Life in a Buddhist temple – meditation retreat in Wat Prayong

Wat Prayong Mee Chea Brigitte retreat Bangkok

Have you ever thought of leaving the hustle and bustle of the city behind for a while to slow down a bit and clear your mind? Yes, simply stepping out of your everyday life, forgetting all your problems and only listening to the vioice within. People who regularly meditate are able to turn inwards and exclude the outside world for a couple of minutes even hours every day, but the rest of us need a bit more drastic steps to calm our mind.

After 10 months of perpetual traveling, as the day of our return to our country was approaching, we definitely needed a quiet place to meditate on all the things happened to us during the last year. That is why we decided to take part in a meditation retreat in Wat Prayong, a Buddhist temple 40 km from Bangkok.

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You can spend a certain amount of time in a Buddhist temple – also as a non-Buddhist, European tourist – in almost all regions of Thailand, there are places where you do not even need to register in advance. The participation is basically free of charge, but a small donation is highly appreciated. When choosing the right temple, you should take into consideration the fact that monks do not speak English everywhere. The Meditation Centre in Wat Prayong is managed by an Austrian nun, Mae Chee Brigitte, who speaks fluent English, German and Thai as well, so communication was not a problem here at all.

The time we spent in Wat Prayong was by no means the easiest days of my life, but it was character-forming and life-changing.

Why?

As I mentioned before, you do not need to be Buddhist to spend time in a Buddhist temple. However, you do need to accept the rules of the religion – at least for the short amount of time you stay there. Right after we arrived we put on white clothes and took the pledge to live according to the 8 precepts  Buddhist nuns (mae chee) live by in the following 6 days. (* In Thailand nuns are not allowed to have a full ordination to be a bhikkhuni , therefore women wishing to live in a temple can only be mae chees, who need to keep much fewer rules, but they are not well accepted by the Thai society.)

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We were obliged to refrain from the following things: destroying living creatures, taking what is not ours, all forms of sexual activity, incorrect speech, intoxicating drinks and drugs, eating at the forbidden time (which means after noon), dancing, listening to music, singing,  watching movies, wearing make-up or perfume (basically everything you would only use out of vanity) and sleeping on a high, luxurious sleeping place (which simply means any kind of normal bed).

Do you ask yourself what was allowed to do at all? Indeed, if I had to live my real life by these rules, I would probably go insane within a short amount of time, but interestingly, I missed very few things while staying in the temple.

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Our daily program was as follows:

We needed to get up at 4:20 a.m. at the latest because the first chanting started at 4:30. It was in Thai and Pali carried out by one of the monks but we could also join in. Especially at the beginning joining in seemed to be an impossible task, as we didn’t understand a word, but with the help of the chanting book we improved a lot and by the end of the retreat we started to enjoy it and the “tunes” got stuck in our heads for weeks. The next activity was karma yoga starting at 6 am; it is basically working meditation: eg. sweeping dry leaves focusing on the sweeping itself instead of its completion. Everyone who knows me can verify: I hate all kinds of household chores, still this 1 hour of karma yoga was one of the best parts of my days. I still cannot comprehend why.

Afterwards, we had breakfast at 7:30. A Buddhist monk must keep 227 rules, and one of these rules is that they cannot have any contact with money, meaning that they are not allowed to buy anything, not even food. Everything landing on the dining table at a temple comes from the alms given by the people of the surrounding villages. Luckily, Thai people are very generous, as giving alms to the monks is considered to have a good impact on their karma.

After finishing our breakfast we had walking meditation, which is as simple as it sounds: walking focusing only on our movements, lifting the foot and putting it back on the ground. From 10 we went on with meditation but this time in sitting position. Surprisingly, this form of meditation proved to be the hardest for most of us – physically and spiritually as well. While sitting there is no physical activity whatsoever; only you, your breathing and your perpetually wandering thoughts.

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At 11 a.m. we had lunch, which was the last proper meal of the day, because after noon we were not allowed to put any solid food into our mouth, only soy milk or coffee. Finishing our lunch we could relax until 2 p.m., then we did yoga and from 3 p.m. another session of sitting meditation. Most of the activities were instructed by Mae Chee Brigitte herself, except for this meditation starting at 3. It was guided by an Irish monk Prah Dhammasaro, who has been living in the woods not far from Bangkok by himself for years. He is an erudite teacher; an introvert man who takes all precepts he need to keep as a monk very seriously; even rules that are hard to accept for a western woman: a monk is not allowed to take anything directly from the hands of a woman. If a woman wants to give something to a monk, she needs to put the object onto a trail or on the floor so that the monk can take it from there.

Although the program of the retreat was naturally intertwined by the rules and principles of Buddhism, while listening to the teachings and doing the meditations we felt totally free and by no means forced to believe in anything we do not already believe. Our teachers encouraged us to recognize our own inner voice and listen to it, because the wisdom is already in us. The metta or loving kindness meditation was about self love and love for all living creatures. (You can download similar meditations here.)

At 5p.m. the daily program went on with another chanting session, then with sitting or lying meditation from 6:30 pm. In spite of the fact, that our days were not very demanding physically, the constant concentration made us all extremely tired. After the 8 p.m. chanting we fell into our bed – or rather onto our paper-thin mattress, which served as our makeshift bed – dog-tired.

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Comfort was not a priority during that week in Wat Prayong, neither entertainment nor external beauty. These things lost their value somehow. We focused on much deeper issues. Long suppressed aggression and feelings came up in many of us. Silence – as comforting as it is – can be very scary too. Most people spend extremely little time in silence, even then their heads are full of their daily problems. The magic happens when the problems disappear, and silence sets in. You can only hear your inner voice that talks about your real feelings. I think many people do not even know this voice.

We got so much from these couple of days, and we were more than happy to donate money to the temple on the last day. We knew that our money would land in the best possible place.  Mae Chee Brigitte – even if she is a nun who receives very little respect from the society – works on lots of social projects. She supports people with AIDS, during the big floods in 2011-12 she provided lots of people with food and other necessary items for several weeks and 4 houses, a community house and a kindergarten were also built from the money raised by her fund.  Beyond that, she has been supporting hundreds of her fellow-mae chees – who are completely at the mercy of the temple they live in – with a little monthly allowance for years.

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While from September to February Mae Chee Brigitte stays in Wat Prayong taking good care of the lay people arriving in the temple for the retreats, she spends spring and summer travelling around the world, as she receives invitations from all corners of the Earth, which she accepts with pleasure.

If you would like to meet this unbelievably positive and free spirit, but you cannot really afford to go to Thailand, you can check out the program of her tour 2015 here which contains plenty of European destinations.

Translation of the article “Bepillantás egy buddhista kolostor életébe” by Nora Nagy, published on 15th January in the online magazin Womanity on www.legjobboldalad.hu.

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