Sunday, February 14, 2010

Vipassana course in Bodhgaya.

The place: The meditation center was a large self-contained compound located on the outskirts of Bodhgaya, with a pagoda, meditation hall, dining hall, and male/female residences.

The pagoda, with about 140 individual cells inside.

Meditation hall where most of our time was spent. The white chair in the front was for our teacher.

The residences.

The people: There were about 50 students -- about a third locals, a third young travels, and a third aging hippies. Surprisingly, only half of us were new to Vipassana. I spoke with many who kept coming back again and again, including one Korean monk and a Bangladeshi woman with several 45-day courses under her belt. We had one elderly Indian teacher who presided over the group meditations and whom we met with once a day to discuss doubts or problems with the technique. In addition, there were two assistant teachers available for personal or material matters.

The amenities: I shared a small room with an older Italian woman named Cinzia. We had bucket showers with solar-heated water, mosquito nets provided, and wool blankets. Contrary to my expectations, the food was great. For breakfast, fruit, bread and jam, and porridge. For lunch, two types of spiced vegetables, lentils, rice, bread, salad (with beets!), and fresh yogurt. For tea, bananas and savory crispy puffed rice. There was absolutely no cost for any of these things, as everything was provided by donations from past students.

My room.

The rules: All students had to observe a set of precepts:

Abstention from killing (yes, even the persistent mosquitoes)
Abstention from stealing
Abstention from all sexual activities
Abstention from telling lies
Abstention from all intoxicants
Abstention from taking food after 12 noon (relaxed for new students with a 5pm tea snack)

Students also pledged to give up distractions of any kind, including reading and writing materials, music, and communication devices. The most significant rule to the course was the observation of a Noble Silence, which not only included speech but eye contact, physical contact, and gestures.

The schedule: Humans are creatures of habit. The time table was followed to the minute, and my adjustment to it helped the passage of the 10 days.

4:00am Wake-up bell
4:30am Meditation
6:30am Breakfast
8:00am Meditation
11:00am Lunch
1:00pm Meditation
5:00pm Tea break
6:00pm Meditation
7:00pm Video discourse
8:30pm Meditation
9:00pm Bedtime

The teaching: The technique and philosophy of Vipassana is true to what Siddhartha Gautama used to become Buddha, "the enlightened one". Vipassana was lost in its native India, and was only preserved in Burma, until in 1969 a man named S.N. Goenka brought it back into its country of origin. Goenka's pedgogy came from a long line of gurus, and the course ran under his teaching, not in person, but by audio and video. We started and ended each meditation session with cassette recordings of his practical instructions. We wrapped up each day with a lecture-style video discourse about the philosophies behind Vipassana.

I'll elucidate the lengthy complicated philosophies in another post, but they were a very big part of my perception of the course and of the experience. For now, I'll focus on the practical rather than the theoretical aspect of the meditation.

Days 1-3:
We started off learning not Vipassana ("insight"), but annapana ("breathing") meditation. For the first three days, we were to concentrate our minds exclusively on the nostrils and upper lips, gradually narrowing down the area of focus as the mind became more sensitive to the sensations occurring there. The course began with annapana in order to train the mind for the higher level of concentration required for Vipassana.

Day 4: Formal introduction the Vipassana technique. We were to systematically take sections of the body and observe any sensations occurring there, moving in a direction from head to feet, making sure that the whole area of the body is accounted for. It was starting on this day that it became important not to change positions for the hour-long sessions, which was impossible for me at this stage.

Days 5-8: Refinement of Vipassana. First we practiced reversing directions, so we were moving from feet to head. Then, we tried to concentrate attention on smaller and smaller sections of the body at a time. The nature of the sensations themselves also began to change: instead of feeling only distinct, gross sensations, I could gradually feel subtler, more fleeting sensations throughout the body. The goal by the end of day 8 was to be able to sweep rapidly all over the body and feel uniform sensations throughout, though I never achieved that stage. At least by now, I had found a suitable sitting position and could sit for at least an hour without moving a hair.

Day 9: On this day, advanced students were instructed to penetrate their minds within the body and feel subtle vibrations both inside and outside.

Day 10: After morning meditation, the Noble Silence was broken, in order to try to reintegrate students back into the world. The teaching of Vipassana ended. We continued to meditate to Goenka's audio tapes preaching and singing about love and compassion.

How I fared: Day 1 was excruciatingly long and my morale was very low. Having never done a minute of meditation before immersing myself in this course, my thoughts shot off in a million and one directions. I could not focus on my breathing for over 5 minutes at a time, and the minutes felt like hours. I wondered what I had gotten myself into and how I could possibly last 9 more days like this.

Improvements in my mindset and focus began just the next day. I told myself that if I could just make it to day 6, the halfway point would propel my morale all the way to the end. But day 6 came, and I suffered another depressing day. Vipassana technique was getting harder and harder, and it became more difficult for me to connect the theory with the practice. From here on out, though generally my concentration level and patience got better, I failed to improve any further in the formal Vipassana technique of feeling subtle sensations in the body.

I found it wildly difficult to simply stop thinking. And what's more, not only was my mind shooting off in every imaginable direction, I found that I could actually think about what I was thinking about, which was a bizarre experience. There were the typical thoughts, like memories of my past, and daydreams about my future. But I also spent literally an entire day thinking about food, and dreamed up places I wanted to travel, when and with whom. I sang songs in my head and replayed scenes from movies. Of course, during meditation, I tried honestly to purge thoughts from my mind, but outside of meditation, I had nowhere else to go but my head and the thoughts never for a second stopped.

Reflections: One of the main characteristics about Vipassana and about Buddhism in general is that every human's life is grounded in misery. I couldn't accept this at first, because I feel genuinely happy at all times, but the more I thought about it, the more I considered that maybe some of my approaches to life create a potential for misery that only hasn't yet manifested itself. I'm still trying to figure out what that is. The theory is that misery stems from craving and aversion, and meditation will help purge that misery. But don't craving and aversion make life colorful, negative as they may sometimes be? Without craving and aversion, wouldn't everything just be neutral and bland? Then again, I may be interpreting the definitions of misery, craving, and aversion in the wrong way. More research needs to be done.

Conclusion: Valuable experience, though very difficult. I am going to read more about both the philosophies and then try my hand at this again, hopefully within the next year or so. That's right. I need one more go. I need to feel as if I "did it right", whatever that means.

Bodghaya: I spent the day before and after meditation exploring the small, peaceful town of Bodhgaya. It's the most important place in the world for Buddhists, as reflected by the number of monks from all over the world who make their pilgrimages here.

The main market was teeming with locals selling prayer beads, prayer wheels, Tibetan jewelry, and other knick-knacks.

Located next to the main market was the Mahabodhi temple, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Its tall spire towers above the town. In the large courtyard around the temple, dozens of monks spread out their cushions to meditate and pray.

The Mahabodhi tree, under which the Buddha forced himself to meditate without moving until he had achieved nirvana. It's not exactly the original tree, but a distant offshoot of it. A sapling from the original was taken to Sri Lanka and planted, and from that, another cutting was taken back to Bodhgaya and this is it.

Tibetan monks under the tree. I sat here with them for a long time, just feeling the vibrations of the place.

I write this all from Nepal! Posting will be unpredictable for the next two weeks, but my next updates will be about this beautiful country.

1 comment:

Stu said...

I chuckled at the line "my mind shot off in a million and one directions". That's so you. I can't imagine you not thinking.
Sounds interesting though. I like the picture of the bodhi tree