Learning about Buddhism and meditation at Wat Suan DokMike - 18 January 2017
Buddhism and meditation are important aspects of Thai culture, and while in Chiang Mai, Emma and I decided to put aside some time to learning about them. We were originally tempted by a three-day meditation retreat, where you wear white, stay in a retreat in the forest, and practice meditation for hours every day. But as it came closer to the time, we realised that this was a bit ín at the deep end’ and decided to do the one-day meditation course at Wat Suan Dok instead.
Wat Suan Dok’s one-day introduction to meditation course is free of charge, but voluntary donations are accepted at the end in a sealed envelope if you wish (so no one can see or judge how much you choose to donate). The one-day English language introduction to Buddhism and meditation is run by Phra KK (Monk KK) as a way to help foreigners understand Thai culture. The course takes place every Friday from 9am-4pm, although you should arrive early so you can register, and Phra KK stayed with us an extra hour at the end to answer our questions.
While we were both keen to attend, my natural cynicism made me doubt I would get much out of it. I was wrong. From the first few sentences, Phra KK had me enthralled. His approach to the world is infectiously fun, and his approach to Buddhist teachings is modern and practical. The course was split into learning about Buddhism in the early morning, and practicing meditation in the late morning and afternoon.
Learning about Buddhism
One of the key facts about Buddhism that Phra KK was keen to impress upon us was that it is not a religion. Instead Buddhism is a philosophy and a way of life. While it might look like monks in a temple are worshipping a deity, they are just paying respect to Buddha in the same way that a student might stand when a teacher enters the room. Gautama Buddha is not a god, but merely a mortal man, an ascetic who found enlightenment. It is his writings and teachings upon which Buddhism was founded. Given that Buddhism isn’t a ‘religion’, it doesn’t prohibit you from belonging to another faith. You can be both a Christian and a Buddhist or a Muslim and a Buddhist. While organised religions might not approve of you also identifying as Buddhist, it turns out Buddhist are a pretty relaxed bunch and don’t care what else you believe!
We were taught some history about Buddhism to provide context and then learned about the beliefs that guide practitioners. One of these beliefs boils down to if you do bad stuff, you are the one who will suffer. If you steal something and nobody ever catches you, will you be riddled by guilt? If you angrily shout at another driver who gets in your way, does it make you feel better or just it just make you angrier?
Followers of buddhism are meant to adhere to five precepts. These are to abstain from:
- Harming other living things
- Taking things which are not given to you
- Sexual misconduct
- Lying or gossiping
- Taking intoxicating substances such as drugs or alcohol
However, the precepts can be taken as guide for moral behaviour rather than requiring strict adherence. The purpose of avoiding intoxicating substances is that while you are under the influence of them, you make bad decisions which are disrespectful to others. Drinking all night on the beach until you throw up in a taxi on the way home? Bad. Having a glass of wine with your partner during dinner, no problem. Likewise, ‘sexual misconduct’ is open to interpretation. Buddhism doesn’t lay down rules related to sex before marriage, homosexuality etc... Instead, you still have to make your own moral judgements. If you are doing something motivated by love and not disrespecting anybody or causing harm, it’s probably all good. While there are far more rules for monks, it seems like the five precepts for Buddhists are surprisingly easy to follow.
Learning about Meditation
The second half of the morning session and all of the afternoon was spent learning about meditation. Phra KK helped us to understand what meditation is, why to meditate and how to meditate.
It turns out there are many different kinds of meditation and we had short (10-20 minute) attempts at sitting meditation, walking meditation and lying down meditation. I won’t go into the details, but they are all hard for different reasons. I have no experience of meditation, but assumed it couldn’t be that difficult. It’s just sitting around thinking about nothing, right? It turns out that ‘just sitting around thinking about nothing’ is incredibly difficult. Concentrating on your breathing is a challenge when your mind wants to go in so many different directions. Phra KK calls it controlling the ‘monkey brain’, ie. the part of your brain that wanders, or tells you that you’ve got an itch, or wonders what’s for dinner. One of the big problems we found was simply staying awake, as meditation is dangerously relaxing! Given that I seem to suffer from borderline narcolepsy, you can imagine that I really didn’t do well...
Is it worth spending a day to visit the meditation class?
Both Emma and I would say so. We haven’t become fully fledged hippies since attending the course, but found the course very thought provoking. I agreed with pretty much everything Phra KK was saying, which was a surprise. Learning about meditation and mindfulness is a rewarding experience and you might start to understand a lot more of the culture you see around Thailand.
- Wat Suan Dok is easy to find in Chiang Mai. The easiest option is to follow the directions on Google Maps.
- We have a number of other articles about Thailand you might find helpful
Questions about the meditation class at Wat Suan Dok?
If you have any questions about the retreat please let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to help!