LIM TEIK LEONG, here to videotape the goings on of Introduction to Monkhood Programme 5 (IMP5), takes his eyes away from the viewfinder now and then to bring to you his personal, insightful views.
Contrary to what we hear Buddhists say, let me assure you, there is no suffering-not where the IMP is concerned anyway. There is suffering only if you have the wrong mindset. Waking up at 5am may sound alien to those who are not used to it. Finishing the day with no dinner or tea may sound like an impossible task reserved only for the monks but those who have experienced meditation retreats can attest to the ease with which you slide into the routine.
IMP is handled with kid gloves by Bhante Aggacitta, though he is firm. From what I see, he is almost motherly; although fatherly would be a more acceptable word. The patience he exhibits in showing how the robes are worn and actually arranging the robes on the participants is an example of this. One would expect them to have learnt how to do this after four days but he was still helping them. In the meditation sessions, when someone once commented that what he said was too soft, in the next session he raised his voice above his normal gentle one to cater to for those at the back.
“Do what I do,” is the motto here as the monks lead by example. Every morning they lead the line down the hill for piṇḍacāra. Seeing the participants lining up before reaching the Hokkien Cemetery pavilion conjures up pictures of boot camp. The white robed participants line up while the four bhantes and the resident dog walk down the line like sergeant majors on inspection day. Is the robe put on right? Is the alms bowl slung over the shoulder correctly? When some¬thing is awry, the monks do the neces¬sary adjustments like parents fussing over their own child. Attention to detail shows the respect they all have for the devotees waiting for them with the food.
Last minute instructions are given: “When you are sitting there waiting for your turn to take food, lower your gaze and radiate mettā to all the devotees there.” The mutual respect and inter-dependence between the laity and Sangha is very strong.
The walk down the hill each morning is something to look forward to. Boy, the dog which has adopted SBS, is there to lead the troop down everyday. And why not, he gets food there too. As for the rest of the participants, the good food and abundance of fruit is motivating—making the walk down sprightly and light. Once the food is collected and the devotees thanked, the participants look forward to the walk up—as halfway up by the waterfall, breakfast can begin. Only thing missing is a bollywood star singing.
After breakfast, there is only half the hill to walk up. And once up there, it is free time until lectures at 10.30am. They are actually to do cleaning and sweeping but all that have usually been done the evening before and so there remain only a few touch-ups. Those who are tired catch a quick snooze and everyone is fresh for the next slot in the timetable.
Formal meditation is less rigorous than in retreats where yogis have to sit for hours. Here the sessions are only one hour. And Bhante teaches you how to sit, what to do with the wandering mind and what to do when the inevitable pain comes. There are experienced meditators in the group but the introduction to meditation is more than welcome to the new ones. Meditation is not a dreaded word in IMP. It is taught as part of life and not to be confined to formal sitting medi¬tation. Bhante reminds everyone several times daily, “Even when you’re off the cushion, be aware of all your daily activities. Be aware how your mind reacts to objects attracting its attention.”
At times come the orders, “Everybody out—sit under the trees. Do forest meditation.” And so they all troop out to find shady spots under the trees next to the classrooms. You are in the jungle (use your imagination) and yet you are a step away from the con¬ve¬niences of modern living. Dis¬cuss¬ions and talks are often held under the trees. Only the opening salvos of threatening rain can get everyone in the hall again.
Evenings are for things like Pali pronunciation so that you can chant better. Listening to the class chanting for the first time is entertaining because of the mistakes. The devas will have a hard time understanding what is being chant¬ed in the beginning classes. But it has been all right so far. With the daily chanting of Khandha Sutta, even with the mispronunciation of the beginners, there have been no cases of snake attack. Either they understand or the chanting has made them move out of earshot. This makes daily outdoor cleaning as pleasant as an evening walk in the fresh breeze of the hill.
Night is for chanting and an hour of sitting meditation. Some nights, meditation is around the bodhi tree. Cushions are provided. You sit there in the dark and listen to the soothing instructions given. When you are numb from sitting, open your eyelids slightly and peer out through half-closed eyelids at the looming Buddha-like poses in front of you. Spine-tingling the first time, it is an expe¬rience to savour.
So, where is the suffering? There is firmness but not strictness. I would recommend the programme for those who think life here is hard. Things might change if you ordain but IMP is an introduction. The accommodation is good. The facilities are better than spartan. Cooling or chrysanthemum tea is occasionally brewed for general consumption. There are also hot water facilities, ample clean bathrooms, an abundant water supply and caring organisers.
Tourists pay a fortune to experience eco-holidays which may be the luxury version of this. And instead of Belgium chocolates on your pillow, there is an abundance of metta and guidance. You leave with an understanding of the nature of things to help you in life.
On the other hand, maybe you shouldn’t come. You won’t be able to forge the kind of camaraderie that make fellow sufferers bond—there is no tyrannical sergeant bullying recruits, only a compassionate monk with a sense of humour, very serious about the Sasana.