10 Days of Meditation and Silence at Wat Suan Mokkh, Southern Thailand.
Reflections from our time at a meditation retreat in a Thai forest monastery
It was on the evening of Day 9, arguably the most intense day of the retreat, that I almost lost it. The other eight days at Wat Suan Mokkh had also included many hours of silent meditation, but they were punctuated by short talks or chanting led by the retreat organizers. But Day 9 was the kicker, designed to give us a true taste of the monastic life —only one meal (breakfast), with the entirety of the schedule being just sitting, standing, or walking meditation, broken up by short breaks for chores or personal time.
It was around dusk, and our group of 100 was sitting in the main meditation hall. We had been there about 45 minutes when I felt a slight tickle on my toe. After doing meditation for nine days straight, your body becomes highly attuned to even the smallest sensation. I thought it was a mosquito or an ant and decided to pay it no mind, as our instructors had taught us. But the slight tickle quickly evolved into a 4-legged total tickle, and I realized that I had a small gecko crawling on my lower leg. Grateful for any sort of entertainment during this marathon day, I laser-focused all my mental energy on the gecko, following its every minute movement. The gecko must have realized I was tracking it, for it embarked on a total exploration of my body. From one leg to another. Up the stomach and then jumping over to a hand. Slowly climbing the forearm to the upper arm. And then the shoulder and neck. Over the ear until it finally rested on my left cheekbone.
I don’t know how long it stayed on my face— could have been 30 seconds or 5 minutes (by Day 9, everything at the retreat seems to turn into a time warp). I do know that as the gecko gradually explored my body, I became overcome with a feeling of total hilarity. This wasn’t a feeling of ‘oh, an animal is tickling me, that feels funny’. It was more a feeling of the absolute cosmic absurdity of life, of the plain strangeness of the retreat we were doing. By training my body and mind so intensely for nice days, I could get to the point where a gecko is unafraid to crawl over my body, and I would not be compelled to move or scare it off. I started giggling to myself, trying to keep silent, not wanting to be the guy who busts out laughing in the middle of the meditation session. But I couldn’t hold it in, and the body started shaking. And then the gecko jumped off, leaving me with an afterglow feeling of absurdity and being a bit blessed, but also breaking the spell of the retreat and making me wonder what was truly going on here.
Wat Suan Mokkh and the International Retreat Center were founded by Achan Buddhadhasa (means ‘The Slave of the Buddha’). He is a renowned figure in Thai Buddhism, and also seems to be a national icon. The international retreat center was founded with the purpose of sharing Buddhism and the practice of meditation with foreigners. For a donation of only 2000 baht (around $60) you get meditation instruction, food, and lodging for 10 days, all in a beautifully isolated forest monastery complex.
When we arrived, we were welcomed by cordial yet straightforward Western volunteers, who explained the many rules of the retreat. Two vegetarian meals a day (breakfast and lunch), plus teatime in the afternoon. You are not allowed to speak during the retreat, except for designated Q&A periods.
You get a private room, and sleep on wooden platform with wooden pillow — designed to not let you overly indulge in sleep throughout your stay. The schedule is:
wake up at 4:30 am;
listen to a dharma talk;
listen to another dharma talk;
walking and sitting meditation;
walking and sitting meditation;
chanting and loving-kindness meditation;
and finally bedtime at 9:30 pm.
Repeat for 10 days, with slight variations for Q&A and more intense periods like Day 9.
There were pages and pages of more rules and guidelines, and I could probably summon a lot of them up by memory. But, without going into these, the point is probably clear: “Discipline can be liberating”. I think at the outset many of us were averse to all these rules and the sensually restrictive way of living. But after getting used to the wooden pillow and early rising, I found it all refreshing and a bit freeing. It released you from thinking about anything, of how you should act or what you should do at a certain moment. The decision-making side of the mind became pacified and settled down, and I found that when I had free time, I was happy to merely sit and do nothing. (Not that I had the choice to do anything else though, as we were forbidden to bring electronics, books, journals, or any other distractions to the retreat).
The first few days seemed incredibly long, probably a result of the multitude of thoughts buzzing around in the mind, and just getting used to the spartan schedule. But once we reached Day 4 or 5, everything fell into a rhythm. People had their routine, and would sit in the same spot for every meal, or pace the same path during walking meditation. You start to look forward to even the smallest sensual pleasures — the visit to the hot springs in the evening, or a tasty curry during lunch. With so much mental energy freed up, it is inevitable that you’ll divert it somewhere, as much as you’d like to devote yourself entirely to being mindful and living in the present moment. I would start making up nicknames for other retreat participants, and predicting their daily habits — it’s amazing how routine a human being’s day can become.
And, in spite of (or maybe because of?) the sleep deprivation and bug bites, the minimalist facilities and never-ending meditation sessions (‘when is he going to ring that damn bell?’...‘He is an evil, evil man...’), a sense of peace settles upon you. I became very sad at a few points during the retreat, because I realized how difficult it would be for me to find this depth of tranquility at future points of my life. Even if you meditate for 3 hours a day, it will still be nothing like this, like staying in the middle of the isolated forest, with nothing to do but live in the present, your voyage guided by Buddhist monks with decades of experience.
Then, in the blink of an eye, it is all over. Day 11 comes before you know it and everyone is standing awkwardly around the dining hall, allowed to speak, and trying to think of something meaningful to say to each other instead of the typical ‘where are you from’ or ‘where are you going next?’.
The fact that the retreat seemed so long yet so short is, in essence, one of the main lessons we learned during our time at Suan Mokkh— that the only constant in life is change. Letting your mind dwell in the past is only revisiting dead moments, and allowing yourself to be ‘bitten by time’. To drive this point home, we had the unique opportunity to view, on our departure day, a cremation that was taking place at the main monastery grounds. One of our teachers told us that this was a most auspicious coincidence — she could never remember a time when Day 11 had lined up with a cremation. The person being cremated was a very well-respected monk from the community, and thousands of people attended the ceremony. This wasn’t a normal funeral, though, but an open air cremation — the body being burned on an open pyre in the middle of a large field. Strangely, this was the second time of our trip seeing such an open cremation. The first was going by the Manikarnika Ghats on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi.
The contemplation of death like this — seeing a body burn and decompose before your very eyes — is a profound exercise and a lesson that I know will stay with me for a long time. To realize that you will inevitably die someday, that you could easily die at any moment, is the most powerful medicine for getting over any dissatisfaction or suffering or problem in life. I learned many things at Suan Mokkh, but this may be the most important — gratitude for being alive, and the conviction to live a meaningful and beautiful life, whatever that turns out to be.