This was my first experience with a retreat lasting longer than a couple of days, and certainly my first retreat with a serious schedule of meditation. Up at 5.30 am, onto the cushion by 6.00 and finishing at around 8.30 or 9.00 pm. Of the roughly 15 hour day, around 8 hours of that was spent in actual meditation. The remainder was breaks or time allowed for writing in our meditation journals.
The Sala (meditation hall) at Wat Buddha Dhamma. Wisemans Ferry, New South Wales. April, 2005.
This building, the Sala (or meditation hall, what we refer to as a Gompa) was really beautiful and where we spent most of the time. The curving and peaked roof, carved doors and curving interior beams led it a real Asian flavour. All the windows in the Sala were screened but not glazed, and fitted with a clever wooden shutters system that could be closed in bad weather or cold. Being fitted with so many open windows, it was almost like being inside a screened porch, and the sounds and smells of the bush became part of the experience of being inside the building.
The Sala garden. Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wisemans Ferry, New South Wales. April, 2005.
Around the Sala was a raked Zen style garden, complete with dry 'creek bed' and native grasses.
The far side of the Sala, with raked gravel garden. Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wisemans Ferry, New South Wales. April, 2005.
My spot. Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wisemans Ferry, New South Wales. April, 2005.
From my spot inside the Sala, seated facing outwards through the narrow vertical windows, I had a slim view of the raked garden and the sandstone retaining wall. It was wonderful to observe the light change from the dark grey of pre-dawn, through to full light, and then through lengthening shadows back to dark again.
During the retreat we did a variety of meditation practices, such as 'walking meditation' and analytical meditations on specific topics (such as compassion), but the primary focus of the retreat was Vipassana, or 'insight' meditation, a technique designed to create mindfullness. The aim is to switch off the commenting, judging, chattering mind and to simply observe with 'bare attention'. Starting with observing external phenomena, such as sounds, then bringing the attention to the breath and to your mind states, you work towards always being mindfull of the transient mind states and emotions as they arise.
Stopping the chattering mind, for me that was hard. I had some great experiences of clarity during the retreat, lots of other times where it was hard slog, other times where I was struggling to stay awake, but all of these were a valuable part of the experience. The trick is to just watch what is going on inside, without labellingit, judging it etc.
Bronze bells, on the hillside above the Sala. Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wisemans Ferry, New South Wales. April, 2005.
The point of the silence, and of limiting distractions such as reading, was to help to encourage this observant mind state. One of the few words I uttered during the 8 days of trying to keep total silence was "Ouch!". I was sitting on the bench seats around the perimeter of the pagoda type structure which housed the two bronze bells shown above, writing in my meditation journal, when I stood up... and rang the smaller of the two bells with my head.
Stupa, on the hillside overlooking the Sala. Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wisemans Ferry, New South Wales. April, 2005.
Stupa top. Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wisemans Ferry, New South Wales. April, 2005.
The surroundings of the retreat centre were beautiful and the owners had capitalised on this by leaving as much of the bushland as possible untouched. Hidden in amongst the trees were wonderful suprises such as this stupa, above.
The Road Less Travelled (which we travelled a lot). Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wisemans Ferry, New South Wales. April, 2005.
I grew to love the 10-15 minute walk to and from the Sala each day. Most days we did this walk anywhere up to 10 times (in one direction or the other) as we went to and from the kitchen for meals and breaks. The first and last walks of the day were always in darkness, and walking through the darkened bush was not scary at all. (I wouldn't have surprised myself if I had gotten a whole Blair Witch scenario going in my imagination.) I guess because we were practising mindfullness, and therefore trying to really observe everything in detail, my normally intense imagination was switched off. Mornings and evenings were excellent times to encounter wildlife too, and during the retreat I saw two large goannas, a huge wombat and a couple of either small kangaroos or wallabies.
Shrine, on the road to the Sala. Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wisemans Ferry, New South Wales. April, 2005.
This little shrine I dubbed to myself as The Shrine At The Culvert (also known as Half Way There.)
I gained a lot from the retreat, and it was a wonderful and challenging experience. It was an excercise in emotional highs and lows, fatigue and exhilaration, hope and despair, boredom and fascination... all the emotions we all go through, but heightened and being brought to centre stage. Ven. Antonio was a brilliant teacher, kind but strong and constantly challenging us to really think things through. We had wonderful teachings on a variety of subjects, which curiously always seemed to be exactly what I needed to hear on any given day to give me the kick in the pants I needed.
From a teaching on compassion for oneself, my favourite quote was:
"The best hug one can give, is the hug one gives oneself. ...The hug one gives oneself is called Acceptance."
Ven. Antonio Satta
I'll leave you with that thought.