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On a quiet night, mutely sitting in a temple,
Infinite silent solitude reveals myself in itself.
Losing futile thoughts,
Alas, here is the Buddha! ~ Zen Poem
Now I have come to the shore of great silence. The young boy who ran to hide in the woods all those years ago has traveled so far to come here. How much noise there was along the way! I remember screaming out loud to the deaf sea and sky, trying to drown it all out. I remember too, muffling the din with the heavy, wet blanket of drunk and stoned. Finally, desperate and hopeless, I even offered myself to be swallowed up by what I thought would be the final silence of death. But in the end I pulled back from those gapping jaws and now, in the relative quiet of sobriety, I have come here to finally listen to the sound of my true self. No more endless chatter, I say! No more telling myself lies and stories and half-truths. No more chasing the tails of thoughts that loop round and round, thoughts that go on and on without end or purpose.
Here in Tushita, I see there are other travelers who have followed the call of silence. They come up the steps loaded down with heavy packs in ones and twos, and soon there are nearly fifty of us gathered at the entrance to the retreat center. We catch our breath as we dab the sweat from faces and foreheads after the long climb. The clear, high voice of this place has gone far and wide across the earth and now we all gather at the top of the hill under the shade of cool pines, wide eyed and wondering. Why have we come here? What do we hope to find? The air crackles and sizzles with the electricity of our expectations.
As I look around at all these new faces, I realize that I am not alone after all and this makes me smile. It is good to know that there are so many others who want to spend time in retreat, to spend ten whole days of their hard earned leisure time at this course on meditation and Buddhism. I think too that I am glad that we are in a high place. All retreats should be in high places, or maybe by the sea. Either way we need to be close to the source of ourselves, far and away from the noise and confusion that always pulls us in a million directions at once.
“We’re going to begin the registration now,” a young Swiss woman calls out over the tops of our heads. We have been dancing gingerly around each other to the tune of polite introductions but now it is time to get serious and we all snap to attention. “Please be patient as you are a bigger group than usual. We will call your names in the order that you signed up for the course.”
I tense and stiffen, wait and worry. Is my name really on that list? Did I fill out the registration form right? Has there been some terrible mistake? I may be clear-headed and sober now, but the old me, the me that doesn’t believe in himself, is still there, still fighting to run the show.
“Christopher…LEEMEEG?” I laugh out loud. Of course I was the first to sign up, months before any of the others. I marked my calendar long ago, ticked off the days when sign-up would begin, set my alarm clock to India time so I would wake at that exact moment. I had left nothing to chance.
So now I head to the dining hall. It has been set up like an assembly line and we stop at one table after another. We sign waivers and pay fees. We drop cameras and cell phones and MP3 players into big plastic bags that are whisked away to be locked in the center’s safe, shedding the noisemakers like unwanted, dead skin. Then there are rules and regulations to agree to, rooms to be assigned, maps to look over.
“Does that watch have an alarm?” the young man behind the last table asks.
I squint at his nametag. John, it says. I hold up the fancy watch like a game show host.
“John, this thing will scramble eggs if I ask it to…”
He doesn’t laugh; he just blinks at me through his wire frame glasses then looks back down at the list in front of him. “Karma Yoga Jobs” it reads across the top and then I feel a little ashamed at my silly joke, like already I have broken the silence.
“Good, you can be the morning gong ringer then. Meet me outside the front of the gompa in an hour and I’ll show you what to do.”
The Gong Ringer! It sounds so important, so official! The shame I felt only a moment ago is swept away by the pride that swells over its banks, and I polish my knuckles on my chest as I follow the little map up the hill to my room. Only a year ago I was smoking cigarettes and drinking myself half to death, but now I am here in India and I am already The Gong Ringer!
My dorm room is on the very edge of the grounds. I slip the old skeleton key into the keyhole and pry the door open with a resounding creak that echoes up the hillside. The plain, unpainted room is crowded with four squat bed frames that my roommates and I will toss and turn on for the next ten days. Above one of them, on a corner shelf that hangs on the wall, is a tiny stone Buddha. He beckons me serenely from the other end of the room and as I sit down on the edge of the bed I laugh. It is a typical India mattress, a thin cotton futon that long ago had all the comfort squashed out of it. I smack it with a satisfying thwap and lay down. If it is good enough for the Buddha to watch over, it is good enough for me.
My first roommate arrives. He is from the States too, lives only a few miles from me in fact, and it takes a minute for the coincidence to sink in before we burst out laughing at the strangeness and the wonder of it all. Then the silence returns uninvited but welcome and we sit for a long while, both smiling out the door at the trees and the monkeys that squabble and scream out there.
At one o’clock my watch beeps softly. Time to learn how to ring the gong.
John is waiting for me outside the huge black doors of the gompa. He plants his feet firmly on the ground as he grabs a big iron ring and pulls hard. I follow him in, eyes glued to him, not wanting to miss a thing. He shows me where the bronze bell and cotton mallet hang just inside the great hall filled with the yellow light of the sun. Then he takes me outside again and shows me how to hit it just right so the warm, round tone resonates softly through the quiet of the retreat grounds. He shows me the other spots to do this. Three times a day for the next week and a half: for waking up, breakfast and the morning’s teachings. He tells me that this will be a way for me to not only be mindful but also to be of service to everyone else here on retreat. I look around and see all the other seekers learning their tasks. Some will sweep the floors, clean the toilets, wash the dishes, help with meals. I take the bell from him humbly now and try for myself until I get it right.
We all meet again inside the meditation hall. A great circle of well-worn cushions, zafus and zabatons, radiates out from the center. Kunpen, the young German nun who runs this place, is poised on one of them. For some reason she doesn’t look strange at all, this western woman in red robes and a head shaved smooth and white like an egg. She smiles and waits for the gaggle to settle onto the strange bulbous seats and we wiggle and wobble until we find our balance.
She begins with the certainty and confidence of a merchant ship’s captain as she starts to tally off the long list of rules and expectations. We have already read most of them but now, as the nun reads them off of a bulleted list, they sound more daunting than ever before. This is the real thing and there is no turning back.
We are to wake at six every morning and be ready for our first meditation session at six forty-five. Then a short breakfast of fruit, porridge and tea. Buddhist teachings begin at nine and will last late into the morning. There will be yoga and the stretching of tired limbs each day just before lunch. Free time after this should be filled with study and meditation, we are told. More teachings will follow until dinnertime. Then we will meditate until nine or nine thirty at night.
While we are here there will be no talking, no smoking, no drinking, no sex. There will be no lying, no stealing, no killing, not even of insects. We are to live as though we are monks and nuns in training and the thought of this gives me a little thrill. But as I look around at the other faces in the room I see watering eyes and gaping jaws.
Kunpen sees these too and she lets out a peal of laughter that sets us all at ease.
“Don’t look so glum,” she says. “It’s not as bad as all that!”
Then she tells us jokes and stories from past retreats and her eyes tell us to have light hearts, to have faith in ourselves, that we can do this.
“The silence will begin after dinner tonight,” she reminds us at the end. “Please take the vow of silence seriously; you will find that it is more difficult than you imagined.”
But the warning fades away as we file into the dining hall. Soon it is buzzing with conversation. Everything is all so new and exciting. Even the simple vegetarian meal of soup, bread and butter seems a great feast. The dining hall bustles with all of this as we take advantage of one last chance to speak to one another. But then one by one, we get up from the long tables and take our plates to the dishwashers. Our voices fade to a few scattered whispers then to no sound at all.
We meet back in the gompa, the new center of our lives, and find that the cushions have been set up in neat rows facing the great altar occupied by the images of a hundred different Buddhas. A man sits on a cushion just under all of these. He faces us, his cushion slightly higher than the rest. He is not dressed in robes, his head is not shaved, nor does he have a thousand arms or a halo around his head. He looks like he could be any one of us. But then I look more closely at his face. He is smiling and serene like no one I have ever seen before. There is no pretension anywhere to be found. Neither is the smile a mask hiding a half secret fear or contempt. He is completely present and in him I sense no wish to be anywhere else.
“My name is Tim,” he says in a rolling Dutch accent. “I am not a teacher but for the next ten days I will try my best to be your meditation instructor.”
His eyes sparkle and I like him right away.
He wastes no time guiding us slowly, gently through the steps of shamatha meditation. This is the practice of mindfulness that I have been playing with for the past year and I feel the pride swelling again as I recognize the posture and method he describes.
“Sit with back straight and legs crossed,” he begins. “Rest your hands in your lap, palms up, cradling each other with the left hand on bottom, right on top, thumbs barely touching. Relax your jaw and place your tongue on the roof of your mouth so you are breathing through your nose. Keep your eyes slightly open, gazing downwards…”
He speaks slowly. There is no rush to be anywhere or do anything.
“Now simply rest your attention lightly on the natural rhythm of your breath. Thoughts will come up. Sounds will come up. Sensations will come up. Don’t worry. Just notice all of these things and gently bring your awareness back to the breath.”
He rings the little bell in front of him and now forty-eight people sit quietly and unmoving, some for the first time in their lives. But this is not my first time. I sit with confidence, knowing what lies ahead.
So I settle in, wrap my knees in my warm wool shawl. I breathe in and out. My thoughts buzz and flutter. I am in India! I am on retreat! I have made it! But I take another inhale and just like I learned back home, I come back to the breath. Then the whole world takes a long, easy breath with me and is for a moment very, very still.
Five minutes pass and I realize that already my thoughts have drifted, though I don’t know when or how. Just when I am about to remember what I am doing, sitting here amongst a group of strangers, I notice the breath of my neighbor. It is a thin, high-pitched whistle through his right nostril. I smile knowingly to myself. Then I bring my attention back to my own breathing.
Eight minutes pass and the whole group moves like a slow, sloshing wave from one side of the hall to the other. Joints creak and crack as people shift on their cushions. But I do not move. I will not move. I have meditated fifteen minutes a day for the past twelve months and so I continue to sit with ease as I come back to the breath.
Twelve minutes. A cough, a sneeze, a sigh. I notice all of these and gently return once more to the breath.
But then, at sixteen minutes, I notice a burning, searing pain in my knees. Drops of sweat gather on my temples and one by one begin the slow descent down the sides of my face. Heat is poured on top of heat and soon there are no thoughts, no breathing neighbor, no silence, no cushion, no India, no meditation hall. There is even no breath now, only the ringing in my ears and the grinding of my teeth as I imagine someone driving long, sharp spikes into my kneecaps. I grab them, knead them, rub them. I rock and roll and shut my eyes tight.
Finally I let out a little gasp. I give in. I quietly uncross my legs and wait for relief. But there is no relief. The pain continues even worse than before and for the next twenty-three minutes I am Agony and Despair. Visions of nine more days of torturous sitting just like this consume me. I am not going to make it.
Tim finally rings the bell, long after I had given up any hope of ever hearing it again. We all groan together and I think we all want to cry.
Tim has not moved. Not one inch. His legs are still twisted up in the half lotus position, one ankle resting on the opposite thigh. He is comfortable, serene, even refreshed after forty minutes of sitting. He smiles at us now. He has seen all this fear, doubt and frustration before.
“It’s not too easy is it?” he says. “Don’t worry. Be patient. This practice is not to be mastered in a day or a few weeks. After twenty years you may find that your ability to concentrate has improved. That’s all for tonight. Get a good nights rest and remember: cherish the silence.”
We all file out of the gompa now, feet shuffling and scuffling into the dark Indian night. The quiet of the pine jungle around us seems forbidding now. I think I have made a mistake by coming here and as I look into the eyes of those around me, I know they are thinking that too.
We head to our rooms, one by one. We do not say goodnight. We do not say anything at all. We just awkwardly crawl under the covers, each with three people around us we have never met, and turn off the lights.
In my dream a figure in robes is walking along a winding stone path through the mists and the trees. It is a still moment, a perfect moment, and I think that the sun has just stretched his arms up over the unseen horizon. Out of this peace and silence I can hear the ringing of a great bell. It fills all of space, and it is pure and high and clear.
“What a wonderful way to wake up,” I think as the figure in robes comes closer.
The bell rings again, louder this time. I roll over out of sleep and pick up my watch.
6:06 it reads.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!” I cry as I snap up out of bed, knocking my head on the shelf above. The stone Buddha tumbles down into my lap but I do not see that he is smiling at me all the while. I put him back on the shelf, leap out of my sleeping bag and in one fluid motion I am in my shoes and heading for the door. My roommates stir out of their own dreams and try to focus through sleep-filled eyes. But I am already gone out into the mists and blue light of the real dawn.
I run down the slippery, moss-covered steps, straining my ears for the next ring of the bell. I come around the corner and there is John walking up the path towards me. His hair is tousled and he is still half asleep.
“Sorry, sorry,” I say breaking the silence again. I wince, waiting for some stern word or rebuke. But he doesn’t scold me or shush me or slap my wrist. He just hands me the gong and with a nod and a sleepy smile walks back down the path.
I stand still for a moment and laugh under my breath. It is so quiet up here in these hills. The only noise I can hear is the noise inside my head. But even that fades away as I take the gong and the mallet up to the last spot of the morning’s rounds. I stand there on the top of the hill overlooking the gardens and the gompa. I hold the bell high, swing the mallet. Then I wait and listen as the silence holds the ringing close in her arms like a mother who has called her one and only child home.