Buddha’s Beginner Meditation Retreat

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Relaxing brunch at AUM, one of the first vegetarian restaurants in Chaing Mai near the eastern Thapae gate. The old city of Chaing Mai where I have predominately been sleeping/sauntering is a defined square-shaped area bordered by a narrow waterway with four gates located in north, south, east, and west.  The city, both old and new, is filled with Wats (temples), open-aired markets, Thai massage parlors, street vendors selling noodles, soups, DURIAN and other wild fruits, fried bugs (yes, it is a delicacy and treat!), crispy everything, juices, travel agencies offering countless tours to local tribes, hot-springs, the border of Laos and Myanmar, more temples, elephant treks, to the moon (which has been no less than magnificent as the full brightness is approaching), etc.

Return to the Wat Suan Dok to begin my two day Buddhist meditation retreat. There is a crowd of 20 or so inquisitive international visitors and a kind young monk named Jo Lee (?) This is his nickname, he reveals, one of many. For about an hour or so we watch a simple power-point presentation on the basics of Buddhism, highlighting the elements of compassion and issue of not suffering (we were given explicit permission to go pee during the presentation for he did not want us to bear any pain). Jo Lee’s assistant, his much younger cousin, showed us how to wrap one’s robe properly. This fresh student undressed and re-wrapped with an element of coyness that all publically disrobing can understand. Monks generally own 3-4 robes and a couple pair of shoes, I am curious about underwear.

In red tuk-tuks we travel outside the city, into the countryside to the retreat center. I lively engage with a total star brother from Canada, 20 years old going on 3000, who too felt a synchronistic call to chat, a bubbly blue-eyed Norwegian who suggests I head to Australia to pick avocados, and a lovely farm-loving sister originally from NYC but currently living in Washington state. I love them all. I am paired to room with a woman from New Hope, PA, a loquacious and extremely bright Jewess with much to share and much to learn. I feel her sense of pain and distress deeply and offer the suggestion to use the silence as a time to explore her creativity. She is anxious that she won’t be able to speak for 24 hours. For my own journey, I am elated.

In all white clothing (I am in Abadiania again!) we sit in the temple for our first meditation session, first chanting many prayers (for lack of better word) and learning how to sit in one of the countless ways Thai Buddhists sit. Eyes-closed, spine erect, cross-legged, arms resting naturally with the left palm under right, faced up, with thumbs touching in the center. Jo Lee also instructs how to do standing meditation as well as walking, a practice that I find a bit challenging to keep my concentration steady.

Small bowls of vegetarian Pad Thai are quietly enjoyed after many blessings to those who prepared the meal, Mother Earth, etc. as well as the traditional Buddhist chants before all meals. Jo Lee sings, we repeat, and he heads off after leading the service for the monks do not consume anything other than tea/water after noon. We sup in silence. Another two hours of practice after dinner and then bed at 10pm. We arise at 5am.

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” -Buddha

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