Guna here. I just finished five days of Buddhist Vipassana meditation training. In this article I hope I will give you a little glimpse of how this experience turned out for me. I will not dwell too much on the personal lessons learnt and the tears left on the Doi Suthep Mountain (ดอยสุเทพ) in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Preparation for the training
Almost on top of the mountain, there is the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Buddhist temple where the monks live and have set up an international Buddhism Centre. The training is given in both English and Thai. When I was there, it was only us, the ‘farang’, there so it all was in English. The minimum stay is four days and can last up to 21 days for the initial training course. One can also arrange an additional extension of 13-days. To participate, one should apply here.
Before you go, you must receive a confirmation email. This might take a while so send a reminder if necessary.
You will need a few white mandatory garments. I bought a white long-sleeve linen jacket in a Chiang Mai market. Two buttons came off on the second day, making this an inappropriate piece of clothing, and no one had a needle and a thread to fix this. So next time I would buy some important clothing item with buttons, I will restich them myself, just to be on the safe side. I also got a thin long-sleeve cotton shirt plus the Thai-style fishermen pants. I left the jacket at the dormitory when I left and that is a common practice with all the items one uses during the training so you might be able to pick up a cup for tea and a wrist-watch like I did. These items, of course, were left for the next persons to use.
If one does not have any white decent for a temple (not transparent, strappy etc) clothes at hand already, all that can be bought in Chiang Mai. The centre suggested going to the Flower Market, I had a market near our hotel where I found everything (pants, jacket and a shirt for 500 baht (13 EUR / 15 USD).
You can see all the items they suggest taking with you on the Center’s webpage.
I was smart and had some unmentioned practical items like toilet paper with me, too. There is a little shop you can buy personal hygiene products, but it is open only 7 AM to noon and is already closed when check-in happens so one might encounter a problematic situation on the first evening and might make new friends already when looking for any urgently needed supplies.
Getting to the meditation centre
Admission starts from 12:30 PM and finishes at 2 PM. Me and the family planned our scooter ride to the base of the mountain, to be followed by a songthaew ride up the mountain, with what we thought was a sufficient time buffer. The plan was that the kids and Kristaps are coming with me to the temple, take a look around and then go back.
Unfortunately, the songthaews at the Chiang Mai University “terminus” don’t cooperate and after waiting for 40 minutes in vain we jump on the scooter and head for the next stop – the Chiang Mai Zoo. At first, no luck at the next stop either. The problem with songthaews is that these modified pickup trucks only go when there are enough people, usually 8, but it was only 6 of us. As it was already noon and the kids needed to nap soon, no zoo appointment for them that day either and back to the hotel they go. I waited with a young couple who wanted to go to some waterfalls. In the end, one driver (who so reminded me of the Harry Potter’s night bus driver) offered to take the three of us for 50 baht each. A great deal for me, not so much for the couple, but they graciously accept as they “just want to get going”.
The drive up the hill is vomit-inducingly steep and curved. By the time we get to the temple, I feel I have been in a washing machine spin cycle (25min of nausea is no fun). Then some 300 steps up the stairs and a surprising encounter with a tortoise in an absolutely unlikely place (that I take as a sign that I really should slow down) I make it to the meditation centre.
Living near the temple
There are signs all over the training centre compound asking guests not to talk. It seems a bit strange because how else are we to greet others. This etiquette is soon made easy as a smile is always the best way how to greet anyone. It is actually nice that talking is not welcomed here. Some take this very seriously and some have established relationships and whisper among themselves and really do not disturb the others.
I am a chatty person and a lot of the chats happen in my head. This is why I am here – to learn to cope, as mostly those are worries that happen in my mind. That brings me to the anxiety and the vicious cycle begins anew.
There is a rule of not using the phone.
Almost everyone is still doing that, including me. But it is done with a rather low success rate as the centre is located in a place where the reception is patchy (a generous evaluation). I get to send and receive occasionally WhatsApp text messages, but no pictures or web pages are come through either way.
There are also a few other rules we have to follow (see the copy of the leaflet).
We, the newcomers of the day, are given a meditation presentation. The main idea – don’t worry when thoughts arise and one begins talking in their mind, planning, thinking, worrying. The Vipassana meditation calls for mindfulness and that means “to know”.
When thoughts come up, acknowledge them by identifying and saying in one’s mind “Thinking. Thinking. Thinking.” And move on.
Don’t try to stop yourself forcefully to stop thinking. This will only make you to feel anger, annoyance, disappointment, even guilt or shame. Acknowledge and move on. And do this as many times as you needs. The same goes for the emotions one encounters while meditating. Identify the situation (hungry, bored, angry, tired, in pain, joyful, happy, doubtful, worried, regretful, sleepy etc.) and move on.
It is a bit strange to see the people in white slowly walking around the compound. This feeling will soon fade as I join them.
There are dogs and cats in the compound. The dogs are a bit too scary for me. I also encountered a thin long snake at the noon near the meditation room. As it is on the top of a jungle, there are all kinds of living creatures sneaking in the premises. I had my personal lizard in the room, for example.
There are four buildings, each with ten single private rooms in two storeys and a few toilets and showers on each floor. I was able to get only cold water in my showers, so it was again a new learning experience but you use what you have.
The morning – wake-up at 5 AM and the gathering at 5:30 AM – starts with the Dhamma talks when the teacher speaks on various themes, but the main ideas conveyed are these:
- we all want to be happy
- negative emotions like anger, impatience etc. come from within and not because someone did something to you
- being mindful takes time, but practice practice practice
- practice with loving kindness in your heart and react to the world with it, too.
It is sometimes very hard to follow the teacher’s train of thought for two reasons – firstly, the English is challenging to understand and, secondly, the initial agenda he tells us he will talk about is not really followed, he speaks of stories that seem to have no link to the initial theme. As I try to make sense of the connections he might be intending, it takes a lot of mental power.
There are two meals during the day – breakfast and lunch.
At each meal the first serving is brought to the teacher by the kitchen helpers, then they ring a bronze bell and we all are invited to eat. Eating solid food after noon is not allowed officially. That is the practice the monks follow and therefore in this environment we are asked to do the same. It is surprisingly easy to follow this rule.
I only go to fetch a fruit smoothie (that and tea, milk, water is ok) on my first day as I had my lunch just before check-in at noon. On latter days it is anyway too taxing to go find the smoothie as one has to climb the stairs to the temple, then go down the 300-something steps to the street level (if you can call it that at the top of a mountain) and then do the same thing in reverse. Nah, I was good. =)
Evening chanting is done at 6 PM and everyone comes to the hall. There is a printout with phonetically transcribed chants. The first evening it feels weird to chant the words in Thai, but this actually became my favourite part of the day and I was looking forward to three specific chants. My best meditations were after the chanting (evening meditation period started at 7 PM until 9 PM when the day ended).
On the last evening I went up to the temple to see it at night and one of the fellow meditators came with me. We were lucky to hear a monk chanting in one of the temple parts all on his own.
I know many might be interested what were they providing us to eat. So here is what we had:
- Breakfast (taken at 7 AM): rice with sauteed cabbage with egg and some kind of supposedly vegetarian “meat”. This same substance will come up in each meal. I must admit I have no idea what that was – looked like some big batch of a sausage. We also had clear soup and rice with pieces of soya and rice noodles with cabbage.
- Lunch (at 11 AM and is the last meal of the day): rice with two kinds of soupy sauces with cabbage and the “meat sausage”. In addition we had sweet soup with boiled mung beans. The sauce was boiled cucumbers and pieces of an omlette, beans, super spicy sauce with some exotic-looking green leaves, mushrooms and tofu. On some days we had spicy glass noodle salad, soupy sauces with green beans and cabbage.
I hope that this gives an idea. Mostly it is white rice and soupy sauces with a bit of some vegetables. The food is spicy contrary to the description on the webpage. Everything is edible and even tasty.
Weirdly enough, to keep this schedule and not feel hungry was not hard at all. The only thing started to wonder about was how monks keep up their health, as this diet – low amounts of fresh vegetables and no fruit, insignificant amount of soups, boiled rice twice a day – can’t be good for you. But maybe this is a culture thing as it seems to work for them.
While speaking of food, I got a bit of a trouble when on the third day when the girls who were leaving left a box of tea for the rest of us to use. Turned out it was senna tea. That is an excellent tea to drink if one has constipation. But if one does not have such a problem, then it is a very bad tea to drink indeed. I spent the next two days feeling completely out of sorts digestion-wise. However, the hygiene in the kitchen might have contributed to my overall miserableness. The meditators wash their own dishes after the meals, but that is done with no-idea-where-it-comes-from cold running water with some very old sponges and a strange washing paste. So even if you do your best on your own used dish, you have no guarantee the others have done the same when you get their plate and utensils in the next meal. Another girl that I happened to leave the training with said she had an upset stomach all the time she was in the centre. She has spent two months in Thailand already and has had no issues at all before. So that is one of the two problems I had with the technicalities at the centre.
The other issue was the shameful untidiness of the compound and offering places/small temples in the meditation room/chapel where the flower wreaths had gone literally rotten with no one taking those away or replacing. This did NOT align well with my understanding of how one takes care of the environment they are daily in and cherish.
The technique for walking meditation is changed daily after the 5-minute individual pep talk from the teacher. Therefore it is common to see 8 people in one mediation room walking 8 different ways. I got my best/easiest results from the day 4 routine: heel up – pause – foot up – pause – foot forward – pause – foot down – pause.
I usually was able to do only six to seven meditation sessions every day.
A session is made up of 15 minutes of walking meditation followed immediately by a 15 minutes of sitting meditation.
At one point I felt I need to do some manual work so I started sweeping the chapel. That is something I continued doing daily.
The planning of the day is left at everyone’s personal preferences with only a few set times:
- 5:30 AM Dhamma talk
- 7 AM breakfast
- 11 AM lunch
- 12:30 PM reporting to the teacher and receiving next step of instructions
- 6 PM chanting
This leaves ample time for actual practising of meditation. The first two days I needed to nap. Believe me, it is hard work to focus one’s monkey brain. Totally worth it, though.
Practicing meditation all day long is quite hard on one’s body – the back and legs are cramping up, become stiff and ache. The soles of the feet somehow become more sensitive, even when being barefoot is nothing new to me. And such intense focus on one’s mind also brings mental exhaustion. I actually had a nap every day.
One of the “aha” moments for me was during one the Dhamma talk – the negative emotions (anger, fear) come from our impatience. We should strive to be more like potters (not Harry, unfortunately) as we guide our thoughts and mind and not try to force it. Just like when the potter is guiding the clay.
As I was leaving the centre, I had a hopeful feeling of my ability to keep my mind calm and dedicated to practice the ‘loving kindness’ way of thinking, but I must admit that as soon as I was in the hustle of the city and traffic and people, that serene feeling of ‘here and now’ was lost. But I will continue practising. I will continue to wake up at 5 am and meditate and read as well as bring to life other plans I have had. I recommend that you look up ‘Miracle morning’ for your own inspiration.
I am daily fighting my great sin – judging others. For example, many girls carry either bags or sachets with them at all times. I ask myself why would they possibly need it. But that is not the question. I think my most important lesson learned in all the days I spent there is expressed in two words “loving kindness”. Why am I gossiping in my head about the purses of these women? That is their business. I try to work on it during the day and meditate with loving kindness in my heart.
I, most probably, am a people-junkie. I had to go up to the temple every day, just to be among other active people. Maybe I was running away from my thoughts and solitude. But I would not have guessed beforehand that I will choose to be among chatty tourists and not to stay in one’s room or meditate.
This is not truly meditation-related, but always remember to check your shoes after you finish the meditation session (the shoes are left outside at the room door). Also always check for spiders, scorpions etc. before you use the meditation cushions. Nature is right there outside and it likes to come see what’s going on inside. The same goes for entering any dark spaces, even if it’s your own room with a screen door and windows – always switch the light on before going in and, preferably, wear shoes.
There is one creature in the woods that makes a strange sound, similar to when at the dental hygienist the ultrasound cleaning is done – you know, that ear-and-mind-numbing sound. It is distracting at first, but strangely helps when I went into ‘the zone’ during meditation.
Buddhist meditation training is definitively something one should try.
I will try to attend other training centres in the region. I previously had tried to folllow Youtube guided meditations. I had never tried a walking meditation and generally, I am a person who is very risk-aware and stresses out about all the possible situations and scenarios. This new practice is what I am hoping to be able to stick to – now three mornings/days have passed since I left the center and so far, so good. It really does help me to focus on what matters most – being a person who loves and is kind to those who are around me, in immediate or not so immediate contact. To be able to accept the love that is given to me without keeping scores. To be ‘here’ and ‘now’ as that truly is the only place and time there is.
On the first day, I felt strange and not belonging at the meditation training.
On the second day, I had a wonderful session when I really felt how I was there, being present, but not ranting in my head about the possible future or current issues.
The third day was difficult, I could not find my groove, but I stuck to practising anyway and had a great break-through moment in relation to old pains.
On the fourth day, I was very comfortable and though I was not clearing my head as well as I wanted it to happen, I was not stressing about it or forcing, but also I did not give up. Instead, some reflections about my own reactions to certain situations were swirling in my mind and I had some good insights of how to overcome the hurtful ones.
The fifth day was the last one and only lasted 5 AM to 9 AM, but it was a hopeful day.
If you want to take this training, write to firstname.lastname@example.org by following these instructions.
How much does it cost
The training is done for free, but you are expected to donate. On your check-out day the first paper you will be given is a Donation Form. There is no pressure though, any amount should do. I think that nobody will be frowned upon if the donation is not terribly high.
Items to take with you
Follow the guidelines on the webpage plus add some more items:
- Toilet paper.
- A bedsheat or two. Both rooms I saw in the beginning had dirty sheets. Thank goodness for my travel towel which Kristaps had bought in a gigantic size. We didn’t buy these for our trip, but these cocoon travel sheets now seem to be a really good idea when sleeping rough in SE Asia.
- Some medicine. The least, take pills for an upset stomach and headaches.
- A cup, maybe. I had an inherited cup for my evening teas, and you can borrow some in the kitchen, but your own cup might increase the comfort a bit.
Other than this, everything else you might need is there as as there is not much of what one needs when meditating in a simple environment. Not to forget, I used my phone as a torch, alarm clock and as a stopwatch.
A final suggestion
I really would like to recommend wholeheartedly this book – Dalai Lama’s conversations with Archbishop Tutu in “The book of Joy”.
I started reading it while in the meditation centre and it is absolutely amazing. An extract below to show you how wonderful it is:
“One great question underlies our existence,” the Dalai Lama had said before the trip. “What is the purpose of life? After much consideration, I believe that the purpose of life is to find happiness. It does not matter whether one is a Buddhist like me, or a Christian like the Archbishop, or any other religion, or no religion at all. From the moment of birth, every human being wants to discover happiness and avoid suffering. No differences in our culture or our education or our religion affect this. From the very core of our being, we simply desire joy and contentment. But so often these feelings are fleeting and hard to find, like a butterfly that lands on us and then flutters away. The ultimate source of happiness is within us. Not money, not power, not status. Some of my friends are billionaires, but they are very unhappy people. Power and money fail to bring inner peace. Outward attainment will not bring real inner joyfulness. We must look inside. Sadly, many of the things that undermine our joy and happiness we create ourselves. Often it comes from the negative tendencies of the mind, emotional reactivity, or from our inability to appreciate and utilize the resources that exist within us. The suffering from a natural disaster we cannot control, but the suffering from our daily disasters we can. We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, the perspectives, and the reactions we bring to situations and to our relationships with other people. When it comes to personal happiness there is a lot that we as individuals can do.”