Buddhist university meets boot camp. Wat Sunantawanaram, Thailand
The adventure to find the monastery... Third time lucky
Dressed all in white like a ghost (required attire for lay people in meditation centres), I hailed down a taxi to take me to Thonburi train station on the outskirts of Bangkok. As the city began to wake up and warm up, I said goodbye to the bustle; I knew where I was going would be very different. As the taxi pulled up to the train station, I bought my ticket for the 5 hour journey north and raided a few local food stalls for some treats as I had no idea what my diet would consist of for the following week.
Me in my meditation gear
The train journey was beautiful - pulling out through the outskirts of Bangkok, and eventually into the Thai countryside consisting of sprawling fields and hills. A popular tourist route; the train also passed over the Bridge On the River Kwai and Wampo Viaduct.
(Thanks to seat61.com)
(Thanks to seat61.com)
(Thanks to seat61.com)
But eventually after 5 hours of feeding and reading (I'd heard no reading for entertainment was allowed in the monastery), I eventually arrived at my destination; Maha Monkol train station (well, just a platform); home to Daen Maha Mongkol Meditation Centre. As some other ghostly dressed passengers disembarked the train, we began our short walk to the centre. It was stunning; surrounded by climbing hills on which a local monastery could be silhouetted and accessed by crossing a towering and dominant white bridge lined with flags. After crossing the bridge, I set about finding my hosts for the stay and was immediately hit by the serenity of the place (partly helped by the floating about of other visitors, also dressed in white). Eventually I stumbled upon the centre 'HQ', inhabited by Nuns who welcomed me in and sat me down on the marble floor. As the centre had no internet or phone number, all I could do was turn up and hope they could fit me in, but this is where I stumbled upon a little problem.
'Our english teacher not here, please come back next year' the nun broke to me abruptly. S#*t I thought. This didn't go to plan, and it was a long way to come for that news.
(Thanks to cari-lee.com for the use of this photo.
I asked her if there were any other centres in the vicinity, but her English didn't span that far, so after wondering around the centre for another five minutes to see what I was missing, I hit the bridge again and headed back towards the train shack. As no one else was around, I consulted my train timetable for options; the last train south left in 30 minutes, as I didn't really want to stay here in the middle of nowhere. I didn't want to give up either as I'd come so far and looked forward to staying there so much.
I decided to try and find anyone else who I could ask about finding another centre close by, and eventually luckily stumbled upon some Thai visitors who were helping one of the nuns operate a little cable car which ferried supplies from one side of the river to the meditation centre. I asked my query in slow English, which got a welcome reply from one of the Thai tourists in English; 'There is another centre 15km from here, and I think they speak English'. The adventure wasn't over, and they kindly offered to drive me the said monastery. The amazing Thai hospitality was very welcome to this one farang (westerner), who was by now drowning in his own sweat.
After driving for twenty or so minutes, and after asking for directions at several points along the route, we pulled up at a Police station to try and get some more information. We were again greeted by some disappointing news; the Police informed us that the monastery we had in mind didn't have any English speaking teachers or helpers, but luckily instead there was a large monastery 40km away where I could stay and had English teachers. Hooray, and third time lucky I hoped.
This final leg of my journey would involve a bus to the monastery, so after waiting for another hour, spent teaching some locals English and the meaning of 'psychologist', it eventually turned up. I noticed a monk sitting on the floor; a welcome sight as I was going in the right direction.
As the bus dropped me off, I looked up at the long path leading up to the monastery and set about tackling this final part of a day's travelling.
Soon after setting off however, I was greeted by a young man on a moped, offering to take me up the hill to the monastery. Weighed down by my backpack and with the sun setting on the surrounding hills, I gladly accepted.
My new home for a week
My destination was Wat Sunantawanaram, a 500 acre forest monastery in Kanchanaburi, headed by Japanese Monk the Venerable Ajahn Mitsuo Gavesako.
As I disembarked the back of the moped clumsily, I was met on the road and welcomed in by one of the Nun's from the monastery who didn't seem too surprised by my unexpected arrival. She escorted me over to the monastery 'HQ' where I gave some personal details and was informed of the rules and customs of the monastery (based on Buddhist principles, or precepts, available from the following link).
Next stop was the male dorm; accessed through a short walk through a small patch of forest and presented in the form of an un-walled, raised wooden building set in the middle of the silent forest. The Nun left me to settle in and unpack and informed me that meditation would start in half an hour. I made my bed consisting of a blanket on the floor (again in line with Buddhist precepts) and simplified by belongings to exclude clothes which didn't fit the dress code or any cosmetic products used for 'personal adornment'. I surrendered my bag, and felt excited to see how this even simpler form of living would come.
Next, I set off to get my first taste of daily life at the monastery; walking meditation and chanting. Led by my flashlight, I navigated my way back through the forest to find the meditation area and monastery. As I discarded my flip flops at the entrance (something which becomes habit after a while), I was greeted by one of the residents; a middle-aged Thai woman who was helping and staying at the monastery for a week residence. She spoke good English, and offered to introduce me to walking meditation which was practiced for one hour before evening chanting and sitting meditation. She explained the principles of walking meditation (basically, giving focus to the act of walking and one's breathing), which in practice was difficult, especially because of the abundance of mosquito's which put my practice of the 'do not kill any living being' precept to the test.
The next part of the evening schedule involved 45 minutes of chanting in Pali (traditional Buddhist language) which I attempted to follow from an English translation book given to me. This was a beautiful experience as us lay people sat in the middle of the monastery, which was headed at the front by a large copper Buddha, and 10-12 monks sat at his feet.
Lastly, the chanting was followed by 30 minutes of sitting meditation which I attempted after another short crash course from the Thai woman. As I'd tried this before, it was great trying it in this incredible setting, even though I was not used to sitting in the 'half lotus' position for all this time. All in all, I think my knees aged about 20 years during my week at the monastery.
(Thanks to Wat Sunan Facebook page)
The ringing of a small, high pitched bell signified the end of meditation, so myself and the about fifteen other people staying at the monastery headed off into the pitch-black forest to our living quarters to get some sleep before the first scheduled activity of the day; chanting and meditation again at 3am.
I settled into my hard bed, and surrounded by the dark forest and all of its sounds, I fell asleep pretty quickly following a long day of travelling and adventures.
I was woken at 0245am by the sound of the monastery bell which rang through the forest repeatedly for a minute to wake all inhabitants in preparation for morning chanting. It was still completely dark, and the clear starry night was still shining through the forest canopy.
Monastery Schedule (Uni meets boot camp)
0300 - Morning chanting and meditation
0600 - Binthabart - more on this after
0730 - Chores (cleaning)
0800 - Breakfast - The one meal of the day involved a huge buffet style banquet consisting of really tasty Thai food, biscuits and milkshakes. The process involved first sitting by the Monks as they blessed their food, and then eating communally on the floor with the workers and visitors to the monastery.
0900 - 1445 - Reading, classes and meditation
1445 - 1545 - Chores (cleaning, gardening)
1600 - 1800 - Shower time, reading, classes.
1800 - 1900 - Walking meditation
1900 - 2030 - Evening chanting and meditation
Learning about meditation
During my time at the monastery I learnt and practiced two forms of Buddhist meditation; shamatha and vipassana meditation. Shamatha meditation involves the focusing of attention single-pointedly (on the breath, or a task such as sweeping) and vipassana is a more in-depth form which examines the true nature of reality through the processes of our thoughts and actions (the deep stuff). I won't go into my personal experience of meditation here, but I had plenty of time to practice during my stay!
The process of learning and practicing meditation is a personal one, but I found it very valuable to learn this powerful tool; which is becoming increasingly used and understood in the West, from Monks and others for whom it is a central part of their lives and routines. A good understanding and patience are both crucial, and it is something I'm keen to keep practicing.
Schoolin' with Monks
Delphine; a young woman from Belgium and fellow western 'visitor' to the monastery and I were lucky enough to be taken under the wing by one of the monks during our stay. Tan Thien, a Vietnamese-American monk who obviously spoke good English and had been a monk for three years offered us 'lessons' on Buddhism and meditation most days, which like being back at uni involved discussions; namely the big questions of Buddhism and how Buddhist philosophy fitted with the idea of me buying an iPhone 4S. It was strange going from the backpacker life to sitting down for two hours at a time going through handouts, but it was exactly what I wanted from my stay, and was invaluable in learning about the backbones of Buddhism and meditation.
Useful webpage here: http://www.tuaw.com/2010/07/28/5-apps-for-the-buddhist/
Tan Thien's blog can be found at: http://tasteofliberation.wordpress.com/
It was also a fantastic experience to ask monks about their lifestyle, and we felt truly lucky that we were able to ask open questions about this and Buddhism to 'our' monk as we called him, as he spoke the best English of all the Monks.
I was also very lucky in that I was taken under the wing of an older, Japanese Monk who also gave me daily classes on meditation and yoga (a true work out for body and mind).
Our experiences with both Monks was truly inspirational as they both had such a genuinely kind and approachable nature, as did all of the other Monks, Nuns and helping staff at the monastery. We were soon welcomed into their community, which was a rich one as Buddhist principles and the nature of reciprocity were central (helping out around the monastery site for example). Another thing I learnt was that most of the Monks looked considerably younger than they were, which led me to lose many age-guessing games. I'm not sure if it's down to their lack of hair and eyebrows, or stress-free lifestyle.
Binthabart - The Almsround
My favourite schedule-based experience of the whole week. Binthabart is the process of alms-giving from local families and businesses to the Monks of various monasteries. As one of the Buddhist precepts concerns the nature of giving and stealing, traditional forms of Buddhist lifestyle rely on Monks being given food.
The experience started at 630am as a Thai man staying at the monastery and I would head to the kitchen to collect several cotton bags to carry the offerings, and then pile into the back of a truck which would take us down the road to a main road on which shops and homes were situated. As we headed out along the road, we were gradually joined by Monks from our monastery who would be carrying large metal bowls covered in orange cloth, used to carry rice and other foods offered to them by the lay people.
(Thank you bangkokgirllife.blogspot.com)
As we reached our first stop; a local shop or home, we all jumped out of the back of the pick-up and starting walking along the road. The five or six Monks would walk in line along the side of the road, with myself and the other lay people following. As we approached the person or persons with offerings (rice, curries, drinks, eggs, fruit, flowers) they would place some rice into the Monk's bowl, and any other offerings on a small metal plate. As taking any items from lay people directly may be seen as stealing, the Monks were unable to touch the offerings, so I would wai (bow) to the offerings and place them in my bags. I got away with only a few leakages, leaving me covered in curry or egg.
We would stop along the road at about 10 stops, each loading up my bags with goodies. The whole atmosphere was made even more beautiful as the sun would rise over the surrounding hills, creating amazingly red skies and slowly lighting up the misty fields. We would also occasionally pass other Monks doing their Binthabart, chanting in unison and giving thanks for their offerings which provided a beautiful soundtrack to the experience.
When our bags were full, we would jump back into the pick-up which had followed us along the road and head back to monastery base where the food would be used for breakfast. I was lucky enough to help with the Binthabart each morning of my stay, which I loved doing as it gave an insight into both Buddhist and Thai life, and was actually my only 'outing' from the monastery.
The whole experience
A lot of my time spent at the monastery involved repetitive, personal experiences such as reading and practicing meditation, and I learnt a lot from both. The transition from the backpacker lifestyle to living at the monastery was a very powerful one; eating one meal a day, rising and sleeping at unusual hours and doing cleaning. Unusually, these didn't seem difficult when I was at the monastery, even though I'm now experiencing the hangover as my body clock is getting used to outside life again and my stomach is slowly growing back to its normal size. Surprisingly, I didn't find the eating of only one meal a day too difficult, as I think my mind accepted that it would only get brekkie, and I'd have to meditate any hunger away. (We could have unlimited drinks throughout the day, so this helped, and we could cheat a bit by having some yummy aloe vera drink with bits in).
The whole experience of staying in the middle of the national park forest was an experience in itself, especially getting used to the sounds of geckos, howling wild dogs throughout the night, dramatic thunder storms and then complete silence. The site of the monastery was stunning, kept spotless by the team of us visitors who sweeped and gardened every day, and spotted with kuti (above), or the small hut homes for Monks.
I achieved exactly what I wanted from my stay; to learn about meditation and Buddhism as well as have a completely different change in routine and lifestyle, all surrounded by beautiful and stunning settings. I also took away some practical changes, especially concerning living more simply, which the Monks do in their tiny kuti's with only essential items. Physically, I also took away a three volume book set of Buddhist teachings on philosophy and meditation which was kindly gifted to me by one of the Monks. I fear all the good work from yoga may now be undone as I lug it through China over the next 3 weeks. A great souvenir though.
Overall, certainly a top three experience of my trip, and a really beneficial one for both body (muscles and liver...) and mind (even though my knees have aged 20 years).
Will I be shaving my head and eyebrows any time soon? I learnt many great things, but not yet... It was interesting to learn from the Monks that anyone can be ordained as a Buddhist Monk from anything to one day to a lifetime. I missed my music and bread (We had lots of rice) too much, so not yet.
P.s. Meditation update: Still haven't managed to levitate.
(Thanks to Wat Sunan Facebook page)