Traveling through South East Asia, we several times talked about visiting and, if possible, spending some days at a buddhist meditation-center. We kept on changing our plans, however, as we had to adjust all other activities in accordance with our two trips to China and the arrival of our car to Singapore.
Just after arriving to Vientiane, we visited a buddhist pagoda and asked a young monk, his name turned out to be monk Souly, if he possible could refer us to a place where we could learn more about meditation. We were lucky, not only was the monk a keen student of English making it easy to talk to him, but he was also all smiles and open to our request. He promised to ask around and agreed to meet us at his pagoda the next day. The following day, he told us that he had contacted the abbot at the “Forest Temple” at Wat Pa Na Khoun Noi, the National Therawadda Buddhist Moral & Vipassana Kammathanna Training School in Lao. We were told they were open to let us, westerners, learn about meditation. We could not believe how lucky we had been and there was more to come. Next morning, we were picked up by monk Souly and a driver and driven the approximately 20 km to the Forest Temple.
Upon arrival, we were shown around and given a place to sleep, issued white clothing to look respectful and to distinguish ourselves from the novices and monks (who all wore orange robes). Thereafter, we were introduced to the basic rules of conduct at the temple and encouraged to follow the procedures of “level 8”. This meant, amongst other, morning prayers (chanting) starting at 0400 a.m., making yourself available for offering at 0600 a.m. (we were issued a bowl and took part in the monks´ “begging” round each morning and as a special exception to the rule, even the girls were allowed to take part the last 3 mornings). With what we had collected (mainly rice and a few cookies), breakfast was served at 0700 a.m..
Our meditation-instruction commenced at 0900 a.m. every day. The morning instruction lasted until 1030, when we stopped for lunch (with no more food after 1200 this meant that this early lunch was the last meal of the day). The afternoon meditation-instruction started at 1500 pm and lasted until just before the afternoon prayers (again in the form of chanting) at 1700 hours. The general rules of conduct also meant separe lodging for women and men and no mingling with anyone of the other sex after 1800.
The meditation instruction was very, very good – the instructor, monk Khan Viseth spoke only Lao, but all instruction was translated by monk Phouvieng Chan Amphone with long experience both as an interpreter and in meditation-techniques. The instructor focused on the “how-to-do” of meditation, emphasing the basic techniques and knowledge enabling us to continue after leaving. We learned sitting, standing and walking meditation with a lot of emphasis on the importance of correct and calm breathing for calming the mind. We were told again and again the importance of controling the mind, obtaining a calm mind and literally to be cool at all times. However, this was not only theory – we personally experienced a coolness and calm in the entire pagoda and this in spite of hens, chickens, cocks, cats, dogs and pigeons all over the place. Buddists are prohibited to kill or harm animals and this certainly were evident – dogs and cats walked freely around during morning and afternoon prayers.
In my case the biggest problem was stiffness in legs and joints causing strong pain when trying to imitate the instructor´s (and everyone else´s) sitting positions. At some point, I felt the physical discomfort negatively influenced my ability to follow the instructor´s directions, but fortunately after 3 days of suffering, and I guess after having convinced the instructor´s of my will to learn and having tried very hard to force myself into a correct position, I was finally offered a soft peace of cloth to sit on. With a smile, he said he was aware how difficult the sitting could be for “westerners” – very nice touch indeed, I just wished he could have made it earlier… , because I was close to give up.
During our stay, I shared a small cabin with Kristian in the garden of the pagoda – two beds, a big statue of Buddah and a small bathroom, lots of ants and shower by way of pouring water in a mug. After the afternoon prayers, we were usually invited to a cup of tea or coffee in the school as the translating monk loved to answer our questions and have a conversation about almost everything. This gave us a great opportunity to learn a lot about not only about Lao, but also South East Asia and oriental philosophy in general. Our translator, monk Phouvieng, a mining engineer by education, was well read and rich in both personal and professional experience. He told us he had been a monk several times in his life (most men serve as monk at least for a period) and that he most recently entered monkhood about 3 months ago. It was interesting to hear that monk´s may “de-monk” if so desired, while several young monks we met (among them monk Souly and his friends) told us that they became monks amongst other to get an education with the plan to later demonk to work as teachers.
During our visit, we took part in the new year celebrations (lots of water and cleaning of all Buddah statues) and on the forth day of our visit, we also participated in the celebration of the county´s 200 years anniversary. The people of the four villages prepared a big lunch and the monks and us were invited to participate. Of course everything was in Lao, but our translator stood by and translated and explained much of what was going on. A true cultural inmersion, including food, speaches and chanting.
We finally said goodbye to the “Forest Temple” and Master Dr. Sali Kantasila offered me personal instruction in meditation on my next visit on the condition that I teach him to speak English. A great offer, which I would no doubt accepting if it was not for my still aching joints…