It was 1993, after two years of living in Nepal, India and Bhutan, it was time to replenish monetary funds in Europe. I booked a flight to Europe with Sri Lanka Airways, with stopover in Sri Lanka to make a pilgrimage in that Buddhist country. Following a traditional and nontraditional pilgrimage route, I found myself one day in a hill area with many caves, two hundreds actually, the locals told me later.
I chose to stay for retreat. Considering supplies, I chose to finish slowly what I had, following a fasting retreat, to make it simple, not being bothered with supply problems. Water was abundant in that area and I had a purification system with me. There were snakes, wild monkeys, numerous insects, some poisonous, enhancing one’s mindful attitude, and wild elephants lower down. At night I heard rustling noises close by. I could not identify from what kind of animals they were triggered .
One day, stepping out of my open cave, I stood in front of a huge reptile, bigger than me. I was transfixed for a moment, maybe even with open mouth. Crocodile was my thought, I still do not know, if they were zoologically labelled crocodiles, but they looked like it and were huge. From these crocodiles, I heard the noises at night. A swamp was lower down and apparently, they frequented the hill tops as well. At that time, I changed my cave to the top cave with two big entrances, one entrance and exit leading to the rocky top of the hill with a great view over the jungle canopy.
Some locals discovered me sitting in meditation and very kindly offered to show me some other caves, after respectfully waiting until I showed signs of communication willingness, not pushing at all for talk. They told me there were about two hundred of them.
One of the biggest, close to the rocky top with great view and clearing in front of the lower entrance, was my new choice and they very kindly, insisted on clearing the cave and area of debris. The locals insisted as well on organizing food supplies for me, which I rejected, but they insisted so adamantly and kindly, that we finally agreed on only one meal, early vegetarian lunch, traditional Theravadan yogi sustenance. I was not allowed to pay for anything, no matter how much I insisted. They felt insulted by my mention to pay. Around 11 am, someone came with lunch, usually a woman, quietly waiting until I had finished and disappearing again with the empty containers, I was not allowed to clean myself.
After some time a group of villagers, with one somehow proficient in English, approached me and told me following: “We have come together from all the villages surrounding this hill, and we are all happy that a meditator is again resident in one of the 200 caves. We knew only from legends, generations before, that these caves were used by meditators. The one you are in was time long ago inhabited by a defeated king, who stashed his remaining treasure in the crooks and nannies of this particular cave. We are so happy that at last the meditation tradition had come alive again in the caves, so we have decided to provide with everything you need, shifting turns from village to village. You can stay your whole life.”
This they proclaimed with such sincerity, that I believed their declaration and was greatly moved. A comparatively rich westerner invited to stay as resident yogi, so to speak, not allowed to pay anything and provided with sustenance as long as I intend to stay, even my whole life. What a generosity these locals and very respectful offered, nothing pushy or sticky.
Back to the “crocodiles”. After my close encounter with one of them near the cave and knowing now the origins of the crawling noises at night, I had difficulty sleeping. The nights were cold and sometimes a bit windy in my open cave and I used to zip my small 500 gram sleeping bag closed, but now I felt like a ready-made hot dog for these huge reptiles, unable to disentangle myself and to run away, to climb on top of the hill on the safe rocks. These huge reptiles were surely not vegetarians like myself!
Hearing the crawling noises at night I switched repeatedly my flash light on, trying to find out if they already approached me. After two sleepless nights, I found myself silly and asked myself for a decision: either leave or stay in retreat. Looking at the fear and uncertainty I produced in my mind, using the circumstances as part of the retreat, I opted for retreat. I slept soundly again after a third night of crocodile contemplation. Neither wild monkeys, nor snakes or other poisonous animal life could dissuade me from staying in retreat, not even these huge reptiles and the fear they triggered in my mind. But now a larger problem occurred.
Due to human behavior and conditioning, I could not deal with the following situation: The ones who brought me early lunch started to make prostration towards me, touching my feet with hands and head, very respectfully. This was utterly astonishing and very, very uncomfortable for me. It was already difficult to accept their kindness and food without paying anything, but these prostrations towards me and my feet were just too much. I am not fond of these kinds of devotional exclamations, it is not part of my culture. I prefer standing upright, one before another, and know that millions died for equality over the centuries and more will probably do so. Even though I knew that I am a guest and have to adapt to the host culture, prostration towards my feet were too much. I left retreat.
I still feel a deep gratitude towards the shown generosity and kindness and astonishment that old Theravadan customs are still alive. I live now since many years in the Himalayas in a retreat setting of a monastic three year retreat place. but with my own hut in an organic garden and orchard as a lay practitioner.
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