May 13, 2010

A Weekend Meditation Retreat in a Thai Forest Temple.

One woman seeks solace from the city at a forest temple in Thailand.

The air is stifling, the city so polluted. I pull my shirt over my nose—but for what reason? The air under the cloth is as lead-ridden as the smog that surrounds me. I can’t breathe, feel like I’m suffocating. My clothes cling to body, sweat stickier than roll-on glue.

Like that glue, I myself feel stuck.

A roaring bus blazes past, its fumes invading my lungs, pores, every cell of me. I dodge motorbikes and street dogs and wearily make my way to anywhere that’s blasting air conditioning. I am a prisoner of air conditioning and hence, shopping malls are my prison cell. My mind checks out. I try to breathe. Just breathe. I brusquely punch in the number to phone my Dhamma friend, a fellow Buddhist meditation practitioner. I need an escape. To meditate. I call the forest temple.

The following Saturday morning I meet with my Dhamma friend, who is accompanied by Maechee Noi (literally meaning “little nun” in Thai language) and the three of us, dressed in white clothes (as per temple regulations), drive to Watsunanthawanaram, a forest temple in the Thai province of Kanchanaburi, located about a 3 hour drive to the west of Bangkok. I’ve been here a few times before and I’ve dreamed of it much more.

Watsunanthawanaram is a forest temple whose abbot is the Venerable Phra Ajahn Mitsuo Gavesako, a senior monk and highly respected meditation teacher. Born in Japan, Venerable Ajahn Gavesako was ordained as a Theravadan Buddhist Monk with the Venerable Ajahn Chah in 1976. The Venerable Ajahn Chah followed the tradition of the forest temple, which in turn, is followed today at Watsunanthawanaram.

Laypeople, Thai and foreigners alike, are welcome at the forest temple to practice meditation and to follow the strict yet simple lifestyle adopted by the monks and maechees living here. Their lifestyle is not an easy one; it defies the sense of ‘comfortable living’ (especially in Western terms) and involves wearing white or light-colored clothes (for visitors, or orange robes for monks), eating only once a day (in the morning) from the almsbowl, practicing meditation in solitude several times a day, and living in small huts scattered throughout the forest.

This temple is found deeply embedded in the forest in Kanchanaburi. At this faraway, foreign place, I feel accepted, not judged, for the first time. In fact, no one cares at all. Everyone is focused on their breathing, practicing the mindfulness of breathing meditation.

My first time here, I knew very little about what to expect. I simply followed my Dhamma friend who guided me through the basics of forest temple life. Arriving on a Saturday afternoon, we “checked into” our individual huts (rooms just big enough for sleeping on the hard tile floor with mats and brick pillows provided), rinsed off in the austere showers (no hot water), and took a brief tour. The forest temple has enough huts to house at least 500 visitors at a time, perhaps with space for more in the future, and covers several hundred acres of land, with plenty of dirt trails to walk while practicing walking meditation.

This is what happens on my first visit to the temple: at around 6pm, hearing the sound of a recording in Thai on guided meditation, we head to the temple to begin our walking meditation. I’m hungry but what can I do? I count the hours until I can eat next – only 14 more to go until I can have a huge breakfast tomorrow morning. Sigh. My goal here is to focus on the present. I follow my Dhamma friend’s steps as barefoot we pad through the footpath surrounding the temple and I tell myself how many times to stop thinking; to focus solely on the act of walking and following my breath as the soles of my feet meet with patches of the path that have been in shadier or sunnier spots throughout the day. I am getting the hang of this.

8pm, the gong tolls! I love the sound of the gong. It is such an ancient bell, something so fairytale-like to me. I am so happy that gongs are still in use. It is time for chanting and a Dhamma talk. The book of chants, being in Thai, is left on the floor near my neighbor’s feet. We all sit on tiny mats on the wooden floor under the shelter of the temple. A large Buddha closes his eyes in focused meditation and sits in perfect form before me. I try to mimic his pose but so many factors – the heat, humidity, my sweat, thirst, legs that are falling asleep underneath me, are getting in the way. I get a cramp in my foot. Everyone is chanting in Pali and I sit in silence. I try to meditate to the sound of obscure and foreign words. I feel strangely awake inside. I am so uncomfortable that I can do nothing about it and I accept it for what it is: discomfort. A fleeting sensation.

I lose track of time, but I feel I am dreaming because I hear the English language being spoken. I can’t see who is speaking but he introduces himself as an American who has been ordained as a monk in this temple, and he’s been here a year now. He gives a Dhamma talk while a Thai monk translates to Thai. He says that meditation is like medicine for the mind: when we are sick, we go to the doctor to get medicine to heal our bodies. But in general, when our mind is sick we don’t take medicine for it. We know where to get the medicine (through meditation) but we don’t usually go to the place that offers the best medicine available. If we practice the mindfulness of the breathing meditation, we can help alleviate the sickness that dwells in our minds.

By the end of his talk, it’s about 9:30 pm and I am exhausted. All of us—monks, maechees, and laypeople alike, head off to rest until the morning gong tolls (2:30 am), announcing that meditation shall recommence. I retreat to my hut and lie down on the hard floor, my head stuck to the brick pillow. I feel as though I am camping in a humid oven. Sweat pours out of every pore. I can’t sleep because of the heat. I listen to the chirping geckoes climbing up the walls, chomping on mosquitoes which wish to buzz in my ears. The sound of the forest at night is terrifying and true. I count down the minutes until the gong shall toll, while I aim to focus on the breath. Somewhere near 2 am I fall asleep. The gong tolls. Meditation calls. Again.

Back to the temple where we started the night before, Pali chanting recommences, following another session initiated by the gong’s call at 4:30. My stomach is screaming at me. I shoo away its sound by drowning it in gulps of water. I somehow make it to 6:00 – feeling like a sheep following the guide of the others. But I am not a sheep. This is not a “sheep” thing to do. My body wants to lay flat with the floor, yet I am asked to join on a meditative walk through the forest. I accept this invitation without hesitation because – just because. I am fully awake and aware of what I am doing. This is what they call ‘mindfulness’. I understand it well.

The forest, the forest. The red dirt, the veiny hands of the banyan trees reaching out, scouring the soil, seeking the truth. I feel these trees. Our walk is slow; the maechees look down at their feet. They become the surroundings. 6:30. I don’t need to look at a watch. The sun follows its course. Some birds—I don’t know their names, make themselves known. This is the forest.

I splash my face with chilly water. There are no mirrors here but I know I look like I’ve been up all night. I have. I shower a cold, cold shower, my hands trembling with hunger. I’m dizzy. Gong, please toll! 8am. It’s time for the single meal of the day. A long line of laymen stands in queue for the buffet. The monks and maechees eat in a separate room, crouched over large bowls reminding me of old-fashioned washbasins. I get in line. The food here smells – and looks – great. Huge containers of red rice or white rice, soups, curries, stir fried vegetables, seafood dishes, meats, eggs…the list continues. My bowl fills fast. It’s hard not to mix the sweet with the salty. At this point, I hardly care. The monks believe that with food, it is not to be enjoyed. It is there to nourish the body, not to be a sensational attachment. I eat quickly, and sheepishly get a second helping. Coffee (instant) is available on an unlimited basis. I enjoy the fact that caffeine is allowed in the forest temple.

Sunday pans out in a similar manner to Saturday. Talking is permitted but little is spoken. Words exchanged involve lessons of the Dhamma teachings, in general. During the day, the hot hot day, the monks, maechees, and temple dwellers, soak up the forest. They sweep the temple, clean the floors, and carry out daily chores with full mindfulness and concentration. They meditate in solitude in their huts in the forest, or practice walking meditation along the many paths. They offer advice to those who seek it. In many ways, I could almost let go of my life in the city, forget about my dreams and far-off ambitions, and realize the truth of things as they are. Almost. I guess I am not brave enough to do so. In any case, this place becomes my mental retreat. I can come here anytime I want. It’s in my mind.

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