Phra Saneh Dhammavaro, a Buddhist master at the Wat Suan Dok temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is patient, kind and wise. His face is timeless, his eyes are filled with tolerance, and every sentence he delivers is carefully thought out. He’s the reason I decide to try the temple’s two-day silent meditation retreat
My journey begins one Wednesday when I decide to visit the temple’s “Monk Chat” program, which has been running for six years. Dhammavaro organized the program so his students, who are all accomplished scholars at the temple university, can mix with foreigners and encourage understanding of Buddhism through education
Buddhist monks, have been persecuted for their beliefs, but still have no time for hostility or intolerance. During Monk Chat, the one common thread that resonates throughout the session is tolerance and acceptance of others. The monks explain that Buddhism isn’t about religion so much as it is about one’s own journey to enlightenment through self-discipline and dedication to a set of life guidelines
Eager to learn more, I join other travelers at the temple the following Monday and we embark on our meditation journey.
The group represents a cross-section of society: a German lesbian couple, some Californian sorority girls; a shy Austrian couple; a punk from England; an arrogant travel journalist (not me); a hard-hitting New York lawyer, and a middle-aged Englishman who’s just broken up with his girlfriend and sold his house. And just as different as we all are in demographic, so too are our reasons for attending the retreat
It’s nearly sunset and 20-odd passengers pile out of a songthaew a typical Thai truck with bench seats in the back. We’re greeted by monks in saffron robes and volunteers, and escorted to our dormitory rooms.
A golden Buddha guards the courtyard, creating a silhouette against the burnt sky as the sun dips gracefully below the horizon. The deafening silence resounds as we change into our white uniforms: Thai fishermen’s pants and a shapeless smock
We don tags around our necks that say, “Silence!” Our two-day silent meditation begins
So, here we are, dressed in white attire and pacing somewhat nervously around the property in bare feet; reminding me more of mental patients than enlightenment seekers
When the bell sounds, we convene for a hearty Thai meal, then file into the meditation room for our first session. Buddha smiles down from the front, framed by small statues and surrounded by offerings of incense, flowers and food. We sit in rows on white cushions
The following 48 hours are a contradictory mix of peace and agony. At times I am calm; other times, exasperated. My “monkey mind” – as the monks call it – is relentless as I try to channel my thoughts by using different techniques and body positions
My mind wanders: “I’m meditating. Blue skies and waves. A white sandy beach. Hey, what’s that noise? A bird? Who coughed? My legs are hurting
It’s a constant battle against the monkey, who sits in my brain eating bananas and swinging from trees
Sometimes, I not only feel frustrated, but ridiculous; especially when it’s 10pm under the starry sky and we’re outside in front of Buddha in a military-like formation chanting. It feels like a mental boot camp
But, the monks are patient with us. They spend time with us the next day, answering our many questions about the fundamentals of Buddhism, enlightenment, meditation, and their reasons for becoming monks. They deliver their message of personal responsibility to the Earth and humanity
The monks at Wat Suan Dok are bridging gaps between their ancient beliefs and the modern world. The retreat is a short, but worthwhile aside for travelers looking for some spirituality, or even just a time-out from their monkey minds
According to Phra Saneh Dhammavaro, a monk must never reveal whether he has reached enlightenment. I’ll never know whether he is one of the enlightened ones, only that the world needs more people like him
The meditation retreats depart each Tuesday from Wat Suan Dok temple. They are free, although a donation is highly recommended. For more information visit Monk Chat.