10 Days of Sitting: Vipassana Meditation in Vietnam
From the October 31st to November 11th I attended a Vipassana meditation course/retreat on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.
On the fourth day, we got to eat: yogurt. I was so happy that day.
Five Precepts: No killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, no drinking alcohol
The rules were strict, like being in a prison (not that I have experience in a Vietnamese prison - yet!). We were not allowed to talk with or otherwise communicate with each other or outsiders. This is called the noble silence. But it also serves a functional purpose. It makes it harder to tell lies for those 10 days. So we weren't allowed to read or write or use phones or the Internet. It's much easier not to tell lies, even small ones, when you are not allowed to talk. We were also not allowed to eat meat, which should be expected at a Buddhist temple. Not only were we limited to Vietnamese vegetarian fare, I think it was deliberately made to be unappetizing. (But apparently other Vipassana centers do serve meat.) And so we were not killing, one of the other five precepts we were to uphold to keep our minds as pure as possible. We were physically separated from the opposite sex thereby preventing us from violating the rule of having improper (as well as proper) sex. We did all sit in the meditation hall together but on opposite sides. Obviously there was no alcohol and you were obviously not allowed to bring your own or other drugs although if you did bring medicine you had to report it and have it checked. You were also asked not to smoke cigarettes. If you wanted to take some Tylenol for a headache you would probably be encouraged to try to just meditate instead as those drugs could interfere with this type of meditation.
Another precept is not sleeping in high luxurious beds. I slept on basically a wooden desk with a bamboo mat under a mosquito net which unfortunately kept any breeze out. Others slept on folding cots.
In total, there were five precepts for all students and an additional three for old students. It was clear that we were here to do work: meditate, and that we would have only the most basic of needs met in order to do that. In some ways it might be worse than being in a prison! Surrendering your freedom to the program for 10 days can lead to doubts - Why I am still here? Why am I putting up with this? But I think the reasoning is sound. Your religion may not prohibit drinking wine or eating meat or telling lies or having non-consensual sex, but not doing those things will weigh less heavily on your conscience, assuming you have one, and lead to easier concentration with less self-imposed guilt and other psychological distractions. You also don't need as much sleep in order to meditate and eating less, and not eating fried foods and meats helps keep you from entering food coma.
On the fifth day somebody hyperventilated and had to be led out
The course teaches 3 meditation techniques over 10 days: concentration, insight, and compassion. Anapanasati (for Samadhi), Vipassana, Metta.
The first 3 days are focused on a very simple concentration meditation technique where you concentrate on the sensation around the nose area. Only from the fourth day do you actually start practicing Vipassana.
Sitting for 11 hours a day 10 days in a row is not easy.
Personally, it was both really physically challenging and painful. Using up all your willpower to try to sit through the pain and boredom was mentally exhausting, but somehow you had to keep replenishing that willpower. In many ways it was like an adult version of the last 10 days of primary school before the summer break. I spent too much time daydreaming and playing mental games.
As a Westerner, unlike Vietnamese and some other Asian people, one is not accustomed to sitting cross-legged on the floor for long periods of time. We are used to sitting in chairs with back support. At this retreat, unlike some Zen retreats, we were not forced to sit in the full lotus position or any other particular position (and we could hold our hands any way we wished) but sitting in any position for that long is still painful for your legs, butts, and, for some people, their backs.
Just being an experienced sitter would be immensely helpful preparation. If you want to do anything to prepare, just try sitting on the floor for most of the day.
On the eighth day the power went out just as the late morning meditation session was about to start. It was a scheduled power outage but unfortunately the backup diesel generator wouldn't supply power to the building. The meditation hall was at the top of the building where the sun's heat easily radiates through a corrugated metal roof with no insulation. Exposed brick walls also easily absorbed and radiated heat. As it only rained on one of the 10 days, it was rather hot every other day. Without air conditioning the room is basically an oven. The power was out until the afternoon but we had to sit for some time despite this.
The rest of the time the room was air conditioned because we don't want to have our external feelings affected by the wind from fans or from the outside (and without A/C that room would be about 40 degrees Celcius. We want to be aware of any sensations on the skin that arise naturally. Despite the air conditioning, at least where I sat I felt uncomfortably hot most afternoons. Each of us has a different temperature at which we feel comfortable and a temperature where one person may be too hot may cause another person to be too cold. In general I think most people were okay with the heat but it was distractingly unpleasant for me despite shaving my head.
Results oriented: Your mileage may vary.
Often people jokingly ask "did you get enlightened?" The answer is "no". [But is it possible to attain stream entry in one of these retreats? Perhaps. And some people seem to make a lot of progress on their first retreat.]
If you take this course you will be taught the three meditation techniques and then be given ample time to practice them and ask the teachers any questions that may come up such as whether you're practicing the right way and how to deal with feelings or thoughts that come up. Although they are called teachers it should be noted that they themselves don't actually teach. Rather, all lessons are from recordings of Goenka (in my case, on an iPod) or a recorded translation. There are no teachers authorized to teach Goenka-style Vipassana so each Vipassana course around the world uses the same recordings. Thus the answers that the teachers give can seem cookie-cutter or scripted, more of "What Would Goenka Do?" than anything of depth. You could think of them as public relations officers of Goenka.
But perhaps the genius of Goenka is that he found a way to make the course massively accessible, without relying on teachers to succeed him, yet still be effective in getting people to experience real insight on their first retreat. So some of the restrictions as well as the 10-day length may be excessive for some individuals but it may also ensure that most people make progress as long as they stay for the entire 10 days, and then leave with a better impression.
Even if you don't come out of it experiencing the arising and passing away or other sensations that fellow students report you will have increased your equanimity just by practicing it for some 70 hours.
We are taught to practice feeling sensations throughout the body and then being equanimous with them. We are taught that all sensations, whether painful or pleasurable, are temporary, impermanent, and therefore we should not develop craving or aversion towards them because the bad ones will soon go away and so will the good ones. By continuously meeting with pleasant or unpleasant sensations and practicing equanimity we develop equanimity, and this is what makes Vipassana special - being a tool to actively increase equanimity. This is done through a technique of scanning the body for subtler and subtler sensations - feelings. When we encounter unpleasant sensations we are told that these are past "sankharas" which are basically analogous to karma. By continuously bringing these past sufferings up and then "clearing" them away by being completely equanimous to them we are cleansing the body of these sankharas which can be thus cleared until they are all gone. Eventually we feel a free flow of subtle vibrations throughout the body instead of those other gross sensations.
Some people came hoping to cure illnesses. They were told that, depending on the cause of the illness, this meditation could possibly help. I am skeptical and I don't think it's their place to give such medical advice. Meditation certainly can help in some cases and can improve health in a more general sense. But we shouldn't place hope in this technique as a cureall, which will only lead to disappointment.
But if you follow the technique through to Liberation then those diseases will hardly matter, will they?
Why be a monk for 10 days?
During the course I often had doubts whether I needed to really stay there. I thought I could just practice when I got back. It turns out to be really hard to practice at home and to get the same quality of practice as you could get when you've gotten into the groove of practicing all day for days in a row, not being pulled in various directions by work and relationships and answering emails and having meetings.
On the other hand, you might become obsessed with work and relationship problems which you can't solve while you're away. This is especially true for entrepreneurs who can always be doing something to move their business forward. You'll come up with a million ideas but not be able to do anything about them for 10 days! Before you go on a retreat it's better to sort out your finances and anything outstanding with relationships so you don't obsess over money and family while you're away.
Who is it for?
This Vipassana course isn't just for hardcore meditators. Nor is it only for Vietnamese Buddhists. While the style of meditation comes from the Buddha, it's not necessary to believe or stop believing in anything or any diety. It's for both Vietnamese living in Saigon, those who came all the way from Hanoi, and foreigners who only speak English. It's for both young and old. Most people were in their 20s and 30s but a number of people were decades older. Half were men and half were women. The course is for anybody.
Tips and tricks
1. Loosen up for a few weeks/months beforehand. Yoga is supposed to help you get into the lotus position.
2. Bring a bottle of water. Not because that bottle will last you 10 days. But you can refill it instead of using the one shared cup used by 50 guys.
3. Bring a watch. You don't want to necessarily check it while sitting, but it will help to know how much time is left during breaks.
4. Mosquito repellant.
5. Bring your own cushions and perhaps a small towel to rest your hands on.
6. Bring 10 days worth of clothes. Easier than doing laundry.
7. Don't bring your own mosquito net.
8. My neighbor brought some kind of "cool mat" to lay on.
9. Don't bring your wallet, just a bit of cash you may feel like donating at the end.
10. If you can get a long-lasting battery-powered fan, it could be awesome, but make everyone else jealous.
Vipassana courses in Vietnam
The most common Vipassana course being taught around the world is this one started by Goenka. You can find a worldwide listing of meditation centers teaching it on dhamma.org but Vietnam is conspicuously missing from the list. However, I just took a course and so I know it exists in Vietnam.
The location was a small Theravadan temple (tinh xa) called Ngoc Thanh in Thu Duc district. It was right next to the railway and the rail Depot list nearby 2 trains were coming back and forth with horns wailing all day long. It also happens to be right in the path of many airplanes landing at the airport (TSN). The temple is on 41st Street, off of Kha Van Can Street in Thu Duc. There's another course happening now and the first Saturday of every month they have a one-day refresher session for old students.
At the end of this month there will be a Vipassana course led by a Vietnamese nun trained by Goenka in India at Hong Trung Son pagoda temple in Nam Cat Tien in Dong Nai. Contact [email protected] for details.
So far there haven't been any courses in Hanoi and so this course had a large number of Hanoians who flew down just to take the course. But they are currently setting up a first course for Hanoi by the end of this year.
They are also raising money to build a large Vipassana center to serve all of Vietnam in Bao Loc in the highlands on the way to Dalat. The weather there is cool and meditating there should be much more peaceful than in the city.
Contact Vipassana Vietnam
Ban tổ chức khóa thiền Vipassana Việt Nam
ĐT: 09065 09483 - 0904593477 - E-mail
ĐC: TX.Ngọc Thành, 37/12 đường 41, KP.6, P.Linh Đông, Q.Thủ Đức, TP.HCM - ĐT: 08 38960664