Wat Prathat Doi Suthep literally and figuratively symbolizes the city of Chiang Mai, which it overlooks (although "guards" might be a more apt description) from the mountain whose name it shares. Each year, newly enrolled students at the city’s university walk sixteen kilometers up the mountain as a matriculation exercise. For less ceremonial visits, most laypeople (myself included) prefer to take a sawngtaew (a pickup truck with seats in the back) from the city’s Chang Phuak gate, while monks often use a series of mountainside trails that are also open to the public.
At just under 1,700 meters, Doi Suthep is high enough that your ears will pop on the ascent, but low enough that you’ll most likely feel no altitude sickness. This might serve as an analogy for the initial discomfort but enhanced well-being you’ll feel if you choose to deepen your visit with after your stay at the wat’s International Buddhism Center (www.fivethousandyears.org) where you can attend vipassana (insight) meditation courses of varying lengths. Many people imagine meditation centers as either places of low-key comfort or plain austerity, and my own experiences in Asia and North America is have been similar. Notwithstanding the ornate beauty of the mountaintop wat, the Center, located a few dozen meters below it, fits into the latter category.
Looking down from the upper meditation hall at the simple tin-roofed dormitories on the mountain’s slope and the city of Chiang Mai on the plain far below, I felt suspended between the religious and secular worlds. The orientation and basic instruction in both sitting and walking meditation was similar to that at the secular retreat I attended. We were then sent to change into white long-sleeved temple clothing (available in most markets in Thailand for around 300 baht/$10 for pants and a shirt). The opening ceremony, led by a monk, was explicitly Buddhist, featuring bowing, an exchange of objects, and chanting in Pali (the language of the Buddha). I should note that as students are constantly coming and going, there’s an opening ceremony of this kind each evening (as well as a closing ceremony each morning), however an hour later everyone was literally chanting from the same book.
My days at the International Buddhism Center followed a simple, but challenging routine. We awoke at 5 am (an hour later than Buddhist monks) and then listened to an hourlong lecture by the presiding monk on applying principles derived from Buddhism to our daily lives. These lectures, known as dhamma talks, are common to religious and secular meditation retreats alike. The word "dhamma" itself means "truth" in Pali and also can be taken to mean Buddhist doctrine; you’re likelier to have heard its Sanskrit synonym "dharma." Although they reflected a particular Buddhist principle, the talks themselves were entirely secular and based to a great degree on the monk’s personal experiences, much like those at secular meditation retreats.
Aside from the dhamma talk, breakfast at 7 am, lunch at 11 am, and chanting each evening at 6 pm, my only responsibilities were to meditate and to report my daily experiences to the monk in charge. I was also expected to observe eight Buddhist rules (precepts), including silence (which excludes reading and writing as well as speaking), and not eating after 12 noon, intended to deepen my meditation practice. The practice itself, under the monk’s direction, consisted of alternately walking and sitting for 15 and then 20 minutes at a time. (This period lengthens with longer retreats.)
If all of this sounds simple, that’s exactly the point. At the same time, it’s incredibly difficult, not because it’s challenging to take a certain number of steps or to walk back and forth, but rather because it’s challenging to truly focus on them. The center’s location away from both distractions and noise assisted and repeatedly drew me back to these things, however while sitting I often found my mind wandering. This decreased with each passing day, which is what the monk I worked with told me I should work toward. He was both supportive and warm, although he did not give his name, nor did he call me by mine. I suppose that might perhaps have created a further attachment. After the closing ceremony I cleaned out my room, changed clothes, and made a small donation (300 baht or $10 per day seems to be the expected standard expected at such retreats). I left lighter in every sense.