The Sound of Silence: The 10-Day Meditation Retreat at Wat Suan Mokkh
While we are on the subject of Buddhism in Thailand, we might as well mention something that is more applicable for us backpackers. Meditation retreats, for example, are a great way to put all the theory into practice. When people think of such retreats, the first country that comes to mind is India with its numerous ashrams. However, Thailand does have its fair share as well. The one we will focus on today is neatly tucked away in a peaceful forest in Chaya near Surat Thani: the Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage.
You don’t need to be a follower of Buddhism to sign up for this 10-day retreat, but you should be a person with an open mind. “What do you mean exactly with ‘open mind’?” Well, my dear friend, read on and we will tell you all about it.
About Wat Suan Mokkh & the Dharma Hermitage
Before the hermitage, there was the temple Suan Mokkh, which was founded in 1932 by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. Buddhadasa means ‘slave or servant of the Buddha’. He spent many years in monasteries in Bangkok but he disliked the dirty, loud, and crowded atmosphere. Bhikkhu longed for the pure temples surrounded by Nature with which he grew up in southern Thailand. Therefore, he decided to move back into a deserted temple close to his hometown of Chaya.
During his lifetime the Buddhadasa did not shy away from criticizing modern aspects of Thai Buddhism. He thought, that they moved away from the original teachings of the Buddha. His extensive studies into the sources of Theravada Buddhism and the Dharma led to a growing following and his forest monastery became the hub for many aspiring students. Today, 25 years after Buddhadasa Bhikkhu passed away, monks and nuns still live in little huts surrounding Wat Suan Mokkh, where they carry on his legacy.
This legacy also led the Venerable Ajahn Buddhadasa to found the Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage in 1989. It is 1.5 km (0.93 miles) away from the temple and home to everything Buddhadasa Bhikkhu so dearly missed in Bangkok: lakes, hot springs, and a vigorous flora and fauna. In short: 48 acres of pure Nature. And in this secluded place is where you will focus solely on meditation and mindfulness. A perfect getaway after, say, the madness of the Full Moon Party.
About the 10-Day Retreat
The most important thing to note is that this is a silent retreat. So, no talking, no whispering, and no moaning (since sex and touching yourself in inappropriate places is not allowed as well). While this may not be easy in the beginning, you will benefit from this silence in the long run as you devote yourself fully to your meditative and contemplative practices.
Is this something that is right up your alley? If so, then let’s move on to the registration process.
The only way to register is by going to the hermitage center a day before the retreat starts. This is always on the first day of the month. In other words, in August you would have to sign up on the 31st; in September on the 30th. The deadline is at 3 pm. We highly recommend signing up as early as possible. That way you have a better chance of picking a daily chore that doesn’t suck too much. What are the chores? These are the chores (from best to worst according to us):
- Raking leaves
- Sweeping the dorms
- Sweeping the dining hall
- Burning rubbish
- Making a morning reading
- Cleaning toilets (Oh, so much fun…)
A good way to sign up early is by arriving at the main monastery the day before, spend the night there for free, and then walk to the retreat center in the morning. The registration fee is 2,000 Baht.
The staff will provide you with “comprehensive information about what to expect” as they say. They will ask you, for example, about your physical and mental well-being as this is NOT a rehab. Another big question is if you are really serious about committing to this 10-Day retreat. Check out their website for more information about the rules and general details.
It will take some time to get used to the strict code of conduct and the spartan-like living conditions. But after three days or so you will settle in just fine. “What do you mean with spartan-like living conditions?” I’m glad you asked, my young Leonidas. Your “bed” is a block of cement and it comes with a straw mat, a mosquito net, and a wooden pillow. Therefore, we recommend bringing a sleeping bag and/or a yoga mat. At least most of the toilets are of a western kind if that is important to you.
It also goes without saying that you won’t have access to your phone, notebook, or any other ways to get in contact with the outside world. Again, it is all about getting into the right spiritual mindset without any distractions. So, please settle your affairs in advance, especially when it comes to your visa! The immigration office doesn’t give a fuck if you attained enlightenment or not.
The Daily Life During the Retreat
The chime of a bell will wake you up at 4 am, followed by your first meditating session. The technique taught in this monastery, and in most other places around Thailand, is vipassana meditation. You will learn all about this ancient technique with enough time to practice it yourself. Your schedule includes around five hours of different meditation practices each day.
To make the seated sessions as bearable as possible, you should bring loose-fitting clothes such as elephant pants and light T-shirts. When it comes to clothing, the monastery follows the same etiquette as all the other temples in Thailand. But speaking of things you should take with you, mosquito spray is an absolute necessity because you are living in a natural environment. Those suckers are worse than the leeches in Nepal, and that’s saying something. Pro tip: You can rid your body of itches, muscular pain, and aching joints by taking a bath at the nearby hot springs.
Other than that, a towel, some toiletries, a rain poncho (during low season), and maybe some money to buy stuff at the local store, should be enough. A simple life, remember?
Now, the theoretical part includes morning readings by monks and Buddhist scholars, an introduction to the Four Noble Truths, and many aspects of the original teachings of the Buddha. When you are not meditating or listening to one of the readings, you will be performing your daily chores.
Another thing you might want to get used to beforehand is eating only twice a day. Breakfast is at 8:30 am and lunch at 12:30 pm – both meals are vegetarian – and that is it; only tea and water for the rest of the day. It would be prudent to adjust to this eating schedule perhaps a week before the retreat.
And, finally, everyone will hit the sack at 9:30 pm. For the complete daily schedule, have a look at their website.
Getting to Wat Suan Mokkh
Despite the reclusiveness of the temple, it is easy to get there. From the bus station in Surat Thani, you simply take the one that leaves for Chumpon. You pay your 50 Baht fare and tell the attendant to drop you off at Wat Suan Mokkh. As we mentioned earlier, the adjoining hermitage is 1.5 km away from the main monastery. You can either walk there (about 15 – 20 minutes) or catch a ride if you are feeling a little lazy.
Final Words of Wisdom (sort of)
The paradoxical thing that happens to a lot of first-time meditators is that they try so hard and expect so much from such a retreat that they see little results if any at all. Instead, try to keep an open mind, be relaxed, and lower your expectations. Enjoy your time in silence and in nature, and you will soon realize that what you seek is more readily attainable if you don’t pursue it.
In case, you see yourself on the right path after the 10-Day retreat, then the abbot of the temple welcomes you to stay, meditate and study even longer at the main monastery. There is no fixed schedule anymore, so you can follow your own schedule and practice as much as you want. Your stay will be free of charge and you have access to the foreign library, which is filled with books on meditation, Buddhism, and spirituality, amongst other related subjects.
Is this something you would like to do at least once in your lifetime? Or have you already done this retreat or a different one somewhere else? Even better! We would love to hear your stories and experiences. Sharing is caring, here at Slumber Party.