I recently finished my fourth Vipassana Silent Meditation Retreat at the beautiful Suan Mokkh International Dhamma Hermitage in Thailand.
For anyone who is interested in doing this, I wanted to share some of my insights and experiences from this retreat.
The first time I did a Vipassana Retreat was back in January 2005, just after the December 2004 South East Asian Tsunami that wrecked great swathes of Asia from India to Indonesia on boxing day in 2004. I did that retreat at Wat Kow Tham on the island of Koh Phangan (where I am writing this from now) and the island was not affected by the tsunami, thanks to its location in the Gulf of Thailand.
That very first retreat was very eye opening for me as I saw that the source of all of my unhappiness was my own mind. That is not to say that things that happened to us – traumatic experiences that most people have had, are not real and don’t leave lasting impressions – they are and they do, but it is up to us to process them and be free from them so that we can live in the present and not the past.
What I discovered on that very first retreat, is that if you are haunted by your memories, then you are living in the past, and if you mind is constantly feeding you negativity, then your mind is stopping you from living in the present and creating a veil that separates you from your present life.
I arrived this time at Suan Mokkh, without too many expectations, just a desire to have some time dedicated to my inner work, in the company of others.
I got to Wat Suan Mokkh monastery the day before the retreat started, and stayed a night, before heading over to the International Dhamma Hermitage on the morning of November 30th. I had already met a few of my fellow participants at the monastery, and during the registration process at the centre, I met a few more. People came from all over the place; Europe, North America and Asia, but I didn’t meet any fellow Australians.
Everyone was at the retreat for different reasons, but at the same time the main reason was seem to be to take time for clarity and to find meaning and purpose in their life.
It was interesting being back in a monastic environment. I was reminded of the importance of hard seats – all the benches in the dining hall at Suan Mokkh are concrete, and the chairs are wooden and there are no cushions!
One of the precepts (the rules that govern etiquette and behaviour) that the monks take states that they are not to sleep in luxurious or ‘high’ beds. This means they are not to have things which most of us don’t consider luxurious, like mattresses to sleep on. I was interested to see if what I had heard about Suan Mokkh was true: that you were given a wooden ‘pillow’! A very interesting re-frame of the concept of a pillow, which to me is something soft, and comforting, definitely not made from a block of wood.
The registration process is quite straightforward – you check in with your passport number and name, and pay the fee of 2000 Baht (about AUD $100), and then you are given a bag with a mosquito net and a blanket, and assigned a room number. The womens’ dormitory is a four sided building constructed around a central courtyard, with toilets at one end. There are about 50 rooms in total. I chose a room not far from the toilets.
At first it seemed like it would be quite a small retreat, but people kept showing up in the afternoon, just a few hours before the 3pm cut off time for registrations. We were given wifi access for a few hours, so I was able to finish some online work, and call my Dad in Melbourne who had recently come out of hospital. We then handed in our valuables, and I deposited my laptop and my iphone, two of the tools of my trade that just might tempt me to open up and start writing if I had them in my room with me.
I was speaking to him as 3pm came around and suddenly our conversation was cutoff. Then a German friend I had met the day before turned towards me and said: ‘and now in a few minutes we will all turn into zombies!’ looking right to left (as if checking for any early Zombies) and then breaking out laughing.
We were given instructions from the head nun at the centre:
- keep the silence,
- no smoking,
- no drinking,
- no going into anyone else’s room
- no reading and writing other than of the retreat materials (mostly Ajahn Buddhadasa’s books) and
- no leaving the retreat grounds during the retreat.
We were then told to go and set ourselves up in our rooms before coming back for the formal introduction. I got to my room which was just close enough to the toilets without being too close. And I looked over and there it was: the famous wooden pillow!
It was a block of wood which was carved out with a round head shaped impression on one side. The idea was that it supported your head and so, voila! – no need for an actual pillow. Yes, maybe for a very austere nun, but definitely not for me!
On registration I had written my profession as yoga teacher, and one of the teachers, Khun Tai, had asked me if I would like to teach the yoga class for the retreat. I accepted but ended up getting quite sick with bronchitis, so I had to stop teaching half way through. Was this my Kilesas (defilements) coming out in a physical way as I progressed deeper into meditation? I asked Khun Tai in the Q & A Session and she said yes, possibly.
The first evening we were welcomed by the Abbot of the centre, Ajahn Po, who was given the position of heading up the international retreats by the founder of Wat Suan Mokkh, the renowned Thai monk, Ajahn Buddhadasa.
Ajahn Buddhadasa was a legendary Thai monk who ordained at the age of 20 and by age 30 he was already setting up what would become Thailand’s southernmost forest monastery, Wat Suan Mokkh (‘Garden of Liberation’).
He gave himself the name Buddhadasa, which means ‘Slave of the Buddha’ in Pali, and lived his life according to this name. He is famous for his nightly Dhamma talks offered to all and sundry who would sit around him as he expounded the Dhamma from his concrete chair in front of his house not far from the entrance to the monastery.
Buddhadasa had three aims in life, which are posted on the information board at the Dhamma Hermitage.
- Those who claim to follow any religious tradition should understand and practice according to the essential teaching.
- Those who belong to one religion should respect other religions.
- We should all unite against materialism, which is connected directly or indirectly with greed, hatred and delusion.
Ajahn Po was in his fifties when the centre was inaugurated in 1993, and was about to turn 88 when we met him. He was still energetic, had a great lotus posture (cross legged with both each foot resting on the the opposite thigh and facing upwards) in meditation, and sat with us in meditation at least once a day.
Though his English was difficult to understand, he very sweetly apologised for this, explaining that he was ‘self-taught and self-trained’ in the English language. He mentioned some of the points which would be repeated many times throughout the retreat: Dukkha, Ana Pana Sati, mindfulness, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path. Essentially, the abc’s of Buddhism and the stepping stones that, if studied and practiced carefully, should lead one to Nibbana or Nirvana – the land of freedom from suffering according to the Buddha.
On day one, the bell rang at 4am. It was a loooong bell. Given how sleepy most people are at this time, the bell rang out rhythmically for about ten minutes. After about 5 minutes I managed to roll myself off the hard concrete slab bed with my improvised ‘mattress’ of two yoga mats, and switch the light on. I breathed and stretched, went to brush my teeth and got ready for the first session. As I opened the door it was lovely to see people with their lanterns (we had all been given a metal candle holder with a handle and a candle that served as a lantern for anyone who didn’t have a torch) slowly filing out of the building and out into the night, heading on the sandy road to the meditation hall.
As people swayed slowly, noiselessly crossing the grass and coming into the meditation hall, which was lit by six huge yellow candles about 15 centimetres wide and about a metre high on each side of the hall, it felt very much like a meeting for spiritual communion. Everyone slowly got settled into their allocated place, on a hessian sack, topped with a small square cushion as a base and some extra cushions for sitting on. And then Khun Tai, one of the team of teachers for the retreat, welcomed us all into the morning of “a fresh new day, and a new life”.
Mindfulness of Breathing
Khun Tai spoke of Ana – Pana – Sati – mindfulness with breathing, or mindfulness of breathing, whichever one you want to call it.
Ana pana sati is Pali, the language spoken in India at the time of the Buddha. Most of Buddhist terminology is in Pali, especially in Theravada (Thai) Buddhism. It translates literally as ‘breath in, breath out, mindfulness’.
This is the essence of the teaching of Vipassana (another Pali word that translates as ‘clear seeing’ or ‘insight’). It is all about sitting quietly and becoming the observer of your breath. Amazing that this could be so difficult. So difficult, that in each session of about 45 minutes, most people in the hall would change posture at least once (usually a few times) and invariably a few would get up and switch to walking meditation.
Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta
Behind the meditation hall there are three ponds, representing Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta, the three ‘markers of existence’ in Buddhism; namely impermanence, suffering or ‘unsatisfactoriness’ and not-self.
These are the central tenents of Buddhist philosophy and were one of the first things that the Buddha taught people after his awakening or enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.
Though Dukkha can be understood in many different ways, from the suffering of loss (of a loved one, of a job, of a house, of a spouse) to suffering that comes from sickness or from not getting something that you want, what I noticed during my sitting meditations was that just having a mind that is constantly thinking thoughts is suffering in itself. Especially if you pay attention to it. If you really engage with your thinking mind (or ‘monkey mind’) you will quickly notice it changing from one thought to the next, one decision to the next, one judgement to the next in quick succession. Freedom arises when you are able to detach from the thought-stream and just be the witness to your mind’s mental acrobatics.
I personally find walking meditation to be easier when it comes to becoming very focused on the present moment, whereas sitting meditation is more likely to help me to access the Janas or the higher realms of consciousness that you get a glimpse of when you are able to rest in a place beyond thoughts.
In the middle pond, there is a small island, with a concrete path leading up to it. During one of our sessions Khun Tai explained that the concrete path I had been walking on each day represented the Noble Eightfold Path (the eight steps to enlightenment as outlined by the Buddha) and the island represented Nirvana (‘heaven’ or freedom from suffering). Little did I know I had been walking to and from Nirvana each day :).
One of the best things about this retreat is the amazing hot springs on the property. Natural mineral springs are common in this part of Southern Thailand, and this spring just happens to come all the way to the retreat. There are seperate bathing areas for men and women – I managed to sneak a look at the men’s area and found the womens to be the most beautiful – the pool is surrounded by trees with a few coconut trees on the edge. Each morning after breakfast and chores about ten of the women would regularly bathe here, enjoying the heat of the water soaking into bones which have been sitting in meditation posture many hours.
Every time I do a meditation retreat – and this was my fourth long retreat, and I notice myself and all of the other participants struggling to sit still in just one posture for a whole 45 minute session, I am reminded of the quote from French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
It seems like such a simple thing, to just sit down and be with yourself, with whatever is arising within you, but oddly enough, it’s one of the most difficult things a person can do. So much of our lives we spend running from ourselves in some way, by reaching out for external things to make us feel OK inside. Knowing this, I was really impressed at the tenacity of this particular group of people, where of the seventy or so participants, almost everyone stayed until the end.
It is always a funny experience speaking to people who you have shared silent space with for ten days. And then also noticing the ideas you may have developed about them during the silent period which are perhaps totally different to how they are when you talk with them. I often also notice a reluctance to come out of the silence, because it is such a lovely spacious and welcoming way to be with people. But then you also get the benefit of becoming more conscious of what you say when you start to speak, which is generally helpful in communication.
Retreat Registration Process
10 Day Silent Vipassana Retreats start on the 1st of the month every month, and run until the 10th. Registration is a day before, and closes by 3pm. Fixed cost all included is 2000 Thai Baht, and donations are also welcome.
International Dhamma Hermitage website: https://www.suanmokkh-idh.org/
Getting to Suan Mokkh International Dhamma Hermitage
The centre is located about 50 kilometres from Surat Thani, and about 20 kilometres from the town of Chaiya. There are train stations in both of these towns, with trains running to and from Bangkok, and also up from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. From Surat Thani station you can get a Songthaew for 50 Baht to the monastery, and from Chaiya it will cost you about 20 Baht.
What to Bring
Important items on the retreat are a torch (although everyone is also issued with the lovely metal candle lantern which serves you well if you forget your talk. A sarong is also important for bathing in the hot spring and doubles as a towel for the bathroom. A yoga mat will help or a blow up mattress if sleeping on a concrete slab sounds a bit daunting for you. And then some good shoes (for the mud in wet season which is long in Southern Thailand) as well as a raincoat.