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my 3-day vipassana retreat experience at Wat Atam

October 1, 2012

I spent this past weekend at Wat Atammayantarama (or Wat Atam for short) in Woodinville, WA, for a meditation retreat that was led by Ajahn Sudanto from the Pacific Hermitage (a branch monastery of Abhayagiri) in White Salmon, WA. While relatively short as far as retreats go, it was exactly what I needed. It’s been a few years since I’ve attended a meditation retreat at a Thai Buddhist monastery, and I forgot how much I enjoy spending time at monasteries and emulating the monastic life, even if for just a few days.

The monastery itself is nice and consists of a large, yellow house that serves as the monks’ residence, the newly constructed meditation hall that includes an adjoining kitchen, activity room with library (where they eat and receive visitors), and a couple of bathrooms, and spacious grounds that supply ample places to sit, walk, and take pictures of. It’s also nice in that it’s close to Seattle, but still in a relatively rural location, giving it a more peaceful and secluded feel. Their neighbor, for example, had what appeared to be a horse ranch, and both Friday and Saturday I saw hot air balloons leisurely passing by.

As far as my experience of retreats goes, it was fairly typical, structured yet relaxed. Friday night began with a quick orientation at 7pm (many of us were first time visitors to Wat Atam) and the taking of the eight precepts, making us quasi-monastics for our stay. Since the chanting guides they were using didn’t have the eight precepts in them, which are usually chanted, Ajahn Sudanto dispensed with the formality and just explained each one and that we were ipso facto observing them, which then segued into evening chanting, meditation, and a Dhamma talk in their newly opened meditation hall (or sala in Thai).

Like most Thai temples, they chant every morning and evening in Pali; although, this place was rather unique in that they used a shorter chanting guide containing just the Dedication of Offerings, Preliminary Homage, Homage to the Buddha, Homage to the Dhamma, Homage to the Sangha, Salutation to the Triple Gem, and Closing Homage, and did both the Pali and the English translation. (I’m not sure if this is normal, or if it was because the retreat was being led by a visiting monk from Abhayagiri, a predominately Western Thai forest monastery in Ukiah, CA; but most temples I’ve been to usually throw in more, like Reflection after Using the Requisites, Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection, Verses on the Noble Truths, etc.)

After the chanting, we sat for about an hour, and then Ajahn Sudanto gave a Dhamma talk before we all retired to our accommodations a little after 9pm. Since about 50 people registered, some of us had the opportunity to camp out back behind the meditation hall, as space in the meditation hall basement was limited. And I spent the first night curled in a ball, shivering. (The sleeping bag I brought apparently wasn’t up to the task of actually keeping me warm, and I was reminded of the night I camped out at Occupy Detroit.)

The next morning began at 5am, with one of the monks going throughout the meditation hall and by the tents gently ringing a bell. Not an unpleasant way to wake up before dawn. Surprisingly, even though I didn’t sleep very well due to the cold and the rough ground underneath my tent, I awoke feeling pretty good. I climbed out of the tent, splashed some water on my face in the bathroom, drank a cup of hot water, and met everyone in the meditation hall for the 5:30am morning chanting (same as the evening) and meditation, the latter of which I surprisingly didn’t fall asleep during.

At 7am, immediately following the meditation session, we all congregated in the kitchen for some chai tea and a light breakfast, mostly consisting of croissants, barley and rice with heated soy milk, and fruit, which, after everyone got their food and sat down, we ate mindfully in the ‘activity room,’ paying attention to each sensation and experience as it arose. As I slowly bit into a grape, for example, I noticed perceptions arising like ‘firm,’ ‘juicy,’ ‘slightly tart’; and I observed how my mind/body (since they’re both intimately connected) reacted to all the various sensations, such craving one taste or texture more than another, imaging what something was going to taste like, and comparing that with how it actually tasted (generally a back and forth between satisfaction and disappointment). When the meal was done, we washed our dishes outside at a specially prepared station as the kitchen sink was too small to accommodate the 50+ meditators including the volunteer staff.

After breakfast, it was right back to mediation followed by a Dhamma talk. The theme centred on a comparison between the process of building a fire using the bow method and the process of developing mindfulness, and how consistency of effort and the right materials are the key. Essentially, our minds aren’t really conditioned to focus on a single object for long periods of time, and are easily distracted, especially by what are called the five hindrances in Buddhism: sensual desires (covetous or greed for pleasurable sense experiences), anger/ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and skeptical doubt/uncertainty. Ajahn Sudanto gave the image of them (taken from Ajahn Sona) as things pulling the mind, pushing the mind, the mind rising up, the mind sinking down, and the mind spinning around.

To counter these mental states, which are like trying to use wet, rotten logs and grasses to start a fire, the meditator seeks to develop the five factors of the first jhana, i.e., applied thought, sustained thought, happiness, joy, and one-pointedness of mind, which are like using nice, dry logs and grasses to start a fire when consistent effort and energy is put into vigorously sawing the drill until it starts to heat up and ignites the kindling, which here represents using applied and sustained thought with consistent effort and energy to keep the meditation object, the breath, in mind. And the smoke in the analogy is the beginning of mindfulness and the accompanying joy and happiness that arise when the mind starts to become one-pointed, a combination of mental and bodily pleasure that can eventually be used to develop even more refined states of concentration and enjoyment, free the mind of the hindrances, and open it up for arising of insight.

When the talk was over, Ajahn Sudanto gave a brief description of walking meditation methods, and then had us do that until 11am. One method was to mark a path about 50ft in length, and mindfully walk back and forth while focusing on the sensation of the feet as they rise, touch the ground, and so on. An alternate method is to focus on the breath instead, and try to walk at a pace that matches, such as take 3 steps with the in-breath and 3 with the out, which takes a bit more effort. I prefer to walk repeating a mantra while focusing on the sensation of my steps myself, breaking each word of the mantra in half, one for the right foot and one for the left: bud-dho, dham-mo, san-gho, par-ents, tea-chers, something I picked up from Ajahn Prasert in Fremont, CA, when I used to spend retreats there.

At 11am, we had lunch, which is always the biggest (and usually the last) meal at Theravada monasteries. There was the usual assortment of Thai food, rice, curries, noodles, etc., as well as fruit and a few other odds and ends. Most of the food was vegetarian, and they made sure to mark anything that wasn’t, which is rather unusual compared to other Thai monasteries I’ve stayed at, where the food is usually made with some kind of meat or another (some of them a delicious mystery). As with breakfast, we didn’t start until everyone got their food and sat down in the activity room, and Ajahn Sudanto reminded us to eat mindfully. I noticed that the closer I got to finishing, the faster and less mindfully I ate. All that conditioning from years of 30min lunch breaks is hard to overcome it seems.

We had about 45min of free time after lunch and before our 5hr block of meditation. I took the time to lie down in my tent for about 30mins since my back was being pissy.

From 1pm-6:00pm, we alternated between sitting and walking meditation. The first hour, we all sat together in the meditation hall, then we were given the option of staying and sitting longer or going outside to practice walking meditation; and so as not to disturb the people sitting in the meditation hall, whoever wanted to go in or out were asked to try and switch every half hour. I decided to walk for 30min, then sit another hour, then alternate between walking and sitting for 30min so that I finished with walking meditation. By the end, my knees hated me, and my back was plotting with them to do me in.

From 6pm-6:30pm, we had a tea break. I had some more of their homemade chai and cup of coffee, which gave me the energy for evening chanting and meditation, as well as the Dhamma talk and Q&A that followed. I honestly can’t remember much besides bits and pieces, but one thing that stood out was when he mentioned his first years practicing in the jungles of Thailand and not being able to sleep because of all the sounds he wasn’t used to hearing. By 9pm, I was physically sore and tired, but my mind was full of interesting experiences and insights that had popped up along the way, which made the pain worth it. I went back to my tent reflective, peaceful, and sad that the next day would be my last.

I awoke at 2am to the sound of what I assumed to be a sizable number of coyotes barking, yipping, and howling/screaming. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before, and they sounded close. I also heard a number of other sounds that got my mind spinning, proliferating, and eventually convinced there were probably bears in the area that could smell my Clif Bars and would be visiting me soon. At 4:50am, Ajahn Santidhammo came through with the bell, and I awoke to find myself and my Clif Bars intact.

Sunday began the same as Saturday, with everyone meeting in the meditation hall for the 5:30am morning chanting and meditation, which again, much to my surprise, I didn’t fall asleep during. Out of all the sittings, in fact, this was one of the most fruitful. My mind had finally become used to the seclusion from the stimuli of my normal, day-to-day life, and was beginning to settle down. When things popped up that pulled my mind along with them, or when aversion was pushing my mind away from the pains of my body and the present moment, it was easier to simply note this and then let them go by mentally saying ‘These things are impermanent,’ These things aren’t important right now,’ ‘I don’t need to follow that,’ etc.

At one point, my posture was actually quite comfortable, and the breath became a very pleasant sensation, and I was mindfully able to follow it as it flowed all the way in and out until a subtle feeling of pleasure arose in my mind and spread throughout my body. Sadly, I wasn’t able to develop and spread the feeling further, and I began to be distracted by pain in my knees and other intruding thoughts. If this had been a week-long retreat, I probably would have had more chances to get my fire of mindfulness going; but the end of the retreat was drawing near.

The sit ended with a Dhamma talk followed by a Q&A session from 8am-9am. Ajahn Sudanto reviewed some of the themes from previous talks, and answered a number of questions about a variety of topics such as whether it’s better to sit with eyes open or closed (he encouraged everyone to explore different methods, and suggested eyes open might be good for relieving sleepiness if one is starting to nod off or if one is prone to seeing images and day-dreaming with them closed), what to do when pain arises (try to focus the breath and breathing on the spot where pain arises and breathe through it, or study the pain itself, analyzing whether it’s solid and steady, arising here and there, whether it’s pain signaling damage or just the pain of not moving, etc.). The retreat officially ended with a short blessing chant and paying respects to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha.

By now, people had begun to start streaming into the monastery for the combination Ancestor’s Day ceremony, weekly Sunday service, and meditation hall grand opening, which promised to make the day a lively religious/social event. We packed up our tents and made way for the throng of people, mostly Thais, to take our place. I said goodbye to Ajahn Sudanto, found my ride, and we began the long drive home.

(A version of this post also appears as an article on newbuddhist.com.)

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