The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk

This an academic book on Thai Buddhism, but one with a quite a new and creative approach.  Justin Thomas McDaniel starts with the popular folk story of Mae Nak and Somdet To.  Mae Nak and her husband were separated when he was called away to fight in Burma.  Mae Nak died in childbirth, but he returns to be greeted by a loving wife and happy child.  Several people try to warn him that his wife is a ghost, but all those who do are soon ripped apart by the ghost.  Eventually Somdet To, a monk known for his magical powers, exorcises Mae Nak.  Despite her murderous deeds, she is something of a folk hero for her loving devotion to her husband and a funeral is conducted for her every month at.  Little is known about Somdet To, which makes his popularity amongst modern Thai Buddhist all the more interesting.  McDaniel suggests that Somdet To becomes whatever people want him to be – nationalist icon, exemplar of the Thai virtue of abundance – hence his popularity.  The story is set over one-hundred years ago in suburban Bangkok but the two feature heavily in modern Thai popular culture.  They can be seen in advertisements, popular posters and car stickers (for protection from accidents) and several film versions have been made of their story (including one in 3D).

The story of Somdet To and Mae Nak – the Magical monk and the Lovelorn ghost – is used as a springboard for all the diversity of beliefs that modern Thai Buddhism encompasses.  We learn something of the detailed science of amulet making.  Highly-elaborate texts have been produced on how to use certain ingredients – flower petals, discarded robes, torn pieces of manuscripts, lemongrass taken from around the boundary stones of monasteries, oil made from burning the skin from corpses – to make sacred powder that can be pressed into making an amulet with a particular effect for the wearer.  These are perhaps more popular today than they’ve ever been, with the price of some amulets reaching into the millions of dollars. A doctor in Bangkok has created a chair designed to blast chanting  into patient’s heads, which he believes can cure virtually any kind of ailment.   A wax resin statue of Somdet To holds a holy string that imbues a nearby pool of water it is connected to with sacred powers.  One temple generates income from devotees to the corpse of a child that was washed up from the ground because of flooding.

The key point is that there is a tendency in scholarship and also Thai opinion to differentiate ‘real’ Buddhism, which is rational, promotes vipassana meditation and, often to a large extent, is frozen in a pastoral utopian idea of the past that has been ravaged by the effects of commercialism and elite political manipulation.  This is opposed to the Buddhism of magical amulets, temple fairs and so on.  McDaniel’s says that to split these two Buddhisms apart is to to get a warped, inherently-biased take on the situation.  It might well be, he argues, that amulets and deification of famous monks have inspired people more over the years than Buddhist texts.  Such a plurality of belief has certainly enabled Thai Buddhism to be more flexible in the face of the rapid changes Thai society has gone through in the last century.  For McDaniel, the casual conversations of people browsing, trading, forming friends at a temple market is just as valuable – if not more valuable – for understanding modern Thai Buddhism as is a classical Pali text.

This is an impressively original study and demonstrates an all-to-rare impressive level of familiarity of both ancient texts and the quirks of modern day popular culture.  McDaniel moves with ease through both realms, demonstrating their interdependence and essential equality.  A very mind-opening read for those, such as myself, who have tended to over-emphasize the distinction between the profane and sacred, rational and superstitious, commercial and real in their approach to Thai Buddhism.

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Some good resources on Buddhism and psychology

If you are at all interested in the rapidly growing field of neuroscience, psychology and contemplative practice, the UCLA symposium on Neuroscience and Buddhism is well worth listening to.  There is a talk on how contemplative practice can aid creativity.  A talk on compassion is also very interesting.  The speaker discusses how we tend to, on encountering somebody, engage either the ‘fear’ parts of our brain or the ‘empathy’ parts of our brain.  She talks of how various ‘metta’ – compassion – exercises can strengthen our tendency to engage more with the empathy parts of our neural circuitry.  Another speaker talks of how his studies of the Mahapattanasati sutta - the main text on meditation, particularly for Theravada Buddhism – have illuminated his studies in ways to reduce anxiety by broadening as well as strengthening our natural facility for concentration.

Also worth checking out is a series of podcasts on ‘The New Psychology of Depression’ available at Oxford University’s podcast website. A wealth of resources is also available at the MCBT’s Website. Mark Williams discusses the growing problem of depression which, according to the World Health Organization is, in terms of years of life lost, the most costly health problem in the world.  Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has been developed by Prof. Williams and others from ancient vipassana and sati exercises.  As well as training people to be more mindful – more aware of the present moment – MBCT has been developed to encourage people with a history of depression to be aware of painful thought-patterns and how and when they occur and develop.  It is particularly interesting, not to say encouraging, to see how this invaluable practice has been taken out of its religious context.  Prof. Williams is, privately, a Christian.  Though I might have been skeptical of how effective these practices might be when removed from their systems of thought and belief, the 70% non-relapse of depression in patients has proven MBCT to be a highly effective approach, often more effective in some cases than existing medication.  This is an exciting new resource for both those with a history of depression and, in my opinion, all those who could benefit from contemplative practice but are put off by anything put in a religious context.

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Spicy Tales from the Vinyana

This is essentially a review of ‘The Buddhist Monastic Code’ by Thanissaro Bhikku.  The book covers all 227 of the rules for monastic discipline that are attributed to the Buddha.  It cites their origin stories and goes over some discussion and debate regarding their implementation  It’s the often bizarre origin stories that make the book interesting to anyone who is not intending to follow the Vinaya, particularly the many stories of a saucy bent.

The Vinaya is organized into several layers according to the seriousness of the offense.  There are only four ‘Parajika’ or ‘defeat’ offenses which incur immediate and permanent exclusion from the Sangha.  These are penetrative sex, – including inserting your own penis into your anus, if you are able – clear cases of stealing, intentional murder and boasting of ability to attain a superior human state.  The latter is an act so low that the Buddha considered it was ‘better to have your belly slashed open with a sharp butcher’s knife’ than be guilty of it.

There are then thirteen Sanghadisesa, offenses which require immediate meeting and discussion of the local Sangha.  These include intentional discharge of semen, for which ‘as a gift to insects’ is not a valid excuse.  Certain offenses, including even some Parajikas, are admissable on the grounds that ‘a demon had plied open one’s mouth and entered one’s heart in order to control one.’

There are many rules about small matters, particularly about the type of robes that one is allowed to possess at particular times of the year.  A monk may not ask a nun to wash his robe because, once, a monk taught dharma to a nun while exposing his genital organs to her.  She too sat in such a way that she was exposing her genital organs and he emitted semen onto his robe.  She offered to clean his robe for him, which he accepted, but then managed to impregnate herself using the stain.  This led people to spread rumors that the Buddha’s order of monks could not be all that well-disciplined, as they were going around impregnating nuns.  Hence, the Buddha made the rule that monks should not ask nuns to wash their robes.  Many, perhaps the majority, of the rules in the Vinaya seem not so much as to be as rules for the monks to help them develop themselves, as rules to ensure that the public respect and continue to support the Sangha.

Pacittiya or ‘make known’ offenses must be confessed.  These include lies, even white lies or lies for ‘a laugh’.  Insulting someone for a laugh is also not allowed.  You can also not lay down with an unordained person for more than two or three nights in the same place.  This rule is followed by a lengthy debate which has gone on over the years as to what precisely ‘place’ means.  ’Is it fully-rooved and mostly-walled or half-rooved and fully-walled?’  and so on.  Here we also discover that the origin story of the prohibition on monks digging is not, as is often said, in order to prevent them from being involved in agriculture.  Rather, it is because at the time of the Buddha, the Jain’s and other religious sects held that soil was possessed of a low level of consciousness, that only of touch.  This rule seems to have been made as a concession to Jains and those with similar sympathies.  The same goes for the cutting of trees.  Tree in Pali is ‘butagama’ which means ‘home of a being’.  The origin story of the rule against monks cutting trees tells of a monk who cut down a tree, greatly offending the resident devata (female angel) who demanded redress from the Buddha himself, so the Buddha made this rule.    It is pleasant being brought into the world of ancient India (although one suspects that many aspects of later life in early Ceylon have crept in).  One debate which I enjoyed is ‘when is dawn?’  Various opinions are discussed.  Is it the appearance of a particular hue of red on the horizon or perhaps it is the first touching of that red on the clouds?  The current Thai practice defines dawn as that time at which one can naturally see without aid the lines on one’s own hand at arms length.

There then comes many Sekhiya or ‘training rules to be observed’.   They do not incur any punishment.  Thai people always talk with great amazement and admiration about the ‘two-hundred and twenty-seven!’ rules that monks have to observe.  Laypeople are expected to observe five, but Thai people talk about the 227 as though the burden on the monks was forty-five times that of laypeople.  However, most of the rules in the Vinaya are really rather petty and not rules that one can imagine it would be particularly hard to follow.  For example, Sekhiya 39 ‘Do not eat taking an extra large mouthful’ Sekhiya 50 ‘not to eat while smacking one’s lips’ Sekhiya ‘not to eat while licking the lips’ 73 ‘monks cannot urinate while standing up’ 57 ‘monks should not teach to somebody who is holding an umbrella’.  What monks seems to find hardest to follow – rather than these rules – is celibacy, no masturbation, no coffee (if it banned or simply rarely available),  waking up early, doing ‘religious’ practices that seem pointless and being under the absolute authority of another.

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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.

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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.”

“It`s true.”

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.

Ordaining

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.

Women

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.

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Reincarnation

The most interesting thing I ever read on reincarnation was ‘Zen is not a philosophy but…’ – an essay, which along with others, is in the excellent ‘Zen and Western Thought’ available in full on Google Books.    While not promoting a literal interpretation of reincarnation, he discussed the cultural implications.  He had the sense that it might lead to a more ‘dehumancentric’ society.  Christian doctrine reifies the Self as eternal, never-changing and divine and hence at the center of our field of concern.  On the other hand, in Buddhism the Self does not exist – it is rather a collection of desires and concepts that bind and release from one another in an endless ocean of cause and effect.  What reincarnation might do is lead us to open up to the great interdependence of people, ideas, emotions, past and future.  We gather much more information from those around us than we are consciously aware of that influences us.  I have heard Buddhist teachers says that we are even subtly influenced by the thoughts and emotions of animals around us.  Rather than focus on the self or on one’s family or on one’s country, one can be encouraged to look at how is really a drop in an ocean of influence and change.

When I think of reincarnation, I also think of Wittgenstein’s ideas on language.  We tend to believe that it is us using words and meanings in a creative way, but it is more correct to say that they are given to us, we inherit them.  Can we not also then inherit the longings of our parents, the mistakes of those whose bodies have long since ceased to function.

On a journey to New York, I met a friend of mine by chance on a quiet street eating ice-cream with his auntie.  He was working in Washington at the time and had a few days of work.  The chances of us being in that same quiet alley at the same time on the same day are well into the millions to one.   Things like this happen all the time.  I wondered, are desires/likes/aesthetics not rather like molecules.  Certain types tend to bind together.  What led us to a bar in Paris several years later and what shared ways of thinking led us to be friends – were they not also what led us both to that same alley on that same day?  The nature of human desire is always more-or-less the same – hence, the same people tend to meet each other over and over again, the same kinds of people who tend to like particular things and think in particular ways are formed and die again and again, just as water forms over and over – it is simply the way the universe and its forces are constituted.

I don’t believe in reincarnation in a literal sense.  That is, I was once this-or-that person and I can cultivate the ability to remember my past lives.  However, I believe that reincarnation as a system of thought is well-worth investigating.

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Debate between Batchelor and Wallace

You can read here a much-discussed article by the Tibetan Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace and, below, a response by Stephen Batchelor.  Alan Wallace attacks writers such as Batchelor who, as he sees it, misrepresent the teachings of the Buddha by stripping off ‘religious’ elements which are not easily compatible with a modernist outlook.  Batchelor replies by saying that he is not misrepresenting the Buddha’s teaching, merely adapting it to suit the needs of an audience with a modern, secular outlook.

Good points are made by both.  Wallace’s argument is ultimately academic.   It’s fine if you want to take and pick from his teachings, but don’t put words in the Buddha’s mouth.  Fair enough, and it is true that Batchelor has written some things which put such a modern, no-rebirth, no-devas representation of the Tripitaka as to make those who have studied it themselves feel uneasy.  Wallace goes on an unexpected tangent about atheism leading to the travesties of communism.  The salient point is, however – what’s so great about stripping away ‘religion’ anyway?  Batchelor’s response is that he, like early Chinese Buddhists who re-interpreted Indian Buddhism in the language and culture of Taoism, is performing an important role in seeking ways to adapt Buddhism to a new culture.   And, indeed, he does this very well.

Personally, I find Batchelor’s attempts towards a Buddhism which is creative, not socially constrictive and not dogmatic a breath of fresh air, as I’m sure they do to many Buddhists like myself with an outlook that tends more towards scientific positivism.  However, I feel that his writings can be rather dismissive of certain beliefs and may perhaps pander to modern dogma rather than provoke it.  I myself when reading some of his books have felt some of the enjoyment one feels in identifying oneself as the ‘rational’ Us as opposed to the backward, gullible, superstitious Them.  I wonder if what Wallace is getting at when he talks about what went wrong with Communism and Nazism is that their supposedly ‘rationalist’ outlook was, rather than being just plain wrong, too narrow.  Though they were rational, it was an uncompassionate rationalism.  Rather than dismiss religious and traditional interpretations as backward, surely a more compassionate and indeed more interesting approach, is to ask ‘Why do they believe this?’, ‘What does this mean for them?’  ’What does this give them?’  By all means, we should can approach these questions rationally, but to simply ignore them risks again adopting an outlook which is rational, but a rationality which has not broadened the scope of its inquiry and the breadth of what it is prepared to admit as ‘truth’ to encompass the full breadth of human experience, emotion and need.  I enjoy Batchelor’s books immensely, but worry that they tend more towards ‘this is so,’ rather than what I feel is the more appropriate response of – as I learnt from Batchelor himself on a retreat: ‘What is this?’

Wallace – http://www.mandalamagazine.org/archives/mandala-issues-for-2010/october/distorted-visions-of-buddhism-agnostic-and-atheist/

Batchelor – http://www.mandalamagazine.org/archives/mandala-issues-for-2011/january/an-open-letter-to-b-alan-wallace/

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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.

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Review of ‘Zen’

This is a biopic of Dogen, probably the most influential master ever to have graced Japan.  Dogen travels to China and encounters a severe Zen master and an eccentric kitchen master.  There he reaches Nirvana, shown as him being whisked up into the sky on a CGI lotus flower.  He returns to Japan where Buddhism has become deeply degenerated and slowly but surely gains followers and enemies.  An emotionally-engaging sub-plot is added of Dogen telling a prostitute with a dying baby to gather a seed from every house where somebody has not died (a story from the Buddha’s life) and then insisting that the prostitute be allowed to ordain as a nun with them (I suppose this comes from Jesus’s life story, oddly enough).  Dogen later defies the rage of the shogun who threatens to kill him, to which Dogen replies unperturbed, ‘I have always been ready,’ thus earning Dogen’s sect an important follower.  Dogen dies in Zazen, his followers crumbling into tears all around him.  The difficulty of making a film about a monk, I suppose, is that they do not tend to lead very dramatic lives.  Hence all the sexy subplots.  Here they have made an impressive attempt at making a Dharma teacher into a celluloid hero.

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Review of Brilliant Moon (glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche)

This is a biopic of the late revered Tibetan Master.  It’s very well done, with nicely-crafted animations of Dilgo’s early years in Tibet and features narration by Richard Gere and Lou Reed.  The film affords a pleasant visual feast and a pleasing foray into the sumptuous cosmic aesthetics of Tibetan Buddhism, but is principally about how wonderful Dilgo was.  We learn that Dilgo digested information from every sect of Tibetan Buddhism and wrote dozens of books, yet we learn nothing of his own ideas or teachings.  Well-done and pleasant to watch, but ultimately not very informative.

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