Meditation in the mountains
of Northern Thailand
Last month I attended a meditation retreat in Pa Pae, a small village situated in the mountains between Chiang Mai and Pai.
I am awoken by a rooster just outside my window. There is something about the birds up here in the mountains that gives their crowing a rawer and more guttural quality. A villager told me that most are bred for fighting, and so, to avoid unsanctioned deaths, they have to be kept separate under large, woven baskets. One by one they are given time to roam before they are put under lock-down once more. Perhaps this is why their calls are a little more menacing than their Australian counterparts: theirs is no simple call to the rising sun.
I switch on the light in my small, monkish room. Its still dark outside. Forgoing a shower, I put on my white clothes and stumble out of the dorm. As I shuffle slowly towards the meditation centre, I gaze sleepily at the thick mist which covers the jungle and surrounding mountains. Aside from a few early risers, the town is silent. Even the street dogs are still happily asleep.
Guided by the light of my torch, I follow the trail up the mountain path towards one of the many meditation halls. A dozen of my fellow meditators are already there, quiet but faintly smiling. We line up our shoes neatly by the stairs, hand around cushions, and then take our seats.
A monk in flowing orange robes enters, bids us good morning, and takes a seat on a raised platform at the front of the room. Behind him sits a statue of the Buddha, before him a crystal ball. We prostrate three times to pay respect to our teacher, and then another three times for the Buddha. I haven’t quite mastered this movement yet, and so my forehead inevitably falls short of the floor, or else overshoots its mark with faint, inelegant thud.
As we sit and cross our legs, the monk begins to guide our meditation. First, we slowly scan the body, taking time to relax every muscle, from the forehead and jaw to the shoulders, back and toes. This is an important step — the most important, by the monk’s reckoning. Our goal is to be so relaxed that our body feels light and transparent. I imagine streams of light pouring into my own form, following the instruction to try and merge the borders of my body with the forest around me. This morning it works: the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, the tweeting of birds, and the constant buzz of cicadas all become part of a sphere of awareness in which myself and the forest are both a part.
Our teacher asks us to switch our focus from the external world to a small point in the centre of our body — just two fingers width above the navel. The training of the last few days has paid off. While I previously retained some sense of a detached observer watching — and inhibiting — my meditation, today he is nowhere to be seen. When I focus on the internal point something strange happens: I feel as though I am physically falling, hurtling through a tunnel of light, my body pummelled by wave after wave of intense euphoria, while visual imagery flashes before me.
This experience lasts for half an hour, but I’ve lost all sense of time. When teaching monk calls us back with a soft, unhurried prayer, I gradually return to my senses. I open my eyes and notice my mind is relaxed and clear — if still shot through with a feeling of mild bliss. The feeling lingers for the rest of the day, and I can think of little else but returning to the meditation cushion as soon as possible.
This was the most notable experience of my four day meditation retreat at Pa Pae, a small town nestled up in the mountains half way between Chiang Mai and Pai. The meditation centre is fairly simple to reach: it takes an hour and a half by car, and requires only a short detour from the main road. For the better prepared, a minibus can drop you a few kilometers from the centre for 150 Bhat (around 5 US dollars).
For myself, the retreat was exactly what I was looking for. While I’d been dabbling in meditation for a little over a year, at the end of 2018 had my psyche was more than a little frayed. I was not in the right state of mind to undertake the 10 day Vipassana retreat I had originally planned. Such a retreat — which follows the program set down by the Indian-Burmese meditation teacher S. N. Goenka — requires attendees to meditate more than 10 hours a day while keeping silence throughout. It represents an intense confrontation with the inner workings of your mind. Woe to anyone who expects a relaxing holiday!
What I sought was a short retreat that would help clear my mind and refocus myself for the year ahead, without creating too much additional strain. The Pa Pae Meditation Centre seemed to offer exactly this. It differs quite considerable from Goenka’s program in both the intensity of the program, and the style of meditation offered.
The school teaches what they call ‘The Middle Way Technique’, but which is more accurately described as Dhammakāya meditation. The technique is a curious one, and unlike anything I had come across in my previous brushes with Mahayana, Vipassana and secular Buddhist meditation.
Broadly, it involves the steps I outlined earlier: relaxing as completely as possible, merging your awareness with the external environment, and then holding the ‘centre of your body’ as the focus of single-pointed concentration — much the way as you might focus purely on the sensation of the breath. The process is aided by visualising a sphere of light at your centre, and by the repetition of a particular mantra. (I’d be happy to provide detailed instructions if this is of interest to anyone.)
Founded a little over a hundred years ago, the Dhammakāya are a reformist — and possibly revivalist — movement in the Thai Buddhist tradition. Their practise is centred around their unique meditation technique, which they claim is the original technique used by the Buddha in order to reach nirvana.
This technique is said to have been lost some 500 years after the Buddha’s death, but was rediscovered by the movement’s foundational figure, Luang Pu Sodh, during his own practise. When he came across the technique, he experienced bright and shining spheres at the centre of his body. This is said to be the literal experience of the dhamma-body — a sort of spiritual essence of enlightenment, which is strongly tied up with the process of death and rebirth.
In the beginner stages, meditation in this style may lead to feelings of bliss, euphoria and mental stillness similar to my own experience. In far more advanced stages, however, the school holds that individuals are able to experience past lives, journey to alternate planes of existence, and to change the course of future events. The tunnel of light I experience is merely the beginning of the journey: as meditators are able to descend deeper and deeper, they gradually move through the ‘eight inner bodies’, gathering wisdom about the true nature of existence.
At the risk of getting too esoteric, these claims are part of a broader debate amongst Buddhist traditions on how exactly individuals can reach enlightenment. Broadly speaking, there is a tension between techniques which cultivate śamatha (tranquility and concentration) and those which develop vipassanā (insight).
In the Pali Canon, the Buddha speaks of the importance of developing each technique in order to reach nirvana: one without the other will not be effective. This is why, in Goenka’s Vipassanā retreats, concentration is first developed and stabilised before the focus shifts towards insight, introspection and mindfulness.
The Dhammakāya Movement’s focus on śamatha has lead to criticism from Theravada-based Vipassana traditions. They claim that the Dhammakāya approach lacks the appropriate development of insight, and focusing too heavily on the jhānas — stages of meditative absorption, which they hold to be unnecessary and even inhibiting to the attainment of enlightenment. This is far from a foregone conclusion, however. An increasing number of scholars, teachers and practitioners arguing that such dismissive views of śamatha and the jhānas are in contradiction with the teachings of the Pali Canon. Additionally, when the Thai authorities inspected and studied Luang Pu Sodh’s methods, they found no fault with his teachings.
Like all of the doctrines, rituals and practises of Buddhist traditions, there are immense variations across regions, schools and eras. Such complex metaphysical debates shouldn’t worry people with a casual interest in meditation (or perhaps most meditators period).
Far more important for myself was the peaceful setting and surrounds, the excellent staff and volunteers, and the wonderful experiences were possible at Pa Pae. The centre is nestled in a quiet little village, with a series of meditation halls possessing spectacular views.
I found myself very warmly disposed to the head monk Phra Pawithai, who did a commendable job at rendering the dynamics of meditation in simple and secular English. He was sure to check in with everyone after each session, providing tailored advice to help people progress in their practise. Over the course of the retreat, he provided a number of engaging talks on the benefits of meditation, as well as key aspects of Buddhist philosophy (though religious aspects were kept to a minimum). His explanations were generally quite clear, and aided by astute metaphors, references to relatable situations in everyday life, and to scientific research.
I can remember one particular meditation session. It was a clear and cloudless night, with innumerable stars winking overhead. We had built a large bonfire, and meditated in a circle around it. After we finished we faced Phra Pawithai, who was seated on a stone platform before us. As he began his talk on meditation and Buddhism, he was illuminated wonderfully by the light of the fire. The dancing flames cast dramatically shadows on his orange, and on the sprawling tree overhead. Behind him, the full moon was visible.
After his talk, he gifted the the group a number of sky lanterns. We sent them up into the cool night air, and watched as they rose higher and higher until they seemingly took their place among the stars themselves. I lingered a while to watch the constellations, hesitant to leave behind the quiet beauty of the mountain.
For individuals looking for a more lenient style of meditation retreat — in which physical comfort is considered of utmost importance, and where you are expected to meditate no more than 4 or 5 hours a day — then Pa Pae may be right for you.
You will find yourself eating excellent home-cooked food, sleeping on comfortable bedding and enjoying a peace of mind you may not know existed. Please be prepared, however, to keep silence for the four days.
Payment for the course is made on a donation basis, which makes this retreat is vastly more affordable than commercialised alternatives being offered in Western yoga studios across Thailand. (Though it is recommended that, as an absolute minimum, you should be offer $15 USD a day in order to help cover costs).
Have any questions? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll reply as best I can.
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