Bangkok (CNN) — 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 foreign 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. Prior to the pandemic, bars, nightclubs, massage parlors and live music venues competed to squeeze the last out of your waking hours before it starts all over again.
Yes, Bangkok’s weapons of mass 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.
Buddhism in Thailand
The majority of 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.
What style of meditation is most popular in Thailand?
The main style of Buddhist meditation taught in Thailand is mindfulness, known in the ancient Pali — the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism — as satipatthana.
So where does meditation fit into Buddhism? According to teachers at Wat Sanghathan, a temple on the outskirts of Bangkok, morality guides our thoughts, words and deeds — it’s an inward force that drives self-restraint and keeps us from harming others.
Meditating helps us cultivate those feelings, keeping us calm and mindful of our actions.
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.
Elena Antonova, senior lecturer at the Brunel University London, is a cognitive neuroscientist who studies the effects of mindfulness meditation on brain structure and function.
“It’s so important when we start meditating to put to the side preconceived ideas that mindfulness meditation or meditation in general is about having a mind free of thoughts,” she tells CNN.
“There is no good or bad meditation in terms of how many thoughts are there. What is important and what defines it as a mindful meditation is are we aware of these thoughts as putting events in the mind, or are we so caught up in them that we completely lose track (of our) bodies and everything that surrounds us?”
In Thailand’s Buddhist temples, people normally sit with the right foot on the left thigh, the left foot under the right thigh, and the right hand placed upon the left in your lap with thumbs touching. But you can sit in any position you’d like and use a cushion or a chair.
Meditation 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.
Note your thoughts as they arise, but always go back to your base — the inhalation and exhalation of your breath.
Health benefits of meditation
The outcome? Being mindful of one’s thoughts, feelings and mood while meditating can carry over into everyday life, making it easier to 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.
“Mindfulness has an effect on increasing hippocampal volume, and that has been shown in a number of studies … it can happen even after eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction,” Antonova tells CNN. “The hippocampus is an important structure. It’s involved in memory consolidation and formation as well as retrieval.
“With meditation, it’s best to think of it as a time for oneself, time to nourish one’s well-being — sort of a mental hygiene spa moment, really,” says Antonova. “And we only need about 10 minutes a day as long as we do it consistently.”
Ready to ditch the phone apps and study meditation in person? Thailand has just reopened to vaccinated tourists from 63 countries, including the US, without lengthy quarantine restrictions.
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
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 quiet, air-conditioned halls. Although temporarily closed during the pandemic, the center normally opens for practice and instruction from 1 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. 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.
Wat Mahathat International Meditation Center, Maharat Road, Phranakorn, Bangkok; +66 (0)2 222 6011
Wat Arun Meditation Center
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 few tourists venture, 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 a.m. to 5 p.m. 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.”
Wat Arun Meditation Center, Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn), 158 Wang Doem Road, Wat Arun, Bangkok Yai, Bangkok Tel. +66 (0)2 891 2185, +66 (0)86 355 9302
Little Bangkok Sangha (Little Bang)
A popular group among Bangkok expats, Little Bang got its start in 2007 as a set of six talks conducted by Western monks.
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 6:30-8 p.m. are held at the 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 other meditation-related events throughout the city.
Little Bang, Rojana Dhamma Foundation, 148 Soi Sukhumvit 23; +66 (0)2 664 2095
Wat Prayong International Meditation Center
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 a.m. to 9 p.m. on days two through six, and a half day on the first and last days. The retreats are free of charge. The latest retreat season began on November 1, 2021.
Wat Prayong International Meditation Center, Klong Sipsi Road, Khlong Sip Song, Nong Chok, Bangkok; +66 (0)8 946 24954
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. (The video at the top of the page was filmed at this temple)
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.
Like many other temples, you don’t need to be religious to learn meditation at Wat Sanghathan. The monks here stress that it’s not something reserved for special times and sacred places — it’s a day-in and day-out practice that can be observed even while you’re doing mundane things like eating your food or brushing your teeth.
At Wat Sanghathan they follow a meditation practice called “Vipassana Kammathana” which is based on the four foundations of mindfulness — awareness of body, feelings, thoughts and phenomena.
The daily schedule runs from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m., 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.
Walking meditation differs slightly. Instead of focusing on your breathing, you focus on your feet.
First, connect with your space by briefly standing and doing a mental sweep of the body from the top of the head down to the feet and back up again. Then, put your right hand over your left and place in front of you or at your lower back. Next, begin walking, lifting the right foot and stepping it forward slowly.
If your thoughts stray and you’re unable to focus, stop, note those feelings that are distracting you and return to the walking.
Why walk? The temple’s teachers say it helps build energy and concentration while grounding you to the present.
Simple accommodation plus morning and midday meals are provided to students, 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, 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.
Wat Sanghathan, 100/1 Bangpai, Muang, Nonthaburi; +66 (0)2 447 1766 or for English +66 (0)89 050 0052