Understanding what they are about, where to practice, and how to behave
by Chris Mayya
There’s more to the Land of Smiles than delicious pad thai and mango sticky rice, the rejuvenating hot springs, and Thai massages. Thailand is the one of the countries where Buddhism has been practiced for hundreds of years. If you are like most tourists, then your exposure to this facet of Thailand may end with just a visit to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha or, at the most, it will consist of marveling at the architecture of some of the famous Buddhist temples on your tour.
But if you have an interest in meditation, or feel an impulse to explore Thai Buddhism more deeply and with an open mind, then you can discover the real heart of Thailand. A sojourn at one of the many meditation retreats found throughout the country is actually a journey—into the profound hidden depths of one’s own mind; the gaining of direct and personal insights into life. Hidden beneath the Thai and Pali terms and the stories and experiences of celebrity-like monks is a wealth of meditative practices that are available for all to partake of, and experiment with. Surprisingly, the core of these teachings and practices is free from all forms of cultural, religious, and sectarian beliefs (even the self-proclaimed atheist and writer Sam Harris recently has been recommending this form of meditation to his followers). This unique form of meditation is called vipassana, translated broadly as “seeing things as they really are.” Vipassana is a Pali word. You can find a lot more information about it on the Internet, but here are some basic concepts based on its practice in Thailand.
Understanding Vipassana Meditation
One of the common myths about meditation in general is that you have to find a secluded spot, sit in a certain rigid posture with eyes shut, and disconnect from your immediate environment by using the power of concentration. While this may be true to some extent, these are not prerequisites for beginners and, certainly, not the goal of even advanced vipassana practitioners. At most of the vipassana meditation temples and centers in Thailand, meditation is taught in a way where one cultivates the faculty of awareness as opposed to concentration. At these locations, it is common to see retreatants walking, eating, and performing other everyday activities in a “mindful” manner. Seated meditation is practiced for only short but frequent periods of a half or a full hour and intermittently alternated with walking meditation. This helps to cultivate the quality of mindful awareness in all of one’s daily activities, thus making this form of meditation more popular in recent years among those living in busy societies.
Retreats in Thailand
Similar to certain Western countries, Thai culture is rooted strongly in its religious practices, and certain norms and behavior are inculcated in every Thai person beginning in childhood. But faith in Buddhism is not something that foreigners need to embrace blindly before testing out for oneself the various meditative practices. Thereby most of the retreats/monasteries welcome participants with no previous meditation experience at all. There are some monasteries/temples, however, which do not allow foreigners to stay and practice at their premises, mainly because of the communication challenges. But with increasing demand among foreign visitors, and with an earnest desire among the monks to teach them, more and more centers are conducting special English/foreign language programs with the help of translators.
Code of Conduct
Although most of these retreat centers will welcome you even if you are not a Buddhist, they will however expect you to follow certain “precepts” or rules of conduct while you are at the retreat.
Most formally conducted retreats require you to remain in silence with certain exceptions for necessary communication. To facilitate this, you are asked to hand over or shut down your phones, tablets, etc. These requirements are intended to help you to make the most of this time and to tap deeply into the inner silence of the mind.
There is also a strict rule against consuming any intoxicants with occasional exceptions for smokers. Every participant is also expected to abstain from any form of physical contact with members of opposite sex. Most monasteries where these retreats are held expect retreatants (particularly women) to maintain a certain dress code and to keep a reverential distance from the monks. In keeping with the monastery routine, meals are generally provided only in the mornings and afternoon, with no supper or just some light snacks and drinks. Of course, reasonable exceptions may be made for those with health conditions.
Choosing the Right Location and Style of Meditation
A large number of vipassana meditation practices in Thailand originally came from Burma. So in the northern part of the country, many retreat centers offer the Burmese style of vipassana, referred to as the Mahasi tradition. But, over the years, vipassana masters in Thailand have developed many “homegrown” vipassana styles.
For beginners in vipassana who are willing to put up with just basic necessities, Suan Mokk International Dhamma Hermitage (www.suanmokkh-idh.org), in the south, may be the ideal retreat. They conduct an organized English-language retreat every month, which requires no prior reservation.
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (www.fivethousandyears.org) and Wat Ram Poeng (www.watrampoeng.com), near Chiang Mai, are ideal and convenient locations for those interested in a longer retreat.
Then there are ubiquitous Goenka-style (www.dhamma.org) vipassana courses, with several centers throughout Thailand.
The Little Bangkok Sangha (www.littlebang.org), a small meditation group in the capital, is a good resource for more information on English-language meditation programs. Their website also lists various retreat locations.
There are several websites on the web listing vipassana centers. However, the information on some of them is outdated. It is better to venture forth and make some inquiries either at the temples you visit or on online forums to find the right location for your first retreat. Thailand offers you a range of opportunities on your path to self-discovery!