I just spent a few weeks at Wat Ram Poeng, a temple two miles southwest of Chiang Mai that features an English-language meditation program.
Perhaps it is less accurate to say that Wat Ram Poeng “features an English-language meditation program”, and it is more accurate to say that they provide space for foreigners to meditate. Almost all of what I did during my time there was meditate by myself, eight to fourteen hours a day, inside the simple, clean, comfortable, and pleasant little room they provided me with. I alternated sitting meditation, mostly on the bed, with equal lengths of time doing walking meditation, slowly pacing back and forth the length of the room.
I also had my daily brief interview with Ajahn Suphen, the abbot of the temple. He would ask how my meditation was, I would reply “fine”, and he would say, “good”. Then he would increase the amount of time he wanted me to take between alternating sitting and walking meditation (which started at fifteen minutes per period, and eventually grew to be over an hour). Then, I would leave his office, and go back to my room for more meditating.
The walking meditation instruction that he presented to me were standard and familiar: to walk at a glacially slow pace, noting to myself “lifting” as I brought my foot up, and “placing” as I put it down. After ten days of interviews with him, this set of notes had grown to be “lifting”, “rising”, “moving”, “stepping”, and “placing” as I walked, and also “stopping”, “standing”, and “turning” when I came to the end of the room and turned around. From past meditation practice, I knew that mentally saying these simple phrases as I moved would be best supplemented by deeply experiencing the richness of the sensory phenomena that happen with each movement, letting my attention soak into the realness of the sensations.
While sitting cross-legged, the instructions that Ajahn Suphen gave to me were to march my awareness systematically through my body. This is similar to the “body scan” meditation instructions given on the retreats affiliated with the Burmese-Indian teacher S.N. Goenka that many of my friends have participated in. The difference at Wat Ram Poeng was that I was asked to bring my attention just to a pattern of certain small spots on my body, rather than systematically covering its entire surface.
Apparently, the training taught at WRP is derived from the eminent twentieth century Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw. Even though Chaing Mai is near the border, I was surprised to see Burmese-lineage teachings in a Thai temple; I have heard several times that there has been a long history of cool relations between the Buddhist communities of the two countries.
Anyway – besides my short little daily interview, I also emerged from the room for two meals of the day, one at daybreak and one a few hours later. Occasionally, I would do my meditation outside my room, inside the ornately decorated library for example. Mostly, however, I found that it seemed simplest, and I felt the most clear, when I just stayed in my room.
Why hello there, picture taking person
“Farang-ville” was what I called the little compound at WRP where they housed us foreigner males.
I mostly kept the silence of retreat, and not to talk to the other foreign meditators there. They generally looked interesting, though, and like they were practicing mindfulness with admirable intensity.
I did end up having a few conversations with other folks, mostly as they were about to leave, or right before I left. For example, one intense Frenchman started agitatedly talking to me late one night as I walked back to Farangville from the library with sleepy eyes. He said that he was about to bolt out, days before he intended to, because he felt a pressure building that had gotten too intense. He told me that he had been coming to visit WPR for long retreats for years, and that, every visit, he could meditate for twenty hours a day for days on end, no problem – he was like an olympic athlete of meditation. But, he said, he also couldn’t seem to stop binging on hard drugs and paying for sex work when he was in the outside world. I did my best listen to and understand his experience, but didn’t have much to suggest to him besides the obvious, twelve-step programs and therapy.
This is the dining hall, where, at 6:30 am and 10:30 am, we ate meals in silence.
Most of the people in the picture wearing white are Thai lay (not ordained) women. Large numbers of them came to Wat Ram Poeng to do a retreat when they were having problems in life – from what I could tell, alcoholism for themselves or in their family, marriage troubles, financial issues. Their retreats were separate from ours, and seemed different in tone; they meditated in a group, listened to lectures, and engaged in group chanting and devotional practices.
Me in the dining hall. Each meal had both a meat option (which was super meat-y), and a vegetarian option. I ate the meat for a few days, but, once I realized I could not identify many of the meats I was eating, and was sick of gristle, I switched over to just veg.
I want to know what love is. And I want the pre-meal lovingkindness chant cards to show me.
The office of Ajahn Suphen, the abbot of Wat Ram Poeng. As I said, we farang (foreigners) visited the office around five pm each day, to briefly check in with Suphen (or, sometimes, a senior nun) as to how many hours we meditated since our previous interview, and maybe get a new refinement of the technique assigned. There wasn’t usually much in the way of psychological discussion (in contrast with interviews with American Dharma teachers).
I was a little surprised that Ajahn Suphen, an apparently well-known monk and abbot of a huge city temple that had many visitors each day, would take the time to personally interview each us daily. But, I suppose that spreading Dharma is what he has dedicated his life to.
I was also a little surprised by how crowded his office was with statues and tsotchkes. To be fair, I think that many of them were gifts from reverential Thai lay devotees who had done retreats at the temple, and wanted to express their gratitude.
Twice a month, Buddhist temples in Thailand celebrate a festival called Wan Phra. At Wat Pah Nanachat, Wan Phra meant staying awake all night in the cold night air, meditating. At Wat Ram Poeng, it meant a fun ceremony filled with flowers, incense, and smiles.
I took a bunch of pictures of pretty things the day I left WPR.
Here is a window on the second floor terrace of the library. The library was something that some people at some point in the past had taken a lot of pride (and invested a lot of time and effort) in making look nice.
More views of the second floor windows at Wat Ram Poeng.
I meditated a little out there. It was relaxing and beautiful, but, there was too much exhaust grit on the ground for me to want to walk there barefoot, and also it took too long to walk to the nearest bathroom.
Library roof, Wat Ram Poeng
Me, Wat Ram Poeng library
I think that every Buddhist temple in America should build a bell tower just like this 🙂
The main stupa at Wat Ram Poeng – the base was hundreds of years old, but the top was reconstructed after damage while the monastery was confiscated as a Japanese troop barracks during World War II
Statue in front of the stupa at night
Me and a friend
Me and a friend
Still another friend.
Wat Ram Poeng did not charge me for my time there – residence there was paid for purely by donation. I respected that, it was a good feeling. In general, while there, I felt a generosity and kindness. If I were to come back for an extended meditation retreat anywhere in Thailand, I think that WPR would be my choice.
In every monastery I have been in in America, people sit meditation on cushions, sometimes a lot of them. At WPR, they seemed to want us to just sit directly on the floor. I sat on cushions, because I think that sitting meditation directly on the floor is unhealthy for most people.
The WPR Thai monks did, however, just sit directly on the floor. And, as I would predict, most of them had a sitting posture I would recommend against (asymmetrical, hunched over, bent spine, belly compressed). I do not have a picture of them in meditation, but here is a picture of two Thai monks receiving lay visitors in their no-sitting-cushion, hunched-over posture.
In Thailand, many of the monasteries also serve as the local social service agencies. I never asked anyone about it, but, given what constant trouble many of the younger monks at WRP were, I had a hunch that Wat Ram Poeng was like the local juvenile delinquent facility. I twice came across an older monk heatedly dressing down and striking one of the teenagers. Honestly, as much as the teen monks were often goofing off and causing trouble, I was surprised I didn’t see that scene more often. Anyway, these two were among the better-behaved of the young monks.