An Introduction to Vipassana and Buddhism in Chiang Mai
Every Tuesday afternoon in Chiang Mai meditation masters and those curious about welcoming the healing practice into their lives gather at the modest monk chat facility tucked behind the golden Buddhist temple of Wat Suan Dok.
Those interested in learning more about the teachings of the Buddha, the Buddhist way of life, Thai culture, or challenging themselves to meditate for over five hours a day while maintaining silent won’t want to miss the chance to participate in the two-day/one-night Monk Chat Meditation Retreat Workshop. The overnight silent meditation retreat in Chiang Mai is a fantastic introduction to Vipassana and Buddhism.
The sacred temple shares grounds with an ancient royal burial ground and the local college for Buddhist monks, nuns, and lay students.
Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University isn’t even the full name of the school–fortunately, it’s more commonly referred to as MCU. Students at the university don’t just study the teachings of Lord Buddha but can take a course in whatever they wish to study.
MCU is one of the most affordable universities in Thailand, a full degree cost just 3,000 baht which is less than US$100. Novice monks from around the continent of Asia move to Chiang Mai, Thailand to study at MCU.
At each weekly meditation retreat, a few novice monks are invited to join in on the practice. During my time young monks from Laos and Myanmar joined the program.
The course I attended was led by the honorable Phra KK. When I learned the name of the monk who’d be leading the introduction to Vipassana in Chiang Mai that I attended I was stunned. I call my aunt who survived the Hyatt Collapse KK and knew that I was meant to be exactly where I was in that moment.
Phra means monk and KK is the nickname he was given by his late mother who tragically died when he was just seven. His father then died when he was 12. Like many orphans in Southeast Asia, Phra KK learned that he could ease his sufferings by following the teachings of Buddha. When he was 13 he became a monk and has been studying and practicing Buddhism for the last 16 years. For the last few years, he’s been operating an orphanage for children in hopes to help their lives as so many helped his.
Unlike many other monks, Phra KK never left monkhood once he joined. It’s perfectly acceptable for monks to leave and return. Some novice monks can’t resist the temptations of laymen life and leave when they feel that they may break some of the 200+ rules that they’re meant to follow including abstinence and avoiding narcotics. Monks are humans just like the rest of us and struggle to maintain control at times.
Phra KK is extraordinary and has spent upwards of a month in nearly constant meditation in the jungle.
Although he’s been a practicing Buddhist monk for many years Phra KK never judged or had negative opinions towards my fellow participants that challenged his ideas and brought up scandalous examples such as hard drug use, sexual assault, and my own queries about extremist monks who lead aggressions towards Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
Through his example, Phra KK was teaching us that we’ll suffer less if we lead a life where we don’t judge others or have expectations about their behavior.
My overnight introduction to Vipassana was shared with 25 other international students from around the globe. The class was mainly attended by westerners from the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, and France as well as a single traveler from Japan and another from China. Most had never tried meditation before or had struggled for years to quiet their monkey mind, like me. Others had attended several of the more challenging 10-day Vipassana courses and had been meditating for years. Although we were all at different points in our journey with meditation there was a sense of community as we all had taken a step towards improving our lives simply by showing up at Wat Suan Dok for the retreat.
The authentic cultural program begins on the grounds of Wat Suan Dok in a room adorned with Buddha images. Phra KK began by presenting a basic introduction to Thai Buddhist framework and is on hand to answer any guests participants may have. He explained that Buddhism is an examination of living in peace and happiness through balance.
Phra KK explained to us that Buddhism is not a religion, it’s philosophy. Buddhism follows similar principles that can be found in other religions though such as the golden rule of doing unto others what you want to be done onto yourself.
Because of this, anyone of any creed can become Buddhist. The most common crossover is likely Buddhist Hindus as Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, of course, was born in northern India in a place which is now known as Lumbini, Nepal. Buddha was born into a Brahmin family and was raised with the Hindu religion. This is vastly apparent in the many aspects of Hinduism that can be found in Buddhist teachings and beliefs such as meditation, cremation, and reincarnation.
Siddhartha Gautama left the palace when he was a young man and witnessed immense suffering for the first time as he saw many people in poverty and elderly dying. He wondered why must we suffer? What is the cause of suffering and how can we remove it? He’d been raised lavishly and renounced his regal title and left his family in order to begin to detach and seek the truth. Even with luxury, he realized that suffering is imminent as those who have everything will still desire more which is a form of suffering. It is inaccurate that the more we get the happier we will be. Siddhartha Gautama spent six years in the forest to learn how to remove suffering from his life, most notable are the 49 days he spent fasting in the forest. This is often depicted in images of the emaciated Buddha.
Buddhist followers turn to the teachings of Buddha to learn how to do good and avoid bad to purify the mind. This is a practical method for liberating oneself from suffering. Phra KK approaches the serious topic of suffering from a delightful sense of humor that lightened up the room and allowed everyone to naturally open up to the transformative experience we were about to embark on together. He explained that suffering is true for every human, regardless of lifestyle, wealth, or other external circumstances.
Phra KK tells us that we must investigate and know suffering before we can eliminate and live a life that is full of happiness, peace, and love. Devout Buddhists have freed themselves from greed, hatred, craving, illusion and other attachments. We are the cause of our own suffering due to our attachments and ego. This mentality is best described as when we think to ourselves “I want this” or “I didn’t get that.” It’s incredibly challenging but once we can release ourselves from the grasp of the “I” mentality we can set our souls free and feel truly relaxed in our minds and bodies. Phra KK explained to us that it is natural to suffer, but it’s also a choice. As humans, our suffering comes from within and can only be removed through conscious healing within.
What I struggle with is suffering for the pain of others. I haven’t been able to figure out how to be empathetic and compassionate without suffering. I feel that generosity often stems from empathy about others suffering. Phra KK explained that this must be done through control of the mind and that we can help others purely through love without pain. I personally also find it challenging to form intimate relationships without attachments and have suffered quite a lot over the last few months as I try to mend my broken heart. I have a lot of work to do as I still can’t grasp how we can have pleasure and happiness without attachment, the opposite to me seems to be isolation. Phra KK assures me that there’s truth to the age-old saying, practice makes perfect.
We can practice removing our ego through daily through meditation, but also through setting the intention to let go of attachment. We can’t control most aspects of life and we cannot absorb others suffering. Phra KK explains that attachment also comes through too much thinking, which he believes causes stress and creates attachment. This is hard for me to accept, as critical thinking is what I feel separates humans from the rest of animal species and has lead to the growth of society. Without thinking, how can we advance and problem solve?
Phra KK was able to describe Buddhism in such a simple way to us, that our lives are fleeting and momentary, so we should cherish this time and be happy as nothing is permanent, except for Nirvana. Karma he told us, is simply the result of cause and action. We discussed Dharma, the philosophy and teaching that suffering is the one universal truth and the only law of nature is that we will all die. These concepts are known as the four noble truths which teach followers how to free ourselves from suffering through peace and love rather than want and desire which will just lead to worry, to release our mental and physical grasp attachment by accepting that we are impermanent and temporary beings.
The overarching theme is to let things go and not to dwell on the things that are out of our control. Personally, I struggle with this deeply and find it impossible to sit back and just let things happen. I can’t comprehend how we can simply not worry when we need to provide ourselves the basic necessities of food, water, and shelter. Phra KK answers in a way that actually infuriates me by simply stating that the past is gone, let it go, the future doesn’t exist and that all we have to do is just be present. This is easy to say when you’re a monk that has your housing, food, and clothing provided.
We discuss as a group how humans have advanced rapidly. We ‘know everything’ as Phra KK says, we’ve even been to the moon. As we’ve progressed with science and technology Phra KK says that we don’t actually know ourselves. As a species, we find it difficult to be happy, and easy to suffer. “Meditation will train the mind to know ourselves and be happy here and now,” says Phra KK. We must take and give happiness which will come from within when our mind and body are balanced.
The next method we discussed was the eightfold path which encompasses lessons in mental training, wisdom, and morality. Themes include avoiding doing evil (bad things and lies) to yourself or others, practicing right speech (speaking with love, respect, kindness and usefulness), no killing any living being (being vegan and not a murderer, for starters), no harming or disrespecting life, no corruption stealing, or harmful business.
Through mental training we will purify our minds, right effort will give us perseverance, mindfulness will enable us to let things go, and concentration will help us to focus. Wisdom, Phra KK explains, is understanding and observing. Generosity is then teaching our wisdom to others.
I’ve always been curious about the various ways that I’ve seen monks wear their robes as the folds often vary, as do the colors. Someone inquired about the meaning behind this and Phra KK smiled coyly as he told us there really isn’t much of a deeper meaning behind the way monks chose to wear their robes.
There isn’t a significant difference between a monk who wears a crimson robe or a bright orange robe. Usually, the dark red color is worn by rural monks who live in nature and need to blend into the environment. These monks may spend upwards of a month meditating in the forest and don’t want to attract attention from wild animals, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t want to wear the neon citrus robes.
The bright orange robes are typically worn by suburban monks who live and practice in cities. At times the habit of a Buddhist temple, who is typically the oldest monk and serves as the leader, will dictate the color of the robe that should be worn for an event. Often when it is time to clean the temple monks will wear the robe in a way which exposes half a shoulder which makes it easier to move.
The fabric for the robes is about the width and length of a queen size sheet! The entire ensemble is actually usually 3 pieces with a long t-shirt with a pocket worn underneath, then the wrapped robe which is held together with a belt.
The actual Vipassana course is held at a meditation center where monks will introduce the practice of both concentration meditation and Vipassana meditation. The workshop was created to provide travelers the chance to ‘make the mind peaceful and to develop transcendent insight which penetrates into the truth of life.’ The purpose of Vipassana is to heal physically, emotionally, and mentally. As laymen students, we wear all white during our journey into Vipassana.
Phra KK gently led us through an introduction to meditation and how it can help us develop our mind, and even aid with sleep. Afterall, Phra KK explains, meditation is medication for the mind and will lead to external and internal happiness when practiced 2x a day. He presents us with the four foundations of meditation, body, feeling, thought and mind.
As we meditate we must accept the thoughts we have, but not follow them. We can acknowledge any pain and then let it go, as pain is impermanent. Meditation takes effort and Phra KK encourages all of us not to give up, especially not before we’ve really gotten started.
We shower before gathering in the meditation hall for our first attempt at a 30-minute seated lotus meditation. Buddhist believe it’s important to shower before meditation to cleanse the body before cleansing the mind. We begin our practice by sitting on our knees and bowing to the Buddha altar in front of us three times, first to show respect for Buddha, our enlightened teacher, second to Buddhist teachings, and third to Buddhist disciples. We then set a good intention directly from our hearts.
I’d expressed my concern to Phra KK that I’d never been able to meditate for more than 10 minutes, not even at the ashram I spent a few weeks at in India. He teased me and said it would be fine and suggested that I imagine that my eyes are simply glued shut. Our first meditation last 23-minutes and I find it almost impossible to just keep my eyes closed and focus on the connected energy I feel swarming around me.
We take a short hour-long break and gather again for round two of seated meditation. This practice lasts for 28 minutes in which I feel my legs cramping and am distracted by rolling thunder. My mind was questioning my actions almost the entire time and telling me I had so many better things to be doing with the time. I break my meditation and open my eyes and notice that even the novice monks who are seated in front of me are shifting around and moving their legs. I feel a little bit better about my restlessness and promise myself to try to stay focused longer at the next meditation practice.
The retreat is completely silent unless we want to ask Phra KK questions. Even mealtimes are a chance to develop our meditation practice. We’re directed to eat slowly and focus on our contemplation. After lunch, we learn how to practice walking meditation which I thoroughly enjoy. I can keep my mind at bay by reiterating to myself each and every step of the method which helps me keep in sync with my peers. 26 minutes go by in a matter of time and I’m starting to think perhaps I’m capable of meditation after all.
We’ve only been at the meditation center for about two hours and I’m already feeling as if meditation is going to be impossible for me. I feel like I’m on the brink of screaming as there are so many things I feel I should be doing instead of sitting in contemplation. I struggled greatly during the fourth meditation of the day, which is a 30-minute seated meditation. I feel as if I only meditated for about 10 minutes during that time. I fully give up and open my eyes and adjust my legs and feel very disappointed in myself. Everything I thought I knew about meditation is wrong. Silence isn’t the hard part of Vipassana, meditation is.
Before we had discussed the trappings of the mind and I didn’t fully understand what that meant. But during the fourth meditation, I sensed as if my mind was actually talking to me. Maybe this was a sign my attempts at meditation were working? I’m generally very intune with myself and my thoughts but I’d never had an experience where it felt as if I was actually speaking to myself. My mind was referring to itself as ‘me’ and literally begging that I stop torturing it with this meditation nonsense. Thankfully, that was our last meditation of the day.
The following morning we had our first meditation at dawn outside surrounded by chirping birds. I find the key to successful meditation is to solely focus on my breathing. My entire concentration is dedicated to following the process of inhaling and exhaling. This allows me to be in the moment and keeps my mind from wandering. Breathing is the one constant in our lives, it’s always with us, so during meditation, we can focus on the actual process of letting the breath come and go. Immediately after our 35-minute sitting meditation completes we start a 30-minute walking meditation.
Somehow being outside and feeling the early morning sun on my skin makes it easier for me to let go of my surroundings and simply focus on meditation. The day continued with another 25-minute sitting meditation indoors and then an hour of meditation however we wished, I chose to lay down and quickly fell asleep.
The goal of Vipassana is to reach a state of contentment where we don’t allow outside factors to sway our happiness. The idea is to have utter gratitude for the lives we’ve been blessed with and not to let external experiences tarnish our pure joy of simply being alive and present in the moment.
Once we returned to Wat Suan Dok I stayed around for the afternoon monk chat. From Monday to Friday novice monks who are studying at MCU spend time at the monk chat facility and eagerly await the opportunity to practice their English with travelers. MCU actually founded the first ever monk chat which many other Buddhist temples have since adopted. You don’t have to attend the meditation retreat in order to attend the monk chat. Anyone can visit and there is no cost. You’re welcome to ask the novice Buddhist monks anything you’d like about Buddhism, their lifestyle, culture, etc, but please be respectful. I’ve seen women come into the monk chat in bikini tops and ask the monks if they’ve ever had sex.
In the past, I’ve hesitated to say that I follow Buddha’s teachings as I’m certainly no expert. But every time I get to chat with a monk I realize how more and more of my way of life and morals align with the philosophy of Buddhism. I’ve always been certain the purpose of life is happiness and I seek truth through the articles I write. Although I’m not personally trying to obtain Nirvana–at least not yet in this life.
Fortunately, I was able to spend an additional four hours deeply conversing with Phra KK. It was entirely humbling to have him take so much of his time to discuss methods of separating ourselves from suffering yet still contributing to society as a humanitarian. This is a challenge I didn’t know that I didn’t previously know that I have. I struggle with meditation and letting go but Phra KK gave me the necessary tools to grow in my practice.
We learned that we’re both 28 and Phra KK told me he felt that we have a special bond, but he can’t explain why. After spending nearly two days together Phra KK told me that he can feel the compassion in my good heart and that he believes I’ve reached at least a small form of enlightenment and wisdom. That has to be the most beautiful, soulful thing anyone has ever said about me. I’m so grateful for this experience.
By the time I left Wat Suan Dok, I’d been deeply immersed in all things Buddhism and meditation for over 48 hours. In a bit of a daze, I gazed up at the glorious 48-meter golden chedi. The massive monument was erected by King Kue Na in 1373. This leaves me puzzled imagining how something so gigantic was built without modern technology. The labor must have been gruesome, both the workers and the king were devout followers of Buddha and felt obligated to build something in his honor.
Are you happy with your life? If not you may want to try to practice meditation to see if it brings you peace. If you’re in Chiang Mai you can attempt to reach enlightenment for just $15 at the Wat Suan Dok meditation retreat.
To join in on the overnight introduction to Vipassana reserve your place on the retreat by emailing [email protected]
a few days in advance. The program begins at Wat Suan Dok around 1pm so be sure to eat lunch beforehand. There is an amazing vegetarian restaurant within the temple grounds that serves slow-cooked seasonal food.
The overnight course cost 500 baht or about US$15 to cover the expense of transporting you to the meditation center, administration costs, and includes three meals.
It’s a requirement to wear loose modest white clothing. If you don’t have these you can purchase traditional fisherman pants and a T-shirt at Wat Suan Dok for 300 baht or about US$10. If you don’t have time during your visit to Chiang Mai for the two-day course you may attend the single day course on Friday which is held from 9am to 5pm and is donation based.
I had a truly transformative experience at Wat Suan Dok and am so grateful to my teacher Phra KK. I’m eager to try out more meditation retreats in the near future. You don’t have to be in Thailand to join a meditation retreat, there are all sorts around the globe.
Meditation is still a major struggle for me, I have a wild monkey mind. It isn’t something I do daily or even weekly, but I am trying to find time whenever it feels natural to sit down and silence my mind for a few moments. As Phra KK told me, “If you don’t change yourself, nothing will change in your life.”