I just completed my first “Dhamma service” at the newly constructed and secluded Dhamma Mutta meditation center in Hong Kong.
While you wouldn’t normally think of the financial capital of Asia as a great place for a meditation retreat, the center is an hour away from the city on Lantau Island, surrounded by nature and pretty isolated!
It was wonderful and I’d highly recommend both the center as well as being a server at least once. It’s a whole different experience from actually “sitting” a course, that is, doing the standard 10 day meditation course as a student.
A bit about Vipassana Meditation
Vipassana literally means “to see things as they really are.” It’s a meditation technique practiced by Gautama the Buddha over 25 centuries ago. Today there are centers around the world that allow you to take 10-day courses where you’re expected to follow a rigid and strict schedule of daily meditation, exploring the depths of your monkey mind.
You wake up at 4 am and spend about 10 hours a day meditating with the other students and in your private meditation cell. You take a vow of noble silence, and aren’t allowed to speak, read, write, or even make eye contact with anyone. This allows you to really focus on your practice and “go deep.” It’s all donation-based, so you don’t have to pay anything if you don’t want to, and can benefit from the previous donation of previous students.
Basically, you live like a monk or a nun for 10 days.
What is Dhamma “service?”
A Dhamma server also participates for the 10 days, but you join not with the goal of deep meditation, but rather to help support the students who are there. You’re basically the staff.
Like being a student, it’s totally free (and not paid), but you do get three meals a day and a place to sleep in exchange for your service. Depending on the center your tasks will vary, but typically it includes…
- Preparing breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea.
- Cleaning the kitchen and taking out trash.
- Helping chop vegetables.
- Setting up the audio equipment for chanting in multiple languages and evening discourses.
- Ringing the bell/gong.
- Answering small concerns/requests from students.
This was my schedule as a server for 10 days:
- 530 am – wake up and stretch
- 6 am- set up utensils in dining room and help cook breakfast
- 630 am – open doors for students
- 7am – start cleaning up dining room
- 7–730am – take out trash, help in kitchen
- 8–9am – group meditation
- 9–1030 am – shower, relax in room, write in journal.
- 103am – setup and help cook lunch
- 11am- open doors for lunch
- 1130am – 12:30pm – clean up dining room, take our trash, wipe tables
- 1pm-215pm – group meditation in hall
- 230–4pm – take a nap, read and write
- 4pm-5pm – prepare for afternoon tea and help prepare food for tomorrow’s breakfast and lunch
- 5pm – open doors for afternoon tea
- 530 pm – clean up dining room
- 6pm – 7pm – group meditation in hall
- 7–8pm – sit with students during the daily video discourse. If they’re slouching or falling asleep, gently tell them to straighten up and wake up
- 8pm-830pm – group meditation in hall
- 830pm-930 pm – meditation for servers + have a group conversation with teacher to recap the day and share stories (I really enjoyed this part as we heard a lot of great/funny stories from the teacher)
- 930/10pm – lights out.
And repeat, for 10 days!
The only prerequisite to be a Dhamma server is that you’ve completed at least one 10-day Vipassana course, anywhere in the world. I found it to be a lot less emotionally intense and even quite relaxing at times! I also meet people from all walks of life, including our chef, who looked like Jackie Chan, and one of the female servers who was a die-hard communist.
Why I enjoyed it
I’ve done a 10 day course and know how sensitive one can get even in the first three days. You regress to long-forgotten memories of your childhood that crystallize with an uncanny clarity. Old demons that you’ve kept in the closet emerge to meet you head-on. You experience bouts of crying, intense pain followed by raptures of bliss, free-flows of subtle vibrations across your body, and the dissolution of the self…It can be quite a rollercoaster ride.
So, I tried my best to add little touches here and there to make the lives of the students less taxing. For example, three minutes before the door would open to the breakfast hall I loaded up all of the toasters with bread so that they would be toasted by the time the students got in — upon entering they were met with warm, freshly toasted bread and no need to line up.
Another reason I enjoyed it is because I felt that it allowed me to properly integrate meditation into a regular routine. That is, since you are allowed to read, write and speak (to other servers, managers and the cooks), but also have to juggle the responsibilities of cooking/cleaning and meditate for a minimum of 2 hours per day, it was a lot closer to “real life.” After serving, I’m finding it easier to incorporate meditation into my daily life.
Dhamma service is a big responsibility and should come from a place of compassion and desire to help, not with the focus on just meditating hours every day. You can expect to be relatively busy during your Dhamma service.
Lastly, if you decide to embark on the Vipassana path, I’ve heard people recommend that you alternate sitting and serving — so, sit for 10 days and next time serve, sit, serve, sit, serve. That way you can benefit both as a student and also contribute to others!
Vipassana is the art of living. Not the art of escaping. – Goenka
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