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Finding Inner Peace in Bangkok

Finding Inner Peace in Bangkok

Story by Joe Cummings / CPA Media (8 December, 2022)

A pulsating cosmopolis of 10 million, Bangkok at times seems like the most unlikely Buddhist city on earth, despite the glittering spires of its famed shrines and temples. It's tempting to view the latter as quaint background filler, or as clichéd tourist traps thronged with Chinese visitors. Meanwhile, everyone else seems to be stuck in slow-moving traffic shuttling back and forth between condos and office buildings, while hordes of workers from the outer provinces transform construction sites into makeshift villages. After sunset, the scene switches to busy street-food stalls and the latest Michelin-starred bistros. Bars, nightclubs, massage parlors, and live music venues compete to squeeze the last out of your waking hours before it starts all over again.

Yes, Bangkok's mass weapons of distraction make it all too easy to fill one's life without sparing even a moment for self-reflection. That's a pity, because beyond the grit and glitz lies one of the city's greatest charms – the opportunity to slow down, turn inward, and find some stillness at the heart of chaos through meditation.

Thais follow Theravada Buddhism, considered the earliest existent school of Buddhism and the tradition most focused on meditation. Almost every wat – Buddhist monastery – in Bangkok offers instruction on how to meditate, often with a hall dedicated to practice, or at the very least, floor space where laypeople can sit down, fold their legs, and practice basic mental techniques that are for the most part unique to Buddhism. In addition to the monasteries found all across the city, Bangkok offers a number of standalone meditation centers that also organize regular instruction, drop-in sessions, and meditation retreats.

For visitors and residents alike, practicing meditation in Thailand offers the chance to step back, extract one's self from the rat race for a short time, and take a look at the bigger picture. For some, it also aids recovery from anxiety, depression, and trauma in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The main style of Buddhist meditation taught in Thailand is mindfulness, known in Pali as satipatthana. It starts by following the rising and falling of one's breath, either at the nose or at the abdomen, and then shifts to other physical or mental phenomena as they randomly appear. Unlike meditation in some religions, there is no need to suppress thought. All thoughts as well as transient physical sensations, including pain and discomfort, are considered valid meditation objects, rather than distractions.

The outcome? Being mindful of one's thought, feelings, and mood while meditating can carry over into everyday life, making it easier stay in the moment, and not get bogged down by petty worries. Lower blood pressure, steadier heart rhythms, improved circulation, and other wellness upgrades are also commonly reported.

Here are some recommended places in and around Bangkok where one can learn meditation from beginning to advanced levels, join regular meditation groups, and practice on one's own.


Wat Mahathat International Meditation Center


Maharat Road, Phranakorn, Bangkok

Tel. +6622226011

Founded in the 18th century, Wat Mahathat occupies a 20-acre compound near the Chao Phraya River and the world-famous Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The monastery boasts Bangkok's oldest continually open meditation center, headquartered in Section 5, an older building tucked away in the southern half of the compound amid monks' residences.

Here, participants sit together in a quiet, air-conditioned halls. Although temporarily closed during the pandemic, the center normally opens for practice and instruction from 1 to 4 pm and 6 to 8 pm daily. Every Saturday, there's a special session for foreigners, but on other days of the week you can usually find an English-speaking monk or a long-term lay resident able to teach or interpret for Thai instructors. Instruction is based on a system of mindfulness popularized by the late Myanmar meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw.

All nationalities and religions are welcome, and there's no need to make a reservation in advance. There is no cost for instruction, nor are donations pressed. For participants who wish to stay overnight, accommodation and meals are also provided at no cost. White clothing is required for both short- and long-term visits, and is available for purchase at the center's library. Inside the center, idle chat and the use of cellphones are prohibited.


Little Bangkok Sangha (Little Bang)


Rojana Dhamma Foundation, 148 Soi Sukhumvit 23

Tel. +6626642095

A popular group among Bangkok expats, Little Bang got its start in 2007 as a set of six talks conducted by western monks at Baan Aree. Led by Pandit Bhikkhu, a New Zealand-born monk who resides at Wat Paknam, the group evolved into a web-based clearinghouse for dhamma talks, guided meditations, retreats, and other Buddhist-related activities. Regular Monday evening group meditations from 6.30 to 8 pm are held at Rojana Dhamma Foundation, usually guided by Pandit Bhikkhu or visiting meditation teachers. Participants usually arrive a bit early for tea or coffee and to meet newcomers before sitting down for meditation. This is followed by a talk and open discussion. Pandit Bhikkhu has a very down-to-earth, informal approach in which everyone from beginners to experienced meditators feels welcome. Cushions are provided, and there is no charge for the evening.

During recent pandemic months, the Monday sessions at Rojana Dhamma Foundation have been temporarily replaced by Zoom meditation sessions held every second Monday of the month. The website is well worth visiting to learn about meditation-related events throughout the city that may have little to do with Little Bang.


Wat Prayong International Meditation Center


Klong Sip – Klong Sipsi Road, Khlong Sip Song, Nong Chok, Bangkok

Tel. +66894624954

If you're ready for something more rigorous than a one-day session, this center at Wat Prayong on the outskirts of Bangkok hosts seven-day meditation retreats during the first week of every month from November to February only. Roughly an hour's drive from central Bangkok, Wat Prayong is a relatively new monastery surrounded by rice fields in a peaceful area. The program is organized by Mae Chee Brigitte, an Austrian Buddhist nun who was honored by the UN as an “outstanding woman in Buddhism” in 2009. Depending on who's attending, instruction may be in English, German or Thai, or a mix of all three. The week-long retreat trains participants in Buddhist philosophy and lifestyle, including instructions on bowing and chanting, discussion sessions with monks, mindfulness meditation, and attentiveness to Buddhist moral principles. The rigorous training schedule runs from 4.30 am to 9 pm on days 2 through 6, and a half day on the first and last days. The retreats are free of charge. The upcoming retreat season begins on November 1, 2021.


Wat Sanghathan


100/1 Bangpai, Muang, Nonthaburi

Tel.: +6624471766 or for English +66890500052

Easily reached via a short walk from Chao Phraya River Express Pier N29, Wat Sanghathan occupies around 50 acres of trees, ponds and canals near the river. This is a favorite among those looking to arrange a self-retreat, with instruction in mindfulness meditation and Buddhist philosophy from the English-speaking abbot, Ajahn Sanong Katapunyo or from a resident nun who also teaches in English. The daily schedule runs from 4 am to 9 pm, during which you're expected to attend morning and evening chanting sessions (you don't have to chant if you don't want, just be there) in one of the chapels. For the rest of the day, you're free to practice sitting and walking meditation on your own time. Simple accommodation plus morning and midday meals are provided, free of charge. White clothing, available for purchase at the wat, is mandatory for overnight stays. Normally visitors are permitted to stay up to one week but it's possible to extend your practice with the abbot's approval. Men may also request temporary ordination as a monk.

An affiliated meditation center, Ban Sawangjai (www.vimokkha.com/kaoyaisaengeng.html), offers seven-day retreats beginning the first Saturday of every month at Wat Tham Krissana, a quiet cave monastery in the hills of Khao Yai about two and a half hours drive northwest of Bangkok. Stays here can be arranged in advance through Wat Sanghathan. One of the perks at Ban Sawangjai is a traditional Thai herbal sauna where you can steam away the aches and pains of sitting meditation.


Shambhala Meditation Center


Young Place Plaza, Sukhumvit Soi 23, Bangkok

Tel. +66867887408

Resident instructor Jamie Reinhardt came to Bangkok in 2006 after training in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage associated with the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and his son Sakyong Mipham. After teaching meditation to expats and Thais in his living room for a few years, Reinhardt opened this small branch center, one of over 200 urban meditation and rural retreat centers founded by Shambala movement. Artfully arranged thangkas and prayer flags, along with meditation cushions and a central shrine altar, save the 3rd-floor space from resembling just another office. Cushions, prayer-bead malas, and other items associated with Buddhist practice, all handmade in Thailand, can be purchased in the reception area.

Monday afternoon drop-in meditations start at 1 pm and can accommodate up to 25 meditators. For now, under pandemic conditions, these have been replaced by Zoom classes. In normal times, Cafe Shambhala convenes every Wednesday from 6.30 to 8 pm for group meditation and a reading from The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity's Hidden Treasure by Sakyong Mipham, followed by open discussion. Fridays from 6 to 7 pm are dedicated to light yoga and group meditation. There's no charge for any of these weekly sessions.

The center organizes two-day non-residential meditation retreats over Saturday and Sunday, as well as programmed study from the Shambala program curriculum.


Wat Arun Meditation Center


Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn)

158 Wang Doem Road, Wat Arun, Bangkok Yai, Bangkok

Tel. +6628912185, +66863559302

This is one of the more surprising finds in Bangkok, hidden away in the back of Wat Arun, far from the busy riverfront and scenic main stupa, a major tourist attraction. Found in a part of the monastery where almost no tourist ventures, the center occupies an 18th-century building of red-lacquered walls, wood-plank floors, and tidy courtyards. Hartanto Gunawan, the meditation center's director and instructor, hails from Indonesia, where he left a position as CEO of a multinational to live as a monk in northern Thailand. He left the monkhood after four years to establish a nonprofit school at Wat Arun for disadvantaged girls vulnerable to human trafficking, with the meditation center as an adjunct to help deal with trauma. People of all religions and meditation traditions are welcome to practice here and even to stay overnight without cost. Normal hours for the center are from 9 am to 5 pm daily; unlike other Bangkok centers, this one has remained open during the pandemic. Ajahn Hartanto speaks perfect English, and teaches what he calls “research meditation”. Rather than simply concentrating or quietening the mind, he says we must use it for self-enquiry: to understand who we are and why we're here. “A terrorist or criminal can have a concentrated mind and still pull the trigger,” he explains. “So, a concentrated mind can still be very dangerous.”

Story by Joe Cummings - CPA Media