I had the privilege of spending 18 days in a monastery on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar. ( Chanmyaymyaing retreat center, mingaladon township.)
It was wonderful to be part of the rhythm of life there. Every day was in the same rhythm. Up at 4, breakfast at 530, work from 630 to 730, lunch at 1030, juice drink at 5, chanting at 6 and return to room at 9. Apart from that we were encouraged to fill the day with meditation; standing, walking and sitting. No books, phones or entertainment. No conversation apart from meditation guidance. Even the meals were a time of mindful practice. We eat slowly and carefully, as a ritual.
Lunch was always a big ritual. Visitors and locals would often visit and stand prayerfully as monks, nuns and lay practitioners walked slowly into the dining area. Eating was in silence; mindful and calm.
The foreign meditators followed a slightly different schedule with a little less chanting then the Burmese. We also had our own meditation hall and were guided by Sister Viranani, an American nun who guided with skill and care. Indeed, although we were encouraged to meditate as much as possible, we all followed our own rhythm; walking and sitting according to our own rhythm. I took rests after lunch and juice and needed to sleep a little at those times in the early part of the retreat.
Chanting would drift up from the Burmese hall at 6 am and 3 pm. Every day had the same rhythm with the same glorious sunshine, hot afternoons and cool evenings. Over time, a different concept of time becomes apparent. Every day is more of a re-day then a new day. It brought to mind how in Irish we say athbhlian ( re-year) as oppose to blian nua ( new year). Our conception of time moving relentlessly forward with interesting things to look forward to is challenged. We just do the day again ! Rhythm and routine holding the practice together.
The other quality which holds everything together here is devotion. Here, of course, meditation is an aspect of religious practice. It isn’t primarily something you do to get a bit happier or more balanced. It’s goal and orientation is spiritual. To move beyond our attachments.
It’s not so easy ! The mind wants entertainment. In the midst of a long afternoon the following little poem came to me.
“Entranced by longing
The hot afternoon, immortal sits.”
And peace comes with the disappearing self. Sounds happen, thoughts happen, the breath happens. Mind and object. We relax deeply in such moments. No ownership of experience.
The evenings were beautiful although my mind was often quite tired at this stage. Watching the monks walk in the cool evenings was especially inspiring. Such peace and dedication in every step. If you will forgive me another little poem…
“Evening. A monks prayerful step.
The world we’re given is enough”
All of this of course will be hard for people to square with the news reports of attrocities in the north of the country. I suppose ultimately any religion can poison the spirit when it becomes dogmatic and/or tribal. Dharma (teaching, nature, truth) not dogma is the way.
The monastery sits right in the heart of life. It is in the middle of a farming village. Life there appeared simple. These people have nothing but their community and their monastery. It is their pride and joy. And the oppertunity to practice is offered freely to anyone although, of course, it is customary to offer donation.
It was a beautiful center with lovely comfortable rooms, very nice mediation areas and lovely trees and plants. But it was next to a busy road ! Any illusion of outer tranquilty quickly dispelled by honking horns; not to mention the constant sounds of cows, pigs, chickens, cockerals and occasional construction work. The villagers also love playing Burmese pop music through speakers on fairly frequent occasions. So aurally it was far from ideal ! But the Buddha never promised us a rose garden.
This was our meditation halls. Those are mosquito nets hanging.
Shrine in meditation hall ( above)
Dining area below