- Ordinary and Non-Ordinary States in a Burmese Monastery -
A kind local, with a smile for everybody, who regularly cycled into Pa Auk to donate and help the monks
In late 2018, I was still in Melbourne when my Australian working-holiday visa expired. I was ordered by an unsympathetic Boarder Control to leave the country. Having to make my mind up in a hurry about where where to go, and not knowing how long it would take before a new visa could be processed, allowing my return to Oz, I decided my hard-earned Aussie dollars would go much further in Asia than in New Zealand. I flew to Kuala Lumpur and spent a couple of weeks on tourist routes in Malaysia and Thailand before, sick of the commercialism, I flew to Myanmar, relatively untouched by tourism.
I adored my 28 days on the Myanmar tourist visa, and I was keen to prolong my time there. The ordinary Myanmar people were kind and humble and couldn't do enough for you. I hoped to learn from the way they were, or that their striking kindness would somehow rub off on me by osmosis. Meanwhile, I discovered that I could extend my stay in Myanmar through a ‘Meditation Visa’, a visa designed for foreigners like myself who wanted to dive deeper into meditation in this devoutly Buddhist country. So I secured one of Myanmar’s 70-day meditation visas and joined life in the recommended 'Pa Auk Monastery' in the south-east with a thousand monks.
When the British left Burma in 1948 it was re-titled Myanmar. Despite it's full name, The Republic of the Union of Myanmar has been dictated over since by the military junta. As you might expect in a country issuing meditation visas, and in a country where the word conscription only applies to the obligatory trials of boys for the monkhood, it is Buddhism that reigns supreme as the other major influencer in Myanmar. In the on-going battle for Burmese hearts and minds, the army general’s know they’ve got to keep the monks sweet. The monastery grounds of Pa Auk (which included an old rubber tree plantation from the British colonial days), was being rented by the local military battalion (in Mawlamyine, South East Myanmar) to the monks next door.
Bleeding Rubber: acres of these rubber trees lined the mile-long driveway to the monastery at Pa Auk
Levels of the Game
In the monastery sphere at Pa Auk, the upper echelons of enlightenment were said to be found among a handful of the longest-term resident monks. Some of my fellow foreign meditators (a.k.a: ‘yogis’) predicted the monks’ levels of attainment. Was the 80-year old abbot at Pa Auk an ‘Arahat’, they wondered aloud; just one level below full-blown enlightenment? Was the infamous Osho of India, disgraced in the news, actually enlightened, despite racking up thirty Rolls Royces and more charges of sexual assault? And implicit in the conversation: did the more experienced yogis and drug-assisted psychonauts among us have minds akin to green, blue, brown and black belts? Wiser by degrees?
"The Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao"
- Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching
Through my eyes, several monks I encountered at Pa Auk seemed genuinely peaceful. The few that could speak English revealed their varying personalities, but beyond personality, I couldn’t tell for sure what life was like between their ears. And of course, the monastery housed some genuine fools and goofballs too. Maybe some of the goofballs were enlightened? Again, no way of knowing for sure. But that didn’t stop some of the yogis from concluding one way or the other. The more absorbed they were in the ins and outs of Theravada Buddhism, the more labyrinths their conversation created. Dead-end abstraction. Religion’s well-intentioned and meticulously-formed ideas; voicing over the subtle non-verbal messages of the heart.
Our living quarters were shacks called ‘kutis’; one solitary meditator - be he yogi or monk - per 4x4m kuti. Two kutis to my right lived Kyle, a twenty-four year old from Perth. Two kutis to my left, my other best monastery friend, Johannesberger Repo from Finland, would soon move in from a make-shift dorm room in one of the monk's main accommodation blocks. 'Jo’berg' had made clear his intention to ‘repossess’ a kuti once one of the traveling monks had vacated. When that particular kuti did become available, he went about making his new ‘house’ a home. A full mattress replaced the standard monk-issue 3mm-thick sleeping mat, new air-conditioners were acquired to sit out the worst of next year’s seasonal monsoon, curtains went up to minimise the distracting light. An array of online-order teas were boiled for the invitational ‘tea ceremonies’. In the first cynical draft of my Pa Auk poem, Jo'burger lived up to his surname as ‘The Repo Man’.
Johannesberger Repo (a.k.a.: Johannes; a.k.a.: Jo'burger; a.k.a.: 'The Repo Man'), feeding the monastery dogs
Written while absorbed in an unmindful poetic mania during my final ten days at Pa Auk, my finished poem was still replete with in-house yogi gags, teasings of my two friends, and irreverent pokes at those ‘highest’ and ‘lowest’ in the monastery ‘hierarchy’. Ultimately titled ‘Disenchanted’, the main theme of the poem related to facing the powerful forces of inertia maintaining our conditioning. This force was represented by a dragon.
At the beginning of the poem, a classic dragon of the west greedily hoards his dungeon gold. He is protected from men and isolated in his abandoned castle. The dragon's transformation is not given cause in the poem, but it’s happening reflected the internal journey of our monastery stay, the accumulation of meditation (at it’s best) allowing us to see our own conditioned ways more clearly. The poem’s initial verses hold many enchantments that would best be let go of. What the dragon eventually loses in gold and armour, he gains in his process of unravelling.
Many lessons came between meditation sessions at Pa Auk. Kyle and Jo’burger exemplified compassion for the vulnerable there, both of them often stopping to chat to the local resident with full-blown autism. Sometimes, they would buy him some food or share theirs with him. I generally ignored this young man, as he openly searched the monastery bins for food and played hop-scotch on imaginary squares. I nicknamed him ‘Asberger’ in my poem.
Jo'burger would regularly buy raw chicken and eggs outside the mile-long monastery driveway to feed a small family of stray dogs living in the monastery grounds. He adopted one of the family’s pups into his kuti, showing me photos months after I’d left of ‘Pallero’ and his fur coat, pristine compared to the hundred dogs who remained uncared for. One dog cared for out of a hundred; one dog more than none.
Taking a leaf from my friend's book, I employed some latent drawing talent to make Christmas cards for the sixteen foreign yogis. The upright spines of Santa Claus and a monk showed on the card front as they meditated together on a cliff-edged mountain top. It felt kind to acknowledge the day for the yogis, away from their families, and I felt a delight (not telling the yogis I’d left them) in seeing their pleasantly surprised faces as they opened their cards at the breakfast table after morning meditation on Christmas day.
Seeing in the Dark
On Christmas eve, having just photocopied my original Christmas card for the yogis, I made my way to the main meditation hall for the first afternoon sit. Within the monastery grounds, the two-story hall sat high on a forested hill, 126 steps of stairs to be climbed to its entrance. For most hours of every day, the football-field sized floors were dotted by meditating monks and yogis two square metres apart. Neatly encircling each meditator’s mat from above was a mosquito net drooping from the rafters. The older resident monks, up the front end of the hall, remained statue-still in deep meditation for four and five hours at a stretch.
For night sessions, once the last of the torch-yielding late-comers had found their assigned spot, the final dregs of the hall’s artificial lighting would be switched off. The total darkness of these meditations was only pierced ninety minutes later by one monk's Buddhist chanting signaling the end of the session.
Tucking my mozzy net underneath my mat as usual on Christmas Eve, the last shuffling and coughing died down around the hall. I became still and allowed everything inside me to play out behind closed eyes.
Ground floor of the meditation hall
Human Doing and Human Being
As time went by in Pa Auk, there was less counting. Less counting of days. Less counting on anything to happen. Less counting on anyone else. Less striving; more letting go. Three days into my 70-day meditation visa, I had stopped marking the days off on my calendar. After four or five weeks, I wanted to extend my visa. In the final weeks, I didn’t mind too much whether I stayed or left. Inherent in the process of cumulated meditation, there was a gradual (if not always linear) unraveling. The magic of this experiment, meditating and living in this environment - with nothing to do and nowhere to go - was that it fostered a deep settling from doing into being.
In early February, the intertwined loneliness and depression piggy-backed on each other and reared up their ugly snake-heads. “Surprise!! You thought you were safe here did you? Tucked away in a Burmese monastery?! Ha!” These familiar feelings posed a real test to an attitude of allowance I was attempting to cultivate; not fighting the demon, not distracting myself from it, but being with these thoughts and feelings, as I would be with my best friend.
I remember having a phone conversation with my mother around this time. Amidst my reassurance that I was continuing to settle nicely, I touched on the “dangerous” potential in this kind of monk’s life - the genuine pitfalls of living with only your mind for company. She laughed a little, unbelieving, “What could be dangerous about living in a monastery?”
Note to 'self': on the inside of my kuti door
Danger! Meditation in Progress
The art of meditation - that is to say, the art of dealing with your mind - can be extremely challenging. Facing negative patterns of the mind-body takes courage. These ‘demons’ have become installed precisely because of their habitually won battles versus the better angels of our nature. Learning the delicate art of how to be with yourself - especially your 'demonic' parts; adopting the right attitudes, skillfully responding to a mind-body in constant flux to regain the right balance...all of this is meditation, and, like most worthwhile pursuits in life, it is not risk-free.
In one of meditation’s insightful and simultaneously dangerous moments, the mind can be seen for what it often is - a thought machine. If sufficiently untethered to your sense of ‘self’ - meta-perceiving all the thoughts/feelings/emotions dispassionately - you may temporarily see the “self-evident” ‘buddhist truth’ of anatta - i.e. ‘no self’. This mind-space is a state that the bible of western psychology (‘The Diagnostics and Statistics Manual’) would probably label as ‘de-personalisation’.
Whatever your feeling of de-stabilisation or however objectively you realise this truth, in this type of awareness, ‘you’ can no longer truthfully claim to be the thinker of thoughts; thoughts are simply happening, secreted by the mind, either to be noticed with mindful attention, or followed down rabbit holes. Ego is dissolving. In this context, you see a repeating array of thoughts; secretions of the conscious mind. A multitude of ‘selves’, none of them actually ‘you’. There are levels of depth to this understanding; the deeper levels are all realised experientially. The attitude of kind allowance of whatever's happening is so important here, because this experience has the potential to be existentially terrifying and profoundly humbling.
A monk pauses, the meditation hall in the background, tucked into the Pa Auk forest monastery grounds
One day, throwing my bath towel over the cubicle-shower-door in the yogi’s living quarters, my wrist brushed against an exposed electrical wire. I was electrocuted.
For three or four seconds, electricity flowed through me and froze my body in time. In the last second, I managed to prise my wrist from the wire, shrieking loudly with the shock and the pain. The severe pain faded almost immediately, but a numb pain lingered down my arm, and a brown wire-mark branded my wrist. I became aware of the commotion my shriek of pain might have caused. (Side note: the only time I’d heard such commotion on the monastery grounds was a month prior, when one young Burmese monk had to be carried from the meditation hall to the medical quarters by five other monks after starting to shout toward the end of an afternoon meditation session. Later, outside the medical quarters, where the young monk’s disturbing screams were still in the air, I asked another monk what the issue was. He tapped his temple; “I think, mental problem”.)
A Sleuth of Yogis
Back in the shower, the electricity having had it’s way with me, another shock to the system was in store. The first yogi query about my wellbeing came from the dressing room outside the cubicle.
“Are you OK?”
- “Eh, I think I’ve just been electrocuted”. I unlocked the door. Yogi eyes emerging from the neighbouring rooms and doubling up on me, the object of commotion.
“Yes”, I was OK. “Yes, thanks, I’m fine”. I was fine. I began to hyperventilate. “I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m OK”. My peripheral blood vessels began to dilate. Hot goosebumps. Faster breathing. The overflow of blood to my face like legions of pounding ants. “I’m OK, I’m OK”, I repeated.
“I know... I’m having... a panic attack. It’s fine..... I’m OK”.
One pair of yogi eyes stepped closer; “hold my wrist” the eyes said in American; “Here... Just keep looking at me and count my pulse”. I put my fore fingers on his wrist and counted his pulse, holding his eyes. Only later would I recall how expertly this twenty-something American had handled this post-electrocution panic. He had taken charge; small but compassionate steps. My heart and breathing rate was lowering, the autonomic nervous system re-balancing. He had offered his wrist - did not offer any hand-holding in this men’s dressing room. His ‘intervention’ had changed the focus from my panic-attacked self to my performing a standard medical procedure on him! Smarter-than-the-average-yogi, I thought.
In this way, the American yogi preserved the remnants of my fried ego. And all before the eyes - none of them actually wanting to do me any more harm - of that accidental yogi congregation.
After the first few weeks in Pa Auk, meditating for six to eight hours every day, the lines between my wakeful state and the state of dreaming became blurry. On occasion, I would wake up in the night, open my eyes, and believe I had just been meditating again. Or I would be deep in meditation, sitting on my kuti ‘bed’, and believe I was asleep. But even in my definitively waking hours, I had less and less belief that my waking senses constituted more reality than my dream life.
My actual dreams in the early weeks of Pa Auk were the strangest of my life. Lucid for some of them, I was aware once of speaking loudly in a man’s voice. I don’t remember what I said, but the voice that came out of me was one I could not impersonate in waking hours if I tried. The most resonant dream vision I had was of seeing an old man. As anyone knows anything in the dream-world, I immediately knew this old man to represent me; an elderly version that I knew to be both a seeker and a sage. As the eternal ‘Seeker’, he was a curious wanderer of the world - fostering an indomitable spirit in conjunction with his greatest and most terrible teacher, loneliness; And he was a ‘Sage’, as one who knows humanity and himself - but only from a sufficient distance.
After a particularly deep afternoon meditation on Christmas Eve, I sat outside at the back of the meditation hall. Twice prior upon sitting in this spot, I’d noticed an easy and natural ability to descend into deeper meditation. I skeptically entertained the idea of some kind of energy being transmitted through the walls from the long-term meditators that sat up this end of the hall. Either way, with that afternoon’s meditation, coupled with this informal sitting at the back of the hall, and accentuated later by the next formal afternoon session, I slipped into a profound state of ‘self-less’ objectivity. My ego self remained sufficiently dissolved for me to observe thoughts and feelings of the mind-body without the illusion of ‘me’ as creator or owner of them.
This ‘non-ordinary’ state was all too rare but not unprecedented on intensive meditation retreat. What was unprecedented this time was that my physical movements slowed profoundly. For about 20 minutes or so after the second afternoon meditation sitting, my body movements had slowed to a snail's pace involuntarily. To an outside observer, barely appearing to move at all, I walked along the short stretch of monastery driveway and scaled the rocky stair back toward my kuti - all as if through molasses. One step every five seconds. Acutely aware of everything, not least of how weird this experience was. But there was no fear because there were just thoughts and feelings and no self to be frightened. Still, I felt like being with someone for some reassurance. Two super-slow-motion knocks on my monk neighbour’s door revealed that he was not yet home, so I proceeded at the same snail's pace to Johannes's living quarters (he had not yet re-possessed the neighbouring kuti then).
He ushered me in on arrival, and my suspicion of not being able to talk was confirmed. I gestured to my mouth and back toward the meditation hall and shook my head, using a new form of sign language to articulate this dumb situation. He sat me down, and about five minutes later, I began slurring some words resembling speech. A couple minutes more and I’d regained some fluidity and coherence. Jo’burger, an experienced student of meditation and a veteran of psychedelics, was aware of the weird range of mind-and-body-altering experiences that could possibly occur in this context. Compassionate as always, he allowed me to sit and simply be until I regained some semblance of myself.
“In eternity...there is no time. Eternity is a mere moment - just long enough for a joke."
- from 'Steppenwolf' by Hermann Hesse
While I’d had other language-defying experiences at Pa Auk, this was one note-worthy meditation ‘trip’ that could be related on paper. Very write-homeable. But wherever home is - be it a temporary or permanent home - there you are in that place yourself. When all's said and done, just you and your mind. Monastery living afforded me some invaluable time to familiarise in that relationship. But if there was an overarching lesson from Pa Auk, it was in living all the constantly changing experiences - the ordinary and the non-ordinary - with as much mindfulness and compassion as you can.
My last night in Pa Auk may have been the most memorable. Jo’burger, Kyle and I gathered for tea in Jo’burger’s pimped out kuti. Going against a strong internal voice, I decided to read them aloud my finished poem - a comedy-drama - of my Pa Auk experience. Some of the ‘in-house’ monastery jokes had them in stitches (like how U. Kumuda of foreign (yogi) affairs “wondered how many monkey’s were spanked” for U Kovida to get the monastery's head-teacher position; or how one day “‘Asperger’ reached nibbana in the hopscotch realm”). Finishing the intimately shared experience of reading my poem, Jo’berger commented on the positive atmosphere it had created in the kuti. To brave the reading in front of friends provided a fitting epilogue to my Pa Auk stay. As I closed my kuti door for the last time the following morning, I felt this was also a prologue of sorts. An emerging chapter in the next phase of seeking; some non-verbal awareness of a sage intuition that wanted little more than to be heard.