What it's REALLY like at a Buddhist meditation retreat in Thailand – part I

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Before we went to Chiang Mai, I met with a monk at Wat Mahathat to find out if the monastery could accommodate all of us and teach us to meditate.  Monk Manit told us to come for lunch on our first day, and then attend the three hours of instruction they provide in English starting at 1:30.  “You can accommodate all five of us for three nights?”

“Of course! Look at this place, it’s huge.”

“You don’t need me to fill out any paperwork?”  I had read about an application form that they required.

“No, no, just come and bring the children.  Everyone is welcome here.  You say you’ve never meditated…we can teach you.”

He didn’t write anything down.  It seemed people dropped in all the time and just stayed.  I had walked by lots of dorms…they would probably put us in one of those.  Wow, that was easier than I thought!

We spent our time in Chiang Mai bungee jumping, zip lining, and getting soaked in the annual 3-day-that-stretches-into-7-day New Year’s celebration, which turns into a city-wide (multi-country-wide, in fact) water fight.  Not a small or tame squirt gun fight, but a festival where people carry HUGE water guns and even drive around in pickups full of trash barrels filled with ICE water, lots and lots of ice water that they fling at you by the bucket full! Not exactly prep for quiet meditation, but our time in Thailand was limited, and we wanted to fit everything in.

We had a problem with Jennifer’s passport, so when we arrived in Bangkok, we first zipped over to the American Embassy.  Can I just say that when you are not used to being around Americans, it takes some getting used to them (us) again.  There was someone who sounded just like Jimmy Carter, another man who sounded like George W. Bush…for some reason even the Americans being interviewed on a news show sounded hilarious to us, even though the topic was serious.  People probably thought we were a little crazy as we suppressed our laughter.  I have gotten used to other cultures so thoroughly, that my own now seems foreign to me.

After an interesting visit back to “American soil” at the embassy, we piled back into the taxi and, with no suitable preparation for the drastic change in environment we were about to experience…headed to the monastery.

Our arrival seemed to be a big surprise to the monks.  What were we doing there…we planned to stay for three nights?? Who had we talked to? The children were staying?  I pointed out that we were told to come to the office to buy our white clothes, then have lunch, 3 hours of instruction…” It had seemed like such a solid plan.  They struggled to understand anything I was saying.  We sat uncomfortably in our street clothes, among the monks in their saffron robes and everyone else in pure white.

We carried all of our worldly possessions in our backpacks, which were now strewn among the monks’ sandals on the sidewalk…making it seem as though we planned to move in with them for months.  After what seemed like a very long time, they called monk Manit on the phone and handed it to me.  “You are there?” he asked, kind of surprised, “Okay, sit tight and I will be there when I can.”

“At least they know I am not making this all up,” I thought.  With that settled, I just wanted my white clothes and to get to lunch…it was getting late and no one in the monastery eats anything after 12 noon.  I mentioned this to Jennifer and Meagan.

“Oh, they asked us if we had eaten and we told them we had.”

“What?  You nixed any chance I had at food today?!?”

Yes, the kids had eaten in the taxi and at the embassy, but I was holding out for lunch at the monastery as it would be such a unique experience and Monk Manit had been so kind to invite us.

As I mourned the loss of any chance at food that day, a monk sat down with us and spoke to us in English about Buddhism.  “This is only the second time I have taught anyone in English,” he said proudly.  We caught some, but not all of what he said.  Finally, we were able to convey that we wanted to buy the white clothes, which they kept in little plastic packages on a shelf.  We changed into what looked like white hospital scrubs.  I think the white is supposed to be soothing, but we felt as though we could have past for patients in a mental hospital (maybe they are designed to be soothing there, too?) or maybe prisoners in a low security jail.

They led us to the meditation room.  It was a large basement room, painted all white, with some little alcoves off the sides and an alter at the front on which a giant Buddha sat in contented meditation.  There were the usual gaudy decorations around him that surprised us on our first few visits to Buddhist temples.  I had thought Buddhism was all about simplicity and finding your own path to enlightenment, but as Buddhism has changed over the years, gilded statues with neon lights (yes, neon), sparkly fake-Christmas-tree-like decorations and religious ceremonies (thought unnecessary by Buddha as far as I can tell from his teachings) seem to have become the norm.

We copied the others, kneeling on mats as the monk we had just met sat at the front of the room and lectured to the others in Thai.  They smiled and laughed at what he was saying…I wondered if there really were three hours of English instruction.  After an hour of talking, they began to chant in Thai.  It was about an hour and a half before Monk Manit waived through the window for us to come into the office.  We were relieved – an hour and a half doesn’t seem long until you are in an all white room, sitting or kneeling in one position listening to nothing but Thai lectures and chanting.

He led us to another room and asked what we hoped to gain from our stay, and began to teach us the basics of Buddhism and meditation.  I was surprised that some of what he said was different than what I had studied.  Even the concept of emptiness and the world not being what most of us perceive was in question.  I think I had a very idealistic view of Buddhism and began to see that there are, of course, many different interpretations, even differing from the published beliefs of all the different branches of Buddhism, and that everyday practice (as with most religions) isn’t always what one would expect from the teachings.

The kids asked a lot of questions and he answered all of them…some in the way I thought he would and some in a way that surprised me.  He explained about how Buddhism had changed to accommodate everyday lay people in Thailand who were comforted by religious ceremony, worshipping Buddha and Buddhavistas and caring for and receiving blessings from the monks.

I thought all Buddhists worked toward enlightenment as their primary goal. Buddhism teaches that we are all Buddhas inside, we only need to get past all the garbage, clear away all the trappings, worries and habits we’ve picked up from life in this world to reach our own beautiful enlightenment, marked by the end of our human suffering and a connection with and acceptance of all things.  I was surprised that he talked of enlightenment in such a distant way, because I had read that any of us can reach it at any time, if we could only realize it is waiting right inside of us. When I asked, he said that he had never met anyone who was enlightened.

Hmmm…if monks who dedicate their lives to meditation haven’t become enlightened…what does that mean for me?

We spent a couple of hours with Monk Manit and he taught us both sitting meditation (concentrating on our breathing) and walking meditation (concentrating on our feet).  We did walking meditation for 30 minutes and I felt relaxed and peaceful afterwards. Ahhh, this is the kind of thing I want to learn more about!

Sitting meditation was a different story.  After about five minutes, I was ready to jump out of my skin.  It’s difficult to focus only on your breathing and to sit in the lotus position without moving.  My mind wondered and I was a bit restless.  When we were finished he said we had meditated for 5 minutes.  Five??  That’s was all?

We received the schedule for the day and a surprisingly long list of rules, no outside food or drink, no communications with the outside world, no reading, no writing, no electronic devices, no leaving the monastery, no talking, no eating after 12 noon, and concentrate every moment of being in the present.

No communications with the outside world at all?  If I had known that, and hadn’t been rushing from Chiang Mai and then the embassy, I would have told some people where we were going.  I wondered if I could sneak out with my cell phone before it died to let people know we were dropping out of the world for a few days.

Monk Manit returned us to the basement meditation room.  I was surprised he didn’t set us up in a dorm, but soon learned why.  We would be camping out on the floor of the same room.  Considering we had to get up at 4:30am, I figured it didn’t make much difference where we slept.  The taxi driver had talked about young monks sneaking food at night, but without space in one of the little alcoves, that possibility just went out the window for the kids.

We rejoined the group in time for a couple of hours of meditation, which actually went pretty well.  Then we got to enjoy an “evening beverage”…such a nice way of telling people there would be no dinner.  I remembered reading about one woman’s experience in a meditation center where she talked about “being present” and how the experience she had one evening of peeling and eating an orange was so intensified.  Now I thought, “She had oranges in the evening?!”

Even without fruit to go with it, the evening beverage became one of my favorite times at the monastery…ur…uh, besides the meditation, I mean.  Some hot Milo (similar to Ovaltine) never tasted so good!

After our beverage there was more chanting – hours of chanting  - in Thai.  This time Monk Manit had given us a paper with the English translation as well as phonetic spelling of the Thai words.  Whoo–hoo!  We were excited about being able to participate until we realized that we had about five minutes of chants on our paper, and there were hours (hours!) of chants in the books that everyone else used.

This was obviously not one of those meditation centers geared toward Westerners J where people get support and instruction in English, delicious health food by day, fruit by night.  (I know what you’re thinking, and no, I am not still envious of that woman with that delicious orange.)

The chanting finally came to an end, and then we practiced meditating for hours.  At some point Alex got out his set of super-strong ball bearing magnets and began playing with them.  In such a quiet room, I could hear the click, click of the magnets snapping together and turned around to tell him to stop.  He looked back as if to say, “Have mercy, who can stand to concentrate on feet and breathing for hours on end with no food??”

Bedtime was at 9:30, and we watched the clock EAGERLY!  Okay, we can survive another 20 minutes…white clad bodies shuffled across the room in silent walking meditation.  Incredibly 9:30 came and went.  We watched open mouthed as others continued their walking meditation past 9:30, 9:40, 9:50.  “Hello!” I was thinking, “It’s past 9:30…that’s when we are supposed to STOP and go to sleep!”  An old woman continued her slow meditative shuffle across the room.  My untrained non-Buddhist mind…frustrated and exhausted from too much hard concentration in one day…thought, “If it hasn’t happened by now lady, there isn’t much chance of you…” but I brought my mind back to concentrate on the slow movements of my own feet.

Finally a monk came in and people gathered in the usual formation.  Progress, we thought, until the chanting started again.  “Chanting? …chanting is not on the schedule,” I thought.  Mercifully, the chanting soon ended and people began to head into the alcoves and lay out makeshift beds.

Monk Manit had said that the nuns would take care of us, but no one paid us any mind.  We scrounged for some bedding and a few pillows that seemed to have been tossed aside.  Alex was supposed to be separated from us on the other side of the large room, but he barricaded himself inside some mats and chairs to hide away next to us.  We each laid out a few of the square mats and curled up for the night.

I was never so happy to shut my brain off and go to sleep!  It is so much harder than I thought to concentrate intensely for hours on end.  “When are they going to shut off all these fluorescent lights?” Alex asked.” He often asks me questions about things over which I have no control or knowledge.  This was an extreme case of that…maybe they like to leave the lights on all night…who knows?? No food, hours of chanting, and sleep deprivation by excessive lighting could be their plan to help the process of learning to meditate.  We were all thankful when the lights did go out.  Praise Buddha for the little things in life.

There must have been something wrong because soon there was a loud bell being clanged over and over again.  I was surprised when everyone jumped out of bed, folded up their bedding and headed outside.  I looked at my watch and realized that it was 4:20 am…morning already?!  Reluctantly, I put my bedding away, stumbled over to my bag to retrieve my toothbrush, and told the kids it was time to get up.

“It’s not even 4:30!” Jennifer said in protest.  The kids were not doing well with the monastery straying from it’s own seemingly definitive schedule.  4:30 am to 5 am is “free time”, which the kids were not going to waste on brushing their teeth.  Everyone else was up, but they slept soundly on the floor at the back of the room.

I sat down at 5am to begin chanting with the others.  I searched our English sheet for chants that might be on there…nope.  I made up my own words and chanted them quietly…that kept me amused for 5 minutes or so…only 25 minutes left…or however long they decide to go this time.  I settled on trying to mouth the words.  I looked back and saw Meagan sitting in the lotus position behind me.  She was trying, but obviously not very much into chanting at 5 am…she looked really tired.

Meditation followed and we all seemed to do well with that part, maybe because we were beginning to get it, or maybe because we knew that food would follow shortly.  I still found the walking meditation easier.  I can concentrate on moving my feet very slowly and focusing my mind when I walk.  It’s much better than sitting cross-legged and trying to focus only on the rise and fall of my breath…it makes my legs go numb and at 5:30 am, I get very sleepy.  It’s torture trying to stay awake with your eyes closed when you are really tired.

At 7am, it was breakfast time!  Whoo-hoo!  Everyone lined up to walk to the breakfast area.  Alex, almost always one of the first ones in line for whatever we do, was up ahead.  He got a metal tray.  I watched as he stood in the extreme heat and humidity of the Thai summer in his prison-like uniform holding his metal tray and deciding how much rice gruel to dribble onto it.  I saw that there was meat, and loaded up on that…which turned out to be a big mistake.

I was holding in my laughter at Alex’s sad circumstances, and thinking, “White meditation outfit, $7 – donation to the monastery, $100 – seeing Alex stand in line for rice gruel at a monastery, priceless!”

The funniest part was yet to come.

Stay tuned for part two – the kids make their escape, and in the midst of Thai chanting, lack of food and 12 hours a day of tedious meditation practice, I make some discoveries.

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Posted on: May 12, 2011 | Categories: meditation, Thailand, Traditions, What travel has taught us


One comment


Meditation makes me INSANE

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