A great post from Marcus’ blog from his experience at YBAT. This organisation provide meditation for 10’s of thousands of people every year through their 3 centres. While the general population of ‘Buddhist’ Thailand might not be ardent regular yogis, it is impressive that most Thai’s have been on meditation retreats at some point and value their experiences. The integration of regular people and monastics, of general faith and deeper practise is very vibrant in Thailand, and in Buddhism as a whole:
It is often said that one of the big differences between western Buddhism and Buddhism in Asia is that Asian Buddhists don’t meditate. To some extent this is true. The average lay Buddhist in Asia is likely to put much more emphasis on offerings and chanting in their practice than on silent meditation, and certainly there are many Asian Buddhists who never meditate at all.
And yet meditation does happen, certainly in the two countries with which I am most familiar. The temples in Korea, though filled with chants, are also filled with meditative silence, and last weekend I was lucky enough to witness how rigorous meditation practice is part and parcel of most Thai people’s experience of Buddhism from a very young age.
Most Thai men, for a short period in their lives, ordain as monks, and many are encouraged to do this while still in their teens. The son of a good friend of mine here in Bangkok is currently ordained at a popular retreat centre outside the city run by the Young Buddhists Association of Thailand, and I was kindly invited along last weekend to visit him and see how he was getting on.
For the first week the boys were novices and wore white and the meditation came as a shock. Each sit lasts one hour, which would be too much for me let alone a teenage boy with little experience, and at the end of the first week over half decided not to continue. Given the length and intensity of the retreat, combined with natural feelings of homesickness, I’m surprised it wasn’t more.
The young man I went to see had also found it tough going at first but eventually settled into it, and by the time I saw him, three weeks into the retreat, he’d been transformed from typical teenager into Buddhist Bhikku. It was a Sunday and all the families there had brought special treats for lunch. Large boxes of pizza, and, from the group I went up with, huge bags of fried chicken.
The young monks ate while their relatives watched, and when they had finished the lay people took their turn to eat. As volunteer helpers cleaned up, the young monks had a little free time to spend with their visitors. Mothers and fathers knelt down in front of their children and bowed three times and paid them all the respect due to an ordained member of the Sangha.
The family I was with chatted and laughed and then, finally, we placed our palms together for a blessing from the young monk. Next week he’ll be back home and, even if he never meditates again, there are things he’ll always remember. The chants for sure, the behaviour he was expected to maintain, and whatever insights he gained from his month of silent sitting and walking meditation.
I suspect that this young man will maintain his practice, but even those that don’t will still benefit from the experience. Everyone does, both ordained and lay. With families coming together to organise and visit the retreat, offering food to the entire Sangha, providing the young Bhikkus with support and respect, everyone is tied closer together, and closer to the Triple Gem.
It was a wonderful experience for me to see this young man practicing hard and supported by both his family and the wider Buddhist community, and I’d like to thank both him and them for allowing me to briefly be a part of it and to share in some of the closeness that such Buddhist practice, the practices of both meditation and making offerings, brings. Thank you.