While visiting the heavily touristed Wat Prathat Doi Suthep on Suthep Mountain in Chiang Mai, my husband and I noticed the International Buddhist Center, with a sign offering meditation retreats. Inside the small library, an English-speaking layperson approached us and checked the availability to participate in a retreat. We learned of our options: foreigners can meditate for a full course of 21 days, an advanced review for 10 days or a shorter course depending on individual schedules. The room, two meals per day and meditation instruction are all offered free of charge, with donations graciously accepted. My husband and I decided we would like to try this unique experience, and opted to stay at the beautiful, 700 year-old, mountainside temple for ten days, as we thought this would allow us enough time to receive adequate meditation instruction without incurring mental overload. Having a sporadic meditation history, I began to realize I was not prepared for this undertaking; yet after being in this Buddhist country for over a month, I was ready for a real challenge. In Thailand, with all of this enthusiasm for Buddhism, my perception of how long I could meditate somehow changed. My husband and I probably wouldn’t have done such an intense retreat in America. This was a totally new level of dedication. While planning, we didn’t think about the luxuries we would have to forgo, but instead focused on the material things we would need. We were required to wear white clothing, so we began scouring markets, bargaining for any plain white clothes we could find. We also needed countdown timers— these would come in handy to time our individual meditation sessions.
Arriving at the temple, we were shown to our separate rooms. My room was empty except for some blankets piled up on the floor to be made into a simple bed. Linoleum with a design of clouds and sky lined the 8×10 ft. floor. One light surrounded by cobwebs hung from the ceiling. We received a small orientation to the meditation areas along with an introduction to the meditation techniques. At the front of the meditation hall there were several statues of the Buddha while the other three sides were lined with windows. Long carpets stretched the length of the hall— carpets that I walked back and forth on countless times during walking meditation sessions.
We were initiated into temple life by taking the precepts all meditators are required to keep while staying in the retreat center. In addition to the usual five precepts for a layperson (no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, or drinking alcohol and other intoxicants), we had to keep three extra ones: refraining from oversleeping, overeating, and beautification. This meant that we should not sleep more than six hours at night, not eat after noon and not wear any makeup or jewelry— just the white clothes. There were hardly any mirrors around anyway. After showering, I would usually just check with William to see if my hair was sticking up anywhere.
When the alarm clock sounded at 4:30AM on my first full day at the temple, I didn’t want to go back to sleep. I was anxious to leave the hard floor and meet my husband on the pre-dawn terrace overlooking the city. Throughout the day we had two small meals before noon, listened to a dhamma talk by the teacher, chanted with monks in the main hall during dawn and dusk, and reported to the teacher for further instruction and questions.
Despite the partial routine of the mediation retreat, I found it difficult to structure my day. I soon realized that I had to be self-motivated because no one was watching; there were no meditation leaders or scheduled sessions. At first I tried to stick to a goal of meditating 5 hours per day, but soon I let this go and just did what felt right. Eventually I began to actually want to meditate— it was a relief just to concentrate on the moment. In my attempts to meditate in America I had never practiced long enough to gain any long-term benefits. But in this retreat I certainly had ample time and began to hope I could gain some level of insight. If I needed a break, I could walk around the shopping areas of this touristy temple and check out the souvenirs, but this often felt ‘worldly’ and in opposition to what I was trying to gain. Other foreign tourists often gave us curious looks, their counterparts dressed in white walking slowly in a meditative daze. Gradually this routine sunk in and we became used to the simple but difficult meditator’s lifestyle. At one of his dhamma talks, our teacher, Phra Buddhayammo, compared his experiences adjusting to the monkhood to our experiences at this temple.
He said, “Maybe you thought you couldn’t do this at first; maybe you thought you would need to have dinner and coffee, and a soft mattress, but soon after only a couple of days, you can adapt and enjoy the benefits of the simple life.” He concluded, “I think, maybe, this much better. You can get a new style!”
The morning and evening chanting became the highlights of our day. We received a Pali chanting book, Romanized and translated, so we could easily follow along. Our teacher encouraged us to attend the daily chants saying, “This temple very old. Maybe you get the good energy from the history.”
Before and after the chanting there were often blessings and donations from laypeople, so we were able to observe Thai monastic interactions and learn about monks’ daily lives. The abbot always smiled at us and sometimes spoke to us after the chanting was finished. He told the foreign meditators about the cat with the furious meow that often attended the chants.
“This cat is 16 years old, he won’t be quiet! Oh well, nothing can do.”
“That cat must have good karma,” I whispered to William.
Another daily highlight, while brief, was the report to the teacher. This meeting could take anywhere from five minutes to over a half hour for some people.
During my reports, I often asked about my lack of progress, “When will I be able to go deep inside?”
During his dhamma talks Phra Buddhayammo constantly praised meditation because, “You can come deep deep inside. I think, very wonderful, yes?” During the reports, he repeatedly told me to be patient, and although at the end of the retreat I was still waiting for an insight, I did feel like I gained a higher level of concentration.
Although it is not recommended that people talk during the retreat to other meditators, this was often not observed. Some people came and went quickly, never speaking to anyone, but some were friendlier and collected everyone’s email addresses, promising to keep in touch as if in summer camp. We were all obviously curious about each other. I wanted to know their reasons for being there, taking on such a rigorous and atypical venture. No one talked during meditation or near the retreat center areas, but usually at night, on the beautiful terrace overlooking Chiang Mai, after the chanting, people discussed their motivations for coming, their backgrounds and their travels around Thailand and Southeast Asia. One younger monk involved with the center often joined these conversations.
Two of the meditators were ex-pats living in Thailand with Thai wives. A South African young man and an older Dutch man had both done more intense retreats but had lost the calm they developed, so they came to practice in the isolated environment of Doi Suthep. They spoke about the strangeness of Thai rituals they had observed during their weddings and home blessings. They thought the lucky numbers and lucky directions that their wives believed in were inconvenient and silly. But like many foreigners they could connect with the mental aspects of the tradition such as meditation.
A woman from Honduras asked us what other retreats we had done in Thailand, as if we had been on an extensive circuit exploring Thailand’s best offerings. She described the different retreats she had joined, stressing the level and quality of instruction, and named Doi Suthep as one of the better experiences because of her good relationship with the teacher. She was thinking of becoming a Buddhist nun and felt Western countries had it all wrong. She would rather experience the simple monastic life of the monastery. Others came just for the experience of living in a temple and interacting with monks. A young Canadian female tourist came to Thailand because she was inexplicably fascinated by Thailand, especially Thai Buddhism. She had some meditation experience and enjoyed learning more about monks’ lifestyles and Buddhist teachings. Another young Canadian woman did no meditation; she just stayed in her room watching DVDs on her computer for a few nights and left earlier than she had intended. A young woman from Holland was traveling around Asia and had just completed a yoga retreat in Bali and wanted to try a meditation retreat as well. Sadly, she had to leave early due to unexplained allergies. Maybe it was the slew of dogs and cats roaming the temple grounds. A young Irishman had had enough of late nights drinking with his buddies and took this meditation retreat as a further symbol of his renunciation of that lifestyle.
Meeting these people made me think of the other tourists we had encountered during our trips throughout Thailand and Laos. These tourists spoke of going to the southern islands, the beach scene, the cheap beer, and other products they were able to acquire at bargain prices. The people who chose to take part in Buddhist travel and learn about Thai Buddhism as well as themselves, on the other hand, were experiencing a different level of tourism all together. Being proud of cheap finds in Thailand and relaxing on beaches seemed antithetical to what the meditation retreats offered to foreign tourists.
On our 10th and last day, we left after lunch, wanting to eat as much of the delicious vegetarian food as possible. I have to admit that I was happy to reenter the world, eat after noon, and wear makeup and colorful clothes. In fact, I went straight to the salon for a haircut and pedicure. It was too easy to reintegrate and forget the lifestyle I had just left. The restrictions of the 8 precepts faded rather quickly and it was all too effortless to get back into the hectic pace of the non-meditator’s life. Only after I left Doi Suthep did I realize how easy I had it there— no worries about spending money, choosing foods, or how to fill my time.
After reemerging into the world I kept hearing more about meditation retreat opportunities for foreigners. Buddhist tourism is becoming an important way to connect with the international community. Many foreigners may be interested in participating because Thai Buddhism seems like something mysterious and inexplicable, with monks in colorful robes everywhere they turn. Many tourists were surprised to see monks using cell phones or in malls— as if they were not modern people, but a holdover from ancient times. Monks were photographed at all of the temples, especially when they were involved in religious ceremonies; it seemed that photographing them was like capturing a moment lost in time. Yet by talking to monks and observing their lifestyles, the mystery begins to peel away. Indeed, the meditator from Honduras said she had come to realize that the monks, nuns, and priests from all traditions are “people like you and me, just trying to get by.”