Overnight Stay at the International Forest Monastery

Part of me wonders if I'm needlessly keeping myself in a cycle of blues and melancholy by continuing to reflect in this blog but the other part of me finds it somewhat therapeutic to get everything down. To use a (really bad) analogy, it's kind of like downloading all your photos onto your laptop before you erase them from your phone in order to make room for new ones. Not that I want to wipe away all my memories of Thailand, of course, but as the ever-reasonable Jess and Othilia keep telling me, it's about learning how to appreciate the experiences you had instead of lingering on its absence.

Previous posts about Thailand:

Definitely a staged photo. We were a lot more... antsy...during "real" meditation. 
Anyway, in today's post, I want to talk about the meditation retreat all the ATYAPers went on during the weekend after our first week of teaching. I posted a little something about it on instagram but that didn't even cover half of it. Also, sorry to disappoint if you were expecting photos to carry you through the text but they basically confiscated our phones while we were at the monastery so...

Before we begin, let me just give you a bit of a backgrounder on myself and religion. My family is Buddhist so in a sense, I guess I have also been raised as one. But apart from going through the motions zombie-like and occasionally being dragged to temples, like a lot of other Aus-born Asian kids, I have had very little exposure and experience with the religion. It's shameful but before the retreat, I didn't know the first thing about Buddhism. I didn't understand its teachings, its core values - heck, I didn't even know Buddha wasn't an actual god.

 So combine my embarrassing lack of religious knowledge with the fact that the Thai Forest Tradition of Buddhism is one of the most hard-core branches out there and what do you get? The biggest learning curve of a weekend anybody has ever experienced.

We all got up pretty early on Saturday and left the hotel for the monastery, which was a 40 minute drive away. Wat Pah Nanachat was the name of the monastery and boy do they take the whole "forest" thing literally. The whole area lies separate from any other sort of civilisation but as a result, there's a sort of serenity and peacefulness about the whole thing that makes it feel like you've stepped into a place that's so much bigger than yourself.

Here are the rules that we had to abide by during our overnight stay:
  • Avoid using any forms of technology
  • Always wear appropriate clothing: girls must be respectfully covered up (everything below knee length, no shoulders or cleavage, tie your hair up, no make-up, jewellery, etc). So basically, dress like your mum and not a 20-year old university student and you should be fine.
  • Be quiet at all times. The monks are exceptionally good at this, walking through heavily forested areas with such grace and dignity whilst the rest of us kind of just lumbered through like a herd of pregnant elephants.
  • Avoid contact between the opposite sexes. Don't even stand too close to one another!
  • Don't touch the monks! Ever! Not even accidentally! Especially the girls. (If this didn't give me the biggest case of anxiety, I don't know what did). 
  • Avoid eye contact with the monks. Bow your head respectfully when they walk past.
  • No food throughout the day except for one meal in the morning. You can drink water though. 
  • Don't point your feet at the Buddha statue. In Thai culture, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body whilst the feet are the lowest. So pointing your feet at the Buddha is a sign of great disrespect.  
  • Be mindful when carrying out every single action. E.g. eat with mindfulness, walk with mindfulness - don't step on living things, including ants or any other type of insect. 
  • Try not to use toilet paper when going to the toilet (no really, this is what the signs kept instructing us to do)
Plus a whole bunch of other things which I couldn't keep track of and as a result, kept getting lectured on by the ninja nun (thus named because of her tendency to be everywhere at once. I'm sure she was just looking out for us and making sure we truly understood the values of the monastery but man, was she harsh).

So while we were at the monastery, we were basically living as the monks do including taking part in their everyday routine of chanting, praying and meditating. This was all part of our cultural education and it was also hoped that the meditation would do us good after an intense week of being mobbed by little Thai children. 

I honestly didn't mind the chanting and also the talks we got from the monks about Buddhist teachings. In fact, I probably learnt a lot more about Buddhism from those talks than the last 10 years combined (mum would be proud). But meditation was a whole other story. Not sure if you know this but the Cynthia brain has two main modes of function: hyperactivity and sleepiness. Both of these modes are not conducive to 1 and half hour meditation blocks in which you are mostly expected to stay still in the same spot. 

The communal dining area at the Wat Pah Nanachat International Forest Monastery
Our legs would cramp from being in the same position for so long; people would shuffle, cough and sneeze; you'd be all too aware of said shuffling, coughing and sneezing that you'd give up all hope of emptying your mind; you couldn't stretch out your legs because the position would inconveniently mean pointing your feet at the Buddha (which, as I said before, is a cultural no-no), mosquitos would treat you like an all-you-can-eat buffet (and you couldn't even harm the damn things) and worst of all, you'd constantly be plagued by extreme sleepiness. 

I can't even express how difficult it was to stay awake during those meditation sessions. Our heads would droop and all around you, there'd be ATYAPers rocking unsteadily in their battles with intense drowsiness. It didn't help that in the week prior, we'd either been staying up late to lesson plan or hang-out, so energy levels were already at a record low. And it's not like you could just give in and catch a few z's because the monks would be facing you at all times and it would just look worse than it already did. 

And there was a lot of meditation, guys. One of the famous sayings the monks have is: If you can still breathe, you can still meditate. We would meditate at least two or three times a day. The worst was when we had to get up at 3am to do morning meditation in the freezing cold. It was pitch black when we got out of our lodgings, we were all huddled in our blankets and had to stumble our way to the grand hall. 

The best part? When morning meditation wrapped up, it was only 5am so we were expecting to be able to go back for an extra nap or two. Nope. Ninja nun found us, handed the girls some brooms and told us to sweep. Sweep what, you might ask? The pavement? The mess hall? No. She told us to sweep the forest floor. In the pitch black, with more leaves falling from above than you managed to clean below. And that's not even the best part. She told my friend, a Thai speaker, to sweep but "not to sweep too hard because there are snakes and geckos on the floor". 

Meditation aside though, I have to admit that the rest of the retreat was definitely worthwhile and taught me more than a thing or two about Buddhism, especially the session where we got to have a Q&A with some of the monks. (Random anecdote: but during this session, one of the ATYAPers asked a monk if he'd ever watched Avatar the Last Airbender and it was kind of the most hilarious thing ever). I'm not going to bore you here with the details of what I learnt, especially since we all come from different religious backgrounds, but I will say that everything I've been forced to do over the last few years definitely made a lot more sense. And it must've made some sort of an impression on me if I willingly picked up one of these books at the end of the experience and brought it back to Sydney. 

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