Monastery Nights: The Karma of Moths
“Monastery Nights” is an Occasional Memoir of Visits to the
Bhavana Society Buddhist Monastery in West Virginia
and Encounters with Abbot Bhante Gunaratana
(See new excerpts each Thursday on WestVirginiaVille.com)
by Douglas Imbrogno
My bed is hard. Sitting on its edge, the thought comes to me that this is the most perfectly perfect bed for a seven-day Buddhist meditation retreat. Simple. A blue mattress, little thicker than a kitchen chair cushion, covers the handmade plywood bed in a corner of my kuti — monastery-speak for a one-room hut in the woods.
A stack of blankets sits on the floor near a small gas wall heater. A wood Buddha, big as a cat seated on its haunches, meditates on a high corner shelf, its green-gold robes flaking with age. The cabin’s exterior is painted burnt orange like the several dozen other kutis scattered about the monastery’s 60-some acres. Mine — named ‘Viriya’ kuti — rests one stop past the compost heap, a short stroll up a gravel path from the Bhavana Society dining and meditation hall. I whiff the compost’s fruity aroma on the kuti’s screened-in porch, where I first sit on a low bench to doff my shoes before entering.
The forest drips with the last of a daylong rain soaking the Hampshire County hills. I had arrived last of all after a six-hour dash across the ever-rolling West Virginia landscape. I pull up to find a new green street sign on a pole at the turn-in to the property along Back Creek Road:
‘Meditation Trl,’ the sign says.
Smiling, I ease my car into one of only two open slots in the blacktop lot. A chance for a week-long retreat on jhana meditation with Bhavana’s 84-year-old abbot — who has spent decades studying and practicing this form of one-pointed concentration meditation — has jammed the place.
All 40-odd retreatants — men on the left, women on the right — already sit on fat maroon cushions or in chairs along the walls in the peaked-roof meditation hall. I ditch my shoes and enter the darkened space well after 8 p.m. I step quietly as possible. Mid-room, I kneel and dip my forehead to the floor, three times, to a larger-than-life Buddha statue seated on high at the end of the chamber. Below it, facing us on a low, cushioned wood dais, sits Bhavana’s founding abbot, Bhante Gunaratana.
I arrange myself on a cushion, trying not to be a bother the guy meditating on a zabuton a foot in front of mine. Or the fellow two feet behind. To my ears in the quiet hall, all my rustling and rearranging sounds like someone breakdancing in a library.
Finally, I settle in. An oceanic stillness returns to the room. It is broken at intervals by a cough, a sneeze, a re-ordering of someone’s legs. After awhile, the abbot taps a bell three times. Circles of sound radiate like rounds of pond water plunked by a pebble. In Pali, then in English, he says:
“There is no concentration without wisdom. No wisdom without concentration. One who has both concentration and wisdom is close to peace and emancipation …”
A mass rustling follows as everyone un-pretzels from their postures. A few people stand already — they’ve been doing standing meditation the last 10, 15 minutes, having reached the limit of their folded-up legs.
Since I arrived late, I sit on, eyes closed. I hear the bare feet of monks and Bhavana’s single nun pad by. Still kneeling retreatants namasté to them as the monastics depart, then arise and go themselves. Things get still again. Maybe 30 or 40 minutes later, I unwrap my legs, open my eyes. The hall is empty but for the great Buddha, whose eyes gaze deeply into the room.
The only sound comes from the woods — cyclic tunes of tree frogs, the rising-waxing concert of crickets. Then, deep in the forest, a whippoorwill chitters. Pause. There it is again, one of the only onomatopoeic creatures: ‘WHIP-poor-WILL. WHIP-poor-WILL…’
I re-bow to the Buddha. Then, stand, stretch my back and exit up the walkway to the Sangha Hall. It’s nearly 9:30 p.m. and everyone has gone off to kutis or dorms to sleep. I know the drill. I tear off masking tape from a holder and write ‘DOUGLAS’ on it (unable to resist the urge to pen it in an artful serif type). I affix the tape to a cup from a cupboard and my official retreat cup is born.
I brew a cup of chamomile tea and sit in a chair, flexing feet and calves. After tossing the teabag and washing the cup, I add it to a shelf of self-named cups: Jon H., Sarita, Eliza, Dina, Brett… The retreat’s focus on personal practice includes a vow of Noble Silence with the concomitant advice not to fret with social niceties like eye contact when passing each other. This means these names are all I’ll come to know of other retreatants’ personal details until the retreat is over and Noble Silence lifts after next Friday’s noon meal.
Except that I’ll need no introductions to learn who has a cold, whose serial shotgun-blast coughs rock the meditation hall and who can stand on their head during afternoon yoga.
Later, in Viriya kuti, unable to sleep, I glance at the time. Nearly 11 p.m. I had better get to it. Meditation begins daily at 5:30 a.m., although Bhante G, as is his wont, is usually sitting by 5 a.m., if not before.
Viriya, like all the kutis, is sans electricity. I scratch a wooden match to life from a box. Pass the flame to the wick of a hurricane lamp. In the flickering yellow glow, I jot in my journal, courting sleep through activity. A big brown moth zig-zags into view. How inauspicious it would be to start off the retreat with it going up in a poof of lamp flame and moth fumes! I puff the lamp out. Flipping on a halogen flashlight, I bumble around for five minutes, trying to coax the frantic thing into a cupped palm.
Mission accomplished, I open the kuti’s front door. Uncup. The moth flutters off into the sodden night. All things are fundamentally impermanent — annica — as the Buddha taught. But this moth still has some good karma left.
As I finally slide into sleep, a September wind moves like an incoming tide through the forest, blowing through the kuti’s screened windows. To be here, in these Appalachian hills, with such a teacher at such a time in my life, I think — so must I.
1. The Karma of Moths
2. The Good Friend