Have you ever sat in silence for more than a day? I have, and it was one of the most fulfilling experiences that I’ve had. I went to Thailand last fall and was a newbie meditator at the time. I enjoyed meditation, but I hadn’t practiced it much. I was also intrigued by Buddhism but didn’t know much about it before my trip.
Buddhism is an anchor of Thai culture. Over 90% of Thai locals practice Buddhism and there are over 40,000 Buddhist temples in Thailand. Some tourists visit just to explore its temples. Buddhists are invested in teaching Westerners about Buddhism. To do this, they’ve made silent meditation retreats accessible to foreigners throughout the country.
There are affordable retreats available for beginners, like the two-day retreat that I did at Wat Suan Dok temple in Chiangmai. The retreat cost $25 USD and included both lodging and food for two days. There are pricier retreats available for more advanced meditators. The advanced retreats usually require sitting in silence for a week or more.
The retreat didn’t change my life in an in-your-face way but it taught me a lot about Buddhism and meditation. Lessons that I learned at the retreat slip back into my mind from time to time.
Here's a Summary of the Retreat Structure
The retreat is part Buddhism instruction and part meditation practice. A Buddhist monk taught the course and he seemed to truly love teaching Buddhism and meditation. We sat in silence for the duration of the two-day retreat and practiced meditation for a collective total of 15-hours.
There were some strict rules:
We were asked to follow a handful of rules during the retreat. There were 20 participants and everyone more or less followed them.
The rules were:
- No talking, not even to your roommate in your dorm or with other participants during meals.
- We had to wear white…they provide the clothes if you don’t have any.
- No cell phone usage of any kind allowed (though I’m weak and I did sneak a peek at my phone from time to time)
Here’s what the schedule looked like:
01:00 PM Introduction to Buddhism & Meditation Lecture
04:45 PM Meditation practice
06:00 PM Dinner
07:00 PM Evening chanting and meditation practice
10:30 PM Bedtime
05:00 AM Morning gong (everyone had to wake up)
05:30 AM Chanting, exercise, and meditation practice
07:00 AM Alms offering and breakfast
08:30 AM Group Discussion (this was the only time that could speak)
10:00 AM Meditation practice
11:30 AM Lunch
01:00 PM Meditation practice
03:00 PM Retreat concluded
Buddhist Monks walk around every day to collect food offerings from locals. They only eat the food that they’re provided. Buddhists eat what they need to survive, and nothing more. To them, food is not to be eaten for pleasure.
Our group mimicked Buddhist monk life while on the retreat. We walked around a small village that surrounded the temple that we retreated in to collect food before mealtime. The food that we collected was mostly rice and vegetables.
We weren’t allowed to speak when eating. We were not allowed to look at anyone else. Not looking was harder than not speaking. I mostly stared down at my plate the entire time. We were told to eat with intention and at a slow pace. I’m a fast eater by default; so this was a hard task. I think about the lesson of eating mindfully from time to time now and slow down my pace when I do.
Imagine being roommates with a stranger and not being able to speak with them at all. That’s what happened here. I roomed with a girl who seemed nice from what I can gather based on her appearance. She was respectful and we mimed when we needed things. I hate awkward silence and this was one of the more difficult parts of the retreat for me.
The beds in most Buddhist meditation centers are not designed for comfort. They’re planks of wood that force you to sleep on your back. This is done to enforce “mindful sleeping.” I don’t know how to qualify whether or not I had a mindful sleep, but I did sleep deeply there.
The Meditation Practice
We practiced meditation in three forms for a collective of 15 hours throughout the retreat:
- sitting meditation
- walking meditation
- lying down meditation
Our instructor taught us to count our breaths while we meditated to calm our minds. It wasn’t easy to meditate and silence my mind throughout the duration of the retreat, but I did reach a few zen moments throughout. Sometimes, I felt really antsy and couldn’t wait for the meditations to finish.
My favorite form of meditation was lying down because I was able to go to a deeper place in this position. I was less pre-occupied with though when lying down, for some reason. I didn’t like the walking meditation—possibly because this was the most unfamiliar form and didn’t feel natural to me. I was so focused on where I was walking that I couldn’t silence my mind. The sitting form of meditation is the most commonly used by meditators in general and was the most familiar to me and to the majority of the group.
Our instructor shared a lot of insight and shared a bunch of stuff that really resonated. Here are some of the things that he taught that I liked:
- Nothing in life is permanent: Buddhists practice the idea of impermanence. Impermanence means that everything in our physical lives will come to an end.
- Attachment leads to suffering: It’s human nature to attach to things with our mind. We attach to our clothes, loved ones, pets, etc. Because everything is impermanent, we will lose what we are attached to and suffer. Monks try to not get too attached to anything—not even to their family members.
- Our mind is like a computer: When there are too many programs open on a computer, it gets overloaded and malfunctions. Our minds are like that too—when we have too much on our minds, they don’t function as well. This stage of mis-operation is the monkey mind. We have to exercise our minds (through meditation) to avoid a monkey mind.
- Monks are people too: This was a big aha! moment for me. Monks practice the ideals that they teach but they are still human and flawed. For example, they try to not become attached to anything… but it’s inevitable that they will attach to something. They recognize that they are human and that while they may strive for enlightenment, they still struggle to get there.
My Overall Thoughts on the Experience
This retreat was incredible and taught me a lot about Buddhism and meditation practice. It wasn’t easy to sit in silence for two days and at times, I wished that the retreat would end… but I’d definitely go back and do it again because I learned so many things that I now incorporate into my day-to-day life.
It’s awesome that Thai temples make experiences like this accessible and at a low cost. It’s a great opportunity to immerse yourself into a portion of Thai culture. I highly recommend a Buddhist meditation retreat to anyone that’s interested in this sort of thing. Beginners will find it useful. Intermediate and advanced meditators will also find value in it.
Thai Buddhist Meditation Retreats
That You Can Go To
Here’s a list of top-rated meditation retreats in Thailand. The list is made up of retreats that I’d personally participate in. All of the retreats listed here are on the affordable end of the spectrum. There are certainly other more expensive and high-end experiences available in Thailand, if that’s more your thing.
Travel is tricky now and these retreats may not resume for some time due to the Coronavirus … but you can bookmark this list and save it for a future trip to Thailand; whenever that may be:
- About: This is the retreat that I detail in the post above. The retreat consists of instruction and meditation with a Buddhist Monk. It’s sponsored by MCU Buddhist University and focuses on Concentration Meditation and Vipassana Meditation. Participants learn how to make their minds peaceful and develop insight into the Buddhist way of life.
- Location: Chiangmai
- Length of time: 2-days, 1-night
- Cost: 800 BAHT or $25 USD (includes food, instruction & lodging)
- Bonus!: They offer a free, one-day, donation-based course if you don’t have the time or budget for the lengthier version.
- Website: http://www.mrlearnning.com/
- About: Silent meditation retreats that start on the 1st of each month. The center is immersed in tranquil surroundings. Participants will participate in meditation, talk to monks, do yoga, and chores. All tasks and learnings are introduced with the intention of giving the participants a deeper meaning in life.
- Location: Surat Thani (640km south of Bangkok)
- Length of time: 10-days
- Cost: 2,000 BAHT or $64 USD (includes food, instruction & lodging)
- Website: http://www.suanmokkh-idh.org/
- About: Offers teachings of Buddhism and Vipassana meditation courses by English-speaking monks. If a foreigner wants to continue their studies beyond the retreat, they can enroll in a longer meditation stay on the temple university grounds.
- Location: Bangkok
- Length of time: There are two sessions per day. Practitioners may attend for a single day session. If participants want to stay overnight then they must meet certain qualifications (listed on their website).
- Cost: Donation-based
- Website: http://www.watmahathat.com/vipassana-meditation/
- About: Offers beginner meditation courses. Open to people of all religions that want to learn more about Buddhism and meditation. The goal is to teach people to live mindfully and with open-mindedness.
- Location: Bangkok
- Length of time: One week
- Cost: Donation-based
- Website: http://www.meditationthailand.com/
- About: A Buddhism & meditation course that is open to all levels, including beginners. Led by english speaking instructors and Buddhist Monks.
- Location: Hua Hin
- Length of time: Five days
- Cost: Donation-based
- Website: https://meditationinhuahin.org/index.html