In this latest post from The Under 35 Project, Justin Luu reflects on his stay at a monastery in Burma, confronting the challenges in his practice and what he has come to learn from them.
It’s a warm winter’s day. I sit with my notebook outside a cafe in Sydney. A cup of coffee waits for me patiently, its delicate aroma lingering as I allow my thoughts to form before capturing them on the lined pages of my writing pad. Despite the overcast sky above me, the warm air is comforting, and a deep sense of ease pervades my body. I relax back into my chair and observe people hurriedly walking past me on their way to do their shopping, run their errands and go about all the things in life I didn’t need to worry about right now.
Suddenly self-awareness hits me. I open my eyes. The cafe is gone, and my notebook, my coffee, the people all vanish in a stroke of reality. I find myself sitting in a dimly lit hall with fifty monks and yogis. Then I remembered where I was again, on retreat at a monastery on the outskirts of Yangon, Burma.
Outside the monsoon rain poured down relentlessly. The drumming of raindrops on the tin roof provided the conducive background white noise as we sat observing our minds. Mine had been roaming around for a while on the other side of the world before it was unwillingly caught out again. I think I have finally started noticing my homesickness manifesting itself. The irony was that, had I been back at home in Sydney, I would probably be dreaming about meditating at some idyllic retreat in Burma.
We were practicing a form of cittanupassana meditation in which the primary focus was to watch the mind itself. We were instructed to be mindful of our cravings, aversions and delusion and observe them as they arise. And no, it wasn’t easy at all, at least for me it certainly wasn’t. The untrained mind is like a swindling artist who eludes you with a narrative that you start believing is real and once you have come far enough down that path you will believe whatever picture it paints for you.
Sayadaw had given us instructions. “Check your attitude!” he would tell us. He taught us to not focus so much an object but to be aware of what the mind is really like, its nature. This was all very confusing for me as I had normally been more used to instructions like “watch your breath” and “keep your back straight.” Turning the object of attention back to myself, my own mind, was a scary thing to do.
On retreat, your inner dialogue becomes incessant and loud as if someone had turned up the volume in your head. Once you actually start to observe the mind for what it was, you are confronted as it constantly tries to run away from what is here and now, distracting you with everything it can throw at you.
One day after lunch I had some trouble meditating, the natural drowsiness from my full belly had swept me over so taking a nap in my dorm seemed like a pretty inviting option at the time. Rather than watching my cravings, I thought I’d take it easy on myself and succumb to the comforts of my room. Before I knew it I had drifted off into the world of dreams. I don’t remember exactly what my dream was about but I do remember it was quite vivid and I was involved in some sort of heated argument over how to make ice cream. It was like I was watching myself in high definition on a massive cinema screen. There was even a musical soundtrack blasting out in surround sound to accompany the scene. Clearly this ice cream issue must have been a serious one as the argument was going nowhere and I could feel the intensity of the frustration and anger as we yelled at each other.
Then I jolted awake.
The bare ceiling of the dorm stared back at me. I looked around. There was no ice-cream, no music, just the tame tranquillity of the monastery. A few monks could be heard washing their robes in the yard while the local birds chirped obliviously on the branches outside my window.
It felt like someone had abruptly pulled the plug on the TV when I had just come to the final scene. For a moment, the strong feelings of dissatisfaction still lingered on from my dream, resonating like the echoes of a dying angel. The dissatisfaction was there, it was strong, it was really powerful, it had moved me into a rage. I was still angry. But it was just a dream. It wasn’t real. It didn’t matter. The contrast in the tumultuous experience of my dream and the serenity of monastery crashed over me like a pail of icy water. I had struggled for days to try to perceive ”feeling as feeling” and not to identify with it as “my feeling”, as Sayadaw had put it, and in that moment I caught a glimpse of what he meant.
From that moment, I started to become aware of all the petty irritations that had being getting to me during the day, the types of things that had been slowly eating at the satisfaction of my stay. The shared bathrooms, the constant rain, the mosquitoes that threatened me with death by malaria that I wasn’t allowed to kill. These were things that were silently making me homesick but I hadn’t even noticed even though I was supposed to be watching my aversions and cravings throughout the day. I had been so busy trying to meditate I hadn’t even noticed what was happening right here in my own mind. I walked back mindfully to the meditation hall with an even greater resolve for the task at hand.
Every day during lunch time, I lined up with my fellow yogis in turn to scoop up the delicious food that had been kindly donated by the supporters of the monastery. A great time to watch your mind is just before lunch as the stomach starts to signal that it’s ready to be filled up. The monastery also served meat from the community as is common in the Theravadin tradition. But I was a vegetarian by choice and in trying to keep my noble silence on the retreat, I didn’t really want to ask too many questions so I simply lined up with the others and only took the non-meaty parts of the offered meals. And boy, were the meals tasty! That was until one day someone pointed out a line for vegans.
Excitedly I lined up in the new queue and scooped up some veggie goodness with the others. However, once I was seated at the table with some non-vegan yogis, I noticed my eyes had started feasting on the meals of the others while my mind rushed to alert me how bland my meal really was. It became pretty clear how much craving I still had for meat as my meal was now considerably more boring without being cooked in the juices of animals. But it was also an opportunity for me to observe the consciousness of my six senses. I was aware that once my eyes and nose made contact with the plates of food around me, my mind was drawn in like a fish at the end of a line and it created a chain reaction that would result in lust for the fruit from the forbidden tree. I watched as my mind raced back and forth between craving and aversion, always chasing what was it didn’t have, always running away from the present moment. On retreat, lunch itself was also a dhamma lesson.
During my stay, a few young boys in their early teens took on temporary ordination at the monastery. Sayadaw officiated the ceremony in the hall while the boys stood by awkwardly rubbing their newly shaved heads like lamb sheared the first time. Clearly out of their element, they clutched tightly onto the maroon robes wrapped around their bodies, scared that the knots they had clumsily tied would suddenly come loose and cause an embarrassment. At dawn the next morning, despite the torrential downpour, all the monks mindfully lined up to go into the village for alms round. The new novices dutifully followed the path of the elders walking before them. Without umbrellas, they walked barefoot with a begging bowl under their arm, a line of glowing saffron in the gloomy monsoon weather. The young monks came back drenched, shivering and cold, rinsing out their soaked robes on the bathroom floor. It was humbling to watch these young boys, momentarily putting aside their immediate distractions of chasing girls and having fun to gain their rite of passage: a set of red robes and the experience of a simpler form of life.
After twelve short days, it was time for me to go. It was sad to leave so soon with still so much to learn. After leaving everything else behind, what I could take away was the spaciousness where I didn’t need to allow the thoughts and feelings that wander into my mind to define me. And there was something else I’ll be able to bring back to Sydney, the memories of meditating in a hall full of yogis and maroon-robed monks in Burma as I write about it at a cafe over a warm cup of coffee.
Justin Luu is a consultant in the IT industry with a background in software engineering and business. He has also helped serve the Buddhist community in various ways including being one of the founding members of the Mitra Youth Buddhist Network and co-convenor of the 2007 Mitra Buddhist Conference. He also gives talks and conducts workshops as part of the Dhamma sharing group at the Buddhist Library. In his own practice, Justin attends retreats abroad and locally. He’s from Sydney, and currently lives in Kenya. Read more at his blog.