I’ve been wanting to do a ten-day retreat at Suan Mokkh in southern Thailand for years. Ajahn Buddhadasa’s approach of realization in the here and now while completely ignoring the supernatural components of religious Buddhism resonates with me. The experience at Suan Mokkh is the real deal—you’ll be sleeping on a concrete slab with a wooden pillow, keeping silence, eating one to two meals a day and doing little else beyond meditation.
Before you go off to mediate, this will help you get the most out of the experience:
- Taper off of the world: tone down entertainment, junk food, caffeine, distractions or whatever stimulates you.
- Be well rested. Six hours of sleep on concrete is not the place to pay off a sleep debt or recover from jet lag.
- Study Ajahn Buddhadasa’s teachings on anapanasati before the retreat. The instructions given at the retreat itself are lacking. Ideally be able to hit at least the first jhāna so you can start working through the second and third tetrads.
- Read Daniel Ingram’s retreat advice. Take the bit about ‘stuff’ to heart. In fact, this is the key to life in general: see ‘stuff’ as ‘stuff’ without getting bogged down in content. It’s easy to waste valuable retreat time ruminating instead of practicing.
Don’t expect anything
Let go of your expectations. I mean it. They will hinder your progress. Everybody goes through retreats differently: days 1–6 were a breeze and pure joy for me whereas days 7–9 were tough. Many others I talked to had the exact opposite experience.
Enjoy what silence and calm does to the mind. Things will likely bubble up—how you deal with this ‘stuff’ will make or break your retreat. Keep practicing.
The surroundings are perfect for meditation, and you’ll get plenty of time for silent sitting. This made it worthwhile for me.
I was hesitant about the bed and lack of food. I got used to the former by the second night and did just fine with the meals.
I’m not the biggest fan of scorpions, spiders, centipedes, ants, mosquitos and the like. If you can’t learn to live at peace with them, this might not be the place for you to practice.
The teaching was chaotic and noisy. The well-meaning volunteers did way too much talking, feeling the need to add five-minute pep talks before and after most sittings. These were a nuisance and real distraction. Likewise, if you are a complete beginner to Buddhism, you’re going to be lost for a few days.
Despite my annoyance with the teaching, I’d still recommend doing this retreat since you’ll get ample time to practice. The most obnoxious talking points (morning yoga / tai chi and the evening chanting) are optional: You can go to one of the other halls to do your own silent meditation. It’s nice that they aren’t strict about sitting. You can stand, sit on a stool or do walking meditation whenever you’d like. Thus, there’s no need to kill your back or knees.
Once you’ve done a retreat, you’re able to stay at their hermitage for as long as you’d like for self-guided practice. This is the route I’ll likely take next time I do a retreat. You still have access to the teachers when you need advice but with a lot less of noise that a retreat brings.