Sunday, July 3, 2011

Just Let Go Part 1

Part 1
The Island of Coconut Trees
By James Douglas, July 1, 2011.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Make yourselves comfortable and prepare for a true tale of a spiritual journey in a far off land...

Imagine yourselves in a cosy little bungalow, on the tropical island of Koh Samui, Thialand. The name itself, meaning The Island of Coconut Trees, suggests a cute little paradise. Or at least a paradise after the Hollywood definition...

I live here in a palm leaf and banana hut on the sandy cove known as Lamai Beach.

Lamai Beach, view from my hut

After a long and wearisome journey from the northern provinces I am pleased to settle into such a quaint little hide-away. Upon exploration I have found that there appears to be an entire village here almost entirely composed of bars. The people here appear to subsist mostly off of beer. Surely Gulliver himself has not come across such a strange place as this. Even the street signs proclaimed the strangeness of the experience.

Yes, it was an odd day indeed. I think Alice would agree.

But what followed, friends, was even more strange and wonderful.

The reason I came to Koh Samui is not for the more commonly persued Sex, Sun and Sea, but rather to explore the rich philosophy of the Buddhist monkhood. These monks are said to hold the secrets of Happiness, to have a deep knowledge of the nature of life and indeed of nature itself. They are willing to share their centuries old knowledge with those from far away lands who come to seek it.

Those of us assembled here to recieve the teaching on Koh Samui meet in Utopia Hotel (a little bit SW down the road from the Laguna Resort, different from the Utopia Resort). The owner of the Utopia Hotel is actually the person who has donated land for the Retreat Center, and she will be bringing us bread for breakfast every morning :-). We are guided into the mountain by a helper of the monks. The group of us are taken far back into the jungle, among the palm, cashew, and banana plants. None of us have ever been here before nor will we likely ever return.

Finally, we arrive at the Retreat Center for the Development of Light Hermitage. It is up on the mountain where a few monks live in the forest, with only the bare essentials of life (Website: ). We are greeted by friendly helpers and what they have in store for us is laid out:

For the next six or seven days we will:
Wake up at 4:30 am
Eat only two meals per day (before 12 noon)
Not speak
Sleep on plywood with a thin plastic mat and wooden “pillow”.
Eat only vegetarian food, and no intoxicating drugs
Intend to refrain from all killing, including scorpions, snakes and mosquitoes
Meditate for about four and a half hours per day

And, hopefully, love it :-).

On the evening of the 20th we were given an introductory talk, then the silence began, continuing until the afternoon of the 6th day. It seems that the schedule changes a bit with every retreat, but for days 2, 3, 4, and 5 we basically have the schedule as laid out on the website. For day 6 they change the schedule and take us in the back of a truck to a meditation garden on a different part of the island in the afternoon. We return to normal society after lunch on the 27th.

One of the things I was concerned about was sitting for a long time. Most westerners, especially men, have difficulty sitting on the floor for extended periods of time. However, since this meditation retreat is meant for westerners coming for the first time to a retreat, they have dealt with this issue admirably. We sit for no more than 30 minutes at a time, alternating walking and sitting meditation. In the beginning there is a talk about postures which I found very useful.

This retreat is shorter than a normal Vipassana retreat (usually 10 days). It seems that in order to practice insight meditation one first has to practice concentration meditation. So, the focus of this retreat is concentration meditation, with only some introduction to insight meditation.

Before I move on to describing more of what we went through during a retreat, I’ll just add a few details about being prepared, for those who find this page with the intention of going on the retreat:
-I suggest to bring a long sleeve shirt, mosquito repellant and a flashlight separate from your cellphone because they like it if you give in your cellphone, computer and any other fancy electronics to the safe before the retreat begins. No photographs are allowed during the retreat except for at the very end when there is a group photo. Hence I have no photos of the beautiful meditation hall to show you :-).
-“Fishermen pants” (loose fitting simple pants with an odd little string to hold them up, good for sitting for long periods) seem to sell for about 1500 bhat in Lamai Beach. This is a total rip-off. The meditation center sells some tshirts and fishermen pants; 120 bhat for a tshirt and 150 bhat for fishermen pants.
-You are asked for a donation at the end of the retreat. It’s given in an anonymous envelope (well, you can put your name if you want). The idea is that you pay for someone else, as someone has paid for you. Honestly I’m not sure how much it costs them to conduct the retreat and they don’t say anything about it so this logic is a bit sketchy. Whatever.

Sorry I can't manage to write this whole post like a story :-).

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