We’ve spent the past week in the city of Chiang Mai, the largest and most culturally significant city in Northern Thailand. Once a major religious center, it has some of the oldest Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia. The oldest, “Wat Chiang Mun” was built over 2,500 years ago and houses one of oldest sculptures of the Buddha.
Buddhism is a huge part of the cultures throughout this whole region. To understand and learn about these countries involves understanding the role Buddhism plays both in society and individually to the people. One of the many reasons I was so excited to come here is that I already have an interest in the religion.
Ben introduced me to Buddhist philosophy about 4 years ago. From the very beginning it resonated with me. Over the years I’ve spent time learning, reading, and practicing modern Buddhism, but with the pace of everyday life back home, I was never able to adopt it into my daily routine.
The past couple weeks we’ve ventured out into the countryside and surrounding villages, but not before visiting some of Chiang Mai’s beautiful temples. I’ve never seen anything like them. I’ve been to a couple back home, but they are much more modern and their overall presence is designed to feel approachable for westerners. The monks and staff that maintained the facilities are also westerners.
After spending a couple days visiting them here in Chiang Mai, I could appreciate their beauty and authenticity, but I didn’t feel a connection to the religion like I expected I would. I felt too much like an outsider I suppose, watching locals pray and meditate as they’ve done their whole lives in these temples.
The opportunity to do a meditation retreat couldn’t have come at a better time for me. When I first started reading about Buddhism and the benefits of meditation, I realized that I spend so much time thinking about the past or worrying about the future. And often I’m preoccupied with scenarios that don’t even exist. Overall, I really don’t spend much time in the present moment. Buddhism suggests that all this thinking and worrying distorts reality, leaving me disillusioned and, in effect, takes me away from who I truly am.
Meditation is a training method. I’ve always understood its importance but struggled with its practice. Since quitting my job, reducing financial responsibilities and drastically decreasing material possessions, life feels really simple. I’m realizing this might be a rare and special opportunity to work on developing inner-peace.
Ben and I renamed our website ‘Moving Mindful’ with an aspiration that we would like to become more mindful people…that our blog entries would reflect insight and experiences gained through a life lived completely and deeply in the present moment.
We decided to do a 2 day mediation retreat just outside Chiang Mai with Wat Suan Doen. The retreat consisted of Ben, myself and about 25 others. One at a time we introduced ourselves and explained our previous experience with meditation. I was happy to hear that for many people in the group, this would be their first time practicing.
Our teacher for the retreat, Phra Sinlapachai (Sankham) Santikaro, provided a brief background of the religion, who Buddha was and how he came to inspire so many people. He then explained that of everything we were to learn about Buddhism, three important things on an individual level are: to do good, to refrain from doing bad, and to purify the mind (specifically, having right thought, right speech, and right action).
He pointed towards a bookshelf that contained thousands of Buddha’s teachings and explained that you could spend years reading every book you can get your hands on about the religion, but they all come back to these values. Another important value he added was to learn to give before getting. These are seemingly simple ideals but I’ve found can be easily forgotten during the stress of everyday life.
Most of the retreat was silent. All lessons, meditations, meals, and breaks were conducted without speaking. At first I didn’t understand the point of the silence. But as we began learning the basic standing, walking and lying meditations throughout the course of the retreat, I noticed how much easier it was to calm my mind. When we were able to speak again, we were sectioned into two groups where we had an open discussion with one of the monks. During this time we were able to ask anything about mediation, the varying types of Buddhism and generally what a monk’s daily life was like.
We left the retreat really happy with our experience and want to do another either in Thailand or the next country we visit.
Buddhism is an incredible religion. It doesn’t concern itself with the existence of God and the origins of the universe, yet respects any belief held about these subjects. From what I’ve learned, the focus remains on how practicing compassion, generosity, and a dedication to others, can lead to a happy and peaceful life. To accept that life is always evolving and nothing lasts, but that true happiness and inner peace can be found in the present moment.
The first book I ever read about Buddhism continues to be the one I go back to. If you want to learn more about the religion, I recommend Awakening the Buddha Within, by Lama Surya Das. Originally from the US, the author writes about Tibetan Buddhism in a very modern and approachable way. We’ve carried this book with us on many of our travels over the years and even though I’ve read the same chapters several times, it continues to be a great resource.