INTRODUCTION The Buddha invited all to come and investigate his teachings. For the Buddha

---
Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

INTRODUCTION The Buddha invited all to come and investigate his teachings. For the Buddha not only found a way to the end of suffering, but he actually taught a //way// which we can choose to follow. He observed how all human beings sought happiness and how nearly all failed to find lasting contentment. So, out of compassion, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths -- of the way things are and how we can develop the mind toward Nibbana, the highest happiness, the most perfect peace. To do this, we need to obtain instructions through teachers and books, then apply the teachings to our lives. The Buddha presented different methods of practice to suit the varied personalities of his students. All methods, however, involve a foundation of virtuous conduct, application of mindfulness, development of concentration to focus the mind, and growth of wisdom through investigation and reflection. The key point to remember is that the Buddha could only point the way; we must //do// the practice in order to progress toward realization of Nibbana. ADVANTAGES OF PRACTICE IN THAILAND To visit Thailand is to experience Thai Buddhism -- for the culture and religion cannot be separated. Thais have followed and supported the Buddha's teachings for more than a thousand years. Much of Thai life centers around the local //wat// (temple or monastery) where people come for worship, sermons, advice on family matters, meditation, schooling for children, and traditional medicine. Many boys and men take on robes as novices or monks for short periods in order to fully immerse themselves in the Buddha's way of life. Men who choose to spend all their lives in robes receive great respect. Thais also welcome foreigners to come and practice the Buddha's teachings. The extremely supportive environment of a good Thai wat or meditation centre provides inspiration and opportunity for spiritual development that's rare in the world today. Thais believe the Buddha's teachings to be priceless; no money is asked or expected in return for meditation instruction. In nearly all cases, such things as accommodations and food are free too. Generosity of the laypeople enables the wats and meditation centres to function in this remarkable manner. Some meditation centres do charge a fee for room and board, but this is miniscule compared to charges at retreats in western countries. For stays of a few months or more, one can have the benefit of practice in Thailand for less cost than a retreat in one's home country, even after paying airfare. But of the thousands of wats and meditation centres in Thailand, which one to choose? This book was written to help you get started and to assist in an enjoyable stay. The wats and centres described in these pages represent some of Thailand's best meditation traditions. All welcome foreigners; usually some English is spoken or a translator can be found. Many more excellent teachers and places to practice exist too. You'll hear about some of these during your stay. CHOOSING A WAT OR MEDITATION CENTRE Because different Thai wats and meditation centres offer so many practices and environments, one may wish to carefully consider which place will be most suitable. At most wats, monks devote the majority of their time to ceremonies and to study of Buddhist scriptures. Noise, many people coming and going, and lack of a suitable teacher can make meditation practice difficult at these places. A small percentage of wats, however, do offer very supportive conditions for meditation. These wats typically have a peaceful environment, teachers who can help with difficulties, and freedom for one to choose the meditation technique that works best. Some of Thailand's forest wats follow a "Way of Life" in which the monastic discipline and daily routine receive equal emphasis with formal meditation techniques. Meditation centres specialize in practice -- either a particular meditation system or one of the meditator's choosing, depending on the centre. These centres have minimal or no chanting and ceremony so that maximum time can be devoted to formal practice. If you're new to Buddhist meditation, consider the 10-day retreats offered at Suan Mokkh and Wat Kow Tham in southern Thailand; western teachers conduct the retreats, so you don't have to worry about language or cultural misunderstandings. Frequent talks and interviews allow one to get a good basic understanding of practice and to clear up any doubts about the meditation techniques. Because Thais traditionally do temporary ordinations during the 3-month Rains Retreat, from mid- or late July to October, expect more crowded conditions at some places then. This can be an especially good time to stay, however, as many wats place extra emphasis on practice. Monks take up residence in their chosen monastery, so there's much less coming and going. Meditators would be wise to check in by early June to make arrangements to stay for the Rains Retreat. Teachers Whether one is new to meditation or has done many years of practice, a teacher or "good friend" can be of great help. The teacher also sets an example for the wat or centre and determines the discipline. Monks traditionally devote 5 years to their first teacher. Daily Schedules Some wats and centres expect laypeople to participate in group activities. Other places let them make and follow their own schedule. A few meditation centres offer only intensive individual practice -- sitting, walking, meals, and other activities take place in or near one's room in solitude. Residents of most wats begin the day early, typically 3-4 a.m. in forest monasteries and 5 a.m. in towns, with meditation and chanting. Meditation centres expect early rising too, with sleep limited to 4 to 6 hours. Monks and novices go on //pindabat// (alms round) at daybreak, then eat once or twice in the morning, depending on the custom of the wat or centre. You may also see //maechees// (8-precept nuns) on pindabat in central and northern Thailand and //pakows// (//anagarikas//, 8-precept laymen) in the northeast. Most wats have another period of meditation and chanting in late afternoon or evening. The rest of the day is used for meditation, work projects, and personal needs. At some intensive meditation centres you will be encouraged to practice 20 hours a day. A typical daily routine has been listed for many places; expect changes at many wats, however, on //wan phra//, the Buddhist holy day that falls on the full, new, and half moon (every 7 or 8 days). Many laypeople come to make special offerings, hear sermons, chant the refuges and precepts, and practice meditation. Some visitors may stay at the wat all day and night, sleeping as little as possible. Additionally, monks gather on the full and new moon for a recitation of the //Patimokkha//, the 227 rules of discipline for the order. LIVING AT A WAT OR MEDITATION CENTRE Greeting People Thai wat etiquette, which stems largely from the monk's code of discipline, forms the national ideal of polite behavior in many ways. By following Thai customs, foreigners can show appreciation to the Thai people and ensure a welcome reception for future visitors. Gestures of respect also help to develop kindness and sensitivity to others. The //anjali// (//wai// or //pranom//) of raising hands to the chest with palms together is used for (1) Greeting other people; (2) When speaking with a monk; (3) After offering something to an ordained person; and (4) Before receiving something from an ordained person. (Laypeople return the anjali but ordained people are not supposed to return one from a layperson.) Thais address senior monks as //Ajahn//, other monks as //Tahn//, novices as //Nayn//. The title can be used by itself or preceding the Pali name; it's impolite to use the Pali name without a title. Body Language Thais place great importance on body posture when around monks, especially if the monks are teaching Dhamma. Laypeople stoop slightly when walking past a seated monk. If walking with a monk, they try to walk a little behind. Laypeople never talk or listen to monks from a higher position; they sit or at least squat down before addressing a seated monk. When listening to a sermon or talking with a monk, women usually sit in a "mermaid" posture; men more often sit with one leg crossed in front and the other tucked behind; the kneeling position is polite for both sexes. Cross-legged positions are less polite and they're normally just used in meditation. Avoid sitting with arms clasped around the raised knees (impolite). In a chair, sit erect and attentive. Laypeople never sit on the //asana// (raised seat for monks and novices), same seat or mat as a monk, or on a monk's robes. Bowing Thais have many variations on the //kraap//, (bowing) but it's always done 3 times in respect for the "Triple Gem" of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. Follow the example of Thai laypeople around you as to when to bow; usually one bows before being seated in a hall with a Buddha image or when meeting with a monk and again before getting up and leaving. Bowing can be done as a meditation and reflection on each part of the Triple Gem. Bow slowly and mindfully, bringing the forehead all the way to the floor, keep buttocks on the heels, elbows near the knees, and thumbs near the eyebrows. Offering Giving of the monks' requisites develops respect and generosity. Thais traditionally bring flowers, candles, and incense when they visit a wat, though any small gift is appreciated by the monastic community. Come up with head bowed in a kneeling or squatting position to within arms' reach of the monk, then use both hands to place an offering into the monk's hands. Women must place items on a cloth laid in front by the monk or have a layman pass them; similarly, men should respect women with shaved heads who may not want to receive or hand anything directly. Both men and women place food directly into the monk's bowl during pindabat. After presenting an offering, make the anjali. Offerings of money should be placed in a donation book or given to a designated layperson. Other Important Customs (1) Women need to understand the monks' discipline of not touching or being alone in a closed room with a woman. Women should try to avoid entering a library or other room where this could happen. (2) Men and women sometimes sit in separate areas during group meetings; you can observe and follow the Thais of the same gender. (3) Thais use feet for walking and standing, then tuck them away at other times; be especially careful never to point out or stretch out one's feet in the direction of a Buddha image or monk. (4) Shoes are generally taken off before entering a room with a Buddha image or in any residence. (5) Sleeping pillows should only be used to rest the head -- considered sacred by the Thais -- and never for sitting on. (6) Food and drink are consumed in a seated or squatting position. (7) A bathing cloth must be worn when using outdoor bathing areas, common in rural areas (Thais are extremely modest). THAILAND PRACTICALITIES Food Thai food may take a bit of getting used to, as some dishes are highly spiced. Generally you'll find the cuisine tasty and varied with plenty of both spicy and nonspicy dishes to choose from. Meals have white rice (sticky rice in the northeast) with meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, and sweets. Food offered in remote forest monasteries tends to be simpler and less varied, though is usually quite good. A few wats and centres (mentioned in the individual descriptions) offer vegetarian food. Like the monks and nuns, lay visitors normally eat only between sunrise and mid-day. This rule of the Buddha's makes the monastic community easy to support and contributes to moderation in eating. (If needed for medical reasons, food can also be taken after mid-day at most places.) Clothing Thais always wear modest clothing that's clean and neat to a wat or meditation centre. They avoid tight-fitting or bright-colored clothing that might be distracting to others. Shirts and blouses have sleeves. Men wear long pants; women use skirts that come below the knees. Some wats and centres ask that men wear white clothing and that women wear either all white or a white blouse and black skirt. Clothing can occasionally be borrowed or you can outfit yourself in a local shop at low cost. Even when not required, the wearing of white serves as a reminder that one is undertaking a spiritual life. Climate Thailand has 3 seasons, the cool from Nov. through Feb., hot from March through June, and the rainy from July through October. (The rainy season in the south lasts through January.) Pronounced variations can occur from region to region and year to year. The northeast has the most distinct seasons; lows can get down to 0-15 degrees C (32-59 degrees F) in the cool months; hot-season highs can exceed 40 degrees C (104 degrees F). The north has a similar climate, but doesn't get as hot. Central Thailand stays warm to hot year-round. The south has a tropical climate; the region rarely sees extremes of heat or cold. South and central Thailand have high humidity, which decreases as one moves inland to the northern and northeastern regions. Any season can be fine for a visit to Thailand -- just be prepared with warm clothes for the cool season in the north and northeast, umbrella or poncho for the rainy season, and light-weight cotton clothing for the hot season. People from cool climates will have an easier time adjusting to the climate if they arrive in the cool or rainy seasons. Health You're likely to stay healthy in Thailand, thanks to high standards of hygiene and medical care. Malaria does exist in some outlying areas; current advice urges people to use netting and repellent from dusk to dawn, when disease-carrying mosquitos bite, rather than rely on preventative pills. The pills can have bad side effects; also, they don't protect against all malaria strains. If you get an unexplained fever, especially a recurrent one, obtain a blood test right away; a doctor can then determine the most effective treatment. Getting There You can reach Thailand easily by air from most major cities in the world and by land from Malaysia and possibly from Laos. Sorting through all the fares and restrictions of airlines can be difficult, so let a good travel agent do the work for you. The best deals can often be found in cities with large Asian populations; check ads in the Sunday travel section of newspapers of these cities. Discounted fares from agents specializing in Asia can be hundreds of dollars less than the cheapest fare the airline will quote directly. Carefully check restrictions -- cheap (and some not so cheap) tickets won't be refundable and generally don't allow route changes. Some roundtrip tickets allow only short visits of 45 days to 6 months; shop around for a one-year fare or just buy a one-way ticket if you might want to stay longer. Bangkok travel agencies have great deals on international flights, though be sure to stick to well-established agencies. Getting Around Thailand has a well-developed public transport system of train, bus, and air routes. Getting around is easier, more efficient, and less expensive than in most western and Asian countries. Taxis offer good value too, though one often has to bargain. A little Thai helps a lot with local transport. The Lonely Planet book //Thailand; a travel survival kit// by Joe Cummings has good information on getting to and around the country, as well as details on the sights and culture. Visas Check visa requirements before you come. Most people obtain a Tourist Visa (good for 2 months and extendable one month more). Longer-term visitors can try for a Non-Immigrant visa (good for at least 3 months and possibly extendable); a stay of more than 3 months can get complicated with various sponsorship letters required; ask advice in Thailand. Often it's easiest to zip down to the Thai Consulate in Penang, Malaysia, for a new visa, then return for another 3 months; this consulate issues Non-Immigrant visas more easily than most if you have a good reason (such as meditation practice). Language Ability to speak Thai will allow you to communicate directly with all of the teachers in Thailand, most of whom speak little or no English. You'll also benefit from the many Dhamma talks in Thai available on cassette recordings. The language has very simple grammar, so most of the effort in speaking Thai goes into learning vocabulary and the all- important 5 tones. The written alphabet can be learned along with the vocabulary or studied later. One or 2 months of intensive language study will enable you to understand basic meditation instructions and much of the material presented in Dhamma talks. Bangkok has some good language schools. MEDITATION TECHNIQUES The Buddha taught many ways of investigating the nature of mind and body. A look through the monastery and meditation centre descriptions will give you an idea of the meditation systems practiced in Thailand. Ideally, meditation should begin from the first moment of awakening in the morning until the last moment before sleep at night. Besides the classic postures of sitting, walking, standing, and lying down used in meditation, one can also perform such activities as eating, talking, washing clothes, taking a bath, and using the toilet with equal care and mindfulness. An experienced teacher or "good friend" will be valuable for any student. Meditation techniques fall into the broad categories of either //samatha// (calm) or //vipassana// (insight), though some of one will generally be present with the other. Samatha Development of samatha techniques can lead to increasingly focused states of mind until the mind becomes one-pointed or absorbed in //jhana// states. Concentration can be developed from //anapanasati// (mindfulness with breathing), from visual objects, and from mantras (repetition of phrases). The traditional list contains 40 objects of meditation; you can read about them in //The Path of Purification (Visuddhi Magga)// translated by Nanamoli Bhikkhu and in other books. The Buddha recommended mindfulness with breathing as being suitable for everyone to establish and develop concentration. Other objects of meditation can be useful in our lives too. //Metta// (loving kindness) generates feelings of goodwill and happiness toward ourselves and other beings; metta practice serves as an antidote to ill-will and fear. Meditation on the parts of the body -- none of which is attractive in itself -- results in a lessening of attachment to our own bodies and those of others; a reduction of sensual desires occurs; another benefit is that unpleasant sensations can be more easily endured. Meditation on death, when properly done, brings to mind the body's impermanence and lack of ownership; a person who practices this will always be watchful and, at life's end, die without fear or confusion. Vipassana Once some concentration has been developed, the mind can be turned to observation of the physical and mental factors that rise and fall in one's consciousness. Through continued practice, the Three Characteristics of //anicca// (transitory nature of all conditioned phenomena), //dukkha// (inherent unsatisfactoriness of all conditioned phenomena), and //anatta// (no permanent, abiding self can be found in any conditioned phenomena) will become deeply known. As the mind directly experiences these truths, the desires and attachments that cause so much suffering begin to drop away. Even a little vipassana practice can bring greater wisdom and peace to our lives. THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS We can experience these truths, which lie at the heart of the Buddha's teachings, through direct experience. They can be viewed as (1) Diagnosis of an illness; (2) Prognosis; (3) Recovery; and (4) Medicine to cure the disease. The first 2 truths deal with the way things are; the last 2 point the way to freedom from suffering. 1. The Noble Truth of Suffering Besides "suffering," other translations of the Pali word //dukkha// include unsatisfactoriness, dis-ease, and instability. All these words point to the fact that no conditioned phenomenon can provide true (lasting) happiness in our lives. The first step in a spiritual life is to look very closely and honestly at our experience of life and see that there is suffering. We tend to overlook or ignore or just blindly react to the unpleasant, so it continually haunts us. Yet although physical suffering is a natural aspect of our lives, we can learn to transcend mental suffering. 2. The Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering Through a lack of understanding of how things truely exist, we create and recreate an independent self entity called "me." The whole of our experience in life can be viewed through this sense of self. In consequence, various cravings govern our actions. Cravings arise for sense experiences, for "being" or "becoming" (e.g. rich, famous, loved, respected, immortal), and to avoid the unpleasant. These cravings are the root cause of suffering. 3. The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering The mind can be purified of all the mental defilements that cause suffering. //Nibbana//, the ultimate peace, has been compared to the extinction of a three-fold fire of lust, ill-will, and delusion. One who has realised cessation has great purity of heart, ocean-like compassion, and penetrating wisdom. 4. The Noble Truth of the Way to the Cessation of Suffering The Way leading to cessation contains a thorough and profound training of body, speech, and mind. Traditionally it's outlined as the Noble Eightfold Path: (1) Right Understanding; (2) Right Intention; (3) Right Speech; (4) Right Action; (5) Right Livelihood; (6) Right Effort; (7) Right Mindfulness; and (8) Right Concentration. On the level of morality (//sila//), the Path entails restraint and care in speech, action, and livelihood. The concentration (//samadhi//) level requires constant effort to abandon the unwholesome and develop the wholesome, to increase mindfulness and clear comprehension of the mind-body process, and to develop mental calm and stability. The wisdom (//panna//) level entails the abandonment of thoughts of sensuality, ill-will, and cruelty; ultimately it penetrates the true nature of phenomena to see impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and impersonality. When all 8 factors of the Path come together in harmony to the point of maturity, suffering is transcended. In summary, the Four Noble Truths can be thought of as that which is to be (1) comprehended, (2) abandoned, (3) realized, and (4) developed. GOING FOR REFUGE While visiting or living at a Thai wat, you'll soon become familiar with the Pali intonation of the Three Refuges. //Buddham saranam gacchami// (I go to the Buddha for refuge) //Dhammam saranam gacchami// (I go to the Dhamma for refuge) //Sangham saranam gacchami// (I go to the Sangha for refuge) In going for refuge, we seek safety and stability in a changing and unpredictable world. We can reflect on the meanings of each phrase, then use them to guide our lives. When we take refuge in the Buddha, we have faith both in the historical Gotama Buddha's enlightenment and in his qualities of supreme wisdom and compassion that we can aspire to. Refuge in the Dhamma, the ultimate truth or reality, invites us to turn the mind to experience the here and now, the way things are. Refuge in the Sangha refers to a group of people which lives with high standards of conduct in bodily action and speech; the group can refer to the "Awakened Ones," the order of Buddhist monks, or all the people who are following the Buddha's path to liberation. We take refuge in the virtues of generosity, kindness, compassion, goodness, and let go of those thoughts which lead to harm. TAKING THE PRECEPTS The Buddha's path to liberation begins from a foundation of moral discipline (//sila//). Taking care of our actions through restraint allows the mind to readily develop concentration and wisdom. A basic moral discipline also brings happiness, self-confidence, and self- respect. Five precepts -- guidelines to good conduct -- can be undertaken by everyone: (1) Refraining from taking life; (2) Refraining from taking what is not given; (3) Refraining from sexual misconduct; (4) Refraining from false or harmful speech; and (5) Refraining from intoxicants. As with other teachings of the Buddha, the precepts invite reflection, wisdom, and compassion in their application. The precepts provide a standard of behavior that has great power. Standing by the precepts prevents the harmful actions and speech that might otherwise occur when strong feelings of hate, greed, or sexual desire beset the mind. Laypeople visiting a wat on //wan phra// (full-, new-, and half-moon days) or anytime for meditation may choose to observe 8 precepts; these include the 5 precepts (#3 changes to refraining from any sexual activity) with (6) Refraining from eating solid food after mid-day; (7) Refraining from dancing, singing, music and shows, garlands, perfumes, cosmetics, and adornments; and (8) Refraining from luxurious and high seats and beds. The 8 precepts may at first appear difficult, but in a monastic environment they help direct one's mind toward spiritual development. HELPFUL HINTS ON USING THE LISTINGS Names and addresses have been written in Thai script as well as English for this edition. [NOTE: the Thai script is not available in the online edition] The Thai will help convey your destination to bus, songtaew, and taxi drivers. Many characters of the Thai alphabet have no precise English equivalent; if you can read or have someone pronounce the names in Thai, you'll know how to say them correctly. Thailand has 74 provinces (//jangwat//), which are divided into districts (//amper// or //amphoe//), and subdivided into precincts (//tambon// or //tambol//). The word //ban// means "village." If you see //amper muang// in an address, that means it's in the capital district of that province (provinces take the same name as their capital). Many wats and meditation centres in Thailand have telephones, but you're not likely to get someone who speaks English; try to have a Thai friend call for you if you don't speak Thai. Telephone area codes, in parentheses, are used only if calling from another area code. Some wats and centres, as noted in the "Write in Advance?" section, prefer that you write ahead with your plans to visit; but even if not required, an advance letter will always be appreciated. * * * * * * *

---

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank