The mind touches peace in the meditation centre at Kota Tinggi

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 Sim 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 nearby towns, and commute 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 sitting and inhaling  traffic fume every day at the Causeway.

To them, life's hours 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 sprawling hillslope plantation of durian and other fruit trees, next to a denuded rubber estate. There are two interconnected buildings with airconditioning and amenities. The front building has a kitchen, dining area and offices.

Further back is the second building with sleeping quarters on the ground floor and a 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 the black clouds of mosquitoes hovering about the outside.

This place is quite unlike the virgin forest a few miles north-east, the Endau-Rompin nature reserve which I trekked with a tour group a few years ago. In the nature reserve, there were no mosquitoes, but plenty of leeches.

Meditation isn't an overnight practice

At the meditation centre we met a Malaysian 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 actively following the Dharma and practising meditation.

But he was disappointed when we told him we were at the centre just for an overnight stay. As he reminded us, the beneficial effects of meditation 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 ate a simple but substantial lunch prepared by volunteers at the centre, and then began sitting and walking meditation until evening, when 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 were several hundred tourists from Singapore queueing on the riverbank, across the road from the kopitiam, waiting patiently for the boats.

As our boat merged into the moonless night, we barely made 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.

Devil bird

On the return trip, the boatman suddenly shone a 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 Jurong Bird Park brochures, were thrilled to their bone-marrow eye-witnessing this piece of authentic wildlife.

Someone in the group mentioned that not too long ago, during a retreat at the centre, a yogi (meditator) was doing walking meditation in the twilight outdoors when suddenly from the inky darkness two points of light floated towards her. Thinking they were signs of her own enlightenment, she rushed to inform the supervising monk, only to be told by him that it wasn't enlightenment but just firefly light.

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 windows were covered with mosquito netting and the ceiling fan kept the place cool.

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 popular destination for Singaporeans too poor to travel overseas.

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 felt with our hands among the rocky bed in the water for several minutes and just when I gave up hope of ever finding my spectacles, the  man fished them from the water!

Thanking him profusely, I started a conversation with him. He told me he and his pals 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 trees, along moss-covered paths, enjoying one last quiet before we returned to the concrete jungle of Singapore

The scene through the wood recalled to my mind a poem by Chang Jian 常建 (Tang Dynasty), who wrote about his own visit to the meditation hall behind Broken Hill Temple.

AFTER the walk through the wood, we packed, and were soon on our way to Singapore. At 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 low-grade Jackie Chan 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 onto the road. 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 time.

That afternoon sitting in meditation in the Kota Tinggi centre was to me a physical hardship. I kept stealing glances at my wristwatch but was disheartened to see 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 time at 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.

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.

As Buddha reminds me again and again in the Dhammapada, no matter how diligently I count, the cows are still not mine. To take ownership, I must engage in prolonged sessions of meditation.

Saturday, Sunday July 30-31, 2005


Kotal Tinggi meditation centre
Francis at Kota Tinggi waterfall