
Most participants arrived a day before the retreat began to sign up on a first come first serve basis. And to have a chance to chat with fellow meditators. I was surprised that most of the participants were so young, averaging around twenty five. And even more surprising was that about sixty percent were men. The first person I met was Kaulish, a Singaporean Yoga instructor, who lives half the year in Northern India and the other half in southern Thailand. I told him he was the only Singaporean I had met traveling around Asia. He was certain he knew why. "Everybody's too busy making money." At near forty he was one of the senior members of the group, having sat through the retreat several times and acted as a coordinator in the past. He was unassumingly self possessed. Someone to instinctively trust and to whom women would be drawn.
The men were given a "boundary tour" by the foreign male wrangler Reinhard Klum, a middle aged mechanical engineer who was considering making the retreat center home. Thus effectively dropping out of the extensive safety net of Germany's social welfare system. Reinhard made it very clear that we were not to go beyond the retreat center grounds under any circumstances. That any fraternization with the opposite sex was forbidden. Men and women stayed in separate dormitory buildings. In the meditation and dining halls we sat on different sides of the room and had no direct contact. We were expected to live like monks for the ten day duration. Even masturbation was discouraged. Although Kaulish warned me that the silence tended to make both sexes randy.
In the event we found we couldn't endure the retreat we were to quietly tell Reinhard at breakfast. Then he would arrange for us to leave discreetly while the others were occupied. Seeing someone give up in defeat could create a jump on the bandwagon effect if others were wavering. Sometimes the attrition rate has been as high as fifty percent in groups of up to two hundred. Our relatively small group of sixty was exemplary in that the number of drop outs ending up being only ten percent. We were also asked to refrain from killing anything during our stay. Even mosquitoes if possible.
The daily schedule was full. We were awakened at four am by the temple bell. We staggered to the candle lit meditation hall at four thirty. A volunteer read a pre-selected Buddhist essay. Then we sat the first half hour meditation of the day. Next was yoga for an hour and a half with Herr Klum as the men's instructor. Followed by a short morning talk in coping English by Ajarn Poh, the seventy five year old retreat center abbot who always addressed us as "kind dharma friends." Then another sitting meditation followed by a welcomed breakfast.
The vegetarian meals were delicious. By now it was all of seven thirty. Next were our daily chores. I cleaned the men's toilet in the dining hall. They were rarely used so I inadvertently chose easy duty; ten minutes in and out. That gave me almost two hours of morning free time. Morning break time also provided a good opportunity to shower, wash clothes, and clean cells.
The men's dormitory was a horse shoe shaped, no frills facility with cells facing an inner courtyard of grass with a communal toilet on the far end. Cold showers were improvised at a communal well with trunks on only. No complete nudity allowed. After a morning shower I'd lie down in my cell on my wooden block "Buddha pillow". The cells were maybe eight by eight by ten built from ugly, raw concrete with a single tier bunk covered with a mosquito net. The walls had large clover shaped breathing holes. You could hear everything that your neighbors were doing from yawning to wiggling their toes. This was rainy season so there were often large centipedes glued to the walls.
Before lunch we had a dharma lecture followed by a walking meditation. Since we observed the monk's habit of not eating after noon, lunch was particularly savored. Afternoon free time followed. Then contemplative instruction and another walking meditation to keep us from cramping.
Later in the afternoon was a loving kindness lecture followed by chanting. Then we met again in the dining hall and in lieu of supper "tea" was served. Ovaltine actually. And man did it taste great. Most participants went to their respective hot springs and relaxed crammed muscles. We had the evening dharma lecture by candlelight and did a goodnight walking meditation together. Men going clockwise around one candlelit pound and women going counterclockwise around another. Then back to the dorms and lights out. The gates were locked at each dormitory to prevent any undue temptation. I managed to keep both a daily journal and my mouth shut for the duration.
Long Tall Reinhard Klum led our breakfast prayer of thanks. I imagined him singing, "Yummy, yummy, yummy, I've got love in my tummy", with scarecrow limbs flailing in a Weird Al Yankovic dance.
During the sitting meditations it was impossible to concentrate. I experienced back pain from a long ago fall down the stairs. (Tequila and Tuenols if you must know.) I began to experiment with different configurations of pillows. When I could manage any reflection, I shed silent tears over the pain I've caused my family in the struggle for self preservation.
Sky bulging black weather
Cicadas ceaselessly harangue
Humans in effusive white
Mince beside two ponds
A dance by chance masquerade .
Two AM: Awakened by apocalyptic sleep apnea disguised a wild boar in heat. By the sound of coughing half the dorm's now up. My back is incredibly sore from sleeping on concrete covered with only a thin meditation pad.
Morning Reading: "The blue green mountain is the mother of the white cloud. The white cloud is the mountain's daughter."
In the yoga hall ants cart off pieces of skin from a scab on my knee that are several times their size. Miller was right. If you give anything full attention it becomes extraordinary.
Trying to get my privates clean while wearing swim trunks is difficult, but necessary. I don't want to be a gonadal stinker
I use an arsenal of pillows. But nothing helps. I want to be anywhere but here.
Morning reading: "Neurosis and wisdom are made of the same stuff." If so, with all my anxieties I'm a psychological alchemist's wet dream.
Morning Lecture: "Do you know the monkey mind, the monkey mind, the monkey mind? Do you know the monkey mind, roaring 'round your brain?"
Lunch was a somber affair. Everyone's exhausted from the daunting routine and often difficult realizations. A little boy's laughter erupted from the back of the kitchen, startling us out of bovine rumination. Violation as revelation. I can give up everything but my daughter.
Relationships inevitably evaporate one way or another. One Thai master advises viewing all of them as "already broken" to appreciate that every moment is precious. Isabel Allende put it more succinctly, "Life is about losing everything." Eventually. But I didn't need to lose my wife so soon.
The fifth anniversary of my mother's death is coming up. I have gotten in the habit of having a Asian style remembrance. How to do that here?
Fifteen minute afternoon question and answer sessions began today with Reinhard Klum, British Monk Tan Dhammavidu, Abbot Ajarn Poh, and Thai Monk Tan Medh. We actually get to speak.
Hallelujah. I got a white plastic chair from Reinhard. Plus he gave me a thick rubber mattress pad. I will the only one meditating in a chair. But who cares? Vanity finally recedes.
Tossing and turning at one am. The gecko night cries out. Silence eats the cry. A huge millipede glistens in the moonlight.
Morning reading: "We have the opportunity in this life to discover the Unborn, the Unmade, The Un-decaying. There is nothing else that compares with this." A Thin White Duke of an Irishman reads deliberately, punctuating his words with a halting congestion. The tiny reading light transforms him into a ghoulish slumber party spook.
The anonymity of it all: Meditators Incognito. Hostile projection is a problem. No different that on the "outs." Just exaggerated by silence. Rarely do I comprehend anyone. Even those close to me. Only my own imaginings.
Dharma Lecture: "Development of the mind brings the elimination of suffering." Last night I fought with my wife all night long. In sweaty exhaustion, I realized I live in postponement. I'm waiting. For what? Emancipation. From what? From getting my emotions dirty.
At the lunch table unshaven faces stare at nothing. We're passive inmates. Our posture speaks of vulnerability extremis rather than the victual hording of the prison mess. Spiritual felons weighted down by desire, but willing to confront our demons. We are mostly young, except for me. Almost all white. Four or five Asians and one lone black man.
Profound realization at the communal clothesline: Almost no one under thirty wears anything but boxers. Did I detect silent snickering when the lads saw me hanging up my blue bikinis with their leafy silver garnishes? I warned my wife that someday my home shopping "panty", as Korean's call all lower extremity undies, would embarrass me.
Q and A with Tan Dhammividu: A native Londoner who was formerly a classical guitarist. He retains a wicked British wit now tempered with compassion. We discussed addictions. He said insight helped him give up bad habits. He echoed my belief that all addictions stem from lack of love. I sorely need a community of people to discuss these things.
Most of us, if coughing heard through porous walls is an indicator, were awakened again at 3:45 AM by an arctic moose braying across the tundra. No great loss. Only fifteen minutes until the wake up bell. I've concluded the rules on silence must exempt farting.
During yoga practice: Tiny birds fly in and out of the cement hall in pre-dawn fluorescent light. They make undulating shadows on a corrugated roof that pretends to be a sandy beach contoured by the waves.
Dharma Lecture: Buddhism doesn't tell you what's true or false. It let's you find out for yourself.
A truck revving it's engine almost puts me over the top. Or a weed cutter snarling. Or a toilet flushing. My brain is racing at full gallop to escape the hellhound on it's tail. "One foot on Jacob's ladder and one foot in the fire, in all comes down in your mind."
Everybody looks so strung out. It's because all our dukkha filters have been taken away: Music, Movies, Pizza, Sex, Cigarettes, Drugs, Shopping, Books, Internet. Relationships. For me there's also my kid, excercise, writing, cleaning. drinking. Virtually everything positive and negative.
I broke the rules and stroked the oar in a fit of erotic nostalgia. Aviva Swirsky was a super hot high school chick from Miami. She traveled up north to visit her long distance boy friend and my pal Brett when he and I were freshmen in college. After Brett passed out at her welcoming party from an surfeit of Panama Red and Sneaky Petes, Boone's Farm Apple wine and keg beer, Aviva became warmly seductive. I stumbled away out of a sense of loyalty. Brett never would have known. Nor probably cared. His passion was oblivion.
Today is the first time I meditated for a whole thirty minute session. With only the ominous distraction of an internally projected, solipsistic snuff film chock full of regrets and recriminations.
The geckos cry all night long was "dukkha, dukkha, dukkha!"
Morning Reading: "Awakening is not negotiable." I wondered how to pick my nose mindfully.
Afternoon Lecture: Dhammadivu walks to the hall very deliberately from his retreat in the woods. A thinly muscled figure, saffron robe slung over one shoulder, he carries a black umbrella to protect against the sun. He is always ten minutes late to make sure everyone is settled in, but also I suspect to make an entrance. I feel very turbid. The lecture on dukkha was dense as would befit it's subject. Contact begets feeling which begets craving which begets clinging. "You need to want the Dharma like a drowning man needs air."
Walking near the construction site for a new meditation hall, I noticed a large tree with split V shape limbs that look's like a woman's legs opening in invitation. But there was also a wispy tendril hanging down between the limbs that made the tree a trans-sexually Thai. Although not well hung by any standards.
Q and A with Abott Ajarn Poh: When asked about my struggle with alcohol he told me to meditate on the strength of the mountain.
Q- What do you call a middle aged man whose got no job, no home and no money?
A- Free at last! (Apologies to MLK)
Dhammavidu ¬Ës Lecture: He spoke about the Buddhist Seven Hells and I thought of Bugok Hawaii Spa near Busan. The once fashionable hot springs resort had seemed a bit strange to me. The lobby in the main building had a movie museum of sorts that displayed to scale models of creatures from films like Predator and Alien encased in glass. Outside, set against the mountains, there was a re-creation of a Grecian temple with gleaming doric columns that couldn't have been more out of context. Running perpendicular to the modest peaks was a life size depiction of the Buddhist seven hells. With it's torturous, yet highly creative onyx configurations of agony, it seemed rather heavy fare for those on a weekend soak. But I did comprehend the roots of Japanese sadomasochistic fetishes.
It's hot. I drift into a sticky doze. States of Mind are discussed. The Hungry Ghost Realm with the pin prick size mouth and huge belly doomed to never be satisfied. The Zero Realm with it's surfeit of back stabbing and jealousy. The Animal Realm where dullness and brutality rule the brain. God's Realm where all senses are fulfilled... "When the void becomes too great, you have to do something about it."
Chanting Session: Led by Tan Medh. a grinning young Thai monk who was raised at the temple. While discussing craving, he stated that men and women often want to taste each other. Then he felt compelled to cheerfully elaborate that he didn't mean chewing on each other. Unresolved celibacy issues here.
Reinhard K's Dharma Lecture- "Neither hope nor fear alters the seasons". When you get rid of gross dukkha you have fewer ups and downs. A reasonable goal for the lay person. I imagined an ocilliscope where the green waves become less erratic. Sensual pleasures still enjoyable, but hold not as powerful. One becomes weary of worldly objects. Death no longer terrifies. Nothing left but composure.
We suffer because of Ignorance (If there's wisdom there's no suffering.), Craving (I must buy toilet paper, clothes pins and a towel.), Clinging (I may have to let my wife and daughter go.) Escape suffering through neutrality of the senses. Then seeing is just seeing, Hearing is just hearing, Tasting is just tasting.
Pre-Lunch Meditation- "I am tired of my feet and my nails and my hair and my shadow. I am tired of being a man." Clinging seems a form of psychic suicide to me.
I played hooky from the evening lecture and had my mother's memorial ceremony. I borrowed a meditation box to use as an altar and covered it in a plaid sarong. I found smooth stones to represent the four corners; north, south, east, and west. I floated a lotus blossom in a filched dessert cup and set out an offering of dining hall fruit. I substituted a maternal photograph with one of her namesake, my daughter. Then illuminated it all with candles. I didn't sense Mom's presence as I had in the past. But fell into a vivid reverie instead. My mother, daughter and I were in a packed auditorium leaping to the ecstatic choreography of Paul Taylor's Esplanade while a full orchestra played I Could Have Danced all Night. I found out Buddadassa's ceremony day is the same as my mother's.
Today there were no lectures, just meditation. That evening retreat participants were asked to come up to the microphone to talk about their experiences. The stories were often humorous tales of pain, frustration, wild imaginings, goofball associations, and plans for life modifications. One woman drolly stated that she had gotten nothing but misery out of sitting the retreat. With the exception of a lone insight regarding a small white flower blossoming in a lifeless pile of sand.
During the walking meditation this morning I brushed by a beautiful old willow tree and felt it's breath. The tree was covered in red ants which fiercely attacked me. It all seemed implacable paradox. You can't have the nurturing without the devouring.
Since mid-afternoon I have had a vicious primate gnawing at my brain. I can't stay in the present longer than an instant. Sandals on gravel makes my jaw clench. The zipper on my backpack vexes. A chair sliding across the cement floor heralds tectonic plate disaster. Give me the frontal lobotomy, without putting the bottle in front of me.
We had the usual morning schedule of talk and meditation. Then we packed up, had breakfast, and a goodbye talk from Ajarn Poh. Followed by a reception in the dining room where we could finally meet our fellow meditators. I talked to an extensively tattooed Philipino writer and a man from Dubai who just survived an agonizing divorce.
With their focus now outward rather than inward, the women were much more attractive. Less utilitarian dress and a bit of make didn't hurt either. Simone from Britain, Sally from Hong Kong, Ezmeralda from Spain, Suzanne from Switzerland.
I had a conversation about music with Toby, an aspiring soul singer from Britain with Sephardic roots. He reminded me of what Big Bill Broonzy said when asked to define folk music, "All music's folk music. Ain't never heard no damn horse sing no damn song." He had resolved to make a pilgrimage to Algeria with his father to meet long lost relatives.
We all walked together to the main temple across the road. I hung out mainly with Singaporean Kaulish and Volkmar, a German who had recently quit his lucrative consulting job with Arthur Andersen Berlin. An expansive and warm hearted man he was relishing his new found freedom. They might be a long term Buddhist buddies. Kaulish recommended we stay at the temple a day or two to ease our entry back into civilization. Ah the euphoria of talking.
That night we crossed the highway to have supper. From a distance the restaurant held the magic of good non-vegetarian food. I had a yearning to munch on flesh. Up close the place had almost no personality. All cinder block and concrete. And the food was mediocre. A Moroccan former drug dealer who had taken an Indian ashram name I couldn't pronounce and Greg a young British DJ joined us. Greg alternated pilgrimages to Thailand and India with bright lights, big city dissipation in London. He was quite waggish, calling the Moroccan Don Pablo Escobar. I thought of him as Don Pablo Escobarf. He seemed one of the least interesting suspects from a Casablanca casting call. His anti-hero pose held no fascination for me. I'd heard it all before. We stayed out late because we could.
The next morning we parted ways with the usual, "We'll see each other again." Knowing full well we probably won't. I took the bus to Surat. It was full of travelers on the way back from holidays on the outlaying islands. I sat next to a young woman from San Francisco, Delayumi, who was traveling with her boyfriend. Her father is a Japanese musician and mother a French aristocrat. A stunning counterpoint, she seemed the cordially patrician, graceful human embodiment of a Siamese cat. Alternately speaking French and English to those around her, a balletic intelligence was obvious, Her parents had divorced when she was quite young, feeling their constant rows were more detrimental than separating. When she spoke of her father I detected a subtle longing. Over the years she has regularly visited him in Japan. But no matter how much she cares for papa, it was mama who was there to tend to the physical and emotional scrapes and bruises, celebrate some events, mourn others, and engage in the toe to toe power struggles that are the real work of parenting. I suppose fate is the density of childhood Rilke proposes. After thoughtfully listening to my abridged recent history, she pondered a moment. Then, with a daughterly pat on the arm, handed me the unfinished metaphysical book on her lap, and told me to keep it.
I started this letter way last fall then lost it in the computer. So you know from subsequent scribbling we returned to Thailand and spent the holidays and beyond. We returned to a reluctant Korean Spring. And the time of the yellow dust. Every spring yellow sand blows in from the Gobi desert. It's full of Chinese agrochemical and industrial pollution, also making it high season for the ENT doctors. The sand clogs sinuses, my skull feels like its stuffed with wet sawdust, and everything from cars to clothes has a yellow patina.
Ul-Sook-Do is a family culture center cum sports and entertainment park on a sparsely treed island near the Naktong river in south Busan. It's maybe fifteen minutes from our apartment. An easy escape for some fresh air and sunshine. Plus it gives my kid a chance to peddle her butt off on a rented tricycle. It has restaurants, trampolines, a bouncy inflatable play ground, a drive-in movie theater, a inline skating amphitheater, soccer fields, riparian picnic areas, a sculpture garden and a performing arts center.
My wife likes to picks aromatic wormwood near the river. She covets it's healing properties. But for her the cure is in the culling. In front of the arts center I watch scores of children madly peddling their hired wheels in blissful safety away from the threat of vehicular slaughter. In and around the sculpture garden are out sized pieces from around Asia: A hulking Chinese peasant slouches in a Chicago Bulls cap and t-shirt. A colossal metal head protrudes from a grassy knoll sprouting spiked hair. Polished metal encased in a yellow pentagon creates a fun house mirror distortion of whatever it reflects. Loud speakers corroborate the season with Pat Boone crooning, "April Love will slip right through your fingers..." The music washes over weary parents, mostly moms, resting on the art center steps. They gaze at the horizon and squint in memory of forgotten wings. My kid yells, "My feet are thirsty!" She takes our love for granted. It's difficult for me to accept any sort of affection. So I'm comforted she absorbs tenderness like benignant solar warmth.
A feverishly cool wind creates a blizzard of enfeebled blossoms from nearby cherry trees. Near the ground, sprinklings of pink petals make bantam funnels. Another gust spirals them upward. They fan out into pastel flurries that fade in and out of focus against a brittle chromium cataract that surrounds the sun.
The other morning my wife needed to linger a while with our kid. So we passed on the school bus and drove together later to her Buddhist kindergarten. The school is about a ten minute drive up from the main subway line, adjacent to the Ne Won Jong temple in a sylvan mountain setting. The road leading to the temple was lined with brightly colored paper lanterns in honor of Siddhartha's upcoming birthday. The buildings are the sturdy log monochrome with faded lotus wainscoting typical of native temple architecture. The school's aim is to provide their students with a creative cultural education in a natural environment. Learning to live with an open heart toward all sentient beings and practice civility in public and private affairs is the intended result. The children study traditional arts and crafts. They plant in the spring and harvest in the fall. They start their day with chanting meditation. They play ancient games outdoors. My kid comes home smelling like rice cakes and wood smoke. It's an oasis away from the persistence of urban Asia. A place where forgotten deities still reside. Safely hidden they whisper to all without restraint. And forge a crucial aureole around the marrow of the battered Hanguk heart.
Joke's on me Jimbo. My hair hasn't fallen out. Just turned gun metal grey in a fortnight.
Until That Time,
July 16, 2006