On 14 September 2012, approximately 140 yogis descended upon Sam Poh Buddhist Temple in Cameron Highlands for a 10-day retreat, led by Sayalay Dipankara from Myanmar.
Given the large number of participants and limited space in the temple, we were allocated in groups of between 9 to 20 to a room. Some were lucky to get beds while some had to share a single long mattress with several others. Limited living and toilet facilities shared by 140 people were stretched to say the least.
Amazingly, what could possibly be the reason for the absence of quarrels, fights or discontentment amidst such crammed living conditions during this 10-day period? It could only be the forbearance, patience and compassion exercised by all of us that created such a wonderful and peaceful environment for our practice.
We were there for one thing and one thing only - to focus and train our minds through meditation to achieve insight and lasting happiness in our lives.
Temperatures in Cameron Highlands were very low, especially during sunset hours. Sometimes, even during the day, I could see my breath condensing to join the low-hanging clouds in the highlands.
Our days started at 5.30am with the first sitting and ended at 9pm with the last sitting. The 1.5-hour sittings were interspersed with walking meditation and meal breaks. Effectively, we spent 10 days mostly eating, sleeping and meditating and nothing else. While it might have seemed arduous for the uninitiated, all of us felt that we had benefited immensely from this intensive focus on the mind and austere lifestyle for the sennight-plus duration.
Noble silence was practised throughout the retreat to maintain the peace and calm conducive for our practice. The only talking was done during interview time with Sayalay who advised us on the problems and development of our individual meditation practice.
During the fourth day of the retreat, Sayalay humorously spoke about the various wondering thoughts that distracted us from our breath, which was our object of meditation. Oh yes, she knew our secret desires even though we did not speak of them to anyone else! She must have sensed our longing for some non-vegetarian food, given the vegetarian diet we had to undertake for the 10 days. I was guilty of thinking of tonkatsu (Japanese fried pork cutlets) during the retreat and had even started planning for the dishes that I wanted to cook when I come back home.
So, it was fortuitous that Sayalay warned us not to think about fried chicken too much. Otherwise, we might end up as a chicken (or pig in my case) in our next life!
During her talks held on alternate nights, Sayalay traversed a variety of topics from Winston Churchill, Jackie Chan, meditation techniques, rebirth, six realms of existence, the importance of sending metta to Lord Yama of the hell realm, renunciation, the teaching of Dhamma during this world epoch to arahantship.
As Sayalay described how she had defeated her various illnesses, including cancer, using vipassana meditation, tears welled up in many yogis' eyes at her determination to continue teaching the Dhamma even in the face of such adversarial physical conditions. Despite her obvious tiredness, she spoke without pause and gave us so much wisdom during those talks that not one heart could possibly remain untouched.
Personally for myself, this retreat had helped me to put the various relationships in my life in a clearer perspective. I could understand my emotions, wants and cravings towards various people and objects with enhanced clarity. Of paramount importance is the reaffirmation of my faith in the Dhamma that continues to guide, benefit and inspire me towards the attainment of enlightenment.
Many thanks to the committee in Malaysia that organised this retreat, which was a humongous and complex task by any measure. Many thanks too to Sister Henrietta Wong and volunteers from Singapore who arranged for two busloads of people from Singapore to participate in this meritorious event. And finally, my deepest gratitude to Sayalay Dipankara, who advised us to "never never never never never give up"!