11 Days Meditating with Thai Forest Monks
This post will be of special interest to you if you want to learn more about or are interested in mindfulness, meditation, Buddhism, Buddha, retreats in Thailand, or simply how to optimise health and happiness (wellness).
For 11 nights from 23 May to 3 June 2019 I stayed in Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest monastery while backpacking in Thailand.
What does Wat Pa Tam Wua mean?
From what I could gather, Wat means ‘temple complex’ in Thai, and Wat Pa Forest Monastery was built among the Tam Wua (cow caves) in which cows once gave birth, away from the risk of predators like leopards.
How did you find out about the monastery?
While staying for 1 month at Purple Place on Phú Quốc island in Vietnam, a backpacking couple told me to fly to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand and go to Pai (’cause I’d told them I wanted mountains, rivers and countryside now – not sea).
I decided to follow their suggestion. Air Asia flights cost about 25 Euros from Phú Quốc to Phuket in Thailand.
My plan was to fly from there to Chiang Mai, but while in Phuket, my friend James messaged me he was visiting Bangkok for a week, so I flew to Bangkok to hang out with him first.
While hanging out in Bangkok, James sent a video of me meditating to his yoga teacher back in France, and she sent him a link about Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery.
Laurence, the yoga teacher, had stayed at the monastery herself a few years before and loved it.
She didn’t know I was going to Pai, but I was, and that is where you get the minivan to the monastery, so ‘coincidence’ (or ‘the universe’) had provided.
How could I get there?
It is easy for anyone to get to this rural monastery. Simply fly to Chiang Mai airport in Thailand and then take a minivan directly from the airport to beautiful Pai.
From there, it’s a 3-4 hour drive to the monastery up and down a swerving mountain landscape; you’ll keep slipping around in your seat, and someone will likely throw up along the way, but it’s definitely not as bad as the hype and well worth the journey.
So what is a Thai Forest Monastery?
I thought a Thai forest monastery is a monastery in a forest in Thailand. It turns out that a Thai Forest Monastery is much more than that.
Monks practise the Thai Forest Tradition, and the Thai Forest Tradition is a branch of Theravada Buddhism.
Basically, there are two main forms of Buddhism: Theravada (‘Doctrine of the Elders’) in Southeast Asia, and Mahayana (‘Great Vehicle’) in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and Tibet.
Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia travelled from India to Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, and especially to Myanmar/Burma and Thailand; it is also the most traditional school of Buddhism.
The word ‘Elders’ in Theravada Buddhism refers to the monks and nuns who, to this day, pass on the Buddha’s original teachings from the earliest surviving record – the Pali language texts from India.
The Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism is a Sangha (community) of Theravadan monks and nuns who strictly practice what the Buddha said in those original texts about how to live monastic life.
From the 1930s through the 1990s, the Thai Forest Tradition of Buddhism and its return to strictly following the original texts gained popularity in the West, and the Ajahn (teaching monks) welcome foreigners to their monasteries worldwide to this day.
Why are these Thai Forest monks so crazy cool?
The contribution the Buddha made to the teachings of wellness – or ending all suffering – was teaching a practice to reach a state of pure bliss (nirvāṇa/nibbāna) through the practice of vipassana (insight) meditation.
But these Thai Forest monks are not just sitting around devoting their lives to the practice of contemplative insight through constant disciplined daily meditation with the path to enlightenment as their only goal; oh no, they are much more hardcore than that!
The Buddha also taught to go alone into the forests, the caves, the hills, isolated places, and explore within with the forest as your university.
So that’s what they do. These monks explore their thoughts of fear, for example, by meditating on the edge of cliffs where falling off means death, or deep inside haunted caves, or all night long in tiger-infested forests.
Indeed, at Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery itself, they have 3 caves where the monks (and you) can go to meditate if you wish.
The Buddha Cave is in complete darkness, but the even crazier one is high up at the top of a make shift wooden ladder. There, you will find a small meditation stool, wooden bed and a mosquito net.
Guests are not allowed to stay in the caves overnight without prior arrangement. Only the monks. For your own safety!
With laughter and joy, the abbot (left in pic) at Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery, Ajahn Luang Ta, shares the story of the tiger that nearly made him into “a BBQ” as it sat watching and waiting for him to fall asleep one night while meditating.
What the monks are trying to do in these extreme situations is not let the mind get the better of them. Try not freaking out in that situation!
Entering the forest for days or weeks of meditation, the monks seek freedom from the “monkey mind” which is always “jumping” from one thing to the next – unsettled, never calm, never present, and always creating suffering.
Wandering into Myanmar/Burma for a while, sometimes even Laos, they then walk their way back. And some get eaten along the way. Now that’s one way to end your suffering!
So are you on one of those crazy spiritual journeys?
When I say that I am going to a meditation retreat, people sometimes respond with comments like “I hope you find what you are looking for”.
This makes me laugh because I doubt people would make the same comment if I said I was going to a gym.
My point is that we go to the gym to improve the health of our bodies and that is seen as a ‘normal’ thing to do. Meditation on the other hand is a way to improve the health of our minds; yet it is still considered a bit ‘out there’.
If I say that I wish to improve my physical health, for example – no problem; but if I change that to ‘mental health’, there is suddenly a stigma attached, don’t you agree?
Meditation is simply the practice of strengthening the power of the mind to increase its health.
I meditate daily, but just like doing physical exercise, it is always beneficial to practice intensively with ‘an instructor’ for a while if you can.
So what did the Buddha teach exactly?
According to the Buddha, all our suffering (dukkha) comes from having no control over our minds, which are constantly in taṇhā – craving and aversion – or wanting and unwanting.
Basically, because we are rarely present, but constantly jumping from thought to thought about how we want things to be different to how they currently are, we suffer.
Suffering occurs because we are living in our thoughts – think about it. LOL.
When we go into past events (wanted or unwanted), imagine future events (wanted or unwanted) or wish for current events to be different, we suffer.
In other words, we are rarely satisfied with the current moment as it is, and suffering because our minds are constantly wanting or not wanting something to be.
Makes sense, right?
There’s really no voodoo to it. ‘Buddha’ means ‘Awakened One’ and the Buddha was just a person who managed to figure out how to step out of the daydream; the daydream of living our lives in our thoughts and missing what’s actually going on.
The Buddha taught Dhamma (the path) to becoming the driver of our own minds instead of being permanently driven by them.
It is this ‘becoming the driver instead of being driven’ that frees us from suffering and takes us to nirvāṇa (nibbāna in Pali) – the state of permanent peaceful bliss.
Anyone can potentially be a buddha, the Buddha is called the Buddha as a sign of respect for his teaching, and for the contribution he made to the world.
The Dhamma, or tool or way, that Buddha taught is observation – also known as mindfulness meditation practice.
So at a Thai Forest Monastery you just meditate?
The teachings of the Buddha are not all I got to learn about and experience staying at Wat Pa Tam Wua.
The monks openly explain in their talks that the Thai Forest Monastery not only follows the teachings of the Buddha, but also follows Thai tradition.
In Thai culture, for example, tattoos of the Buddha’s head on a person’s body are considered completely disrespectful and against Thai law; meanwhile, Buddhist monks are regarded as the direct line to the teachings of the Buddha and respected as if they were the Buddha himself.
At the end of every session on the timetable, everyone bows 3 times in respect to the Buddha’s teachings and 3 times in respect to the monks who pass them on.
Showing respect also means that while meditating, one’s feet should not be pointed at the monks or statues of the Buddha, palms are placed together when interacting with monks, and one must sit while talking to a sitting monk so as not to be ‘above’ the monk.
Though this may all seem unusual or unnecessary, participating in all this ‘respect’ does make one wonder what the effect would be in Christian-influenced society if as much importance was put on respecting the teachings of Jesus, for example, or indeed just valuing the role of everyday teachers in schools and colleges for that matter.
So you think we should respect traditions unquestioningly?
I’m not saying students should bow down before their teachers LOL.
No, There does seem to be something positive about all this respect, but as with all things, nothing is just black or white.
Women are also to sit behind the males in the Dhamma meditation hall and walk behind males during walking meditations; this ensures they are further away from the monks during times of concentration.
On the website, it goes further: “… we ask that you remember you are in a Buddhist monastery. It should be obviously inappropriate to practice the ‘Happy Baby‘ position when visible to monks. We are not against the practice of yoga, but provocative poses are a distraction to others”.
Such rules and statements can be a tough pill to swallow for Westerners brought up with concepts like gender equality and political correctness.
It is, however, easy to forget that both the Thai men and Thai women at the monastery have absolute respect for these rules; not complying or complaining as a guest at a Thai monastery would, to them, be seen not only as disrespectful but completely offensive.
Or as Ajahn Phoom said to the group in his morning talk one day: “If you do not like the rule that marijuana is illegal in Thailand. You should still show respect to that rule. Go to Amsterdam instead”.
He kind of has a point. Or does he? Hmm. I’m confused. LOL.
Finally, the evening Chanting Book deals with this topic of following the rules and traditions that come with Buddhism and the Thai tradition, and the difficulty that some Westerns have with accepting the rules.
You will probably find the answer given in the book interesting and thought provoking. You can have a read here.
Personally the activist in me loves breaking stupid rules, but these answers are nevertheless intelligent counter arguments worth considering.
Isn’t religion just about controlling people?
A typical Western sentiment, but with regards to Theravada Buddhism, the relationship between the monks and the Thai people is more nuanced than that.
In fact, the Buddhist religion could not even exist in Thailand without the relationship of mutual respect and mutual support that exists.
Thai people supply food, medicine, cloth for robes, physical labour, whatever is required to help keep their local monastery operational; while the monks provide spiritual and emotional support, blessings, ceremonies, teachings, accommodation and a retreat for the locals in their community.
That means Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery is operated totally by community support, on-site volunteers, and with the help of guests.
Pretty amazing really! Just be careful of the snakes when cleaning the monastery areas. 🙂
That being said, I think it’s fair to say that the Buddha himself was not interested at all in the Thai Tradition – or any tradition – since to achieve enlightenment is to free ourselves completely from our identity story and self structure (ego) – the idea that we are this type of person or that type of person.
What is important according to the Buddha?
The Buddha did say what we should do. He provided a moral code or guideline for how we should behave, which is basically: ‘do no harm to yourself or others’.
He set out 5 precepts – or codes of conduct – for anyone who wants to be free from suffering. These include:
no stealing, no killing (or deliberately harming any sentient being), no unwholesome speech (no lying, gossiping, etc), no intoxicants (’cause they make us careless not mindful), and no sexual misconduct (ie. no cheating, manipulating or forcing into sex).
For someone who is a serious practitioner of his teachings, the Buddha provides 3 more precepts:
no food after midday (my last post explains why fasting is beneficial), no luxurious beds, and no ‘making yourself up’, music or entertainments (’cause unhelpful distractions).
Luckily, if you’re not a monk or nun, you only have to do these for the few days that you stay at the monastery LOL, but as the monastery’s website emphasises:
“Take the opportunity to grow spiritually, to learn, and to become a better person. […] You have the choice of challenging yourself, turning inwards and exploring … Or you can do the bare minimum, and spend as much time as possible playing on your phone and talking to other people. The choice rests entirely in your hands. When it comes time to leave, how will you have wanted to have spent you time? On Facebook, talking about the time you got drunk in Pai, or on an internal journey of discovery and understanding that changed your life?”
In other words, while staying at the monastery to experience Thai monastic life, all 8 precepts should be followed by guests too.
Consequently, there is zero tolerance of stealing, drugs, alcohol, sexual interaction, and verbal insults (one girl was asked to leave while I was there for this reason).
Also, no meat is served, the last served meal of the day is lunch, beds consist of a thin yoga-mat type mattress on wood, and there’s no WiFi (no entertainment) provided.
If you do decide to be a monk or nun, I’m afraid sexual misconduct will then become no sex at all, and a 10th precept will also apply: no handling of money.
However, as a monk you do get to wear the funky orange robes though. As visitors, you only get to wear white. LOL.
So what can you do?
I might not be selling it so far, but Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery offers a truly amazing, unique opportunity. And what an incredible experience it is!
If you don’t watch any other video, I strongly recommend you watch this one.
Surrounded by majestic mountains, a crystal clear river full of large fish (that eat fruit by the way!), and a forest that literally connects Thailand to Myanmar/Burma, Wat Pa Tam Wua is also one of the only Thai monasteries in the world that has English speaking monks and an English speaking programme.
The daily programme and all teachings are FREE.
Dormitory accommodation and food are also provided FREE, and a private kuti (hut) is given free depending on how busy they are (I got the last one on my first day); the huts have private bathroom, warm shower and your own private balcony.
Bedding is provided as well, along with white clothes to wear (these are the robes of someone devoting themselves to the Buddha’s teachings).
Two delicious all-you-can-eat vegan meals, endless tea, coffee, hot chocolate, free water, fruits and biscuits are also all provided.
The monastery does have a donation box; if you wish to give a monetary donation (and I believe anyone who can, should!), the money is not handled by the monks, but manager Dr Pong puts any donations right back into the running of this gorgeous monastery.
Also, as long as guests are respectful, the monastery is extremely flexible.
For example, you can take fruit that’s growing on the grounds or eat your own food during the evenings, no one will say anything if you get some extra bedding for your wooden bed, non-silent areas are provided for quiet talking, jewelry is not an issue, and the monastery allows a coffee shop across the field by the monastery’s main gate to offer internet access and sugar-coated snacks to guests who can’t resist.
So the Theravada Buddhist religion most definitely does have rituals and traditions, yes, but the main difference to other religions (apart from the obvious fact that it gives no opinion about whether or not there’s a God) is that the responsibility of achieving the promised fruits of following the path of Buddha is placed entirely in your hands.
To refer back to the website, it states:
“We will not take away your phone, or stop you from using it. However, deep introspection and breakthroughs are less likely to happen while you’re on Twitter. It might be better to spend the time asking why you find it so difficult to be without it.”
According to the monks, reaching that permanent state of bliss called nirvāṇa is not obtained by long periods of time on social media, but long periods of meditation instead.
But you are not expected to agree with the monks. They say themselves that you are your own best teacher; you have to find out for yourself if what they say is true.
So what is this meditation that the monks teach?
The monks explain there are two types of meditation technique that the Buddha taught, and you will learn both techniques at the Thai Forest Monastery.
The first is Samatha meditation and the second is Vipassana. The Buddha taught the importance of both; we strengthen our ability in Samatha before moving on to Vipassana.
The purpose of both techniques is to strengthen mindfulness, which is one’s ability to be fully aware (or present) with what is happening right now in this moment (and not get caught up in that daydream called the monkey mind).
Therefore, at Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery, every daily practice meditation includes about 40 mins walking meditation, 40 mins sitting meditation and 15 mins lying meditation to demonstrate how mindfulness should be practiced all the time.
Meditation ends with metta, or ‘loving kindness’, which is a blessing for all people to discover Dhamma and become free from suffering (“May all beings be happy”).
How do we practise the techniques that the Buddha taught?
The first one you probably know already.
Samatha meditation is the type of meditation we commonly come across in the West, and was also very common at the time of the Buddha.
It is concentration on one object, or one-pointedness, and is typically referred to as a calming meditation, but this does not mean that it is relaxing to do. LOL
While focusing on the breath, for example, the mind demands our attention within seconds, and we will soon find ourselves lost in thoughts, and the feelings they cause, like “this is so boring!”.
When this happens, we can give up; or we can realise just how much our thinking has control over our attention. Then, we don’t listen to the mind, and we don’t react, we just bring our attention back to the breath.
The more we practice, the more our ability to concentrate improves, and the amount of time we can stay in the present moment (the only moment in life that we actually ever have) increases and increases.
This is what the Forest monks call a “wholesome” (healthy) mind. They say that thinking all the time is “unwholesome” (unhealthy) because it is exhausting. We are asleep. Living most of our lives in a daydream.
I certainly know that. I used to think so much growing up that I would literally exhaust myself – mostly thinking about how crap things were – and I would even sometimes end up annoying myself because I couldn’t stop.
The Buddha recommended focusing on the breath coming in and going out, but the Thai Forest monks offer some other techniques too, such as counting numbers, focusing on the abdomen, or focusing on a mantra like “Bud” (breathing in) and “Dho” (breathing out).
The result of Samatha meditation, or one-pointed mindfulness practice, is to have a calm, still, balanced and focused “wholesome” (healthy) mind.
The Buddha said this technique alone can lead to a permanent state of happiness, but not to the truth; for that, you need Vipassana.
Vipassana meditation is insight meditation which requires concentration objects in order to gain wisdom (insight) into who we truly are.
This is the meditation technique that the Buddha offered to the world, and the one that promises the full monty – complete liberation from the suffering of the mind (enlightenment).
Normally, our thoughts and feelings take the driver’s seat of our lives. We believe them. In fact, we are them. They become our identity. Who we are.
But when we meditate, we experience firsthand that we are not our thoughts. Why? Because we can ignore them; yet we are still aware. We don’t have to become them.
We experience that our thoughts (that are constantly flying into past and future scenarios, causing us all sorts of worry, anxiety, concern and stress) are just a construct.
We can call this construct the ego, or our believed identity. The fact is that even our perspective on life is simply the way we have become conditioned to see the world.
From the moment we are born we collect information about who we are depending on our surroundings. Our parents give us our name. We learn our nationality, and whether we are male or female. The mainstream narrative in our society gives us most of our beliefs and values. Even our age is a concept of time given to us by our calendar year.
Yet before we knew all this information, we were still conscious and aware. Who were we then? What was going on in our heads when we were not our thoughts yet?
The teachings of the Buddha are about freeing ourselves from these thoughts, concepts and beliefs that we have become so identified with, that we have come to believe are who we actually are.
Vipassana meditation is the practice of concentrating on that space between thoughts (which has been cultivated by practising Samatha meditation) and then to observe what arises.
To do this, the Thai Forest monastery monks teach us to observe our thoughts, and the feelings and sensations they cause, as “the knower” (watch them objectively; separated from them).
It’s not that thinking is bad; thinking is a wonderful and essential tool that helps us to take life by the reins and live life to the fullest – when the mind is at service to who we are, prior to thought.
The ultimate teaching of the Buddha, then, is about experiencing (and then living as) who we are prior to this constructed egoic self structure.
Vipassana meditation is seen as the tool that leads to that liberation – enlightenment (or permanent nirvana), which the Buddha says cannot be described, and has to be experienced to be believed.
What do you reckon about all this, robito?
Albert Einstein said “The true measure of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and sense in which he has obtained liberation from the self”.
The love and compassion expressed by the monks, manager, staff and volunteers, and the lengths everyone at the monastery goes to to ensure that everyone benefits as much as possible from the experience, the experience itself, and the benefits of the techniques and teachings given by Thai Forest Monastery monks are all simply extraordinary.
I would summarise staying at Wat Pa Tam Wuan Forest Monastery as receiving the teaching, practising mindfulness meditation, and practising respect.
Respect in the form of compassion through daily blessings of loving kindness (metta), helping out around the monastery, daily food offerings to the monks, and bowing down in respect of the Buddha, the monks, the community and the teachings.
The rights and rituals are perhaps the most interesting initially and the most difficult part to participate in over time; they are the same day in and day out.
The evening chanting, for example, is about an hour of exactly the same words repeated in Pali, then Thai, then English. The website suggests imagining “that you are leading the chanting” and “feelings of boredom will become less likely to arise”.
With my critical mind, it has to be said that the part of the Buddha’s teaching that Theravada Buddhism conveniently ignores is that in order to become completely liberated as the Buddha taught, one would have to completely let go of identifying with the egoic construct – so that means all rights, rituals, traditions and concepts (Thai or not) are no longer important.
The Thai Forest monks also teach interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings that make you question how you’re supposed to test that one out to see if it’s true before you believe them.
For example, there are 31 realms of existence populated by beings who revolve through them life after life. Also, if people cry around you in your last days while you are dying, this will send you to a lower hell realm.
The goal of the Theravada and Thai Forest monks is also to examine asubha, or ‘the loathsome and repugnant human body’ (their words not mine) and escape the suffering caused by the human mind by reaching a point through meditation in which you will not have to be reborn and go through the turmoil of living as a human ever again.
This may not be everybody’s take on human existence. It certainly isn’t mine. But it is for this reason that Theravada Buddhists do not meditate on the external, such as branches swaying or the waves in the ocean; because the external encourages thought and only the internal ends suffering.
In a Nutshell (conclusion)
Do we have to have exactly the same perspective on life as the teacher to embrace his or her teaching?
The traditions of the Thai Forest monks are fascinating, while also encouraging us to critical thinking, and the meditation techniques that are taught are absolutely invaluable for increasing health and happiness (wellness).
In 2018, for example, I literally spent every day for 3 whole months lying in a hammock on a paradise beach in Sri Lanka watching the ocean, training the ability to stay focused on the present moment and not go into thoughts.
Personally, the longer that I extend the time that I can stay in this alternative state of being that is not my thoughts (I call it The Art of not Thinking), the more connected I become to a different guidance system.
My alternative inner satnav has many names – intuition, gut feeling, heart, soul, spirit, passion, inner voice – some of which you may find more palatable that others, but they all refer to that same inner knowing of who I really am.
In academic research, this inner guidance system has a name too – purpose.
I believe this inner guidance system is personal to everyone. For some, it may be an inner calling to become a Thai Forest Buddhist monk, for others a diving instructor.
What I know from my own personal experience for sure is that the more we listen to and follow our own personal inner guidance system (follow our intuition and passions instead of our conditioned ego construct and thoughts), the whole world around us starts to fall into place as if the universe itself just may well be helping you out.
The world becomes a truly blissful, magical and wonderful place to be alive.
But the only way to know if there is any truth in anything that the Buddha, the Thai Forest monks, or I say is to give mindfulness meditation practice a serious bash and see what the experience is like for you.
And if you’re ever headed to Thailand, Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery is a fantastic experience, and a perfect place to learn and practise.
My Wish For You!
Thank you once again for making it to the end. I hope you enjoyed the post as much as I enjoy sharing my adventures with you. The teacher in me also hopes that you learnt something new.
If you did find it interesting to read. please consider sharing this post with others.
My aim is to entertain, educate and inspire.
All my love, robito
Subscribe for the latest updates, informative news, mind-blowing science and entertaining posts exploring today’s personal and global problems (criticality) and today’s solutions (wellness) right in your inbox.