The mind touches peace in the meditation centre, half-hidden by lush greenery.
Among fireflies and falling water
FIREFLIES, falling water and the green of a forest make for a refreshing getaway from the dense body odour and urban choke of Singapore.
25 of us, members of the Vipassana Meditation Centre at Lavender Street, travelled to the Kota Tinggi Santisukharama centre for an overnight mindfulness retreat. The trip, arranged by Lian Sin and Nelson, cost a mere $70 each.
We met at the VMC premises on an early cloudy Saturday (July 30, 2005) and got into two vans for the two-hour northbound trip. At the Causeway checkpoint, there was the usual traffic jam aggravated by the horde of workers returning from Singapore to Johor Bahru. They live cheaply in JB and travel daily on motorbikes or buses to Singapore to earn goodly wages. In return for getting the economic best of both worlds, these workers have to sacrifice several hours stuck in traffic fume every day. To them, life's hours and energy are less valuable than earning a fistful of dollars.
From JB, we headed east. The day was heavily overcast and we saw a gray curtain of rain in the distance. When we reached the meditation centre about 6km from Kota Tinggi town, the sky was pouring. The compound sits on a hilly sprawling plantation of fruit trees, including durian, and lush greenery next to a denuded rubber estate. There are two interconnected buildings with airconditioning and amenities. The front building houses the kitchen, dining area and offices. Further back is the second building with sleeping quarters on the ground floor and the main shrine hall upstairs.
The downpour brought a tender coolness to the place. A feeling of quiet joy swept over me as we unpacked our stuff, and rolled out the mattresses and blankets. The rooms and halls are all sealed with nettings to stop insects coming in. Mosquitoes are aplenty and their bites sharp and stinging. This place is quite unlike the virgin forest a few miles northeast, the Endau-Rompin nature reserve which I trekked with a tour group a few years ago. In the nature reserve, there were no mosquitoes, only leeches.
At the meditation centre we were introduced to a local Chinese bikkhu, a young man who was ordained not too long ago. He was staying in the centre for a few weeks of retreat. Speaking fluent English in a measured tone, he said he was happy that many people in Singapore were now actively following the Dharma and practising meditation. But he was disappointed when we told him we were in the centre just for an overnight stay. As he reminded us, the beneficial effects of meditation would only kick in after many days or weeks of uninterrupted practice. An overnight session is definitely inadequate to achieve enlightenment, unless one has the mind of Hui Neng, who, on first hearing the Diamond Sutra being chanted, experienced immediate mental realisation.
We had a simple but substantial lunch prepared by local volunteers at the centre, and then began our sitting and walking meditation until evening, where we went to Kota Tinggi town for dinner at a kopitiam restaurant, followed by a boat trip down the Johor River to watch fireflies along a stretch of mangroves. There must have been several hundred people queueing on the riverbank, across the road from the kopitiam, waiting patiently for the boats.
As our boat merged into the moonless night, we could barely make out the mangrove clumps along both banks. Suddenly, we saw white pinpoint lights flitting about. These were the fireflies. One or two even flew into the boat and were caught by the excited children. On the return trip, the boatman suddenly shone his powerful torch towards the bank and shouted, "Devil bird! Devil bird!" We saw the spotlight exposing an owl perched on a tall branch. There was excited chatter in the boat as the city folks whose only idea of owls came from books, were thrilled to their marrow eye-witnessing this piece of authentic wildlife.
Someone in the group mentioned that not too long ago, during a long retreat at the centre, a devotee or yogi was practising walking meditation in the twilight. She was pacing outdoor when suddenly from the inky darkness she saw two points of light coming towards her. Thinking they were signs of spiritual enlightenment, she rushed to inform the supervising monk, only to be told that the lights were fireflies.
The accommodation in the centre was comfortable. There was a shower room and toilet and the bedroom was spacious for five of us men. The ceiling fan kept the place cool through the night. Just before dawn, we got up, washed and sat in meditation in the shrine hall on the first floor until breakfast at 7 o'clock. From there, we drove to the Kota Tinggi waterfall, a place that practically every Singaporean claimed they have visited, usually 10 to 20 years ago. I was the exception.
While frolicking in the falling water, I made the mistake of shoving my pair of glasses into the side pocket of my swim shorts. The pocket was shallow and my glasses fell out. I realised it only a few minutes later. There was a group of Indian tourists soaking themselves in the pool and I asked one of them standing nearest to me, to help find my glasses. We groped with our hands among the rocky bed in the water for several minutes and just when I gave up hope of retrieving my spectacles, the man fished them from the water. I was so grateful that I started a conversation with him. He told me he and his four other friends were IT professionals from India, working in Singapore. They loved the waterfall and visited it regularly on weekends.
Our group returned to the centre for lunch. After the meal we strolled through the wood, along moss-covered paths, studying the various fruit trees and enjoying one last quiet before we returned to urban Singapore. The scene recalled to my mind an old Tang poem by Chang Jian, also on a visit to a meditation retreat hidden by flowers and wood:
A Buddhist Retreat behind
Broken Hill Temple
In the clear morning I enter the old temple,
As the first sun touches the tall trees.
My path winds through a sheltered hollow
To the meditation hall deep in flowers and wood.
The mountain light is alive with birds.
The pool reflects the emptiness of the mind.
And everything here is stilled
By the sound of the temple bell.
AFTER THE WALK through the wood, we packed, got into the vans and were soon on our way to Singapore. From Lavender Street, I rode a bus home. Near Serangoon Central, about a km from my house, I saw a yellow taxi lying on its side. It was a bright mid-afternoon and traffic was light, so I could not imagine how the cabby manage to flip his vehicle onto its side, like a scene from a car-chase movie. Lately, there were reports of taxi drivers involved in reckless driving. One cabby deliberating swerved his vehicle towards a motorbike, throwing the rider towards the road kerb. The young man died and the cabby, who had a grin on his face when he drove away from the scene, received only a few years jail term.
That afternoon sitting in meditation in the Kota Tinggi centre was a physical hardship. I kept stealing glances at my wristwatch and was disheartened to feel how s-l-o-w-l-y the minutes crawled. My eyelids and eyeballs turned to lead and the only thought in my soggy brain was sleep, sleep, sleep. The joints of my left leg grew stiff and pricky with stars. The only way to overcome the discomfort was to get up and do a stretch of slow, deliberate walk, with the mind focusing on each footstep. I seemed to have wasted the retreat, without experiencing an inch of progress.
When I mentioned my difficulties to a more experienced yogi the next day when we were departing, he advised me that the only way to progress is to go for an extended retreat. Many at VMC have even gone to Burma for a month to three months meditation stay.
There is no other way to achieve liberation from samsara. The Buddha is uncompromising on this: that meditation and meditation alone will lead us to realise the Four Noble Truths and Nibbana. The effort put into study, reading, thinking and listening to Dharma talks is like counting the cows of others. No matter how diligently I count, the cows are still not mine. To take ownership, I must engage in serious, prolonged sessions of meditation.
– Saturday, Sunday July 30-31, 2005, Kota Tinggi Santisukharama centre