Nicholas Dunne visits a Thai monastery and finds aDivine understanding
IN his 1989 Hibbert Lecture, "Christianity in the Light of the East", Dom Bede Griffiths observed that "we are now being challenged to re-think our religion in the light not of western but of eastern thought, and to discover another dimension of Christianity".
Twenty years earlier, Thomas Merton, in notes for one of his final talks, expressed the view that "we have now reached a stage of (long overdue) religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and western monastic commitment, and yet to learn in depth from, say, a Buddhist or Hindu discipline or experience."
At that time Merton was in India, on his way to the conference in Thailand where he met his untimely death. It was in Thailand, towards the end of the three and a half years I'd spent working in that lovely country, and with Merton's hopes very much in mind, that I took the opportunity of a structured introduction to Buddhist philosophy and meditation techniques.
The forest monastery of Suan Mokkh, near Chaiya in southern Thailand, is led by one of the country's most respected Buddhist monks, Buddhadasa Bhikku. His aim in founding the centre was to teach the essential principles of original Buddhism and to encourage contact with people from other countries and religious traditions.
A product of this is the monthly ten-day retreat designed to introduce westerners to basic principles and practice of Buddhism. Buddhadasa Bhikku's lectures are translated by an American monk. Santikaro Bhikku, who leads much of the course and acts as a bridge between western and eastern thought and culture. For the full ten days retreatants must observe a strict rule of silence, and this in itself represents a great challenge.
One of the first sights to greet me on arrival at the men's dormitory building were the skeletons of a man, woman, and young child hung on one of the main walls. The message was similar to, yet far more dramatic than, that of Ash Wednesday: "Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return". Here the human remains were demonstrating one of the central messages of Therevada Buddhism: all material things decay and die; we should therefore avoid clinging to them foolishly.
The theme of death occurred on a number of occasions throughout the retreat. Bhuddadasa Bhikku himself, now in his 84th year and suffering from poor health, acknowledges that he is not far from the moment when he will "know his last breath". That is a benefit he cites from the practice of "Anapanasiti" mindfulness through breathing. This is a meditative technique which
involves focusing the mind on the passage of each breath, in and out.
It is a simple, but far from easy activity. The breath is a boring subject, and the mind quickly flits off onto something more interesting. This is a common problem when faced with a lengthy silence. In the beginning I felt as if I was going to explode with the effort of trying to keep still. However, with practice, my concentration did begin to develop. After a few days I lost all fear of the 40 minute sessions siting crosslegged on the floor of the meditation hall.
A central purpose of meditation is to allow the meditator to "see things clearly as they really are". One of the first insights was to realise just how much one's mind is preoccupied with the past, or the future. It is extremely difficult to be still and to be present, simply, in the here and now, yet it is at such moments in the Christian tradition that one can become most aware of the presence of God.
Buddhism denies the existence of God in the sense of a higher being, talking instead of "Nirvana", the ultimate goal of religious practice. "Nirvana" is most often described in terms of what it is not. An early Buddhist scripture, the "Tripitaka", describes it as "the area where there is no earth, water, fire and air; it is not the region of infinite space, nor that of infinite consciousness; it is not the region of nothing at all, nor the border between distinguishing and not distinguishing; not this world nor the other world, where there is neither sun nor moon. I will not call it coming and going, nor standing still, nor fading away nor beginning. It is without foundation, without continuation and without stopping. It is the end of suffering."
This "nothingness" or "void" is often misunderstood by critics as a nihilistic vacuum. Certainly one misses the warmth of a personal relationship with the divine. However, I was struck by the value of describing the ultimate by what it is not. Such an approach seems to emphasise the limits of our ability to
encompass God, whilst serving as a reminder not to limit or narrow Him down for example by using such terms as "Him"!
When the monks at Suan Mokkh are pushed to say more about what this "nothingness" is like, they say without fear, indeed with a sense of great joy, that "Nirvana" is "cool, as after a fire".
Glimpses of this can, it is said, be achieved during meditation, but the monks at Suan Mokkh are much more concerned with the practical than with dramatic indications of the supernatural. The simple process of following one's breathing, even for a few moments, has long been recognised in the West as a valuable relaxation technique. Suan Mokkh was the first place where I'd not only been told to he quiet, but was also guided in how to achieve it!
By chosing the breath as my mind's focus, and by gently returning to it each time the mind wandered, f had an anchor around which moments of calm could develop. My ability to be still grew from a few seconds to a few minutes. In this stillness I was able to see some of the details of nature around me, and to control a little better that mental voice which rushes you on to the next thing before this moment has been completed.
I have has difficulty understanding contemplative orders. Some years ago, when two friends, a teacher and a doctor. gave up their professions to enter strict, enclosed convents I struggled to make sense of this apparent waste of talent. Wouldn't a more active order, where they could put their skills to full use, be of more value?
The monks at Suan Mokkh are familiar with this type of question. In reply they will warn of the dangers of action without contemplation. "Are you so sure," they will ask, "that your desire to do something will in fact make things any better?"
The life I saw at Suan Mokkh was not wasteful. Such opportunities for contemplation are rare amidst a world of which I am very much a part where the emphasis is on action.
To receive the discipline of silence was a privilege, yet, without the curiosity of an outsider in a foreign land, its unlikely that I would have taken its challenge. Having done so I think I now understand my
friends' decision a little better. At the very least I now know what to do when the priest
invites us to join in "a few moments of silence".