“THE TRIGGER FOR MUCH of our anger is frustrated expectation. We sometimes invest so much of ourselves in a project that when it doesn’t turn out as it should we become irate. All “shoulds” point to an expectation, a prediction for the future. We might have realized by now that the future is uncertain, unpredictable. Relying too much on an expectation for the future, a “should,” is asking for trouble.
A Western Buddhist I knew many years ago became a monk in the Far East. He joined a very strict, remote meditation monastery, in the mountains. Every year they held a sixty-day meditation retreat. It was tough; it was rigid, not for weak minds.
They rose at 3:00 A.M. and by 3:10 A.M. they were sitting cross-legged in meditation. The whole day was regimented into a routine of fifty minutes of sitting meditation, ten minutes of walking meditation, fifty minutes of sitting meditation, ten minutes of walking meditation—all day long. They took their meals in the meditation hall, sitting cross-legged in their meditation place; no talking was allowed. At 10:00 P.M. they could lie down to sleep, but only in the meditation hall in the same spot where they had been meditating. Getting up at 3:00 A.M. was optional: you could get up earlier if you wanted, but not later! The only break was for the daily interview with the fearsome master, and short toilet breaks of course.
After three days, the legs and back of the Western monk were very sore. He was not used to sitting so long in a position that was so uncomfortable for a Westerner. And he still had another eight weeks of retreat to go! He began to doubt seriously whether he could endure such a long retreat.
At the end of the first week, things weren’t getting any better. He was often in agony, sitting like that hour after hour. Those who have been on a ten-day meditation retreat would know how painful it can get. He had another seven and a half weeks to face.
But this man was tough-minded. He gathered all his determination and endured, second by second. By the end of the first fortnight, he’d really had enough: the pain was too much. His Western body wasn’t cut out for this sort of treatment. This was not Buddhism, the Middle Way. Then he looked around at the Asian monks, also gritting their teeth, and pride pushed him through another fortnight. During this time, his body felt as if on fire with pain. His only relief was the 10:00 P.M. gong, when he could stretch out his tortured body to relax. But it seemed that as soon as he disappeared in sleep, the morning bells would sound, waking him to another day of torment.
At the end of the thirtieth day, hope twinkled dimly in the distance. He was now past the halfway mark. He was on the home stretch, “almost there,” he thought, trying to convince himself. The days grew longer and the pain in his knees and back grew sharper. At times he thought he would cry. Still, he pushed through. Two weeks to go. One week to go. In that last week, time dragged like an ant stuck in a treacle. Even though he was now accustomed to enduring pain, it was no easier. To give in now, he thought, would be unfaithful to all he had endured so far. He was going to see it through, even if it killed him; and at times he thought it might.
He woke up to the 3:00 A.M. bell of the sixtieth day. He was almost there. The pain on that last day was incredible. As if pain had only been teasing him up to then, but now was pulling no punches. Even though there were only a few hours to go, he wondered if he would make it. Then came the final fifty minutes. He began that session imagining al
“the things he would do, starting in only one hour’s time, when the retreat was over: the long hot bath, the leisurely meal, talking, lounging—then the pain interrupted his planning, demanding all of his mind. He opened his eyes slightly, secretly, several times during that last session to peek at the clock. He couldn’t believe that time was strolling so slowly. Maybe the batteries in the clock needed changing? Maybe the clock would stop altogether with the hands forever stuck five minutes before the end of the retreat? The final fifty minutes were like fifty aeons, but even eternity must come to an end someday. And so it did. The gong sounded, so sweetly, for the end of the retreat.
Waves of pleasure coursed through his body, driving the pain deep into the background. He’d made it. Now he would treat himself. Bring on the bath!
“The master rang the gong again to get everyone’s attention. He had an announcement to make. He said, “This has been an exceptional retreat. Many monks have made great progress and some have suggested to me, in their private interviews, that the retreat should be extended for another two weeks. I think this is a magnificent idea. The retreat is extended. Carry on sitting.”
All the monks folded their legs again and sat motionless in meditation, to begin another two weeks. The Western monk said that he didn’t feel any pain in his body anymore. He was just trying to figure out who those damn monks were who suggested the extension, and thinking what he was going to do to them once he found out! He hatched the most unmonkish plans for those uncaring monks. His anger blotted out all pain. He was incensed. He was murderous. He had never felt so much anger before. Then the gong sounded again. It was the quickest fifteen minutes of his life.
“Retreat over,” the master said. “There are refreshments for you all in the refectory. Go at your leisure. You may talk now.”
The Western monk was lost in confusion. “I thought we were meditating for another two weeks. What’s going on?” A senior monk who spoke English saw his bewilderment and came over. Smiling, he said to the Westerner, “Don’t worry! The master does the same every year!”
Excerpt From: Brahm, Ajahn. “Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?”.
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