For many people, a 10-day long silent Vipassana meditation retreat is a life-changing and eye-opening experience. I had done a lot of different types of meditation before I joined a 10-day Vipassana course in Thailand, so it wasn’t all totally new to me. But it was still quite challenging, and the methods of sitting and walking meditation taught were something I wanted to learn and try out.
I chose to do the retreat at Wat Ram Poeng in Chiang Mai because the program had a good reputation. This is also a very authentic Buddhist style Vipassana course, which is what I was looking for. If you would feel uncomfortable bowing to a senior monk or taking temporary vows of moral conduct then this retreat would not be for you. However, I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for a long time, so I was much more interested in a retreat where the tradition would be honored properly and not watered down.
If you are new to Vipassana meditation, you may be wondering what is meant by the term “Vipassana“. It is a word of Indian origin which means “seeing clearly”, and it’s often translated as “insight”. All the meditation systems in the world can be categorized into two types: Samatha and Vipassana. Many different spiritual traditions and religions practice Samatha meditation in various forms. Samatha can be translated as “calm abiding”. It is a meditation that uses single-pointed focus to calm down the body and the mind. The point of focus can be on the breath, an object, or a mental image. It is said that the power of concentration from Samatha meditation can be so strong that the meditator can develop extra-ordinary powers as a side effect.
Vipassana meditation, however, is unique to Buddhism. Rather than completely shutting out the outside world, a yogi practicing Vipassana seeks to see the true nature of all phenomena. This is done by maintaining mindfulness and contemplating one or more of four areas, which are also called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness:
- Body (including any movement such as breathing)
- Feelings or Sensations
- Mind or Consciousness
- Objects of Thought (dharmas)
With respect to these objects of contemplation, there are three characteristics which will be seen in each:
Seeing that these three characteristics are present in every object of mindfulness is what is meant by insight, or Vipasanna.
Vipassana is taught in various different methods or traditions. The style of Vipassana taught at Wat Ram Poeng is based on the type made famous by the 20th century Burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw. It uses alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation. In the beginning you start doing each for short periods of just 10 or 15 minutes, but by the end of the 10 days you are sitting and then walking for up to an hour at a time. The instructions start very simple and then build. Each evening you go and report to the abbot of the temple, who asks you about your experience and gives you fresh instructions for the next 24 hour period.
For example, in the sitting meditation for the first day we were told to simply focus on “rising” and “falling” of the abdomen as one breathes. When you notice that you have been thinking about something else, you just make a note “thinking, thinking”. This helps you to realize that all of your internal dialogue is simple made up of temporary thoughts that come up and disappear again. The internal dialogue is just “thinking”. It is not “me”, “mine” or “myself”.
Wat Ram Poeng is a very good place to go if you want a serious, well-structured meditation retreat. You will have to follow the Ten Buddhist Precepts for laypersons, which include no eating solid foods after noon. I thought this would be difficult, but it wasn’t really that hard to do. You can eat as much as you want for breakfast and lunch. Then in the early evening there was usually some type of thick liquid refreshment available, such as pumpkin juice or soy milk. Still, I think I lost about 2 kilograms over the 10 days, so if you’re looking to lose some weight I definitely recommend trying t eliminate or cut back on carbs in the evening.
It is not necessarily beneficial to discuss meditation experiences because they can differ widely between individuals. If I told you everything that I felt in meditation it could give you unnecessary hopes or fears going into your own meditation retreat. I will just mention two things though, that I thought were notable. First one is I had some pain during the sitting meditation that I needed to overcome. From my understanding it is common for people to have some discomfort during sitting meditation. It could be pain in your legs, or in your back or shoulders from less than perfect posture. In my case, I was having a strange type of chest pain. It seemed to come from trying so hard to focus on my breathing that I wasn’t allowing my body to just breathe naturally. The lesson here is don’t try to control your breath. Simply pay attention to it.
The second thing that happened was after a few days I started to have a light, kind of euphoric feeling. I felt calm, and at peace. The world seemed beautiful. As I was walking across the temple grounds, I happened to pass by the monk in charge of training foreign meditators. I greeted him with a warm smile, which he rebuked me for. “Eyes down. You are meditator,” he said sternly. It hurt ever so slightly at the time, but he was correct that I had lost some of my mindfulness.
The daily routine was as follows:
- 4 AM – Wake up, perform mindful prostrations, then walking meditation, followed by sitting meditation in even intervals.
- 6 AM – Breakfast bell. There are some Buddhist prayers before the meal starts around 6:30
- After eating, wash your dishes, then you are expected to sweep up the ground around by the dormitory.
- Walking and sitting meditation until lunch
- 10:30 AM lunch bell. You must finish eating solid food before noon.
- Walking and sitting meditation until reporting.
- Reporting can be at different times in the afternoon. It depends on the abbot’s schedule.
- More walking and sitting meditation until 10 PM.
For accommodations, they had simple fan cooled rooms. Foreign meditators (or “yogis” as they are called at the temple) are housed in a different area than the Thai yogis. You have your own room, so there is little distraction. Each room had a convenient covered walkway as part of the balcony (or below the balcony for rooms on the ground floor.) You are allowed to practice sitting and walking pretty much anywhere on the temple grounds: Under a tree, in the assembly hall, in the large library building, etc. I usually chose to do my walking and sitting at my dorm room because it was less distracting and more comfortable. Sitting under a tree to meditate sounds nice until you get ants crawling over your legs. The library building was cool and had plenty of room, but when I went there I found that it is too easy to get distracted by seeing a bunch of other people walking in super slow motion.
Some other things to note about staying at the temple:
- You must wear all white clothing, which can easily be purchased in town.
- You need to have an electric timer. You can’t use a timer app on a smart phone.
- Talking is strongly discouraged. Some people sit and talk while having coffee after breakfast, but they really are not supposed to.
- Vegetarian food is available, and so is food with meat. So you have a choice.
- Payment for the course is by donation. When you leave the temple after finishing your retreat please give a donation at the temple office for whatever amount you feel appropriate.
One final interesting thing I noticed about Wat Ram Poeng was that they had a number of female monks staying there. In Thailand, one often sees nuns, or mae-chii, who wear white and hold the 10 precepts. It is very rare to see fully-ordained female monks, or bhikkhuni, who wear yellow or brown robes. In the days of the Buddha, there was a community of bhikkhuni, however, their ordination lineage in the Theravada countries was broken. And so the reintroduction of the bhikkhuni lineage from the Mahayana countries into the Theravada countries such as Thailand is a slow and somewhat controversial process.
Information on Retreats in Chiang Mai
Many people have written asking for dates of retreats and how to sign up for one. I do NOT work for the temple, so I don’t know their exact schedule, but from my experience, they have people starting new retreats all the time on a weekly basis or even more frequently. For more information about the Vipassana meditation courses offered at Wat Ram Poeng, please see the temple’s website. If you have specific questions, it would be better to contact the temple directly. If you’re coming to Chiang Mai, it is easy enough to get a tuk-tuk to take you directly to the temple. Then you can pay a visit to the Foreign Meditation Office located near the back of the temple grounds, where the monk in charge of registering foreign meditators will be glad to help you out.
And if you’d like to read a good book to learn more about Vipassana meditation, I highly recommend In This Very Life : The Liberation Teachings of the Buddha by Sayadaw U. Pandita.
Best of luck to all who are planning to join a Vipassana retreat. I hope you all have a very rewarding experience and can gain some insight to benefit both yourself and all others you come in contact with in your life.