I sat cross-legged, with my eyes closed, in the open-sided meditation hall, listening to the warm voice of an orange-robed Thai monk. Outside, coucal birds and cicadas sang lazily in the intense heat, but I felt deliciously cool in my pale-blue fisherman’s trousers.
“The breath is Buddha’s cigarette – take it in deep,” the monk was telling me and my 60 cross-legged companions.
I inhaled the heady scent of the jasmine growing nearby, and let my mind wander to comparing the colours of silk pyjamas I’d been eyeing in Bangkok a few days ago. I made a fresh effort to concentrate on my breathing – in-out, in-out – but then a breeze caught my cheek, an itch developed behind my right ear, and – after a few seconds’ struggle – I reluctantly reached up to scratch it...
Thus began my experience of a ten-day vipassana (insight) meditation retreat at Suan Mokkh, a monastery in the southern Thai jungle. During eight daily sessions of meditation, my mind flitted about like a honeybee, and I battled with desires to leave, to laugh and to give up and gorge on a pad thai.
Halfway through, though, I began to get the hang of it, thanks to the inspirational monks and nuns, who gave intelligent and often laugh-out-loud-funny talks each evening about meditation and their own lives. One monk used to be a psychologist; another worked in advertising; a third turned to Buddhism when he found his wife was pregnant by another man.
All of them were teaching at the retreat voluntarily, and seeing how normal they were made my desire to learn to meditate all the stronger. I did buy a pair of pink silk pyjamas, but I also brought back something of more lasting value.
Meditation is not an excuse for a kip, an escape from reality or an attempt to stop thinking altogether. It helps us to stop worrying, keep mentally alert and to calm down when dealing with the daily stresses of modern life. Having positive thoughts can help us stay physically healthy too – it’s proven that the quality of our consciousness affects the biorhythms of the body. Meditation is increasingly used by therapists to treat depression and degenerative diseases.
I find meditation also makes travelling easier – I engage more with what’s around me rather than rushing to see as much as I can, and I’m less likely to get angry when a tout is trying to flog me something.
In Buddhism, meditation is an important part of what’s called the Noble Eightfold Path, a list of practical things you can do to reduce the chance of you suffering in life. Buddhists meditate to help develop these ways of being. There are three main forms of meditiation – vipassana, Tibetan or Zen – but each method focuses on the two common qualities of ‘concentration’ (on the breath, an image or a question) and ‘enquiry’ (into who we are and what life’s really like).
While you could learn to meditate at a local yoga centre, it makes more sense to be in a country with an age-old Buddhist meditation tradition, in a monastery in a pristine and silent forest, being taught by monks and nuns who until then you’d probably seen only fleetingly on trains or in temples.
Reflect on death to appreciate life
Tibetan meditation is practised by Mahayana Buddhists in Tibet, China, Japan and elsewhere in north-east Asia; many Mahayana Buddhists have migrated to north and north-east India.
Its various methods include the systematic reflection on death to enable us to appreciate life (the result is a lot more cheerful than it sounds) and visualising mandalas (complex colourful images) to develop concentration and to practise identifying with the feel-good feelings embodied by Buddha.
Where to try it
One of the best places to learn Tibetan meditation is at the Tushita Meditation Centre (www.tushita.info), in McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh. The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in McLeod Ganj since 1959. A smiling, calm and witty presence, His Holiness sometimes gives dharma talks in the town.
Tushita is nestled in pine-clad hills and runs excellent courses from mid February to the end of November. More time is given to teaching than on vipassana retreats, and there are daily discussion groups.
Or try this... Tushita’s sister retreat, The Root Institute (www.rootinstitute.com) is in pleasant, calm grounds in Bodhgaya. The institute runs a range of respected Tibetan Buddhism and meditation courses from October to March.
If you’re keen to get to Tibet, Buddhist master Amnyi Trulchung Rinpoche (c/o www.rigdzintrust.org) leads an inspirational annual Tibetan Pilgrimage to his home region of Dzachuka, which includes a five-day meditation retreat at Ju Mohar Monastery. You don’t have to know anything about meditation or be a Buddhist – the trip is aimed at anyone with a strong interest in the country and its cultural and spiritual heritage.
The art of living
Vipassana – the Pali word for insight – is the main form of meditation practised in Theravada Buddhism – the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand and the rest of South-East Asia since the 11th century.
The idea is to stay in the present moment rather than fantasising about the future or regretting the past, which is done by practising sustained attention to the breath and by developing what Buddhists call ‘mindfulness’ of ourselves and others.
There’s a strong emphasis on developing metta, which means being kinder to ourselves and others. Retreats mix sitting, walking and standing meditation with group talks, and are often held in silence to free the mind from daily chitchat.
Where to try it
International Dharma Hermitage of Suan Mokkh (www.suanmokkh.org) at Chaiya runs respected, silent meditation retreats starting the first day of every month, led by Thai and Western monks and nuns.
Or try this... Wat Kow Tham International Retreat Centre (www.watkowtahm.org) is in a serene corner of Ko Pha-Ngan. Meditation retreats are led by expert teachers Rosemary and Steve Weissman.
Bodhgaya Retreats (www.insightmeditation.org) near Gaya runs three highly respected retreats every January and February at the peaceful Thai Monastery, organised by former Buddhist monk Christopher Titmuss. It is said that it was here that Buddha meditated under a bodhi tree, and saw for the first time the way things truly are.
Sri Lanka is ideal if you want to learn Vipassana – nearly 70% of Sinhalese (the main ethnic group of Sri Lanka) are practising Theravadan Buddhists. Nilambe (www.nilambe.org) is a non-sectarian Buddhist retreat perched on the side of a mountain amid tea plantations. There are no official courses, but it offers instruction in Vipassana and metta in English on demand. There’s no electricity, so bring a torch, and you’ll need warm clothes and an umbrella for the hill-country weather.
The art of living
Zen Buddhism originated in China and spread to Japan and Korea. It features two kinds of zazen (sitting meditation) – you either sit and repeat a question to yourself, such as “what is this?”, or you sit still and do nothing but be present in the moment, known as ‘silent illumination’. Either way, it’s pretty challenging. The easiest way to learn is while staying in a temple.
Where to try it
Japan has many shukubo (temple lodgings) run by local monks that are open to foreigners and include zazen meditation as part of their daily schedule. Hosen-ji Zen Centre (www.zazen.or.jp) at Kameoka is set in the mountains near Kyoto, has a large garden for silent contemplation and a friendly attitude to potential converts. Sutra chanting is part of the day, and you can opt to learn calligraphy.
Or try this... The nearby Kyoto Kokusai Zendo (www.tekishin.org) is also set in peaceful surroundings, and visitors sleep in a traditional farmhouse.
South Korean temples started to welcome foreign visitors in 2002 when the country hosted the football World Cup. They offer a peaceful environment and a chance to witness life in a thriving monastery. One of the best is Haeinsa (http://80000.or.kr/eng/info/temple_stay.html), a serene, sloping-roofed complex of buildings set amongst forests, mountains and streams in Gayasan National Park. As well as meditation you can learn the Zen martial art of sunmudo and try your hand at worshipping by 108 bows, said to eliminate desire and purify the body.
Caroline Sylge is the author of Body and Soul Escapes (Footprint)
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