Budda statues, Chiang Mai, ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt

I Went to Meditate and I Learned to Walk

I Went to Meditate and I Learned to Walk 768 1024 Cyndie Burkhardt

Right,” the group called out in unison as each of us slowly raised our right foot. Then “goes” as we softly moved our feet forward, and then “here” as we placed our feet down in front of us. We repeated this drawn out, intentional movement on the other side. With each right and left step forward, strung together through a sort of singsong, it took us 25 minutes to walk back and forth across the room. Voice and movement are carefully coordinated when you learn how to do a walking meditation. This was just one part of a very deliberate day.

West meets East

With several years of meditation under my belt and full commitment to improving my practice, I was keen to meditate in Asia. I wanted to feel it in a part of the world where it originated and experience it differently from my New York City studios. My default thinking had it hand in hand with yoga and I started searching for centers in Thailand. Then it dawned on me, spiritual progression through meditation is integral to the cultural heritage of Thai Buddhism.

All images ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt.
Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya 

Chiang Mai has plenty of places to learn how to meditate and many courses are in temples. Monk Chat at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU) caught my attention. The 1-day retreat seemed like a perfect opportunity for a “baby” meditator, as I was fondly called, to learn both meditation and Buddhism from a monk. Plus, MCU has serious credentials as one of two Buddhist universities in Thailand, as well as being the oldest Buddhist university in the nation. It’s located within Wat Suan Dok, a prestigious Royal Temple.

One who is doing something meaningful

The Monk Chat program educates foreigners interested in learning about Buddhism, meditation, and monk life. It’s a community service, of sorts, and part of a monk’s own training.

Phra Sone Indasaro, my young monk instructor, started the day sweetly, saying, “We are all friends here. I’m your friend.” During introductions he engaged every person with some relevant knowledge about the country we came from, spanning from England to Germany, Italy, Korea, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland, and the USA. Any preconceived notion of solemnity about meeting with a monk dissolved. His couldn’t contain a playful sense of humor and his gift for connecting with people clearly aligns with the meaning of his name: “one who is doing something meaningful.” 

Phra Sone Indasaro, Monk Chat teacher at CMU University, before class, Chiang Mai, ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt
Phra Sone Indasaro, Monk Chat teacher, resting before class
A way of life

The better part of the morning was dedicated to What is Buddhism? It set the groundwork for understanding how meditation is inextricably interlaced with a Buddhist path and lifestyle. Sone talked about balancing the physical and mental, liberating oneself from suffering, and moral, mental, and wisdom training.

A common misperception, which I confess to previously having myself, is that Buddhism is a religion. It’s in fact a philosophy and a way of life. There’s no god, no worship, nor beliefs to uphold. A buddha is human, an “awakened” one. According to Sone, “Everyone can become one. You are your creator. Change yourself and change your life.” Intention, mindfulness, and moral values are personal attributes that determine how much you suffer or find peace and enlightenment.

Buddha statue inside Sala Kan Prian, a temple on campus, MCU University, Chiang Mai, Thailand ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt
Buddha statue inside the ubosot, a temple on MCU campus
Suffering and detachment

In Buddhism there are four noble truths that no one escapes, they all involve suffering. Suffering exists; suffering is caused by personal desire; detach from suffering; and the way to end suffering is through the path. 

The concept that life revolves around suffering may seem ambiguous to a westerner but it’s not complicated when you break it down. According to Buddha, the cause of suffering is attachment—attachment to getting something and attachment to avoiding something. You suffer until you get what you want and you suffer to get rid of something or keep it away. When you get what you want you’re happy today but will you be happy tomorrow when you want something else?

The path to happiness, or end of suffering, is through detachment. If someone or something is making you suffer, you must forgive, forget, and let it go. Sone repeated throughout the day, “everything impermanent.” This is where meditation comes in.

Stories about the Buddha's life, inside the Monk Chat office at MCU University, Chiang Mai, ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt
Stories about Buddha’s life help educate foreign visitors in the meditation room
Insight meditation

Contrary to what many people think, meditation doesn’t just mean concentrating on one thing or attempting to erase all thoughts. Vipassana is insight meditation, widely practiced in Thailand, and it starts with learning to focus on your breath. It’s meant to develop self-understanding and mindfulness of your body, feelings, thoughts, and state of mind. Vipassana is the monks’ secret weapon for learning detachment—calm the mind and develop transcendent insight which penetrates into the truth of life.

Vipassana

Sone’s guidance through our first round of seated meditation helped me come back to my breathing when my mind wandered but I never reached a full state of emptiness. Thinking about accepting my thoughts and letting them go was still thinking. As much as I wanted to detach, thinking about it was a problem.

The walking meditation however is where I nailed it. I was fully focused on the symphony of my steps, my voice, my breath, and being in unison with the group. I wasn’t aware of time, only the pace of purpose. My mind was empty of scattered thoughts and there was only what mattered in the present moment. Isn’t that ultimately what meditation is trying to teach us? Isn’t that enlightenment, if only momentarily?

The purpose of meditation

Someone living an ascetic life may embrace the full thrust of Buddhism and meditate to reach nirvana and the truth of life. But it doesn’t take a monk’s commitment to realize the huge potential of mindfulness and meditation for everyday healing, both emotionally and physically, not to mention a healthy lifestyle and overall wellbeing.

The causes of suffering that come from within must be removed for healing to occur. The Buddha teaches that the mind becomes purified with acceptance of what is. And then letting it go. Happiness is achieved when your own moods and external experiences have no effect. This is the true essence of meditation. 

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