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. Master Dhammavaro organized the program so his students – all accomplished scholars at the temple university – could mix with foreigners, encouraging a greater understanding of Buddhism.
During Monk Chat, the one common theme 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 travellers at the temple the following Monday, and together we embark on a spiritual journey.
The group represents a cross-section of society: a German lesbian duo, some Californian sorority girls, a shy Austria couple, a punk from England, an arrogant travel journalist (not me), a hard-hitting New York lawyer, and a middle-aged Englishman who has just broken up with his girlfriend. Each has their own reason for attending the retreat.
It’s nearly sunset and around 20 passengers pile out of a songthaew— a typical Thai truck with bench seats in the back. We’re greeted by volunteers and monks in saffron robes and escorted to our dormitory rooms.
A golden Buddha guards the courtyard, creating a silhouette against the sky as the sun dips below the horizon. A deafening silence surrounds us as we change into our white uniforms comprising Thai fishermen’s pants and shapeless smocks.
We don tags around our necks that say “Silence!” and our two-day silent meditation begins. Dressed in white attire and pacing nervously around the property in bare feet, we look more like mental patients than seekers of enlightenment.
When the bell sounds, we convene for a hearty Thai meal, then file into the meditation room for our first session. A Buddha smiles down on us, 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, while at others I am 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.
At 10pm we are still at it: sitting in front of a Buddha chanting in a military-like formation under a starry sky. It feels like a mental boot camp.
However, the monks are patient with us. The next day they answer our many questions about fundamentals of Buddhism, enlightenment, meditation, and their reason for becoming monks. They deliver a message of personal responsibility to the Earth and toward 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 Master 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.
PUBLICATION: VERVE, EVA Air in-flight magazine