Since I’ve traveled to (and at times lived in) Thailand every year since 1998, I’m occasionally asked to recommend a Buddhist meditation retreat for long-term travelers. I can easily recommend some specific starting points for practicing meditation in Thailand (and if you keep reading, you’ll find a few recommendations below), but over time I’ve found that it’s more instructive to just tell people this: Find your own damn Buddhist meditation retreat!
In saying this, I’m not being grumpy and standoffish — it really is good travel advice. Far too often, Western Buddhists (and prospective Buddhists) travel to Asia like it’s one big spiritual shopping mall, flitting from monastery to monastery without ever wandering out to truly experience the host country. And while I can appreciate these people’s enthusiasm, this is a very limited and superficial way to explore the Buddhist faith.
By pointing this out, I don’t mean to disparage the Thai monasteries that help instruct Western seekers. Rather, my point is that you shouldn’t pick-and-choose your spiritual quest like it was something that can be ordered from a catalogue. Religion may be divinely inspired, but it also comes into being within a socio-cultural context. Unless you allow yourself to wander away from the wats and see how normal Thais practice their Buddhism, you’ll only be “accessorizing” your own Western socio-cultural notions with convenient, smooth-edged Buddhist ones.
So my advice is this: Travel to Thailand, but save the monasteries for last. Give yourself a month (if you have the time — and I recommend that you make the time, for example booking a Bangkok hotel room ahead of time will save you time)) to wander the country, north and south, jungles and beaches, Bangkok and Isaan. It’s dirt cheap to travel in Thailand, so knock yourself out. Go on a trek. Learn to scuba dive. Talk to everyone — Thais and travelers, rural villagers and middle-class urbanites — and listen to what they have to say. If it comes up in the conversation, ask people about Buddhism, or Buddhist meditation. Watch how people live. Enjoy the backpacker hangouts if that’s your thing — but try to get off the travel-circuit and explore small, everyday Thai towns. Learn Thai phrases and make Thai friends.
After a month of this, your visa will have expired, and you will have probably have fallen in love with Thailand. Perfect. Now pop across the border, renew your visa, and come back to Thailand. Not only will you know by then what kind of meditation center best suits your interests — you’ll also have an experience of Thailand that is far more intimate and authentic than what you’d have experienced walled up in some monastery. You’ll also have a better idea of the role Buddhism plays in the lives of the people who’ve been practicing it for thousands of years — and not just the role it can play in your California (or wherever) lifestyle.
Some more serious Western Buddhists might balk at this advice, claiming that they want to spend the entirety of their travel time studying meditation — not gallivanting around doing seemingly frivolous activities. But for these people, I think the normal experience of a Buddhist country is even more important: It will help them understand the socio-cultural context of their discipline. Even if your vacation time is short, it’s worth it to make the time to see Thailand (or any country) as a layperson as well as a seeker.
For people who are really serious about their Buddhism, I might also offer an additional challenge: While you are still in the West, seek out and spend some time with some sincere Christians and Jews. After all, if you were raised in the West, you probably have innate Judeo-Christian values (such as individualism and humanism) that don’t exactly mesh with certain Eastern values (such as duty and fatalism). Thus, unless you can appreciate the positive application of Western spiritual values, you might have trouble reconciling your old Western instincts with your new Eastern disciplines. Buddhism does not require the rejection of other religions, and many people (such as the Catholic monk and philosopher Thomas Merton, who met with the Dalai Lama back in the sixties) have found that the best way to embrace Buddhism is to use its principles to inform and expand their traditional Christian or Jewish faith. (This will obviously require a rather liberal reading of Christianity or Judaism — but just because you don’t see open-minded Judeo-Christians on the evening news doesn’t mean they don’t exist.)
OK, having said all that, I’m sure there are still a few people out there who honestly don’t have the time to sniff out their own Buddhist experience in Asia. Thus, here are three good starting points for those interested in experiencing Buddhist meditation in Thailand:
International Buddhist Meditation Center
Lardprao Lane 15
+66 (02) 511-0439
Suan Mokkh (Garden of Liberation)
Surat Thani 84110
Northern Insight Meditation Center (Wat Rampoeng)
Chiang Mai 50000
+66 (053) 278-620
For more comprehensive information about Buddhist meditation centers in Thailand, try this online guide:
Finally, if you’re new to Theravada Buddhism and the fundamentals of Buddhist mediation, here are three books that will lend insight:
What the Buddha Taught, by Walpola Rahula
A simple and relevant introduction to Theravada Buddhism.
The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, by Nyanaponika Thera
A good introduction to the Buddha’s “Way of Mindfulness”.
Mindfulness in Plain English, by Henepola Gunaratana
Another good nuts-and-bolts manual to basic Buddhist meditation.
Image: ecodallaluna (flickr)