Did You Know Buddhist Monks Don’t Eat After Noon?
I do because I lived with them, silently, for two entire days
“Ill be in a grey Mitsubishi,” Peter said to me over the phone, and I thought he sounded German. I wondered how I would recognize a Mitsubishi, given my ineptitude to recognize automobiles, but the thought got sidetracked by the last-minute packing of my sunscreen and torch.
In the hours leading up to my decided pick-up time with Peter, I had felt my heartbeat quicken. “Will I be able to do this?” I asked myself repeatedly, a change of pace compared to the last couple of days of are-we-there-yet impatience. “Will I be able to live in a forest, for two whole days, no communication — verbal, written or otherwise — and meditate?” I reminded myself that I had never before felt more ready, and then poured a large handful of sunflower kernels into my mouth — It didn’t mean I wasn't nervous though.
I wheeled my carry-on outside my building, and just as I did, I saw a grey sedan pull in my immediate line of sight. A man in a red checkered shirt gave me an unsure smile. I returned it, just as unsure, then dropped my gaze down to the car’s logo. There was no way to be entirely sure, but this was a Mitsubishi.
Peter was a fellow silent-meditation retreatant, and also my ride to the retreat. I usually get a fair bit of conversation anxiety when I’m with a new person in intimate closed spaces, over-compensating by talking a whole lot, doing everything I can to avoid any awkward silences. But I remembered something I read that I carry around with me as a social anxiety tool— you’re only responsible for half of the conversation. I relaxed and we got on our way.
The retreat was about an hour away into the forest, and the Mitsubishi didn’t have Sat Nav, and Peter didn’t have a smart phone. He did instead have a piece of paper, sectioned off into four quarters, a hand-drawn map of key intersections on each quarter. Peter was a serious looking man, with an air of sensitivity in his austere mannerisms.
“Who drew you this map?” I asked him
“I drew it myself,” he said, with a small earnest nod that I came to recognize as a gesture of friendship in the course of the retreat.
In the duration of our drive, we spoke on about topics deep and detailed for two people meeting for the first time. Peter was from the Netherlands, not Germany. He had backpacked through Thailand and India (Jaipur, Bombay and Dharamsala), lived in Egypt and moved to Australia when he grew tired of Chicken and Rice there. He was a mining engineer on sabbatical for the past year. He loved to go deep sea diving, and has been several times to the dark belly of the ocean, in different parts of the world.
“Its just you down there, it’s like being in a vacuum. Nothing can reach you,” he said, stretching all the five fingers on one hand towards the sun, now high up in the sky.
“You’re just suspended in a void,” I agreed. Although I had no particular interest for diving, I knew exactly what he meant. We all have different drugs of choice.
The retreat was filled with similar short, deep friendships. We couldn't speak, and spent much of our time meditating, so all the connections ran deeper than speech. We communicated in intuitive ways — our hearts outside their cages; unwalled, vulnerable. Whenever you made eye contact with someone — opened a door for them or passed a dinner plate — you saw their entire being. Not just the shell of a body, but the entire world it contained. It was a powerful experience, feeling the full force of another human being. Devoid of our accouterments — bodily or otherwise — we were in a state of clear attention to the world.
At the beginning of the retreat, I checked myself and my modest belongings (sheets, torch, a couple of cotton tunics and my faithful diary) into my room. Then as instructed, I went to the dining room, where I met Katherine and Bryce on my table. We were encouraged to maintain the same meal place through the retreat, so they both grew to be friends.
Katherine had a pixie haircut and large smiling eyes. She laughed freely, and had two children back home.The Noble Silence was to begin only after supper, so when I asked her what she was looking forward to the most, she said,
“To sleeping!” she said, twinkling, yet calm and centered.
That’s when Bryce chimed in, “Oh I have a 2 and a half month old, I know what you mean.” We laughed together. Bryce was blond, beautiful and childlike. He had a variation of a mohawk and radiated his own blend of honesty every time he spoke (and later even when he didn't), and had a complete obliviousness to premeditated responses.
After our supper of carrot potato soup & buttered bread, our vow of silence began and lasted 2 days. Our days would start at 6 am, with a morning meditation in a large quiet hall; everyone’s energies quiet, focused, powerful. At 6:40 am, as we would filter out of the large wooden doors with smiles on our faces, the sun would be just rising over the mountains, from behind the trees. The birds, being awake for a couple of hours now, would be making breakfast chatter. Golden light would be colouring into the night landscape — revealing gloriously that just because you don’t see something, it does not mean it is not there.
Breakfast would be served at 6:45, and if you're name was on the roster, you helped organize. Big vessels of steaming hot porridge, yogurt, fruit and toast would be revealed on the dining room tables, drawing in hungry meditators walking around in the rapture of being reacquainted with themselves, with the elements of nature. We would eat hungrily, content to be around each other — sharing our experiences without word.
After more meditation, lunch was served at 11 am. For Buddhist monks, this is the most important meal of the day, and is kingly. They don’t eat after noon, and at the retreat, we didn’t either. And so, we feasted.
- A bright Thai curry — with pumpkin, zucchini and potatoes
- Mounds of brown rice
- Noodles with pak choy and other vegetables
- Boiled eggs, stained with soy, dark brown
- Sauteed water spinach, topped with fried shallots
- Marinated and stir-fried tofu; chunky, red
- A crunchy turnip salad with asian greens
- A coconut custard cake, ice cream
After lunch, we’d do walking meditations. Indoors or in the woods, this involved being attentive to your whole feet, mindful of all contact points; senses pointed inwards.
While walking on a sun-drenched patch of grass, I noticed a man walking next to me — bald, bearded, with clear blue eyes. Slowly, he was putting one bare foot in front of the other. Midway through, he stopped, besotted by the looming woods, and the sun behind it. I followed suit, equally incapacitated. Three others stopped behind me, a few more behind them, and we stayed there for a while — a small coterie of sun worshipers. I lost him among the crowd after sunset, but in that moment, he was a friend and we knew deep truths about each other.
At the end of the retreat, as I was looking out at the rolling hills outside my car window, everything felt sharper. Like it was all articulated by a leisurely artist; the green of leaves, the expanse of the sky— everything was in a state of slow unravel, abundant. I had no urge to check the internet or seek outside what I had plenty of within. Apart from the present, nothing seemed to exist.
What would it be like if we carried deep attention to our everyday? What would it be like we engaged more deeply with life, slowed down, and trusted more?
I suspect we we’d be wanting for nothing more.