Vipassana Meditation at Wat Ram Poeng
Vipassana meditation is based on the original teaching from Buddha and has evolved over the last 2500 years to what it is now. I’m sure with the expert quality of teaching at Wat Ram Poeng it will continue to evolve for centuries more.
Life as a trainee Buddhist Monk/Nun for 26 days practising Vipassana Meditation almost every waking moment. Everyday we chanted, prayed, meditated, swept leaves and were silent. Fortunately as trainees we didn’t have to shave our heads… In Thailand 95% are Buddhist. There is no school curriculum for meditation, you only learn when you are ready and the whole world is welcome. They house you, feed you and teach you for free. There is a hope you will donate so they can continue their work, but no pressure or obligation.
The Temple is a palatial paradise. Every Monk and Nun is a gardener carefully maintaining the health of every flower, shrub and tree. A perfect eco balance of nature. Being a no kill zone, the tiniest of insects are safe, supplying food to: Lizards with bright blue dragon crested heads, Exotic tropical birds with beautiful song giving their everything with every chirp, Frogs croaking from the many water filled pots with lilies and tiny fish. In this Utopia, apparently there are also snakes and scorpions, but I didn’t see any.
I came to this course already having a personal meditation practice based on Tranquil meditation (awareness on a single object to help calm the mind, e.g. breath/mantra etc.). Insight Meditation or Vipassana, was new for me. Mindful concentration/synchronisation of your body & mind allowing your true self to gain control. Empowering ourselves to switch off physical pain/discomfort and realising we are not the voice feeding us fantasies of the future or re-living pain of the past. We can control all of that. If we concentrate hard enough we can switch off the noise, and master our true state of being. This course is a washing or cleansing of the mind. It’s OK to have past trauma, it’s OK to have blocks that are hard to release. These are what make us who we are, they separate us from others, they give us personality. This meditation gives us the space to filter our response to emotions such as; anger, jealousy or any other regretful, limiting knee jerk action. Here we learn to accept and find self-awareness, enough time to pause before we react, so we can control a kinder response with compassion. I am confident if the world was taught this meditation there would be far fewer arguments, fights and wars.
The level of students that come here are vast. Some people come to learn meditation for the first time and others have returned time and time again looking for life choices or dealing with past traumas. This course has a way of pulling up the past and giving you the chance to forgive, forget and move on. Many people have a healthy cry for the first week or more.
This course is very kind to us closed hip Westerners. I have heard many painful stories of other Temples making people sit crosslegged for 6 hours from day one. Here they start in 15 minute meditation blocks, all at your own pace with gentle encouragement to make you try harder. The Abbott always wants more but with lots of compassion. Even though, many beginners have physical difficulties for the first week or so as their hips and knees evolve to sit crosslegged. Some choose to sit in a chair which is an acceptable option. The Thai locals seem to sit crosslegged, half or full lotus easily. As a yoga teacher it was hard for me to see people suffering with sitting and struggling to find belly breathing. I wanted to help with straps and blocks but couldn’t. All being on our own journey we were not allowed to interact. Fortunately most people managed to work out ways to cope for themselves. Pain and suffering make you learn quickly. If you can, learn to sit crosslegged with a block or cushion comfortably for at least 30mins a few months before you go. I can help you with that if you wish 😉
The meditation consisted of 50% walking and 50% sitting, back-to-back to make one meditation set. Both meditations are mindful with full concentration on your body. If you think or get distracted you must stop, recognise you are thinking, then return to your focus. After a while I got into a rhythm. I found the most efficient ways to maximise my meditation hours and please the Abbott. Although it took a lot to please him, and his reward for hitting my target was another hour on tomorrow’s target. I found myself meditating while waiting, sitting in a chair if needed. Between 10-12 hours per day everyday meant taking every opportunity to meditate. The only way to get to 15 hours and match the monks was to cope with 4 hours sleep per day, which for me was not possible without losing the quality of my meditation.
We were supported very well by our teachers. The Foreign office had two Monks, a Nun and was headed by the Abbott of Chiang Mai. We were so lucky to have direct contact to the living Buddha himself. Lots of pressure to behave ceremoniously correctly made me feel nervous. It was like meeting the King. He is a living celebrity in the Buddhist community and ever so busy with constant celebrations and speeches. They taught us day-by-day, one step at a time, making sure we fully understood before taking us to the next level. Most people became overwhelmed with emotion at some stage, which is expected as we have nothing to distract us, mask or hide from our past issues. So everyday there was 1-2-1 reporting with the Abbott and support from the head Foreign office Monk. With Buddhist wisdom they enabled us to move on in our present moment without the hinderance of our past.
For my mind, the walking meditation was toughest. During the walking my mind was the most active. The walk was slow and my mind was fast. Trying to mindfully control my body, but in reality thoughts dominated the meditation and my instructions became a mantra in the background. Walking a bit like karate kid, slow brush-on brush-off kind of movements with your feet. Ninja like balancing the more advanced we got, making my lower legs ache. As the weeks progressed I developed toned stability muscles in my shins.
It wasn’t until the last week that I found the meditation in the walking. When I stopped checking my timer and chunks of time disappeared, my command for every stage of the step was all I heard. I got to the stage where the annoying little fruit flies that hover in-front of your eyes, didn’t bother me. One landed on my eyelashes for a while, it soon got bored and flew away, no need to be stressed by them really.
The sitting meditation started simple and became incredibly powerful for me. Learning to feel and move energy inside myself. I felt like a wizard throwing stars and spirals around my body. I felt I could heal myself with this energy. Now in control of my thoughts and choosing how to react to my emotions, it felt empowering. I feel more confident, have less expectation and more in the moment.
I discovered my monkey mind thinks I am a superhero. The Abbot named my chimp James Bond (because I’m English). 90% of my thoughts were fantasies of day-to-day activities playing out to make me amazing. Healing, being funny, important people thinking I’m gifted… Once I recognised this happening it made me chuckle every time, it could be worse I suppose… I know my chimp very well now and I’m happy he is a positive chap 🙂 By the last week my monkey mind was giving me random scenes and images that meant nothing to me. They were easy to get away from but they just kept coming. Like scenes from films, as if I was a CCTV camera just seeing mundane life pass by. My mind had no inspiration from the action-less activity to make meaningful stories.
Good days were heavenly, being immersed in nature, sunshine and the beautiful grounds of the Temple. Sometimes during meditation I had a strong cramping in my 3rd eye. When prostrating and holding my thumbs to my forehead I felt powerful tingling electricity through my whole brain. Feeling grateful, light headed, walking tall, buzzing with blissful meditative energy. I felt energy moving inside me. In meditations I felt my body was a vessel and energy was sloshing around like water inside a buckets of water, moving side to side and forwards and backwards. Totally mesmerising and consuming, even my thinking mind was quiet in amazement. Focused so intensely on my energy when someone sneezed my central nervous systems response was explosive. It was incredible to witness how my body so instantly reacts to noise. As powerful as a firework going off inside my body.
Bad days were like being in a self imposed school detention. Writing lines until you have aching bones, muscles and tendons. With the knowledge you have many weeks to go, and can leave anytime, takes lots of determination to stay and not give up. At the beginning I found it boring, frustrating and annoying. The silliness of the walking! I kept thinking of Monty Pythons ministry of funny walks, it was ridiculous! I wanted to do something… anything… it was so pointless and for so long. Feeling like a caged animal, my doing mind found it hard to concentrate so subtly on my body movements. This is the process of changing our minds from controlling us, and us gaining control of our mind. Learning to watch those rebellious feelings as they arise, stopping, forgiving our mind for rebelling, then continuing.
After a week or so I realised there was nothing else to do, just meditate. Being inspired by seeing everyone else apparently coping so well. Everyone looking so dedicated and constantly meditating with what looked like no breaks, reporting to the Abbott everyday with a ridiculous number of meditation hours. Appearing so calm and peaceful, was it only me in crisis?
The good and bad day ripples got smaller and smaller as we went through the course. Slowly entering a super relaxed state of emptiness. Super heathy, but from the outside appearing like a zombie. Head tilted at a strange angle, body pulsing with the beat of my heart, gormless expression but so much joy, peace and bliss inside.
Learning to eat mindfully
They cater for 100’s of people everyday. We were given delicious Thai or vegetarian food with fruit, snacks and endless tea/coffee. 2 meals per day and a soup or cocoa later in the afternoon. We got our food, waited and chanted as it got cold and our appetite grew. I learnt to eat mindfully, build a connection and appreciation for my food. We fasted most of the day, from 11:30am to 7am the next day. At first this was scary for me, but soon became easy, it was good to feel hungry. Too much food made me tired and I usually fell asleep while trying to meditate. Eating slowly and chewing very well meant I could eat less, have more energy and feel less sleepy. Simple things like learning to manage water in / water out. Drinking 2 cups of tea is as bad as not drinking. Nothing worse than needing a wee half way through a meditation or having a headache from being dehydrated.
The aim of a Monk is to liberate the body & mind, find their true self and build wisdom. To find peace in the present moment with meditation. To learn all things in nature suffer and are impermanent. This wisdom is very powerful but for me leads to a disrespect of their temporary body. I can’t help but think a bit of daily exercise and care for what they eat would do them all a lot of good. Even if it’s just for this temporary lifetime.
Every morning the Monks go out barefoot and collect donations in exchange for blessings. The locals support the Temple and are blessed in return as they kneel down under the Monks as they chant. The feeling of giving is important in the Thai Buddhist culture. Unfortunately many of the donations are sweets and snacks. I saw wheelbarrow loads of plastic wrapped sugary snacks being shared between the Monks. For the young monks I’m sure it was as fun as daily Trick or Treating. I guess they have to maintain that Buddha body somehow… Note to self: when I donate food, I will make sure it’s healthy.
There are many distractions at the Temple. I learned the distractions are useful for bringing me back to concentration. In this course we are not seeking meditation, we are constantly trying to be concentrated. When disturbed, I would usually catch myself thinking or fantasising, giving me the chance to stop, and get back to my focus. The Monks and Nuns know this, so they carry on with their duties with no regard for us meditators. Slamming doors, speaking loudly, chanting, moving furniture setting up for the next event.
With eyes open the walking meditation had many visual distractions and they were the most disturbing for me. I found everything at the Temple incredibly beautiful. Everywhere are wonderful statues, Buddhas, gold, red, black, shiny jewels, healthy green foliage, flowers and golden sunlight. I saw faces, demons and animals in the woodgrain of the floorboards. Being a photographer I saw pictures everywhere. Every tiny detail at the Temple is perfect and feels like someone’s life work. It was hard for me to get past my appreciation for all of this. It took over a week until I got used to the beauty, eventually it all became normal…
Avoiding mosquito time, sunset & sunrise. The mosquitos came to feast on us, knowing we were easy prey not being able to kill them. I got quite good at blowing them off my arms, if we splatted them we would be evicted from the Temple. We were in a Dengue area, so not just an itch to avoid. You soon learn the main function for the many electric fans in the meditation areas are to keep the mozzies off, they don’t fly so well, so can’t navigate landing on you in a breeze. After a while I got the set up just right, a fan to keep off the mozzies and heat, but not blowing so strong I lost the subtle feeling of energy in my body.
Thoughts, a constant stream of past trauma and future fantasies. Because of not being able to hide from past trauma by distracting myself, some meditations became a self-therapy session. After many of these sessions, I now feel I have forgiven all that have crossed me, and myself for reacting. I think most people on this course made big steps in coming to peace with their past.
Cicadas: (very loud crickets), hundreds of insects in the trees vibrating in groups at different frequencies. United in their frequency group, starting and stopping at an instant together. I am sure each group frequency was resonating with a different chakra. Close your eyes and it’s like an insect sound bath.
The Monks: getting around the temple in small trucks, golf buggies, mopeds and little electric cars. So there is traffic all around as they prepare for events, move supplies, do gardening and maintain the grounds.
Gong: we had the most impressive gong I have ever seen or heard. So every now and then people made it sing by dragging their fingers over the central dome, I got really good at it and I’m now inspired to do a sound bath facilitator course. I even gave it the occasional blast with the huge mallet. Such a deep sound every cell of my body resonated with the vibrations.
Being in Autumn there is the constant sound of sweeping: 100’s of brooms. Van loads of leaves get swept up everyday. Even as guests we swept for a minimum of 30 mins per day.
Timers: every meditator had a beeping timer, so an almost constant sound of dozens of timers beeping, being set or going off.
Chanting: the same chants taught to the new monks and the new monks practising. The sound became a mantra in my head constantly playing even though I didn’t know the words.
Sound distractions were there for you to see your reaction. Do you get annoyed or hear beauty? However you react you need to self-reflect and come back to zero every time.
The historic Stupa
The Stupa is a huge ancient multi-teared monument in the centre of the grounds in-front of the main Temple. It has ancient statues inset in rings at the top of the monument. It is treasured and respected by the Monks with a very high regard. Only men are allowed to step on the base plinth with bare feet, even today women ore not allowed. During our stay the Monks commissioned a crew of local builders to protect the statues from pigeons with rings of metal mesh. This meant metal and bamboo scaffolding needed to be constructed to enable the builders to carry out their work safely. They took a few days to do the work and with Buddha day celebrations approaching they had to speedily deconstruct the scaffolding. I watched as they rushed scraping the metal scaffold poles down the brick construction. Walking all over the Stupa with trainers, breaking ancient bricks and throwing heavy scaffold clips onto the precious plinth. I stood in horror, mouth open in shock, watching the disrespectful builders wrecking the ancient Stupa. To my surprise the Monks below carried on like nothing was happening. If this was a European religious monument heads would roll. But the Monks didn’t seem to care. Later the head Monk explained with no stress or loss, that it is the nature of builders, that’s how they behave, the Monks will repair it. The level of human understanding and lack of attachment was inspiring for me.
I have come to the realisation that the world would be a better place if the religious of the world could have babies. It seems, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and most other religions can’t make babies. Its a shame the kindest most loving, honest people abstain themselves from physical love. They would make the best parents ever.
We were lucky to be there for the Temple’s 531st birthday celebrations, many Buddha days (one every full moon, 2 half moons and new moon) and several other big events. The monks are experts at organising events. Every event as elaborate as a big wedding in Europe. 100’s of candles, 100’s of wedding style covered seats, 1000’s of metres of carpet & thrones for the VIPs, elaborate bouquets of flowers, chanting, gong, speeches, ceremonious candle lighting, all perfectly scheduled with photographers, film crew and live streaming on plasma screens.
It’s hard to believe the temple is 531 years old, it’s so pristine, shiny and new. I guess it’s a bit like Triggers old broom from only fools and horses. If you don’t know the comedy sketch, Trigger, a road sweeper, was awarded a medal for saving the council money because he had used the same broom for 20 years. Apparently he had replaced 17 new heads and 14 new handles. So the original broom was replaced many years ago… I wander how many new floors, windows, roofs and walls this temple has had over the last half millennium. But apparently the Buddha statue is original.
The 26 day course is preparation for the last 3 unspoken days and nights. You see people go into their room with a ‘do not disturb’ sign on their door and mysteriously come out 3 days later. There is no information for the last 3 days of determination. The intention is for you to experience this course as you go, just to be in the moment, but I was curious. I spoke with other people, who had finished their course, and got lots of incorrect information and advise that led to false hope and dreams. This built a strong desire for me to complete the 72 hours with no sleep in my room alone.
When I came to this course, all I wanted was to learn and experience a new meditation technique. For years I have had wonderful meditations, watching the energy in my body, or coming out of meditation completely refreshed, peaceful and relaxed. Now I wanted a direct line to the universe. I had a strong desire for Phalasamapatti (the fruit of meditative alignment). That desire made it impossible for me to get. At no point on the course had any facilitator suggested this might happen. But from me speaking with others I had a deep knowing it’s possible, and who doesn’t want enlightenment…
Meditating 1hour + 1hour back-to-back for 3 days and nights with no showering. This was mentally and physically tough for me. During night 2, my body was giving up. I could not walk, my balance was so challenging I had to put one hand on the wall for support. But I could feel something happening, something was welling up inside. I had a hallucinogenic experience. The walls of my room disappeared and I was in a wide open space, like a night snow scene, I could see all the way to the horizon. My crumpled, weak body felt a welling of energy, then a high pitched squeak in my head. All of a sudden a burst of energy and I felt 10 feet tall and powerful. I had an abundance of energy. My walk turned into a strong march. I thought this was it! I’m enlightened, such a powerful experience must be the real thing. Full of excitement I got to reporting the next day and the Abbott brushed it off as a physical body experience.
It was 40°C in the day time, I was spotty, smelly, little tickly insects swimming in the sweat on my skin. No energy, just annoyance and my meditations were very shallow. So I gave up, had a shower and went to bed half way through the last night. Strangely I wasn’t even tired and laid there wallowing in shame. I had put expectation on my meditation. I didn’t walk out with enlightened eyes, in fact I had bags under them…
When I woke feeling refreshed I had the best meditation for days. The head Monk explained to me the next day that every meditation is a good meditation. If you think you get to know yourself, if you go deep you heal, if you get angry or annoyed just ask why and grow. Whatever happens always come back to concentration.
I highly recommend this Vipassana Meditation Course to every human being in this wonderful world. In March–April the heat at around 40°C is almost unbearable so would recommend a cooler time of year. 10 days is quite a short introduction but well worth doing. The full journey is 26 days, if you can find the time you are likely to walk out a different person. Remember all the benefits last only a few days unless you continue your practice daily, but after 26 days it becomes part of your daily routine. For example you wouldn’t stop brushing your teeth once you know the benefits.
If you go, please make sure you give a generous donation, it’s what keeps these teachings alive.