Meditation is one of those things I have flirted with over the past few years and I try to do at least 20 minutes every day to let my overactive brain have a time out. It usually looks something like the picture below….
On November 19-20 I decided to go on a meditation retreat in Chiang Mai to see what it would be like. This was the day after my birthday, so instead of the usual getting drunk and messing around like previous years, I thought I would get the year off to a positive start.
About Theravada Buddhism in Thailand
Theravada Buddhism “Doctrine of the Elders,” is the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the Tipitaka, or Pali canon, which scholars generally agree contains the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings. Today Theravada Buddhists number well over 100 million worldwide. 95% of Thai people are Theravada Buddhists. All Thai men must ‘take the cloth and bowl’ and spend some time with the monks at some stage during their life. This usually happens when they finish school or are in their early 20’s. The stay can be two days or for life.. Apparently most do three months. It is seen as a credit to the family when one of the sons takes the robe and joins the monk-hood. Thai men must also choose between 2 years of military service or 5 years with the monks..
How do many Thais end up as monks?
If a family is poor and cannot afford to feed or educate their boys, they can send him to join the monks and he will do the alms rounds in the morning and be schooled. Also, when a man is old and the family cannot care for him, it is common for the monks to look after him.
Why can’t a monk touch a woman?
Male monks cannot touch a woman, a woman cannot pass anything directly to a monk in Thailand also. Monks live forsaking sensual pleasures, and to touch female energy could lead to desire. So monks do not shake hand with a woman, and a Buddhist nun does not shake hands with a man, ever.
Why are there so many types of Buddhism?
All other forms of Buddhism stem from this original school of thought but then created separate schools as they either disagreed with parts or wanted to form different schools of their own.
An example is the Chinese monks use Kung Fu and Martial Arts as a way to reach enlightenment and as practice for meditation. The Chinese also created the famous ‘fat’ buddha to symbolize wealth and the prosperity of their nation. The Theravada monks do absolutely no exercise apart from walking. It is actually frowned upon to perform any exercise as this is seen as unnecessary to the development towards spiritual enlightenment.
Japanese monks can marry and use Calligraphy as a form of meditation.
Meditation Retreats in Chiang Mai & Worldwide
I had previously considered doing the four-day meditation retreat at Doi Sutep temple which overlooks Chiang Mai from a mountain but after visiting and realizing what a tourist display it was, I decided to look for other options. I actually came across the Monk Chat two-day retreat thanks to a lonely planet Thailand guide I had picked up in a hostel on my travels.
It mentioned that in conjunction with the International meditation center, they offered an introduction to Buddhism and vipassana meditation course for foreigners. They also have Monk Chat sessions every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday where anyone who has questions about Theravada Buddhism can ask questions openly to a monk. If you were just curious about how the Thailand monks live their life and wanted to get some more information, I recommend you pay a visit one evening and join in on the discussion if you are in Chiang Mai.
I opted for the 2 day (1pm Tuesday – 5 pm Wednesday) retreat. If you would like to find out information about the full 10 day vipassana retreats all over the world then see the Dhamma website.. This is the one stop website to find retreats all over the world. They are free and anyone can join, but it is expected that you have a decent level of experience with meditation as all retreats are silent and meditation is done in 3 hour blocks. Also, no technology or writing… Intense!!
My Video of the Retreat
The Chiang Mai Retreat – My Experience Day 1
The course meet-up is at the famous Wan Suan Dok. We were welcomed and handed a sheet to fill out which asked you personal info, religious beliefs and what you expected to get out of the course (I said I was there for the experience). There was some nice characters at my table and we talked about plans for travel (most were heading to Pai after) and about our meditation experience or lack of.
The course cost was 500THB for transport, accommodation and food and 300 to buy the whites. If you had your own, you could, of course, use those.
The course is a real easy introduction for those looking to practice some meditation. Personally, I had previous experience so I was ok with sitting down for 10-15 minute blocks whereas those who had zero experience became restless.
It begins with a 1 and a half hour introduction to Buddhism presentation by the monk. It was basic Buddhism 101, as if you had never studied anything before, which is fine as this was where most of the attendees were at. The monk explained the story of Buddha, the four noble truths, his eight precepts, the reasoning behind the positions of the statues and a little about how the monks live there life.
After this we were loaded into Songtaews and went for a 30 minute drive to the ‘International Buddhist Study and Vipassana Meditation Centre’. The place is set in really nice grounds with birds chirping away outside and manicured gardens. The instructor allocated room keys and we were paired up by sex and in twos. Some people who were married were not impressed by this, but it was only for one night.
We had maybe 20 minutes to drop our bag and get dressed in our whites before the first meditation practice which was at 4.45pm.
When we heard the gong we went into the meditation room. There was not very much instruction on ‘how to meditate’ to be honest, just ‘focus on your breathing’ – watch as the breath falls in and out and feel it through your nostrils and deep in your stomach. We were shown the three lotus positions commonly used by the Theravada Buddhist monks and started with our first session of meditation. This lasted 10 minutes and was done by a timer which the monk set. For the record, the alarm is ‘Happy New Year!?’.. Quite random. But if you get into the zone it was a weird thing to hear.
After the first session, we were shown standing meditation, which is nothing more than standing on the spot with your eyes closed, hands in front, behind or by your side. Up to you.
This went on for 10 minutes before we were shown the basic procedure for walking meditation. Easy as can be.. Close your eyes, lift your foot, put it forward, bring it down. The monk dictates the whole process which was a bit unnecessary. So it would go like this
“Standing, Standing, Standing, Walking, Walking, Walking, Turning, Turning, Turning”….
Very very basic technique.
We went for lunch which was some form of noodles and chicken with watermelon. It was quite nice. There was a sign as you walked in the door beside the food which read ‘Silence’. We were which we not sure if it was for us or part of the full 10 day Vipassana retreats course. Besides the food was also a laminated A4 page with Pali, Thai and English writing on it. We were told to take one, grab your food, sit down and wait until everyone had done the same before eating.
We were to recite the pre-food precepts before indulging. Kind of like saying a prayer for those of the Christian background. We read the Pari and English. It was quite strange but hey, I was there to see how the Theravada Buddhist Monks live and this is it.
How The Monks Treat Food
The Buddhist Monks see food in as essential for survival and not for enjoyment. Theravada buddhist monks can eat meat (so long as they do not see the animal being killed or hear it) and can only eat two meals per day, with the last being around 11am. Here is the english translation which we had to read aloud before we ate our meal. We read the Pali then english..
- We must contemplate on the food before eating
- So that the food is not consumed in a gluttonous manner
- So that it is not eaten for attraction
- So that it is not eaten for beauty
- Only continuation and nourishment of the body
- For the possibility of peace and simplicity
- For freedom from physical suffering of hunger
- For supporting ordination
- To destroy the feeling of hunger for a while
- And not produce a feeling of overeating
- Thus I will be free from bodily trouble and able to live in comfort.
Back to the Retreat
Afterwards we went through the three forms of meditation before a 40-minute ‘freestyle’ session where you could pick whichever style you were most comfortable with and practice that.
For the record, if you are not used to sitting in the lotus position with your back straight, it hurts after 10 minutes! You will get leg cramps, dead legs, back pain and all sorts of tingles throughout your body when you do your first few meditation sessions.
My experience in the evening was not so good until it started raining heavily. This is one of the best ways for me to meditate, get in the zone and focus on one thing. I enjoyed it as the tropical rain pounded the galvanized roof of the meditation center.
When we were close to finishing we were shown the side lying meditation and flat-out lying meditation. The trick to not falling asleep with lying meditation is that you have to keep your feet touching the heel and toes. As you lose focus the tops of your feet will fall away from each other.
We did one session of each before finishing our first day at the Chiang Mai meditation center and heading outside for tea, Milo, coffee and biscuits before bed.
Chiang Mai Meditation Retreat – Day 2
The morning gong sounded at 4.45am and I jumped out of bed as if I was wide awake and into the shower, put on my whites and went down to make a cup of instant coffee before the morning chanting session.
We started the day with 10 minutes sitting meditation inside and some Pali chanting before going outside to the grounds in front of the Buddha statue to 4 more sessions. One sitting and three freestyle. We brought our mats from inside the building out with us. After this we were to do an Alms demonstration, which is what the monks have to do every morning to gather their food from the Thai people. We then went for breakfast which was a chicken rice stew with toast, butter, and jam.
Once again we had to wait until everyone had got their food and sat down to recite the pre-eating precepts before eating so as to remain mindful.
The previous day at dinner the silence was maybe 80/20.. At breakfast, everyone was talking! I think everyone had realized that it was not the full Vipassana retreat. But maybe this is all part of the mindfulness and we ignored it. We had a bit of time before the next meditation session so I walked around the grounds and shot some Go-Pro footage.
Monk Chat session is one of the Monk Chat Program Activities. It has been running since year 2000. The Monk Chat Session gives an opportunity to foreigners to have an interactive communication with Thai monks via talking informally.
If you would like to do this retreat, here are all the details… Enjoy the experience!
Buddhism and Thai Culture, as well as general topics about Thai ways of living, are discussed at the session.
Day 1: Tuesday
01.00 p.m. Meet at Monk Chat Office, Wat Suandok
01.30 p.m. Introduction to Buddhism
and Meditation Practice
03.00 p.m. Departure for the Meditation Training
04.00 p.m. Meditation Practice
06.00 p.m. Dinner
06.45 p.m. Evening chanting
and meditation practice
09.30 p.m. Bedtime
Day 2: Wednesday
05.00 a.m. Morning gong
05.30 a.m. Morning chanting,
exercise and meditation practice
07.00 a.m. Alms offering and breakfast
08.30 a.m. Discussion
10.00 a.m. Break and meditation practice
11.30 a.m. Lunch time
01.00 p.m. Meditation practice
03.00 p.m. Break and meditation practice
(Two day course ends / Return to Wat Suandok)
Personal belongings for overnight stay:
Loose, modest, non-transparent white clothes
300 Baht for a set of new white clothes (optional – by request)
500 Baht (2 day course) for food and transportation (from Wat Suan Dok – Meditation center, meditation center – Wat Suan Dok)
a photocopy of passport
Making a reservation:
- Walk in
- A reservation must be made in advance
For more information, please contact:
Academic affairs, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya
University, Chiang Mai Campus, Wat Suan Dok,
Suthep Road, Chiang Mai 50200 Thailand
Tel. 08 460 9135 7 Fax. 66 5327 0452