A Travellerspoint blog

Suan Mokkh Meditation Retreat

I survived!

rain 32 °C
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I write this from an island off the east coast of Southern Thailand called Ko Phan Ngan. Yesterday was the last day of the retreat, a half day, and after breakfast I hopped on a bus in Surat Thani to the pier, and took a ferry to the island. I'm staying in Hat Yao, on the west coast of the island, in a bungalow overlooking the ocean. It's only 300B ($10). There was a couple from Winnipeg on the taxi ride over that had been teaching English in Southern Thailand for the last six months. I'm not sure how long I'll be here, but I need some sun and we'll see how it goes.

On to the retreat. There's so much to say that it's difficult to know where to start, so this entry may get a little lengthy. It was humbling, spiritual, informative, intense and ultimately a great time. I wanted to leave many, many times. I'll go through the schedule:

400am: A large bell woke us up every morning. The first few days were actually not to bad, but that's probably because I got a terrible sleep on the train from Bangkok. Not to mention that I was sleeping on a straw mat on concrete with my sweatshirt as a pillow, so it's not like I wanted to roll over and go back to sleep anyway. I think that's the idea. Everyone congregates at Meditation Hall 2. There's a couple candles, but other than that, just nature all around.

430am: Morning reading and sitting meditation. Someone from the group would read something chosen by the monks. Usually they were good, but it was a struggle to stay awake.

515am: Yoga. You can imagine how thrilled I was to do this at 515am.

700am: Morning talk and sitting meditation. Usually the Abbot monk, Tan Ajahn Po, would talk to us for a bit. He's 75 years old and his English is broken, but he's very engaging.

800am: Breakfast and chores. Okay, breakfast. Far and away the worst part of the whole retreat. Every morning we'd have rice soup, which was the goopy mixture of rice, corn, carrots, and whatever else. It was really salty. If you can imagine what a prisoner eats in a movie, tasteless sludge, this was it. We also got yams and bananas, and I mixed these in to sweeten it up. I don't even like bananas, but I was eating four every morning by the end.

Everyone also had to sign up for a chore. I had to sweep the steps and ramps of Meditation Hall 1. Pretty easy. After this I'd head back to the dorm, take a dip in the awesome natural hot spring, and "shower" in the communal well, which basically means you pour cold water on yourself and soap up. I didn't mind this much at all, I found myself pretty refreshed since it was so hot anyway. I also did my laundry by hand, though once I did it at dusk and got bit 15 times in 10 minutes by possibly malarial mosquitoes. That sucked.

1000am: Dhamma talk followed by sitting and walking meditation. The talk was usually done by Tan Dhammavidu, a 60 year old English monk, who was really well spoken, funny and very easy to listen to. I really enjoyed his talks. He talked practically about Buddhism, meditation and life in general.

1230pm: Lunch. Usually consisted of rice, a curry, noodles, yams, fruit and tea. All vegetarian. I stocked up because it was the last meal of the day, save for hot chocolate in the evening. After this I'd head to my dorm for a nap.

230pm: Meditation instruction and sitting, walking and standing meditation. Tan Dhammavidu would help us through meditation training. We learned the technique of anapanasati, which means "mindfulness with breathing". I'll explain a bit more later.

500pm: Chanting and loving kindness meditation. Yeah, you read that right. This was led by Tan Mehdi, a 21 year old Thai monk. He was pretty funny and carefree. We did the Buddhist chants, which took some getting used to, but it was fine. After that, one of the nuns would come and do loving kindness meditation with us. They aren't dressed like Catholic nuns, just black pants and a white top. Some of the nicest people I've ever met. It sounds very corny, but we would basically send love to those around us, family, partners, all living beings in the world. Once I learned to just let it go and do it, it felt great.

600pm: Tea and hot spring. We'd have hot chocolate in the dining hall, and these huge bats the size of your arm would swoop through and feast on the mosquitoes. They were completely silent and would come within a foot of your head. After that, we'd go to the hot spring.

730pm: Sitting and group walking meditation. The group walking was pretty cool. There were two man-made lakes, and the guys would walk around one and the girls the other. There were candles lining the lakes and it was very surreal.

900pm: Bedtime. Sleep and do it all over again, all in silence.

A little bit about Buddhism and meditation in general. The main aim is to reduce your ego or "self" with the goal of eliminating it completely. Buddhists believe that we do not experience the true nature of reality because our experience is clouded by the selfish ego. Everyone has a feeling that we have a "soul" (for the lack of a better term), or that there is a "me" experiencing the world, when really, this is just a concoction of the mind. By getting rid of the ego, we can begin to experience nature as it really is. At the retreat, we were taught the technique of anapanasati, which means "mindfulness with breathing". By focusing on the breath flowing in and out of the body, the body and mind are calmed, and the meditator can focus on the present. "Don't think about the past or worry about the future, focus on being content in the present, and you will accumulate such moments." The attractive thing about Buddhism is that everyone's practice (mind) is different, and you are encouraged to find your own "middle way".

The first three days were pretty tough. I wanted to leave. There was an older Japanese man in the dorm next to me (I found out later his name was Bubba), and he'd talk Japanese in his sleep ALL NIGHT. It was so frustrating. But thanks to a set of earplugs courtesy of Parmel (http://www.parmel.ca), I was able to get some decent sleep. Days 4-6 were much better and were the most productive. Days 7 and 8 were very tough. I was getting restless, meditation was difficult, and my mind wandered. I knew the Canucks were playing too, that sucked.

On Day 9, we only got breakfast, but thankfully it was a more substantial meal than rice soup. I had snuck in a pack of Oreos and I ate them in the afternoon. Does that make me a bad person?

On the evening of Day 10, there was an open mic, and anyone was encouraged to go up and talk about their experiences. It was the first time anyone had heard each other's voices. This was the best part of the whole retreat, listening to people talk about their frustrations, and most felt the same way I did. It's tough to gauge people when you can't talk to them, everyone looks so serious and intense. A guy from Montreal went up and confessed he stopped meditating on Day 6, but he liked the Dhamma talks so much he stayed. There were three Canadians including myself, but there were people from every part of the world. A Swedish guy (I think) went up had the best line of the night. He said in the beginning his thoughts were like popcorn, popping madly every which way. "But at the end," he said, "you know when you're making porridge, it's almost done and you have the heat really low, and there's these little pockets of hot air that come up and go, puh-chsshhhh, puh-chsshhhh. That's what my thoughts were like." You had to hear him do the sound effects, it was perfect. Other people went up and talked about boredom they had and how they passed the time, and other people had some significant insights and learend a lot about themselves. This lasted two hours and was great.

The next morning after the talk and the last sitting meditation, we were finally able to talk to each other. It was strange. People had accents that you didn't think they had. There's an interesting camaraderie that develops between silent people. There was not the usually hesitation or shyness when talking for the first time to someone, we'd all just happily go talk to the next person. I ended up talking the ferry to Ko Phan Ngan with a girl from Los Angeles and a guy from Spain, who turned about to be the chess champion of Europe, of all things. Young guy too.

A couple things I noticed about myself were that during the retreat, my dreams became far less fragmented and jumbled. They were longer and more story-like, they made sense. I guess with the absence of television, internet and the media, your mind is able to just calm down to a more reasonable level. I also have a new appreciation for food. I ate things I never thought I would, and I'm pretty sure I like bananas now.

I don't consider myself a Buddhist, but there a lot of things I took from this retreat that can be applied to daily life. The most difficult thing will definitely be attempting to meditate for a half hour every day, so we'll see how that goes. I highly recommend the retreat to anyone who is remotely interested, and has the means to do so. My life hasn't been transformed or anything, but it reconfirmed my belief in the power of the mind, and it's very motivating. That being said, I can't wait to get on with the rest of my trip.

Anyways, this entry got really long really fast. I applaud you if you've read this far. Here are some pics:

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The pathway on one of the ponds.

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The pond with Meditation Hall 2 in the background.

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The Big Tree. It was massive. Just to the left of Hall 2.

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Meditation Hall 2.

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Pathway to the Dining Hall.

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My room. Frequently shared with spiders, geckos and the like. Note the wonderful concrete bed.

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The men's dorm.

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The natural hot spring. Really great for the aching muscles after yoga.

That's about it. You know I finished and didn't cheat because they won't allow you to take photos until the last day :) I'll make another entry soon when I can get some good pics of my bungalow and view, it's raining today. I saw the Canucks got whooped by Philly last game, and Kesler got cross checked in the face. I miss hockey.

Anyways, thanks again for the comments/emails!

Posted by sam.m. 12:17 Archived in Thailand Comments (5)

Bangkok Part 2

A crazy city

overcast 33 °C
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I'm settling in much better now. The adrenaline of the culture shock has worn off a bit, and I was feeling a bit of jetlag yesterday, but it's been fairly easy to adjust. Bangkok is a very busy city with no coherent plan on where streets go, it's very scattered. It's also very polluted. It still has charm though and it's growing on me, but I won't be sad to leave on Saturday.

It's been pretty difficult to meet people, even though the Khao San Road area is buzzing with tourists. I found out that a lot of Europeans come here like North Americans go to Mexico, so everyone is kind of already in their own little bubble. However, I did manage to meet some people a couple nights ago. This girl noticed my maple leaf tattoo on my leg and we started talking, turns out she was from Langley, and she went to high school in Abbotsford! Of all the people, the first ones I meet grew up literally minutes away from me. Small world.

Yesterday I got my first Thai massage, which was fantastic. For 180B (about $6), I got an hour long massage fom head to toe. It was great, the masseuse digs her elbows into you, twists your body, and generally loosens you up. It hurts a bit, but afterwards I was incredibly relaxed.

Today I went to Grand Palace and Wat Pho, two of the main tourist attractions in Bangkok. Grand Palace was built in the 1700's and used to house the King, but now it's just an attraction, visited by Thais and tourists alike. Wat Pho houses the massive Reclining Buddha. It's huge, something like 75 metres long by 45 metres tall. Definitely the highlight of the day. I took a motorcycle taxi to get there, which I was very hesitant to do, but it was a lot of fun. You are basically on the back of the bike weaving through traffic at 70 km/h. There are lines on the road but no one really obeys them.

Here are some pictures of the past couple days. I'll only post a few because it takes a while to upload:

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This is a tuk-tuk, a three wheeled taxi. The drivers are very agressive, it's best to just keep your limbs inside and trust them. I just realized you can see me in the mirror.

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This is the street I'm staying on, Soi Rambutri.

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This is the infamous Khao San Road.

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My first Thai meal! Beef noodle soup with a cold Beer Chang.

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A sleeping cat. Stray cats and dogs are EVERYWHERE. Very hard to get used to.

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This is the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. It's amazing and the pictures hardly do it justice.

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This was at Grand Palace, there are loads of these statues.

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This was one of the many structures at Grand Palace.

This is most likely the last post I'll make until after October 11th. I head down to Surat Thani on Saturday for the meditation retreat, so wish me luck! I'll need it. I hope everything is well back home, I really, really miss the Vancouver air. Thanks for all the comments!

Posted by sam.m. 15:15 Archived in Thailand Comments (5)

Bangkok!

Culture shocked

sunny 30 °C
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I have arrived!

I arrived at 5:30pm last night, and I got through customs and immigration in no time, so I was at my hotel by 7:00pm. At the airport, there were tons of people trying to get you into their taxis. All I heard was "hey you, taxi!", "Taxi sir?", "We have taxi!", I learned quickly to ignore them as they were all quite expensive. The currency here is baht, it's about 30B for every Canadian dollar. These private taxis were pushing 1000B, so I made my way to the public taxi lineup, and before I knew it I was heading towards my hotel while a bright red sunset dropped on the horizon in front of us.

The taxi driver was very nice, but new little english, which was fine. I was able to muster up the courage to greet him in Thai (sawadee khrap), and he asked me where I was from. When we got off the highway and into the neighbourhood, I couldn't keep my eyes off the streets. They are bustling with business and foot traffic, stalls everywhere selling food, clothes, everything. We got stuck in traffic, so he turned on his little TV screen and we watched the women's world weightlifting championships that were happening in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. We were both rooting for this huge Russian women who ended up winning. I think we bonded. The taxi cost 400B ($13), I thanked him (khap khun khrap), and he shook my hand and wished me luck.

It's very hot and humid, but surprisingly not as bad as Vegas was in August. My hotel room is pretty decent, air con, TV, working bathroom. It's probably the nicest place I'll see during my trip, so I'm not really looking forward to the other places. I reorganized my things, took a shower, and decided to go for a walk around the neighbourhood, despite the fact I had barely slept the last 24 hours. I'm staying near Khao San Road, which is the backpackers strip. It's crawling with people, bright lights, loud music. It's overwhelming. I bought a strawberry/banana shake from a street stall which tasted amazing and only cost me 25B.

I am definitely culture shocked, and a bit lonely as I realized I had no one to talk to, but I'm sure that will pass. I haven't been able to take many pictures, but as soon as I do I'll post them.

I'm staying in Bangkok until the 29th, and then I'm taking a train down south to Surat Thani, where I'm going to spend ten days at a meditation retreat. They have a website, if you're interested: http://www.suanmokkh.org/ret/ret-sm1.htm. You can check out the schedule I'll be keeping, which includes waking up at 4:00am every morning. I have to be silent, and the accomodations are very bare. It will be a big challenge, but I've promised myself to stick it out, so we'll see how it goes. I won't have access to email or anything, so if I don't post anything before the 30th, I won't post again until after October 10th.

Thanks for leaving comments and sending emails, I really appreciate them. I miss you all.

Posted by sam.m. 08:26 Archived in Thailand Comments (6)

Leaving for Asia

Only 17 days left in Canada ..

overcast 17 °C

Well, I've finally decided to get up and do what I've been thinking about doing for a few years now. I'm leaving Vancouver on September 23 at 850am, and after a quick layover in Hong Kong, I will arrive in Bangkok the next day at 530pm. Over four months, I'll be backpacking through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and possibly Myanmar, though I haven't made a final decision on whether or not I'll go there.

I've spent many, many months thinking about this trip, trying to decide when I should go. I had a great job at EA, worked with some great people, and it was difficult to leave, but I felt I had procrastinated long enough, and it was time to just drop everything and do it. I've been planning for the better part of a month, and even though it's close, I still find it hard to believe I'm leaving. I've never even been off the continent before! I have mixed feelings about the whole thing, mostly because I'll be going solo and it freaks me out a bit, but also because I'll be apart from my family, friends, and my girlfriend Parisa, who is leaving the day after me on her own adventure to France, where she's teaching English for the school year.

I hope any of you who bother to check back on this blog enjoy living vicariously through me. If you're so inclined, you can subscribe using the link on the right, and get an email when I update. I also urge you to leave comments! I found out after I signed up that if you want to leave a comment, you have to register. I know this is a pain in the ass, but it's a quick, one time thing, and I will really appreciate reading them.

Enjoy!

Posted by sam.m. 00:02 Archived in Canada Comments (6)

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