Jun is stuck at a crossroads.

After the death of their mother, since his teens Jun has served as a mentor and protector for his younger sister Gui. Now in their twenties, Jun and Gui have forged the beginnings of separate adult lives. But as the years pass, Jun still cannot manage a firm hold on the material world; instead, the prospect of a more private, meditative life increasingly calls to him.

Though he has recently neglected his mediative practice, at the tail end of a trip through Europe Jun decides to join a meditation retreat at a Buddhist monastery, a retreat led by a teacher he respects. Here, he might be able to decide which path to follow for the rest of his life. While Jun may appear calm from the outside as he sits on a cushion and tries to clear his mind, all he feels is pain. His muscles tighten from the extended sessions of sitting still, and his restless mind circles through a different kind of pain: uncertainty, regret, memories of the past and concern for the future.

Can he calm his mind? He has one week of meditative sessions to find his way.

Ninth Letter is pleased to offer our readers this clear-eyed and yet profoundly sympathetic excerpt from Yuhan Su’s novel-in-progress, Finding Dry Land.

—Philip Graham, Editor-at-Large

from Finding Dry Land

From outside the meditation hall, Jun can hear Luang Por speaking. The retreat has begun. He pushes the heavy wooden door open, cringing as it creaks to a close.

The congregation of hundreds sit on floor cushions placed just a palm’s width apart. Light pours through the windows along the brick walls and skylights on the pyramid roof. Wooden beams run along the vaulted ceiling. At the front of the hall, the golden Buddha statue towers over Luang Por.

After Jun pays his respects, he tiptoes to an empty cushion in the second last row. From this distance, the saffron-robed figure of Luang Por is no taller than Jun’s palm. Luang Por is speaking about the Four Noble Truths, which Jun first learned in the Buddhist Sunday school two decades ago. Jun thought maybe a senior teacher like Luang Por would teach something profound like Dependent Origination or the sublime meditation states. Instead Luang Por talks about the attitude to meditation. “Meditation is not about getting. That would be practicing with greed. Meditation is about letting go,” Luang Por says. He does not even teach a comprehensive, methodological set of meditation instructions, only suggesting some meditation objects, like the breath, body awareness, and the sound of silence.

No matter which meditation object Jun chooses, his mind will not be calmed. Memories of his time working in the police force come back to him. His fear of falling behind. The lights that are never switched off in Brandon’s office. The cold glass of beer. He cannot shake these off his mind. This is the consequence of neglecting his meditation practice. He has abandoned it, this practice of collecting his attention in the present moment, and instead he has let himself get used to being distracted, growing heedless and scattering his attention like sand in the wind. Consistency is key; how can he not know this simple principle? And of course the practice of mental cultivation is upstream; that this was only obvious after his teacher Ajahn pointed it out, when Jun finds himself already swept downstream, even further along than when he first started practicing, only reveals the shallowness of his practice.

It is not only his mind that is revolting; his body too refuses to cooperate. More than two weeks of carrying his backpack through Europe and not an iota of pain, but as he sits stationary on the cushion, his shoulders and neck ache with an unbearable stiffness, the muscles tightening like screws being drilled into the wooden block of his body. It is pure misery sitting here. And it’s only day three. Six more days to go.

He is tempted to sit on one of the chairs at the back of the hall to rest his back for a bit, but that would mean that someone now sitting on a chair would have to sit on the floor, and most of them have white hair. He tries to sit up straighter on the cushion, slouch more, massage his shoulders and base of the neck, stretch, do neck and shoulder rotations. The pain abates before returning with a vengeance. It is impossible. It’s easier traveling from city to city than sitting here.

But when Jun opens his eyes and sees Luang Por, his sermon now over, sitting cross-legged in meditation, he feels inspired and obligated to do the same. Despite his advanced age (definitely more than eighty), Luang Por sits with the congregation, never skipping a session or missing a talk. This alone keeps Jun going, that Luang Por is doing it out of pure compassion; he has no need to exert himself, especially at his age, and here he was, doing just that for the benefit of others. “What’s the reality of this moment?” Luang Por asks intermittently during the sitting session, bringing Jun back from his fantasy of happily, contentedly traveling in Europe to this moment of pain. 


Five days into the retreat, and it has been a disaster. He has wasted this opportunity with a great teacher. He has let Ajahn Tate down. Maybe Mingwei or his sister Gui would have benefited more from being here. What will he say when they ask him about the retreat? I’ve seen the shallowness of my practice. I’m all for the present moment except when the present is pain. Who would welcome pain? If not for this pain, his mind would have surely settled by now. 

In the silence of the hall, Luang Por’s voice seems to boom: “Your refuge is not the ideal but the knowing.”

The line jolts Jun. The story of his life has been seeking the ideal—the top grades, a comfortable job, the ideal retreat—and resisting the non-ideal—the never-ending work, nasty colleagues, boredom and now pain. Desire to get rid of and desire to get, even in the name of peace, leads to suffering. Exactly what Luang Por said on the first day of the retreat about the Second Noble Truth and the attitude to meditation. But is there another way to relate to ideals?

More than halfway into the retreat, and the ship of his ideal peace wonderland has long sailed. He might as well let it go. Your refuge is not the ideal but the knowing. What is this knowing that Luang Por speaks about as the refuge? Does he know the pain? The screw of pain tightens in his shoulder—of course he does; pain makes itself very known. Jun tilts his head to the left to stretch, and to the right.

But his knowing is of the mundane variety; it is not Luang Por’s knowing. For knowing to be a refuge, it would have to be peaceful, non-suffering. 

How is it possible to find non-suffering in the pain? By not wanting to get rid of it, he imagines Luang Por saying. Can he let the pain be? If this retreat comes to nothing, he will at least practice this line that Luang Por says. He will cultivate this knowing, mindfulness, as his refuge.

What does this knowing feel like?

He tries to put his attention on the soles of the feet, furthest from the painful shoulders, even as his attention still swings like a pendulum between the pain and his consciously directed site of attention. He recalls Luang Por’s words: the knowing, the knowing. These words would be his lifeline if he wants to survive this retreat.

He feels his toes, and the awareness seeps into the ankles and up the shin and stops. No sensation past the shin. He wills the attention to his knees, but what comes to mind is the image of his hands on his knees and a pool of vomit at his feet. That is the biggest failure of his career so far: he drank beer to try to fit in. Sitting on the cushion, he can still taste the bitterness of beer, mixed with the sour bile of vomit. He swallows his saliva. What does his need for approval say about him?

Is it at least twenty minutes into the one-hour sitting now?

The burn in his shoulders intensifies, and he rotates them. A few days ago he wanted so much to be part of this retreat, and now he wants out of this pain. Like how he was in the police force and wanted to leave. Then he was in Santorini and wanted to be in Athens, and when he was back at the Parthenon, to be in Italy. He is sick of himself for not knowing what he wants. Where is a restful abiding? It’s not even the monastery, where he has come to rest his mind. If not the monastery, not his mind, then where? Luang Por’s voice echoes in his mind. Your refuge is not the ideal but the knowing.

Feel the knowing. Jun moves his palms from the center of his laps to his knees, feeling the warm touch of the skin. What is the reality of this moment? It is here, where his awareness is limited to his shins and pain resides in his shoulders. He sighs softly. There is nothing to do but accept. This will be his practice.

Over the next two days, the awareness in his lower legs starts to feel like a current coursing through his lower body, seeping inch by inch into his knees, then his thighs and hip. He remembers the weight of the police belt sitting on his hips, the left side drooped with the revolver. He no longer has to feel for the revolver for fear of losing it, or take the annual marksmanship test, or any type of tests. He no longer has to be guarded. Slowly, his abdominal area softens (how has he never realized it was tensed?), as the warmth of awareness spreads over the hips and up the diaphragm.

The shoulder pain does not relent. It surges to the base of his skull, causing his head to jerk backward. He steadies himself. Just know, just know. The current of awareness gradually flows to inhabit his chest and comes to rest at the heart. The rhythm of his heartbeat reminds Jun of performing CPR, when he pressed his bodyweight on Brandon’s lifeless chest. What keeps a heart beating? Now Brandon’s pacemaker keeps his heart going; work keeps Brandon going. What pursuit is worth a life?

The knowing. His jaw softens, and he feels the tip of his head right down to the toes. His shoulders still rage in pain, but there is some distance from it. The pain, the voice in his head complaining about the pain, his awareness of the body—all these can coexist. He can sit with the pain; it is not going to kill him.

The pain is not the problem. This is what it is like to be in discomfort, even anger if he is mindful enough, anchoring himself in this knowing. Where is the practice, he used to ask himself. This is it—clear knowing, acceptance. What would have changed at work if he had this level of mindfulness? He would have said no to the beer, maybe even to his bosses. Even if he cannot change the environment, he would have suffered less, be less agitated, if he hadn’t resisted so many things. The paperwork, the workload, the leadership situation he was put in. But what are the chances he will have this kind of mindfulness at work? All the cases, all the deadlines. 

On day eight, the awareness comes to rest on the edges of the pain in his upper back, which is starting to heat up and throb. Jun breathes deeply, on the cusp of falling away from his awareness and into the marsh pit of swirling thoughts. Stay with the knowing. His awareness softens the edges of the pain, slowly making inroads penetrating a lump of hardened mass, from a slow trickle to narrow steams that gradually widen and join to become rivers, flowing faster, their energy pulsating, heating up, in his shoulders.

Then a sudden gush of heat, and the pain is gone.

Jun doesn’t believe it at first. He rotates his head, stretches his neck. The pain has let him go. Pain can be witnessed, and then it can cease, all without his creating more pain. This is what Luang Por means by knowing as a refuge. To think he was touring Europe, seeking new sights and experiences, only to find his world, the reality of this moment, sitting on a cushion. When the meditation hour ends, as he bows to Luang Por, forehead to the ground, Jun resolves, eyes closed, that he would hold on to this refuge and deepen it. He will bold this line, make his practice deep and strong; it will no longer be intermittent dashes like before, with dots and spaces in between. But how can he keep his practice continuous like the shape of a circle?

An Interview with Yuhan Su

Andrea Sielicki (AS): Where did the idea for your novel-in-progress originate?

Yuhan Su (YS): Spoiler alert: Jun becomes a monk.

I’m intrigued by why people choose that path. It’s a world that goes by different rules and values. What does it take for one to relinquish all possessions, and even identity, to pursue something? What could happen for someone to have that kind of inclination and eventually take the leap?

AS: I was engrossed by the detailed rendering of Jun’s meditation practice, and the hints about his background as a former police officer. Where does this scene fall within the novel’s timeline?

YS: This scene is about halfway through his journey. He has worked for a few years as a police officer and found no satisfaction in working life, despite the promise of “a good job” that he earned with his good grades. He yearns for something more.

AS: In the excerpt, Jun feels a release of his shoulder pain by leaning into his awareness rather than fighting it. The moment struck me as something that might also speak to the creative process. How do you lean into the discomfort writing sometimes brings? What do you see as the relationship between the mind and the body in the writing process?

YS: For me, leaning into the discomfort in writing means showing up day after day even when I don’t think my writing is going anywhere. Sometimes it’s stepping away and writing something else. Mostly it’s like the connection you’ve astutely drawn from Jun—letting the discomfort be part of the process instead of wishing it away. That said, I still find it hard to face discomfort in writing, I still distract myself at the desk, and I still wish my discomfort away!

AS: There’s a unique challenge to discussing and sharing in-progress work. What’s the process of trying to condense a massive project like a novel—especially a novel-in-progress—into a short summary for the purposes of marketing yourself?

YS: I think the challenge is to choose the part that’s the most interesting to the reader, who hasn’t read Jun’s journey before that part.

AS: Do you have any advice for someone in the middle of their own novel-in-progress?

YS: I’m still revising my novel, so mine is in progress as well. I constantly remind myself to stay on the page I’m at. I don’t have to know what happens ten pages from now, or how I will change the ending; I just need to be on the page or the paragraph or the sentence I’m at. The times when I’m in flow are when I’m here, not there. And being here also reduces the stakes and anxiety in writing a novel.

Yuhan Su has an MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her short story “A Labour for Love” was published in the anthology Feast! Stories on Food and Love. She is an editor at the National Library of Singapore.