Home / Articles / #2 June 2011 / Ilya Zhuravlev: "Vipassana in Doi Suthep Monastery (Thailand)"

Ilya Zhuravlev: "Vipassana in Doi Suthep Monastery (Thailand)"

Apart from the famous Thai resorts, there are several traditions that attract tourists from the West to this friendly country. First, it is the well-known Thai massage. Using the techniques visually reminding hatha yoga asanas, the massage therapist treats all the body. Such therapists can be found in special parlours or right in the streets, though the quality may differ. The second tradition, which is not less famous, is Thai boxing or Muay Thai, a tough combat style, which involves kicks. Walking along the sidewalks of Bangkok or some island towns, a visitor may come across a boxing ground. On the ring, located right among residential houses, he might see a Thai trainer, lavishly decorated with dragon tattoos and scars, who is holding a small panel, and a lavishly sweating western trainee, who is pounding on it. In the evenings tourists and locals are drawn to single combats. And for those who are not confined to bodily interests and are looking for spiritual practice, there is also something that Thailand can offer. It is a number of Theravada Buddhist monasteries with their own lineage, known as Thai forest meditation tradition.

A cozy town of Chingmai in the North of Thailand is famous for its massage style. The town stands at the foot of the mountain, which is topped by a huge temple in a magnificent and peculiar Thai style. The temple is full of Buddha statues and enlightened masters, arhats, and in the centre there is a gilded pyramid, resembling a Tibetan stupa. It is Doi Suthep Monastery, where fixed-route jeep taxis briskly carry numerous pilgrims from all over Thailand up the lacet. If you pass the vivacious temple and descend to the slope of the mountain, you will find yourself among the buildings of the monastery and houses of the monks. The building with a small jungly yard is the place where Vipassana courses are held in English. There are 6-day, 10-day and 20-day courses, and visitors can also stay for a longer term if desired and accepted by the guru.

Vipassana is known in the West owing to world famous 10-day courses of S. Goenka, an Indian teacher of Burmese origin. It includes two methods: anapana, observation of air moving in the nostrils when breathing, and vipassana, observation of sensations in the body during a long sitting meditation. However, it isn’t generally known that Theravada Buddhism (which Goenka method refers to, judging by the lectures on philosophy, though this fact is not emphasized at the course) involves a lot of meditation techniques that can be referred to vipassana. In particular, there are three methods that are taught at the Doi Suthep courses. The first vipassana technique is observing the state of mind during slow walking with awareness. Another one is sedentary vipassana, which includes several variants: observation of “abdomen breathing” (similar to yoga technique of abdominal breathing), first eupnea, then breathing with short natural breath-holding after exhalation. Another variant of the same technique involves “returning” the errant mind to some particular spot in the body, or jud. And finally, the third technique is vipassana before going to sleep, lying on back and observing the mind entering the dormant state. All these techniques allow us to develop the ability to extrinsically observe the working process of our mind, which usually tend to be quite chaotic. Observing the processes of creation, flowing and denouement of every though or internal image, without any emotional reactions or attempts to subdue thinking, we gradually achieve a calmer state of mind, and involuntary mind processes disappear. In some way, the effect can be correlated with the “starting variant” of Chitta Vritti Nirodha state («detention of mind fluctuations»), one of the key notions in raja yoga of Patanjali. The skill of observing the thoughts and emotional reactions increases our awareness and enables us to avoid being automatic puppets, pulled by the ropes of craving and aversion, not only in meditation but also in every-day life. This skill is extremely important for any spiritual practice, including Indian yoga and Buddhist traditions. Regular retreat practice of mind observation dilutes a lot of our false ideas about us and our abilities, so that we could face our real selves as we are at this particular moment. It is a very important experience though it can cause both physical and psychological discomfort in the beginning, as the truth can hardly ever be as sweet as flattery and fantasy are. In addition to this, the retreat proves the effect of self-discipline and persistent meditation, its ability to change us, to increase our peace of mind, diluting the obstacles that once seemed to be insurmountable. Thus it proves the principle of inconstant reality, as well as our own ability to alter reality by developing our mind).

Beginners are recommended to do 15-minute walking vipassana sessions, then immediately 15-minute sedentary vipassana several times a day, gradually increasing the time. The first day of the course starts with a short ritual of bringing frankincense offerings, (real!) lotus flowers and burning candles to the altar of Buddha and guru, as well as singing the prayers of Refuge in Buddha. The same ritual takes place at the end of the course. The schedule is tight, but the discipline is not as severe as at Goenka courses, probably due to the relaxed eastern ways. There are no people supervising the students, nobody controls the exit from the territory. So if you cannot claim good self-discipline, you can train yourself at Goenka courses, with a stricter regimen.

The monastery provides a hall for group meditation, but it is only necessary to be there for the lectures on Dhamma, which are read by the guru and not by a tape recorder, like at Goenka courses. The meditation sessions can be done both in the hall, and in the rooms, or even on the bench in the courtyard garden. It is also necessary to attend the individual talk with the guru in the afternoon, to tell him about your results, receive answers and the following steps of the technique. It is also desirable (though not obligatory) to be present at puja in the main Temple, where the monks recite prayers in Pali. The ritual resembles Tibetan monk chanting, but without trumpets and overtone singing. According to the rules of the course, using mobile telephones, computers, music players, as well as reading and talking without paramount necessity is forbidden. Of course, any love relationships in the monastery are forbidden, too. All students must wear white clothes – a cotton shirt and pants. They can be bought in the monastery or simply taken without charge from the linen storage room and then washed and returned. Every participant has his or her own room: it is empty, with only a mattress on the floor and a lot of blankets, as it can be quite cold at night at the top of the mountain. Shared bathrooms are in the hall. Visitors have two vegetarian meals a day. Mushrooms, soya meat and tofu are always available. Non-vegetarian eggs or omelets can also be taken from a different tray. The meal is preceded by a prayer, which is sung together with a monk. No more food can be taken after 11 am, but however, visitors can drink tea. There is a boiler in the kitchen, packs of green tea, camomile tea, hibiscus and the local variant of cocoa. All of this can be consumed at any time. The course fee is an optional donation that the visitors are welcome to make at the end of the course.

Here is the schedule of the course:

5 am – rising time, morning practice

6.30 am – breakfast

8 am - lecture on Dhamma

11 am - lunch

3 pm - individual talk with the teacher (one by one)

6 pm – vesper chanting in the temple

9.30 pm – bedtime

All the free time should be allocated to sitting and walking meditation practice. The guru gives the teaching and instructions in English, although the Thai pronunciation is quite peculiar and needs adjustment. Before arriving at the course it is necessary to make a call and sign up, because there are not so many places at the monastery. An average group of students includes around 15 people. For more information on the monastery and the courses see the monastery web-site Wat Pradhatu Doi Suthep Rajavoravihara - www.fivethousandyears.org

Monk Buddha Sakh

The interview with the teacher of vipassana course, Thai monk Buddha Sakh

Question: Could you, please, tell about your tradition and about yourself?

Answer: Our tradition is the teaching of Buddha. As you know, there are two major branches in Buddhism – Theravada and Mahayana. Our school is called Theravada. It is spread in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Here in our monastery we follow the practice of meditation in the lineage of such masters as Mahasi Sayado (Burma) and Ajan Tong (Chom Tong monastery, Thailand). My name is monk Buddha Sakh, I’m 39 years old. I took the vows at the age of 27, but I have shown interest towards it since my very childhood. When I was a little boy, I would sit and pretend to be meditating, imitating monks. First, I studied meditation at the monastery as a layman student. It is a usual thing for a young man in Thailand to stay at a monastery for a week, or a month to learn how to meditate. And then I decided to become a monk. By the way, we had a Russian monk, too. He came here to learn to meditate and stayed for two years and took the vows. He is a very good monk, he shows a lot of progress in meditation. He returned to his homeland not long ago.

Question: What are the main practices at your school?

Answer: There are three main practices: Shila, which involves moral behaviour and following the vows. It is meant to cease creating negative carma and purify from it, then follows Samati, the concentration of mind, and finally, Vipassana, observation of body and mind in order to cognize the nature of mind. But Shila is the basis. It means moral way of living, compassion to all sentient beings, non-violence. A monk avoids killing even an insect. Or for example, when an animal is killed, it feels death coming and it is terrified, then all this negative energy goes to its flesh and after that a man eats this fruit of violence. We try to abstain from it. But if you can’t stop eating meat, at least you can bear in mind that this animal has been killed for you, for providing food for people, and you can feel compassion towards it. When we meditate we send love to all sentient beings, but it is better to start with the people in your life, it is important for the well-being of your family. It will be easier for you first to master this practice, than to send compassion to the whole city or country.

Question: You taught us to meditate using a special spot on the body, where you have to bring back the errant mid, so to say, the “awareness spot”. We saw a scheme of a man here, and there are many spots of this kind. Can you tell more about it?

Answer: Jud is how we call these spots. There are 28 of them in total, on the front and on the back surface of the body. These are the spots, where the sense of unity of mind and body is most evident. Gradually, step by step, we practice vipassana with the help of these spots. First, the spot in the area of solar plexus, then more spots. Your guru gives you these instructions, depending on the progress in your practice.

In the altar room (you can see the manikin with spots for concentration on it)

Question: What are your main sacred writings?

Answer: Our main sacred writing is Tripitaka, or “the three baskets”. These are the teachings of Buddha himself, recorded by his closest disciples in ancient Pali. The Scripture consists of three parts: Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhama. This text also exists in a Thai translation.

Question: The Thai forest tradition bears its name because the ancient masters secluded themselves in the jungle. Does this practice still exist?

Answer: Yes, it does. There are two types of monks here. Some live by temples, hold rituals, give instructions and blessings to the coming laymen, and keep the monastery. Those who are deeply submerged into meditation, go to the jungle, where they perfect their practice. But before you go and live in the jungle, you should gain a really good foothold in your practice of non-violence. There are many dangerous animals in the forest, snakes, and even tigers. If a monk doesn’t have a slightest drop of violence in his mind, the animals won’t hurt him, otherwise, it is really dangerous. One must have a guru, who has an experience of such seclusion in order to know how to survive in the jungle. Some conceited people go to the jungle on their own, without a guru’s instructions, and sometimes develop mental problems or even die. There is an old story about a monk, who went to meditate to a forest. The locals noticed him and the senior man of the village came to warn him that it was dangerous to stay in this area, because a tiger had been hunting there and it had already killed some people. The senior man offered to place several armed people from the village to guard the monk, but the latter refused. In a few days, he was practicing walking vipassana and observing his senses he noticed some large object near him. The tiger sat watching him and preparing for an attack. The monk said: “Dear tiger, if we have a carmic connection, and I owe to you my body, I can give it to you. Otherwise, leave me alone and let me proceed my meditation.” The tiger didn’t hurt him and left. Once up to five cobras crawled to him and surrounded him, while he was meditating, but they didn’t bite him a single time. This is an example of a monk’s good foothold in non-violence.

Question: When you spoke about mind observation at the lecture, you mentioned that we can behold different phenomena in the area between the brows, and you used the term “the third eye”. In India it is called ajna chakra, but I have never heard of any teaching on chakras in Theravada Buddhism.

Answer: This knowledge comes from meditation practice. A lot of practitioners had an experience of seeing the events from the past, sometimes, from their past incarnations, and even the events from the future. When meditation is stable, we can see bright light there, so to say, a circle of bright light. In Thai we call this area Ta Ti Sam. I’ve heard that there is a teaching on the seven chakras in India. But we mostly observe this one. Though deep meditation may enable a person to acquire superpowers, an ability to do something with the help of “the third eye” concentration, we do not try to achieve it deliberately, like in Indian yoga. We just observe this area.

Question: In the temple complex we saw sculptures of a deity with the head of an elephant, just like they portray Ganesha in India. There are two multiarmed sculptures of Ganesha at the sides by the main entrance. One of them is holding a sword and the other one is armed with an axe. And there is also a small Ganesha inside the temple at the feet of standing Buddha. Where has this image come from?

Answer: We call him Phra Pig Haned, and in India he is Ganesha, the son of Shiva. Unlike Buddha and arhats, he is a Deva, a divine creature. The thing is that before Buddhism, Thailand and the neighbouring countries used to have Hinduism as their religion. Then the teaching of Buddha came and spread among the people, but it was spread naturally, nobody forbad the former faith, and the image of Ganesha remained, because many people still worship him. Especially in rural areas, he is worshipped along with Buddha. Just like in ancient China they used to have the teaching of Dao before Buddhism, and then Buddhism appeared, but still Dao remained.

Thai Ganesh

The blessing prayer read before meal at Doi Suthep


With my wise awareness, I accept the food donated to me


Not for amusement or enjoyment


Not for gluttony or beauty


Only to support and nourish the body, keeping it healthy


To lead the spiritual life


Contemplating, shall I destroy the former senses


And shall not create new ones


Thus shall I free myself from diseases and shall I live lightly