Thailand temples offer retreat and spiritual enlightenment

by Greg Jorgensen, The Toronto Star, Jan 18 2010

BANGKOK – A growing number of people are trying to tidy up the crowded façade of their cluttered lifestyle — they're tackling the congestion at its root by exploring a simpler yet richer path: studying Buddhist meditation and, in some cases, being fully ordained as a Buddhist monk or nun.

<< Pandit Bhikkhu walks the path to spiritual enlightenment.

While one can manage this in almost any big city, many people aren't aware that the process is gaining popularity in Asia, where the religion was born and remains the dominant moral philosophy.

One of the most popular places for this undertaking is Thailand, where many people subscribe to Therevada Buddhism, a school that claims direct lineage back to the Buddha himself. It emphasizes wise reflection, meditation and the belief that one of the main causes of human suffering is craving, or the desire to amass wealth.

"The more you give up, the more freedom you have," says Pandit Bhikkhu, a Brit who was ordained as a monk in 1996 and one of the most visible westerners in Thai Buddhist circles. Monks, a moral pillar of Thai society, live a modest life — an average day begins around 5 am, and follows a pattern of meditation, studying and various temple-related duties. Most Thai men are expected to be ordained at some point, earning respect from their community and good karma for their family in return for their oblation.

"I don't miss the western lifestyle, although I do miss the food sometimes," he laughs. "Some take to it and remain a monk for years, while others can't wait to get back to their car and girlfriend."

But being ordained is a long process that requires deep commitment, and the English monk recommends experiencing a meditation retreat first.

"Retreats are organized and well planned, so it's a more accessible way to get an idea of the things that Buddhism and monkhood offer."

Steve Weissman, a former student of and now teacher at Wat Khowtam on the popular island of Ko Phangan since 1988, says, "The majority of our guests either want to learn more about themselves or are interested in what the Buddha taught. Many people have become aware of certain aspects of life that they consider unsatisfactory and would like to know how to lessen or solve these problems."

Life at the hilly retreat among a thick jungle landscape is austere: participants sleep in dormitory rooms on straw mats and spend their time in near-silence, meditating in groups and honing their skills via one-on-one conversations with the teachers. "We have many students from around the world who return to continue their development and pass on what they have learned to their children, family and friends," says Weissman.

Thailand has many similar retreats that cater to Thais and foreigners alike, from the southern sandy beaches to the lush northern capital of Chiang Mai, and even in and around the noisy, fast-paced capital of Bangkok.

One such place is Wat Prayong International Meditation Centre, located 30 minutes outside of Bangkok among an endless expanse of banana trees and deep green rice paddies. Austrian Mae Chee Brigitte has been at this temple since she was ordained as a nun in 1990 after trying meditation on a whim and feeling a deep and ethereal connection to the philosophy (like Bhikkhu, Mae Chee is a religious title).

"I try to teach my students not only meditation within the temple, but to develop mindfulness in all their daily activities so that they can apply it at home, because mindfulness leads to wisdom. If you are able to be more mindful of your daily existence, you learn to let go of useless and negative thoughts, giving you control over your emotions and allowing an easier path to happiness."

Mae Chee Brigitte's tutelage is free for those who are interested, but donations are always appreciated. Like Wat Khowtam, prospective students should send an email rather than simply show up, and may stay as long as they wish as long as they continue to practice meditation. Some have followed the path of their teacher and have remained in Thailand to study.

"Two of my disciples have been in the monkhood for over ten years, and one even lives in a cave in Suphanburi province," she says.

However, such an extreme lifestyle shift isn't for all tastes, so a more scholarly approach to Buddhism is another option. Tony MacGregor, a retired 64-year old from Nanaimo, B.C, is in his second year of an M.A. program in Buddhist studies at Bangkok's 122-year old Mahachula University.

"I tried meditation on the advice of a friend and found it incredibly helpful, which led to Buddhism and eventually, Thailand," he says.

Classes at Mahachula are taught in English, and lay-students and orange-robed monks alike listen to lessons on Pali, Modern Science and Buddhist Research Methodologies.

"Most of my 20-odd classmates are monks from neighbouring countries. It's not as stern as you might think — there's a fair amount of laughter and horseplay in class, but they're serious about earning their degree," he says.

But meditation remains the doorway. "Once you learn how to meditate properly, it stays with you forever," says Pandit Bhikkhu. "You can meditate anywhere because the base of your happiness is inside you. If you're married, in prison, in a hot country, cold country, rich or poor, it doesn't matter. Happiness comes from letting go."

JUST THE FACTS: There are numerous places that offer meditation retreats, and plenty of online communities where you can find advice, stories and contacts.

- Pandit Bhikkhu's frequently updated blog, with plenty of resources.

- Wat Mahachula, Bangkok's oldest school of Buddhist studies.

- Wat Prayong International Meditation Centre, where Mae Chee Brigitte holds her retreats.

Wat Kowtahm, Thailand's well known 'jungle temple' on the island of Ko Phang Ngan, offers meditation courses of varying length.

Monk for a Month will take all the guesswork out of the process and provide you with a support network, although their programs aren't free.

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: