Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Big Buddha House - Silent Retreat...... Shhhhhhhhh

We've missed you all, sorry for being away for so long!
As you've no doubt gathered from the 'blog silence', we made the retreat.... By 15 minutes!
We left Phnom Penh at 5.30pm and arrived the next day at the Wat Kow Tahm Monastery at 1.45pm for the 2pm deadline. Talk about cutting it fine.
The silence would not be starting until the next day, so we got to chatting with a few of the retreat volunteers and other retreatants.
The many rules and stipulations were pinned across 3 large notice boards on laminated white sheets of A4 paper. We were informed to read each one carefully, ensuring
we understood them. Satisfying in our own minds that we would be able and satisfied to adhere and respect the rules whilst participating in the retreat, before each of us paid parted with our £100 travelling spends, to cover the food and accommodation costs. The teachings were given freely.
After spending 20 minutes studying the stringent regulations I was caught in two minds, such a strict daily regime would be very difficult for someone who does not
normally adhere to a daily routine. Military training in silence and stillness was what came to mind. It would not be easy by any stretch of the imagination.

The daily schedule went like this:

4.00am The Morning Bell - Time for a wash
4.45am Sitting Meditation
5.30am Yoga
6.30am Sitting Meditation
7am Breakfast
8.15am Working Meditation (Mine began at 7.30 until 8am as I was breakfast pot wash)
9.00am Walking Meditation
9.25am Teachers Talk
9.45am Sitting Meditation
10.30am Walking Mediation
11.00am Lunch

1.00pm Walking Meditation
1.45pm Standing Meditation
2.45pm Walking Meditation
3.45pm Sitting Meditation with 15 minutes of standing at the end
4.30pm Walking Meditation
5.15pm Tea (Amanda's Working Meditation – Wiping Tables)
6.15pm Sitting Meditation
6.45pm Standing or Walking Meditation
7.15pm Teachers Talk
8.25pm Sleeeeeeeeeeeep.................

4am Morning Bell - Arrrrrrrrrrrghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!

Every morning, every afternoon, every evening...........

Silence started the following evening, followed by a teachers talk.
Steve, a fifty (just found out he is 63!) something American along with his Australian wife Rosemary ran the retreat,, and had done so for over 20 years. They were the Vipassana (pronunciation is as follows, 'Vipe Arse Sanna', first bit sounds like a German giving toilet instructions) Mediation Teachers.
Steve spoke with a slow, deliberate tone, each and every word that passed his lips being well considered and thought out over many years of experience and practice. Rosemary the same, though her monotone reading was a tad painful at times. Both teachers managed to hook the 40 or so retreatants with analogies, stories and tales of wisdom throughout the retreat.
Vipassana Meditation is as much about developing mental methods and techniques for dealing with strong personal emotions, such as anger, fear, ignorance and doubt, and earning how to recognise these emotions as they rise within (nipping in the bud before they even arise once your skills have become developed enough) then accepting they are there, dealing with them and overcoming them. As much as 'clearing the mind' meditation. Then comes the generation of 'Compassionate Lovingkindness', along with the increasing of the favourable attributes of determination, courage, patience and wisdom, through looking inwards via various techniques of concentration and meditation. I'm scratching the surface here. In summary, trying to make you a better person, considering your own mind and body, how they react together, developing compassion for yourself, thus allowing you to shower genuine compassion to those having difficulties in their everyday lives. Sounds deep eh? A bit flowery? Well it's not really. It's just about making wise, skilful decisions. Really considering the things you say and do, considering the impact of cause and effect of the sentences that come out of our mouths, how these words affect others, or how our actions affect others. Being mindful of this in every moment of our lives.
Increasing concentration and opening minds through meditation allows us to make more considered, wise choices in life. As opposed to blurting out reactionary emotionally charged responses in line with our sometimes rigid current opinions and beliefs. As I said, I'm only scratching the surface.
Anyway, enough said about what the retreat was trying to achieve, more about the actual retreat itself.

The first evening (before the retreat actually began) we all enjoyed a hearty meal of fresh vegetarian Thai food, cooked by the nuns. It was delicious (all the food was vegetarian). I decided I needed a wash, so headed to the 'shower'. The shower cubicle, was a simple structure. A line of seven adjoining concrete blocks. As I pulled the door open, I was presented with squatting toilet directly two metres in front. Alongside which, a small 'stationery' style bin, lined with a plastic bag for used toilet paper, with a bucket of water and plastic bowl for 'flushing' the squat loo after use. The shower facility, a large, black, plastic dust bin full of water stood in the corner to the right of me. In this bin floated a plastic scoop, about the size of a dog food bowl. Basic!
As I lathered my body and hair, two small twigs in the corner of the room caught my attention. They were sticking out from behind the toilet paper bin...... I had a horrible feeling that these twigs may not actually be twigs. As I stuck my soapy face into the corner of the cubicle over the little plastic bin to ease my worried mind, things became decidedly worse. The twigs were, as I'd feared, the front two legs of the biggest spider I'd ever seen in real life, well in the wild at least, and not behind the thick glass of a display tank.

Eight Legged Freak!
God Golly Miss Molly, I thought, as I hurriedly tried to rinse the soap off my hair and body, white suds running into my half opened eyes, now painfully focused on the two hairy twigs protruding from behind the bin.
Within two minutes I was rinsed and dried (using one of my t-shirts, as we'd both forgotten to bring towels along with us) and out of there. I told the other guys in the food hall about what I'd just seen, a couple of which were interested in a gander at the huge arachnid. As I opened the door, there she was up on the wall in all her glory, a large egg sac stuck firmly to her abdomen. What a frightening beast. This hairy discovery ensured a daily sensation of trepidation and panic as I reached the shower cubicle door at 4am each morning for my wake up shower. This was not a great way to begin the day. Though it was an exhilarating one!

The sleeping arrangements were as simple as the washing facilities. A bunk bed sat on the left of the door as I walked in. The white tile floored room reflecting the bright light flooding in through the windows. White washed concrete walls housed completed the 3 metre by 2 metre room. The sign on the door specified the sleeping arrangements.
Not Bed World's Best Seller....

Mature guy below, young flexible guy on top. Yeh, yeh, I hear you. You're all thinking I must have gotten the bottom bunk. Well you're wrong! Ha ha! Old Bill, a travel writer from the US had the bottom bunk. I was tackling the built in ladder at the end of the bed each time I wanted in or out. At the end of the bed a gap of approximately one metre allowed me to stick my arse out and begin climbing up into the bunk. A slatted glass window at my back, which remained open to allow the stiflingly hot air to circulate whenever we were lucky enough to experience a breeze. From the window we over looked the white washed concrete men and ladies toilet cubicle, at the end of which were two outdoor sinks for washing hands, cleaning teeth and shaving etc. Over the next 10 days, I was treated to some very strange sounds indeed.  The sleeping area of the bunk bed (where a mattress would normally reside) was a thin bamboo mat. The sort of thing you may roll out in the garden on a hot day. Comfortable. Luckily the small sitting mats which were provided with for meditation, were large enough to fit head, shoulders and hips whilst lying down, depending on your height of course (big Dutch Marten was 6ft 7 tall, his head and shoulders would have been comfortable!). Therefore only my legs lay on the hard wooden bed base for maximum discomfort.  A large blue mosquito net hung by four ceiling hooks encased my bunk, protecting me from anything 'bitey'. One of the retreat staff had been stung by a scorpion the week before we arrived, he was a Geordie lad (from Newcastle in the UK). 'How was it?' I asked. He laughed a bit, and in his strong Geordie accent replied, 'Well it was a bit 'leek' (like) been' (being) shot'. Hmmm, note to self. Don't get stung by scorpion.
The small green plastic torch with exhausted batteries that I had had to rent from the retreat hall, provided me with a tiny pool of dim yellow light, necessary to avoid stepping on scorpions or cobras at night whilst going for a pee, or in the morning whilst getting down the hill to the shower cubicles.
A short walk along the veranda and down the steps at the end, brought the guys to their laundry area. A stack of buckets sat patiently on a large concreted area, from which two freshwater taps jutted proudly. Behind these stood the large, cylindrical water tanks.
Laundry Area After Retreat
The girls were separate to the men. They resided in 'The Girls Dorm', of course. Same arrangements, same level of basic comfort (or discomfort depending on how you look at it).
Once silence had been enforced and the evening talk had finished we all headed to bed.

Day One in the Big Buddha House:
With Bill's alarm set for 4am to coincide with the bell (a US missile head, now used for good) we rested our heads into the small pillows and slipped away into the night.
I had an uncomfortable night's sleep due to a shoulder injury picked up whilst travelling to the retreat. Sleeping in a strange position on the bus had trapped a muscle somewhere around my right right shoulder blade which was causing me some serious grief. Lucas, one of the other retreatants, a 24 year old Canadian from Vancouver, supplied me with a couple of anti inflamatories to see if they'd help. A lovely, kind guy.
I woke ahead of Bill's alarm at around 3.50am and was excited to be first down the shower and not have to concern myself with queueing in the dark, whilst mosquitos feasted on my blood. I pulled on my shorts which were lying to my right, and threw my shirt over my head which was hanging on the wall to my left. I fumbled around for my pathetic torch to help me find my way to the wash rooms and scooched on my backside towards the ladder. I hoicked the mosquito net over my head and placed my left foot on the window sill, my right on the ladder facing away from the bed. I lifted my right foot again attempting to find the next rung in the darkness.... Slip.... BANG, CRASH!!!! OUCH!!! My attempts to be quiet were thwarted, Bill flicked the light switch looking concerned, I nodded to let him know I was ok, grabbed my carrier bag containing my soap, shampoo and anti-perspirant and limped out of the room. I flicked on my excuse for a torch awaiting a pool of illumination...... I kid you not a struck match would have lit my path more. Had I encountered a cobra it would have been on it's second or third strike leaving me a gibbering venom filled wreck. I stumbled down the hill to the shower cubicles wondering what awaited me..... I switched on the light switch outside the cubicle and gently opened the door. I slowly scouted the walls and checked behind the bins. All clear! Yay!!!!
The first sitting meditation session was filled with swaying and sleeping. I couldn't stop dozing. My legs were crossed and back was straight..... for about 2 minutes before my head would nod and my body would sway. Then suddenly I'd jerk awake. It was a struggle.
Part of Walking Area

The walking meditation was filled with the distraction of beautiful lizards, bearded dragons, squirrels, birds and butterflies. I'd lift one foot and gently place it into the sand in front of me. Then I'd hear a bird and look up.... Then I'd hear the scampering of a lizard..... Then I'd hear the canopy rustle as the squirrel/martens dashed and chased one another through the trees. Distraction a plenty I fought to concentrate.
Sitting was killing my shoulder, and standing meditation in the afternoon caused rivers of perspiration to flood down my torso and legs. I half expected to look down and be standing amidst a puddle human sweat. I could see wet patches appearing at the backs of the knees of the guy in front of me. The pain was being felt throughout..... An hour standing still is harder than you could ever imagine. The teaching assistant was like a statue...... Simply unreal.
Then there was the great talks during the day and evening. The food was superb too.
No complaints apart from my shoulder, just a lack of concentration.
Silence done!

Day 2 & 3:
I woke before the bell (15 strikes of the large US missile head) each of these mornings, tackling the showers with the usual trepidation. The view from my window allowed me to observe other folks now doing the same having suffered similar eight legged experiences.

For the majority of the time Amanda and I avoided eye, though every now and again Amanda would walk close by me and a little knowing smile would spread gently across her face, her eyes looking towards the ground. During the day Amanda dropped a tiny flower at my feet as I sat on a low wall contemplating the fact that it was only Day 3 of the retreat. She would often place her flip flops on or inside my expired flip flops outside the meditation hall. After the final talk of the night all of us would walk out together carrying sitting mats under our arms, back to our dorms to sleep on. This was always a chance for physical contact, Amanda and my arms brushing against one another as we walked, smiling to ourselves in the darkness. A 'Goodnight' glance before going in our separate directions to our prospective dorms.

My shoulder was still a little painful, though the Day 1 course of anti-inflammatories had eased the intensity greatly, and it was becoming easily bareable.

Day 4:
Same as one, two and three of course! Ha ha!
At 3.45am I'd wandered down to soap my body and dowse myself with bowls of cold water once again drying myself with my spare top. My shoulder was feeling great. I ruffle dried my hair with the towel/top holding it in my right hand, when suddenly an intense pain shot up into my shoulder blade.... it was excrutiating.
As I walked up the hill to the first meditation I was in agony, unable to take a full breath without either bending over at right angles from the waist or arching my self backwards, inconvenient to say the least. As the morning progressed the pain refused to ease, and on the walking meditation Lucas spotted an involuntary facial tick caused by the stabbing pain as I inhaled as far as I could without bending over or arching backwards. He'd also noticed me performing the afore mentioned actions on a number of occassions that day. Our walking lanes were now running alongside one another, he gently tapped my shoulder and whispered 'Do you need some more muscle relaxants?'. I nearly kissed him. He wandered off to his room, shortly returning with a couple of sachets of anti inflammatories. I wanted to thank him so much, but with the silence in force I could only nod appreciatively and whisper 'Thanks'. The silence had been broken, but for a good reason, 'Compassion & Lovingkindness'. The fact that Lucas was willing to break the silence to help me out meant a lot.
Left to Right  -  Alex, Lucas & Max
I washed a couple of pills back there and then, the pain easing over the next hour. I took the anti inflammatories for the next 3 days.
During the afternoon walking meditation.... ah sorry, you're all probably wondering what the hell walking meditation is. Straight lanes marked out in the sand, some below the shady canopy of wonderful fruit trees and coconut trees, some simply along the steps of the Worshipping Temple and others along the paths of the monastery, were each taken by one retreatant. Here the person walks slowly, concentrating on each movement, sometimes all the way down to analysing what muscles are generating the motion during each action, this was repeated up and down the lane for 45 minutes. At times it looked as if the world championship of slow motion walkers had arrived in Thailand.

Each day folks that were visiting the temple or heading up to the look out posts must have wondered what on earth we were doing. It must have looked very strange indeed. Faces straight, eyes filled with concentration on the ground 10 feet ahead, ensuring no ants or other insects were stepped on. Seriously!
Back to the story, during the afternoon meditation one of the ladies walking over near the coconut trees got one hell of a shock as one of the huge nuts plummeted to earth with a thud, then bounced off the wall to her right narrowly missing her. This thing was the size of a football!
This day was the first real tough day for Amanda. It's hard to watch someone you in emotional tatters, tears streaming down their face, shoulders shuddering with the sobs.

Every break I wandered up to the viewing point which looked over the coconut plantations and jungle toward the coastline, across the sea to the islands in the distance. The strange squirrel type critters used this view point to access one side of the jungle to the other, often scuttling by within a metre of my feet. I was often able to spot sea eagles and falcons circling overhead or gliding near the coastline, and it was always so so peaceful there. This day at the view point Amanda was weeping quietly. I put my hand on her shoulder, gave a little squeeze, then went and collected six beautiful blossoms from the surrounding trees.
I picked two long pieces of wild grass and headed back down the steps from the viewpoint, where I knew I'd find Amanda's flip flops (foot wear must be removed around certain points of the monastery). I sat down picking one of the flip flops up. I tied two white and yellow blossoms with one bright pink blossom to form 2 beautiful matching tiny bouquets. Then attached them to the front section of the flops, the top section of the bit that slots between the toes.
I later saw her wearing them proudly, the finest looking footwear at Wat Kow Tahm! She smiled her usual beautiful smile. Amandas next few days were full of emotion, tears regularly spilling generously from her eyes. It was hard to watch, but we both knew the situation. Many times I sat silently consoling her, unable to ask what and why. Apparently many of the women at the retreat cried. I just never noticed, or much of it occurred when they were alone.

Day 5 saw the first faller. A girl in her mid twenties simply failed to appear for the 4.45am meditation, maybe the dim bass sounds carried up the Wat Kow Tahm from the party in the distant town simply became too much, the thought of dancing, drinking and generally having a whale of time broke her.
Day 6 saw the second faller. Another girl who liked to sunbathe at the view point during her breaks with her top rolled up revealing her tummy, pulled down at the neck revealing the shoulders, trousers rolled up revealing her knees. The sign as you come into Wat Kow Tahm specifies, 'Please dress accordingly ensuring the shoulders, midrift and knees are covered'. Even I assumed that wandering in with knee pads, shoulder pads and a scarf tied around the waist and nothing else would not be considered appropriate. Though I'd have loved to try it! Ha ha! This dress code is in force to help the monks with their vow of celebacy. Bright orange monk robes jutting out at right angles just below the waist is a give away of naught monk thoughts! And naked knees or shoulders can do that to a celebate man!

Day 7 was a busy one:
Well, I say busy. It was an identical daily schedule but with a 1.30pm one on one meeting with head honcho Steve, this would be my third little ten minute meeting.
Each retreatant has 3 meetings over the duration of the retreat. This ensures that misunderstandings with regards to the teachings can be clarified, and also identify any people on the edge of insanity! I'd passed that stage days ago.

By now I'd mastered the bunk bed ladder, even though each time I descended it I was in a drowsey haze. My torch beam no longer reached the ground unless I held it within a metre. The level of light had fallen below the classification of light, and was now classified as a beam of less dense darkness than that of which surrounded me.
I switched on the light, then opened the cubicle walls. Firing a glance at the bins. Satisfied at the lack of eight legged beasts I stepped up into the cubicle. As I lifted my head back up, right in front of my eyes, no more than 12 inches in front of the tip of my nose, a bloody massive spider was abseiling it's way from ceiling to floor with all eight massive, hairy legs fully outstretched, as if to say check out the size of me, I'm MASSIVE!!! I never thought to check the ceilings very closely, and to be honest I didn't believe such massive arachnids could possibly be supported by a tiny thread of spider silk. I assumed the thick metal cable required to winch them from floor to ceiling would be incredibly obvious. I gasped, letting out a terrified and startled whisper, 'F$%k me!'. It was crude, and it had broken the silence. But if someone whispers 'F$%k me!' and there is no one there to hear it, has the silence been broken? Like when a tree falls in the woods.... You know that stupid saying, and if you don't, you don't need to.
I exited the cubicle and checked the one to the left.
No spiders, brilliant. Though a tiny scorpion seemed strategically positioned for me to stand on. I grabbed the toilet brush and pushed him down the drain, then got on with washing. What a start!
As I sat eating breakfast (Amanda being a no show which worried me), one of the other retreatants was narrowly missed by another falling coconut crashing it's way through the canopy with a crack onto the concrete, about 2 metres from his feet. If it had hit him on the head it would have killed him outright. The look on his face suggested he didn't realise how lucky he'd just been. Max (a young retreatant from Quebec in Canada) shot me a big amused grin. I reciprocated. Eye contact and a grin was brilliant! Everyone avoided eye contact, though now and again you caught the eye of one of the guys you'd chatted to ahead of the retreat. It would be a brief point of visual contact, but you would both look away again as quick as you'd actually made eye contact, worried that the other person would be annoyed that you'd made eye contact! Ha ha! We later laughed about this.

My chat with Steve opened with me telling him that today feels like Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray movie from the early nineties, where he wakes up every morning to the same days events, trapped in a loop. We chatted briefly. I informed him of the impatience and frustration I sometimes feel with people. Other than that I was great, and as soon as I got out of here I'd still be 'desiring' (one of the five hindrances) to do the things I always 'desire' to do, such as fishing, mountain biking, snowboarding, surfing etc. I informed him that I already live in the present. That I'm a very content person, though my mind does get cluttered with planning the future and that of past events, and that the meditation techniques we were being taught were helping.
He then told me Aries people have a tendency to have anger issues, I told him he was crazy, and how dare he come out with such clap trap! Star signs, are you serious!! I Flipped the table on it's side and walked off. Then I realised what I'd just done. He was right, I had anger issues! That last bit didn't happen of course. Ha ha! I just smiled and said, 'Oh really?.... Ok'.
I told him the retreat was more of a feat of endurance for me now that anything else.
Amanda continued her cry.

Day 8 - Was just painful..... So close to day 10, but so far away.
Day 9 was similar. With the 1.45pm one hour standing meditation fast approaching my mind sighed heavily. The bell rang and we went into the hall. There was a schedule change!
Meditation Hall  where it all happened
The standing meditation had been replaced with a talk!!! Yay!!! You could feel the wave of emotional relief that flooded through the meditation hall, the joy was clearly apparent on every face. Things became even better when Steve informed us that the silence would be lifted from 3.15pm until 6.15pm to allow us all to chat about our experiences so far. Wow!!!
The next few hours were great. I chatted with Amanda about our experiences and her sufferings, the fraughtness she was still suffering after 5 nights without sleep. We then mingled with the other retreatants, laughing about spiders, big lizards and the physical pain a lot of us were suffering from the meditation postures.
The food hall was full of chatter and laughter, then 6.15pm was upon us. Silence once again blanketed the retreat. Until 11am tomorrow no words would be uttered, except that of which came from Steve & Rosemary, or the assistants if need be.

The End of the Retreat:
It came around quickly. The morning was mostly filled with finishing talks.
The 89 year old head nun, hobbled down the hill on the arm of one of the assistants to do her goodbye talk. She let us know how proud she was of us all, and that how fortunate we were to have this chance, that so few people want to develop their minds and bodies in this way etc etc.

May The Force Be With You Young Mullet Man....
Many of the retreatants left imediately after lunch, while lots of us hung around to help with the cleaning up, the washing of the cushion and mat covers and other little jobs.
Then 8 of us headed off together, further up the coast of Koh Phagnan.

Each day since we have risen early, practising morning and evening meditation sessions, intermingled with yoga and volleyball on the beach. There are only 4 of us left now, the others having headed back towards their home countries or continuing their travels to other parts of Thailand or other destinations.
Inappropriately Dressed Buddha - Practise what you preach!
The retreat did help me recognise and deal with 'rogue' emotions within. Futile frustrations and worries that need never be there. The teachings explained the importance of living in the present, not being too distracted by future plans or things that have happened in the past. All we have is the here and now. None of us know when our time is up, and this teaching of 'impermanence' is one of the major reflective points in such Buddhist based teachings as Vipassana.
Reflecting whilst meditating on how fortunate we are compared to others in the world, generating compassion for ourselves and others we know whilst we meditate keeps things very real, very caring. It's all very soothing.
The walking meditation aims to train your mind not to wander too much, to concentrate on what you're doing at the time, to again, live in the present, to be in full of the 'awaremess' of what you are actually doing now. Keeping the minds eye open for distracting thoughts of mental hindrances. Then if they do arise, then looking deeply at them, holding them then letting them go.
Considering the impact of your words and thoughts on others, considering our actions. Making wise and skilful choices where we can. It all sounds obvious, but so many of us are totally unmindful in our actions.
It's difficult to train the mind like this, but it can be done. No doubt it takes years of dedication, but a little each day will go a long way to getting us there.
A slightly out of focus attempt at a group shot with my camera by one of the staff......

Ok, off for a cold beer and some volleyball! Ha ha!

Love to you all, you were all in our compassionate lovingkindness meditations.

Chat soon xxx  


  1. Hi Mark and Amanda!! it was so nice to read your blog on the meditation retreat and to catch up on what you guys have been up to since! it was great to spend time with you. sometimes i still here.... feeling the touch of the feet and just chuckle. I ended up doing a bike across spain, its on a trail called the camino de santiago and i meet some people who did 700ks worth of walking meditation. Imagine that one! I think of you guys often. You are both very beautiful people and it was great to spend time with you.
    Stay contented :) andrea

    1. Hi Andrea, great to hear from you. It was superb spending a few days with all our new friends and your fantastic volley ball playing skills! An unbeatable partnership! Ha ha! Let us know where you headed in Spain, and if you fancy a visit to the Isle of Man or where ever we are in the UK you are more than welcome. Are you keeping up with the Meditation and Yoga? We did a meditation this morning at 6am, and Yoga most days. Riiiising.... Faaaaalling.... Body flowing into the ground.... Ha ha!!! Keep the love!!!

  2. Nice Article! Thanks for sharing with us.

    Buddhist Tours

  3. Always a pleasure, never a chore. An outsiders point of view can sometimes prove interesting!