Thailand is a perfect country to learn about Buddhist meditation practices. There are many monasteries so a lot of choice and the climate is comfortable to meditate in. I always wanted to stay in a monastery to experience Buddhist life. So when I was travelling on my own and had time I decided to try it. I went into a monastery for 5 days in Bangkok. I will tell you about my experience, explain how it works and give some tips on staying in a monastery.
A day in a monastery
Going into a monastery was an easy decision but the actual stay was far from that. I went from not meditating at all to meditating 9 hours per day. A monk guided me through my stay. It was much harder than I expected because in the monastery you are not supposed to speak to other people.
The alarm goes off very early when staying in a monastery. Most people get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to start their first meditation. There were separate bedrooms for Thai students and foreign students and for men and women. Foreigners can skip the first meditation session because the monks figured that 9 hours of meditation per day was already enough. The staff serves breakfast around 6 o’clock in the morning. Food is usually very simple because it’s only supposed to be nutricious. After breakfast it was time for our first meditation until lunchtime.
Me practicing sitting Vapassana meditation at Wat Mahathat.
Not technically the afternoon but as you get up early it seems to be afternoon. Lunch is served at 10.30 because monks do not eat after midday (although I saw monks taking food into their bedroom). Before we could start eating there was a sort of prayer that took 15 minutes, the food would get cold when we were allowed to start eating. After lunchtime we basically meditated with breaks in-between until bedtime. Every day at 4 o’clock in the afternoon I had a meeting with the monk that guided me and after that we were allowed to drink a kind of power shake which was needed not to fall asleep during meditation. I’m not proud of it but it has happened to me. This is what a basic day in a meditation center looks like.
In the evening we would drink a cup of warm chocolate milk and sit around a table talking quietly. No one explained it but we thought we were not supposed to speak. There were some Thai women that were helping us understand life in the meditation center. Most of them stayed in the monastery for a few weeks every year since they were little. If you want to stay in a monastery there are a few rules you ought to obey.
Rules to obey
When you stay in a monastery you agree to obey by the five precepts. The five precepts are:
- Do not kill.
- Abstain from taking what is not given to you.
- No sexual activities
- Do not lie
- No consuming of alcohol
The 5 precepts might sound easy but some of them can be a challenge. Of course it is logical not to kill but what do you do when there is an ant walking on your food, that was a problem that I encountered. I figured I was not going to kill it but I had to find a way to get it off my food. I got it off alive but unfortunately I’m sure I damaged it which might even be more cruel.
The 5 rules are easy but serious Buddhists also practice or at least try to practice the three additional precepts.
- Do not eat after midday – in most monasteries they will only provide breakfast, lunch and maybe something to drink in the afternoon.
- No dancing, singing, listening to music or any other entertainment.
- Do not sleep in a luxury bed – just a thin mat is offered to sleep on. (surprisingly comfortable)
These precepts help to focus better on your meditation. It is best to focus completely on yourself when meditating thoughts arise in your mind. If you talk a lot or eat too much this will distract you from your meditation because more and more thoughts will arise. It is easier to focus when you don’t do anything distractive before starting.
Type of meditation
In meditation centers in Thailand there are two types of meditation practiced:
It literally means ‘see things how they really are’. Vipassana is a mindfulness meditation. It emphasizes awareness of the breath and teaches you to control your thoughts and external stimuli when they arise. Where I was staying this was the used meditation method. There were four ways to meditate: sitting, walking, standing and lying meditation.
Ways to practise Vapassana: Lying, Sitting, Walking and Standing meditation.
This type of meditation is based on concentration. While meditating according to the Samatha method you focus on a single object.
Where to stay in a monastery?
Most backpackers go to monasteries in the north of Thailand near Chiang Mai. There are great facilities that have special programs for foreigners. Nowadays it is very popular so you have to book well in advance to get a spot.
If I would stay in a monastery again I would probably go to Chiang Mai. Although Bangkok has got plenty of monasteries so there are enough opportunities. I went to the Wat Mahathat temple which is in the center of Bangkok just north of the Grand Palace. It houses the first Buddhist university and a meditation center.
What to wear?
Traditionally students in a meditation center wear white clothes. It might be more comfortable for you to buy your own which you should do before you go into the monastery because you cannot leave the monastery. Most monasteries have got clothes to wear if you haven’t got your own. You can buy or borrow them from the monastery. Every few days you can take a clean shirt and pants. I would recommend you to borrow some from the center unless you normally wear white clothes. Otherwise you have to carry it around in your backpack again.
Cost of staying in a monastery
Staying in a monastery is usually free of charge but they do expect you to leave a donation.
How long to stay?
You can stay in the monastery for as long as you want, for just a day or a few weeks. For people who have never meditated it’s best to follow a session to see if you like it before commiting to stay a few days. Most monasteries offer sessions of one hour for beginners. If you truly want to feel what it is like to live in a monastery I would recommend you to stay 3 full days. More experienced meditators could probably stay longer but I’m sure they know that best themselves.
Thai Buddists usually stay much longer in the monasteries. Many young Buddhists go into the monastery when they reach a certain age. When I was staying in Wat Mahathat I got to witness a boy going into the monastery.
Traditionally the boy’s head is shaved by a monk. Only men were allowed to attend.
The boy was guided to the temple by his family. There were monks that made music while they walked around the temple. Inside the temple they conducted a ceremony.
The family of the boy was very proud and brought all kinds of gifts for the monks.
Are you interested in staying in a monastery and have more questions? Or have you stayed in a monastery before I would like to hear your experiences? Leave a comment.