Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery

This was written over the course of seven days I spent living and meditating in Wat Tam Wua Monastery in northern Thailand.

Wat Tam Wua is a different kind of paradise. One of my goals for Thailand was to spend time at a Buddhist monastery so I can practice meditation and a simple lifestyle. I’ve always been drawn to insight meditation but I’ve often found myself blocked out by my own thoughts. My lack of control over my own mind has frustrated and inspired me to further my practice. So I found myself crammed into a van with 15 other passengers weaving through winding mountain roads from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son in Northern Thailand. Everyone in the van is Thai, but me, and no one knows about this monastery but me, and hopefully, the driver.

Just after the deep red sun set behind the hills, the van pulled up next to a turnoff with a sign that said “Tam Wua Forest Monastery.” The driver hastily deposited me on the side of the road and sped off, leaving me alone, a bit confused, and quickly running out of light. I slung my pack over my shoulder and started walking.

By the time I arrived at the compound it was completely dark, with large florescent wands indicating the presence of buildings, but not a soul was to be seen. I wandered around with the familiar sense of wondering what I had gotten myself into. I finally heard a voice from one of the huts, and worked up the courage to knock on the door. The response was in Thai, then a groggy, half-dressed man peered out from the doorway at me. This couldn’t be a monk, I thought… He didn’t understand a word I said, but he knew I was lost. He turned on a light to put some pants on, and I saw that his hut was a mess of food wrappers and clothes, but a military cap was hung on the wall, and the back of his shirt read “police.” He led me to the sala next to a large quiet building, and lit a few sticks of incense for the deities keeping watch in the dark. Then he stood stood up and lit a cigarette. I sure hope this isn’t a monk.

I sat at the edge of the sala, waiting for something to happen, while the police guy smoked his cigarette, annoyed with my poor timing. Finally, some figures in white started emerging from the building, and a Thai guy name Thod took me off the guard’s hands.

I was short on time and didn’t have a chance to pick up white clothes for my stay, and was completely unable to convey my need for white clothes to anyone in the van, so I arrived at the monastery well-informed and unprepared. I clearly wasn’t the first, and Thod opened a cupboard full of white clothes for me to choose from. He then introduced me to Daniel, a young German guy who came with his brother Toby. I’d be staying in the big community lodging tonight with Daniel, with the promise of moving to my own kuti when one becomes available.

Life in the monastery is built from routine. It’s not as heavily regulated as other monasteries, but a daily schedule is repeated endlessly. 5:00-7:00 is morning practice on our own, followed by offerings to the monks and breakfast, then a quick break before morning group practice, which is about 2 hours of walking, sitting and lying meditation. Some more free time before more offerings to the monks and a huge lunch at 11:00am (our last meal of the day). Afternoon session follows shortly after, with free time before chores and evening tea, then evening chanting and meditation for another couple hours before more personal practice time and then bed.

The lifestyle here has effectively put a freeze on external stimuli, something I’ve been long overdue for. The location is isolated from everything but nature, reading is limited to related topics, and music is more or less forbidden. I do have my computer with me if I were so inclined to reopen pandora’s box of entertainment, but I’m pretty content with the simple life for now, and it feels rather good to have some self-imposed restrictions for a change. It will surely make these freedoms taste all the better when I re-enter the bigger world out there.

Rather than finding the silence deafening as you might imagine, I’m quite surprised at my own mind’s ability to produce thoughts, sounds, stories and scenarios to keep itself occupied. Unfortunately, this happens most noticeably when I’m trying to meditate, which has been very frustrating. Letting thoughts flow like water over my mind is an easy enough proposition in practical daily life for me; I tend not to cling to things anyways for the most part, but when I sit down and try to quiet my mind, it revolts by unleashing a torrent of thoughts of all shapes and sizes. Ignore this! It laughs at me as I try to focus on my breath, saying “these thoughts are valid, but now is not the time to think about this.” My mind responds: “then how come it’s only when you try to meditate that you think about these things?” Perhaps my default state is a meditative one, and when I sit down to meditate my mind thinks now is the time to focus all this thinking for a change. Or maybe I’m just bad at this. Still, I plod forth.

On the third day, the Ajahn and all the monks had returned from Bangkok to pay their respects to another teacher who had passed away, and that day a group of about 60 elderly women from Mae Hong Son came for a 3-day retreat. The mood has shifted.

On the fourth day, another traveler from Sacramento has come to the monastery. Dino taught yoga at Zuda, used to climb at Pipeworks, and knows many of the same people I do. I laughed at how small the world is, and although Dino doesn’t represent anything troubling me, I realized that if your motivation for travel is to avoid your problems, you might as well stay and face them; because no matter how far you think you’ve gone, your past is right behind you.

I find myself making little mistakes here and there and getting corrected for them. I notice in myself a mix of reactions, a part of me wants to correct my behavior to please those around me, another part doesn’t like being corrected, and resents the corrector as an agent of authority. Another part still wants to challenge convention, for it’s just in the realm of worldliness that convention exists. All of this occurs to me in a moment, then I let the thoughts rolls off my mind and I correct myself. A guest is bound by the convention of his hosts, after all.

Today, much time has been spent thinking about my grandmother. Right before I left for the monastery, I received an e-mail from my dad telling me that her condition was worsening, and I ought to give her a call before it was too late. It was the middle of the night back home and I didn’t have their phone number handy, so I had to leave for Wat Tam Wua without making the call. Her resilience over the past few years has been remarkable, and it’s hard to imagine that she is finally succumbing to the inevitability of life. With all the grandmother figures wandering about the past few days, it’s apparent that Buddhist training is often put off until the last stages of life, when death draws near and we’re forced to face our own mortality. I don’t have much fear of death, and in a way I look forward to the end of suffering for myself and for my loved ones, as strange as it may sound. But I think we’re expected to put on a big show of grief whenever someone is “lost,” because we’ve attached them to their body, and when the body dies, our attachment is to a lifeless corpse. When I think of my grandmother’s death, I feel bad for not being able to remind her one last time how much she is loved, and how much her loss will be grieved. For some reason, I think that would bring her comfort. These conventions don’t make much sense. I don’t understand why everyone is so eager to prolong the suffering of existence for as long as possible, because they are so absorbed in their indulgence of pleasure and pain. We like to say that life is a gift, so any kind of life must be better than no life at all. But as our bodies fall apart around us and our quality of life erodes away, I think we get a better sense of what Buddha meant when he said that “life is suffering.”

Today is my last full day at the monastery. I’ve said my goodbyes, and in fact most of the people who were here when I arrived have left ahead of me, making the process simpler. I’ll miss Dukhi, the young monk who’s been leading the walking meditation sessions and chanting. I got to carry his alms bowl for the lunch offerings a few times, and he remembered my name, to my surprise. It must be an interesting experience to remain here while people come and go, come and go. The same routine continues after we’ve left, with an ever-replenishing supply of people looking for guidance. The Ajahn’s life is also full of intrigue, and tomorrow he’s off to Bangkok for the second time in as many weeks. He’ll be participating in a 5-way discussion on religious tolerance, with heads of Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh sects. He’s a supremely pleasant man with a radiant disposition. His playful energy bubbles over when he speaks, and he launches into mischievous fits of laughter. I think he’s very capable of being serious when it’s necessary, but he’s not too attached to ceremony. I borrowed his camera so I could sneak some of his photos, and in all the photos of him receiving guests, dignitaries, military leaders, other religious figures, young aspirants and even local families, he always bore the same welcoming smile. It’s an amazing ability of these people who’ve shed their selfishness, to open their hearts to anyone who comes before them with the same loving kindness. I’m not sure if I have a knack for insight meditation, but if I could just bottle that smile, I think I’d be in good shape.

I woke up my last day ready to move on, but somehow unwilling to let go of the place I’ve called my home for the past week. It’s all been an exercise in letting go, so I took a deep breath, and finished cleaning out my kuti. I paused for a moment to survey the tiny room, making sure I’d erased any evidence of my presence, and the drone of the morning bell drew me outside. I was wearing the clothes I’d arrived in, and my neighbor asked “laundry day or leaving day?” Unfortunately, it was the latter. I had breakfast with the new arrivals after making my last offering to the monks. The food had been a pleasant surprise; rather than the simple flavorless fare you might expect from a monastery, the meals had been delicious and healthful. Every lunch was a veritable banquet, being the only daily meal the monks indulged in. I walked over to the Sala where I had first arrived, and lit some incense before dropping my donation into the safe, giving one final prostration before the idols. I slung my pack over my shoulder and once again started walking. As I reached the main gate, I heard the bell ringing, the call for morning meditation. I had to fight the urge to turn back, and keep moving forward. Letting go isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but it always leaves you lighter in the end.