Monday, 19 September 2011

Wat Umong (Suan Buddhadamma): Practical Information

I have found that the current information online regarding the mediation retreat at Wat Umong to be out of date. The official website at is mostly in Thai although I have found that the 'posts' on the right hand side do contain some English, although, it still took me time to find the right phone number and there are few details given. I have taken the information leaflet available at the centre and typed out the information below as well as adding some of my own comments or information.

Wat Umong has founded a Meditation Centre with the purpose of propagating both theoretical and practical Buddhism and aiming to promote peace and happiness of human beings. The centre was accepted as the seventh provincial meditation centre by the Royal Thai Sangha Organization since 2008.

The Centres Activities

Dhamma Preaching
The centre always responds to preach the Dhamma to both Thais and foreigners

Vipassana Meditation
Wat Umong Meditation Centre is a forest monastery in the foothills. Meditators can enjoy the peaceful nature of the forest scenery within the area of the monastery. Vipassama Meditation will be based on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and is accorded with nature.

Preparing for the meditation course
  1. Wear modest white clothes (These are available for purchase at the centre and the cost for male trouser and shirt is 300 baht)
  2. Bring personal items; soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, towel, watch, razor, shaving cream
    Limited toiletries are available at the centre's office and there are some shops nearby but I definitely recommend bringing tea/hot chocolate/coffee. A wide variety of different coffee sachets are available at the office again, in addition to ovaltine. A 'tea break' is written into the schedule but no tea is provided – it is simply a time when you are allowed a short break. It definitely helps keep the hunger at bay and is something to look forward to! Hot water is available in the dorms and if you are staying for an extended period perhaps a flask / larger cup would come in useful also.
  3. Bring necessary medicine for self's disease retreat

Responsibilities of the meditator
  1. Must be in good mental condition
  2. Must have faith to practice meditation
  3. Must be willing to adjust to new environment
  4. Must be respectful, modest and posses and simple lifestyle
  5. Must not have distraction from major health concerns

You should remember you are coming into a monastic setting and be mindful of what that means. The monks will not hesitate to ask you to leave if you behave inappropriately. One couple left before they were asked to leave for being too much of a couple while at the centre. I don't mean touching or anything overt, essentially just continuing to act like a couple, pawing over each other constantly.

Registration upon arrival
  1. Providing an I.D card or passport
  2. Fulfilling an application form clearly
  3. To receive a certificate of course completion, meditators must be sure to indicate this on the registration form.
  4. Meditators also may register by mail prior to arrival at the centre

  1. Observe the eight precepts strictly
  2. Do not smoke, consume alcohol or drugs
  3. Please control the body, speech and mind.
  4. Please keep silence while eating
  5. Follow the meditation centre routine strictly
    In my limited experience, this is not strictly enforced. It is believed that motivation to meditate and stick to the schedule should be largely intrinsic. As a result, there will not usually be anyone looking over your shoulder all of the time. Then again, if you showed blatant disregard for the schedule consistently you could be asked to leave. For long term meditators there is probably more flexibility, especially as you may need time to study Dhamma at the temple library or in your room. By that time, they will probably also know you are serious.

  1. Please read books that focus only on meditation and the present meditation retreat
  2. If the meditator has tasks or responsibilities away from the meditation retreat, please report to the teacher.
  3. Maintain quietness, please do not play music with speakers or cell phones.
  4. Do not use cell phones will practising meditation.

The Schedule of Practice

Morning Session (am)
4:00 Wake up time
05:00 – 07:00 Chanting / Meditation Practice
07:00 – 07:20 Cleaning
07:30 – 08:00 Breakfast time
08:00 – 09:00 Relaxation
09:00 – 11:00 Meditation Practice
11:30 – 12:00 Lunch Time
12:00 – 01:30 Relaxation
Afternoon Session (pm)
01:30 – 03:00 Meditation Practice
03:00 – 03:15 Tea Break
03:15 – 04:30 Meditation Practice
04:30 – 06:00 Breaking time
Evening Session
06:00 – 07:00 Chanting / Dhamma Discussion (With main meditation teacher)
07:00 – 07:15 Tea Break
07:15 – 09:00 Meditation Practice
09:00 Bedtime

During 'meditation practice' you are free to do any kind of meditation – sitting, standing, walking mainly. At one point, I simply went for a long walk in the forest and tried to remain mindful of my surroundings and my monkey mind.

Contact Information
Telephone: 053-810965 / 085-1076045 / 087-2343833

Applicants should arrive at the centre at 8:00am. Meditation instruction time at 8:30am.

When I called enquiring about room availability I was told I could arrive at 12 noon but the official arrival time is 8:00am. As it happens, these times are the relaxation times that are scheduled after each meal. Note that the above number should put you through to the correct office where English is spoken. I am not sure what the 'meditation instruction' at 8:30 refers to as I never received any form of instruction when I arrived or the morning after. I was not told where my options for meditation were or where meals were eaten (or served) or, in fact, any information at all. I was just given the leaflet with the timetable on and pointed to my room. Do not worry though, it is not hard to work everything out for yourself.

How Do I get to Wat Umong?
The easiest way to get to Wat Umong is by tuk tuk as this will take you (and your potentially cumbersome bag) 'door to door'. Another option would be to hail a red bus to take you along the main road, from there it is quite a long walk up to the temple. I have seen some red buses at Wat Umong but I do not know how you would find one in Chiang Mai going directly there unless you charter one yourself. I paid 120 baht for a tuk tuk (original price 150) but I didn't really put much effort into negotiation.

What are the facilities like? (rooms / bathrooms)
The dormitory was more modern than I had expected with four individual bathrooms within the male dorm that included western toilets (bucket) and cold showers (rather than a Mandi / well). The bed is on the floor, although you have more than enough padding to make it comfortable and I am fairly sure you can request more if needed. You also get a standard pillow and fleece blanket. Each room has a ceiling fan and the dorms include a filtered water dispenser which has both hot and cold water. As far as I am aware it is up to guests to keep things clean and tidy which means sometimes they aren't. My room obviously had not been cleaned or swept by the previous occupants(s) so a good clean was the first thing I did when I arrived. If I had been staying longer than four days I would have probably got the mop out and cleaned the ceiling fan.

What do we eat and where?
As per the schedule above, meals are served at 7:30 and 11:30 respectively and you should not really eat past 12 noon. I found the food to be simple and delicious most of the time and I can only think of one dish that I did not like. The food is not vegetarian as such, although I can only think of two occasions when meat was involved and perhaps another two when tofu was included. Each person has a sort of metallic tray with different segments for each portion of food. This is prepared and served in advance for you (although there is sometimes the option of giving yourself extra) so you simply walk into the serving area and pick up a tray. Food is eaten on the floor in the same room as the monks. You should make sure you are always prompt to each meal to avoid keeping them waiting. There are a few shops and cafes near the temple where you can purchase additional food (meals, snacks, drinks) and other items (soap, washing powder).

Where can I practice meditation?
There are three main halls for meditation practice and all of these are fully or semi enclosed. The central hall seems to be the oldest and is very plain but peaceful and secluded. The newest hall is walled half way and has mosquito netting the remaining way up to the ceiling which gives it more of an open air, natural feel. There are ceiling fans in this hall and it is quite clean and modern. The foreigners receive meditation instruction and practice chanting here. The third hall is underneath the female dorm and is where meals are eaten. I did not practice meditation here and this is where Thai instruction and chanting takes place. You can practice both walking, sitting and standing mediation in each hall. In addition to the halls, there is a 'walking meditation garden' constructed outside the foreigner hall. Otherwise, you are free to wonder the temple grounds and practice in any suitable location.

Is there a start and end date to the retreat?
Essentially, It is a 'rolling' retreat where you can stay as short or long as you like. During my stay at Wat Umong there was a German resident who had stayed 6 weeks but did not intend to leave in the near future. They told me most of the other foreigners (and many Thai's) stayed on a more short term basis.

Can I practice other forms of meditation at Wat Umong?
I went to Wat Umong to continue practising Anapanasati introduced to me at Suan Mokkh (per Buddhadasa Bikkhu's teaching). I am very new to meditation and read the style taught at Wat Umong is very similar to that taught at Suan Mokkh but this is not the case. This did not seem to be a problem in itself, although the meditation teacher was not able to assist in my practice. The teacher did say that I was welcome to stay at the centre and practice for as long as I pleased. If you demonstrate that you are serious about your practice, I do not think it will be a problem. I was given some assistance by another monk at the centre after he asked how my meditation 'was going'.

Do I need to pay for my stay? how much?
The centre is run on a donation basis only. If you feel that you would like to donate to cover the cost of your stay you can do so at the office on the day that you leave. It is the first time I have donated so simply took the amount I would have paid at my guest house in Chiang Mai as well as a small amount for the cost of food. If I had been staying for longer than four days, I would not have used this method of calculation and the amount per day probably would have worked out much less.

How do I get back to Chiang Mai?
Getting back to Chiang Mai after the retreat is easier than getting to Wat Umong. At the main entrance (about 50 metres from the meditation centre) there are often one or two tuk-tuk drivers who will take you to old town for 100 baht (I didn't negotiate). The cheapest option would be to walk the 1 or 2 kilometres to the main road and hail a red bus. I was told by a monk that this should cost around 20 baht.

This information is current as of September 20th 2011

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Suan Mokkh: Five minutes that could have been

Hello Dhama Friends,

There are various reasons I decided to come to Suan Mokkh and try meditation but I guess you could say I just want to know my own mind. At times, it has felt like the only confusion I experience is from within, where there I often seem to have conflicting, overwhelming thoughts and feelings. I have been too anxious about life itself; confused at which direction I really want to take. There is no one event that has motivated to come here, I have suffered no great loss nor have I hit rock bottom. I do, however, feel the pressure of my situation and the weight of expectation. I cannot shake the feeling that I am supposed to have my future planned out, that I am supposed to know which path to take and how to take it. I know I am not alone in feeling this way.

I have tried to approach the retreat without any expectations which may have been easier as I have no prior experience with meditation or Buddhism. I am aware that meditation will not provide the answers to my questions but I hope that it will allow me to see which questions really matter. I hope that if I am able to let go of the anxieties and the distractions in my mind, the clarity of thought that will follow will enable me to move forward.

In terms of the retreat itself, I found that in the first three or four days my mind was surprisingly receptive to watching the breath. I did not feel I was constantly having to gently pull my mind back and found that my main issue was not being able to sit still long enough to go deeper into my breathing. This was not so much to do with pain but more to do with my own restless nature – it seems that if my mind is still, my body compensates. I also experienced something that really surprised me and showed the power of breathing in being able to relax the body. I had painful stomach cramps for around two days and was considering asking if I could just go to bed during evening meditation. I decided that I could at least attempt to stand at the back but when it came to it, I thought I may as well try and sit. This turned out to be one of my best sessions and the thirty minutes flew by in an instant. Once the bell rang to signal the end of meditation, I opened my eyes and was surprised that all the pain had gone.

The remaining days of the retreat had more of an erratic, roller-coaster quality about them . On one day It was as if someone had flicked the 'off' switch in my mind. I could not follow the breath or even day dream. It was on this day that I considered leaving and I think I may have exacerbated the situation further through anxiety and worry. A new day brings a fresh start and my meditation tended to be more variable from this point. I would feel as it meditation was going well one morning and by the afternoon feel as if I couldn't do it at all.

In the end though, however frustrating my meditation tended to be, I would simply rest for a few minutes then try again. This meant that sometimes my whole session was spent attempting to begin, failing, resting, then starting again. For me, this was the only option. I want my future to involve meditation and, if I had given up at this point, I would have essentially been giving up on that future. I imagine that most of the beginners here will have also struggled with the pain and I am no exception. On one particular day it felt as if everything involves in sitting or walking was on fire. The addition of one hour of yoga to the retreat was essential for me and I looked forward to it every morning.

During the past 10 days, when my mind has wondered, it has felt as if I experienced the full range of distractions; from food and drink through to replaying TV series in my mind. It really felt as if my mind was gradually increasing the intensity of these thoughts as I managed to regain composure after each wondering. By far the strangest 'monkey mind' episode occurred twice in the second half of the retreat. I would be seeing some fictional TV or movie scene (at least it felt like that) but from a first person perspective where the characters would be talking at me directly, often close to “my face”. This seemed to happen when I was on the edge between meditation and sleep so perhaps it was more of a dream than anything. I am sure I was never full asleep as I regained my mindfullness almost as soon as these started.

I enjoyed the Dhamma talks immensely and I think it is important to know some of the theory behind our meditation. I would also like to echo others sentiments in saying that the food here was excellent and, although I cannot claim to have liked every dish, I enjoyed being taken on a ten day Thai culinary journey through vegetarianism. Also, I found myself being quietly amused by how excited a group of fully grown men can become over hot chocolate. I would also like to thank all of the staff and teachers here who have made the experience so incredible as well as all of you for sharing the experience with me.

At the end of the 10 day retreat, on the 10th evening, each participant has the opportunity (5 minutes) to share their experiences and to provide general feedback on what they thought of their time spent at Suan Mokkh. Only 6 or 7 people were willing to stand up and speak to the rest of us and I was the last. It took me until the dying moments before I found the courage to take the lonely walk up to the microphone. The above is not what is said and probably only borrows one or two sentences from the original. In all honesty, after 10 days of minimal stimulation, having to step out of my comfort zone and speak in public was obviously too much for me to handle. Even immediately after stepping away from the microphone I could not have told you exactly what I had just said. All I know is that it would have been from the heart, very unpolished and punctuated with a multitude of 'errrs'. 

Official retreat website: