It is said that everything in life does not happen by chance. I am not superstitious and I do not have much interest in this. However, many things happened to me, many coincidences led me to an unexpected crossroad in life which I cannot explain by logicality, and I could only call it fate. My journey to meditation also began this way.
In the last days of winter, I went to visit my friend who lived in Da Lat. She said she was going to Myanmar for meditation. I have been to Myanmar several times and was deeply impressed by the kindness and sincerity of people there. Thinking for a while, I asked to accompany her. My friend had someone ask for permission from the monastery, and then two weeks later, we packed our luggage and flew to Myanmar.
Previously, I never had any intention to learn about meditation. However, in my 30s, I have a strong desire to get a deeper understanding of the true nature of life and learn how to train my mind. I found my way to mediation and religion, not to forget the tribulations of life but to get insights into my true self and build a strong philosophy as a guide on my journey in life.
LIFE IN THE MONASTERY
Thanks to luck, I got the chance to learn meditation at a prestigious place. It is the Panditarama Forest Center located in an area of tens of hectares in the forest. The founder of this center is a famous Zen master in Myanmar; he is known as an excellent student of Mahasi Sayadaw, one of the two world famous meditation masters who succeeded in propagating the vipassana meditation exercises to the Western world. It is a very fabulous place with an abundance of green trees, ponds, and lakes. Every morning when we practiced meditation, we saw the sunlight beautifully lighten the dust of translucent mist lingering around the trees in the forest. In the evening, after finishing meditation, on the way back, we came across a white pond full of water lilies exuding such a gentle pure fragrance, making us feel like we were in another world.
Every year, the monastery holds a meditation course that lasts for two months. One of the requirements is that candidates must attend the course for at least 10 days. This course gathers hundreds of monks and participants from many countries around the world such as England, United States, Danmark, Australia, Korea, Japan, and China. The materials for the class were written in many languages, including Vietnamese, for the convenience of foreign participants. And like other monasteries, meditators do not need to take care of the expense for meals as the monastery is supported and receives charity contributed by Buddhists from around the world. During the first few days in the monastery, I had to get adapted to a very strict daily schedule which includes waking up early in the morning at 3am, practicing meditation for 14 hours per day, not being allowed to eat after 12am, and only being allowed to drink juice in the afternoon. Regulated time for sleeping is 4-6 hours per day. Participants are recommended not to keep in touch with the outside world or use electronic devices. Five restricted activities are talking (except for talking to the meditation master), reading, writing, looking around (called indriya-sa vara-sīla in Buddhism). Those regulations may arouse an uneasy feeling, but after many days of practicing, I realized those regulations enable participants to concentrate on observing what happens inside their mind, which enhances the effectiveness of meditation.
Here, I was taught about the basic theory and practice of meditation. There are two kinds of Buddhist meditation, which are Samatha and Vipassana. Samatha can be accomplished by concentrating on a meditation-object like a flower. Vipassana is a kind of meditation practiced by Buddha after he had used other methods. My master taught me how to observe my breath through the rise and fall of the belly.
Praying “rise” under your breath when breathing in and the belly rises. Praying “fall” when breathing out and the belly falls. Whenever any thought or feeling would arise, we were asked to observe and practice praying again. After many days of practicing, we were so used to the routine that I did not get bored with a fixed and repeated schedule. Every day, I discovered a brand-new conception on the journey to mindfulness. My rambling thoughts gradually disappeared.
And at some points, I could be aware of a negative thought just rising in my mind. People often cannot recognize the root of their thinking. That is why they are not aware of when and why a negative thought arises. The meditation master compares our minds to a garden, and depressing thoughts are weeds; if we do not pay careful attention, the weeds will grow abundantly in the garden. After days of devoting to the mediation, my mind felt relieved and and many unnecessary thoughts disappeared. Like in calm water, the dust remains at the bottom, making it clean and clear.
PERFORMING A PRAYER RITUAL
After nearly a week, one day, after meditation class, my friend gave me a piece of paper in which she asked me to come to Kyaikhtiyo with her. Kyaikhtiyo is one of Buddhism’s holy sites in Myanmar, home to the Golden Rock. According to the regulations, we were not allowed to go out during the course. However, as I accompanied some Buddhist nuns who supported a group of Buddhists from Vietnam to Myanmar to make offerings to Guru, they wanted to travel to Buddhist sites on the way, and they asked me to go with them. I was not really interested because practicing meditation was all I wanted to do, but finally, I was convinced by the head of the delegation that it was a rare chance for us to visit those sites together.
After a couple of hours travelling by bus to the small village Kinpun at the foot of the mountain, we boarded on a truck, the only available transportation here, to reach the top of the mountain where the Golden Rock was located. Travelling on the winding road along the mountainside is like riding a rollercoasters, many old ladies were frightened. I looked out of the truck at the blue sky above the lush green forest.
When we reached the top of the mountain, I took a deep breath. It was not easy to describe the atmosphere here; it was so pure and gave me a sense of peace. The nuns told me the energy here was very healthy and powerful, that’s why after many days of searching in different locations, the king in the legend decided to load the Golden Rock and built a sacred pagoda here. Legend has it that one day when the Buddha was delivering a speech, he gave a single hair to a hermit. After a period of time, this hermit gave this hair back to the king who ruled the kingdom. In return, he wished this hair would be kept in a rock in the shape of his head. The king used magic to pick up the rock from the bottom of the sea and found a perfect place that gathered holy atmosphere of the Earth and the Heaven to build a pagoda to preserve the hair. According to the legend, thanks to the hair of Buddha, the Rock has always stayed perfectly balanced at a tipping point with an area of solely some ten centimetres, not rolling down the mountain. It may be thanks to the climate of the highland or the good energy of this holy land that I found a sense of peace and felt refreshed on the way walking to the top of the mountain.
When arriving, the Golden Rock appeared so majestic in front of me. Perched atop a rugged location, the Rock looked like it might roll down the abyss at any moment. It was extraordinary that such a structure could survive for thousands of years.
Around the rock, all Buddhists were praying then respectfully sticking thin golf leaves on the surface of the Rock. During high season, approximate 10,000 people come here to perform praying rituals. It is said by the locals that the pagoda and holy rock has turned wishes of Buddhists into reality. Standing next to me, the head of delegation found her place facing the Holy Rock, sitting and quietly saying Buddhist prayers. I also found a place where there were few people, wishing for peace for my family and success for my ongoing meditation course.
At sunset, the huge Rock shone brightly in the ultramarine light of the sky. We went back to the monastery in which I found peace and calmness.
ANOTHER DEFINITION OF HAPPINESS
A milestone in my meditation learning process happened when I had some individual meetings with a Nepalis meditation master. The individual meeting is for you to have a short conversation with the teacher so that he can directly observe you while practicing and give you helpful guidance.
My teacher was very knowledgeable and his teaching and explanation skills were admirable. His method of teaching was really scientific and easy to understand. And when answering my questions, he would explain very thoroughly step by step. He helped me understand what mindfulness was and why we should try to achieve mindfulness as why we should apply meditation into our lives. Under his thoughtful guidance, I made progress in my practice and learned a lot of new things.
He taught me to practice continuous mindfulness at all times from the morning when I wake up until the evening when I go to bed. When following his teaching, I realized how unaware and half-hearted the way I lived was. I began to do everything at a slow pace, took slower and calmer small steps on the ground, felt the muscles tighten and loosen and the smooth movement of the bones. I felt grateful for my body and so lucky that I was able to walk on the ground, as each step was a miracle.
Practicing continuous mindfulness in daily activities helped me make progress in meditation. Days after that trip, I no longer felt pain when sitting cross-legged. Without any wonder of the past or worry about the future, now I could just concentrate on breathing. And I realized my mind was really good at this, and I loved to do things one at a time. My mind was relieved of burdens and filled with joyfulness.
Each hour spent on practicing meditation was a time for me to play with my breath, it became my close friend. After hours of meditation, standing up and walking, my mind was enlightened with a sense of pureness and freshness. It became a spotless mirror and a clear calm water surface, and I felt like I was being purified inside.
Closer towards the end of the course, I got a deeper understanding of what was called “dwell in the present moment”. I found a happiness which I have never experienced before. It is not happiness arousing when we get a promotion, salary increase, when a wish is fulfilled or when someone brings joyfulness. It is not the same happiness that arouses when our mind keeps focusing on the present, not being bothered by any expectations or thoughts. It is a feeling of peace when we are not disturbed by any anxiety, fear, or sadness. It is a deep and stable happiness that is not affected by any outside conditions. It is not affected by the surrounding circumstances, and no one can take it away. It is a result of the effort to practice meditation and keep the mind in the present. The happiness from inside helps me to recognize new meanings of simple little things and also to find true joy and gratitude in life.
Since that first time, I spend a few weeks a month practicing meditation in Myanmar each year. I consider it as the time I spend to learn more about myself, to rest and recover my energy, and to live a more meaningful life. Each time I return from a course of meditation, I learn valuable lessons and find out the rooted problems of my life, making it easier to identify and work on becoming a better person.
W. TIPS FOR MEDITATION
From November to January is the most pleasant time in Myanmar. There is hardly any rainfall and the average temperature ranges from 21-28°C. From February, the temperature begins to rise.
Panditarama Forest Meditation Center is located about 60 kilometers north of Yangon city. The center was built on an area of 100 hectares in the forest, so it has beautiful natural scenery. It has separate rooms for men and women, dining room, sleeping room, and meditation area.
From Vietnam, there are many direct flights to Myanmar. You can fly from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Ho Chi Minh City has flights to Yangon, provided by Vietnam Airlines and Vietjet Air. When arriving, you can take a car to the Panditarama Forest.
Each year Panditarama Forest offers a two-month course, from 1st December to 31st January. Registered participants should attend at least 10 days. To participate in this course, you will need to apply in advance, no later than November 20th, before the meditation session. To register, students may visit: http://www.saddhamma.org/html/retreat-form.shtml
Every year, Panditarama Forest offers a two-month course, from 1st December to 31st January. Registered participants have to attend the course for at least 10 days. To apply for this course, you will need to register in advance, no later than 20th November when the course begins. To register, visit: http://www.saddhamma.org/html/retreat-form.shtml
Rosie Nguyên | Wanderlust Tips