Desert to Jungle

Three new expats, two human, one canine, countless adventures

Staying in a Temple – Meditation, Buddhism and Thai Culture

‘Boy, I’m glad I’m not a monk’

This thought came to mind after my first sunrise alms round, following the barefoot monks from the wat where I was staying as part of a unique temple stay programme.   Not because of getting up pre-dawn every day (I’d like that part) and not because of having to shave off my hair and eyebrows.  Not even because of having to forgo any form of sexual pleasure and follow 226 other ‘precepts’ or rules for everyday living.

No, when I saw the typical contents of the alms bowls, and the donated food the monks are supposed to live on, I knew a life in orange robes was not for me!  Apart from the odd bag of curry, the bowls contained mainly cakes and sweets, and not ones I found appealing either.  But then Thais love their sugar and I’m amazed the country does not have an obesity problem, I guess genetics dictate otherwise for most people but I imagine dentistry is a good line of work to get into.

Novice monks on morning alms round

Novice monks on morning alms round

I’ve stayed twice at this unique programme in Wat Sriboonruang in Fang, a tourist-free town, three hours from Chiang Mai and close to the border with Burma.   Guests become a part of everyday temple life and the temple is a thriving part of the local community so it’s a look at Thai life and culture most tourists never see.  Male guests are allowed to ordain as novice monks for a short time, as is common for Thai men.  Everybody gets guidance in meditation and talks on the Dhamma (Buddha’s teachings) from a native English speaking monk.  On my second stay at the temple the resident American monk was stranded, ill, in Bangkok, so I had the great honour of having my meditation guidance from the head of the temple, the abbot, the wonderful and dynamic Dr Apisit.

Shrine near the temple

Shrine near the temple

I found the temple a place of great peace but it’s by no means quiet all the time.  It’s part of the community and there are always people coming and going, making it very different to the quiet and hushed tones of most Islamic and Christian places of worship I’ve visited.  There are many novice monks around as the temple runs a school for novices which teaches the youngsters from surrounding temples – guests who are interested have the chance to help teach English in the school.

As well as the usual temple rules that everybody has to follow such as no killing, lying, sexual misconduct, stealing or taking intoxicating substances,  I decided to ‘upgrade’ and take what’s called the ‘Eight Precepts’ to give me a little bit of a better understand of the lives of the monks.  The additional precepts, or rules, are:

1 Don’t take food at inappropriate times – so no eating between noon and the following sunrise

2 No dancing, singing, music, entertainment, make up, jewellery or beautifying yourself

3 No sleeping on ‘high and luxurious’ beds – the beds in the guest rooms are pretty hard but I got used to them quickly.

I was worried about the not eating after midday part but I found it fairly easy.  I loved the short Eight Precepts ceremony which involved me, guided by a monk, repeating a number of phrases after Dr Apisit.  The phrases are in Pali, the ancient language of northern India, but I was given a laminated copy in advance with them written out phonetically and support during the ceremony which was serious but not intimidating.

With one of my favourite temple dogs, whom I called Foxy

In 8 Precepts whites, with one of my favourite temple dogs

Afterwards, I was wearing the traditional Northern Thai white clothes which identified me as an Eight Precepts meditator.  I managed to keep them pretty clean despite lots of games with my new friends, the temple dogs, who would run and play with me and always accompanied me if I left the temple grounds to visit the nearby shop.

One of my favourite parts of the day was the evening chanting.  All the resident monks would gather, along with the abbot, in the ‘wihan’, a gorgeous building in the centre of the temple compound, and chant in Pali.  I might not have understood what they were saying but it was beautiful and filled me with peace to sit at the back and listen.

The temple have now added some meditation huts at the side of a lake about ten minutes walk from the main temple compound so those wanting more peace for their practice can stay there.  There is also the rare chance to stay at a forest temple and experience true tranquillity.

I can’t wait to go back to Wat Sriboonruang to continue learning about Buddhism.  Maybe I’ll take some healthy snacks for the monks!

The info

Temple Retreat Thailand can be found here:  Facebook and Website

Fang is three hours from Chiang Mai, buses leave hourly from Chang Puak bus station and cost 80 baht.  You can ask to be dropped off at the temple gates, just outside of Fang town.

The programme operates on a donation based system  as it’s not allowed to charge for spreading the Dhamma.  They have to cover costs of electricity in the guest rooms, cleaning of bedding after you’ve gone, supply of drinking water, and wireless internet.  They will not suggest an amount so I donated slightly less than I had paid in my last guest house.   Any excess goes to supporting the many community programmes run by the temple to benefit local people.


6 comments on “Staying in a Temple – Meditation, Buddhism and Thai Culture

  1. Billy
    August 10, 2013

    Well written and really put across the tranquillity of the life – but scared me a bit with the usual “indoctrination” for religion with extreme rules.

    But – it did sound blooming peaceful!

    • Noor
      August 11, 2013

      When the temple gong goes and all the dogs in the temple and surrounding neighbourhood start howling it’s anything but peaceful! Very entertaining though.

  2. A passerby
    September 23, 2013

    Just a Thai passerby

    FYI. Some temple or some monk will mix all the food given; dishes, rice, and dessert, all of them, in a bowl before eating. That’s the way to practice yourself not to overjoy with the taste of food. Just eat them for survive. 🙂

    As a Buddhist, I don’t think the rules are indoctrination at all because they’re set to suit on your state as a monk. The rules set to practice yourself not to swing with any temptation, just focus on your practice, and it’s you who can choose to be a monk or not. Your choice. If you are not a monk, you can do anything that don’t create any bad effect on yourself and others.

    Plus, even though you’re a monk but you break some rules unintentionally, it’s not a serious crime, just accept that you make mistake or tell other monks that you make a mistake and try not to do again. Buddhist, monk or not, focus on your “intention” whether you intend to break the rules or do any bad things, or not. If it’s not you intention, most of them are not serious.

    However, there are rules that you, as a monk, cannot break AT ALL, and there just a few of them. Only four. Those (monks) who make will be “Parachik” or loose his state as a monk as soon as he breaks this four rules. Even though he still wear the yellow robe, he is not a monk anymore, just a guy who wears yellow robe.

  3. Noor
    October 7, 2013

    Thank you very much for your comments A passerby. It’s great to get a perspective on this from a Thai Buddhist.

  4. Temple Stay Admin
    October 7, 2013

    Many thanks for taking the time to write such kind words about your stay at the temple Noor. We are all looking forward to seeing you here again in the near future.

  5. Noor
    October 7, 2013

    You’re welcome. I’ll be back as soon as I can!

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