So I've been at a Buddhist temple/meditation retreat in Northern Thailand for about a week now and it's been mostly a great experience so far. First things first, we were given the history of [Theravada] Buddhism in a nutshell. Buddha is not a god nor did he ever claim to be nor is he worshipped as one. He was just a dude that after tons of meditation and introspection had a significant aha! moment and became enlightened (or awakened) in India during the 6th Century BC (about 2500 years ago; a bit after Judaism but before Christianity and Islam.) There are three parts comprising the Triple Gem: the Buddha (teacher) the Dharma (teachings) and the Sangha (the community). I think of it more as a philosophy, which basically says don't be a jerk and that you take full responsibility for your actions and your future.
Previously unbeknownst to me, my arrival happened to coincide with Paravana Day, or the end of the monks' three month Rains Retreat (vaguely comparable to Christian Lent) where they study and meditate more intensively and don't leave the temple during Thailand's rainy season. There was early morning (5 AM) chanting as well as evening (6 PM) chanting and the lay community came for two days to make larger than usual alms (donations) of food and money. I was told that the leftover food that the monks don't eat gets donated to the poor and refugees. The local Thai people were so nice and shared food and drink and even their alms with us so that we would have something to give the monks (even though we did buy our own food alms as well.)
All that the monks own is a bright orange robe or two, shoes (generally flip flops) an alms bowl and a few of them had smartphones, all of which get donated by the community. They ranged vastly in age from like 8 to 80 years old. Here, being a monk is not a lifetime commitment and you can be ordained or disrobe at will and most Thai Buddhist men join the monastic order at some point in their lives, if even just for a short time. We even have a guy in our retreat group from England who was ordained and will wear the robes and do the morning alms rounds for just three or four weeks.
When I arrived in my room, I immediately flopped down on the bed only to discover that it was pretty much a wooden plank with literally a half-inch thick “mattress” pad and hodgepodge pink linens draped over it. At least the pillow is nice and plump. The rest of the room is simple and sparsely furnished with a small desk, a plastic blue chair, a blue striped rug and two waist - high shelving units. The one opposite my bed supports an oscillating fan which functions as my only defense against the Thai heat and humidity seeping through the open and thankfully screened window during midday. It's nice and cool in the mornings and evenings, though. I also have my own modest toilet and shower in a small bathroom across the hall from my bedroom.
All white everything. As retreaters, we have to wear a loose-fitting, conservative white top and white pants all day, every day (except when sleeping of course). I have two sets; the set I used for meditation during my yoga training in India and I bought a second set I bought at a local market here. It's got the comfort level of scrubs and drastically decreases the time and effort needed to get ready in the morning.
Hands off. We are not allowed to touch the monks - no handshakes or high-fives or hugs or anything like that.
No shoes. Shoes off before entering any structure whether its a temple or living quarters or meditation area. I prefer being barefoot anyways!
Podiatric posture. When in a Sala (large temple/sanctuary) or Vihara (small temple) you always sit on your heels or with your legs to the side or cross-legged. Never show the soles of your feet to a Buddha image or to anyone else as it's considered offensive here.
The Eight Precepts
A common practice when doing this kind of retreat is to adopt the eight precepts, which I am doing during my stay. (Note: the first five are what lay people are supposed to follow all the time and the last three are taken on as extra effort.) These are:
1. Refrain from killing/harming any other beings
2. Refrain from stealing
3. Refrain from sexual misconduct (celibacy when on temple grounds)
4. Refrain from false (lying) or harsh (cursing) speech
5. Refrain from the use of intoxicants (booze, drugs, anything that significantly alters your state of mind)
6. Eat only two meals between sunrise and noon (however you can drink tea and other beverages in the evening)
7. Refrain from bodily decoration/enhancement (jewelry, makeup, perfume, etc) and entertainment (music, dancing, YouTube, etc)
8. Refrain from extravagant comforts (beds, chairs, etc.) AND I am using all of my willpower to also refrain from Thai massages, even though there is a place less than 300m away. Also, see previous paragraph about sleeping on a plank of wood.
The first five are pretty universal common sense. The last three are designed to remove distractions so you can better focus your mind without having to think about dinner, your appearance and lethargy, respectively.
The only problem I have here is the blatant contradiction to precept number one. One other girl and I are vegetarian and they literally have to go out of their way to feed us. 99% of alms food and food in general here is loaded with meat; pork, chicken, fish, beef, mystery meat, everything. I NEVER THOUGHT I WOULD RISK STARVATION AT A BUDDHIST TEMPLE.
I understand the whole principle behind the monks eating and being thankful for whatever food is offered to them but then the lay people are supposed to follow the 'no harm' precept as well so I'm sure they justify it as they are usually not directly slaughtering their own livestock but someone down the line is killing the animal to satisfy the overwhelming demand for dead flesh here. I guess I had my own preconceptions of what the priorities of Buddhism are but still it's pretty black and white IMO.
The first few dinner-less days were challenging but not as bad as I expected. This place could really use a fresh juice and smoothie bar, especially after noon. Drool.
5:00: Wake up & morning yoga (just me - most mornings)
7:30: Breakfast with some of the monks
8-9:00: Mindful chores (sweeping, cleaning, tidying up)
9-10:30: Study, reading, discussion and/or chanting practice
10:30 - 11:30: Group Meditation
12:00-14:00: Free time/Rest/Individual Practice/Reading
14:00-15:00: Group Meditation
15-16:00: Q&A, Discussion
16-18:00: Free time/Rest/Individual Practice/Reading
18:00: Evening chanting at temple
19:00: Free time and eventually sleep
I feel like the evening chanting is somewhere between a psalm and the pledge of allegiance. You're not praying or asking for any blessings. Most of it is in the Pali language, which is similar to the Sanskrit chanting from India, so I already had a decent idea of the pronunciations. Our books have English translations for most of it but there is a bit in Thai where I have no idea what I'm saying so I could be promising to give them my first born (but probably not, lol). There is also a 15 minute meditation included towards the end. There are also several prostrations (bowing) involved which is done out of respect and admiration, not worship. I wasn't a fan at first but now I don't mind it so much. Actually doesn't seem too far off from the Sunday morning church services I attended growing up.