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Bali Usada - a week of Tapa Brata with Merta Ada

Bali Usada Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) ---- Bali Usada English --- page for the March 2018 retreat

Read this article in Bahasa Indonesia

Vipassana retreats in Bali

Merta AdaMerta Ada - more photos below

4-04-18 - March 25 through 31st I attended a meditation retreat at Bali Usada's Forest Island in scenic Tabanan, Bali. We did Usada meditation with emphasis on healing all types of ailments of body and mind. Healing is big in Bali and I've noticed meditation and healing tend to go together here in general. Usada means healing. I'd done Vipassana retreats led by Myanmar monks at Brahmavihara Arama, a temple up north near Lovina. This year friends Chris, owner of the nearby Power of Now yoga studio and Bhikku Moneyya, a Myanmar trained monk from the States, urged me to go to Forest Island for a change, especially to hear founding teacher Merta Ada's talks. Chris would attend but Moneyya, who usually lives there, had some visa business to attend to.

I live in Sanur and went at times to the Bali Usada's Sanur center Monday evening meditation. It was nice to get out and sit with about twenty others for a change. I'd never been to a sitting with audio video before, all Indonesian which was mainly too hard for me to follow. But I wasn't really interested in guided meditation anyway and it was sort of hypnotic and pleasant. There was a lot of "Semoga semua hidup berbahagia" which I understood - May all beings be happy. Chris and Moneyya assured me that after the week retreat in English I'd be more appreciative. So the next time there I signed up and paid the fee - about $330.

One nice perk was that they provide transportation. Eight of us left in a long passenger van at 2pm Sunday. A hour and twenty minutes of narrow, busy Bali roads later we turned onto a lane more narrow. Had to back out to let an ongoing car exit. Then straight ahead, through an open gate, down a steep brick incline, cross a bridge over a  jungled creek way below, then back up up again into Forest Island. Surrounded by walls of lush greenery - thus the forest part of the name - and almost an island being on a pie shaped piece of property where two deep-set creeks meet. I looked around. Attractive, simple wooden buildings, trees, lawn, paths. Walked around. Not a large place. At the other end a few brick home-like buildings with porches.

I was surprised when Moneyya greeted me. He'd decided at the last minute to go. Dewi, whom I knew from the Sanur center, got me signed in. She showed me a nice little room in the dorm next to the dining hall. I wouldn't have a roommate. Good mattress, sheets, and pillows. Men and women in the dorm. Western toilets with sprayers. I'm sold on toilets with sprayers which are for cleaning ones bum as the Aussies call it.

We had dinner, our last dinner, and an orientation in the meditation hall where we met Michael Schueber who was the master of meditation ceremonies. He's been with Merta Ada for ten years and explained everything clearly with only the slightest German accent. We turned in our phones and valuables and began the noble silence - no talking, reading, writing, smoking, or alcohol. Laminated cards labeling the bearer as following noble silence rules were handed out. They had cords for hanging around the neck. I didn't because I was already wearing a rakusu (bib-like garment signifying ordination, a miniature of Buddha's robe) and I can't put anything on top of a rakusu. Under the rakusu was a grey linen kimono I'd just had made for the occasion. Also had what's left of my head hair cut even shorter.

We watched an introductory video with Merta Ada and learned the few guidelines for the meditation hall. In addition to the aforementioned noble silence rules, while in the meditation hall , we were not to lean on anything or lie down - if you have some special need then talk to Michael. Not to eat or drink - if you have to drink some water then leave the hall to do so. Not to make distracting sounds - coughing is okay unless you get on long jags then better to go sit elsewhere. Try to sit without moving- if you get into involuntary distracting movements then better to sit elsewhere. Important not to stick your feet out in front of you with the bottoms exposed - that's a general rule for a lot of Asia. Continue all medication except pain killers which can interfere with meditation - Usada meditation focuses on healing and dealing with pain. Special emphasis was put on not discontinuing medications for mental problems like schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder.

Every sitting period was introduced first by Michael who might also answer a question written on a pad outside to be handed to him by Suardika who was always around taking care of details like hitting three bells for wake up (repeatedly), one for meals, and two to go to the meditation hall. The length of the sittings was listed as forty-five minutes but often they'd run to an hour or so because of the introductions and teachings beforehand. There were gentle physical exercises rooted in the origins of Shaolin martial arts and Indonesian dance. There was no walking meditation per se but between meditation periods fifteen minute breaks in which people could do anything they wanted - go get a drink, use the toilet, yoga, rest, or walk. I'm so programmed - would stay in the hall or by the hall and do walking meditation.

Merta's nephew Hendra took care of the audio visual end of things and did a flawless job. Good sound system and building acoustics.

With the noble silence, there is no discernible friction between people. Also very little policing. Michael said they'll come wake you or whatever if you don't show up and there were some reminders of the importance of following the noble silence though I never heard a word except those hushed tones allowed with the managers and teacher. Basically all the rules were followed but I'd see some of them get broken without any gendarmes rushing to set things right. There was no uptightness at all.

The food was good wholesome Indonesian fare. A little too much oil for some people but less than the norm around here. Two breakfasts! After the first sitting there was a light fruit bowl to which one could add some granola and yogurt. Then after a special Usada exercise period there was a regular breakfast. Coconut water was available during one of the mid-morning breaks. All meals included red rice which is like brown rice but not brown. Vegan except for that optional few spoonfuls of morning yogurt and powdered milk for coffee and tea. Vipassana retreats traditionally include no meal after noon but we had a light snack at five.

Forest Island is not a temple and Bali Usada is not a religion. There are some Hindu statues around - and a Bo tree descended from the original that Buddha sat under. But there are no statues, altars, candles, incense or anything indicating a particular religion in the buildings. People from various religions are welcome and attend. Merta would mention times in the schedule to include prayers, "if you're religious." He'd bring up science, studies, research, genetics and inheritance.

The retreat was called Tapa Brata One. Tapa Brata means ascetic practice - a time of limits and focus. It was a course in the nature of body and mind as taught by Merta Ada. He divides it up into body, mind, and memory, the later being the cause of a lot of our troubles and the focus for a good deal of healing. I was intrigued by that list of three and saw memory as including thought and a lot of emotion and - and I didn't know where to stop. It seemed to me like there's memory and there's the here and now. Still digesting that.

This was the 763rd time the course had been taught in the last twenty-five years. Each period has an assigned audio or video narration. There was considerable live contribution from Merta in talks and introductions to the meditation periods. On Tuesday he arrived as he does for every retreat, Monday being a day in Sanur for him. He gave a live talk Tuesday evening and now and then for the rest of the retreat. He saw everyone individually on Wednesday and Thursday. One could talk with him about any problems or observations. He'd also do what he calls scanning, looking into the person's body-mind to evaluate a problem they've brought to him.

Chris and Moneyya were right - his talks were good. Most pleasant, charming, a humorous edge, a humble man and wise with an obvious gift to help people alleviate mental and physical pain. He just walks into and leaves the meditation hall with everyone else. He's got no title, no special garments though he tends to wear white shirts (which he pointed out in jest likens him to doctors and scientists). His talks were full of examples and stories. A lot of healing stories. His English is good and very easy to understand which is not always true with non native speakers or even native speakers. He makes grammatical errors but not the sort that interfere with comprehension. Always the right word or a word that conveys the meaning but not necessarily in the right form. I only remember him using one word wrong in the week - and he did it on the fifteen years old video and live to us - using apologize to mean forgive.

Usada meditation is traditional, following the breath going in and out of the nostrils without any attempt to change it - just watch. I'm used to following the breath with concentration on the abdomen both in zazen, Zen meditation, and in the Theravada Mahasi method. And Merta did talk about focusing harmonious mind below the navel, an area which he called the tantien, the Chinese name like the Japanese tanden or hara. I'm used to thinking of it as the center of gravity of the body. But I found it didn't make any difference - as if the nose, abdomen, and breath were all in the same place. After meditation, while still sitting, there's a brief exercise rotating the hands on the left, then the right, then in the middle. Merta says he modeled that sequence after what he'd observed of traditional dance all over Indonesia. And he said they're joyous so be joyous when you do it.

Merta describes four bodies: the gross body (what most think of as the body), meridian body (Chinese medicine - pulses, acupuncture points), chakra body (from India - seven focal points from crown to base), and mental body. What he calls healers includes those who read pulses and prescribed herbs. But it also includes those who scan the body as he does. To me it seemed he scanned the body/mind/memory. He also dispenses herbal distillates but that hardly came up at the retreat. And he does not discourage people from seeing doctors. 

Merta's last talk was about his life and how he came to found Bali Usada. He was born in 1957 in a Chinese Buddhist family and contracted polio as a child which greatly affected his ability to walk and do sports. He was partly named after Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People's Republic of China. He made a brief reference to the persecution of communists (read Chinese) in Bali happening when his family moved from a small village to Denpasar in 1965 but gave no indication of how deadly it was - especially in Bali. No matter where he lived, there was always a great healer next door whom he attached to and learned from. I felt like he was born with a gift that attracted them to each other. When one of them told him that to become a healer he needed to sit still for an hour a day, he thought they were joking. Then by chance he met Bhante Girirakkhito Mahathera, the great Vipassana guru, who visited with Merta's uncle on the neighboring island of Lombok where Merta lived for three years. He started meditating and went from the worst student to the best. Merta's family went from humble means to wealth due to a dress his mother embroidered for an Australian friend of his big sister. A family garment industry resulted. His brother's tragic death years later led Merta to deepen his relationship with Girirakkhito and understanding of Buddhism.

When he began to see into people and get readings on their maladies, he started testing it out on employees and giving them herbs to deal with their conditions. He must have learned a lot about herbal medicine growing up around those healers but it seemed from what he said that he didn't rely on that but would match the vibration he perceived of the herb with that of the malady of the employee to determine what to give them. It all was working quite well but after a time they'd come back for more which meant that they hadn't been cured. He realized he needed to teach people to heal themselves and not depend on him. So he took a break for some months and when he resumed the healing practice included meditation with an emphasis on loving kindness.

Merta teaches awareness of the body from head to foot and back, to develop harmonious mind in ones meditation, to focus harmonious mind to deal with physical and mental problems. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing anicca, impermanence, which awakens wisdom.  There was no chanting or ceremony at the retreat except he'd end the periods with "May all beings be happy" three times and about midway through the week that would follow his lyrical recitation about anicca - in Pali I think. He tended not to call anicca impermanence though, rather he used "in process." Everything is always changing, in process. He has a positive approach in general and I saw his emphasis of everything being in process as emblematic, a positive way to express the negative impermanence. He encouraged us to bring this practice into daily life as much as we could, saying we could meditate for five minutes or one minute when the opportunity arose. He suggested at least thirty minutes of meditation daily, later forty, an hour even better. Another time he said twice a day would be good and a retreat once a year. All very much like what my Buddhist teachers have advised.

One distinctive feature of the retreat was that the noble silence ended on Friday before lunch so that we had a full day for transition. We could talk with each other and Merta and Michael and write and make phone calls. Merta had us break the silence in the meditation hall before Friday lunch by going around and introducing ourselves. There were eleven males and fifteen females. Four or five of the men were from France. There were some Indonesians, Germans, Australians, a couple of Canadians, English, and a Russian woman. Moneyya and I were the only Yanks. After that the meditation hall was to remain the one place for noble silence.

The next day the schedule started off the same but after breakfast there was a sitting around the Bo tree follow by photos. As a transitional gesture, I'd stopped wearing my robe but Merta had me go put it back on for the photos. I was relieved because during meditation Hendra had been going around taking photos and I was going, Oh heck I should be in my robe for this. For the group photo Moneyya was on one side of Merta and I on the other and afterwards people took turns having photos taken with us three and then just with Moneyya and me. I felt like Michael should be in it instead, that I'd been mistaken for someone else, but we both enjoyed it. Decades of hard practice finally had paid off in our brief moment of fame.

The final event was Sharing. Merta encouraged people to do so and said if we could think of nothing to say, we could sing a song. Six of us had raised our hands that we'd share something for ten minutes. A guy from Sumatra started off by saying he had a great fear of speaking in public and then had us all laughing at ten minutes of stand up comedy filled with references to snakes, lizards, and ants. A woman from Germany said that she'd had chronic lower back pain for a couple of decades and had done everything she could think of to fix it - doctors, chiropractors, yoga, healers. She said that for the first time, for the last three days, it had gone away. Now she said she'd continue using what she'd learned from Merta and hoped it would not return.

I said that I'd grown up around a teaching much like Merta's. My father was my first spiritual teacher. He said that mind was god and that matter didn't exist. We had a practitioner who taught us how to heal ourselves. My mother told me that in the height of the polio epidemic when kids were dying from it, that I'd come down with all the symptoms and run a high fever. They called the practitioner and everyone did mental work to see me as perfect and healthy. I got well quickly which was an enormous relief to her and to all. Of course we don't know what that was and she only mentioned it to me once. I call the New Thought Christianity of my early years Mind Only. All illness comes from erring thought or some mental, emotional cause. I appreciated Merta's broad approach to the cause of our mental and physical problems which can be from genetics, food or anything consumed including air, temperature, memory, action, - and vibrations generated by other beings or non beings. Whatever the cause, Merta believes we can alleviate the condition through focusing harmonious mind, loving kindness meditation, and seeing all as in-process. His emphasis wasn't on blindly believing but on applying the methods he taught and seeing how it works. He'd mention karma, reincarnation, or some other way of seeing things, and then add that it doesn't matter if you believe that or not.

I don't relish speaking to a group but I'm not shy and can do it.  Something happened to me though when I sat down on the dais in front of the group and I attribute it to this culminating experience in the transition. In other retreats I've done, when they're over we either keep going on a reduced schedule or go back to our usual lives. But there I was listening to my comrades and now addressing them and Merta Ada sitting amongst them. I felt gratitude and appreciation for the effort each had made. Then a charge of energy came up through my body which caused me to shake. I waited briefly to let it subside but it didn't so I thought I'd better start talking. I wasn't overwhelmed by emotion, but I could hardly hold the mike and my voice was shaky. I went on for my ten minutes which Michael said I ended on perfectly. Moneyya wondered if I was going to recover.

During the first evening in the meditation hall, two fireflies danced in the air up front. They or friends of theirs returned a few times during the week to lighten the atmosphere. On the last day, while I returned from my post breakfast walk down to the bridge and back, a butterfly alighted on my rakusu. As I walked on it remained there. That seemed unusual. I looked more closely and noticed it was two butterflies united. Didn't want to disturb them from mating on Buddha's robe and didn't want to walk back inside to my room with them still there, so I removed the rakusu and hung it on the branch of a tree outside. When the two bells rang for meditation I found the rakusu bare and donned it again to go sit. Charming events and I could have hailed them as propitious signs. But there was no need for that. There was no need for anything extra. Noble silence says it best. It was a good week.

About Pak Merta Ada - Written by Kheng Chua (

Bali Usada You Tube channel



group at Bo tree

Michael Schueber in front of Merta Ada with Moneyya behind on the left and DC on the right

in the meditation hall

In the meditation hall - four had left the night before.


Moneyya at the Bo tree

at the Bo tree

DC at the Bo tree

DC giving a talk

DC doing a ten minute sharing at the end of the retreat.