Buddhist Boot Camps: Kopan vs. Suan Mokh, part 1–Price of Rice…

IMG_0526“…(in) sitting meditation…we free our mind from past experiences and…any anticipation of the future. Instead we abide in the nowness of the present…”–HH the Dalai Lama

Sounds a whole lot like Eckhart Tolle, doesn’t it? But no, this is from His Holiness the DL’s book ‘The Four Noble Truths’, compiled from talks he gave in 1996, some years before the publishing of ET’s break-thru book-thru drive-thru one-stop soul shop, in which a lump of basic Buddhism is twirled up into fluffy cotton-candy comfort-food for the disenchanted, just lose all that pesky suffering, add some New Age flavorings, and let’s call it ‘The Power of Now’ instead of ‘Enlightenment for Dummies’…

…or even ‘a Metaphysics of Meditation’, which is probably most accurate. There you go: perfect, ready to market, and the rest is history—good work. But I’m not here to talk about ET, just HHDL, who largely inspired me, along with certain Beat Poets at Naropa last century hooting and howling next door, to further investigate Tibetan Buddhism, to supplement my current efforts in the forest temples of Thailand. Here’s the deal:

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I recently attended what I would describe as two ‘boot camps’ for the introduction and eventual initiation into the Buddhist religion, as layman if not priest, one of the Tibetan-Tantric-Vajrayana school as taught at Kopan Monastery near Kathmandu, Nepal, and the other of the Thai ‘Forest Temple’ Theravada school at Wat Suan Mokh in southern Thailand. So I’ll compare the two experiences here, to help anyone else currently shopping for Buddhist nirvana…

Mostly I’ll be comparing such nuts-and-bolt issues as Course Description, Cost and Time, Degree of Difficulty, Facilities, Setting, Eco-Friendliness, Quality of Instruction, Interaction and Intellectual Stimulation, but ultimately it’s a question mostly of dogma, and karma, as the Buddhist nikayas can differ significantly. Please note that I attended the Thai-language 8-day course at Suan Mokh, which also offers an 11-day English-language one, but I have some familiarity with both, so will do my best to be accurate…

Course Description: Kopan’s course was a combination of meditation and ‘Introduction to Buddhism’, with multiple sessions in both the morning and afternoon, while the Thai course followed the typical temple experience of morning and evening prayer chants, interspersed with morning exercise, marathon meditation sessions, various guest speakers, and dissertations by CD from the temple’s own late but venerable founder Buddhadhasa (I assume English-language classes might have to forego the Pali-language prayer chants for lack of prayer books transliterated into the Roman alphabet).

IMG_0540Cost and Time: Kopan’s classes are held sporadically throughout the year, with several variations on the basic theme, with costs for course and lodging starting at $95usd for the week-long course and dormitory-style accommodation, $125 for private room with shared bath, and more again for private bath. Reservations are made and paid in advance.

Suan Mokh has a single plan: an 8-day course of training for Thais 19-27 of every month and foreign English-language speakers 1-11 of every month. Show up early the day before to register and claim your space. The course costs 2000 baht, about $60 at current R.O.E. Advance reservations are not necessary, or even possible. Just show up.

Degree of Difficulty: Both places have long full days, but Suan Mokh’s are longer, earlier, and a killer if you’re new to 2-3 hour meditation sessions. Days start at four in the morning and go to nine at night, with a couple hours break. Phones and gadgets are not allowed, nor is there time to go off campus. And last but not least: no talking.

Kopan’s day, on the other hand, starts at six and also goes to nine at night with 2-3 hours break, more if you’re sneaky or a slacker. Talking here is also heavily discouraged, but you can walk off campus, and there is a cafe with WiFi, though that, too, is heavily discouraged.

img_0881Facilities are more basic at Suan Mokh, but that’s part of the ‘forest temple’ ethos, simplicity and closeness to nature. These jail-like cells may be pushing the limits, however, with concrete slabs for beds, wooden pillows, mosquito nets and easy entry for other insects and spiders, too. Bathing is splash-style and cool from an open pool (but there are nearby hot springs). There are also only two meals per day, but it’s all-you-can-eat and tasty, no coffee or tea provided. I don’t know if the English course has Thai food or western.

Kopan, on the other hand, is relative luxurious, with rooms up to modern standard for any hostel, if not hotel. You might have to clean the drain yourself, but showers are adequate and hot. Food is not bad, if you like oatmeal porridge for breakfast, but three vegetarian squares a day and good tea available.

Continued on my travel blog, Part 2 

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