In the men’s meditation hall, our cushions were lined beneath cylindrical mosquito nets, carefully suspended from wires that spanned the hall in rows. Laypeople sat in the back, monks near the front, beneath the gaze of the golden Buddha.
The nets were a necessity. With eighteen or more hours of meditation each day, our bodies were fertile feeding grounds for the multifarious insects that populated the air around us. It was monsoon season. It was hot. Our still and sweaty bodies must’ve smelled delightful to the flies and mosquitos that swarmed around us. No attempts were made to keep the insects at bay, to restrict them to the forest outside the Dhamma hall. Nevermind the malaria.
For the most part, the mosquito nets served their purpose. I can think of only one occasion when I’d inadvertently allowed a flying critter into the net with me. On that particular day, the critter was my teacher, but only in the form of a buzzing that swept by my ears from time to time. The mosquito nets were not effective at preventing lizards from entering, but that’s a story for a different day.
The Dhamma talks were in the evenings, around the time that people outside the monastery would call dinnertime. Kort Che Saydaw or Sayadaw U Nanujjota would deliver teachings in Burmese to a packed meditation hall, monks at the front, laymen in the middle, nuns behind them, and laywomen in the rear.
But I didn’t attend those Dhamma talks because I didn’t understand Burmese. English speaking yogis such as myself attended a translated-version of the Dhamma talks in a nearby hut. There were about a dozen of us. And there were no mosquito nets there.
During those Dhamma talks, I was assaulted by the insects of Myanmar’s forest. The mosquitos were almost unnoticeable, though I worried of illness. Most of the flies were simply annoying, crawling about as they did in search of new rivulets of sweat that poured down my head, neck, and arms. There was this one sort of fly, however, a Terrible fly. It didn’t just lap at my sweat. It bit into my arms with a force that belied it size, initiating a searing, burning pain that lasted many minutes.
Most of the insects I just sat with, doing my best to mindfully note their presence. But not the Terrible fly. I felt rage towards it. It disrupted my mindfulness like nothing else. I wanted it to die and, despite my best efforts, I found myself swatting at it.
Finally, frustrated with the Terrible fly, I spoke with the English-speaking nun who facilitated our Dhamma talks.
“You must be more mindful,” she said to me. “When your mindfulness is strong enough, it will penetrate beneath the pain and you will see it for what it is.”
I just looked at her feet. We weren’t allowed to make eye contact.
“Before I became a nun,” she continued, “before I started practice, I killed many flies and mosquitos. I will never know how many. One thing that helped me in the beginning was that the discomfort I felt from the mosquitos could be seen as kamma, as a way of working through the harm I had inflicted.”
She lifted her arms and opened her palms outward in a gesture of welcome. “Dinnertime”, she said, offering her body as a feast for the insects. “Mindfulness can be of great service to the mosquitos.”
The very next day, I was yet again assaulted by the Terrible fly. It found the soft skin on the inside of my wrist and bit into it. Again and again it bit into my wrist, but I did not swat at it. To be sure, it was painful. To be sure, it was nearly unbearable and my body tensed during a bite and in anticipation of the next one. But I did not swat at it.
At the close of the Dhamma talk, I rose from my cushion and approached the nun. Feeling good about myself, I held out my arm so that she could see the garland of welts that extended up my forearm.
“Very good”, she said, “and now you can take a look at your pride.”