Lots of folk have been coming through to this blog via Google. The latest 2008 meditation retreat blog, can be found here: A 10-Day Goenka Meditation Course
Wat Pa Nanachat
Especially in the western world there are a countless number of so-called wonder remedies to soothe our aching tired-out stressed minds. Feeling a nervous scattered-brained wreck after work we can choose from a head massage, a toe massage, a sweaty sauna, a shifty Swedish-style massage, be soaked and perfumed-up to the heavens in a juicy variety of oily odours from the most exotic of Eastern destinations or even for the spiritually adventurous there are weekend retreat courses that advertise ‘A Cataclysmic Cosmic Experience’ or ‘Instant Inlightenment!’
We are constantly bombarded with blatantly superficial profit-orientated means to ‘Release that Stress!’ Sure, perhaps they work a bit, I mean for a few hours like before you’re feeling just as bad as you were before and even worse after you look over the hefty bill!
At the end of the day however even your grandmum will explain to you that the simplest of old-fashioned methods are always the best. To really get to the heart of our makeshift minds and see the source of all our bickering, meditation is the only solution.
For those readers out there interested in coming to Thailand to do a meditation retreat you first gotta and most importantly find a suitable temple/monastery that emphasizes meditation practice. Sadly the percentage of the kingdom’s temples place more focus on the monks doing money-making exercises as attending as many funeral, marriage and ‘bless me new house’ parties as possible in the spate of a week than practicing any kind of mindfulness. 99% of local every day temples will not be too welcoming to any farang that spends the whole day locked up in his kuti trying to get enlightened. Instead he could soon be on the receiving end of the abbot’s broomstick. He’ll soon be asked to help fix the water system or paint the outside wall to pay for the water and electricity that he’s using! If you don’t believe me then just read the well-known auto-biography of ‘The Monk Formerly Known As Phra farang’. (I think Richard here has a stack-a copies)
After a bit of quick research a while back I found just the one single temple/monastery in the whole of Suphanburi province that emphasizes the practice of meditation and the Dhamma and that is Wat Sai Ngam. The temple was founded by the meditation master Ajarn Dhammadharo who worked in the shadows of beyond a doubt the two most influential Thai monks of the modern era responsible for catapulting Theravada Buddhism on to the international scene: The Late Buddhadasa Bikkhu (Wat Suan Mokkhe/Surat Thani) and The Late Ajarn Cha (Wat Nong Pah Pong & Wat Pa Nanachat/Ubon Ratchathani).
Well, since I had absolutely nowt to do before the start of the school term this coming Tuesday I thought to choose a ten day meditation retreat all to myself.
Well, on arrival I was soon pretty impressed and thrilled at me accommodation – a splendid brand new kuti with a western-style toilet that was better that most of those dingy 200 baht a night huts that you find on the islands down south. Just one thing missing of course, a bed! Being a frivolous three years plus that I hadn’t stayed in a temple my sleep certainly suffered for the first few nights what with the hard floor, block-hard pillow, eerie silence and a pack of scruff-scallywag temple dogs that decided, just for the fun of it, to have an argument underneath me kuti each night.
I got to admit it that this was the first place I have ever been to in Thailand where I can say that I was thoroughly impressed by the productive meditation practice of the monks and even most of the nuns. I was taken-a-back by a few of the monks that did virtually nowt else but practice walking and sitting meditation from the moment they got up til the moment they went to bed.
Thais will tell you that the temples that have the best teachings are those with the most nuns and Wat Sai Ngam has at least 60 or 70 of them. Well, what with all these positive vibes going around I was soon putting in five hours of practice meself. As you could have imagined that after being so long out of practice I had darned painful legs and a right achy back for the first few days. It got to the stage after a couple of days to ask one of the monks ‘Excuse me what can I do about this flippin back of mine, its killing me?’ to which he replied ‘Nonsense! It’s yer mind that’s telling your back to hurt, tonite just put all your concentration in to the sore spots’ So I torturously did this for the evening and yes amazingly the pain just simply went away and even though it was still slightly there after that it just didn’t bother me anymore! Mindfulness beats acupuncture any day!
The title to this story is a little misleading as it ought to read ‘Meditation and Dhamma retreat’, but I left the latter word out as most farang wouldn’t quite get the understanding of this word. Anyway, part of the Dhamma practice is to get out there and help with the monks’ alms round in the early hours of the morning. Since Wat Sai Ngam is located in the middle of nowhere they have their own bus to take them to wherever for their collection. I got to admit that I had never been on any kind of alms round before and was soon to find out what a heck-of-a walk it just is.
Firstly, I hadn’t realized before that even us layfolk at the temple had to go barefoot and next I saw that we were heading for my hometown of Suphanburi! Since im pretty well-known around town (there are only a handful of farang here) I was soon being spotted by all my students in the market (and their parents) having a right good laugh at my expense. Then to follow-up on my annoyance we were soon pludging barefoot through the fish market, me pushing this right heavy food-collection cart and my feet were, at the end, as black and smelly as a coal miner’s.
After stacking up an enormous amount of well-edible munchies I was soon gob-smacked at breakfast and lunch when I saw that our meals were on the extremely boring completely unintersting side. Throughout my entire stay there I did just wonder ‘What happened to all the decent food that was given?’ Fortunately, during my stay there, there were two ordination ceremonies, so the lunch for those days was laid-on by the host families, certainly the best munch-ups of the ten days! Just ate so much that I fell asleep half-way through my afternoon sitting meditation session
Well, that was that, I was NOT going to Suphan market again and neither were the monks for the next week as they took turns going to different spots each morning. I never knew this before, but the locals will often choose their temple of choice and know exactly on what day and at what time the monks of from their fave temple will be arriving so as to give an offering.
Well, the food wasn’t that bad I suppose and I did suffer for the first few days in the sense that I hadn’t be used to not having an evening meal! So there I was for the first couple of nights laid sleepless in my kuti just dreaming of a big ‘kebab’. Then while contemplating my breathe before sleep instead of reciting something like ‘in..out..in..out’ it had changed on its own to ‘big ..chips..big..chips’ to add to my misery.
Another part of the Dhamma practice was also something brand new for me and that was taking part in the evening chanting before a two hour meditation bout in the main ‘Sala’. For the first couple of days I was completely lost as I had never before had to sing-along to so much Thai that was a transliteration from the Pali text. On top of that the main monk had a habit of saying ‘page 27’ and before I had even found the right page they had already started. I did find this session a kind of meditation in itself and as had to be full-on conscious on just where we were up to on the chant and try my best to keep up.
Now it has to be said that many of us layfolks who decide to spend a time at a temple do so not really for the Dhamma and meditation practice but instead a free room and food. Well, there were a couple of Thai guys there who certainly were there just for that reason and to my amazement there was also a farang there doing exactly the same thing – strange old guy. Well he did no kind of any sort of practice whatsoever and was only ever seen at meal times! Once I asked him ‘Excuse me, what’s that your sprinkling on your rice?’ replied ‘MSG, gives it a bit of taste!’
Anyone that has done a meditation course before will understand perfectly that your mind bounces up & down like an intoxicated frog, especially for the first few days and it can be real hard at times with constant thoughts to the likes of ‘Im getting absolutely nowhere, what a pathetic waste of time’ and ‘Sod this for a lark let’s pack my bags and go home’ picking away at your mind. It’s a known fact that an average of almost half the folk who go on a meditation retreat are unable to tolerate it and give up half-way through. But for those who can see it out, it is an experience well worth having and definitely one you won’t forget. I did my first one fourteen years ago and from just that single retreat I have wanted to go back again and again ever since.
I left Wat Sai Ngam yesterday at about this time and I can say that ‘Yes, im missing it all, just a bit’
Will be happy to advise any of the readers on ‘doing….a retreat in Thailand’. Just drop me a line.