Friday, May 31, 2013

Nirvana- Days 35-41

Unfortunately, I didn't find Nirvana during my stay at Bhavana Meditation Society. I did, however, make a few new friends. Such as Mangala who is about to dive into the monastic life through the fiery hoop of ordination after a year of preparation. And Loi who is on an international tour of monasteries. Or Andrew, a thick guy with a heavy Russian accent who finally got his daughter to do a retreat him. At least that's his story. I'm not completely confident he isn't KGB, but that's a whole other rabbit hole. 

Then there are the anchors of Bhavana Society such as Robert who more often than not can be found in the kitchen making sure all the guests and residents are well fed. And I must say even though, as is standard practice no one eats after 12 noon, everyone is well fed with a pretty impressive spread. I am, however, still trying to comprehend how a meal for 8-10 vegetarians can generate enough dirty dishes to keep a team of 5 busy washing up for 30-40 minutes. They could seriously use a smart kitchen manager to streamline things.

The true spiritual or educational anchors of a meditation center or monastery are, of course, the monks.  At Bhavana Society there are three resident monks. The junior most monk is an American born and there is no mistaking that fact. The next senior monk is, as you might expect, a no nonsense Sri Lankan named Bhante Seelananda. The Senior monk and founder of the Bhavana Society is Bhante Gunaratana who is also a Sri Lankan and became a monk at age 12 and took formal ordination at age 20 in 1947.

One of the perks of doing a casual personal retreat with no formal retreatants present is that you can do things you wouldn't normally be able to do, such as work. During a formal retreat there is a strict schedule and it's all business. Well, actually, no business, just all mediation. During casual retreats, on the other hand, you are asked to pitch in for a couple hours each day and help out with things that need to be done. As it turned out they had some carpentry work to be done and so it was a great pleasure to be able to contribute in that way.

The day before I was scheduled to depart Bhante Gunaratana came by while I was working on a project for them and said that he had been wanting to speak to me all week, but during every opportunity he found me working so hard that he didn't want to disturb me. He followed that up with an invite to stay as long as I like. "You scratch my back, and I scratch yours" as he put it. I was flattered that my actions transcended the need to fill out the usual paper work and such which is usually necessary to extend ones stay longer than 6 days, but I needed to keep moving.

Later, after the days meal he told me and Andrew a story of when he visited Russia as a young man back in the day when the KGB and the cold war were very much alive and well. A time when he remarked, "Everyone I met knew my name and I couldn't figure out how." (They were KGB). This story may well be a meditation subject for me for the rest of my life. He told how he entered a taxi on his way to start a day of sightseeing when a thief reached into the window and grabbed his camera. He described the tug of war that ensued. Him holding on to his camera firmly and the would-be thief hanging half way into the cab. An apparent stalemate ensued, but neither was giving up. Then Bhante "G", this sweet, peaceful, frail  5 foot 2 inch, 85 year old who can't be more than 90 pounds soaking wet says in a Sri Lankan accent  "So I took my elbow and smashed it into his nose! And he ran away.". Not the ending to the story I would have expected and the only chuckle I had all week.

Lastly, for those of you who don't know what it's like to go on a meditation retreat I want to paint a rough picture of it for you. Be prepared to wake up at 4:30 am and get yourself seated in a position which is comfortable, but one in which you won't be lulled to sleep. Then you'll hear a soft gong signaling you to close your eyes. Then just be aware of all that is going on in your body and mind as objectively as possible. Don't plan. Don't peek! Don't daydream.  Don't fidget (and be thankful it isn't Zen, because then when you fidget, and you will, you get whacked with a stick!) Do that for an hour and the sound of three gongs signals the end of the sitting. Get up, stretch and get circulation back in your limbs. Start over....... and over.... and over.....Reach enlightenment.
Pretty simple really!

For more information on Bhavana Society: