As many dear readers are aware, after being involved in establishing a monastery, teaching meditation retreats and leading pilgrimages for 9 years, I have been on sabbatical leave from teaching and abbot duties since around the 9th of December 2019. I had hoped to be able to do three intensive marathon meditation retreats in Bodhgaya, Bihar, Northern India. Doing around 750 hours of meditation, (8-10 hours per day) in three separate 250 hour sessions of 4-5 weeks, over a period of around five months. For I sincerely believe that the best way to recharge and refresh a heart and mind that has become too outwardly concerned is not through relaxing into leisure and comfort, but rather, through sharpening and clarifying mindfulness through a period, or through periods of sustained and focused effort.
Speaking of such intensive meditation retreats. Although soreness of muscles can arise while doing a lot of meditation, and a type of tiredness can occur from sleeping little, at the same time, if we are diligent, a different type of mental energy can arise which is very invigorating and even quite rapturous. The more diligent and consistent one can be with skillful efforts in meditation, the more clarity and serenity will arise. One’s mind becomes established in a serene quality of presence and clarity and feels detached and aloof from the tiredness and pain. This is of course difficult to explain, and seems a little counter intuitive, because it goes against the grain. But these things are, as Lord Buddha has said... ‘To be experienced individually by the wise.’ One must listen, study, consider and then practice a lot for oneself in order to experience such things directly. To date, I have been able to complete two of my proposed intensive meditation retreats. They were very difficult, and they were also great!
According to my lovely sabbatical plan. There would be the first meditation marathon in Bodhgaya, followed by a little break back in Thailand. Then a second marathon in Bodhgaya, followed by a another short break in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. And then the third and final marathon back in Bodhgaya once again. To someone who does not live in Southeast Asia, this probably all sounds rather exotic and even extravagant, so much traveling around! What most people may not know however, is that both Bodhgaya and Kathmandu are just short 3 hour flights from Bangkok, and the phenomenon of low cost airlines and online visas has made it’s way to Asia since many years ago already. From where I live, these places have become regional. And pilgrims guesthouses are quite affordable as well, particularly if the pilgrim stays for a month or longer.
For an abbot and a teacher, one of the best ways I have found to give yourself a head start in the ‘letting go and putting things down’ process, is to physically leave your monastery and your students. The heart instantly feels lighter! I am not saying that being an abbot or teacher is a bad thing necessarily, but I am saying that all things should be done with a balanced attitude and with a ‘middle way’ approach. Lord Buddha himself has instructed us in the Metta Sutta, that one should be ‘unburdened with duties,’ if we wish to grow in the master’s Way. We can do many things in order to practice generosity, cultivate kindness and produce merits, and to help others in the same ways that we have also been helped. But as you will all know for yourselves, people and projects are complicated things, and so supporting an engaged and generous lifestyle with specially designated periods for recuperation is sensible.
One of my earliest monk teachers, Ajahn Jayasaro, in response to being asked a question about practicing ‘Engaged Buddhism,’ once said the following. ‘Practicing engaged Buddhism is fine, but it has to be kept to the right amount. Because in my observation, many engaged Buddhists often wind up getting married!’ You see monks who are not yet Arahants do have to keep some distance from laypeople if they are to maintain and sustain their celibate and contemplative lifestyle with integrity. I’m not saying here that I was at risk of getting married, but I am saying that practice monks should make a lot of time for meditation.
The corona virus tsunami...
Back to my retreat period. The first two meditation marathons basically went very well. Despite the challenges of very cold weather and especially heavy fog in early January, then a significantly injured right foot in late January. I was still able to plod along steadily and clock up an additional 501 hours of meditation at the Mahabodhi Temple and Sacred Bodhi Tree. My favorite place to meditate in this world. The formal meditation practice definitely benefitted from my having increased the effort and consistency, as well as having put down many duties and responsibilities. But a new flu, or technically a corona virus, which was later called covid19, had already started to spread to a few places by the end of January. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would have significant unforeseen consequences for my retreat.
People around the entire planet had become significantly aware of this stronger and more contagious strain of corona virus by late January, when the reported cases stood at around 12,000. At that time the infections appeared to be increasing by a few thousand per day, mostly in the Wuhan district of China. By the end of February however, just one month later, we appeared to be experiencing the beginning of a veritable tsunami of cascading illness, crashing against the shores of many nations all around the world. With 90,000 reported cases in over 100 countries and now with the death toll increasing by around 100 per day.
As well as health care workers, the researchers and statisticians were working overtime to map the rates of infection, the geographical spreading of the virus as well as the death rate. By the beginning of March, world governments began to recognize that unless they slowed the rate of contagion, this pandemic would soon become uncontainable. And with a level of contagiousness 4 times greater than what we’ve previously known as the normal seasonal flu, we are told, and a death rate perhaps 20 times greater, the early statistics suggest, there is not a single country which has a healthcare system and infrastructure that could accommodate such a great human health catastrophe.
And this is the point, after the first week of March, where this global tsunami affecting the lives of so many started to lap at the heels of my sabbatical plans as well. The shadow of the wave looming overhead, threatening to crash down on my friends and I wherever we found ourselves it seemed, impelling us to flee. Fortunately the dates I had chosen to return from Kathmandu synchronized most providentially with the last available flight before India completely locked down her borders to foreigners. That was lucky. We made it back to India with a 9 hour window before all foreign nationals were banned from entering the country. My plans for another meditation retreat in Bodhgaya were dashed however, as the risk of curfews as well as there being no available return flights became suddenly very real. So I had to abandon ‘round three’ in Bodhgaya, and flee from mother India.
Still eager to continue with both the theme and momentum of my intensive meditation retreat at ancient sacred Holy Sites however. One other monk, Tahn Anand, Mae Chee Aimee and I, seeing that we still had sufficient resources and the support to do so, decided to transplant the location of our retreat to the peaceful and remote site of Anuradhapura in central Sri Lanka. Just a three and a half hour flight from Delhi. With just 4 confirmed cases in the middle of March, and with less tourists passing through during this time, we were hopeful that we would be able to stay ahead of the curve and have a one month retreat.
But after just four full days in Anuradhapura, the Sri Lankan government proved much more quick to act than other countries, and started implementing mandatory stay at home curfews. On top of this, Thai authorities also announced that they were going to be implementing much stricter entry requirements for foreigners. My previous spacious and benevolent world of options, freedom and choices, suddenly came crashing in all around me. The choices and the freedoms were closing down. Many flights got canceled at these pieces of news. And so once again we had to abruptly pack up and relocate. Returning to Bangkok via Dubai, as there were literally no more direct flights. We arrived with just a 6 hour window before the entry requirements became almost impossibly difficult to comply with. The phrase the officials had used themselves in their announcement, was that they were raising the drawbridge to protect the Kingdom. We made it back into the Kingdom just before the drawbridge slammed shut!
Trying to be responsible towards our community and friends, we ‘three refugees’ settled into a voluntary 14 day self quarantine in Bangkok. As apparently it can take up to 14 days before symptoms appear, and during that time a person can be a carrier. Having passed through several international airports we thought it would be best to take such care. And so we tried to ‘start again’ and continue our attempts at retreat here. But then, yet again, after just 3 days of settling in, the Thai authorities announced that people in Bangkok were not going to be allowed to travel to other provinces at all for an entire month. Many businesses were ordered closed and people were encouraged to work from home, or in many instances, to stop work altogether and simply stay at home. To wait for this viral wave to crash and hopefully start to recede.
The Authorities gave people just 36 hours to get to wherever they prefered to be for a one month long period, with greatly curtailed freedoms. We decided that although we were content to stay in Bangkok for a fortnight, we did not wish to get stuck here for a minimum period of a month, which might actually be extended later. And so now I am writing this particular journal entry in the car going back to Anandagiri, in Petchabun province, Northern Thailand, on the eve of the curfew. The last journal entry having been written on the plane back from Dubai to Bangkok. By my counting, that is three abandoned attempts at intensive retreats in three different countries in just two weeks! ‘ Aniccam ‘ - Impermanence. Plans are uncertain indeed!
Rolling with the punches...
Fortunately for me, having had two successful meditation marathons in recent months, as well as very pleasant experiences in both Nepal and Sri Lanka, there is a high level of contentment and gratitude in the mind. And enough calm and spaciousness to be able to take this in my stride without feeling too put out. Yes, my life and plans have been repeatedly affected, but compared to very serious effects that both this strain of illness as well as governments responses to it are having upon the lives of many millions of others, I recognize that I got off lightly, at least so far.
After having been quite unconcerned personally about the actual corona virus whilst in Bodhgaya, Kathmandu and Anuradhapura. Feeling that the risk of infection was actually very slight, even I am now wearing a face mask, along with most of the Thais. The health risk is very real it seems, and has finally caught our attention. My particular face mask model, given to me by a student in Bangkok is apparently from Japan. It has a vertical join in the middle and is somewhat pointy, looking a bit like a beak. And so even though I would generally identify as more of a naga or dragon in personality type, today I look more like a phoenix or garuda... with a very white beak!
Awareness of impermanence and unsatisfactoriness...
Perhaps unlike for many others, this virus phenomenon didn’t actually catch me completely by surprise. For when I was plodding away at trying to complete my ‘3000 hours of meditation under the Bodhi Tree’ vow, I often considered that I might not be able to complete it, should conditions in the world change. For there is always the possibility of war, natural disasters, personal injury, illness or even death. I have considered and do consider these things often. As a Buddhist monk, I am not only allowed to consider the possibility of change and impermanence, I am instructed by the Buddha and my teachers to do it constantly.
So it’s almost as though there is a part of me that is half expecting such things. I’ve often said while teaching retreats, that serious challenges and suffering are something that we should actually expect at some points in our lives. For that is in fact the theme of samsara. And it’s at the times when we don’t have a lot of serious challenges in our lives that we should invest a lot of effort and energy into meditation, in preparation for the challenges that are bound to come. But unfortunately, we all tend to be a little bit heedless when life is comfortable, especially in this age of busyness and easy distraction.
With regards unsatisfactoriness, I’ve experienced quite a bit of that in my own life already as well. And as a mentor and teacher to a number of other people, I hear about the pain of change, and the experience of being separated from the liked and having to be with the unliked fairly consistently as well. So the Truth and fact of ‘dukkha’ no longer really surprises me. And yet having said that, having not lived through a pandemic before, the scale of this particular catastrophe does seem quite amazing. Living through it seems both sad and surreal. And the cure, or efforts at prevention in many respects seem to be just as awful, or perhaps even worse than the corona virus itself.
A difficult time to laugh...
I’ve noticed that in many of my journal entries in the past I have enjoyed sharing a tone of levity, irony and joy. Laughing along at the absurdity and strangeness of life and the funny wackiness and eccentricity of both myself and my fellow human beings. A sense of humor definitely supports spiritual striving. But whereas I do feel both fortunate, blessed and grateful just now, it seems that it is a difficult time to laugh. For as a sensitive and empathic person who pays attention, I am very aware of the current scale of this big challenge that we are all now facing, as well as the fact that things might get quite a bit worse before they actually get better. This is a serious time.
No doubt we all feel sad for the chronically unwell and those who have or who are currently dying uncomfortable deaths. As well as for those who are grieving the loss of loved ones. I have also felt quite sad for all of the people who have lost their jobs. Many of whom are now in quite dire straits, with little or no savings. And those who must now live off of their hard won savings, which were intended for other things. The small and medium sized businesses that are going or that will soon be going bankrupt, due to forced closures. After years and sometimes decades of fighting to establish and sustain them. Most businesses have significant overheads and few businesses can get by for very long with absolutely no revenue at all. There are literally millions of hearts breaking all around the world now due to this illness and the spill off effects. As well as the terrible loss of life, so many dreams have been shattered in a matter of just a few short weeks. What can you say really? Other than that sometimes life is really very sad!
But don’t forget to smile... gratitude...
Although the following might not seem relevant for everyone, I’ll share some thoughts on the active cultivation of the qualities of gratitude and contentment. I hope these words will be helpful to some of you.
In difficult times when we are facing challenges and experiencing loss, or fear of loss, it is quite normal for the mind to focus upon and contract around the perception of those challenges and that loss. When this happens, the heart can become heavy with emotions such as grief, sadness and despair. Experiencing these emotions in an ongoing way for a period of time the mind can become depressed or even fall into an all consuming sense of despair. Like falling into a deep and dark well where the sun cannot shine. And so it can be important at these times to actually challenge some of our grief and despair, understandable as it may be, in order to keep things in a more healthy and less painful perspective.
Suppose you are currently experiencing loss. A sense of limitation and of being separated from the loved. While making space in the mind for the natural experience and process of grief, not denying it or pushing it away, we can at the same time ask ourselves a few questions. Such as. Despite these current challenges. Is there anything or anyone that I can feel some gratitude for or towards? We ask this question sincerely and consider it deeply. As gratitude is such a lovely emotion, it can be humbling in a very beautiful way. It can actually humble and temper the experience of grief and loss, and it can give us something else to hold in the heart at the very same time, making the experience bittersweet somehow, rather than just bitter.
If the mind does fall into a dark hole. We might have to reach down deep and wrestle with the darkness a little. We can get attached to and stuck in the darkness. But if you can see the value of recollecting reasons or things to be grateful for, understanding that your own feelings of gratitude will bring some joy to your heart. Even a small gesture by someone else can be a cause for a big heart opening. We can ask ourselves. Do I have food, shelter and clothing today? Some people really may be being evicted from their homes and some people’s pantries and cupboards may be completely empty just now. But many people will still be able to answer yes to these questions. If you can, there is still some good fortune present.
Another thing to consider is whether anyone has or is currently helping you? We can all fall into the habit of making a list of the ways we think that people or the government should be helping us, but are not. And this can make the mind very bitter and heavy. So what about the people who did or who are helping you a little? Is there anyone? Anyone at all? Oftentimes there are. One family member or one neighbor at least. Or perhaps an emergency services or health care professional. Are there still some people being kind in the world? Sometimes holding up one kind gesture from another in the heart and truly appreciating it can be very encouraging.
Personally I was quite disappointed recently to have to abandon my retreat plans and situations both in Bodhgaya and then in Sri Lanka. As it is not easy to get the time and supportive conditions for such opportunities. I was very deeply committed. But seeing how well supported I had been in doing the previous retreat periods, as well as the fact that resources were available for me to move on, I was able to focus upon gratitude. Of course some people’s loss will be much greater than this, but I just offer this as a recent example of how I kept my own mind from falling into grief and bitterness.
Another thing that we can do to uplift the heart is to actually be the person who makes the kind gesture. We can ask ourselves. Is there anyone that I could be kind or generous towards today, to make that persons life a little easier or less painful? Generosity and kindness can be very effective in opening and brightening the heart. If you are practicing social distancing, sometimes kind gestures can be made over the phone. Or useful items can be dropped on a doorstep. Funds can be transferred electronically. If we are determined to be kind, oftentimes there are ways.
When I returned to Thailand, I called my teacher Ajahn Anan and asked him how he and his monastery and community are doing. As the government has recommended social distancing, for the first time ever the monks are not going on almsround and the monastery is closed to guests. Because of this just a handful of people must buy and then prepare all of the food for 50 monks. Ajahn Anan mentioned that if this goes on for a long time that he will need some financial help. I made a few calls and mentioned this to a few close supporters, and we arranged the funds to cover 50 days of food for Tahn Ajahn and all of his monks. I did this on my first day back in Thailand, and before the point where my Ajahn really needed or asked for any help. This is the result of training in generosity. My friends and I are literally ready to shoot from the hip. Of course not everyone will have financial resources at present. But we try to give what we can. This was not my money to give away, but I offered my connections and abilities to liaise with people who had both good hearts and plentiful resources.
For people experiencing a big loss. No one is saying that there shouldn’t be grief and disappointment. And if the loss is ongoing, the grief may well be too. I’m simply suggesting some things that we can consider in order to buoy up the heart and support it through the challenges.
What I’m about to say now might seem a bit extreme. But I’m simply sharing some of my own genuine reflections. We monks train in thinking like this. I have already deeply considered, that if I should catch the virus and then have to experience a painful death. I truly intend to be thinking of the things that happened in this life that I am grateful for, even if I may be coughing and gasping for air. Even if my lungs fill with fluid and consciousness begins to fade. I am determined not to focus upon that. But rather to be grateful for this entire lifetime and it’s opportunities, even while it slips away. I am determined to remember the happiest and most auspicious occasions, and will be determined to continue my practice in the very next life. If I cannot breath, I will pass from this life with the mental recitation of ‘Bud-dho’ resounding in the heart and mind. At least I have this firm resolution and aspiration. This kind of determination and multi life perspective makes the illness seem less scary. I’m simply not giving it the power to overwhelm me. Someone recently asked me if I was scared of the virus and I replied. ‘No, the virus is scared of me!’ Now I know that this is quite a stupid thing to say! But I refuse to live in fear.
26 March - Anandagiri... A different kind of retreat...
Forced to stay home... stuck inside... what a great opportunity!
Currently I am in self quarantine. Like many people around the world now, I am being asked to stay indoors and to practice social distancing. Now if we were to feel put out by this and resent the inconvenience, we will not see the potential of the situation. If we could see this as a gift or special opportunity however, then the whole experience could change. Generally speaking, we meditation monks actually really like having opportunities to pull back from communal activities and to have a retreat at our kuti. For it gives us the chance to deepen our meditation practice and refine and focus upon an aspect of the teachings we wish to study. When Ajahn Visalo returned from India to Wat Pah Nanachat recently, he had to go into quarantine. He wrote me an email saying that he was enjoying his ‘corona-retreat.’ And he wished he could stay alone at his kuti longer!
So if you are one of the people that lives in an area where you are being asked to stay home. You might ask yourself. Would it be possible to do more meditation and Dhamma study during this time? The most important thing that would make such a situation more like a retreat is committing to a fixed daily schedule. Make the times that you will chant or sit or walk, and the time that you will read some Dhamma or listen to a talk. There might be some longer and more intensive guided meditations that you could finally give some good attention to now. Both yourself and many others in the world could really benefit from the blessings which metta and compassion meditations generate. Once again, we can try to be grateful for the opportunity that this current situation affords. And then embrace the opportunity wholeheartedly. Of course if you’re in a house with kids or several other adults it might be harder. But there might still be possibilities. Can you get up before the others while it’s quiet and dive into deeper practice?
The other important thing is to be ‘restrained in senses’ so that your mind can incline towards peace. Perhaps it’s possible to look at the news just once, at the end of the day to get up to date. And answer messages or make calls at set times. Then actually give yourself a break from these things outside of those times. Avoid wasting time watching TV or with endless youtube viewing. On the other hand, there might also actually be something you can study and learn about on the internet now. Be selective and discerning in the type media that you consume. If you’re having to work from home then these suggestions might not be so useful.
Disconnect from media... reconnect with nature.
When being asked to social distance, in many places this does not preclude going for a walk in the park if there is one. Or driving some distance alone to an area where you can go for a walk. Going to a place where there is a clear sense of the sky and of expansive views can be really very helpful. Going for a long walk, feeling the earth beneath your feet and sensing the sky above your head can be at once very grounding as well as consciousness expanding. It helps you to get out of your own head and remember the vast empty space that is all around us if we take the time to notice. If you need to take your phone in case there’s an emergency then okay. But put it on silent and return calls after your walk. Because truly allowing yourself to be completely alone might actually feel much nicer than you thought. Being alone doesn’t mean that we have to feel lonely. You can feel very connected with life and nature and the universe without having to talk to anyone.
All crisis also arise and cease. This too will pass. Life might be very different after this event. But our commitment to developing wholesome qualities and deeper mindfulness and wisdom should stay the same. We can deal with it and work with it one day at a time... one moment at a time.
Safely back at Anandagiri monastery now and confined to my kuti, I am settling into a different kind of retreat now. I intend to make the most of it.
Sincerely wishing you well wherever you are now!
Ajahn Achalo Bhikkhu
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