Saturday, August 27, 2011

Chapter Two -- The Retreat, and meet Cinta

I've been to a fair number of retreats, and there is no question in my mind that this one proved to be the most special, and the one at which I learned the most (possibly aside from the very first one, where I knew nothing and which was basically a ten-day mind/body survival test).  It was also the only one where I ended up feeling bonded with the co-retreatants, and I was not alone in that feeling.

There are several reasons for all this that come to mind. One is that it was a small group -- about 30 to begin with, and at least three women that I know of dropped out on the morning of the third day. Most other retreats I've been to had anywhere from 70 to 100 participants. Another may be that these were all experienced meditators.  The retreat was advertised as intermediate, so no beginners attended. Some were newer than I to the practice, many had far more experience. I was probably the oldest, but I don't think many were under 30 and a good many of us were over 50.

But, I'm thinking that much of the reason for the bonding and the overall feel of the retreat was our teacher, Sayalay Susila. She set the tone with her humility, her compassion, her concern, and her incredible knowledge. On the last day, a group of us discussed the bonding briefly, and most felt that it came from the daily group question and answer sessions in the sangha hall (as opposed to the meditation hall). Initially, the group was divided up into two sections, with half attending one day, half the next, in rotation. However, on the first day Sayalay told our group that she didn't mind if anyone who wanted to attended these daily groups, if they had questions. The sangha hall is fairly small, intimate, the questions were often somewhat personal and as we learned from her answers, we got to know one another and bonded even though during the retreat we were urged to remain silent and not speak to one another, to aide in concentration. Another  part of the bonding has to be credited to Fran, the retreat coordinator, who I felt was the rock of the retreat.  She was always available to us, always willing to help in any way possible, and always with a happy attitude and smiling face. She was our go-to person, and we certainly went to her.

Personally, I don't know that I have ever in my life been anywhere that I felt so at home with a group of people (strangers or otherwise). We treated one another like loved family, which is what good Buddhists should do.  For me, it was the first retreat where judging did not rear its ugly head (or if it did, mindfulness let it go), and the first where some negative mind-state didn't erupt and take over. This was huge.

Group photo, taken after closing ceremonies. With a couple of exceptions, most of the  people dressed in white  took the eight lifetime precepts.  More about that later.

Having said all that, I also have to say that while the retreat was happening I didn't think I was learning much because 1) I was so darned tired, and 2) because some of it simply went in one ear and out the other with no possibility of remembering. A couple of private conversations with Sayalay on the first day left me so excited that I could rarely settle my mind down enough to concentrate, and concentration was the focus of the retreat. Now that I'm back home, now that I've settled down, now that I've read over some of Sayalay's materials, I know that I really did learn a great deal.

We were all whining about being tired toward the end of the week, and Sayalay shortened the evening meditations to give us more rest.  Our days began at 4:50am, with early meditation in the quiet and dark hall until 6:50. Breakfast was at 7:00, and it lasted for well over 1/2 hour, with all the recitations. From 8 until 8:50 we had our work period, from 9 to 10:50 more meditation.  Eleven am lunch, which lasted for most of the hour, then two hours of personal time which I used either to sleep or to walk through the woods, depending on energy. The day went on in this vein until 9:30pm, with occasional breaks for group interviews, optional yoga, and tea. (Note that no solid food is eaten by Theravadan Buddhists after 12:00 noon.) And most of the time, most of us were there, in the hall. Almost always, Sayalay was in the hall before we arrived each morning at 4:50, and often she was there when we left at 9:30.

You already know that no photos of yours truly ever make the pages here, so you must recognize how special this one is that I will actually publish it for the world to see. Sayalay made a point of getting me in a photo alone with her, which was rather an honor as she hadn't allowed that with anyone else. She is the most remarkable woman I have ever met, and I could talk about her all day, but will leave her to her privacy beyond this except to say that I do believe she is a truly gifted teacher.

Bhante G's water-dousing equipment, after the closing ceremonies.

So, I mentioned the Eight Lifetime Precepts ceremony that eight of us participated in. This was a surprise opportunity, announced on the first day of the retreat for those who were interested. I wanted to take them 3 years ago when I first tried to attend this same retreat and the ceremony was offered in the retreat notes. As generally happens when things don't go as you planned, I think I'm much more ready to take, and keep, them now at this stage of my practice.  I've lived by the first five for over six years, since I first took them at my first retreat. The last three all pertain to speech.  Here's the list:

     I undertake the training  rule to abstain from taking life.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech (lying).
I undertake the training rule to abstain from malicious speech.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from harsh speech.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from useless speech (chatter).
I undertake the training rule to abstain from wrong livelihood and drinks and drugs causing heedlessness.

This last one is generally included in the five that retreatants are always required to take for the duration of their stay at any Buddhist center, and I include it in the first 5, although they are presented differently here. The last three -- malicious speech, harsh speech and useless speech -- are challenges for me. Most of my malicious speech regards my boss, and I began to be aware of that before I left and was already softening my words and thoughts where he's concerned. I've mostly let go of anger -- or at least the need/urge to lash out in anger. That's been tempered through mindfulness over the past few months as well. Useless speech? Well, isn't that what this blog is all about? Clearly, I have not mastered that one.

The ceremony itself was fascinating. Early in the week we all got a quick Pali lesson, since we had to recite a whole long list of stuff in Pali. We all met with the resident nun for a Q&A session (many of us asked about the alcohol restriction, whether it meant no alcohol at all, or that maybe one drink was OK as long as we didn't go further. She was noncommittal, but said if we had a drink then we should later reflect on what pleasure we got from that drink.) We were told what to expect at the ceremony, white clothes were dug out of the attic for those of us who didn't have complete white sets with us, we took our two-page ceremony instructions and Pali speech with us to study. I spoke a lot of Pali aloud on the porch of my little kuti during my afternoon breaks.

When we entered the meditation hall after breakfast on Saturday morning, all of our personal cushions and belongings had been moved to the first two rows (as it happened, there were four men and four women taking  the precepts). When prompted, we recited the Pali together, stopping to let Bhante G ask questions or recite lines that we had to repeat.  Then, in totally random order he called us to the front one by one, where he gave us our new Pali name (mine is Cinta, pronounced Cheen-TAH, which Bhante G said meant 'thoughtful one'), handed our certificate off to the appropriate monastic (a monk for the men, Sayalay for the women), then (in Fran's unforgettable words, 'threw water at us' several times). Then we moved on to the monastic, who tied a braided golden string around our wrists, hung a gold medallion around our necks, and handed us our quite beautiful certificates.

When this part was over, we were treated to advice from Bhante G about the precepts we had just taken and perhaps this was the most special part of all, in many ways, although it was all very special. Mostly, he told us not to worry if we broke one of these rules, but to simply begin again. Taking the precepts is a reminder of how we should act towards all others at all times, not some kind of religious vow. Remember what I wrote in Chapter One about the three facets of Morality, Concentration and Wisdom? This is the Morality wing, and these precepts are how we develop that morality. Concentration comes from meditation, and wisdom grows over the course of time. Hopefully.

And then....well, lots of useless chatter was heard as silence was lifted and we had the chance to speak to one another. Although the retreat was officially over at 12:30 after lunch, I didn't leave until 1:30 and many were still there even then.  I cannot wait to return in December.

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