It wasn’t a sound that belonged on a silent 10-day Vipassana retreat. I was sitting at the kitchen table in our residence when I startled at the sound. A strange, moaning cry. It was Day 10 and students had just ended the silence of nine days and were now chatting very happily to each other in the open-air gazebo that served as the registration and administration building at Dhamma Phala. No person, though, could (or should) make that sound. At least I hoped not…
After hearing it again, I got up to look out the window. I watched a baby goat wander past our house. He looked intent on joining the students, presumably in search of food or attention. There were already a few stray dogs winning affections from those standing around. Wobbling a bit on his baby legs, the goat started jumping in the air as he got close to the gazebo and all the action. He was the one making the bleaty, goaty sounds. He sounded pretty happy about it all.
Animals are not normally allowed to wander around a Vipassana Centre. But there are many places in the world where it’s impossible to keep them out. I remember years ago I had the quixotic job of trying to guard against a particularly persistent cow. She would show up almost daily to eat the flowers. I never did figure out how she always managed to get past the locked gate.
We’re in a small rural place call Tiaong, Quezon, in the Philippines, about a three-hour drive south of Manila. Now called Dhamma Phala, the vipassana centre used to be a fruit plantation, mainly coconuts and bananas, but there are also a few mango trees. It sits on three hectares in the jungle surrounded by several small family farms, which means chickens, goats, stray dogs and cats are frequent visitors during a retreat. The best we can do is to make sure no non-humans enter the actual meditation hall. But that could be challenging at times. A young kitten was peculiarly interested in joining us during evening group sittings. He would check each door to the hall, scratching and meowing. One night there was a loud bang that startled everyone in the room. Karen and I looked up to see the kitten hanging suspended at an angle from the screen door, looking into the hall. He looked like a puffy orange starfish. Luckily everyone was able to keep from laughing. But just barely. It was his final act of frustration after several nights of trying. He gave up after that, thankfully.
Dhamma Phala is a very small, intimate meditation centre with room for about 50 students and servers. It was opened in October 2018. Accomodations are very basic but well organized. It’s a beautiful place, despite the cloying humidity and soaring heat. It’s the middle of the hot season here. Everyone is waiting for the relief that will come with the rains in a few weeks. The Centre has been built using traditional Philippine construction techniques. The main meditation hall is built like a bahay kubo or nipa hut. The walls are made from sawali (woven bamboo) on the exterior, covered in wood on the inside. The roof is high and steeply pitched and made from tightly woven nipa leaves. The building design allows for natural airflow and cooling while the roof is (relatively) water resistant.
Meditating in the hall feels a bit like sitting outside. The sounds of birds and other jungle creatures are very close, at times so close they were competing with the instructions for attention. A tuko lizard (a very large sort of gecko) spent the course somewhere in the roof inside the hall. He would spend a few minutes each evening belting out a distinctive mating call. Occasionally small birds would fly in and out of the hall. Despite all of that, it still felt quite normal and natural to be sitting there.
The centre is in the hills near the mountains of Maculot, Banahaw and San Cristobal. The main hall is located atop a high point with the residences down below on either side. This means there is often a stiff breeze blowing into the meditation hall. This was very helpful for those who were sitting the course, who had to endure the additional discomfort brought by the heat. One of the trustees sat the course in order to see what it was like to sit here at the height of the hot season. “So what was it like?” I asked him. He laughed. “It was very hot,” he said. He was going to think about what they could do to make it more comfortable.
Vipassana is not new to the Philippines. Courses have been organized here for many years. And it had an interesting start. The Philippines is the world’s third largest Catholic country, after Brazil and Mexico. It is perhaps not surprising that the first Vipassana courses here were organized by a sister of RSCJ (Religieuses du Sacré-Cœur de Jésus), a Catholic teaching order of nuns. According to a local trustee, she had tried Vipassana for the first time while visiting Thailand. When she returned to the Philippines, she began organizing courses out of a strong desire to make meditation accessible to local people and in the hope that many of the country’s political class would encounter the practice. The first course ever offered was held in the Order’s own Novitiate house in October 2002 and half the participants were Catholic nuns. Courses have been offered each year since then, many held on the family mango grove of a local meditator until 2017.
Due to the early efforts of that sister and the generous bequest of a local meditator, the Philippine Vipassana Trust was able to purchase land in 2016 and build Dhamma Phala. Just a few weeks ago, the Trust planted two trees on the land in front of the meditation hall in remembrance of the sister and the other meditator, both of whom past away some time ago. Together they made it possible to establish such a beautiful meditation centre.
For now, one ten-day course is held each month. Slowly, all the growing pains of the first year are being worked out as the local teachers, centre manager, and trustees discover what works and what doesn’t, what needs to be changed and what should be added. But this is a well-designed little centre. It’s perfect for meditation: Very quiet and secluded, despite having neighbours relatively close-by. It is close enough to Manila to be accessible by car or bus, but far enough away from the urban agitation of modern life to give the mind a fighting chance for reflection. The Philippines is not a vegetarian culture, but the food served here is by far among the best we’ve ever tasted at any centre anywhere.
The course we conducted here was very sweet and time went by quickly. Most of the 40 students were Philippino, but there were a handful of foreigners also. Though it’s brand new, and things have only just begun, Dhamma Phala is off to a great start. It takes an enormous amount of work and attention to establish and run a full-time meditation centre. The time and resources required to provide food and accomodations, ongoing maintenance and new construction, and registration systems are immense. For an organization that is donation-based and completely run by volunteers, it can feel like a miracle to see dozens of people successfully completing courses every month. We are very lucky we were able to come here as the centre is just being established.
We are now spending a few days near the ocean.
Karen somehow managed to find a very quiet place so close to the ocean you could fall in from the patio. And I am not exagerrating. For the first few days we were the only guests. It’s a few kilomteres away from Puerto Galera, a very popular and very busy tourist beach on the island of Mindoro. While Karen is working on a project due in a few days for her work, I have spent some time doing long exposure photography from the beach. We both spend some time during the day just listening to the ocean pound the beach in front of our apartment.
We have received a few emails from people concerned about our safety. There were two large earthquakes here in the Philippines in the last couple of days. We didn’t know about them until friends and family told us. They happened a long way away from us. So we’re quite safe. But we’re happy to know people think about us.
On Monday we will head back to Manila to fly to Hong Kong for a few days to visit friends, then we head to Israel. We will conduct two ten-day Vipassana retreats at the meditation centre on the Sea of Galilee, known as Dhamma Pammoda. And we are looking forward to seeing friends in the region again.