Buddhist Boot Camp Comparison, part II: Suan Mokh vs. Mahasi…

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Foreign meditators at Mahasi

Author’s note: For those of you who read my blogs regularly, then you might remember that I did this once before, with Wat Suan Mokh near Surat Thani, Thailand, and Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, here. But those are two different types of Buddhism, so as different as apples and oranges, really. Mahasi Monastery in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma), is the same Theravada branch of Buddhism as Suan Mokh, so closer in orientation. And for my traveler’s perspective of Mahasi, here

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Meditation at Mahasi

Of course, not everything fits conveniently into a quick little list, so I’ll explain, expand and expound. WSM has fixed sessions on the first ten days of every month, so just show up the day before and sign up, no pre-registration. MM is even less formal. Just show up any morning and sign up. I suppose either could be full, so no space available, but not sure of that. Sessions at MM are ongoing, minimum ten days, but many stay MUCH longer, up to six months, with ordination as monk a possibility. Normal Myanmar visa is 28 days BTW, though longer ‘meditation visas’ are available.

WSM’s program is more elaborately presented and diverse, with certain hours in the daily schedule devoted to exercises, listening to CD, dharma talks, etc., in addition to meditation. MM is mostly DIY, alternating sitting and walking meditation on the hour all day every day. For a novice, this is nearly impossible, of course, so if you want to play hooky, just stay in your room. I was hassled once for reading in the common area, when I was supposed to be in the group meditation hall meditating. Walking meditation is more free-form, so take a break then…

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Lunch at Mahasi

WSM is part of the Thai Forest Tradition, which gives it an environmental orientation that is quiet, refreshing and sustainable, while Mahasi is within the boundaries of a large city, so necessarily busier and noisier, with frequent visitors from the city and taxis coming and going, in addition to construction activity for current expansion, so MUCH NOISIER…

Interaction with others is a mixed bag. On the one hand WSM has monks sitting in on sessions, meditation and otherwise, but mostly meditating, and thus giving valuable inspiration on how it’s done. This blew my mind at the time. Conversely, while MM has hundreds of monks and nuns in residence, they have little or no interaction with foreign yogis. There are weekly dharma talks and twice-weekly interviews with the sayadaw-gyi, but that is hardly equivalent to the hands-on SM experience.

The dharma being espoused is a bit different, too, though both are of the Theravada Buddhist tradition. This I know only because I made the effort to read materials available in MM common areas, which SM has none of, but compensate with CD listening sessions. But MM seems very stuck in the old fundamentalist Buddhism of past lives and karma, which was a big disappointment to me. SM, on the other hand, is more modern, and founder Buddhadhasa is a leader in steering modern Buddhism away from those old fundamentalist modes…

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Wat Suan Mokh

But where WSM falls severely short is in the facilities themselves, with rooms resembling prison cells in not even the best of prisons, while MM has much more modern facilities. The splash-pools that pass for common baths at SM look like something from science fiction, so interesting, but not up to the modern standards of private showers. This ain’t Boy Scout camp. SM may be fine for ten days, but any longer than that might not be so good…

So here’s the skinny. Here’s the fat. I’ll compare the two briefly on a number of topics, basic stats mostly. One caveat: I personally attended the Thai-language session at Suan Mokh, but I’ve tried to corroborate information from the foreigners’ English-language session, hopefully correct. Okay? Here goes:

  1. Food: SM is vegetarian with brown rice; MM has a vegetarian option by request
  2. Gadgets: SM holds phones and laptops (and passports); MM holds only passports
  3. Ambience: SM is in the countryside; MM is in the city
  4. Duration: SM is a fixed 11 days, 10 nights; MM is minimum 10 days, 9 nights
  5. In/Out privileges: SM not sure;, assume no; MM only by special request
  6. Hands-on Instruction: SM yes; MM no, not really
  7. Cost: SM 2000 THB ($60+/-); MM donations accepted
  8. Daily Schedule: SM 4a-9p; MM 4a-9p
  9. Rooms: SM basic room, communal bath; MM nicer room, bath down the hall
  10. Meals: SM breakfast and lunch, liquids in afternoon; MM two meals
  11. Sex: SM has M/F sep. facilities, mixed classes; MM: M/F separate all

So there is no clear winner. In general, I’d say that WSM is better for novice and/or short-term stays, MM better for long-term DIY and/or experienced meditators. I particularly like WSM’s prayer chanting sessions, which for me is as much or more the heart of Buddhism as meditation. And the hot springs are nice, too (after I finished cleaning them). But the rooms suck. I’ve got a better idea: try both. Both Thailand and Burma have many other meditation centers as well. I hope this helps. Enjoy.

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