When I decided I wanted to travel the world, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t only do the things that were just fun or easy. In other words, my travels wouldn’t be all about being a, “pleasure seeker”, sipping cocktails on the beach all day and frequenting the touristy sightseeing spots can get old faster than you think. This wasn’t going to be a vacation, it was an experiment in lifestyle design. I wanted to challenge myself and acquire new skills that would assist me in changing my perspective and deciding what I wanted to do with the rest of my professional and personal life. Little did I know that I would have to actually fool myself in order to experience one of these challenging new events.
Whilst hanging around in Chiang Mai I decided that I wanted to do a yoga retreat. Yoga isn’t new to me, but it is challenging and I wanted to become more proficient in the practice of it. I started researching the myriad of weeklong retreats around Thailand and found that most didn’t actually start until the main tourist season begins (Aug-Mar). Disappointed but determined, I kept searching and came across a paper brochure advertising 4 day 3 night meditation/yoga retreats with POP (power of peace) House. The next retreat began on the upcoming Tuesday, just in the nick of time for me to streamline my transition from Chiang Mai to Koh Tao. I didn’t think much about the fact that in the brochure the word, meditation came before the word yoga, I was just happy I had found a place and that the timing worked out perfectly. At the time i was busy reading, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, and I was reminded of the quote: “When you truly want something, the whole universe conspires to help you achieve it”, so I did the only rational thing and headed off to Pathumthani for the retreat.
The trip to Patumthani didn’t start out all that smoothly, first, the train had been derailed in Chaing Mai and I was told I couldn’t buy a train ticket. I was starting to wonder about the validity of Paulo Coelho’s theory. I soon happened upon a pair from Birmingham,UK, that were facing the same situation and learned that I could take the bus down south a few towns and get on the train from there. So another night train journey and I was back to Bangkok in no time flat. While traveling though Bangkok during my journey to Pathumthani, I did take the time to sit down in a Starbucks and visit the POP House website in order to gain a little more insight into what to expect. The site was basic and wasn’t really working properly, but I chalked it up to the lack of Internet savvy all over SEA. I discovered that I would need to dress in all white at almost all times (even underwear) and shorts or sleeveless shirts would not be tolerated, strange I thought, but fine by me if it adds to the experience. I didn’t really bring any white clothing, especially pants, so I went to the mall in Bangkok and got all the white linen supplies I would need for under 700bht ($24), strangely enough the most expensive thing was the white underwear. I also discovered that I would be expected to live under 8 Buddhist precepts during my stay at POP House, which were: Refrain from harming or killing any insect, animal, or human being. Refrain from stealing or taking what is not yours to take. Refrain from acts of sexual misconduct. Refrain from allowing your speech to harm others (cursing or lying). Refrain from alcohol or other intoxicants. Refrain from eating after midday. Refrain from using electronic gadgets, phones, computers, singing, dancing, makeup or perfumes. Sleep on a simple thin mattress and detach from materialistic comforts. I would come to find out that there are actually over 200 precepts that the Buddhist monk tries to follow, these 8 were simply the most important and applicable in our situation. I was halfway to Pathumthani and was beginning to wonder, “what am I getting myself into?”. I then had the perfect timing to find the local 501 public bus in Bangkok that went north to Patumthani, but no one spoke English and stops were unannounced. So I got off at the stop that I estimated was correct, then got a taxi to take me to Wat Phra Dhammakaya, where POP House was supposed to be located. Night was falling as I arrived I was greeted at the Wat by some Monks who led me back to the offices. Apparently they were under the impression that I had come to ordain as a Monk. I then explained that I was here for the POP House retreat and after much deliberation on their part they finally realized where I needed to be taken. A quick truck ride later i was dropped off in front of a neatly maintained garden and 3 building, 3 story complex. A bizarre journey once again, but it all worked out perfect in the end. Fine Paulo, you win.
Upon entering the eerily quiet compound, I was greeted by a Monk by the name of Oszey, Luang Phaw (pronounced: Lumpy) Oszey, as I would later learn to call him. We chatted a bit and toured the facilities and I headed off to bed, dead tired from a full day of exhausting travel. My accommodations consisted of a spartan room, with 3 flat beds and 1 low pressure cold shower. The bathroom was infested with hundreds of tiny ants, leading me to believe it was simply a test of our metal when it came to the precept regarding doing no harm to insects. The mattress was only about 1 inch thick and stiff as a board, but at least there was A/C and my weary bones would have drifted off to sleep laying on a bed of nails.
The next morning, promptly at 7am, the retreat began. I was served a traditional Thai breakfast of tea and Jok along with some fresh fruit and plenty of water. Then came the intro class where much more about this retreat was revealed and explained. I was introduced to our retreat group of 7 people. The group consisted of 2 Indian girls and their mother, an Indian man named Anil and his Thai friend Son, a half french half irish girl named kathleen and myself. These was also the introduction of the staff: Peggy (the organizer), D’Anna a cook, Pan (an assistant), Aga (a polish meditation student and intern), and Gill. Gill is a very interesting story since he is an American who ordained as a Monk but has now disrobed and continues to work for Meditation outreach programs. He also happed to be from Marrietta, Georgia, making him the first fellow southerner i have ebcounterd in Thailand in over a month of traveling. Since my sister married into a family from Marrietta and Gill was into videography, we had lots to talk about. Also introduced were the Monks, our teachers and spiritual guides for these 4 days: Luang Phaw Oszey, a Monk of 3 years, hailing originally from Liverpool UK and Luang Phaw John, an American and former college philosophy professor from New York. We were then given the daily schedule of events which looked about like this:
-6:00am – Wake Up
-7:00am – Breakfast
-9:30am – Meditation Class
-11:30am – Lunch
-2:00pm – Afternoon Stretching / Yoga
-2:30pm – Meditation Class
-4:30pm – Personal Time and Refreshments
-6:30pm – Meditation Class
-9:00pm – Bed Time
After going over the daily itinerary I realized I wasn’t too sure if this is really what I signed up for, but instead of taking the next taxi out of town I decided to ride this retreat out for better or worse. This was not a resort by any means, it was more of a community. I had responsibilities, such as washing my own cups and dishes after meals, sweeping, cleaning and drying my linens and making sure the Monks had the help they needed. I was asked to not bring out any personal books or newspapers. With my free time I was encouraged to read one of the many Buddhist meditation, Dhamma (Dharma) or other spiritual books they provided in their library. I chose to read: “The Fruits of Monkhood”, by Phra Bahavanaviriyakhun, essentially an explanation of the Buddhist faith and the pros, cons and requirements for becoming a Monk as told by the Buddha himself (Siddharta Gautama) to the King Attayama. It was almost a companion guide to the Samannaphala Sutta, one of the most important cannons from Buddhas teachings to Dhammakaya Monks.
The first day we got to know each other and were taught the basics of meditation and even tried some 10 and 15 minute sessions. The concepts were interesting and I found myself very attentive and enjoying the classroom setting. When the “Stretching / Yoga”, time came around it became very clear that this was really just a meditation retreat. Peggy (the organizer), led the stretching, which lasted about 15 minutes and contained maybe one or two yoga poses. This short period of activity was simply a warm up for meditation. Despite not having any of the satisfying Yoga I set out for in the beginning, each day I awoke and looked forward to the next lesson, trying to absorb all I could and enjoying the peace and quite the retreat afforded me. After the first day the uncomfortable bed didn’t bother me, not eating after noon was no big deal, I wasn’t going hungry and I even wasn’t killing the ants or mosquitoes because they left me well alone.
One of the most interesting parts or the retreat was that in my free time I could simply sit with the monks and ask any questions I had about any aspect of life. Luang Phaw John and I had many a discussion about buddhist ethics, his past, and even some politics (which monks should refrain from speaking about). An interesting example of an ethical dilemma facing monks would be vegetarianism: monks are not allowed to harm any living being, so why eat meat if that leads to harming animals? Well, as Luang Phaw John profused, plants are living too, so you have to blur the lines at some juncture, also monks can only survive on the food that is provided to them by the laypeople, so you essentially have to eat what you get. Similarly, as one of the many precepts of being a monk, you shouldn’t overly enjoy the food you eat, so decadent treats and meals are sometimes refused in favor of porridge or something bland. Luang Phaw John’s story is quite an amazing one; his son traveled to Thailand as a young twenty-something and ended up ordaining as a Dhammakaya Monk. Many years later he disrobed and returned to the states to teach meditation to laypeople but before doing so he inspired John to join the Sangha himself. John, being a college professor at the time gave away all his belongings and possessions, gave his savings and sizable trust find back to his family and at the age of 62 with a freshly shaven head, face and eyebrows, ordained as a Monk and plans to stay for life.
Buddhism, is a complex religion explained in a complex language (Sanskrit and Pali), but a simple summary would be that it involves two major branches, Mahayana and Theravada. Within Theravada Buddhism there are essentially 3 types of Monks and serveral different methods of practicing meditation. POP House is focused on the Dhammakaya method and disciplines. In my estimation, Dhammakaya Buddhism is a fairly newer sect and one of the fastest growing, they believe in reincarnation, Karma, Hell and Nirvana (heaven) and use a technique of meditation called, the Middle Way. The common threat that is shared by all Buddhists is the Triple Gem: the Dhamma, the Buddha, and the Sangha. The Dhamma or Dharma sort of like the Holy Spirit for Christians, in that it is the life force or energy that allows someone to attain enlightenment. A Buddha is someone who has attained supreme enlightenment and become one with the Dhamma. The Sangha are the Monks, those who ordain and pledge themselves to purity and making the world a better place through meditation and good merit, seeking Nirvana for themselves. An interesting lesson Luang Phaw Oszey told me was that in order for Siddharta Gautama to become Buddha over 2,500 years ago, the final step was a lesson in humility, he had to give up his desire for enlightenment (Nirvana) in order to become fully enlightened and connected with the Dharma.
The Monks of POP House made it clear that they were not out to convert any of us to Buddhism or even teach us about their religion. Their goal was to teach us how to properly and effectively meditate through the methods of the Middle Way used by Dhammakaya Monks. Unlike other methods of Meditation that focus on breathing or an outside object, Dhammakaya focuses on putting the mind into the center of the body, visually interpreted as a shining sphere of light or clear crystal ball, that will eventually turn inward though a pinpoint of light and allow your mind to free and be replaced with inner peace of varying levels. Many aids are used to attain the, “centered mind”, such as breathing exercises and a focus on relaxing every part of the body. Most importantly is your posture, preferably the cross legged Lotus position, right leg over left and right hand over left with your palms up and right index finger lightly touching your left thumb. After lightly closing your eyes and relaxing your body, you begin to visualize a small object in front of you (usually a clear ball or sun or disk), you then move that object under your right nostril, up to your right tear duct (left for the ladies), to the center of your brain, down to the roof of your mouth, down to your throat, down to your belly button, then into the 7th and final position: your center, typically two fingers above your belly button in the middle of your body. There the object stays and with your focus and concentration it shines with light and ultimately turns inward to give you inner peace. All that being said, I did follow the instructions and practiced many times under the tutelage of my two Monk counselors, but I’m not sure what I really felt. At times it did it did feel that I was slowing my thoughts and even not thinking at all, but more commonly I struggled with what Luang Phaw Oszey called, “monkey mind”, when you just can’t keep your focus and you find yourself dwelling on irrelevant thoughts and jumping from one thought to another. Proper meditation takes years of practice and I was pleased that I learned the proper methods for achieving it and possibly feeling a hint of what it’s really like to attain an inner calm and become the controller of your thoughts and emotions.
You don’t necessarily stop yourself from thinking, that is nearly impossible, rather, you become kind of a third person in the room, watching your thoughts come into your mind and then swiftly pass out of it. Your goal is to not dwell on any particular thought so that ultimately the mind in the center of your body turns inward and allows yourself inner peace. In advanced levels of Dhammakaya meditation supposedly some monks have visions and are able to see their past lives and the past lives of others as well as receive information to their future lives and their ultimate quest for Nirvana and permanent heaven. I was told that in advanced levels, achieved through practice and aided by following the monastic precepts, your meditation can have effects on the outside world. Everything from curing cancer to avoiding the Cuban missile crisis, some Buddhists claim that it was because a group of Monks were busy meditating positive vibrations toward peace and harmony.
An interesting story I was told regarding Lama initiation was that in India monks would be required to dip their robe into the frozen ice cold waters of a Himalayan lake and then wrap it around them as they sit and meditate in the freezing temperatures overnight. In the morning, through the use of meditation, the Monks robe should be completely dry and some say they are even sitting in a puddle of water from the melted snow around them. Demonstrating the energy that can be generated though powerfully focused meditation.
In summary, after leaving the confines of the retreat and returning to civilization and all its sins, I have come to really appreciate the knowledge I gained on the retreat. I was able to get away from the noise and quiet myself, my only concern each day being how effective my next meditation session would be. I feel that I learned that meditation is certainly not exclusive to Buddhism, in fact, it would be useful in all religions in my opinion. You are allowing yourself to clear your mind and de-stress, and if it’s your goal, allow yourself communication with god, much like prayer, you have to stop thinking about yourself and your life in order for God to be able to speak to you. However, it does lead me to lots of confusion regarding who is living in more disillusion: the Sangha or the rest of us.
I would also like to make note that this was the hardest blog post I’ve had to write to date. Somehow I just couldn’t accurately describe this experience, and I still feel I have done a subpar job. Hopefully this mess above gives you some semblance of what it was really like, but if not, at least I tried. Below are some pictures of my time spent there as well as some pictures taken while touring the Wat Phra Dhammakaya, one of the largest religious complexes I’ve ever seen and certainly the most impressive. The Vatican ain’t got nothin on Wat Phra Dhammakaya.
My sleeping arrangements.
POP House is situated on a river filled with huge catfish, snakehead, and monitor lizards.
Typical Thai Breakfast.
“The Whites”, not to be confused with the Big Lebowski reference.
The Meditation Room / Classroom.
Gardens at POP House.
Lunch. Monks are always served first by the men and then the woman. You say the Pali word, “satu”, after handing the plate to the monk, meaning: “rejoice in your merit”.
Doing my own dishes for the first time in a month.
Me and Luang Phaw John.
Artistic interpretation of the inner sphere.
The retreat group with some staff and Monks that showed us around Wat Phra Dahammakaya.
Photos of Wat Phra Dammakaya. The compound comprises at least 3 of these large spaceship looking domes, the last one shown being comprised of 100,000 smaller Buddha statues. Group meditation ceremonies of 100,000 attendees are held frequently. The final picture is interesting because this is one of a pair of pillars in front of the dome that are supposedly made of a substance not of this world (meteor?) and they had to be covered up due to people’s infatuation with meditating towards them.