My caustic retreat with a Laotian forest monk

- through Henry Oudin

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Immerse yourself in the heart of a Theravada retreat at the Bodhinyanarama monastery in Tournon… Or when the usual landmarks collapse.

It is not without apprehension that I register for this weekend of meditation. On its website, the Monastery Bodhinyanarama de Tournon, in Ardèche, warns: “The first observance requested is ADAPTATION throughout the duration of the session. If this observance is too hard for the meditators, the Venerable can ask them to leave the monastery so as not to disturb the group”. Adaptation is written in red and in capital letters. The advice that follows is not to reassure me. “Product against mosquitoes for meditation in the forest”, “flashlight to circulate in the night”… And the end of the end, in my eyes: the parenthesis in “Some meditation practices may require a bathing suit (even in winter) ". Fortunately we are at the end of May.

Clafoutis forbidden and sleepless night

When I arrive on the scene, scarlet cherries sparkle under the azure sky and roses light up the Buddhist figures scattered throughout the park. The setting is rustic and moving. sexagenarian, the Venerable Nyanadharo Laotian forest monk and abbot of the monastery since he founded it in 1977, continues to cultivate his garden, helped by a few disciples. It is he who will guide all the sessions for which I will discover that adaptation is not an empty word.

However, the morning begins normally. There are about fifteen of us sharing a classic breakfast in the common room. The Venerable invites us to hold our spoon in the hand opposite to the one we usually use. A gentle way to break our patterns. We then go into the temple where, seated near a statue of the Buddha, he gives us some advice on posture, breathing, eye movements and meditation while walking. Time flies, it's already lunch time. And that of surprises: “Tonight there will be no dinner. We will have a sleepless night. This afternoon, you are free. You can rest. Meet at midnight in the temple. I shudder. Skipping a meal has a way of putting me in a bad mood. And not sleeping all night is sure to be numb the next day. I try not to act on all these thoughts. We all spend our time differently. A few lay down in the shade of the trees. Others advance very slowly, concentrating on their meditative walk. We have not received instructions for silence, but few are those who speak. I who never take a nap, I manage to doze off until the evening. First change in my habits? Still, I can't help but peek into the kitchen. A novice prepares a clafoutis there… for lunch the next day. Near hypoglycemia, I crave some leftovers from lunch. I will not experience fasting today.

Conference in the refectory 

Shortly after midnight, the Venerable took his place opposite us in the temple. Her singing voice keeps me awake. Without written notes, in a continuous flow of words without apparent structure, he evokes the Dharma, its masters, its long experience. Beside him, a portrait of the highly respected Ajahn Chan, a forest monk from the Thai tradition of Theravada Buddhism, watches over us. It was he who advised his disciple the Venerable Nyanadharo to come and teach in France.

When the break between 2:30 and 3 am arrives, I return to the dormitory to lie down a bit. Others take the opportunity to explore the park with their flashlight. I understand the website instructions better. Back at the temple, here we are again sitting on our meditation cushions. The Venerable resumes his monologue, then ends up being silent. Around me, the silhouettes are slowly slouching. Around 6am, only two people are still standing straight. A clap of the gong wakes us from our torpor. An instruction accompanies it. “Meet in the dining room at 8 o'clock. We will stay there until noon. We will have our breakfast and then our lunch. “An entire morning without leaving the table? Confused, exhausted, I fall asleep on the floor of the temple.

“In the teaching of the Buddha, we are there to learn our humanity. Everything that manifests in us, our anger, our desire, our fear, even in adolescence our sexual awakening, is not unhealthy, no, everything is natural. It's on our way, we have to deal with it. This is the teaching. » The Venerable Nyanadharo

In the refectory, seated at the end of the table, the Venerable scrutinizes us with his lively eyes. He tells how he held ten days in meditation without sleeping, taking only one meal a day. The 1500 people who practiced with him failed before him. “It's the result of years of training… We have to be humble, pay less attention to our intelligence, to our certainties. We listen to him while drinking tea or coffee, looking a little sleepy. He adds: “You came as a tourist. Do not turn your head to the right, to the left, but develop your peripheral vision. Slow down. And ask yourself the right questions: why do you listen to the news repeatedly on the radio? You eat, you sleep, what is the meaning of life? The chatter (mental) is a drain of energy”. An Asian volunteer then brings the lunch dishes. Attentive to our gestures, we get up to help ourselves to potatoes, sausages and clafoutis. The Venerable continues: “Fear, anger, your love, your desire, your intention to do something, it all drives you crazy. You are no longer lucid to make a good decision”. The words fuse, I wonder how I could restore everything he tells us. “In the teaching of the Buddha, we are there to learn our humanity. Everything that manifests in us, our anger, our desire, our fear, even in adolescence our sexual awakening, is not unhealthy, no, everything is natural. It's on our way, we have to deal with it. This is the teaching. »

Tournon, the softened echo of an uncompromising spiritual life

Around noon, the Venerable gives us the floor. The round table reveals everyone's doubts. Johan has a "very aggressive boss". Viviane would like to “learn to let go”. Nicolas does not know if he should "quit his job". Annabelle starts crying. The Venerable responds in a precise, sometimes clairvoyant way. "I don't have much time left, I'm not a doctor, not an astrologer, but if I can help you..."

It is 16 p.m., we are about to leave. Back to the temple for some final advice. Aude, 56, is on her third stay. “It's very trying, but each time, I leave much lighter. Something sparkles inside me again. Virginie, 24, who is coming for the first time, smiles happily: “I had eczema since I was little and it disappeared! “, she enthuses. On the other hand, Célia, in her thirties, confides that she is “very tired and a little fragile. »

I myself am puzzled. I wonder if this Venerable has not pushed us a little too far. To get to the bottom of it, I immerse myself in texts evoking Ajahn Chah and the tradition of the monks of the forest. What I experienced in the monastery of Tournon appears to me then as the softened echo of an uncompromising spiritual life, entirely dedicated to the practice of the teachings of the Buddha. In a text titled Tribute to Ajahn Chah, his disciple Ajahn Jayasaro remembers: “Learning patience and endurance was a major element of his teaching. He was constantly altering the routine of the monastery, so that we couldn't get stuck in the rut of habit – the result being that we never knew what the next moment had in store for us! He was always there watching us, so we couldn't stay inattentive. Another student, Ajahn Amaro, says: “Most of Ajahn Chah's teachings were delivered informally, quite spontaneously and unpredictably. (…) He said: “If he is not alive at the present moment, it is not the Dhamma”. (1) It is this rigor that Venerable Nyanadharo transmits.

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Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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