“I want to live like animals, careless and free like animals. I want to live. I want to run through the jungle the wind in my hair and the sand at my feet…” the song went on and on, set on repeat mode, as I cleaned up my dusty room the moment I arrived from my 5-day meditation retreat; the same way I listen to it now while I write. It has been over 2 years since I went up to Ubon Ratchathani, northern Thailand to meditate at Wat Pah Nanachat – International Forest Monastery yet I can still remember how I felt then. It takes 10 hours to travel by train to Ubon Ratchathani so I decided to take the evening train to reach there in time for breakfast. That way, I can eat at the temple for free and slid myself into their daily routine.
I emailed the monastery to ask for permission to stay there and gave them my schedule. I was surprised at the swift reply. The train from Bangkok has an air-conditioned cabin with bed. I brought a book to read in case I can’t sleep. After a few pages into the world of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, I closed the book and looked out the window, gazed at the starry sky. I used to use the pseudonym stargazer in my teenage years. The noisy sound of the train gradually became a lullaby as I fell into a deep slumber. I woke up before sunrise and was amazed at the view when I looked out the window. We were passing along a farm, then thick bushes, then a barren land; such beautiful greenery of plants and trees. I was enveloped with calmness and contentment at the sight of the simple and peaceful life at the countryside. I silently gave a prayer of thanks.
Getting off at the train station was a bit chaotic with people in a hurry pushing their way through the crowd. The atmosphere was the same as any other province, less dense and chaotic as Bangkok yet still busy and noisy. I could not wait to get into the monastery. Upon entering the entrance of the monastery, I could see trees lined up on each side of the road. They were high with thick canopies. It was as though we were entering into a forest. After all, Wat Pah Nananachat is called the International Forest Monastery. I felt a sudden change of emotions; the calmness and contentment I felt upon waking up engulfed me once again.
As I have anticipated, I reached in time for breakfast. The only female meditator, Li from China, ushered me into the dining area. Breakfast was the only meal we can have each day so everyone ate as much as they can though we had to keep in mind that we cannot waste food so we were to take only what we can finish. After breakfast, we helped in cleaning the area. Soon after I went to meet the monk to be briefed on the rules of the monastery. It was rather simple, not really rules but a set of daily routine and guidelines. We were to wake up at 3AM to join the morning chant and meditation. Afterwards, we were to clean our designated area. Mine and Li’s was the chapel nearby. Though we swept it every day, there were always lots of fallen leaves around because it is surrounded with trees. We were in a forest after all.
After cleaning we helped prepare breakfast brought by monks from their morning alms round then we cleaned up the kitchen afterwards. I also experienced cleaning the toilets. After all the morning chores, the day is ours to spend. Since it is a monastery that welcomes meditators and not a formal meditation retreat house, there is no rigid schedule nor meditation coaching. I realized that eating only once gave me enough time for other things. It felt extremely liberating to not think about meal time and the confusion that came with it over what to eat.
The first thing I do after breakfast was take a shower. We did a lot of cleaning in the morning so I wanted to freshen up before going to the chapel to meditate. I could not sit for hours and hours meditating so after an hour or so of sitting meditation, I would go for mindful walk though most of the time I would just nap at my kuti. Every afternoon at 4:30PM we were to go back to the kitchen to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea. Soon after, we were to attend the evening chant and meditation. One of my best moments at the temple was watching the rain as it washed over the trees, its droplets create a ripple once it touches a small swamp while holding a hot cup of coffee. In that instant I realized how simple happiness can be.
Only Dhamma books were allowed in the temple which we can borrow from their mini library. I also had to surrender my mobile phone. We were to dress in white shirt and white trousers and were not allowed to wear jewelry, make up and perfume. The women’s walled quarter was far off from the men’s, and was as usual surrounded with lots of trees. Walking from there to the temple for the 3AM chant was a scary experience but I made it anyway.
In the evening, I found it difficult to sleep because of the noise created by crickets and other forest insects. Sometimes I could hear a sudden thud on the roof of my kuti. I also later read from a blog that the kuti where I stayed actually had a dead person’s ashes on it! So glad I didn’t know while I was there otherwise I would have gone mad! Though it explained why I could not sleep and felt strange in it at night. At first I thought it was because I was uncomfortably sleeping on the floor with just one tiny pillow (not complaining, just wan’t used to it). I read a lot of Dhamma books before bedtime where I developed a deeper understanding and appreciation of Buddhism. I found Buddha’s teachings practical and easier to grasp.
One evening we sat with the Abbot, a German who’s been a monk for over 20 years. In Buddhism, it’s so easy to understand the hierarchy among the monks. Those who have been ordained the longest sits at the top of the structure. During that session, we were allowed to ask questions. One novice asked, “How can you forgive someone who wronged you if you can still feel the pain?” His answer was something I had not heard of or read before. “If you think about forgiveness, you are placing yourself above the person. That is your ego getting in the way. Let go of your ego. Let go of the pain. That person may be suffering himself anyway.”
As the day of my departure approached, I found it more and more difficult to leave. I knew I was there to learn about letting go of attachment as one of the tenets of Dhamma but I was growing attached to the place. Probably because ever since I can remember, it was the first time I experienced being so at peace, contented with the life I had even if I only ate once a day. I woke up each morning not thinking about any worries, unfinished work nor the future, there was no internet and constant inundation of information.
Life was at its simplest at the temple. The daily routine may seem boring but on the contrary they made my day stress-free as I didn’t have to fuss over what to do next or how to make my day productive. Going through the routine especially the sweeping of the leaves at the bot (women’s meditation hall) was extremely therapeutic. It made me understand why a lot of self-help books suggest having a morning routine; it makes it easier to go through the rest of the day once our mornings are stress-free.
My experiences during meditation sessions were rather too personal so I shall not be writing about them. However, I have to say I was not able to empty my mind of any thoughts even for a split second; meditation is not about that so there is no need to pressure yourself into achieving such a state. I struggled at first but as the day progressed I began to feel at ease. At the temple, all the negative emotions I was feeling gradually disappeared. Even past painful memories that still hurt whenever I remember them didn’t hurt anymore no matter how I tried to provoke myself into feeling the pain.
My experiences at the monastery were one of the best I’ve ever had; the emotions it made me feel, the stories shared with fellow meditators, and the opportunity to live in a forest. It was the only time in my life when the past and the future didn’t matter at all and I wished that feeling will stay as long as I live. Unfortunately, things are always different in reality, though what I felt at the temple were also real they just didn’t stay that way. Still, I am forever grateful that I experienced how it felt.
Wat Pah Nanachat (Wat = monastery, pah = forest, nanachat = international) was founded by Ajahn Chah to enable foreigners who do not speak Thai to enter into monastic life. Most of the monks at the monastery are foreigners. The monastery practices Theravada Forest Tradition.
P.S. I lost all my photos of the monastery so I used other’s photos instead. Lesson learned, always have a backup.