At the beginning of April, my wife Jeanne and I headed to Dhamma Kunja – a Vipassana Meditation Center in Washington State for a 20-day Vipassana course as taught by S.N. Goenka.
20-day courses are open to serious “old students” committed to this technique who have completed a minimum of five 10-day courses, one Satipatthana Sutta course, given Dhamma Service on at least one 10-day course, and have been practicing regularly for at least two years.
Both my wife and I attended our first retreat 13 years ago to this month. We’ve sat and served several courses at various Centers over the years since we began. I first considered doing a long course, when at the end of a 10-day retreat, I felt that I wanted to stay longer. Also, several times over the years Assistant Teachers have suggested I sign up for a long course, but time, circumstances and perhaps not being ready, have prevented me from doing so before.
It was a beautiful Spring day when our friend and fellow meditator Mary, picked us up and drove us to the Center. Mary returned to Portland after dropping us off. We don’t have a vehicle and we were very grateful to Mary for giving us a ride. Normally, ride-share is not a problem, but these long courses tend to have fewer people attending and less likelihood of someone going there who lives near us.
We arrived a bit late around 6pm, registered, and were assigned our rooms. Normally, the residences at this center, consist of double-rooms, but in the case of long courses, each student has both rooms along with their own private bathroom.
Some long-course centers have meditation “cells” where students may meditate in solitude, but Dhamma Kunja hasn’t constructed those yet. This is why we had the extra area in our rooms.
There were six male and twelve female (or maybe it was 13) students. Currently, this center can accommodate around 60+ students (with construction plans for 80), so with only 19 students attending this retreat, the population of deer and their doe’s was probably higher than retreatants!
Speaking of the local deer, this is one of the things that makes Dhamma Kunja. When coming to this center, we always look forward to seeing the incredibly friendly (unafraid) deer who wander with quiet purpose, as if they own the place!
Situated in the Pacific Northwest, Dhamma Kunja is noted for its beauty and April is perhaps one of the nicest times of the year here. Cherry blossoms were blooming and flowers dotted the landscape in vivid colors along with shades of vibrant greens and yellows. Snow-covered Mt. Rainer could be seen forming a majestic backdrop in the distance.
Photography is not permitted during courses, so the pics I have are limited to those I was able to take before it began or after it ended. As usual, meditators follow a very strict discipline, and are not able to speak, read, write, access computers or phones or engage in any other activities that might distract us from the intensive inner work we are there for.
After I unpacked, I headed to the main building where the dining area is. The five other men were sitting together introducing themselves to each other. Bob, the male Assistant Teacher joined us for lighthearted discussion. There is a sense of deep “knowingness” among participants. Regardless of the details of our personal walk in life, we were each seriously committed to this path and this is recognizable. During the next 20 days, I would become accustomed to the silent presence of this group of strangers who in a meaningful way, were not strangers at all.
Around 7 pm, we (men and women) met in the women’s dinning area for an orientation meeting. There, the female teacher (Gair Crutcher), explained details about important ways that these long courses differ from the usual 10-day and Satipatthana courses we have all been accustomed to. Gair emphasized the steps taken to ensure each of us with the maximum opportunity to benefit from our time there. Also, we were informed that we would each have a designated seating area in the dinning room. Deciding where to sit, was one less distraction to concern ourselves with.
Students are mainly left on their own for the entire 20 days. The schedule and daily discipline remains basically the same as it is for normal courses, but we have much more flexibility where we meditate.
Other than the 7 pm group meditation in the hall and the evening discourse, students are free to meditate during the day either in their own rooms, or in the main hall. There are advantages to both. I tended to using the hall during the normal 8 am and 2:30 pm sits. Otherwise, I often meditated in my own room.
Following the orientation meeting, we had half an hour or so before gathering in the hall for the formal beginning of the course. After that, Noble Silence (no talking) was in place and we were all following the familiar Code of Discipline established for Goenka courses as follows:
- to abstain from killing any being
- to abstain from stealing
- to abstain from all sexual activity
- to abstain from telling lies
- to abstain from all intoxicants
- to abstain from eating after midday
- to abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decorations
- to abstain from using high or luxurious beds.
One thing struck me from the beginning when we all sat in the hall together. With 19 people sitting in a room, you’ll usually hear sounds of individuals adjusting their position, rustling clothes and other “noises”. Not with this group! You could have heard a pin drop from across this large room. I knew I was in the presence of a group of seasoned Vipassana yogis!
The first seven days (one third of the course) involved practicing Anapana meditation (observation of breath). As usual, after about three days, my mind began clearing, and my samadhi (concentration) became quite strong. It is hard to describe what happens when the mind is held to attention over long periods for so many days. It can be quite profound.
Twice during the 20 days, we were asked to check in with the teacher. These were the only times during the course that I uttered any words. On day five, there was a note at my spot in the dinning room, asking me to interview with the teacher. When I sat down with him, he asked me how my concentration was doing. I proceeded to tell him that if he’d asked me the day before, I would have told him I was achieving very deep levels of samadhi and thought things were going very well.
On this day however, I felt as if I had reverted to my pre-course monkey mind with it’s incessant chattering and that I had lost progress. The teacher kindly explained that often when he feels like he’s making great progress, it’s a sign that such feelings won’t last long! He assured me that I was doing fine and that everything was how it should be. Later that day, my concentration returned and continued to improve. Another lesson in anicca (impermanence). Everything changes.
The evening discourses are different from those heard in other courses. Goenka puts great emphasis on the importance of truly understanding impermanence and the value of a Sila (morality) as a foundation in our lives. Several of the discourses were particularly interesting. During one of them, Goenka speaks at length on the subject of the eight Jhanas (absorption samadhi). In another one, he talks about how we are our own ancestors.
Goenka asks us to extend our meditation beyond the sitting position. We are encouraged to maintain a meditative state of mind at all times. The eventual goal is to remain aware day and night. In this case, I confess I fall short.
Buddha said: “indeed monks, whoever practices this fourfold establishing of awareness in this manner (constant thorough understanding of impermanence) for seven years (maximum), he may expect one of two results: in this life the highest wisdom, or, if a substratum of aggregates remains, the stage 0f non-returner“.
The trick in the above statement, involves the words “constant thorough understanding of impermanence“. Achieving those few words in practice, is probably the most difficult thing anyone can do. Personally, I am very far from the “final goal”, but I have definitely made progress since I began practicing this technique.
On day eight we switched from Anapana to Vipassana meditation. After seven days of Anapana, my mind was extraordinarily clear and focused. This helped increase my awareness of the subtle interactions between mind and matter (body). The degree and depth of sensitivity to thoughts and sensations I was able to achieve on this course, far exceeded anything I’d experienced previously. There is definitely something to be said about the prolonged immersion these long courses offer.
For the next 14 days we continued practicing Vipassana. We are asked to conduct ourselves as if we are monks. We are supposed to keep our eyes downcast to avoid distractions, but considering how beautiful Dhamma Kunja is in springtime, it was hard not to look up once in a while at a song bird in a tree, or a deer and her doe’s crossing the path in front of me, or a caterpillar going about its day oblivious to my presence.
At 5:00 am on day 13, while on my way to the main hall, I looked up at the Libra full moon shining through early morning clouds. We had typical springtime weather with a mixture of rain and sun throughout the 20 days.
There is no point going into the deeper aspects of my experiences during and following this course. Obviously each person has their own experiences meaningful only to them. Suffice to say, on this retreat, I climbed the mountain of self-knowledge a little higher than I had reached before.
Noble silence ended following the morning sit on day 20. Goenka always gives Metta meditation (loving kindness) instructions at the end of courses, but I particularly liked the way he did it on this one. He talked about gratitude for the lineage of teachers responsible for maintaining these teachings for 1000’s of years and who have tirelessly and selflessly worked so hard that we have the opportunity to receive this wonderful gift given freely.
Certainly, gratitude is something I felt very strongly. It never ceases to amaze me, how someone with the volition, regardless of monetary wealth, may go to one of these centers, and learn how to overcome universal misery, for their own benefit, and also for the benefit of others. I feel absolutely blessed! Even now, my eyes moisten with tears of joy just thinking about this treasure I have been given.
After Noble Silence ended, people trickled out of the hall. I stayed for a while absorbing the immensity of what I had accomplished personally. Once again, gratitude was pronounced among the feelings going through me (as it remains still).
As I was leaving the hall, I noticed Jeanne also leaving on the female side. Now that Noble Silence had ended, men and women were able to talk with each other in the common areas. Small congregations of students began assembling and the sounds of voices could be heard for the first time in three weeks. It was difficult to speak at first, and my throat soon became sore from all of a sudden being called upon after prolonged disuse.
Jeanne and I approached each other with that “you look like how I feel” knowing smile. At first there isn’t much to say because there is so much to say. Where do you start when you’ve been plumbing the depths of the nature of mind and matter within your being? The nice thing is, everyone there has been doing the same thing and it’s as if we’ve developed a kindred spirit that goes beyond anything normally experienced between family and friends in the usual sense.
Enough cannot be said about the tireless volunteers who serve these courses. Twenty days is a long time to serve. Their (servers) day begins early and ends late. They spend their time cooking, cleaning, meditating and doing various things to make sure those of us sitting the course have everything we require. It’s really amazing how people I don’t even know, willingly serve my needs so that I can completely focus on meditation.
We spent the rest of day 20 talking for a few hours, packing our belongings, meditating, cleaning our rooms and preparing for leaving the next day. In our case, we needed to arrange transportation back to Portland. Jeanne and I rode home separately, because no one had enough space for both of us. I ended up riding home with a software developer who was on his way moving to San Diego. Jeanne rode back with a nurse from Eugene.
Now here it is a little over one week since we returned. We have many plans, and projects in the works. In some ways, even though it was only 20 days, it feels like we’ve come back from a long journey to a world with promise and peace.
Link: Information about Vipassana Meditation
A couple of blogs from others writing about their experiences doing a 20-day course: