I spent 10 days in Myanmar staying at a forest monastery, a few hundred miles south of Yangon, trying to experience what it’s like to be a Buddhist monk.
The monks live a simple life. They eat 2 meals a day, and spend their remaining time meditating, reading and practicing mindfulness. The monastery I was at hosted a few hundred monks, and foreigners were allowed to stay along with the monks free of cost, and for as long as they like. I met some foreigners who had been staying there for a few years. They give you a room (called a kuti), which you share with other monks / foreigners. The room itself is basic, it has a small bed with a thin mat (no mattresses), and a fan. You go along with the monks for alms during meal times, and eat the same food they eat. A typical day at the monastery went something like this:
3:30 am – wake up
4:00 am to 5:30 am – meditation
5:30 am to 7:00 am – breakfast
7:00 am to 7:30 am – personal time
7:30 am to 9:00 am – meditation
9:00 am to 10:00 am – personal time / interviews with the teacher
10:00 am to 1:00 pm – lunch and personal time
1:00 pm to 2:30 pm – meditation
2:30 pm to 3:30 pm – walking meditation
3:30 pm to 5:00 pm – mediation
5:00 pm to 6:00 – evening juice / personal time
6:00 pm to 7:30 pm – meditation
7:45 pm to 8:45 pm – Dhamma talks (talks about Buddhism, in Burmese (exempt for foreigners)).
What I liked about this monastery though, was that they didn’t force you into their routine. That really helped a beginner like me, who would have found it impossible to stick to a rigid routine. If you didn’t feel like going to the meditation hall, you could meditate in your room, or not at all. The only thing that was forced on us was the food timings. And strangely, even though my last meal was at around 10:00 am, I was not as hungry as I thought I’d be by evening, and they did give us some juice at 5 pm to alleviate any evening hunger. The food was vegetarian, since not harming animals is one of the precepts to being a monk, but it was some of the most delicious food I have eaten in my life. I got to talk to a lot of monks and learn about their experiences and views (there were many Indian monks who recognised me as a fellow Indian, and were more than happy to talk to me about literally everything).
For the uninitiated, Buddhism teaches you to try and achieve the status of Buddha. How one does that is by following the teachings of Buddha and reaching a state of enlightenment. Enlightenment is when you understand the purpose of life and its sufferings, and develop the skill to break away from it – kinda like divine knowledge. Suffering is a very loose term in Buddhism that includes everything that a person goes through in life. Attachment to things, emotions, love, anger, hatred, and the never ending circle of life. The meditation helps you rest your mind, improve concentration, and better understand the meaning of life. And the more you meditate, the higher level of understanding you achieve, and the closer you inch towards enlightenment. Overall, your life is the sum of your good and bad deeds, and how good or bad you are at the end of this life will determine both your life form and your sufferings for the next. Meditation gets you a few good karma points, but living a life as per the teachings of the Buddha get you a lot more.
One of the most important and difficult aspects of this path though is true faith. It’s what both, the books I read, as well as the teacher at the monastery, suggested. This was, however, the trickiest one for me. I’m generally rational and believe in things that science can prove. It’s hard for me to put all my faith in something like this without actually seeing or experiencing any of this divine knowledge. But then, the only way to see it, is to truly believe it exists. Quite a catch 22 situation. The meditation did, however, help me learn how to clear my mind, and for me, that’s enough to take back with me to the real world. I also got an insight into the monk way of life, and that’s a life experience that will always remain with me.
There’s no cellphones or computers allowed while you’re at the monastery, so I have no pictures of anything. The monastery does have a website that has pictures and a lot more information: http://www.paaukforestmonastery.org/