Thailand is home to amazing food, beautiful beaches and over 400,000 Buddhist temples. One of my favorite things about Thai culture (after the food, of course) is the Buddhist influence, and some cities have dozens of wats (temples) where visitors can pay their respects to the Buddha and his students, and seek blessings from the resident monks.
In Chiang Mai alone there are over 300 temples–from the relatively tiny, tucked away Wat Pansao, decorated with golden sitting monk statues, to the massive, crumbling Wat Chedi Luang. You could spend months trying to visit them all!
Halfway into my stay in Chiang Mai I decided to do a multi-day silent meditation retreat where I could learn more about meditating and Buddhism. I’d been practicing meditation here and there with the Insight Timer app and could sit through 10-minute sessions but I squirmed through anything longer and my legs always turned into bricks from going numb. I was a baby meditator at best.
I chose a two-day retreat run by Monk Chat University (MCU), which is based in Wat Suan Dok in city center, but you can find retreats lasting anywhere from one day to several weeks in or near the city. I highly recommend this experience for anyone looking to get outside their comfort zone or learn more about Buddhism and what it’s like to be a monk.
Our group of 20 met at the Monk Chat University office at the temple, where we started with an introduction to Buddhist philosophy by one of the resident monks. He explained that Buddhism is a way of living, not a religion, and shared the 4 Truths of Buddhism and what to expect from the retreat–lots of time sitting, lots of practice. We went around the room with introductions. There were lots of singles, early-20’s backpackers, and two couples. A handful of people had been to other retreats but most were also ‘baby meditators’.
We piled into red taxis and headed out of the city to the retreat center, passing crop fields and the occasional behemoth water buffalo hanging by the side of the dirt road. At the retreat center we split up into twos and shared a room with someone of the same-sex. We had some time to change into our new clothes and get our things sorted before meeting our teacher in the main meditation hall.
Phra (the word for ‘monk’) KK, a 27-year-old monk, led our retreat sessions. We learned walking, seated, and what’s called dynamic meditation, which involves focusing on a series of movements. His teachings were less about how to physically maintain an upright seated and comfortable position and more about how to clear your mind and regain focus when you (inevitably) lose it. It’s low pressure–lose your place and just come back to center when you realize it.
KK talks a lot during the retreat about the ‘truth’ of life–that life is suffering. Your suffering comes from attachment and expectations–wanting something you don’t have or wishing it were another way; If you experience pain from the meditation position, you acknowledge the pain (‘I have pain’), detach from it, and then move on. If you dwell on it instead of working through it, it’ll pull you off course. He said so much of the pain we experience (and inflict on others) in life comes from not acknowledging and understanding the underlying feelings driving your emotions and actions.
The retreat is silent out of respect to yourself–to give you the mental space to devote to your practice. At the end of the first day my legs and back were aching like crazy from sitting for long periods of time–we had worked up to several 20-minute sessions. But I remember thinking–this was the clearest my mind had ever been; You have the space to truly to focus without the interruption of what you come to realize feels like half a million little rogue thoughts zipping into your mind.
In the morning we headed to the courtyard out front to meditate outside during the sunrise. With everyone sitting absolutely silent, it felt as though I was totally alone and surrounded by dozens of birds waking up with the sun.
We spent the rest of the day learning about how monks go out each morning to get food donations from offerings (alms), had a question and answer session where we asked our teacher about his background and any other questions we had about Buddhism, and practiced our walking, dynamic, and seated meditation. By the end of the retreat, we were able to sit through 45 minutes straight of meditation.
Some interesting things we learned about temple life:
- Besides their daily duties, each monk at a temple is given a role by the head monk, or abbot–like finding food or being stationed in the main hall to receive visitors.
- Monks eat donated food they collect each morning from offerings. The donated food is divided up between breakfast and lunch; There’s no dinner because of safety concerns–the food would have sat out too long by that time to be safe for eating.
How You Can Sign Up
Email the program at firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a space–they were quick to get back to me. You can also visit the office in person at Wat Suon Dok downtown. Each session runs weekly, Tuesday to Wednesday. (website)
Is There a Cost?
The program fee is 800 Baht (about $25 USD), which covers a set of comfortable meditation clothes and expenses, including transportation to the retreat site 30 minutes outside the city and food. If you have your own non-see through, white clothes to bring, you can save about half the cost. This only covers their costs, so you can donate more at the center if you like.
What to Pack
- Toiletries and a towel
- A change of clothes to sleep in
- Something to read at night
- A snack or two in case you get hungry