Scenes from the Buddhist Meditation retreat in Chaing Mai, Thailand

I stopped by the Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai, Thailand for Monk Chat, a thrice-weekly session offered by Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya Buddhist University (more familiarly known as MCU).  Here is where monks, typically students at the university, practice their English.  And we travelers get a first-hand account of the daily life of monks and their work in Thailand.  It’s a superb and rare opportunity that provides incredible insight into the world of Theravada Buddhism that predominates in this region.

Each week Monk Chat runs two-day meditation retreats.  At the end of the month it offers a four-day retreat, which coincided nicely with my travels there in May.  I was eager to get off the tourist beat for a few days to enjoy quiet and contemplation in a rural setting far from the hustle and bustle of busy Chiang Mai.  So I signed up, paid the modest 1,000-baht fee (about $30 USD) and was promptly handed a white t-shirt and baggy trousers.

We kicked off the retreat at the Monk Chat office in Chiang Mai.  Our monk leader, Kavi, introduced us to Buddhism, explained the main precepts and practices and how the Theravada school differs from the other main branches of Buddhism.  And we discussed meditation and mindfulness in depth, the essential practice in Buddhism and the focus of our retreat.

Lastly, we learned the retreat rules (very reasonable) and the daily schedule which we were to follow closely:

05:00 am Morning gong (wake-up)
05:30 am Morning chanting, exercise and meditation practice
07:00 am Alms offering and breakfast
08:30 am Discussion
10:00 am Break and meditation practice
11:30 am Lunch
01:00 pm Meditation practice
03:00 pm Break and meditation practice
06:00 pm Dinner
06:45 pm Evening chanting and meditation practice
09:30 pm Bedtime

We then departed the Monk Chat offices in downtown Chiang Mai.  Less than an hour later we arrived at the meditation retreat center. The setting is idyllic: a walled meditation room (or “temple”) in the center flanked by dorms and a dining hall and connecting walkways sheltered by lofty roofs to protect from the frequent rains of the wet season and the blistering sun of the dry months.  It is an oasis of peace with flowering trees, views of the lush mountains in the distance and lowing cows in the surrounding fields.

Scenes from the meditation retreat center, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The retreat center impressed me immediately: everything was spotlessly clean, the bedrooms comfortable, the dining hall welcoming, and the meditation room ample and airy with cushions for sitting cross-legged, couches for our discussion sessions and mats for morning yoga and lie-down meditation.  The altar at the front featured Buddha statues and flowers with a two-paneled painting of a serene Buddha face on the left and a blank image on the right which we used later to mentally transpose the Buddha image to the empty canvas as part of our concentration exercises.

At the center we paired up for the gender-segregated dormitories.  I partnered with Ryan, a friendly guy from the United States with whom I chatted with on the songthaew ride to the center.  He is traveling the world for many months with his mate Ariela and had newly arrived in Thailand after many months of WOOFing in New Zealand.  It was inspiring to hear about their experiences; volunteering on an organic farm is something I would love to do in the near future.

We settled quickly into our rooms and new white clothing and soon began our first meditation session.  The monk explained the basics: posture, breathing, concentration.  While I was somewhat familiar with the routine, it was refreshing to be led by a Buddhist monk who explained things from a new perspective and offered original advice to help us along.

This knowledge, however, did not make meditation any easier.  I was very uncomfortable at first: my legs and back sore from sitting upright in a cross-legged position, my feet falling asleep, my mind racing and wandering constantly.  These were difficult early sessions.  I was too aware of the group around me and still not familiar with the people, the physical environment and the retreat structure and schedule.  But I tried my best, slowly becoming conscious of my pain thresholds, position preferences and best mental techniques to keep focused on my breath.  In time I felt more relaxed and found ways to reduce my discomfort and keep my mind as thought-free as possible.

Large group meditation   Daily discussion with the monk    Practicing lie-down meditation   Lined up for the morning food offering  to the monk

I relished the breaks between sessions as a welcome respite from the rigors of meditation.  I sat in the marvelous gardens drinking green tea (in Thailand they place the whole tea leaves in the cup which they eat as they drink).  These were peaceful moments.  My mind calm and keenly aware of my surroundings:  I listened to the dulcet tingling of wind chimes in the breeze, watched butterflies and songbirds busily crisscross the green spaces, I watched sunsets and passing clouds, smelled sweet blossoms, and I sensed passing showers and sunshine warm the air.

A focal point just outside the main temple is a golden Buddha.  It is flanked by smaller Buddha statues in the various meditation positions (standing, sitting, reclining, etc.) and labeled for each day of the week.  These stations represent different things: specific episodes in the life of the Buddha, meditation spots for the day of the week you were born (this is important in Thailand and often helps your parents determine your name).  Here we made the important morning offering of food to the monks at daybreak, the solemn community ritual of sustaining the sangha, a quiet and moving scene I had witnessed many times in my Southeast Asia travels.

Blooms around the Buddha at the meditation retreat

The lovely retreat center grounds are filled with verdant gardens, flowering trees in tidy rows and a soft carpet of green grass.  Blooms were everywhere: the fragrant frangipani, bougainvillea, orchids, lotus and other blossoms whose names I do not know.  In the corner of the grounds I stumbled upon the kitchen garden which supplied our tasty and nutritious meals: bushes of thick lemongrass, sprawling mint, tomatoes, beans, basil and leafy chard.

We ate three vegetarian meals a day, all flavorful and expertly prepared by the small staff at the center.  Before each meal we chanted a loving kindness wish to remind us to mindfully consume our food:

so that is it not eaten for pleasure and fun
so it is not consumed in a gluttonous manner
to destroy the feeling of hunger for a while
and not produce a feeling of over eating
for freedom from physical suffering of hunger
for the possibility of simplicity and peace…

Our meals were then eaten slowly, thoughtfully and in silence.  I learned to savor each bite, taking time to feel its texture, the heat from the chilies, the tang of the lime, the sweetness of the palm sugar.  I listened to the birds chirping outside the open windows and felt the sun and humid warmth flow through the air.

Downtime for reading and relaxation   Love and compassion chant    Helping stir the fry   Meals taken in silence

A highlight of the retreat was being part of the group.  It was fun getting to know the others.  We easily bonded during the breaks and shared our experiences freely in group discussions.  This camaraderie and trust was an important ingredient as we deepened our meditation practice; it was a direct expression of the Buddhist concept of sangha, the meditation community supporting one’s practice.

Our band of lucky seven included four Americans: the aforementioned Ryan and Ariela and Kathleen and Jessa, two solo travelers with bouncing spirits and lively travel stories; Myrrhe, a Dutch backpacker with an uplifting enthusiasm for the retreat; and Graham, a retired Australian with a grounded and earnest interest in Buddhism.  We became a tight-knit team and fast friends.

Individually, I was aware of some changes within myself during the retreat.  Previously held back by my lack of understanding of meditation, my practice before the retreat felt strange and restricted.  I focused heavily on doing things “correctly” and frequently became frustrated by my physical discomfort.

But this changed during the retreat.  With the help of our monk Kavi who offered nothing but practical advice and encouraging words, I discovered that meditation is a lot more free and flexible than I previously thought.  I learned that I can change positions (mindfully) if my body is sore.  I changed from one type of meditation to another in the same session, switching between sitting, standing, walking and lying down routines to help calm my mind and stay concentrated.  I learned that it’s perfectly acceptable to be imaginative while meditating and that there is no “one way” that works for everyone.  Meditation is personal, limitless in how it can be practiced, and it welcomes creativity.  Kavi assured me that there are far more rights than wrongs in meditation.

Our spritual guide and monk Kavi in mindful meditation

For example, during one standing meditation my legs ached and feet were heavy which left my mind unfocused.   So I started to mentally do a walking meditation while standing, concentrating on each slow movement of the foot.  This permitted me to move my mind from the perceived pains of standing still so I was more comfortable and able to concentrate.  Kavi embraced this experience and encouraged me to find new ways of make meditation more meaningful to me.  He emphasized that simply continuing the practice of meditation is the most important thing, and whatever helps in this goal is perfectly acceptable.

I also learned that it’s fine not to be overly concerned with the complexity of Buddhism.  Like any sophisticated spiritual teaching, Buddhism has its share of contradictions, out there concepts and picayune details like the many levels of heaven and hell, the dozens of states of emotion of a mindful person, the cycles of rebirth and stages of life, and the more fantastic episodes in the life of the Buddha. However, Kavi suggested I not bother with this detailed knowledge now as it may hinder my practice.  Right now the minutiae of Buddhist principles should not matter.

This shows that Buddhists are inherently empirical and emphasize practice over blind faith or book knowledge.  The Buddha told his followers not to believe him or anything else without trying it out first or putting it to test.  If one finds it doesn’t feel right or doesn’t make sense then drop it.  Focus on what enables you clear your mind, fill yourself with loving kindness, and practice meditation as often as you can.  Everything that detracts from this is not important.

With monk Kavi at the MCU Buddhist retreat in Thailand

The retreat proved often challenging.  Despite the free time to read, think and practice alone, the schedule was rigorous.  Meditation is simple in concept but not easy in practice.  At first I wondered how I was going to make it through the remaining days.  At times I thought only one more meditation session today, or only two more days of this, counting the hours as they slowly passed and we struggled through the meditation exercises.

But every now and then I would experience something extraordinary: a fleeting moment of weightlessness, a brief respite from back pain, and ephemeral sensations that my thoughts were indeed vanished and my mind was calm.  These flashes, however brief, really invigorated me.  By the third day I was feeling buoyed by my comfort level with meditation.  As the retreat wound down, I was making plans for the future, committed to continuing the progress I made during the retreat.  I was already planning where to meditate in the many wats in Chiang Mai and ensure I did this daily while traveling.  I also formulated plans to continue with the sangha by participating in retreats and seminars, attending weekly meditation sessions at home in Maine, and hosting my own “meditation camp” with friends and family.

The final day of the retreat soon arrived and we ended our meditation sessions, took group photos, and packed our things.  Leaving was a wistful moment – we were leaving our sanctuary of quiet and calm and reentering the world of travel decisions and busy schedules, anticipation and concern about the future, a return to the confusion of everyday life.  I had found a new confidence in Buddhist meditation, I returned to quotidian life with new eyes and the promise of a more mindful, patient and compassionate soul.

Some members of our meditation retreat back in society

2 Responses to Four Days in Thailand: A Monk, Meditation and Mindfulness

  1. Anne says:

    I am Ariela’s mom — she forwarded this for me to read/see and am grateful you sent this to Ryan. I appreciate your having written and shared about your experience at the monastery; beautiful photographs. I cherished your candid expressions about your meditation evolution and process. Thank you.

    • Peter says:

      Hello Anne! Thanks so much for the taking the time to read this 🙂 The meditation retreat was certainly one of the more unusual and rewarding experiences of my travels in Asia. And really because of the people I met, spending days with our small community of meditation enthusiasts was deeply gratifying.

      Ariela and Ryan are a lot of fun, I enjoyed hearing about their entertaining travels and I hope they continue their soul-enriching wanderings in one way or another.

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