Forest Meditation in Suan Mokkh
What a gorgeous place Suan Mokkh is! And the food, glorious!
A couple of the PIMC peeps and I went for a ten-day meditation retreat in the International Hermitage in October 2012. We arrived the day before registration and spent the night at the monastery. We were surrounded by imposing trees with monkeys swinging in the branches and lakes teeming with large fish. This place is so full of life and beauty.
We took a leisurely tour of the grounds and, eventually, decided to walk to the hot spring outside the hermitage. We got caught in the rain on our way there and took shelter underneath some trees. While we waited for the rains to subside and scoped around for my rainbow, a slow moving pick-up truck made its way toward us. We noticed a monk seated inside and joked that we’d forget about the hot spring and catch a ride with the monk instead, if offered. And it was! The driver stopped, rolled down the window, and motioned for us to climb into the back seat. So we did, giddily, and made our way back to the monastery with the old monk and his driver. The monk asked us if we were from Japan to which I replied “The Philippines”. We didn’t speak much but the three of us were so happy to be in the company of a real monk!
When we arrived to the gate, the monk got out and seemed to attract much attention with the people and the vendors outside the monastery. So I deducted and told Robin that he must be some important figure of this place. Turned out he was Ajahn Po, the Abbott!
We spent a comfortable night in the dormitories. The ladies get their own rooms with elevated wooden beds. I heard that the men share a large room and sleep on the floor. The ladies bathroom and showers serve as homes to many resident bats and I often had to duck down when they swooped in and out of the stalls.
I got up early the following day and started off alone on my way to the hermitage, walking with bare feet. I arrived and was the first one to register. People quickly filtered in and we all were given our room assignments and keys. We deposited our valuables and mobiles to be kept in their safe for the duration of our retreat.
The hermitage is vast, simple, and very well maintained. There are spacious rooms for each meditator with a hard concrete bed, wooden pillow, mosquito net, and a thin blanket. The showers are communal and the meditators must wear a sarong or shorts while they bathe. There are five meditation halls, mostly outdoor. The main one has a sand flooring that keeps the meditators comfortable on its soft surface and has a view of the large ponds.
The best part of the entire place, arguably, would have to be the hot springs! There are two separate pools for men and women. I never caught a glimpse of the men’s but I was told that the ladies were blessed with a bigger, more natural pool. The water is steaming hot. Perfect for soothing your tired muscles from the long days of meditation.
Yoga classes are scheduled daily and they even organize a teacher to lead the classes! You’re also welcome to practice on your own in the back of the hall or in your own space. Practice is not mandatory.
They serve pure, mild vegetarian food. Breakfast is always the same rice soup, specifically aimed at keeping your cravings at bay. The lunch dishes vary but are mostly Thai curry cooked with the cream harvested from their own coconut trees. There is always fresh greens that accompany the meals so you won’t be left malnourished for lack of raw food. The food is truly delicious and it’s difficult not to overfill the plates. Tea time will see you through until the next day with hot soy chocolate milk. You can drink as much of it as you wish.
The day is a simple routine of yoga, group sits, walking meditation, chanting, and interesting Dhamma talks by the English monk. We sign up for a karma yoga duty at the beginning of the course, which we perform everyday after breakfast. We have a break after karma yoga with ample time to enjoy a healing dip in the hot spring or save it for the other long afternoon break after tea. The schedule, in general, is very relaxed.
The technique is Anapanasati, with mindfulness of the breath, as taught by Buddhadasa Bhikku. There is an alternation of sitting and walking meditation. The sittings are mostly done in groups led by Ajahn Po or another senior monk. The walking meditation is individual, apart from the group walking meditation around the lakes at the end of the night.
It is obvious that they have taken great lengths in ensuring the comfort of their Dhamma friends. I find it very special that the old Abott still dedicates his time to the retreat and gives special attention by joining the sitting meditation, verbally encouraging the group, and holding personal interviews every afternoon. Ajahn Po even shows his own exercise to help ease the discomfort of sitting throughout the day. And, sure enough, it works its wonders! It’s entertaining to see many of us take a short break from walking, every now and again, to swing our arms back and forth.
At the end of the course, silence is broken with an invitation to share your experience with the group over the microphone. I was first, among the nervous meditators, to take to the stage. I could only sum the place up as “pure magic”.
The experience was subtle, very mild by Goenka standards. It was a breath of fresh air to learn a more compassionate approach. I learned a lot, was inspired, and thoroughly entertained by the English monk’s witty Dhamma talks.
When you’re there: Take time to enjoy the peaceful environment of the forest. Take a walk around the lakes Climb the grandmother of all trees or meditate under her many branches. Listen to the calls of the vibrant blue birds that accompany you during your sits. Keep an eye out for the large monitor lizard that slowly makes his way across the grass into the pond for a cooling swim. Visit the small island in the center of the pond to watch the orange sunset sky slowly become dark and expose the twinkling stars.
Practical advice: They give away tons of literature written by Ajahn Buddhadasa, so keep space in your luggage free. Keep in mind that you are in the middle of nature and will be sharing space with many critters like ants, mosquitos, flies, and bats. There is a shop where you can buy insect repellant, toiletries, and even clothes. Just bring your essentials and leave the rest. Keep it simple. There is plenty of water for doing laundry so pack lightly. There are two water filtration stations. Bring a refillable water bottle for your convenience. The concrete beds are hard. Use your yoga mat or bring a blanket for additional cushion.
Official Website: http://www.suanmokkh-idh.org/
International Dharma Hermitage of Wat Suan Mokkh
The Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage was founded by the Venerable Ajahn Buddhadasa in 1989. Since then about 22,000 people, coming from all over the world, from many walks of life, between 17 and more than 70 years of age, have participated in the monthly meditation retreats here.
These 10-day silent meditation retreats start at the 1st of each month. Registration has to be in person on the last day of the previous month and those who choose to arrive a day early to better ensure being offered a place can stay free at Suan Mokkh overnight. The retreats end at the 11th of the month in the morning.
It is not possible to join a retreat or organised activities at other times of the month. However, everyone is welcome to visit the main monastery at Suan Mokkh – also spelled Suan Mok – between retreats to do their own practice.
The retreat allows us to withdraw from our usual activities to a quiet and secluded place and devote our time to study, contemplation and meditation. The teachings and the structure of the retreats at the International Dharma Hermitage of Wat Suan Mokkh are designed for a period of 10 days and therefore we ask the participants to commit themselves for this period of time. We do not accept people for less than 10 days.
The meditation technique taught is Mindfulness with Breathing. Besides learning and practising how to meditate, participants will get an introduction to some other aspects of the Buddha’s teaching, including the Four Noble Truths which include the Noble Eightfold Path.