Meditating between cultures in a Thai Monastery

During a meditation retreat at Wat Pa Tam Wua forest monestary, I sat between two cultures, being raised under both an Eastern tradition of obedience to authority, and a Western tradition of critical independent thinking.

While traveling in Asia I stayed in a forest monastery for four days in a residential meditation retreat. Nestled in between two mountains, with beautiful natural surroundings, the monastery established itself as a place that opened its doors to foreigners interested in practicing vipassana. Anyone interested in visiting the monastery could do so in a donation-supported setting under tutelage from monks and in the company of 50 other foreign meditation students.

The primary culture at Wat Pha Tam Wua is the monastery. The monastery was traditional in many ways.

  • Monks operated the place, with help from residential volunteers.
  • We wore all-white and were encouraged to not adorn our body in any additional way
  • There was a strict schedule followed everyday. Starting at 5:00AM, we woke, had meals, paid respects to monks and Buddha and meditated.
  • There was no meal service after 12:00PM. This was one of the eight precepts which refrained from eating at forbidden times (defined as after noon).

The monastery’s teachers and its Thai visitors followed the rules with zeal, and had no tolerance for slack. Rice bowls were moved to their proper worship position. The way to bow towards buddha and the monks was demonstrated daily. Three meters distance between meditators was encouraged during walking meditation.

Meanwhile, the 50-70 western visitors made up their own culture based on values of independent thinking, materialism, and deep connection with others.

  • Visitors bucked the strict schedule, skipping parts of the day that they found boring or not pertaining to them.
  • Especially unpopular were the nightly chants which were admittedly repetitive and monotonous, in keeping with the precept to refrain from singing, music and going to see entertainment. The constant bowing towards the buddha statue was uncomfortable for people not accustomed to deity worship.
  • People snuck out to eat, smoke, or drink beer. There was a cafe just outside the monastery grounds where people were able to find respite from the rules of the monastery.
  • Some members took up a vow of silence during their time there, but the majority of the visitors talked. There were many interesting conversations happening, but some visitors that talked swore or brought up agitating topics.
  • Foreign visitors openly discussed their confusion about arcane buddhist teachings and meditation techniques, sometimes questioning or criticized them.

The two cultures collided at the monastery, creating conflicts between the traditional culture and the Western guests. People were lectured for swearing and talking in unappropriate places. People were scolded for stretching in the meditation halls or linger idly even in the natural settings. Stories permeated about previous visitors’ inappropriate sexual conduct; the abbot gave us repeated warnings about keeping men and women separate in the dormitories.

I also sat with internal conflicts between the cultures, as someone who sat in the middle of them. I came to Wat Pa Tam Wua to practice meditation in a traditional setting and learn from the monastery culture and rules, including all the parts I did not necessarily agree with. There was wisdom in the rules’ intent, and I intended to understand their value by adhering to them. I wanted to be in silence with myself. I wanted to chant, fast, and abstain from sense desires. And for the most part, I did.

However, the western influence of the place brought its own counterculture which I also wanted to be part of. The community of travelers who resided at the monastery were more spiritually-inclined, deeply curious and critical-thinking than any others I met in my trip. I fell into the temptation of socializing with them, sharing experiences, cracking jokes, feeding them with the snacks I had brought. I wanted also to debate the buddhist teachings and question the authority of the monastery. I value critical thinking; I believe that questioning the word of authority develops and strengthens your own beliefs.

During my final day at the monastery, I was fully on-board with chatting with fellow participants. I had a few minutes break before the next activity and parked myself just outside the meditation hall in the dining area. I met two friends there and suddenly found myself enraptured by a passionate political conversation with two other people. In the heat of the moment, we did not notice the time pass 4 o’clock, the time for chanting had arrived.

The abbot entered the hall, in procession with the rest of the monks. We did not see him, and he startled us a SHUSH - “no more talking“. Alarmed, then embarrassed, my body coursed with warm shame as I scuttled into the meditation hall.

I felt like a child again, ashamed for disobeying the rules, projecting that the teacher was disappointed and upset with me. I thought I had made a terrible transgression, even though later the joyful abbott dismissed my apology with few words. Despite successfully separating myself from the power of the monastery’s rules over me (or so I thought), deep down I still experienced a pain of doing something wrong.

When cultivating mindfulness in meditation, everything becomes an object of study, even shame. Despite my feelings of discomfort, I felt the whole experience gave me a valuable lesson about my identity. The vividness of my shame feelings led me to question the source and understand myself better.

I’m Asian American — sitting between cultures from my parents home and my own. I understand the values of both. Being American, I have been raised in a tradition of independent thinking and critical attitude towards authority. But being a child of traditional Asian parents means I also adhere towards the values of respecting ancestors, hard-work, and obedience.

Being in the middle isn’t an easy place to be. I feel the pressure both to be the angel and the rebel. To be studious and worldly, successful within the system and challenging it. Individually creative with my ideas but also good with money. Those dual cultures lean on me, and I’ve internalized a pressure to be perfectly fluent within both languages. And the expectation to do well in both places causes me pain when I inevitably fall short.