Discovering more about different forms of Buddhism and attempting to practice meditation further is something I want to make a part of this trip but I was slightly put off if anything by my visit to the Tam Yai Phrik Hermitage on Ko Si Chang.
Not that it wasn’t a beautiful and peaceful setting but I didn’t find it particularly helpful to my practice (or general wellbeing) to get up at 4AM, only have one meal a day and sleep on a reed mat on a concrete floor with a small and ineffective fan.
I arrived on the Island at around 4 after a bus journey that took about two hours longer than it should since we stopped to wait for more passengers almost constantly. I think I could have walked out of Bangkok quicker. The small ferry pier had a selection of seafood to grill and I chose a bit of squid which was served up in a bag with some extremely spicy sauce – I had been warned and it was really good although little was I to know that it would be the last thing I would eat that day.
Arriving at the monastery I was greeted by Bo, a nun who had been there for around a year, who spoke good English and who had actually lived in London amid “lots of stress of my own making.” “What is life for?” she asked rhetorically and I began to think this might be alright.
The hermitage is set on a hill and surrounded by jungle apart from where the quiet area hosting male lay practicioners (i.e. me) which had a spectacular view overlooking the bay. It was an indicator of how much we would be staying within nature that as she showed me around we had to pause to allow a snake to slither off the path in front of us.
The steep walk up past the Tam Yai Phrik cave, where a dude meditated before the hermitage was established after he brought some relics back from India which began to multiply. Alongside the monk’s vegetable garden left me sweating with my rucksack, and it wouldn’t be the last time the shady path would leave me exhausted.
Bo explained the routine at the hermitage which involved a lot of personal meditation practice bookended by chanting and the early morning alms collection. So at 5.25, after morning chanting I would accompany the monks down into the village as they collected the food which would make up their meal that day from the various devotees that took this opportunity to give to the sangha. It was still dark when we set off but an hour later the sun was up and it was already pretty sweaty, particularly when I was carrying a heavy bag. The monks had a good system, they carried their bowls and would receive the alms directly and then, apart from rice they would put the items in my bag which I would then carry until the next collection table (there were about 4 on the route) from where a guy on a motorbike would collect the bounty. I have to say I didn’t find the monks particularly friendly or welcoming, they didn’t speak a lot of English from what I could tell but while I was trying to follow instructions in this task I was never sure if my help was appreciated or if they saw me as a hindrance. I was constantly being told to get in front or behind, on the inside or outside. Theravada Buddhism is all about digging up the roots of attachment that bind you to rebirth and suffering so I can understand that their practice doesn’t particularly revolve around interaction, indeed most of their time is spent in Vipassana meditation to realise the differentiation between mind and body. This isn’t an easy practice. It’s something I’ve been toying with doing in the format of a ten day retreat but I’m not sure I’m ready for such an austere method with no external stimulation to distract yourself from your own mind.
Here the setup was different to organised centres where silence is imposed and there is a strict timetable to follow each day. You are pretty much left to your own devices during the day but with no teachings as such I was left feeling a little bit lost. Bon showed me some walking meditation techniques and gave me some English books which was nice but as much as I read and get what the monks are trying to achieve through this practice, personally I struggle to realise the potential and grow frustrated, leading at times to more anxiety than when I started!
When we had collected the food from the village we all joined together for breakfast with the dishes that had been presented served up first to the Monks and then the rest of the practicioners, with us helping ourselves to whatever we wanted in a large metal bowl. There was always a range of different things on offer, from soups, vegetables, curries to fruits, sweets, and selections of soya milk and other drinks. I was surprised that the offerings weren’t always vegetarian, although they tended to be, but I learnt that, as in Tibetan Buddhism, there is no compulsion for the Monks to be vegetarian, although it is recommended. They are only allowed to eat what they have been given so the alms collection is important although it was supplemented by vegetables and herbs grown in their garden.
The monks only ate this one meal a day while the rest of us were allowed to save some food for later. The first day I went to my bowl and sat on my verandah for lunch as a nice distraction from meditating. Little did I suspect it would send me so far the other way in terms of relaxation… First I had hornets buzzing around my head but it was easy enough to wave them away and then ignore their hovering presence. Almost as soon as I had managed to do this and settle back to eating there was a thud and a metallic clang as something fell from above into my lap, making me jump and then squeal like a girl as I realised the creature slithering away from me was the snake we had encountered the previous day.
I don’t know where it had been hiding or if it is normal for snakes to jump on top of people but it certainly broke my concentration as I scurried back inside the hut to finish my meal, keeping one eye on the door..