Monday, September 20, 2010

Finding my center at Suan Mokkh, Thailand

Eileen Paat (
Visiting Suan Mokkh by motorcycle (a dangerous endeavor only for reckless retreatants)

Suan Mokkh, roughly translated as "Garden of Liberation," is popular among both Thai locals and Western foreigners for its meditation retreats held the first ten days of every month.

Every newbie in Bangkok has to go through the path of least resistance. That is, if you have to shift your entire life and work there for a period of time, you are bound to encounter Buddhism at one point, and end up studying or living it.

What is it about Buddhism that seems to attract Westerners and even Asian Christians to predominantly Buddhist countries like Thailand? Is it the promise of a life devoid of suffering? Is it the desire to break the endless cycle of karma and retribution, to be born again and again as a human, animal, or even insect?

Path of peace offering a way to solace from the chaos of the world (Suan Mokkh - IDH).

These were the questions that went through my mind when I started studying meditation and Buddhism almost 15 years ago. The clich├ęd images of immovable people sitting serenely under a Bodhi tree (the kind of tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment) are still mesmerizing. But I have since realized that practicing meditation in the sometimes back-breaking lotus position is only a small part of Buddhism.

Spiritual Sanctuary in the Forest
To learn exactly what Buddhism had to offer, I decided to do the unthinkable -- a 10-day meditation retreat at Suan Mokkh. [Total cost for food and lodging: $65*]. This famous Buddhist hermitage is located in a forest in the province of Songkhla, southern Thailand.

At the time, I had just left a very problematic job and was going to start a new one. I wanted a clean slate by going into a monastery and meditating on my life and future.

I first heard of Suan Mokkh from a colleague at a business newspaper where I worked. A serene and soft-spoken English-language editor who was into meditation, he recommended Suan Mokkh when he found out I wanted to learn more about Buddhist meditation.

This forest monastery was established in 1932 by the Ven. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a famous Thai Buddhist monk. He practiced and preached Insight (Vipassana) Meditation as a way of finding inner peace through non-attachment to the "I" and mine of material things, as well as finding one's place in this chaotic world.

He founded it on the principle of quieting the mind and focusing on one's center through quiet and natural in-and-out nasal breathing. In the process, one empties the mind of all thoughts and ends up being at one with the world.

Focus and empty - without phones and gadgets, peace is possible (Suan Mokkh - IDH).

The long road to Suan Mokkh
My journey to Suan Mokkh began at the train station at Hua Hin, a seaside town three hours south of Bangkok. It was an old wooden train station with a single platform and a station manager who went missing whenever you needed him. The place was so remote and deserted that when the train chugged its way into the station, I was not aware that it was the one I was supposed to board, so I missed my train.

When the station manager told me the next one might take a while, I decided to take the bus. At that time the buses passing through Hua Hin going south of Thailand were little rickety contraptions. My destination was a good seven to eight hours away, so I took one of the overnight buses that stopped twice for meal breaks, arriving in some forgotten town near Surat Thani at daybreak.

The funny thing was, the passengers had to transfer to another bus, one even more disheveled and rickety, filled with sleeping farmers, villagers, and a few chickens. When the bus dropped me off in the middle of a long stretch of highway, with only coconut trees and a little hut or two nearby, I was -- to put it mildly -- lost.

I was told that Suan Mokkh is located on the highway going to Surat Thani, about six kilometers from the nearest town of Chaiya. Standing on the roadside, I noticed an old building beside a wat (temple) at the end of a path on my right. I asked a monk sitting in one of the rooms inside the building for directions... More>>

No comments: