A Mindful 'Holiday'


Wat Panitaram in Chachoengsao province organises an annual ordination programme for teenagers

Chachoengsao Province, Thailand -- EACH LOCK OF HAIR DROPS TO THE GROUND, SHORN OFF AT THE SCALP. A score of newly shaven heads glisten in the sunlight, as brightly as the saffron robes the novices wear, and there is a mix of tranquillity and natural gaiety on the faces of the young men.

Since 2002, Wat Panitaram in Chachoengsao province has been organising an annual ordination programme for teenage boys. Typically, the one month retreat is held from March to April.

However, this year, Phra Surasak Jarana Dhammo, head of the Visutthi Samanane project, has launched a shorter programme catering specially to Thai students at international schools. The first of these new two week retreats ended on Monday.

The majority of the boys, aged between 10 and 17, initially possessed very little background knowledge of Buddhism, noted Phra Surasak. Some thought Buddhism involved idolatry and the amulet craze. A few did not know that Buddhism originated in India. Others mistakenly thought meditation would endow them with supernatural powers.

But the intensive retreat, with five days of pre-ordination training in meditation and basic Buddhist tenets, witnessed a transformation in the youngsters. The monk teacher said he believed most of the children learned the art of controlling their minds and of living with others with respect and a sense of harmony.

"Actually, the children tend to absorb things faster than adults," said Phra Surasak.

"Their minds are less cluttered by thoughts, and it is thus easier for them to learn how to pay attention to each movement, be it physical or mental."

For about three weeks, the young novices practise the technique of meditation taught by renowned meditation master Khunmae Siri Krinchai. The fundamentals are simple: They just have to be aware of the present state of their body. Each and every posture will be enhanced by the recitation of the words that describe that very pose. So when they walk, they utter (mostly to themselves) that they are "lifting" their left or right foot. When they eat, they recite that they are "chewing". Even when they feel drowsy during sitting meditation sessions, they recognise, verbally and mentally, that they are feeling sleepy.

Over time, the youths move about in a slower but more alert and concentrated fashion. Phra Surasak said the gist of the training is to enable the practitioners to understand the true nature of their own minds.

"We've never told them that they should not feel bored," he said. "When the feeling arises, they just have to recognise it. Soon they come to realise how in the past their minds could easily drift here and there. If unrestrained, bad thoughts could instantly lead to bad words and bad deeds. Anything could happen, but we'd better learn how to maximise our potential.

"The children [from international schools] are usually quite well-disciplined. They want reasons and explanations. They do not hesitate to ask questions or express their doubts. But once they understand the rationale behind an act, they usually follow the instructions willingly."

One example Phra Suraksak gave concerned eating. Every morning, after chanting prayers, the novices have to go on alms rounds and return to the temple for communal breakfast. For the first few days, however, the novices, who have been used to pampered lifestyles, found the choice of food offered to them not to their liking. Phra Surasak explained how the people who offer food to the monks and novices do so out of selfless devotion. They have to get up very early in the morning to prepare the food for the men they deem holy. How would they feel if they found out the food was to be wasted? "You are not eating just for your own sake," Phra Surasak told the novices, who seemed to take it in as food for thought.

The programme is not only dharma lectures and long hours of meditation, though. The Visutthi Samanane project incorporates several mindfulness games, and last but not least, a trip to Chiang Mai (where there is another Wat Panitaram centre). Here, on the express train to the north, the novices also had the opportunity to learn how to be patient during the long hours spent in restrictive compartments. By the time they arrived in Chiang Mai, the novices had by and large become fully awake, and had dressed themselves properly. (It had taken a few days training for them to master the art of wrapping themselves in the saffron robes, Phra Surasak noted with a small laugh).

The monk praised the volunteers and supporters who make the Visutthi Samanane programme possible, many of whom have previously attended courses at Wat Panitaram and come to realise the importance of dharma classes for the young.

Worapon Kornubrabhan, 17, sacrificed his holidays to serve as a volunteer during the recent retreat. The Grade 12 student at Ruam Rudi School said he first joined the meditation programme when he was 13, and has already taken seven or eight similar classes at Wat Panitaram. Last year, he decided to offer his services as a volunteer. It was not much, he said, he just knew that he was doing "something good for other people". Nor does he think he is practising mediation in order to do well at school, as he used to believe.

"I have since changed my mind," said the young man. "Our academic performance depends on our own diligence and perseverance. For me, dharma has taught me to become more mindful and careful, and that is enough."