Live blogging a Thai Buddhist retreat

Live blogging a Thai Buddhist retreat August 27, 2011
I think that may even be a new low for me.

But for the sake of scholarship, I feel I must record some of the basic facts of what I’m up to for the next 7 or 10 days (depending…).

The basics: I’m at the Oxford Buddhist Vihar. The abbot is the Venerable U Dhammasami, an Oxford PhD holder and globally highly respected monk. During the recent Pali course two of the students stayed here and it got around to me that it might be possible for me to stay a while after the course. The plan was to stay until Sept 3rd, but it was mentioned by the abbot that if I wanted further feedback from him I’d have to stay until he returns from a trip on the 6th. So I’ll try to stay until the 7th.

The building itself is a converted B&B; on a relatively busy road just outside of Oxford proper. It is designed kind of like a duplex might be, with mirror-image dwellings. Now there’s a doorway connecting two large main rooms – both set up as shrine rooms. They have windows facing the street that are blocked off by the shrines. Opposite the windows are sliding doors leading to a dining room/laundry split on one side and a kitchen area on the other. Next to each main room is a stairway leading up to rooms. Monks stay on one side, lay people on the other. The backyard has a lovely garden, an addition housing a library and small shrine/meditation room, and some room for parking.

The routine seems to be: breakfast at 7am, followed by tea/coffee, then chanting in Pali and meditation around 8. Then we’re essentially free until around 11/11:30am when we’re served lunch. And again some free time until evening chanting and meditation at 7pm. This ends around 8:45pm at which point anyone who is taking dinner can eat some more or take further free time before bed.

Not too rigorous. Just my style.

When I arrived it was just me and 4 monks. Ven. Dhammasami is from Burma (Shan state) and the others are Thai I believe. Yesterday five Thai laywomen arrived for a weekend retreat. Today was packed though, as it is Thai Mother’s day, which meant many families were here all day eating, making flower arrangements and signboards and doing other festive things. I took the opportunity to hang out in the library with the last of my Pali classmates still in town (Anders).

As retreatants, the five women and I are treated almost as the monks during the meals. We sit in an L shape, monks facing out with their backs to one shrine and the rest of us along the wall. The lay people come through feeding us dish after dish.  Today, for me, was like thanksgiving. I’ve rarely ever eaten so much food. 90% of it was amazing Thai and Burmese cooking too. One woman came with something redish and meaty and said, “It’s like Italian. You like Italian?” Well, yea, but… So I got a spoonful of something that definitely had tomatoes and ground beef, but otherwise in no way resembled Italian food. The rest was a bewildering variety of dishes and colors and tastes.

The general feel is very warm and welcoming, like family. This afternoon the laywomen seemed to be teasing one of the monks and at another point another monk sat out on a bench and watched over a couple of the kids who were running around the garden.

Some demographics: at the Friday evening chanting and meditation there were probably about 5 English people, one Swiss (Anders) and an American; one Malaysian man, and another young man of S.E. Asian background. Today, a Thai festival day, there were probably 20 Thai women in addition to the 5 laywomen retreatants, and about 10 children ranging in age from about 2 to 16. There were 5 or 6 English men, a few Thai men and again Anders and myself. Of course no one filled out surveys, so these are just my observations. There are definitely some Burmese laypeople here though, or I would assume, because this morning’s breakfast consisted of a bowl of Burmese fish-oil soup (Mmmm… an acquired taste).

Okay, off to sleep for me. But first some TV. Yes, they have a TV here. Though they haven’t had it on since I arrived, the nun, the very sweet Sr Kovida, mentioned in class that she had watched our own Professor Gombrich on TV the night before, for a BBC documentary on Buddhism. So, I’m going to catch some of that before drifting off for the night. Click here to view it yourself (maybe only available to those in England, sorry).

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!