Some of you may know, some may not, that I’ve adopted a Northern California version of Buddhism as my spiritual and philosophical orientation. It just makes the most sense to me. However, a huge chunk of the world, namely ASIA, approaches Buddhism much differently than the “whatever feels right to you” version I’ve been practicing. So one goal of this journey, while in Asia, was to learn how Asians practice Buddhism. And it’s different. The knowledge is the same, but the practice is much different. Here they worship Buddha in a somewhat similar way that Christians worship Jesus, or Muslims worship Allah. But more on that later. This is the story of my much-too-brief-yet-still-important 4 day retreat to an important Thai Buddhist Monastary. So let’s get started!
A Wat is a Buddhist temple, often with a monastery associated with it. For this adventure, I went to the Doi Suthep Wat, which is on Doi Suthep Mountain near Chiang Mai, Thailand. I discovered it while bemusedly searching online for such a Buddhist retreat center somewhere in Thailand. And it turned out to be in the city I was heading to. How…serendipitous. I originally wanted to do a 5 day visit, but they only had a free space for 3 nights (4 days). So, I took it!
From the Nimman district in Chiang Mai I took a taxi (well, a mini pick up truck with a people carrier on the back, open door, bench seating). Cost was 400 Baht ($12) for the ride up the mountain.
It was raining, which added some drama to the mad dash up the twisty turny mountain road, me sloshing around in the cargo section alone. But we arrived safely.
After eschewing the 309 step stairs up to the Wat proper, I took the funicular, found the office, and joined 2 other newbies, both women from Japan, one from Tokyo, the other from Fukuoka. The Intake Monk, nice guy from Bangkok, oriented us, and gave us some primer information including how to do 2 ways to meditating (walking and sitting) and how to do each.
Sitting. Cross legged, left leg under right leg, back straight, hands in front, palms up, left hand holding right hand. Eyes closed. Two styles. Breathing (“breathe in”, “breathe out”; or “rising”, “falling”) and Belly (hand on belly, “belly out”- on inhale, “belly in” – on exhale).
Intake Monk also taught us how to prostrate ourselves before the Buddha, hands clasped in front of face toward Buddha, sitting on knees, then lean forward and touch forehead to ground. Do this 3 times. (Everything is done in 3s). It is an act of reverence and submission to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
Walking mediation. Mindfully focus on picking your foot up, moving it, putting it down. State, to yourself, your observation of what you are doing in THAT moment (“Standing”, “Standing”, “Standing”. “Intending to walk”, “Intending to walk”, “Intending to walk”, etc.) From the 5:30am Dharma talk, I learned there’s an important difference between saying “I am standing” and just “standing”. The latter is “better” because it puts you in the mind of observer, while the former puts you in the mind of actor. Important for later.
Intake Monk then gave us the rules for the monastery. No alcohol, no killing, no lying, no eating after 11am lunch, wear white, keep talking to minimum (to let individuals have a chance to notice monkey mind). As a male monk, he has 206 rules. Women monks (nuns) have 326 rules (one version of these).
After he got us oriented, he took us HALFWAY to the next stop which was the office manager who would give us our room keys. This was a very sketchy path, involving slippery broken concrete, stepping along a skinny board placed over a large puddle, clambering over a rail system that I’m guessing they use to haul supplies up the steep hill. There were signs, but only directional. No identifying as in “you’re here!”, “Register here”. So my 2 accomplices and I navigated the best we could, stuck our head in an open door and I asked the guy in the back, behind a computer, if we were supposed to be here. He said, yes and so we ended up getting our keys. He then just pointed us down the hill and said “your rooms are down there”. Which we took to mean, “find them on your own”. 4 buildings, first two for women, second two for men. Fortunately, the room numbers were reasonably conceived: Room 201 was room 1 in Building 2. Mine was 410, the furthest away. It had been raining, a lot, and the old uneven concrete path was slippery – seems to be algae or moss on it.
Anyway, I almost got to my room but hit an especially dark slimy step and went down hard on my shin / knee. Tore my pants, skinned my shin pretty well, big swelling on my knee. There were no lights nor handrails on the stairs, so I started off my meditation weekend with some grumpy words about the Monastery staff and designers. In the US, this would have violated about a dozen safety rules. Anyway, I finally had a reason to open up my first aid kit and had everything I needed – antibacterial cream, gauze bandages, Ace bandage to wrap the whole thing up.
However, this injury – aside from the aforementioned grumpiness – also made it hard to sit and especially sit on my knees (important for prostrating before the Buddha). So I didn’t. And no one said anything.
After that, I went back to my room, along the same treacherous path as I first took, but this time managed to avoid further injury. My all white outfit didn’t survive in its most sacred form, though, with splattered muddy pants ruining my otherwise “pure as the driven snow” look.
Got back to my ascetic room. Let me describe it for you. Size was about 10×12 feet, and the only furniture was a bed/cot with a hard mattress. Two windows on opposite walls with screens. There was a single fluorescent light hanging from the ceiling, casting a rather harsh cool light. Floor was faux bamboo, made of linoleum or some such plastic, walls were painted a yellowed white. The door was solid dark brown painted wood, and the lock was a simple padlock. Since the room had no furniture or fabric, any movement or noise I made echoed around. Outside the back window, jungle. Yet from down the mountain the noises of the city rose, and since it was Loc Krathong, fireworks, explosions and music filled the air in a distant sort of way.
Once in my room, with nothing to do, no activities, no internet, nada, my mind started yearning for stimuli of any sort. I resisted eating the snacks (peanuts, crackers) I had in my bag because I wanted to (a) respect their rules and (b) see if could do it. A little grumbling from the tummy, but I realized I wasn’t going to die, have lots of fat stored that my body could eat over night if it needed to. Read a bit. But really. When you cut yourself off from people, media, internet and hobbies – in a room as ascetic as this, there’s just not much to do. So I turned the lights out at 8pm and went to sleep. Which wasn’t easy. In addition to the Loc Krathong festivities, several of the Wat dogs were in heat, and so their “love making” in the barking and growling added to the distinctly NOT quiet setting. (The next morning, the Teacher Monk giggled about this, as he explained what was going on.)
Wake up at 5:00am! Good thing I went to sleep early. We sat for a dharma talk by Teacher Monk from 5:30am-6:30am, and while he spoke in heavily accented English, his message was good. All about how we are in charge of our happiness by being the director of our constantly ongoing internal story/movie. He used Titanic and Avatar references, even Tom Hanks. I knew a lot of this from before, but two things I liked. He pointed out that we tend to forget factual memories (like what we did for lunch last Tuesday) pretty easily, but we tend not to forget emotional memories (like the first time we fell in love, or the time someone offended us) as easily. And yet our lives would be so much happier if we could just as easily forget the negative emotional memories. We don’t, because we run the movie of that negative memory CONSTANTLY. We may see Titanic a dozen times and get bored with it, but we can run a “movie” of being offended thousands of times and that’s why we don’t get over it. We are the Directors of our own movies. Are we going to be good directors or bad directors?
|5:00a||Wake up by rooster alarm|
|5:30a-6:30a||Dharma talk by Teacher Monk for all visitors, about 10-15|
|7:00a||Breakfast. Noodles with vegetables and tofu.|
|8:00a–11:00a||Individual Meditation Practice, no guide. Everyone silent and doing largely the same thing. 15 minutes of walking meditation, then 15 minutes of sitting meditation. Repeat as long as possible. I was usually good for 3 rounds, then I needed to take a walk outside. Which was possible, no one was watching over us. No one forced or required us to do anything except be as silent as possible. We were mostly left alone.|
|11:00am||Lunch. Vegetarian Buffet, lots of white rice. Eat in silence.|
|12:00-1:30p||Individual Meditation Practice|
|1:30p||Short 1 on 1 with Teacher Monk, who gave instructions for how to meditate. No real conversation. (He did make the mistake of asking me if I had any questions, and so I did ask a few impertinent ones. Like what was that high shrill whistle that regularly blasts us out of contemplation? His response: That’s to discourage mosquitos from staying here. Remember? We don’t kill things here. – Rule #1 from Intake Monk.)|
|4:00p-6:00p||Free time, including showers.|
|6:00p-7:00p||Chanting with Everyone. (Note: No Dinner)|
|7:00p on||Relax, meditate, read, write, whatever. Go to sleep when you like, but Teacher Monk taught that we get our best healing “hormones” between 10pm and 12 midnight, so it would be best if we were sleeping then.|
I did this for 3 nights, and 2 half days and 2 full days. A too short of a time, really. They recommend 5-7 days for beginners because it’s after Day 3 that you really start to feel right about it all. But this was the only time they had an open room through January (Busy Wat!). So I took it. When I left, I had a 30 minute exit talk with Teacher Monk, where we chanted, I offered him flowers, and he talked a little bit about how I could continue my practice out in the real world. Then I said good bye to Teacher Monk with a wai, and moved on to the business office where they took my donation (no set charge, they leave it up to the individual to donate what they feel is right). I was off on my own!
So that’s the “what happened” part of the retreat. Next….
What I Got Out of It
Understand that I’ve been practicing some form of meditation for a long time, and have been reading and trying to follow Buddhist practice for a long time too. So I came here with a lot of knowledge about the teachings of the Buddha. But less about the practice.
Two parts of this short stay made big impressions on me.
Accepting Reality As It Is
I learned a lesson before I even got properly started. When I arrived, it was raining, I was lugging all my stuff with me, and I had become acclimated, I guess, to the customer service of hotels and touristy areas. So when I got there and found “customer service” and even the facilities as not the main priority, I got a little grumpy. For example, the Intake Monk told me to wait outside, in the rain, for another 10 minutes until 2pm. Then, after the orientation, as I was making my way down the steep hill, in the rain, on slippery, unlit, broken concrete paths and stairways, clambering over puddles, and trying to follow the signs after Intake Monk left me and my two similarly bewildered new meditators, to find our way….I was grumpy, and a not a little indignant. I observed this and called it out….”grumpy”, “indignant”….but still. Grumpy and Indignant. We made it to the registration office, after guessing at a few doors (no sign), and got my room key. The staffer pointed down the dark hill and said “women’s buildings are the first two, men’s buildings are the second two”. I was room 410, which I presumed meant I was the last one. Which turned out to be right! However, as I made my way down another especially dark, slippery set of stairs to my building I finally lost it, and slipped. Went down pretty hard on my right knee and shin, tearing my pants, and got a bloody skinned shin, about 8 inches long, in addition to, as I watched, a rapidly swelling knee. I limped to my private room, opened the door and….the generous word would be ascetic, the less generous word would be bleak. My room was a 10×12 empty space with a simple cot and mattress against the wall and a cold fluorescent light dangling from the ceiling. Nothing else in the room. (see room picture above)
It was at this point that I cursed the Buddha, I cursed the monks, I cursed the stairs, I cursed the accommodations, and I generally lost it. For about 10 minutes.
And then……I took a breath, and realized where I was and why I was here. Life gives us challenges and things don’t go as we want them all the time. We make decisions and we must own those decisions. The reality …the REAL reality…was that I was in the Doi Suthep Buddhist monastery near Chiang Mai, Thailand this day in November 2014 for 4 days and 3 nights. I CHOSE to be here. I DESIRED to be here. And it’s the nature of this particular Buddhist Monastery to host me in the way the monks see fit. If they choose to have a version of customer service different from mine, then that’s the reality. If they choose to have slippery dark roads and stairways, then that’s the reality. As I sat there on my cot, unpacked bag sitting at my feet, under the cool blue light of the over head lamp, I realized that I had a choice. How was I going to live in this reality? I could leave. I could stay grumpy and indignant. Or I could “go Buddhist” and accept what my reality was. So before I did anything else, I breathed. I sat. I calmed myself down. I….meditated. Just there, like that. For several minutes. And in a few minutes, my experience with the Reality As It Is changed.
I heard the raindrops on the roof. I noticed that the temperature here was cool, not the oppressive heat and humidity that I’d been trying to acclimate to for the past few months. I was breathing. My leg hurt, but I was otherwise very healthy. I was in a real Thai Buddhist Monastery! And yes, this room was bleak. But it also must be this way for a reason. I doubted I’d learn the real reason (this IS a silent retreat, after all) so in that moment I chose to believe that everything was exactly as it should be for me to get the most out of this 4 days.
The asceticism gives me an opportunity to avoid distractions of comfort. The dark and slippery walkways give me the opportunity to be mindful of each step I took. My leg wound was going to be constant reminder of what can happen when I’m doing something in a Grumpy and Indignant Way. The 5am wake up call, the purposeful fasting after the 11am lunch, the intentional silence when I was really wanting human connection, the discipline of meditating exactly as the teacher instructed despite the discomfort it offered me, the frustration of trying to understand what the teacher was saying despite his very heavy Thai accent, the hard mattress and musty smelly pillow; all of these were opportunities for me to accept Reality As It Is.
Meditating Is Hard
I knew this going in, but I had never meditated for several days. For those who meditate, you know that everyone has an active intrapersonal dialogue going on, constantly, bringing up stories, dialogues, monologues, simple thoughts – all keeping us from just….being….in…the….moment. With the basic breathing meditation, where all you are supposed to do is observe your breath going in and out, it’s really quite impossible to stay in just that moment for very long. So when that happens, you observe it, call it out (“Planning Mind”, “Wanting Mind”, “Regretting Mind”, “Judging Mind”, etc.) and gently, without beating yourself over it, with loving kindness for yourself, return to “breathing in”, “breathing out”. That’s all there is to it. So I knew all that.
What was different for me this time was the emergence of “Bored Mind”. Meditating for hours, I got bored. And I noticed how much my mind needs stimulation.
The point of any practice, be it drawing, sports, music, public speaking…is to train yourself to do the behavior and thinking required to do that particular activity better. I hit golf shots to train my muscles to move in certain ways without me having to think about it. I practice public speaking to train my brain to be clearer with my message. And so it is with meditating.
Practicing meditation helps me train my consciousness to notice when I’m not being present. And not being present – not being mindful of THIS moment – is when I get in trouble. It’s why I slipped on those dark steps and skinned my knee. It’s why I react to unmet expectations, like an ascetic room, with irritation. It’s why I misunderstand what someone is telling me. It’s why I let fear or regret drive my choices. (Pema Chodron (link) points out that when we feel fear we’re living in the future, and when we feel regret we’re living in the past. Neither is now. And neither is “real” yet, or every again. Yet when we feel joy, we’re living in the present.)
So I was taught yet again through this few days of silent meditation that I am a healthier, more loving, even more effective person when I am mindful. And through a meditation practice, I can train myself to be more mindful, more often.
And that was a bit about my visit to a Buddhist Monastery!
I’m curious, if you’ve read this far. What is YOUR experience with mindfulness and meditation?