April 6, 2017 10:00 am JST
Tea Leaves

A 'Buddhist boot camp' in Thailand offers pain -- and gain

A 10-day retreat with no talking, no mobile phones and plenty of meditation is not for the fainthearted

DENIS D. GRAY

A man meditates on a bench in front of a lake in Lumphini Park in Bangkok. © AP

Variously savored for its sun, sand and smiles, Thailand -- always expert at detecting and cashing in on the latest tourism trends -- has in recent years multiplied its offerings to foreigners and locals seeking ''spiritual experiences.''

Nowadays you can slip out of your pool suite for sunrise yoga on the beach, followed by an Ayurvedic massage or lotus wrap, with colonic cleansing thrown in (all for an unholy price). Stressed executives can attend mindfulness training sessions to hone their skills for Trump-like business deals. Want to know what it's like to be a Buddhist monk? Join the ''Monk for a Month'' program (after forking out $700, at some monasteries).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, though, are havens serving serious-minded foreign visitors, as well as Thais seeking antidotes to the crisis in Buddhism in their country, where some abbots offer a marvelous next life for cash, some monasteries are home to outright criminal activities, and a doddering, politicized Buddhist hierarchy remains impervious to demands for reform.

In tranquil contrast are nine Vipassana Meditation Centers, at one of which I recently spent -- or rather, survived -- 10 days of complete silence, with 10 hours a day of meditation and a vegan diet. Needless to say, there was no relaxation spa, no fine cuisine and no sensuous massages or aromatic candles; even scented deodorant was banned. The Dhamma Simanta Center in the tranquil hills of northern Thailand also forbids any form of communication between participants, smiles included. I was not even able to sneak a peek at my wife across the segregated meditation hall.

Reeling back through my life, U.S. Army training sprang to mind: the same ungodly early wake-up calls (4 a.m.) after nights on hard bunks, the rigorous daily schedule, the repetitive activity. But rather than an obscenity-barking sergeant instructing me in efficient killing, we had the sonorous bass tones of S.N. Goenka, founder of the centers, urging us to master and cleanse our minds to gain an inner peace that could help rein in humanity's violent impulses. Lest we lapse into sleepiness or daydreams, he kept reminding the 100 meditators in my group that we were there to ''work diligently, ardently, continuously.'' This was truly a Buddhist boot camp.

NO CAR KEYS I say Goenka spoke to us, but it was via audio and video because the founder died in 2013, nearly 60 years after encountering U Ba Khin, one of Myanmar's great teachers of vipassana, or "insight meditation." A businessman from a rich Indian-Burmese family, Goenka tried one of Ba Khin's courses to rid himself of migraine headaches that doctors could not cure. He went to India to help revive Buddhism in the land of its birth, and his teaching methods spread from there. Today, his courses are offered free of charge at more than 300 centers across the world, from Tokyo to Tahiti.

Amid the hardship I was comforted by Goenka's own confession that he tried to abscond during his first retreat, and by my fellow practitioners' complaints about sleepless nights, backaches, shooting pains and boredom. Had I been tempted to flee, it would have been hard: our car keys, money, passports and mobile phones were locked away on arrival. As far as I know, there was only one dropout, a young British IT expert who told me before the course that he might not be able to overcome his digital addiction.

For me, the initial challenge was to become rooted in the moment -- taming ceaseless mental oscillations between past and present -- to still the restless chatter of the mind. The second problem was what Goenka called ''performing mental surgery without anesthesia'' -- probing deeply to confront and excise anger, aversion and anxiety: the negatives that bring us so much pain.

We were forewarned: Switching from a life bombarded with a kaleidoscope of stimuli to one where eyes are shut for 10 hours can be wrenching. And as one delves deeper, moments of panic can occur, despite instructions not to lift a finger and to ignore itches, pains and buzzing mosquitoes.

Goenka offered no easy medicine, and no help from heaven. All religious rituals and icons, Buddhist included, are banned from his centers. Unlike cash-seeking gurus who promise enlightenment in a month, the retreats merely point the way, asking participants to give the technique a fair trial and drop it only if it does not bring tangible results.

Has it delivered? So far, definitely, yes. Quite likely we'll sign up for another 10 days of trial and tribulation, bodily aches -- and unalloyed peace.

Denis D. Gray is a Thailand-based writer who is still seeking tranquility.

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