If all of Bali were a golf course, Landeh Ashram would be a challenging green – a bald spot on a hill overlooking mountainous west – between the tallest peaks of Agung and Batukau. In April of 2013, twenty five very peculiar individuals gathered here to not talk, not party, not eat meat, not have sex, not write, not think, not be entertained in any way, not wake up after 4 a.m., not eat dinner, not kill mosquitoes, not do much but sit cross-legged and focus on internal sensations – not for less than ten days. That, in a paragraph, was my second experience of Vipassana meditation.
As a lowlander going jacket-less for months, I slipped one on as I approached the Ashram to discover a pocketed pamphlet gratuity from the funky clothing store of an expat, French-Thai designer. Below a tricolour portrait of the Dalai Lama (ala Shepard Fairey’s Obama) it read ‘my only religion is kindness’.
At the first and last communal meal before silence was quietly proclaimed, we made our introductions quickly. Coincidentally very present at my table, said French-Thai fashion designer commented that I belonged more in Vietnam than Indonesia. For the next ten days, I wondered why.
As we approached the meditation hall, an American-Mexican from Burkley suddenly went off about how lucky male yoga instructors are, what always groping ‘hot yoga bunnies’ all day long. His words came out as a seal gulps air from a hole in the ice as it freezes over.
“Well,” he said. “Now I’ve got that image seeded, have a great 10 days, fellas!”
Day one it seemed like cosplay in the jungle. Tattooed foreigners dressed like gypsies or Arabian princes trailing sarong and blankets wandered the gardens segregated by gender. All it took was one, pony-tailed man folding his arms behind his back and staring at the ground and others started acting contemplative, monks in a thin-skinned bubble of doe-eyed calm.
For the length of the course, a radiant middle-aged Australian woman led by example from the front of the room; she maintained the lotus, speaking no more than a paragraph a day, only budging to play the DVDs. Our instructions came down from the real master: Burmese Goengka G; one of few who can chant, perhaps even well, in Buddha’s native tongue of Pali.
For each sitter, this wild course is a stallion of a different colour. The biggest challenge for me was staying awake. More often than not, it was analogous to fiddling with an on-off switch to find the ‘sweet’ spot in between.
“In deed the practice of meditation has been referred to as ‘the practice of death,’” wrote a friend, so very encouragingly.
On the night of April 24th, the eclipse of the full moon was accompanied by fervent ceremony in all surrounding villages. The music and chanting made it evident: Bali’s dear foliage is nothing but dark-green drapes, no more muffling than room dividers. Prop up some palm fronds and you’d reveal a village of happy peasants, rice sticking to their foreheads, ticking off their daily rights and rituals.
Having lived here for two years, I sat and compared our practice – the ‘macho’ technique of Vipassana – with the noisy outside, on-goings. But wait, who was observing sensations within my body, all the while? I recalled the counterproductive ‘list of things to think about while meditating,’ a friend and I compiled.
At the core of it all, from oral retellings of the Vedic scriptures north of India spread the concept of the body as microcosm. After this, society was divided into a trinity of legs, torso, and head – social castes and architecture alike. A civilization could function as a healthy body, chores delegated, people segregated. Yoga, renunciation of the six sense doors, and many other practices resulted from this inward, bodily focus. On top of existing practices, Buddha upped the bar: rather than visualization or mantras, meditators would focus only on naturally occurring bodily sensations. How they react to the pleasure and pain inside their bodies would redefine their reactions to the larger and inevitable pleasure and pain the world has to offer. These ideas readily bound themselves to pre-existing Vedic, Hindu concepts of reincarnation and the karmic repayment plan. The two religious practices, sharing the same homelands, borrowed freely from one another; eventually Hinduism spread thousands of kilometres to the eastern island of Bali, Indonesia.
As this group of mostly western men in their doe-eyed calm head to bed after a night of meditation, traditional gamelan ceremonial music floods our simple rooms and minds. What my fellow sitters might not know is that the music itself is a kind of audible meditation. Between India and Indonesia, the practice of meditation became a simple musical set – much more fun than the intended practice. In gamelan, one instrument represents the breath, another the heartbeat, others the onslaught of distractions from within oneself, sankaras, and finally the state of deep meditation. All of this interconnected in metallic tones dancing out of a jungle backlit by a full moon, eclipsed.
A local and friend, Mr. Yoga, chain-smoking while surfing the Internet, was sceptical of the revived, ancient practices – strangely called new age – which are at the heart of his island and namesake. Regardless, the island’s endless schedule of rituals is the fabric of a bold social cohesion and a huddling of mostly impoverished people, overtly happy.
Looking back, it was ten days of dead and headless giraffes, the process of evolution, slugs on all fours, gorillas tapping camera lenses, reliving ex-girlfriends, bushy dog tails sprouting from the backsides of humans, and the usual clouds of wanton imagery – I’ll spare you the rest. After this deep, surgical operation we left the meditation hall to encounter a piece of white paper. Having read it three times, we realized noble silence would end and communication would commence once we walked by. I wasn’t the only one to go forth reluctantly and slip off to my dorm as if ten days were just not enough.
At our last communal dinner, positivity felt a little ostentatious, to me.
“So you were saying?” I asked the French-Thai fashion designer. “I would be better off in Vietnam?”
“Ah so you have been wondering, huh?” he said. “When they wear their traditional clothes – oh, wow, man – these girls! I’m telling you!”