tuesday, february 12, 2008
2pm – flag a saengtaw to wat suan dok. the next two passengers to get on are two aussie girls who happen to be heading to the retreat too!
2:15pm – we arrive at the monk chat office at wat suan dok, it feels like the first day of school or summer camp or something. a few people are waving to friends or fellow travelers they recognize. most people are quiet and keeping to themselves, but there’s a group of “bad girls” – the ones who would be in detention soon if this were really the first day of school – they’re chatting loudly amongst themselves while one with scruffy bleach-blond hair juggles some random objects fished out of her huge backpack. i wonder how they’ll fare when we have to be “silent”… over 50 people showed up for this week’s retreat – mostly twenty-somethings, and from countries all over the globe: ireland, switzerland, fance, UK, australia, NZ, germany, portugal, you name it! plus about a half-dozen from the good old US of A. most have packed light since our stay is only overnight, but others that are in transit are toting those huge “backpacker” bags (geez i’m so happy i don’t have one of those!)
3pm – we all gather in the meditation room for an introduction to buddhism – the history, general concepts, etc. including a question and answer period, led by a young cambodian monk named phra chuni. we start off by going around the room and introducing ourselves, where we’re from, and telling about our previous experience with meditation. for most, this is their first time practicing, although there are a few who have been on retreats before or who make it a part of their daily practice.
4:30pm – our saengtaw (it took 3 to fit us all!) arrive at the meditation center, a bumpy 25 minute ride from central chiang mai, in the middle of a small country village. we met “mr. ben,” a young, sort of chubby thai student, who would serve as our “event coordinator” for us during our stay. mr. ben assigned us rooms and i paired up with a taiwanese yoga instructor from new york named chati. all the participant’s rooms are in the same long, narrow building, and all the rooms are spacious and clean. on our beds are a set of white clothing for us to wear. as “novice” meditators it is tradition for us to wear white, while the monks wear the traditional saffron-colored robes.
6pm – the gong sounds for dinner and we all gather in the dining hall. before we eat, we chant in the pali language in order to contemplate on the food before eating it. our senior monk explains that it is important for us to remember that we are eating for the nourishment of our bodies, and the nourishment of our hearts and minds as well. we also must keep in mind those who are less fortunate and who don’t have enough to eat. from this point on, we are to be silent, out of respect for one another’s meditation practice. even something as simple as eating can be done with mindfulness and a “medatative mind”, rather than rushing through a meal and barely even noticing what we ate. (that said, dinner was vegetarian pad thai and it was delicious!)
6:30pm – we’re welcomed in the meditation hall by the senior monk, Phra Dr. Saneh Dhammavaro, and four young monks of various backgrounds – they come from cambodia, burma, vietnam. our head monk is from thailand though, and he speaks very softly, and slowly (he sounds so wise!) and always encourages us to have a “happy face,” which i thought was cute. his english is good, although he gets caught up on phrases here and there, he always speaks with an earnestness and sincerity. we learn to pay homage to the “triple gems” – the buddha, the darmha (his teachings), and the sangha (the people), then we are taught the basic techniques of meditation – sitting meditation, walking meditation, and lying meditation. all are pretty challenging for me, but i found that my favorite was lying meditation, as it was the easiest to keep my mind from being distracted in this state. (although it was difficult to keep awake at times!)
8:45pm – we finish up our group meditation session by “spreading loving kindness” to all living beings. our teacher explains that this means ALL living beings, there are no exceptions for your enemies, for animals (even those pesky mosquitoes), people who are at war, etc. – ALL living beings deserve your compassion, good wishes, and loving kindness. among the things that we chant are that all living beings be free of suffering, depression, pain, violence, war, hatred, and anger. we also send out wishes of happiness and peace, then pay respect to the triple gems one more time before heading to our rooms.
9pm – time for an evening snack prepared by the staff – hot cocoa, tea and cookies. so cute! again, we eat in silence and some headed to the meditation room to practice sitting meditations, some heading for the courtyard to practice walking meditation… i headed to bed to practice lying meditation, and was soon drifting off to a calm, peaceful sleep. because we’re out in the countryside, the only noises you hear are crickets, frogs, and various other animals humming us softly to sleep.
wednesday, february 13, 2008
5am – the gong sounds, rousing me from my peaceful sleep – no kidding, i was drooling and everything!
5:30am – we report to the meditation hall for some gentle yoga, stretching, and morning meditation. we also did a few exercises that require coordination in order to “wake up your mind” so that you don’t fall asleep when meditating, which sort of reminded me of playing patty-cake. haha!
7am – we all line up in the courtyard for the practice of giving alms offerings to the monks. here in thailand, buddhism is a part of daily life. the monks provide spiritual guidance and health for the people, and in return the people offer food, clothing, and anything else they need. if you go out early enough in the morning, especially in more rurual areas, you will see monks going from home to home and receiving the alms offerings in the street. to show us what it is like, we each stood with a bowl of steamed rice, and offered a spoonful to the monks as they passed through. then we were all to kneel on the ground and the monks chanted blessings for us in pali language – wishing us peace, health, happiness, etc. it was very moving! part of why thai people are so happy all the time is tied into this practice – they learn by giving alms to give from the heart.
7:15am – breakfast is served, after our morning chanting. you could have either toast (for the westerners) or a delicious vegetable and rice soup with thai chilies. now that’s my kind of breakfast! mmm!
8:30am – we break into two groups for discussion. our group talks about all kinds of things – the practice, where we are all from, buddhism, reincarnation, do monks play video games, and more. (yes, they do, by the way. haha)
10am – we meet for one last meditation session where we learn a more advanced walking meditation, then practice a sitting meditation on our own – the first unguided meditation of our stay.
11:30am – our last meal together (vegetarian green curry, yum!), again in silence. everyone seems a little bit sad – we all know we’re leaving soon and no one wants to go. it’s been a great introduction to the practice and we’re all just getting to rise above the uncomfortable sensations of trying to quiet our minds.
12:15pm – we clean up our rooms and head to the main hall for a group picture (which is supposed to be available to download from their website in a few weeks!) then we climb into the three saengtaw to head back to chiang mai.
i really enjoyed my time at the center, and i would definitely do it again. i also really enjoy the monk chat program run by the buddhist university here, and hosted by some of the same monks in our program. it gives you a chance to sit informally with the monks, and ask questions about buddhism or meditation and to understand how to make the practice work for you. overall, i really love the ideas that came out of this retreat. i love that they don’t try to force you to believe what they believe (in fact, some of the participants were christian and even muslim!) but they just wish that every person has the chance to learn something new or to take away a feeling of calm and peace. as our senior monk would tell us whenever we’d open our eyes from meditation – “smiling face, please”… i definitely left with a smiling face. =) they say to practice on our own, just 5 minutes each night before you fall asleep, and 5 minutes when you wake up each morning. i definitely think i can make the time for that!