by Leslie Nevison
Every night the elderly security guard sweeps carefully and at length around my Singapore apartment building, curiously absorbed in a humble task that no one requires of him. I think of this man now as I brush leaves from the path leading to the women’s dormitory.
While vacationing on the picture-perfect island paradise of Pha Ngan in southern Thailand, I climbed the kilometer-long hill to Wat Khao Tahm, or Temple of the Mountain Cave, to stretch my legs and to enjoy the unsurpassed view over a palm treelined coastline and turquoise seas. I noted the information about the retreats in English the monastery offered that was pinned to a notice board. Five years later, I now attend one of these crash courses in Theravada Buddhism, considered the purest preservation of the Buddha’s teachings, that offers instruction in Vipassana or insight meditation. The technique–to sit or stand in utter stillness concentrating on your breathing or on your footsteps while walking slowly–is easier said than done and I discover quickly why it has taken me so long to find my way back here.
Ten days is the minimum amount of time to devote to learning the basics of what for some is a lifelong effort, which plainly put, results in a clearer perception of what reality is not. The process promises to replace fear with courage, anger with joy, prejudice with equanimity, and ignorance with wisdom, arguably beneficial for everyone, and the closest explanation of my reasons for enrolling. My fellow students come from everywhere, citizens of Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America. We are over and under the age of forty, with braided hair or bald, with pierced ears or noses, eyebrows and bellies, with tattoos and toe-rings. The testing grounds for our newly acquired skills upon completion will vary. Some of us will return to employment and families while others will mingle with the masses at the next “full moon party,” an all-night revelry of music and dancing on the beach that surpasses meditation as Koh Pha Ngan’s most popular attraction. I feel a sudden surge of comradeship with and genuine liking for these ornamented strangers. Whatever our destinations, we share the same journey.
The Start of the Day
Our education begins early. A great gong summons us to the meditation hall at 4 a.m. Breakfast is three hours later. Coffee, tobacco and alcohol are forbidden. Throughout the day, we are subjected to heat, whining mosquitoes and wandering ants. No living creature can be harmed, including the snakes that seek the cool interiors of the toilets. Shoulders, backs and legs grow numb from immobility during the sitting and standing meditations. I look forward to the sweeping that I am assigned, work that is another form of meditation but which becomes my favorite part of the schedule because I can move.
Our teachers, Steve and Rosemary Weissman, an American and Australian couple who have taught at Wat Khao Tahm for twelve years, understand our difficulties. Rosemary leads us in yoga every morning. Steve’s evening lectures rebuild our resolve to get through another day. Although we have taken a vow of silence, crucial to maintaining introspection, we can write notes to Steve and Rosemary when questions or concerns arise and twice during the retreat, each participant meets briefly with them. We also have the support of Wat Khao Tahm’s octogenarian head nun, Mae Chee Ahmon Pahn. A tiny, endearing figure in white robes, she implores us to finish the retreat. She is visibly moved at the end: “You are my children now,” she tells us, “and Wat Khao Tahm is your home.”
Even without the distracting discomforts that Steve and Rosemary call “unpleasant physical sensations”, it is no simple feat to encourage the mind to cease its rapid and random jumps between thoughts of the past and present, or more annoyingly, to curb the desire for pumpkin curry for lunch. My companions must feel my restlessness, as I am conscious of theirs. It is when I have stopped striving that I become aware that I am finally watching my breath, a success that so excites me that progress immediately stalls. It is every novice meditator’s dream to experience the tranquility of a deep meditation but I eventually settle for what breakthrough occurs: I’ve been sweeping my route backwards, unable to see where I am going or what microscopic life I’ve been obliterating–a not entirely inaccurate metaphor of my recent past. It proves to be a beautiful but elusive moment of truth for despite my good intentions, I keep reverting to my old ways of sweeping. Remembering the security guard helps. I start over and try again.
4 a.m.: Wake-up
4: 45 a.m.: Sitting
5:30 a.m.: Yoga
6:30 a.m.: Sitting
7:00 a.m.: Breakfast
8:15 a.m.: Work
9:00 a.m.: Walking
10:00 a.m.: Sitting
11:00 a.m.: Lunch
1:00 p.m.: Walking
1:45 p.m.: Standing
2:45 p.m.: Walking
3:30 p.m.: Sitting meditation with instructor
4:30 p.m.: Walking
5:15 p.m.: Tea and fruit
6:15 p.m.: Sitting
6:45 p.m.: Walking or standing
7:15 p.m.: Lecture
8:30 p.m.: Optional sitting meditation or bed
Retreats are held from the middle of almost every month for 10 days. Longer retreats are also available. Only 40 students are accepted. For reservations and information write to:
Steven and Rosemary Weissman
c/o Retreat, Wat Khao Tahm, PO Box 18
Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand 84280
Cost of the 10-day retreat: 2900 THB/ $US 75
How to get there: Koh Pha Ngan is a forty-minute ferry trip from the major tourist island of Samui and can be reached by plane from Bangkok or boat ride from the mainland. Direct boats also go to Pha Ngan from the southern Thailand city of Surat Thani. From Pha Ngan’s main town, Thong Sala, catch local taxis called songteows to Wat Khao Tahm, a distance of four kilometers and a cost of $US1 or 30 Thai baht.
Packing Tips: Bring insect repellent, umbrella, flashlight with extra batteries, loose cotton pants and shrts. Valuables can be put into safekeeping at the monastery.
Canadian born Leslie Nevison attributes her wanderlust to her mother who took her to live in Europe as a teenager. She had her husband of 25 years first went overseas to live in 1990. They have since called seven countries home–Turkey, the Sultanate of Oman, Singapore (twice), Tanzania, Uzbekistan, Greece, and Congo-Brazzaville. Leslie has traveled through another thirty. Since 1996, she has written 40 travel articles for publication. In 2005, she started Mama Tembo Tours, wildlife and culture safaris to Tanzania for independent-minded individuals and small groups. Leslie says she became a solo traveler out of necessity, but quickly learned that going it alone has its distinct advantages.