In Pursuit of the Middle Way
As I gently close my eyes, the twinkling candlelight gives way to darkness and I start to relax my body and mind, hearing the mellifluous voice of Phra Pawithai Vajiravijjo guiding our group in meditation. He reminds us to breath slowly and feel the energy of each breath
flowing into our center, and gently return our minds back to center when they wander. After repeating the mantra “Samma Arahang” three times he falls silent and the room is very quiet, other than the roosters crowing in the distance.
When the (approximately 60 minutes) is almost over our monk repeats a few more phrases and tells us we can slowly open our eyes. I am surprised to realize the time has passed so quickly and the swirling mist in the treetops outside the large windows has a magical glow. I still have not been able to lose myself in a visualization of an energy in my core, but the time did pass very quickly this time with a minimum of “monkey mind” distractions! I think there may be hope for me yet.
Pa Pae Meditation Retreat is built into the hills of a small village in northern Thailand, in the Pa Pae Tambon (sub-district) of Chiang Mai Province. Phra Pawithai, who has multiple international degrees in science and medicine and was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 2008, created this center to enable people from all over the world to learn about meditation and Buddhism. His goal is to inspire folks to apply meditation every day as part of their natural routine.
Susie and I rode a “minibus” here from Chiang Mai, which took about two hours to negotiate the mountainous roads, including a couple of stops. The ride up through the switchbacks is rather infamous, and there are motion sickness pills for sale at the bus depot. About halfway here I saw a road sign with a graphic of someone kneeling over a toilet! Thankfully no one in our 15-person van succumbed to the malaise – but we heard stories! Yuck.
The driver pulled over, yanked our backpacks out and pointed to a billboard – end of the line for our ride. Everyone else in the bus was continuing to Pai. So off we went, down the blacktop side road for a couple of km until we found the retreat and the reception center.
Mali greeted us with cups of tea and sets of simple white tops and pants. She explained some of the guidelines and gave us maps and schedules. Women and men are separated, so Susie was housed in a small bungalow nearby and I was shown to a men’s dormitory up the road a piece. There were also tents for the men. We were to get dressed in our whites and meet back at the canteen for a snack, followed by a greeting at 19:30 at Center Hall.
Our men's building was called Sie House which consisted of six small rooms and a common area with a couple of chairs, small table and two sinks with mirrors. Three small rooms at the end had a toilet and shower, with the standard-issue inline water heater. I have figured out that with most of these if you want hot water you must turn the water flow down to a small trickle. Cranking up the volume enough to rinse out your hair will result in lukewarm water. There was a large container of toilet paper on the wall outside the toilets, and a sign reminding people not to throw paper in the toilets, but to use the rubbish bins outside of the bathrooms. Go figure.
There were about nine guys and six women when we started - mostly under 30 years of age. 3 young guys from Germany left after the first day, deciding it really wasn’t their thing. The remaining guy and I grabbed the extra pillows and blankets for our rooms, and one of the guys from the tents came over to bed down in the dorm.
I changed into my white clothes and walked to the canteen where we had a light snack of rice and fruit whilst Mali pointed out the schedule and rules on a notice board. Monks do not eat after 12pm but being novices, we were allowed. After cleaning our dishes and tables we proceeded up to the hill for our official greeting at Center Hall.
All the halls and meeting areas were up on the hill, requiring an immediate ascent up steep
steps cut into the side of the mountain, and then various paths branching off in different directions through the woods. Much of the forest reminded me of Ozark or North Carolina, but there were many tropical plants, flowers and birds as well.
Center Hall was a beautiful, large room with gorgeous hardwood floors and ceiling, surrounded by windows. Like all the other halls it was raised above the ground on pillars, so our view was into the leafy upper reaches of all the trees. A low platform sat at one end with some candles and a small statue of Buddha behind it. Several containers of cushions and several chairs were at the other end.
Everyone removed their shoes and entered Center Hall with the women on the left and men on the right, sitting down cross-legged on our cushions. Women also received a scarf to cover their laps while sitting. Phra Pawithai entered and settled himself on the platform. Everyone assumed a kneeling position and bowed three times to Buddha and three times to the monk. He spoke about himself and then went around the room until everyone else was introduced. Phra Pawithai was very articulate and had a good sense of humor.
Time for our first meditation session which followed a similar flow as described above. What I notice after about 10 minutes was my thighs were starting to hurt. I shifted around and tried to get back to concentrating. Now my back hurts. Adjusting my posture helps but a few minutes later my legs are sore again. I was relieved to hear the reminder to open our eyes and relax, and to stand up for a minute.
Something we learned immediately about the Middle Way Meditation is that comfort is very important. If you are uncomfortable, you are not going to be able to free your mind. Adjusting your posture is fine – try to do it quietly. Sitting in a chair is fine – just don’t get too comfy and go to sleep! (it happens). So, I made it a practice to get a chair from then on. Susie and I were quite a bit older than everyone else, but all available chairs were taken at each subsequent session.
It was now 21:00 and time to head back to our rooms. It was also dark and very chilly! All our rooms had a small single bed with a small hard mattress and one blanket. (One of the rules cautioned against having luxurious beds and chairs!) I put on several layers of clothes before going to bed and did ok temperature-wise. But the rooster next door tested his crowing voice every hour on the hour, and as the night/morning wore on, more of the neighboring cocks joined in. By the time my alarm went off at 5:30 I was ready to get up! A splash of cold water on my face and teeth, and up the hill to Bamboo Hall. (see opening)
After the early morning meditation, we would gather at the canteen for a typical Thai breakfast of coffee, rice, broth, salad and fruit. After cleaning the canteen, we had some free time before the late morning meditation. I usually went back to the room and took a shower and put on clean clothes, though they ran out fast considering I was wearing almost everything I had!
The program encourages all participants to reduce communication and spend more quiet time with oneself. Topic of talking should not concern any activities outside. We were given lanyards to wear around our necks that said “Silence” for the first 36 hours. Also avoid any touching or PDA.
Back to the canteen for lunch after the late morning meditation for another simple Thai meal. We were introduced to many different fruits and vegetables, most of which were pretty tasty. More free/silent time and then meet at 14:30 for afternoon session. After that we would do some “gardening” which usually consisted of a very typical Asian activity: sweeping leaves with a straw broom. Very Zen. Time for a small snack, personal time and the evening meditation. Now – off to bed.
There were six different enclosed halls around the hillside – each one with a unique style and
construction. Bamboo Hall was completely open, with woven bamboo as the flooring. Forest Hall & Vimutti Hall were more secluded with large thatched roofs. Near the Stupa was a large firepit where we had one early morning session and one in the evening, where we released 3 sky lanterns into the night sky. Another area had 3 large swinging bamboo platforms suspended from a tree where several souls could sit on each swing. Our early morning session was here with candles on each swing and the bench for the monk. Very calm and peaceful (& chilly) with the tree occasionally dripping dew on us.
One afternoon we hiked down to a small stream where we meditated in the sun, listening to the water splashing over the rocks. Next day Mali took us on a “tour” of the village where about 280 people live. We visited a small tea factory, a couple homes where people made
hats and herbs, and stopped by the school where the Girl & Boy Scouts were having a ceremony. In the afternoons someone would read the local news, broadcast over some loudspeakers on the power poles.
Three nights and four days later it is time for us to leave. Mali gives us a ride to the main road where a minibus is waiting to take us on to Pai, farther into the northern hills. It was a very unique experience. Quite simple and Spartan but we both survived just fine. I did not reach Nirvana or have an out-of-body experience, but it did make some impact on me - and a week later I am thinking I would like to do it again.