Crossing the border for a lesson in silent meditation

At the Suan Mokkh Meditation Retreat, a bell tolls at 4am each day to wake the guests. The daily routine features up to 11 hours of meditation.  NATHAN THOMPSON
At the Suan Mokkh Meditation Retreat, a bell tolls at 4am each day to wake the guests. The daily routine features up to 11 hours of meditation. NATHAN THOMPSON

Crossing the border for a lesson in silent meditation

After reading about Suan Mokkh Meditation Retreat in Thailand’s Surat Thani province, founded by the monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Nathan Thompson decided to sign up. At the retreat he found uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, basic cuisine and eccentric monks. But he also managed to discover a feeling of peace. Here, he writes about his experience.

I can't say I’d ever heard of wooden pillows before my first night in the Suan Mokkh Meditation Retreat. They are desperately uncomfortable: a smooth brick-sized block of wood with a concave shape cut out for the head to rest upon. I decided to give it a miss. Judging by the soft airplane pillow I found after rummaging around the storeroom, others, all staying in a eight-by-six-foot room, had the same idea.

I had discovered Suan Mokkh a month earlier when reading up on Theravada Buddhism. The monastery, located in a forest in southern Thailand’s Surat Thani province, was founded by a monk called Buddhadasa Bhikkhu who had turned his back on monastic life in Bangkok. He spent his life trying to find out what the original Buddha actually taught and today his collected lectures make up the biggest corpus of thought produced by a Theravada thinker in 2,300 years of the tradition.

As an aside, the book mentioned how Buddhadasa had started an international meditation centre where he offered courses in Buddhist meditation in English. I dog-eared the page, came back to it later and searched for the name online to find that, though Buddhadasa died in 1993, his international meditation centre was still open. I signed up.

The rooms are spare, with a hard wooden bed.  NATHAN THOMPSON
The rooms are spare, with a hard wooden bed. NATHAN THOMPSON

The price for 10 days at Suan Mokkh is $64, excellent value when you consider that in the UK you can expect to pay $400 to $1,000 for similar retreats. You can’t book in advance - instead, you have to register in person the day before the retreat begins. In order to ensure my place, I arrived a day early.

In total, 80 people began the retreat, but only 50 would complete the full 10 days due to the tough schedule that began before dawn, ended at 9pm and featured up to 11 hours of meditation per day – and absolute silence.

It wasn’t easy. Every day, the bell rang at 4am and resounded for 15 minutes. On the first day, I sat in the dharma hall in the pre-dawn darkness full of resentment. There was a reading about being gentle with yourself. Good advice: beginning to meditate is like trying to turn around an ocean liner using a wooden paddle. It’s easy to get frustrated and make it harder.

All the subsequent meditation and teaching took place in the dharma hall – “dharma” translating to “teachings of the Buddha”. There were talks by an English monk, who was bald and didn’t seem to be enjoying the retreat that much, every afternoon saying without enthusiasm: “We’re here to talk about meditation – so I suppose I’ll talk to you about that.” He later divulged how he likes to poke a finger in between his toes, collect a small paste of toe jam and smell it, which he demonstrated, much to the chagrin of the audience. Enlightenment comes in unexpected forms.

Later in the afternoon, we would have a session in what is known as metta meditation. Metta involves cultivating a feeling of loving kindness and radiating it around you so that it reaches others – slightly New Age. The young monk from Eastern Europe who led the sessions seemed happier than his toe-jam-smelling friend. Another participant later told me they wouldn’t have made it through the retreat without metta.

In total, 80 people began the retreat, but only 50 would complete the full 10 days.  NATHAN THOMPSON
In total, 80 people began the retreat, but only 50 would complete the full 10 days. NATHAN THOMPSON

When it comes to meditation retreats, pain is a challenge: sitting cross-legged for so many hours soon takes its toll. According to the English monk, if you meditate deeply enough, you feel no pain. In my experience, it never disappeared completely, but the way my mind reacted to it changed. Instead of experiencing the sensation as pain, I experienced it as an intense tingle – no worse than feeling the hot sun on your arm as it rests on the window ledge of a car.

The other discipline is suppressing hunger. Although the only meal we skipped was dinner, the others were plain: a breakfast of tasteless rice porridge, and more rice for lunch. On some days they served fried Indian bhajis; holding back from gorging on them was a lesson in self-discipline.

Still, I dragged myself to yoga at 5:15am each morning on an empty stomach. The idea is that pranayama – a way of breathing which, in Indian mysticism, is thought to cultivate the concept of “life energy” – will feed your body. Scientifically, this seemed pretty woolly: mostly I just felt hungry.

Every evening we were allowed a cup or two of chocolate soya milk. It was a delicious prelude to soaking my aching limbs in the centre’s hot spring. While in the hot mineral water, I spotted the planet Venus: a bright pinprick in the purple darkening sky.

It’s funny what crosses your mind when it’s told to empty itself. Forgotten memories, songs, old girlfriends and plans for the future came to mine. The Bare Necessities from Jungle Book looped around my head for two days, perhaps because the style of meditation taught at Suan Mokkh is named Annapanasatti and is pronounced to rhyme with Bare Necessities. After all, the philosophies of meditation and Baloo the Bear are not too dissimilar: “the bare necessities of life will come to you”.

It wasn’t until day eight that I came close to anything beyond boredom. Known as the “great silence day”, participants can only eat breakfast, and all dharma talks and other activities are suspended in favour of continuous meditation. After four hours of alternating between sitting and walking meditation I found myself in what is best described as a feeling of peace. Buddhists call this Anatta or ‘non-self’.

After a few minutes I found myself back to normal. As the English monk said, “awakening happens incrementally, the first stages are like a door opening and then slamming in your face again”.

When the 10th day came, it was time to clean out our cells and chat to our neighbours. Cordiality had established itself among us even though we hadn’t spoken and we asked each other what we would take away from the retreat.

It was the English monk, whose irreverent humour grew on me, who seemed to have come closest to enlightenment. His knowledge of meditation and Buddhist teaching was impressive and he had an endearing habit of referring to Buddhadasa as “that old, extremely fat man”. He told us that he will stay at Suan Mokh until he dies. “I’m rather looking forward to death,” he said.

After the retreat, I thought of an article by a palliative care nurse in which she listed the top five regrets of people on their deathbeds.

I wish I would had the courage to live a life true to myself. I wish I hadn’t work so hard. I wish I had had the courage to express my feelings. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

One of the happier effects of meditation is simply having the time to think these thoughts before it’s too late.


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