As you fly down the highway, heading south from Sydney, you will notice a bright orange temple on your left. This is the Nan Tien Buddhist Temple. Many times, I have gone past it and thought it looked like a fabulously interesting place. Two years ago, I decided to add it to my bucket list. Last year while going through my bucket list items, I decided to pop onto the temple website and discovered they do meditation retreats. I booked myself in for a 2.5-day retreat in mid-June and thought it would be a fascinating experience.
On the morning of the retreat, I was feeling quite nervous. Besides a couple of activities listed on the website, I really had no idea what to expect from this adventure. I knew that you weren’t to look at your phone and you were expected to keep noble silence (no talking) for the duration of the event. After a busy 5 months, those were the two feature I was most looking forward to. The site also said that there was only vegetarian food eaten onsite and I couldn’t wait to eat traditional, healthy meals. I thought it would be a spiritual journey that I would come back from feeling refreshed and re-charged.
The reality turned out to be quite different.
I had booked a triple share room to save money. I didn’t think it through. Neither of my room mates had read the website and hadn’t realised it was noble silence for the retreat. They kind of kept to it but not really. They didn’t keep to the no phone rule either. It was frustrating sitting on your bed at a no phone retreat while sandwiched in-between two people talking or texting on their phones. The lady on my left talked in her sleep and the lady on my right snored. It was not the spiritual journey I was imagining. The vegetarian food ended up being a weird mix of cheap asian style vegetarian dishes mixed in with some loose concept of western vegetarian foods. One breakfast had steamed broccoli and garlic bread on offer.
One of the hardest parts of the retreat was feeling like we were being bashed over the head with Buddhism. Towards the end, I felt like I was at Jesus camp. The final day consisted lectures on how to be a better person that only had a slither of relation to the meditation. Part of the issue was my naivety in not realising how connected meditation and Buddhism are but I also think they don’t make it clear on the website that there are going to be sessions lecturing on how to live a Buddhist lifestyle.
What I loved about the retreat was not looking at my phone and being able to forget about my life for a couple of days. I loved not making polite conversation with people I had no interest in and I loved not making conversation just to fill in silence. I found it beautiful to be so aware of my thoughts and to be able to take time out to examine those thoughts. The part of the retreat where we were just learning about Buddhism and how it relates to meditation, how the monks live and how the temple works was interesting. I was completely naïve about Buddhism and its theology and I enjoyed learning something new. I have brought some of their techniques and approaches to meditation back with me from the retreat and found them useful on a daily basis.
My favourite moment of the trip was during the tea ceremony. Initially there is great reverence in preparing the tea leaves, cups and water. This is then followed by a ceremony of passing the cups around and everyone taking one small sip from the tiny tea cups. We were then asked to provide feedback on what we felt. I piped up saying how I wanted more than the tiny tea cup we drank from and that I thought monks had a lot of patience. The reverend monk in charge of our table asked me if I always wanted more in life and if I was always in a rush to go somewhere. I squirmed in my seat and replied “sometimes”. Then the girl next to me said “I just feel really grateful for what I have”. I internally rolled my eyes while outwardly gritting my teeth into a smile as the reverend monk nodded her head in approval. ‘Pious little bitch’ I thought to myself and the lady across the table from me caught my eye and smirked with me!
At my final lunch, I was counting down the minutes till I could leave. I was craving a burger and chocolate cake. When I passed into the first shop back in the real world I stocked up on a Krispy crème doughnut and two packs of chocolate. In reflection, it wasn’t quite the experience I had been expecting but I am still glad I did it and tried something completely new. Now I know more about Buddhism and I have learnt new techniques for meditation. I love the concept of noble silence and having days away from my mobile. Instead of going to a temple, I think I might replace the venue with a 5-star hotel and create my own meditation retreat!