January 2019 Retreat at Brahma Vihara Arama in Bali with Ayya Santini
More on the retreat (below) and More II
19-02-12 - This last retreat at Brahma Vihara Arama - from January 12 to 23rd - was lead by a woman Bhikkhuni, Ayya Santini who was ordained by Bhante Giri, the founder of the temple. Unlike the other retreats I'd done there, I had to register directly with her assistant via What's App and not via email and the BVA office. In fact the Bhikkhuni in the office didn't even know about it. She was going to Myanmar for a few months and so wasn't thinking about the upcoming schedule. I learned about it from Tini, a doctor I know, a woman from the city of Singaraja who has done a number of Vipassana retreats. She picked me up at home and drove me there. Actually her woman friend drove - and a nice young Swedish guy who came along for the ride. They'd picked him up at a Western style restaurant and night club dancing there the night before. Didn't get to sleep till three. We stopped at her home first to rest after the less than four hour drive. Less because her friend, Christina from Korobokan, drove, as the Swede said, like a race car driver. Turned out she was. And motorcycle racing too. Windy road over the mountain and she'd hug those curves and pass where others would fear to tread. I had confidence in her. Tini's home is between the hospital and school her parents founded. Nice place. She sent a guy out to get us lunch, brown paper wrapped rice and veggies, tempe, meat for them, fish for me. She's not doctoring anymore. Painting and meditating is how she describes her life. I like her paintings. Walked around looking at them as I've done before. Then off to the temple a half hour away where Tini and I were dropped off. There was a major ceremony getting under way for the late founder, Bhante Giri. I spent a few hours with it, sitting and listening to music, talks, and circumambulating the Dharma Hall with incense and hundreds candles list all around. That was interesting to me because the altars don't have candles - but they have incense burning at least a couple of times a day. But for this event the whole temple no matter where you were smelled of incense for hours.
Registration for the retreat was meanwhile going on. There was the last dinner for the next ten days and time to put some money in the donation envelopes for the teacher and temple, turn in our phones, valuables, and go to bed, The schedule was close to the same as the other retreats I'd done there - wake at 3:30am, bed at 10pm. No food after noon. No talking. No reading. No exercise or yoga. Hour of sitting, hour of walking. Repeat. No noticing anything but your breath. But much tighter this time. No breaks - when through eating go do walking meditation till the next period starts. No naps. The other retreats I'd done, the guru as all teachers are called, a Myanmar monk, would say if you want to break the rules and waste your time here, that's your business. Santini said she used to be soft like that but didn't like the results. She heard there were two woman taking naps during the day and had all the doors locked to retreatants' rooms except for the bath times after breakfast and afternoon tea. I don't lie down or take any breaks anyway so I didn't notice - till her first lecture.
The lectures were at night in the Dharmasala where the men sat. Marga who runs the office had suggested that. Before they'd always been in the cavernous stone Dharma Hall, a black miniature replica of the famous Borobudur temple in Java. Lectures in there have always been awfully hard to understand because of the poor acoustics and how spread out we were. So I could understand Santini's lectures quite well in the smaller wooden Dharmasala. The talks were in Indonesian and translated by two young women from Malaysia. She spoke on the Satipatthana, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The parts she was speaking on were projected onto a large screen in Indonesian. I liked that a lot and though I wasn't able to look up the words I didn't know, I could hear the translation. So that kept my interest in the talks more than if they'd just been in English.
Ayya Santini's approach was traditional and straightforward with a modest amount of commentary. Meditation and practice will not create and indeed will erase defilements. She said a ten day retreat should be easy for us as we'd all already had nine months practice of being silent with eyes closed when we were in our mother's womb. She asked isn't this exactly what everyone wants in life? - Just to sit and eat and sleep and not have to worry about a thing. All problems come from mind, including all sickness. Heck I was raised on that. She was heavy into mind only. When someone asked about how to deal with pain in sitting meditation, she said that comes from wanting the period to be over.
A European woman asked what to do about the anger she was experiencing. She said the last Vipassana retreat had been three and a half years back and that she'd saved up to do this and was concentrating very hard and could get into good meditation maybe in the last ten minutes of a period but then tourists making noise would disturb her meditation. And then there was a man who came into the Dharma Hall where they women were sitting and she said she crossed her arms to let him know he shouldn't enter but he came in anyway bringing his male energy. She told him tourists were not supposed to come in and especially men. He said he just wanted to meditate and sat down. She got so upset she couldn't get back into her meditation and had to leave and was angry for hours. Santina sincerely and sweetly thanked the woman for asking such a good question. Then she said that all problems come from mind and not from outside. She said we don't tell guests here what to do. She said there are always people who irritate us. We can move to another place and then there will be someone there who irritates us. It's best to keep developing ones meditation so that one can live with whatever comes. I liked that answer. I've never seen anyone tell any guest not to come in the halls where we are meditating. There are signs but they don't see them. Even if there are kids running around, they go after a while. There are the occasional loud tourists, but most people though are respectful and some meditation, occasional locals will come with offerings and sit with them at the altar a while.
There was a lecture every other night. Two nights later that same woman asked about energy she felt coming out of her head going upwards, something that would happen toward the end of the periods. After Santini had dealt with that, the woman went on, saying It's bad enough having tourists around making noise but she really resented her fellow students talking when they're supposed to be silent, especially in the room for meditation. And she went on about that for a while and how it disturbed her meditation she was working so hard at so that some women started responding to her. Santini said that she'd dealt with this two nights before but that it's an important question. "We do not instruct our fellow students," she began, then reiterated that what bothers one comes from within not without and that when something disturbs you in your meditation, say Thank you for showing me my meditation is not developed enough. When she was through I raised my hand and when called upon said, "Thank you for that answer."
A friend wrote: I enjoyed your retreat description. I donít
think I could do one of those because of the lazy bastard
factor, but you donít seem to have any difficulty. Is that
Ha ha no - that is not right. Retreats are always difficult. I think I've experienced more physical pain in meditation retreats than in anything in my life. Not the worst pain at all but the most time in pain of some sort. But I do think that most others who are sticking with it as well as they can have more pain. I envision all these mainly young people going, "Oh a meditation retreat in Bali. How beautiful." Then I watch them writing and struggling to keep up. I think there's less mental pain in a retreat - but who knows. There's no way to measure. After it was over I thought, wow - I don't know if I will ever do that again. But already less than a month later I'm thinking, hmm, wonder when the next one will be. It's to me like going into a little eternity. My son Kelly just got out of his first retreat, a Goenka, and he said that it was the longest 11 days of his life.
One thing that made it hard for me is that on the 3rd day my back went out, seriously out. That does not happen to me much - a few times in my life. Cause? Nothing physical. I think it was because I was feeling insecure about the work I was doing and my ability to do the retreat - negative nattering. Maybe. No way to know. At first it was really hard to do the walking meditation. And hard to walk to the lunch though I could do it. I was walking like a drunk staggering to the right. I didn't understand it - I kept jerking to the right. Then in sitting I was facing way to the right and leaning to the right. I brought one of those kneeling seats that opens up and you sit on with your shins going under it. I've used it for years a few times a day only in a retreat and for sitting listening to lectures. It's easier to sit that way longer. Not to be confused with seiza, sitting on the shins with no prop which I'll do if it's for a brief time. Can't believe I used to sit that way for an our or two in Japan. Horrors. Anyway, when I sat on that I had a padded board under my hips and I realized that I had a slipped disc that had made my right hip lower than the left one and my right leg was actually shorter - surely by a tiny amount but enough to throw me off. So the walking meditation was tough. Santini said we could sit during the walking meditation but not vice versa so I'd walk fifteen minutes, sit thirty, and walk fifteen again. Other than the strange pull to the right, the sitting was no problem. Didn't hurt more than usual and wasn't uncomfortable. I did develop an unusual mudra that I'd use now and then during a period which was to put my straightened right arm down on the side to keep myself straight. That felt so good.
Actually, I didn't bring that sitting bench. I'd forgotten it I realized when I got there. It and a stainless water bottle. The latter wasn't critical but with all the plastic water bottles that are used here, it's become an environmental statement to use it and almost never buy those Aqua bottles - or accept them when they're offered - especially not the one cup ones which are too thin to be recycled -- you see them strewn all over. So I called Katrinka right before I turned my phone in and she had a them delivered to me arriving at 1am the next day.
One thing that happened to me this retreat that has not before happened more than a few seconds at a time is shaking. Toward the end of the periods I'd start rattling like I had a little motor in me. I could stop it by thinking about something or putting my arm down to the right. I don't think it bothered anyone. It wasn't like the thrashing about that Ed used to do when I sat next to him at Tassajara. He'd seem in agaony. I found it rather pleasant - and energizing. But I didn't try to do it. And it would periodically smash my very lower back and hips to the side like a body worker would do and that felt great - for the first few days to the side and then to the front - and with force. It was like something being done to me. If it didn't smash me like that I'd ask it to and it would. And then it would stop and there would be calm. You know what I made of it? Nothing. I don't like to interpret things too much. I sit every morning and that hasn't happened since I left the retreat. I sort of miss and I bet if I asked, it would do it but I don't know if that's a good idea.
That's enough for today. I'll try to do more tomorrow - a few more things to say about the retreat.
I had a robe made for the last retreat I did, the one with Bali Usada, a gray linen kimono, like what's worn under the black koromo and okusa priest robes I wore at Zen Center. I wore the gray kimono to this retreat too, with a rakusu. I liked that better than pants though it required me holding it up when on steps of which there are many at Brahma Vihara Arama. The yogis as we're called are issued sarong but no one has to wear them. I both have and haven't in the past. But tourists do have to wear them and get them at the front entrance office like at almost any temple here in Bali. I think it's funny that the yogis will often be in regular street clothes and the tourists wearing sarongs.
It was a good and challenging full ten days of walking and sitting. Sometimes I'd notice the sweet Chinese music coming from the interior of the fancy new pagoda. On Saturday night, music from a public event or big get-together of some kind wafted across the valley toward us. That happens every retreat - with occasional voices of master of ceremonies over loudspeakers. In the evening the gecko would vocalize. There was one out hiding somewhere on the front walkway of the Dharmasala where the men sat and were Santini's talks were. There was one behind a large picture high on the wall above the bed where I slept. These are amplified gecko. How could a creature that small make a sound so loud and penetrating, a sound I learned to sleep through. I only saw Ayya Santini at the first and last sittings of the day, at her lectures in the evening, and for the group photo at the end. She come out of her room for meals. They were brought to her room and they were simple, less than we ate. The other retreats I'd been to, the guru would sit at a low table on a small platform with a roof above it held by four round pillars. They'd be choosing from many bowls - much more food than they could eat.
One aspect of the temple that I'd like to communicate with the powers that be there about, is the discrepancy between the lavish spending on the statues and religious buildings, and the lack of thought about the design and quality of the retreatants' facilities and the rest rooms, toilets for us yogis and for the guests, I bet that the quality of rest rooms weighs greatly on the overall impression that a visitor has to a public place be it Disneyland or a temple.
In the other retreats we chanted in Pali for a half hour every evening. With Santini we only chanted the first and last mornings. The last morning, the 11th day, 12th if the arrival day is included, we sat for an hour, walked for an hour, sat again, chanted, there was a talk for an hour and the retreat was over. Group photo in front of the Stupa. I talked with Santini's assistant. She was Malaysian, from south of KL near Malaca, said it was an old matriarchal society. Talked with one of the translators. She was Malaysian and recognized my rakusu was Zen. Turned out she'd gotten into Buddhism via Soto Zen studying with Ekai Koramatsu in Melbourn. Ekai was at the San Francisco Zen Center for years and I joined him for a month at Shogoji, the small international Soto temple in Kyushu featured in my book, Thank You and OK!: An American Zen Failure in Japan. Tini and her ex were waiting to drive me out. Got my bags and exchanged a few goodbyes and contact info and we were off. They dropped me in Luvina at a nice beachside restaurant by the dolphin statue. I drank tea, read email, caught up on the news, waited for Katrinka who was being driven to meet me by our long distance driver Komang. All was well except for the cramp in my hand. It was pretty intense. They brought me a bowl of hot water so hot had to put ice in before my hands - both hands. Killer cramps. They continued now and then until the evening. Same thing happened to me at the last retreat I did there. As soon as it was over and I was eating lunch, I got an awful cramp in my right forearm that lasted through the day The cramps would come and go and it felt so good when they'd go. And only starting when the retreat was over.
I get these out of nowhere maladies from these Vipassana retreats - they're so intense. The second day of this one, must have been some blood vein burst in my left hand or some spider bit it. At first I noticed while doing walking meditation that the back of my left hand was itching and I'd scratch it and itched more and then I looked at it and a big blotch on it was turning a redish purple. I'd walk more and scratch more and look at it again and the scarlet blotch was growing. When it got to the whole back of my hand I went to the office to show Marga. She thought I should go see a doctor. The gardener was there with her. I asked if there was any aloe vera. He went and got some. It's popular here. Indonesia exports aloe vera products. I kept applying it during breaks throughout the day and the creeping redness receded and gradually went away the next day. On an earlier retreat there I'd gone to the retreat manager who was sitting with two fellows with her from the foundation that supports the temple. I told them I was worried that I might have to go to a hospital as I was getting more and more pains in my side. They looked at where it hurt and maybe one was a doctor because he knew just what was inside where I was hurting and he said it wasn't any organ problem - just tense muscles or stress from the retreat. But he gave me a little bottle of Chinese medicinal oil that I applied. The pains went away in a while. I remembered the same thing happening to me at the SFZC's City Center in 1972. I saw our wonderful Dr. Sandor Burstein and he said I'm lucky I went to him and not some internal specialist who'd want to do exploratory surgery. He said it was just nerves or something like that - and it went away soon after. One other physical anomaly associated with the retreats is constipation. That happens in retreats - John Tarrant's group leaves Smooth Move tea out for anyone so afflicted during their retreats. I'd brought some because I'd had that problem the previous retreat. Boy I sure had it on this one. It didn't hurt, wasn't uncomfortable. I didn't have the urge daily as usual. I had two bowel movements during that 11 days and both were eight or so hours after drinking some Smooth Move tea. Then one the evening of the day I left. That's once every four days. Then back to normal. Think of all this bodily weirdness a la retreat. Got me.
One thing I thought after the retreat was over was how all these sesshin and Vipassana retreats that people do are so extreme and definitely not for everyone. They're only going to appeal to a limited number of people. I guess it depends on the culture and the times but I can't imagine a religion spreading that required such excess - though I do remember reading about Buddhist temples in ancient China with 5000 moves in the west wing and the same number in the east wing. Actually such discipline is not required for lay people - and even for monks and priests it's usually just for a period of months or years. Only some fanatic tiny minority of us go through these punishing schedules now and then for our whole lives. Shunryu Suzuki emphasized daily sitting and said a sesshin a year was enough. That's what I've been doing in recent years - I went many years with no retreat or sesshin but never got too far from zazen. I know people into Vipassana who think it's a waste of time to sit unless you're in a retreat, or better, in a 90 day intensive. Reminds me of the people who used to follow the Yasutani sesshin around America in the late sixties and early seventies - chasing after enlightenment. In the Theravada countires - Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar - it seems there's such a split between monk and lay. The monks practice and the lay people support them and hope to be monks or nuns in their next life. There is a growing lay meditation practice in the Theravada world that I've experienced though I don't know how vast it is. A group of fifty or so lay people came and chanted a bunch of Theravada stuff the same as we do one day - for a few hours at a shrine room on a lower level. Soto Zen in Japan did not get popular because of Dogen but because of Keizan who had a much softer approach appealing to lay people - farmers, peasants. Shinran and Nichren made their brands of Buddhism popular by offering chanting as the way to salvation. And in time, the followers surely forget about salvation and just keep chanting. I chant and say Thank You and Who Am I and name things and watch my feet and do stuff like that all the time and I don't remember anymore why I do that and walk and sit in the mornings and go on these retreats.