Truly Authentic Retreat Experience
On the outskirts of a little town in far northern Thailand, featured in the Lonely Planet guidebook as a place not to get off the bus, there sits Wat Sri Boonruang (Wat means “Temple” in Thai language). Fang Town is a rural population, surrounded by agricultural land reaching to the mountains marking the Thai-Burma border, where very few people speak English, even the hotel owners! By one of those strange “you can’t make this stuff up” kind of stories, Wat Sri Boonruang became the little Thailand temple retreat that brought together more than one hundred people from all reaches of the globe in the search for more meaning in their lives, a deeper meditation practice, or simply a retreat from it all.
There have been a handful of foreigners who ordained as Monks in the Theravada Buddhism tradition and spent months or longer as residents. During their ordained time, and also as lay people living in Fang, they dedicated themselves to assisting visitors through the experience, providing guidance in meditation, lessons in Buddhist Cosmology and enjoyable conversation over a cup of rather addictive 3-in-1 coffee.
Not Your Typical Meditation Retreat
Thailand is one of the most popular destinations for spiritual seekers looking to begin or deepen an existing meditation practice. There are centers all over the country, often an International Center attached to a working Temple. The distinction is that the International Center operates mainly in English, giving Dhamma (Dharma) lessons and instructions to the assembled group, as well as one-on-one consultations with between student and teacher. Since the locals might not speak English, they attend the Temple where teachings are given in the local language. The residents at the International Center adhere to a strict schedule of meditation, eating and sleeping and generally do not join in Temple activities.
Many people benefit greatly from such an intensive experience. If that doesn’t sound like your style, Wat Sri Boonruang offers a different kind of way to follow your own path. The Temple is an active part of the community; students going to and from the school next door pass through the Temple grounds and have regular meditation workshops in the Sala (Hall), the young Novice Monk population – all under 18 years of age – seem to be always sweeping in meditation or performing other duties, perhaps preparing for a festival, and Buddha Day is celebrated on every quarter of the moon, with locals spending the night before sleeping at the Temple in preparation for chanting and teachings going on from dawn.
So how can such a cacophony of toing and froing be conducive to enlightenment? Well, that’s the thing about a working Temple: it is the place where locals come to find spiritual nourishment and the pervasive aura of that tends to float around in the air, sinking into you through the process of osmosis. Thai culture is quite heavily influenced by Buddhist teachings, even though not all Thais are Buddhist. The experience at Wat Sri Boonruang doesn’t lock you away from the world, but strips it back, allowing you to interact richly with your environment without all the trappings of modern life.
Now, that is not to say that there is not benefit to locking oneself away for 21 days and breathing the hours away atop a meditation cushion. There are many benefits to it for the right person and the right time. Some may also find such an experience intimidating and thus not learn the practice of meditation at all. Ask any Monk and they will tell you that the location you learn the practice is not important; it is not necessary to sit in lotus position, and it is not necessary to be vegan. It is only necessary to sit down, or, as the famous story goes, to have a cup of tea, as long as you are doing it with purpose.
Most meditators get disheartened at the beginning because their minds are wandering all about the room and trying to find a crack in the door through which to escape; the so-called “monkey mind”. Many deem themselves to have failed somehow, yet few recognize that it is simply sitting there that is the success. Vipassana meditation – the most usual taught in Thailand – is about following the breath; when the mind wanders your only job is to notice that and return your attention to the inhale, exhale. Even if you are aware of only the very first breath after the gong and are jolted back to reality at the last, it is still a worthy meditation. Perhaps one day you will notice a sigh somewhere around the half way mark in your daily practice, then soon you will have whole stretches of seconds where your mind settles down. Even when you deem yourself to be beyond help, just a few months of practice will have you seeing the world with fresh eyes.
So if you have been thinking about a different kind of approach, contact Temple Retreat for more details on the particulars of your stay. Do plan a few days in Fang to soak up the charm that so few take the time to experience.