Findhorn is not a place of Buddhist practice per se, but it is a place of practice. The main campus of the organization is based in two locations around the quaint Highland town of Forres (about thirty miles from Inverness). One is Cluny, an old hotel that very obviously was an old hotel, a large building, it’s very architecture somehow casting the shadow onto one of the muted desperation of 1930s holiday-makers undergoing perfunctory periods of rest and relaxation. The other is a sprawling park within walking distance of the cold and pebbly but beautiful beach. The park is home to many interesting individuals complete with many Tibetan prayer flags, hobbit homes, strawberry fields and other creative hippy touches. However radical its past, there is an air of being a very established and safe organization now, with roads, safety signs, laminated signs with rules and regulations, a well-stocked convenience store and a pleasant cafe with a newspaper rack.
Several times a month, the organization runs ‘Experience Week’, which is a collection of activities selected to give a taste of what Findhorn is about. There are classes in Eurythmic Dancing, conversing with nature, gardening workshops and so on. At the center of all these activities are the group-sharing sessions. The group sits around a circle and go around saying how they feel, making sure to always to use ‘I statements’ – for example, you wouldn’t say ‘Joe is horrible’, you’d say ‘I think that Joe is horrible’. This is surprisingly powerful. Total strangers open up to one another, stoic men start crying, very got-it-together seeming people reveal painful aspects of themselves. The week becomes highly emotionally charged, perhaps a week-long microcosm of your own emotional opera, faster-moving but no less powerful but, because it is briefer, easier to understand.
The centre doesn’t do any one spiritual practice. There is a focus on these group sharing activities, on ‘tuning-in’ – which means holding hands with your group before a work sessions and ‘coming back’ to the place, time and oneself. An interest in angels runs around. Practically speaking, this means that a group or individual will pick a card from a pack that will say ‘Strength’ or ‘Love’ or ‘Creativity’ or something similar and they will be encouraged to contemplate or call on that angel as time goes on. A lot of people, including myself, found this angel stuff pretty cookie. But you’re not forced to believe in angels (and, after all, it’s always beneficial to reflect on, ‘what’s wrong with believing in angels?’) and there is no doubt that hearing about them provokes effective reflection in even cynical members of the group. It reminds me a little of theories about ritual which say that belief in the ritual or magical symbol is used to bring people together communally in a way they wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to.
The place is definitely a hippy place, though nobody seems to like that word being used. Then again, the people at Findhorn would certainly be less troubled about being called ‘hippies’ than bourgeois people would at being called ‘bourgeois’. Noticeboards are covered over with adverts about local healers, Yoga workshops, Reiki courses, Bach flower remedies and the like. There is an open-air hot tub where both sexes usually frequent naked and visitors to the center are procedurally reminded that, if they want to run naked into the sea at the beach, please to make sure that local residents of Forres are not too nearby. There is talk of free love which, interestingly enough, seems to get more support from the women than the men. One young man told me, ‘if you’re enjoying free love without getting attached and emotional, then you’re having crap sex.’
A whimsical wind of creativity circles touches every corner. There is a well-established art gallery which hosts talks by visiting academics and artists. Several highly-talented musicians frequently perform acoustic songs in a heart-felt way and there are often performances by professional musicians – mostly folk and folk-fusion – at the Universal Hall and films and documentaries are often screened with the film-makers present for Q and A sessions after.
The center has not been without its controversies. An odd website exists that contains long polemics against Findhorn written in a rather faux academic style. One can’t help but wonder if the bearded, disgruntled-looking man who decided to compile this unfalteringly negative website, including disturbing ‘letters to Tony Blair’, would benefit more than anybody else from an extended stay at Findhorn. However, he has a few interesting points. Tales of executive-level spirituals ganging up on underlings who are not totally passive, unfortunately, ring true to me. Also, the fecund variety of all the ‘spiritual’ workshops abounding about the place does make one question just how deep all this ‘spiritual’ stuff might be. Might it not just be another capitalism, but with chakras and gurus in place of coffee and cars? But what’s wrong, necessarily, with shallowness? More on that another time.
Minor reservations aside, I thought this was a lovely place in the lovely Scottish highlands, amidst wild flowers and well-meaning people. One can say about these workshops, experience weeks and so on is that they are certainly an experience. The whole place is an experience, something new – and surely that’s a start.
- Staying at Wat Chom Thong, Wat Ram Poeng, Wat Doi Suthep
Wat Chom Thong, Wat Ram Poeng and Wat Doi Suthep are the three well-known temples offering intensive meditation retreats in the style of Ajarn Thong, a student of who could be called the founder of the modern vipassana movement, Mahasi Sayadaw. They are all situated in or near to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.
The temples all offer 10-day courses in insight meditation and longer courses, sometimes 21 days and sometimes 26 days. The precise meditation technique varies according to the teacher. Wat Chom Tong and Wat Ram Poeng teach students to practice ‘touching points’ around the body as they observe the rising and falling of the breath at the stomach, as well as the arising and falling of mental phenomena. When I was there seven years ago, Ajarn Noah Yutidhammo skipped the touching points and asked students to focus on the breath, or whatever they felt most comfortable with. Ajarn Noah is no longer the teacher at Wat Doi Suthep however. The courses involve very intensive meditation practice, sometimes encouraging up to 16 hours a day. There is often a focus on accepting unpleasant sensations – ‘pain is your friend,’ as I was once told. There are many drop-outs. The longer courses end with a ‘determination’ in which students are asked to stay in their rooms for three days, without bathing or sleeping. People who return to do a ‘review’ course will also be asked to do a determination.
In the end, as far as the meditation goes, these three centres are basically the same. Perhaps it is not very Buddhisty to ‘review’ these different temples which give meditation instruction for free, but I understand how it’s nice to have as much information as you can before committing. So, here I will answer the somewhat un-Buddhist question: Which one is the best one for ME?
Wat Ram Poeng
Ajarn Samphan is now quite famous in local circles as a meditation teacher of very high spiritual attainment. The small city temple is packed with monks and lay people from all over the world. Many Chinese monks are finding their way there in particular. Guest yogis are given simple accommodation in concrete huts with electricity and cold water. I haven’t been there in almost ten years, but at that time the food was not pleasant.
Wat Doi Suthep
This is one of Thailand’s most famous tourist temples. It is built on a high mountain from which you can see the flattened sprawl of Chiang Mai blend into miles of misty green rice fields. When I stayed there seven years ago, the meditation centre was located about the salvageable corners of a derelict school. That building has since been abandoned and the meditation centre has sprouted into a large complex of shiny white concrete buildings. It is also now very popular. While I can no longer speak for the teachings, the surroundings are ideal. Tourists never venture into the meditation centre grounds, but you can venture into the temple complex at night and have it all to yourself. It is cool at night, even in the hot season. A meditation retreat here is a nice memory to give yourself. Looking back, it seems as though my time at the meditation centre was spent in a floating city, above the world, above the years, above my own self.
Wat Chom Thong
The international meditation center at Wat Chom Thong is, technically speaking, not part of Wat Chom Thong. It is run separately and meditation is taught by laypeople rather than monks. The twice daily meals are served at the temple itself however and yogis are taken along to the temple celebrations, such as the weekly Holy Day (wan phra) proceedings. You have a chance to witness or even to meet Ajarn Thong himself, who will be 90 this year and is rumoured to be an Arahant.
This is the cushiest meditation centre I have ever been to. Yogis get hot showers, their own amply-sized room. If you want creature-comforts and wish to stay as much as possible away from the ‘religious’ side of Buddhism, then this is centre is certainly recommended. The teacher are very professional regarding meditation instruction. They always tell students to be not so ‘serious’. If you wish to stay on and learn how to be a meditation teacher, this is also possible.
- Staying at Wat Pa Nanachat
Wat Pa Nanachat (near Ubon Ratchatani, Thailand) was founded by the late Ajarn Cha as a place where non-Thai speaking foreigners could train as monks in the Thai forest tradition. Most of the ten or so monks there are from Europe and America.
Style of Practice
The practice is strict and simple and down-to-earth. While you might call Mahasi a school of vipassana meditation, you might call the Ajarn Cha lineage (of which the monks are fiercely proud) the School of Sweeping and Bowing. Ajarn Gavesako, One of Ajarn Cha`s most respected disciples was once confronted with with the criticism that, “your lineage teaches nothing but how to bow.”
One thing to note about what goes on at Wat Pa Nanachat is that it is very culturally-specific. By that I mean that there is a lot of praying and bowing and it is externally very patriarchal. You could say that nothing is more “Thai” than the Thai Forest Tradition and there are a lot practices that are done for no obvious reason, which Westerners in particular generally have difficulty in accepting. This tradition puts unusual stress on obeying the letter of the Vinaya monastic code, which leads to lots of practices that many will find frustrating. For example, things can`t simply be consumed even if they are obviously meant for the monks, but must be”offered”, which means they must be touched by a layperson who hands it over to a monk with intention of giving it to him and the last person touching the object must be the monk. If something is touched by a layperson, the object becomes “unoffered” and it must be re-offered. Why good is all this? Ajarn Cha was once asked why there was so much bowing at his temples. “If you cannot bend your body, then how can you bend your mind?” This is really central to the style of practice – this idea of “letting go”. You will encounter many things in the temple which the mind won`t like, will argue against but you just have to observe it and let it go.
There is no formal meditation instruction at Wat Pa Nana Chat. Visitors are asked to pursue their own practice creatively. For this reason, I would strongly advise that people with no meditation experience should not plan to stay for any length of time. At the very least, one should have done a ten-day course somewhere. In place of formal teaching, there are however often many opportunities to hear excellent Dharma talks from the many visiting monks, where the lineage`s central philosophy of “letting go” and not giving the “mind” what it wants all the time is repeatedly stressed. What’s nice about this tradition is that it’s teachings are so down-to-earth. As well as ‘letting go’, the importance of learning from every situation, of gratitude and of compassion are also well-expounded.
Wat Pa Nanachat is has an excellent reputation at home and abroad for the rigorous style of its monastic training. No matter what else they might have to say about it, every layperson or monk I’ve met has said that it provides excellent ‘training’. What, though, does this ‘training’ mean? On a basic level, it means that monks must thoroughly understand the Vinyana (during the rains retreats there are frequent study sessions), be able to recite it in Pali and that they must act according to the many community rules of their sect. There are rules about how one must wear one’s robe, how one must bow, how one must eat. Though their rules of conduct are not as total as, say, Soto Zen there is an important community ethic which comes up frequently of doing the ‘appropriate’ thing at the appropriate time, a sense of which the senior monks say takes many years to ingest. There is enormous importance attributed to ‘community’. Indeed, this year’s official Wat Pa Nanachat T-shirt says, ‘Happy is a harmonious community.’
The training program for monks consists of the traditional five-year dependency upon a single teacher. For some monasteries, this just means that you have to report to their principle teacher every now and then and monks can more or less go where they please. At Wat Pa Nanachat however, dependency means dependency. You will only go where your teachers say, only do as your teachers think best. Often, the temple’s students will find that two years are spent at one of the many Ajarn Cha branch monasteries across Thailand. WPN also has several small branch monasteries which are used as part of its training program. Dao Dam is a very remote tii phra pak, complete with prehistoric birds, cobras and even the occasional tiger. It is a hermitage where many of the monks spent about three months out of every year in intensive meditation and Noble Silence. It is possible for non-monks to go to Dao Dam with the monks, provided they at least take a Pakow ordination (see below). A place called Marp Jam is also used for meditation retreats but is closer to WPN and less remote.
Wat Pa Nanachat has few people ordaining there. There are two likely reasons for this. One, there is no old, father-like-figure, enlightened master present. The abbot, Ajarn Kevali, is kind and intelligent and capable but he does not fulfill this image. However, perhaps what`s best about the place is that is so well known and well-respected. Famous and wizened teachers are coming all the time. I myself was lucky enough to have a relaxed daytime chat with Ajarn Sumedho while he was visiting. The other reason for few men going forth, is that there is a long testing period before ordination can take place. One must, at least, be a layperson for a month, a pakow (a man who wears a white robe and skirt and does many tasks to make the life of the monks easier) for six months, a novice (effectively living the life of a monk, but lower in status) for one year before one can be considered for full ordination.
Staying as a Layperson
The monastery is set in an endlessly-swept forest a few kilometers from Ubon Ratchatani. Unfortunately, you can always hear the din of the highway, so you can’t imagine that you are a medieval hermit or something. Laypeople wake up at 3am everyday, do meditation, do some sweeping, follow the monks on almsround, eat (after prolonged ceremonies), do their assigned chore, do individual practice for a few hours, have tea, chant and meditate and then go to sleep. Laypeople stay in the dormitory above the kitchen for their first few days, but can then usually get a kuti in the forest. The kutis are nice and simple and have many friendly creatures in them. It’s not as likely to produce insight experiences as an intensive retreat, but if you want to know how life might feel like as a monk in a strict monastery in Thailand, WPN certainly provides this opportunity.
The food is first-rate. There are daily vegetarian options. You only eat once a day but you will soon find that this is sufficient. There is a daily Nampanna, or hot drinks break everyday in the evening to ward off hunger and give yourself a sugar boost.
There are excellent quarters for laywomen to stay in. However, there are always far more laymen staying that women. The reasons for this are quite plain to see. The Thai Forest Tradition is all about being a monk (a man), about respecting the Sangha(who are men) and going to the forest to battle the defilements of the mind (like a real man). The teachers argue that this is merely the conventional reality of it, that the real purpose of Buddhism is to look at the mind. This is true but I have to say that, having discussed this with some women visiting the center, many are of the opinion that there has been too little concession in this tradition to gender equality.
- Wat Tam Doy Tohn
Wat Tam Doy Tohn is a few hours out of Chiang Mai. Despite having been used as a station for monks for many years, the current temple buildings are all new, having gone up in the past twenty years or so.
Ajarn Piyadhassi is quite well-renowned in local circles, particularly it seems amongst middle-class Thai Dharma followers. He spent his first rains retreat (pansa) at Wat Ram Poeng – now a very well-known meditation center of the Mahasi Tradition near the center of Chiang Mai – and then studied with Ajarn Rat (famous for his talk of aliens and the impending end of the world) and Ajarn Tong (who was instrumental in bringing Mahasi’s rigorous technique to Thailand). However, Ajarn reserves his highest regard for Goenka’s method. Goenka’s method focuses a little more on vetana (bodily sensation) than does Mahasi’s method, because it is seen as an essential foundation of wisdom that we understand that our feelings and thoughts have a base in physical sensation.
Ajarn Piyadhassi is into yogic theories on chakras, kundalini and is not afraid of talking of past lives and ‘energies’ that certain people and places possess. However, as regards meditation, his approach is strict vipassana, learning only by direct experience. He gives talks in Thai during meditation sittings. These stress the same important points over and over again: the ‘controller’, the false ‘I’ is intimately connected with attachment and desire; that everything is in a constant state of flux and that we can only understand ourselves in the present moment.
Like Goenka’s retreats, Ajarn’s retreat follows a rigid schedule and is based around group sittings rather than letting the yogi get on with it by themselves (as tends to be the case in Mahasi). This has advantages and disadvantages. The lack of personal freedom such a schedule imposes is, I would say, conducive to gaining insight into, for example, how desire and the illusion of choice is intimately connected to our sense of identity. It is also good for your Kanti – perseverance. The temple does, however, lack the free-and-easy come-when-you-like stay-if-you-like, ordain-if-you-like atmosphere of the Mahasi temples I have stayed at in Chiang Mai.
Ajarn speaks passable English but there is usually a translator present for teaching sessions with foreign meditators, a committed Thai academic lady from Chiang Mai University who has obviously had much experience in translating Dharma terminology. He has published a book, Vimuttidharma (Ultimate Reality) which has recently been translated into English. It’s a fairly bare-bones, systematic description of the Path gleaned from his many years of meditation instruction.
The temple complex is so nice that it’s almost like a resort. It has everything – a cave, a forest, a stupa at the top of a hill (which ajarn believes has special energies, so much so that one hour meditation at the stupa is worth three hours in the meditation hall). The meditation hall is a work of art. It is a two-story structure made of the finest timber, housing two exquisite Buddha images. There are only about five monks in residence there however. There is also a huge widescreen TV on the lower floor where Ajarn likes to treat yogis on the final day of a retreat with some of his beloved nature documentaries.
Courses are scheduled and you must book in advance. There is a light breakfast and one large vegetarian meal everyday. A day consists of around ten hours of meditation, including just over one hour of walking meditation. There is a one-hour work period each day, but you will likely do less. It is possible to stay after retreat if you are willing to help out with cleaning and so on.
They have a very snazzy website: http://www.vimuttidhamma.org/
Directions to Wat Tam Doy Ton:
The English directions on the website are not so clear.Go to Chiang Mai Gate and ask for the bus going to Baan Gaad บ้านกาด
These leave very frequently, so don’t worry if you miss one. They cost about thirty baht. Make sure, just in case, that you tell the driver you are going to Baan Gaad.
You’ll be dropped off opposite the Seven Eleven.Ask for the bus to Mae Hae แม่แฮ which leaves only TWICE per day, at 2p.m. and 4p.m. Make very sure that you tell the driver that you want to go to Wat Tam Doy Ton วัดถ้ำดอยโตน- otherwise he’ll take you straight to Mae Hae, a lovely trip in itself but not where you want to go.
You’ll be dropped off at the side of the road at a noodle restaurant. Follow the road opposite this. It is not the first temple that you see. Keep following the road, sighting a small town on your right hand side, for five minutes. Wat Tam is on the left hand side. The gate may well be shut and you’ll have to call for somebody.
After the course, it’s normally easy to get a lift back with some other yogis. If not, the Mae Have bus should pass back by the main road on its way to Baan Gaad at around 7a.m. each day.
- Places to stay in Yangon
This was written with long-term (more than a month) stayers in mind, but can be equally useful to people staying in the city short-term.
Foreigners can stay in apartments if they have a business visa, but it requires a lot of paperwork and most opt for staying at one of the guesthouses below. Quite a few of the best ones aren’t listed in the Lonely Planet Guide. The prices have changed quite a lot since the last Lonely Planet came out as, it seems, have many of the standards and staff – so beware. The prices quoted here are as of May 2011.
Please add any comments or post your own reviews below.
Mother Land Inn 2
This is the Lonely Planet’s pick. It’s alright. Prices have gone up to around $13-$20 a night, so it’s not the cheapest option in town. It’s also not very clean, but is probably cleaner than most. There’s a long climb up to the top floors and the included breakfast is passable. It’s not really in the downtown area and, if you were to stay here longer than a few days, the long walk to the center every day and back at night would become inconvenient. However, the friendliness of the reception staff, the popularity of the place with backpackers, the free airport pickup and availability of internet booking make this a good choice for tourists staying in the city for just a couple of nights.
No 433, Lower Pazundaung Road.
This is my pick and it’s where I ended up staying. If you’re into quirky, then you’ll love White House. In a quiet street in the middle of downtown two overgrown bushes obscure the entrance to this bizarre faux-palace. As you climb up the long staircase, the inner-walls covered with fractured white tiles give you the feeling of having entered a mountain palace or a monastery carved out of the inside of an icy cave. After the steep climb to the upper floors, the spiral staircase leading to the grand view of the city at the top and the many cloisters to lounge in and turrets from which to marvel at the view completes this impression. Long-termers stay on the top floors in simple rooms with fan and outside hot shower for $8 a night ($9 a night for normal guests). Perhaps the best thing about this place is the large breakfast and the eccentric pride the owners take in it. There are signs like ‘As seen on the Discovery channel…don’t miss the White House energy station…amazingly huge buffet breakfast…outsiders $10…’ but, thankfully, the most important meal of the day is free for stayers.
It’s not in the Lonely Planet for some reason, but you can find it easily with the book because it’s just a few houses down from ‘Daddy’s Home’ on the Central Yangon map.
Situated in a suburb North of Shwedagon Pagoda, this place is great value for money. It’s a hotel, very much so a hotel. They have very favorable rates for long-termers ($510pm for a standard, $660pm for a ‘superior’ room) but I personally would not want to stay long-term in such a hotel-like hotel, with ‘check out by 11a.m.’ on a sign next to your bed next to the wall-radio and above the plastic ashtray. That said, it’s easily the cleanest place in town you’ll get for this kind of price. The reception staff are ultra friendly and helpful and the hotel gardens and corridors have a pleasant almost colonial feel to them. It’s in a suburban area but near enough to a major road for you to pick up a taxi whenever you need one. It might be hard getting a bus from this part of town however.
No.42 Than Lwin Road, Bahan Township, Yangon.
This is near to the Winner Inn and Comfort Inn and there’s no reason at all why you would chose this one over them. The rooms that I saw were unclean and dank and not cheap (Standard is $25 a night, Superior is $30 a night). There’s a vast array of staff, none of whom seem to be doing much, which makes you feel uncomfortable (as though you, walking around and asking for things, are the tangible form of their guilty conscience).
No.24 Inya Road, Yangon.
Comfort Inn seems like a nice place. It is in a very quiet, leafy corner and ‘within walking distance of Shwedagon Pagoda’, according to Lonely Planet. The front has it’s own pleasant little courtyard and rooms facing the back have a view of a nicely-overgrown tropical garden. The rooms are nice and large for the price. There was a man holding a parrot in the reception area and, when I arrived, I thought, ‘I’m sold!’ Unfortunately, however, the receptionist I talked to wasn’t very friendly (or didn’t know how to be in English) and, when I asked for discount rates for long-termers, she just kept saying ‘twenty dollar, no discount’. Apparently the owner was away on a long trip and they couldn’t make any decisions without him. Would be a lovely place to stay long-term if you could get good rates, although the area is maybe a bit too quiet and not so convenient for catching buses.
No.4, Shweli Road, Between Inya Road and U Wisara Road, Kamaryut Township, Yangon.
This gets my award for friendliest guesthouse in Yangon. It’s deep in the downtown area, up a flight of stairs. A friend of mine stays there and so much do they adore him that they put his photo on top of the TV and the flag of his country at the reception counter. Whenever I go there, they rush to hand me glasses of water with little silver caps on them (the glasses, that is). The rooms are small though and, for me, not spaces which I would be comfortable calling my home long-term. If you have a more ‘it’s just a room where I go to sleep’ attitude and would be happy enough in the evenings with the warm, friendly glow of the communal and reception area, then this is the place for you. $7 a night, no air-con and $9 a night.
This place is really far in the Northern part of Greater Yangon, about 40 minutes by bus from the downtown area. At $15 a night, it could be suitable for people staying more long-term, if you’re into hotel-like hotels and suburban areas with lots of ex-pat Koreans. The place has weird vibe, a strange air of suspicion and forced smiles. The talkative owner told me that I looked good and that she would take good care of me. Well…check it out.
Ocean Pearl Inn
I haven’t actually been inside this place but it got a firm thumbs down from some friends of mine who have. My only first-hand experience was when I went there to meet my friend and they told me that she definitely wasn’t in, so I went home. It turned out that she had been there all night long. Besides the unfriendly and unhelpful staff, the rooms are cramped and dirty. It is conveniently located in a central part of town. $12-13 single, $18 for double.
215 Bo Ta Taung Pagoda Rd
Right next to the YMCA Hostel, this place is a bit nicer and fairly priced with spacious and simple rooms, in the downtown area. The last Lonely Planet claims that it’s over-priced, but it isn’t anymore, at least not for long-terms. It’s not that clean, but not that dirty, although the place does feel a bit like a disused hospital. Surrounded by decaying British colonial buildings, you’ll feel like you’re in London after a war and a sudden fashion fad for wearing the longyi has swept the city. Some long-termers staying in air-con rooms are even provided with their own personal fridge.
Long-term $150pm basic, $250pm air-con.
263 Mahabandoola Road
Tel: 294 128
Cheap, okay option in town, this is on the corner of Mahabandoola, right next door to the YMCA International. They will try to direct you to the cleaner and nicer YMCA International right next door, but persuade them that you want value, not comfort! Rooms are basic but adequate at $7 a night (normal rates, not long-term).
Golden Guest Inn
A five-minute bus ride from Lei Dan, the area to the West of Inlay Lake where there are lots of private schools and trendy young students and cafes, the Golden Guest Inn is the worst guesthouse that I visited in Yangon. The owner wanted $15 a night for a nasty cupboard of a room with a toilet attached to it. I wanted to know if she was really crazy or just really greedy. The communal area downstairs is spacious but so dark and spooky and unwelcoming is the atmosphere that you’d probably never feel comfortable enough to sit down there.
182, Insein Road, Yangon
Now Mostly Enjoying:
Chogyam Trungpa. The bad boy of Tibetan Buddhism, provides a new perspective perhaps, particularly for those accustomed to learning that the Spiritual Warrior is a defilement-warrior.
Zizek. Makes philosophy challenging but also quite fun.