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Bound for bliss

Story and photos by Colin Hinshelwood, Bangkok Post, May 27, 2006

May 27 marks the centenary of the birth of the late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, whose innovative teachings left a reformist legacy for Thailand's Theravada Buddhism.

Suan Mokh, Thailand -- When Sarah Medway, a 50-year-old artist from England, first read the schedule for the next 10 days, she was nervous.

<< Retreatants contemplate life

"I wanted to leave right there and then. I almost didn't get past the registration desk," she confessed. "I had been going through a difficult transition time in my life and my son recommended me to do this. He said I just wasn't myself."

By the third day Sarah was ready to quit. She dug deep inside herself and by the following morning she felt a wave of calm and adapted to the strict routine. On Day Seven she cried with despair, but on the last few days she felt her spirits rise again.

"It's an emotional roller coaster," agreed Matthew Carter, a South African fitness instructor who had just completed his fourth retreat at Suan Mokkh monastery. "But it cleanses your soul."

Wat Suan Mokkh is idyllically set within a forest in Chaiya, in the south of Thailand. The forest monastery was founded in 1932 by one of Thailand's most revered monks, the Venerable Buddhadasa Bhikku (literally "Slave of the Buddha"). He established the centre as a sanctuary for those who wished to practise Vipassana (insight meditation).

"My true nature was that of a forest monk," wrote Buddhadasa in 1943 and, for the next 50 years, he devoted his life to spreading the word about dharma (nature) and encouraging Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) among his followers. Such was his quest for peace in the world that Buddhadasa began inviting visitors of different religions to his sylvan retreat, hoping that they would take the message back to their homelands.

Wat Suan Mokkh and the Meditation Hall  >>

Buddhadasa passed away in 1993, but his legacy lives on at Wat Suan Mokkh. Staffed by Buddhist devotees and lay volunteers, the monastery holds monthly retreats for foreigners who wish to learn Anapanasati and explore themselves.

Enrolment is on the last day of each calendar month (Wat Suan Mokkh has not had to cancel or postpone a single retreat in the last 15 years). Dormitories can house up to 60 men and 60 women. Accommodation is spartan: A concrete cell 3-by-4m contains a concrete bed and a straw mat. Retreatants are expected to emulate the routine of Siddhartha Gautama himself, including minimal sleep, walking barefoot, eating only in the morning and sleeping on a wooden pillow.

The answer is right Under your nose

Anyone who breathes can practise Anapanasati meditation. It requires no expense, no equipment and no planning. It's good for your health and has no ill side effects.

The instructions for a beginner are simple: Feel your breath entering your nostrils; follow the breath to your navel; feel the breath going back out through your nose; think of nothing else.

Yet this is a pursuit that precious few mortals can boast to have mastered in one lifetime.

You are advised to begin by sitting comfortably with a straight back (the "full lotus" and other yogic positions are purely for show). Half-close your eyes and look downwards toward the tip of your nose. Then take a few deep breaths. Follow your breath as it comes in and goes out. As thoughts enter your mind, let them pass through. Go back to the breath. After a while your legs, your back, your neck or all three will start to ache. Ignore the pain. Return to the breath. Continue focusing on the breath until you reach a state of calm. Dispel thought. Observe only your own breath. Hear the sounds around you but do not analyse them. Breathe in. Breathe out. Continue for as long as you can.

<< Young meditator hard at work

If you persevere you will start to experience a tingling sensation in the throat, like little elves dancing on your larynx. As the breath becomes more defined, you should be able to shift your focus to just below your nose and instead of stalking your breath, you observe it just as it enters and exits the nostrils.

With sustained practice the student meditator should be able to advance to the second stage, or the Second Tetrad: a state of rapture. More experienced devotees aim for the Third Tetrad, the ability to observe or examine the mind. The Fourth Tetrad involves contemplating the impermanence of everything, a state so advanced that perhaps only the truly "enlightened", such as the Buddha, can possibly attain it.

It would be blissfully easy if it weren't for the mind, which is continually wandering back to the past, projecting itself out in the future, pestering you with memories, ideas and fantasies. You struggle to flush the motion pictures from your mind. You battle with emotions and frustration. Your life doesn't so much as flash before your eyes as linger and recur. You try desperately and in vain to stay "in the now".

You are even expected to stay "mindful" while you are washing and eating. You observe your breathing while you are doing your chores. Each retreatant undertakes to help with the upkeep of the monastery. Chores include raking leaves, scrubbing pots and cleaning toilets. It all makes for a slightly surreal scene - the sight of a dozen farangs working in the midday sun, raking leaves back and forth to the rhythm of their own breathing.

The austere daily schedule at the forest monastery is purposefully tailored to encourage "mindfulness". Unable to share their emotions with each other, the retreatants are forced to work internally. This is not a bonding experience and camaraderie is frowned upon. The rules of abstinence and the frugal vegetarian diet ensure the body is cleansed and the breath easier to follow. Morning yoga helps loosen tense necks and shoulders and allows for greater flexibility while sitting in the same position for hours upon end. There is no TV, no radio, no mobile phones ringing, no contact with the outside world. The distractions are all in the mind.

If you don't have time to meditate each day, you don't have time NOT to meditate

Tan Acharn Dhammavidu emerges from the forest like a mirage, his saffron robes conspicuous against the trees in the background. Slowly, he circles the lotus pond and comes to the open-air meditation hall where 100 farang meditators are silently at work, breathing. The monk sheds his sandals and parasol and bows facing the front of the meditation hall. Serenely taking a seat on a low pulpit with a microphone, he taps a small bell three times to gently awaken the students from their reveries.

Basic accommodation >>

Wise yet humble and dryly amusing, Tan Acharn Dhammavidu offers the day's talk on Buddhist principles and the practice of Anapanasati.

The monk can acutely empathise with the frustrations of the novice meditators: He was born over 50 years ago in England and, as a musician and artist, he spent the '60s and '70s living a hippy lifestyle in India before becoming a Theravadan Buddhist monk in the mid-1980s. Tan Acharn Dhammavidu says he has no regrets and doesn't miss the "real world".

"Life is suffering," he says, though the wry grin on his face suggests he is quite happy with his lot. Recounting tales from his mischievous past, the British monk keeps his audience transfixed, a welcome relief from dealing with their own troubled souls.

With a twist of irony Tan Acharn Dhammavidu ties his parable together by relating it to the Buddha's teachings. The Five Hindrances to effective meditation - desire, restlessness, sloth, ill will and doubt - are juxtaposed to the analogy of eating a pizza while stoned on hashish in a guesthouse in Bengal. Heads nod in appreciation. He leaves much unsaid, but his message is always clear: Choose the Middle Path; don't fool yourself; be mindful of everything.

The bell chimes again and it's time for an hour's walking meditation. Silently and mindfully, the wizened ones pace slowly like zombies around the monastic grounds. On Day Nine, the students are asked to devote the entire day to meditation practice. There is no lunch that day, only breakfast. There will be no chanting, no yoga. The few distractions that may have been in place are removed and meditators strive to achieve the highest state they can.

As the retreat draws to a close, the surviving members reflect on what was often the longest 10 or 12 days of their lives.

"I have great respect for Buddhism, more so after the retreat," reflects Sarah. "I believe that Buddha discovered quantum physics some 2,500 years ago."

"It is definitely worthwhile to do it at least once in life," mused Marcio Assis, 27, from Brazil. "The wooden pillow was tough; the rice soup for breakfast every day was tough; getting up at 4am was tough. But in the end, I feel a much more positive mental attitude. It's an opportunity to leave behind the capitalist world and look within."

"Considering I was here to think about nothing, I've never thought so much in my life," confessed Andrea, a German student.

Like many others, Andrea had been recommended to Wat Suan Mokkh by a friend and had come to "purge the demons" after a traumatic break-up with her boyfriend. By the end of the course she felt she had finally closed a chapter in her life, but not without some distress and the shedding of many tears.

Beam me up, Scotty!

If you have ever visited one of the great Buddhist holy places, such as Lumbini in Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha, you will have noticed the nonchalant manner in which many locals approach the tourist site. Indian families will run around scattering peanut shells, taking photographs, having a laugh. The converted Western Buddhist, on the other hand, tends to want to go that step further in austerity. He will sit under a tree, in full view of hundreds of giggling tourists, and meditate desperately, no doubt hoping to get beamed up to a higher plane and preferably before the temple closes for the day.

Others prefer to take hallucinogenics or smoke marijuana before getting down to a hard day's meditation. You'll find them on the beaches of Thailand or Goa. They'll stop every five minutes for another bong hit.

After countless retreats and thousands of tourists and Buddhist wannabes, Reinhard Holscher, one of the programme's coordinators, is dismissive of what he calls "Bliss Bunnies".

"Meditation is a lifetime's work," he said. "Beginners cannot reach any advanced state in just 10 or 11 days."

Therein lies the conflict within the Western mind. Whereas a great many Orientals seem to be born with a natural sense of meditative ability, the impatient and capricious Occidental tends to find the whole process a mind-blowing task.

"We want Enlightenment now, or we'll bust our guts trying!" he screamed.

The straightforward fact is that only an ascetic lifestyle is conducive to successful meditation. Alcohol and drugs simply don't wash. It's a personal quest; there's no competitions or Meditation World Championships. It's a private matter between you and your soul.

Despite the warning signs, up to 120 Westerners pack their suitcases and flock to the monastery in search of Enlightenment every month - the young and the restless, the militant Buddhist and the born-again curious, those in ruts, those at crossroads, those at dead-ends, some looking for answers, some looking for a way in, others a way out, the tormented, the jilted, the confused, romantics, addicts, flakes and an assortment of lost souls.

Of the 96 who turned up for the 11-day programme in April 2006, only 67 completed the course - such is the psychological torment that many endure.

"Most of those who drop out are young and have no idea what to expect," Reinhard said.

Others cannot get enough. Andy is a gardener from Germany and has been to 20 retreats at Wat Suan Mokkh. After the 11th day of each course he moves across the road to the main monastery for a couple of weeks "to harvest the results".

On completing the retreat, students are welcome to stay on at the main monastery if they would like more time to practise meditation in a pastoral setting or if they are not yet ready to go back to the outside world.

Ultimately you are released back into the wild, to the screeching traffic, bright lights and commotion of everyday life. But as you ride back into Surat Thani on the back of a pick-up truck you feel a new beginning, a strange sensation that your life is somewhat more open-ended than you had previously imagined. Your senses are heightened: You can smell the grass and the trees, you can feel the breeze in your hair like never before. You stare at the thousands of people in the street and you empathise with each of them. You are "born again". The world is now your oyster.

With a sudden burst of joy you scream into the air: "Carpe diem!" And, for perhaps the first time in your life, you truly mean it.

Wat Suan Mokkh's meditation retreats (in English) are held from the 1st to the 11th of every month. Registration: One day before retreat begins. Cost: 1,500 baht for food and accommodation. Thai-language retreats are held from the 19th to the 27th of every month. Contact: The Dhammadana Foundation, c/o Suan Mokkhabalarama, Chaiya, Surat Thani, Thailand, 84110. Telephone/fax: 07-743-1597. Web site: www.suanmokkh.org/. Suan Mokkh is located on Highway 41, near Chaiya, 50km north of Surat Thani. Trains/ buses: Use main railway line/highway between Surat Thani and Bangkok. Nearest airport: Surat Thani.

Meditation retreat

  • 4am: Wake up; bathe; meditate; yoga
  • 7:30am: Breakfast; chores; dharma lecture; meditate; walking meditation; meditate
  • 12:30pm: Lunch (last meal of the day); chores; meditate; walking meditation; meditate; chanting
  • 6 pm: Cup of tea; hot spring; meditate
  • 9 pm: Go to bed

No reading. No writing. No smoking. No drinking. No sexual thoughts or activities. No talking.

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