The Gift of Silence: Insights from a Retreat at a forest monastery

Written by Kartika
5 mins read
Published on Jul 14, 2023

TLDR: Meditation retreat can give the impression of being a restricted period. Keeping an open mind, one may be surprised by the depth of learning from the experience – in our own external behaviour and internal reflection.

I had an opportunity to attend an 8-day meditation retreat at Wat Marp Jan in Rayong, Thailand in February. It is a serene forest monastery following Ajahn Chah’s tradition located southeast of Bangkok, headed by Ajahn Anan. It’s the second meditation retreat I’ve attended (the first was with Ajahn Brahmali in Batam, Indonesia just a few months prior) and I credit this chance to the ripening of merits accumulated 🙂

This second retreat is totally different for me. Both Venerable Ajahns have their own styles of teaching and the environments were different too. Considering retreatants were housed in the dormitory within Wat Marp Jan compounds, one can expect to have a front-row view of certain aspects of monastic life. 

I’d like to share some memorable experiences at Wat Marp Jan, or perhaps as encouragement for others who are considering such a retreat. As it is a rather long reflection, the article would be presented in two parts: Part 1 on external observation and Part 2 on internal observation. 

Change in the external environment

Arriving at Wat Marp Jan, the females were dropped off at the female dormitory just below the Eating Hall. The dormitory was simple, but clean and tidy. Retreatants were to keep noble silence throughout the period for a more supportive practice. This included surrendering mobile phones for safekeeping at the beginning of the retreat period. 

Keeping silent is not new to me, a practice that I’ve come to enjoy occasionally to bring calm to the mind (side reading for those interested in understanding the quiet ones). This was the longest period that I’d kept silent, and it may turn out to either be a boring or restless period. 

This may very well be the case if one hasn’t developed stable concentration or if the mind contains many defilements.

My mind floated between quiet and noise initially, but it was probably an overall supportive environment for me. With no distraction from mobile phones and unnecessary chatter, a general sense of peace arose. 

Physical sensation

Having a history of physical injury, I was quite apprehensive about whether the living conditions (we slept on a very thin mattress on the floor) would trigger the old lower back pain. Aches did surface throughout the week, but fortunately, it was bearable and could be alleviated with regular stretching exercises during daily personal time. 

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The daily schedule consisted of meditations, chanting, Dhamma talk, and personal time. The depth and intensity of the practice may be determined by one’s choices.

Although the meditations were more suitable for practitioners with some experience, as they were self-directed. Of course, one can choose to sit for multiple shorter sessions if that’s more appropriate for their situation.

There were times when guilt and shame surfaced: “Why can’t I sit as long as the others?” But eventually, I accepted that this was where I started and I could only continue from there. I tried to use the bodily sensation as a meditation object: the aches are a result of the body’s condition, not something I can control. It helped to lighten the mind during practice.

I’ve always enjoyed meditating out in nature. Knowing this condition, I fully utilised the opportunity during garden meditation and walking meditation during the personal time – where I experienced deeper concentration.

While I couldn’t control the outcome, I could still find a more supportive environment to support the sitting. 

Where one is highly likely to settle in peace – like the little monk
Cr: The Author

Bowing

Bowing is a regular activity for Buddhists. It’s common practice to bow to the Buddha statue when we enter the hall; to Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha during chanting; to the teacher before and after a Dhamma talk; to a more senior monk after a meditation session; at any time to express a sense of respect.

One may think that if they need to bow multiple times in a day, bowing could turn into an automated mindless activity. 

Eating hall where day activities were held
Cr: Author

Before this retreat, I used to find the act of bowing to the Buddha statue awkward — not quite sure how deep to bow, where to keep my hands, and how long to remain bowing. Strangely, I experienced bowing in a new light this time. For me, it has turned into an expression of gratitude, humility, and reverence. 

The simple act of kneeling and lowering my head to the floor turned into a ritual of entering into the space, calming myself down, and truly expressing my gratitude. I am now more mindful of the meaning behind this ‘automated’ action. 

Chores

Chores or cleaning around the monastery was also a daily occurrence. Four of us were assigned to the public toilet by the monastery gate. I was gladly surprised by the respect and good attitude of the lay visitors who used the facilities with care. The conditions were as good as or even better than typical public toilet facilities. 

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After a couple of days, the four of us found the best arrangement to complete the chores with little speech and quietly went about our roles.

Not many people will be particularly happy cleaning public toilets, but a light attitude can be felt by all of us. 

Three of us even spent some time afterwards helping sweep fallen leaves in the entrance area. We found the act of sweeping a meditative one, not to clean the space but purely to sweep the leaves. We saw how the leaves would continue to fall even after we swept the area and we just needed to continue forward – like one of Ajahn Brahm’s famous quotes: “what’s done is finished” 🙂

Daily chanting

There were 2 chanting sessions each day, in the morning and evening. Morning chanting verses were quite fixed, while there were slight variations for evening chanting verses.

I realised that after each chanting session, the mind was more settled to continue into either meditation or Dhamma talk.

I particularly enjoyed the evening chanting in the main Uposatha hall, where I could feel the vibration of everyone’s unified voice and energy. Even the higher-paced and longer verses didn’t bother me much, the activity sent a jolt of energy into the body and mind.

Returning home, I registered for Wat Marp Jan’s evening Zoom session to continue this practice where possible. The energy level is muted by the distance, but good enough as an anchor for me to maintain the practice. 

Summary

This is the first-half of my reflection on the retreat. It may spur readers to become curious themselves, or it may turn into a deterrent. Nevertheless, I hope it can serve as a consideration for those who would like to have some insights before making their decision. 


Wise steps:

  • When there’s an opportunity to participate in a meditation retreat, trust the faith to guide us. 
  • Keeping silent can turn out to be chaos or peace, it’s on us to cultivate supportive conditions for peace.
  • Reflecting on the purpose behind the small actions, we may find a deeper meaning to carry into daily life.

Author: Kartika

Kartika is beginner home baker who finds joy sharing her bakes, sitting by the beach or taking long walks in nature.

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