Read more from the Being Truly Human May 2015 Newsletter
By Geoffrey Pullen
As I grow into my 70’s it has become difficult to find time to do a proper retreat and I have never completed a solitary one, especially in silence.
There are many types of retreat and the Burmese Vipassana tradition is known as being particularly tough. In Rangoon they all assemble daily at 3:00am after very few hours of sleep for an hour of sitting and then alternate sitting and walking throughout the day.
In Lumbini I knew it was easier as one can sit and walk in the seclusion of one’s own room. I also chose Lumbini as it was recommended to me, a friend would be doing it at the same time and, as I discovered afterwards, food and accommodation are entirely free. It is also situated near the birthplace of the Buddha and surrounded by giant stupas from many Buddhist traditions.
My first week there in early January was very tough. I had a horrible cold, the weather was bad, freezing fog gave us 90% humidity and no sun for most of the day and I found the silence and howling of jackals at night in the forest around quite intimidating. I had a roommate for this first week but he left suddenly after a few days. The lack of heating and hot water also weighed heavily upon me.
On the positive side the food was very good (unfortunately only served twice a day, once at 6:00am and then at 11:00am) and we had a daily meeting for about ten minutes with a nun or a monk, which was like a breath of fresh air to someone deprived of oxygen.
We had comfortable brick houses to live in and electricity for half of the day. Also we could leave the retreat centre and go to the local village if we provided a reason, for example to use the internet or to purchase a plane ticket. The gatekeeper spoke no English but happily waved me through as I showed him on my watch what time I would return.
In the second and third weeks I truly got to grips with the reasons I was there. The most useful image for me is that of a bull elephant tethered to a post and straining to be free. This image of the mad elephant mind as it struggles with the hindrances is a good one. The hindrances are distractions, wandering thoughts, ill will, sloth and torpor, sense indulgences and sceptical doubt.
By focusing on the breath, (here it was on the rise and fall of the stomach) it is possible to keep the focus for longer and longer periods of time away from the hindrances and on the positive aspects of the mind. It is a battle, but gradually the mind settles down in the same way as muddy water clears from the top.
What are the positive aspects of the mind? In the Burmese tradition these are called enlightenment factors and there are essentially six of them.
The first is mindfulness, well known now in the West, and consists of keeping the mind in the present moment by linking it as much as possible to the rise and fall of the breath (or to each footstep on the walking meditation).
The second is concentration (Sanskrit samadhi) where the mind becomes consistently still and focused and yet individual awareness is maintained.
The third is insight (vipassana) which comes slowly like the sun appearing behind a cloud. Sometimes in dreams and sometimes with intuitive flashes the true nature of reality is revealed. Vipassana meditation was popularized in the West by Goenka (for a Centre in England go to www.dipa.dhamma.org)
Necessary but not central are effort (virya in Sanskrit), without which I could not have persisted in the retreat, and faith which is the antidote to sceptical doubt. If the Buddha had done it so could I.
The last enlightenment factor is equanimity, the ability to face all moments of the day equally positively and treat everyone we meet with love and compassion.
Before anyone thinks what a paragon of virtue I was to endure such a retreat I have to make a confession. In week three of the course I had had enough and threw a wobbly. I telephoned my wife to say that I was coming home. She was about to go to France for two weeks as arranged and my plane ticket was a fixed one.
So instead I flew back to Kathmandu, booked into the Sechen Guest House, an oasis of peace next to the Sechen monastery (home of Matthieu Ricard) and the giant stupa at Boudenath and completed the final week there (albeit with three meals a day, convivial company and hot showers!)
In conclusion I feel that my mind has become more focused, I am more equitable and have less of a wandering mind. Was it worth it? My feeling now after having tried different retreats, particularly those in Plum Village in France, is to advise anyone planning a retreat to look carefully at the retreat conditions and to try a week of vipassana before planning anything longer.
I felt I was an experienced retreatant but one month was too long, and I am no longer detached from the creature comforts that make life enjoyable.
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