Wat Suan Mokh: Southern Thailand’s Other (not so) Full Moon (not so) Party…

img_0881“The goal of Buddhism is Nirvana; meditation is temporary Nirvana”–Buddhadhasa

Chaiya in southern Thailand is a place where Gomer and Goober would feel right at home, the one sitting on a bench at the railway station with a mostly-spent inhalant sticking out of his nose to catch the last gasp, while the other tries to manage the business end of an industrial-size pipe wrench without hurting himself. So it’s hard to believe that just down the road ten minutes is a place whose name translates as ‘Temple of the Garden of Liberation’ and attracts people from all over the world…

And it’s just a long stone’s throw as flies the crow, in another direction, across the bay, about a hundred klicks, to another place that again could not be more different: it consisting of the three preeminent islands for backpack tourism in Thailand: Koh Tao infamous for recent tourist murders, Koh Pha Ngan infamous for its monthly full moon drunken orgies, and last but not least, Koh Samui, the one made famous by Leonardo Di Caprio in ‘The Beach’ as the starting point for the perennial search for authenticity…

img_0868I can relate to their search, but not their method. Maybe they should have started instead at Wat Suan Mokh, only a few minutes from the small town of Chaiya on the southern Thai mainland, close enough to the coast to receive cooling sea mists, but far enough to avoid short-term tourists. Foreigners come, but they’re looking for peace and enlightenment, not a piece of the action: drugs, alcohol, and sex on the beach…

In fact, there is not even caffeine in the Temple of the Garden of Liberation, no coffee no Red Bull, no tea no me, and the conditions are very basic and sexes are mostly separate. Did I mention that even talking is forbidden at the week-plus long retreats? And so are telephones and gadgets, of course…

This is all the inspiration of the late and venerable Thai priest ‘Buddhadhasa’ (Buddha’s Slave’), who established the temple and International Dharma Heritage meditation and training center in the latter years of the last century. Based on the principles of the Thai ‘forest temple’ tradition of the last hundred years, this includes extreme simplicity, sustainability, and reverence for nature. So you can forget the gilded temples of the city, with their fat budgets, increasingly fat butts, and undoubted corruption…

The basic curriculum includes heavy doses of meditation, and lesser doses of instruction by CD from the master himself, in addition to the usual temple-style morning and evening prayer chanting. In fact they have everything of the typical temple except the offerings of daily bread, and the blessings in return, of course, still the highest honor anyone can bestow upon another, the thought that one’s slightly holy presence could actually bless anything…

img_0878But meditate they do! Seems the main qualification for a Buddhist monk or priest is the ability to sit like a statue for hours at the time! Only one meal a day and no sex is no problem, but sitting cross-legged on the floor ten-twelve hours a day, yes problem, and I never can escape the fact that basically I’m doing nothing. Of course small packages fold up more easily I’m sure, but still…

I’m not worthy! Priests remain unmoved for 2-3 hours, not an itch not a twitch, an exotic creature fed and robed at the expense of the state for the express purpose of doing nothing, reminding me of nothing so much as exotic species at the zoo, selectively bred and fed. And some of the trainees are almost as good, one hour motionless in full lotus position no problem, while I struggle to sit more than ten minutes unmoving with simple crossed legs. Now I don’t want to meditate all the time, but want to be able to nevertheless…

Some people here have some issues, no doubt, I’m sure, burying sh*t and escaping something or other, hiding the damage with the Dharma—hi! But for the most part it’s a pretty solid group, adult and serious in their quest for authenticity, i.e. religion. They come mostly from nearby southern Thailand, and are women by a margin of about 3-to-1, with many repeat attendees from previous sessions…

Little by little everybody starts showing their local colors, of course, resembling something between ‘Animal House’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’–joker and the jock, toker and the doc, dimwit and the hot bod. Then there’s the local dragon draggin’ belly through the mud, flicking foot-long tongue for special effect and hard-to reach ants and insex, and my pet spider upside down under the bed, with no visible means of support unmoving scared lifeless whose husband I accidentally killed in an over-zealous sweep of the illogical premises, and now I just realize: BLACK WIDOW—beware!

img_0876But this is not for the party crowd. Beds are a slab of concrete, pillows are made of wood, and pillars are made of words–dharma–about as close to the truth of life as I’ve ever found. The day starts at three in the morning and ends at nine, and flashlights must be used at all times after dark and before light. There are only two meals a day, but those are good Thai vegetarian fare, brown rice standard all-you-can-eat. The only true fun is the quick dip in the local hot springs at sunset.

But it’s all good, even if my legs are still sore from cross-legged sitting. This is the Dharma, after all, that we’re interning and internalizing, as developed over the last two and a half millennia. We’re playing for keeps here. This is no party, but we can still appreciate a good full moon. That’s how we’ll know it’s the end of the important ‘rain retreat’ season in two weeks. Stay tuned…

Author’s note: There are two sessions per month at Suan Mokh, one for eight days for Thai speakers and one for eleven days for foreign English-speakers. I attended the Thai session, more on that in a subsequent post, either here or my dharma blog at https://hkarges.wordpress.com/…

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