Dear Dutch Dhamma sisters!
Five joyful days of joining in Thai temple life lay behind me. Let me tell you, practitioners in Zen and Vipassanameditation, about my experiences. I feel moved and inspired, andwriting this letter is also for myself a welcome process of "working-through"! Here are some of my impressions. Around 50 kilometers drive West from Bangkok, along a noisy6-lane highway, at left hand side you can find a white building, paintedin surprising green and pink, with the sign at the entrance: "Training Centre for Buddhist women". Other signs and advertisements around the busy spot include "Bridgestone, a grip on the future", which touches me as ironic while I enter the place where I'm to practice to be now, and let go,and to see the truth of having no grip on whatsoever...
Spiritual leader and director of Wat Songdhammakalyani (meaning: women who practicedhamma) is Venerable Dhammananda Samaneri. The community at the Wat consists of Dhammananda and eight women, ranging from a schoolgirl of 14 to a lady in her seventies, and four moresentient beings: the dogs. May I take you around?
Being with what is
Passing by a radiant red bougainville at the entrance we have the bookstore on the left, andon the right the Uposatha Hall with the receptionhall and place for the meals, and upstairs the meditation hall. In the yard here are also smaller shrines like the one for Kwan Yin, femalebodhisattva, and for the spirits of the land. Then, proceeding our path, on our right we find the library, further on the house of Venerable Dhammananda, and on the left a guesthouse where I've the honor to stay. It is named "Baan Rom Ruen", meaning "shady breeze", and it has been built with the fund of former ancestors of Dhamma-nanda. Here, in her times as Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, she produced many of her published works."Now donated as Dharma Guest House dedicated to my ancestors. May you practice well, and mayyou be both "shady and breezy" in your practice", a sign says. Sure I'll make my effort to do that.
Much work has been done on the compound, the garden looks well kept, with the help of two devoted gardeners. And then, imagine, walking further, we enter through a gate and suddenly there isan oasis or "paradise" (my old Christian upbringing...), inviting, quiet, silent, fragrant and fertile! I'vebeen quite surprised: there is a large pond, with various kinds of lotuses in pink, purple, blue, whiteand yellow. Here we find three "kuti", little pointed-roof cells where one can be in silent residence for a while. Their size is traditionally seven by twelve hand-widths, just enough for sitting and laying down.
Chanting and meditation
During the days that I am here there is not a special program. I join in with the community members for the daily rhythm, which means services at 5.30 in the morning and 7 in the evening, where we chant, hear Dhammananda�s introduction, and meditate; my stiff legs curled around a little bench.
Even if I can't read the written Thai, it feels helpful to join in at the page where we are, and sometimes humming with the sound line, being able to feel part of the whole. Some chantings makeme feel at home: Namotasa Bhagavato Arahato, samma sam Buddhasa, as we also recite at ourZen monastery back in the Netherlands. Also I can join in where we recite the Eightfold path: right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. More and more these days I start to recognise certain words in the text, in their pictural form: Dhamma, panna, anicca (the Teaching, wisdom, impermanence).....
In the morning we devote a chanting to eight male Arahat theras, in the evening to thirteen female theris, liberated men and women. I feel touched on the second day with the introduction, in English, in which Dhammananda adresses me in my profession: she talks about mindful listening and really being with the personI'm with, being with this person with all my attention. Even if we have only 10 minutes this can bevery precious time: being now, and not dwelling in past or future. It is the attitude and respectful openness that is essential. In my work as a psychiatrist, namely seeing traumatised refugeesand migrants, people who have lost their homes and their trusted context, one gets very much aware of that. Also in that situation sometimes we don't share the same language, we may speak with thehelp of an interpreter but also just with the few words we can share and with bodylanguage.Dhammananda emphasises this attitude, of not seeing the other as "other" and making a distance,not wanting to be involved: the attitude of really being with her or him, realising that I could be theother person. Then, as she says, every conversation is an opportunity for growth, purification, forboth persons involved; no conversation needs ever to be felt as "lost time".
Dhammananda names the three inspirations: abandon all evil, practicing all good deeds, and purifying the mind. Interestingly this purifying aspect is the Theravadin third, while the Mahayana version is "to save all sentient beings" ; anyhow, they come to the same - so we agree. The Petkasem highway between Bangkok and Rajburi that almost runs through the meditation hall offers its ongoing noisy buzz, 24 hours a day... and with that also it offers an opportunity for practice: for noting "hearing, hearing", without following the sounds or getting attached to evaluating.In my memory I hear Dhammananda's voice, "take it up in your meditation; don't think: ooh, this must be a 10 wheel truck, so heavy, or: this sounds like a bus"... No, just let it be, drop it down, say: I'm not interested right now.....
We practice Samatha and Vipassana meditation. First we do Samatha, by concentrating onour breathing at the three bases, respectively: right under the nostrils where we feel the air comingand going, then in the center of our head, then and at the center of the body, near the navel. Insidewe can say, with in and out: Buddha-metta, Buddha-metta.....When we are fully concentrated, at easeand peacefull, Dhammananda invites us to expand the focussing, like ripples in the water where astone has been thrown in: expand in ever widening circles. The next time she elaborates this further:we are asked to visualise a Buddha image that is very familiar to us, and then to take this in ourbody, in the way that the Buddha's third base coincides with ours: having the Buddha inside us.For Vipassana insight meditation we are invited to observe mind-body processes from moment to moment, to note the movements of our mind, to acknowledge a feeling of anxiety, jealousy, anger, tension; and go back to the breathing. On the last day Dhammananda brings in the practice of observation of the body in decay,as described in the Sattipatthana Sutta. We peel off our skin, the muscles, the inner organs up tothe skeleton - in this guided imagination she's very good in making it a direct, colorful and odorful experience. My training as a doctor may have prepared me a little for really mindfully being withthis, still it is very powerful, as it is so much about my impermanence, my body, my being!
After the evening meditation we shift our cushions in a circle around Dhammananda - who is also addressed as Luang Mae (Venerable mother) - for a sort of community exchange. The firstevening I'm invited to introduce myself, and tell about Zen and Vipassana meditation in theNetherlands: how's that? Of course there are practices that coincide, like with following the breath.I tell about our Dutch Zen monastery where I often take part in weekend retreats in silence.Interesting is that here in Thailand there is no lineage in teachers, and it seems that mostly thepractice is done in larger groups, with less opportunity for personal consultation. With Dhammananda personal accompaniment is always possible.
Another day, in the morning we get the "homework" of giving special attention to metta and karuna, loving kindness and compassion. How do we express that day our friendly feelings andgratitude to others nearby? It seems that with persons that we see very often, we easily take theirgifts to us for granted, not anymore taking notice of these. That goes also for living in a community!In the evening we share our experiences of the day: and it's striking how expressing our appreciation toward the other does influence the atmosphere right away in a remarkable manner.
After evening meditation we all pay respect to Venerable Maha BodhidhammacarayaMahatheri, Dhammananda's mother, now 94 years of age. She, the founder of this Wat, is bedridden, laying in a room adjoining the meditation hall, where the chanting vibrations will be with her. At the entrance of the room a little statue of Kwan-Yin strikes me, next to one of the Virgin Mary. Down inthe vihara we see pictures of Mother in her yellow robe, when she was still young. Also there are pictures of Dhammananda - now shaven, dressed with deep orangebrown robe - in her times of Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, with make-up, earrings and colorful dresses. I feel moved, pondering themany years of inner conviction that will have preceded the outer change.