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Twenty-one-day monastery stay! All-you-can-eat vegetarian meals!

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Hurt your knees! No sex! Donations only! This was not the scene that confronted me on my arrival, but I did pick up a booklet from the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Bangkok, listing more than one hundred different temple stays, classes, and meditation retreats. At the boutique end of the spectrum was Wat Khao Tham, a Buddhist island retreat run by an expatriate Aussie American couple, complete with nearby spa, yoga workouts, and continental breakfasts.

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At the more austere end was the forest monastery of Wat Suan Mokkh, home temple of the late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a monk revered for his antimaterialism and rejection of worldly pleasures. He recommended Doi Suthep monastery, which had a program for international students and a lineage tied to meditation master Ajaan Tong Sirimangalo.

I contacted the monastery via e-mail.

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A message came back from one Phra Sam. Annihilate my ego, such as it isI wanted to say with the proviso that I could do this during an abbreviated ten-day stay and still make my next flight. I t was late in the afternoon when I arrived at Doi Suthep.

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Saffron prayer flags fluttered in the breeze, slapping against the parking-lot lampposts. A few Thai families and several pairs of young European tourists were making their way up the final steps to the hilltop temple and its four-hundred-year-old monastery. Some older and more-out-of-shape tourists were waiting for the elevator that had been installed the year. Pushcarts selling Buddhist paraphernalia were doing a brisk business.

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At the foot of the steps, a woman and her twin daughters were begging. The two German tourists and I ascended the stairs together.

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They carried only water bottles and tiny shoulder bags; I had a full pack on. I could have taken the elevator, but it had occurred to me to make of these steps an impromptu minipilgrimage.

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Now I was going to sit in one place for ten days and travel inward. It was an experiment. Would I freak out? Would I go out of my head with boredom? Or would I burn away some of my vanity and walk out of this spiritual boot camp slightly more realized, slightly more adult? As I neared the top of the stairs, my shoulders were hurting, and my calves were sore. As befits a pilgrim, I wore the sweat as a mark of virtue, and the pain felt almost purifying. Cresting the last stair — in effect, reaching the th and final stage of enlightenment — I arrived at a ticket window. The German women had to pay, while I, the apprentice-monk-to-be, got in free.

It was a separation of worlds: idle chatter and lovely blond temptress in one direction, silence and sublimated sexual desire in the other. I was greeted by a bald, white-robed nun. Like a stern housekeeper she sized me up but betrayed no judgment. A scruffy black dog crossed our path, and I stopped to scratch it behind the ears. Am I doing this mindfully enough? I wondered. Can anyone tell?

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She led me to a poorly lit meditation room and gave me a thin mat and several wool blankets with which to make a bed in the corner. The last meal of the day had already been eaten at 11 a. The next meal would be at the following morning. All apprentices were expected to rise at 4 a. After breakfast, Phra Sam would conduct a vow-taking ceremony and give me my white apprentice robes.

Until then I was to wear my whitest and loosest-fitting clothing. The walls were white plaster, the window frames red and peeling, the wood floor stained an uneven blond. At one end was a Buddha shrine; at the other, a bank of fluorescent lights. I pulled a cushion under my butt, crossed my legs, cupped one hand inside the other just below my navel, and tried to quiet my mind.

My thoughts, however, were anything but quiet. And why was I taking ten days out of my grand Asian adventure to be frustrated by the everyday workings of my own thick head? Was I just another Western spiritual tourist, an experience junkie who had to try it all, a lost soul in search of some ill-defined notion of self — or no-self?

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She was trying to get pregnant, she said, and I listened politely as she described her fucking schedule and fertility cycle. Instead of a baby in the carriage, there was a little Buddha. My knees and ankles locked up as I bowed down to the plaster Buddha statuette. Then I scanned the fine print of the English translation of my vows, to see what I was getting myself into. After the vow taking, I removed my two rings and the stud from my left ear. He demonstrated how to do the walking meditation: slow, even footfalls, each step broken into three distinct parts.

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I followed his example, feeling silly. It seemed like a pantomime of walking. We overcome this through the practice of mindfulness.


When you meditate, thoughts and feelings will arise. Try to neither indulge them nor suppress them. Bald, wiry, and pale, he still looked the part, only instead of combat boots and black leather, he wore flip-flops and the saffron robe of an ordained monk; and instead of a snarl, his lips were fixed in a slight smile. A of wisdom? Or a tic picked up at monk finishing school?


I hoped it was the former. Always be noticing. When brushing your teeth, be brushing.

What should be the easiest thing in the world — sitting and breathing — is, in fact, excruciatingly difficult. My back grew sore, my knees cramped up, and my stomach trapped pockets of tension like gas bubbles.

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All the while my attention slipped into some ugly corner of my mind. A nasty radio interview from seven months earlier kept hijacking my thoughts. I found myself spinning out revenge fantasies and rehearsing alternate comebacks that would have redeemed my dignity.

Most disturbing was noticing. By whose orders had it developed these thoughts? By its own whims, it seemed. But, observed up close and personal for ten hours a day, it was unsettling. There was no Internet, no phone, no radio, no tvno movies, and no venturing off the grounds.

The main temple — where relics were housed, rituals held, pilgrimages made, and favors granted — occupied the summit of the hill. With its stunning views, golden stupa, and carved roof gables, it drew the tourists. Visitors might not notice our accommodations at all, yet it was impossible for us not to be aware of their presence.

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The random and cacophonous clanging, like human-powered wind chimes, enveloped our daily meditations. The bells would start with the arrival of the first tourists at 9 a.

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It was hard not to view the tourists with a certain condescension. They were just passing through, while we were here day after day.

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Of course, this was high hypocrisy on my part. Had I not behaved just like them in a string of temples from Tokyo to Bangkok: admiring the architecture, peeking into hidden nooks and crannies, and observing the monks at work and leisure? Here at Doi Suthep it was I who was in the fishbowl.