Day 1 – Meeting Sayadaw
The taxi came to a stop in the middle of a small courtyard. I stepped out of the car and stretched. It was scorching under the midday sun.
I looked in the direction of the deep, resonant voice. A slim man in his early fifties with a salt-and-pepper cropped haircut stepped out from one of the buildings.
“Thank you, Mr. Soemin. It’s nice to see you again,” I said, smiling as I reached out to shake his hand.
I’d come here nearly a month ago, but the course hadn’t started, so Mr. Soemin sent me to Pa-Auk Monastery to meditate in the meantime. He’d told me to return today to begin the forty-three day retreat.
“Please let the boys help you.” He waved to the two teenage boys standing on the other side of the courtyard. They rushed over. One boy grabbed my suitcase from the boot, while the other picked up the yoga mat.
I paid and thanked the taxi driver, who turned the car around and left swiftly through the wooden gates.
“Come, I’ll show you your room,” Mr. Soemin said, turning away and leading the way toward one of the buildings. The two boys and I followed him.
He stopped at the second room from the end, unlocked the padlock, and swung the door wide open. “You can leave your things here, and then we’ll go to meet the teacher,” he said. The two boys dropped my belongings in one corner and left.
I scanned the small room. There was a single wooden bed on the concrete floor, a small Buddha print on the wall above the headboard, and a couple of strings running parallel to the bed for tying the mosquito net. At the end of the room was an iron-barred window that looked out onto a neighbor’s bamboo.
I followed Mr. Soemin out of the room toward the main hall, which was the largest building in the compound. It had a high ceiling and polished teak flooring. The hall could easily sit over a hundred people.
The shrine, which stood at one end of the hall, consisted of a raised platform with a big Buddha statue cloaked in golden cloth and surrounded by vases of fresh flowers. On the wall behind were four large, framed photos of elderly monks—the lineage ancestors. At the front of the shrine was a large mahogany throne-like armchair with elaborate carvings etched on its back and sides.
Mr. Soemin knocked on the door of one of the rooms inside the hall before gently easing it open. Inside, an old monk cloaked in a saffron robe sat on an armchair facing the door. His smooth, oval face melted into a broad, congenial smile. I was struck by his golden complexion.
Mr. Soemin kneeled and bowed to the monk. He glanced up at me and whispered, “Bow to the teacher three times,” and continued to bow. I quickly followed suit.
“Now you take the vows. Just repeat after Sayadaw,” he said.[i]
“Okay.” I nodded.
The monk uttered several sentences in Burmese, with long pauses in between for me to repeat them. Then he gave me a meditation subject, Araham, to focus on for the next three days, telling me that I needed to keep it in mind continuously.
“Sayadaw wants you to keep a log of your sittings in a notebook. You will also need to do a summary at the end of the retreat and hand it to him,” Mr. Soemin added.[ii]
I clasped my hands and nodded.
We bowed to the monk three more times before getting up to leave. Outside the hall, Mr. Soemin ran through the schedule of the retreat.
“We start at four a.m.,” he said. “You’ll be working on your own most of the time. There are two group sittings between three and four and seven and eight p.m. The one in the evening is optional for you. I will take you to have an interview with Sayadaw at three p.m. every day. There is a discourse given by Sayadaw at seven a.m. every day, but you don’t have to attend because it is in Burmese.”
“What about breakfast and lunch?” I asked.
“Breakfast is at five thirty a.m. and lunch is at ten thirty. At five p.m., you can have a sugary drink. You will hear a bell about five minutes before.”
“Okay.” I nodded and turned away, heading toward a flowered garden path.
“Oh, don’t cross over there!” he called out. “That’s the women’s side.” He drew an imaginary line in the air.
I looked around for signs of the boundary but couldn’t find one. Shrugging, I returned to my room to unpack.
I laid out the yoga mat over the wooden bed, took out a small pillow and a light blanket, and hung up my mosquito net. I’d managed to find a yoga mat at a supermarket the day before; it wasn’t the best quality, but it would be much better than lying on a hard wooden board like I did at the Pa-Auk Monastery. There, every time I turned, I knocked my limbs against the bed’s hard surface; I woke nearly every morning with new bruises.
After setting out my things, I went outside to explore my new home for the next forty-two days.
The leafy meditation center sat on a two-acre square block surrounded by a two-meter brick fence lined with barbed wire and draped in parts by the neighbors’ bamboo and durian branches. The various buildings inside the center were separated by lines of trees, flowered paths, veggie gardens, and bamboo bushes.
The twelve rooms for male meditators flanked one side of the main hall, while the female accommodation was on the opposite side of the compound, near the dining hall. Mr. Soemin’s family residence was in a separate building near the wooden front gates.
I was drawn to the bamboo bushes dotted around the center, especially those in the far corner of the compound, which were more secluded. Some of that bamboo was over three stories high. They swayed and rustled in the gentlest breeze, waving their shadows over the vegetable patch, and hummed a flute-like sound as they brushed against each other.
Mr. Soemin told me that I was the only foreign meditator at the retreat. There were nineteen local meditators, four of whom were monks.
Everyone seemed to have settled in before me. As I walked past their rooms, I noticed they all had their belongings neatly laid out. They also appeared so composed that I began to suspect that I was the least experienced on this retreat.
The men’s “bathroom” was an open space with a large cement water tank standing before lines of toilets.
I showered with my shorts on, as I’d seen another man do. There were no taps, so I had to scoop water from the tank with a large plastic bowl.
Although the weather was hot, the water was surprisingly chilled. Every time I poured a fresh bowlful over my head, my whole body came out in goosebumps. Soon, I was gritting my teeth and holding my breath before every pour.
The water came from the well and had a sweet, earthy fragrance to it. It also felt clammier than the tap water at home. Even after drying, my skin felt sticky to touch.
Washing clothes was quite a chore. I had to hand-wash in the bucket, using a small bowl to scoop water from the tank. Squatting to wash teased out my lower-back injury, so at times I struggled to stand up.
Despite the Spartan conditions, I liked my new home—it had a relaxing atmosphere and was clean and leafy. I also enjoyed the freedom of not having a roommate, like I did at Pa-Auk. Also, I liked the fact that it was a strictly silent retreat. We were not allowed to communicate with fellow meditators.
It was a shame the silence could not be extended beyond the walls of the center. The neighbors’ psychedelic opera had been blasting from all directions since I arrived. Mr. Soemin caught me cringing as I walked past him that afternoon. “Don’t let the noise bother you! You must concentrate on your meditation object,” he yelled out.
Thankfully, my concentration was steady for most of the day, probably due to the last nineteen days’ practice at Pa-Auk. I found this preliminary meditation easy enough, even in the midst of activities. As Sayadaw instructed me, I tried to continuously keep Araham in my mind as I walked around the compound, blocking out all other thoughts. Naturally, stray thoughts kept invading my mind, so I tried even harder to reinforce Araham by making it “louder.”
Still, the biggest challenge was trying to meditate in the midst of noise. I could block out the sound temporarily by making my concentration stronger, but it would invade my mind the moment I stopped “flexing” my concentration.
In the evening, Mr. Soemin asked me how my meditation was going. I told him it was okay.
“Did you see anything?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. As I walked away, I wondered what he was searching for.
I was totally exhausted by nine p.m. It had been a long day.
[i] Sayadaw means “teacher” in Burmese
[ii] Sitting = meditation