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Journeys are inward at Chiang Mai

Email|Print| Text size + By Roy Hamric
Globe Correspondent / January 22, 2006

CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- Foreigners first began visiting this city in the late 19th century when the British opened a ''mountain station" to extract teak trees and other timber. During the Vietnam War, Americans found it to be the most beautiful and sleepy of Thailand's mountain cities.

Today, it is ranked among Asia's most livable cities, and an increasing number of Chiang Mai's wats (monasteries) are drawing more and more Westerners seeking introductory classes on Buddhism and meditation retreats.

A growing number of falangs (foreigners) are forsaking the more traditional spas and venues that offer massage, Thai cooking, and yoga classes, and choosing instead Buddhist studies classes in English and Thai-style meditation retreats of one to 21 days or longer.

Wat Umong, one of Chiang Mai's 300 Buddhist monasteries, rests in the foothills of Mount Doi Suthep, 5,498 feet above the 1,000-year-old city. ''Wat" is a Thai word from the Pali-Sanskrit meaning ''dwelling for pupils and ascetics," and this one's history goes back to the 14th century.

On the densely wooded monastery grounds are scattered limestone sculptures of the Buddha, some almost completely covered by climbing vines. Small kutis, self-sufficient huts that house one monk, are bathed in yellow sunbeams filtering through the leafy canopy. The deep murmuring sound of monks chanting sutras filled the fall evening air.

On a pathway, blue signs with white lettering offered helpful aphorisms: ''Today Is Better Than Two Tomorrows," ''I have not failed -- I found ways that don't work." Sixteen foreigners sat quietly in a red-roofed Chinese pavilion beside a two-acre pond. Green algae ringed the pond's edge almost to its center, leaving a circle of water where large turtles poked their snouts into the air.

Nirodho Bikkhu, an Australian monk who lives in a nearby kuti, walked into the pavilion and sat down. He adjusted his brown robe and smiled.

''I would rather answer your questions and just talk. Does anyone have a question?" he said. Moments of long silence. Finally, a young girl with bronze skin from days on the road asked, ''Is reality real?"

The monk smiled. Speaking slowly, he explained what the Buddha said about objective and subjective views. He talked about meditation as a way to experience the mind, the senses, and the body. He talked about a concept in Vipassana Buddhism of small, discreet divisions of mental activity that can take years of meditation to fully distinguish.

''They pass by unnoticed by most people," he said.

More silence. Then an American woman asked, ''What about bardos," the different stages of the death-journey found in Tibetan Buddhism.

''I speak only about what the Buddha said," Norodho Bikkhu answered. ''Bardos are concepts found only in the Tibetan Book of the Dead."

A young woman, Laura Robbins, stayed the full two hours. After everyone left, she had a private conversation with Nirodho Bikkhu.

Later, walking beside the pond, she said she was about to start a 21-day meditation retreat at a nearby monastery.

''A little serendipity got me to this point," said Robbins, an English teacher from Portland, Ore. On vacation in Prescott, Ariz., she had a conversation with the owner of a Thai restaurant who gave her the name of an American woman who teaches meditation.

''I chose that temple," she said, ''because of what the woman teacher said, and I liked it that there were a lot of nuns there."

In the past, it took a lot of effort for Westerners to find a wat where they could receive introductory lectures on Buddhism or go on short or long meditation retreats. Like many temples, Wat Umong is rapidly expanding its offerings to Westerners.

''We will be a friend to anyone who wants to know more about Buddhism," said Songserm Bikkhu, the teaching monk who directs Wat Umong's newly-opened International Buddhist Education and Meditation Practice Center, which has 17 rooms for foreigners who can choose from one- to four-day retreats. The cost, as at all such centers, is a personal donation, usually about $4-$6 a day.

''If people would like to take a retreat or to ordain as a monk and practice here, they can," Songserm Bikkhu said. ''If they would just like to come, learn, and go and practice on their own, they can."

Most Chiang Mai wats teach Vipassana meditation, a system based on meditation and attention to the four foundations of mindfulness. Exercises are based on mindfulness of body and movement, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of mind, and mindfulness of objects. In Pali, Vipassana means ''to see clearly."

The retreat schedule is the same at most wats: Rise at 4 a.m., followed by morning chanting and mediation, breakfast, dharma study, followed by lunch, afternoon walking and sitting meditation, a one-on-one talk with the supervising monk, rest time and evening chanting, concluded by more sitting and walking meditation. Students are encouraged to do sitting and walking meditation up to 12 hours a day.

A short distance down the road from Wat Umong is Wat Ram Poeng, built in 1451, with touches of Burmese Buddhist architecture. A popular meditation center with Asians and foreigners alike, the wat is home to the Northern Insight Mediation Center.

Eric Stirnweis of Fort Collins, Colo., was in his second week of retreat, along with other Americans and people from Sweden, Canada and France. While waiting for his daily interview with the abbot, he said he had increased his walking and sitting meditation to about 12 hours a day.

''Here you eat, sleep and meditate. That's it," Stirnweis said. ''They push you."

At the end of the retreat period, he said, each student goes through ''termination," a three-day period of very little sleep and constant sitting and walking meditation.

The daily interviews are helpful, he said, but the practice is tough, with lots of ups and downs.

''It's different -- no telephone, no e-mail, six hours of sleep a day at most -- but it's a healthy focus," he said. ''The abbot is definitely perceptive. I didn't even say anything one morning, and he said, 'Ah, there's much negativity here.' He seems to know you without talking to you."

Wat Ram Poeng is in the process of expanding facilities to house up to 30 foreigners.

Frequently, foreigners who want even longer retreats are sent to Wat Dhat Sri, a sister temple. It is in the process of creating a foreigner-housing area complete with small cottages outside the wat grounds.

Kathryn Chindaporn, an American codirects the meditation center for foreigners with her Thai husband, Thanat, recalled her phone conversation with Robbins.

''This is a good place for basic or long-term practice, tailored to individuals," said Chindaporn, who is from Everett, Wash. ''We use the mental labeling technique. The technique is easy. You think, 'I'm taking a step with my right foot,' or 'I'm feeling content or sad.' It's easy to use, but the practice makes it very deep."

Chindaporn said she was on her way to India in 1986, but found herself staying on in Chiang Mai to practice full-time at Wat Ram Poeng, where she took classes in Buddhist studies, learned Thai, and has since translated early Thai meditation texts into English.

Meanwhile, Robbins had started her retreat at the wat and had begun daily interviews with Thanat Chindaporn.

''It's going fine," Robbins said, in her second day. Ten days later, she took a two-day break, but planned to return the next day for another 10-day stay.

''My mind was running everywhere," she said. ''At the end, we tried to practice for 72 hours straight. I had some very set ideas about who I am. I found that by pushing past that I've come out being much more gentle with myself."

Contact Roy Hamric, a freelance writer in Chiang Mai, at hamric@airmail.net.

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