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Monday, June 17, 2024

4 temples to visit in Chiang Mai in Thailand for mindfulness, some serious meditation, history – and, hopefully, enlightenment

As the term suggests, it implies that we should give the full attention of our mind to the present. This is easy when seeing something such as sculptures of celestial beings and paintings of historic events for the first time.

So take a deep breath and discover the secrets of Wat Phra Singh, founded in the 14th century.

Detail from a mural in the Viharn Lai Kham, a pavilion in Wat Phra Singh temple in Chiang Mai. Photo: Ron Emmons

Directly in front of the entrance is the viharn (assembly hall), and behind that the ordination hall and gleaming gold stupa (shrine), but it is the tall, slender building to the right that catches most people’s attention.

Surrounded by bas reliefs of stucco angels and surmounted by a scarlet, wooden, upper storey, this is the scripture library, an exquisite example of Lanna (northern Thai) temple architecture.

The most important element of Wat Phra Singh is the Viharn Lai Kham, a pavilion set back to the left of the assembly hall. With its multi-tiered roof and beautifully carved gables, this is another classic example of the architecture associated with Lanna – which means “a million rice fields” – but it is the Phra Sihing Buddha image inside, after which the temple is named, that is the big attraction.

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There is some argument as to whether this is the original or a copy of an image dating back to the 15th century, but there is no denying that the serene expression on the face of this “lion-style” Buddha is a source of inspiration for meditators. The walls of the pavilion are covered with murals of legends that offer insights into Lanna culture.

In the daytime, a hubbub can often be heard coming from the classrooms and dormitories to the south and west of the temple compound, where a new generation of novice monks is setting out on its own dhamma trail. Buddhists believe dhamma is the force that upholds the natural order of the universe.

Do not be surprised if giggling novices corner you to practise their English.

A view of Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai. Photo: Ron Emmons

2. Wat Suan Dok

While Wat Phra Singh has no official meditation classes, the other three temples on this tour do, beginning with a one-day, free, introductory class at Wat Suan Dok that is ideal for anyone mildly interested in focusing their mind. It takes place every Friday from 9.30am to 5pm, and visitors are welcome to drop by any afternoon for a Monk Chat.

Most monks who join the informal conversations here are students at the Chiang Mai campus of the Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, set in the grounds of Wat Suan Dok, so they can probably spell long words but still need practice with their English pronunciation.

The Monk Chat and Meditation Retreat room is clearly marked, to the right just after what is the biggest viharn in Chiang Mai, which houses several standing and sitting Buddha figures.
A fanciful image of a former king in a viharn in Wat Phra Singh. Photo: Ron Emmons

Behind the viharn is a 48-metre (157-foot) tall golden stupa and a forest of smaller stupas that contain the remains of Chiang Mai royalty who ruled Lanna until it was subsumed into Siam in the late 19th century.

A smaller viharn beyond the meditation room has a highly revered, black Buddha image – the Phra Chao Kao Tue – and bright, recently painted murals of traditional Lanna life.

3. Wat Umong

People feed the fish in Wat Umong’s lake. Photo: Ron Emmons

About 3km to the southwest of Wat Suan Dok is Wat Umong, from the entrance of which it is evident that this is a forest monastery: the entire grounds are shaded by trees that also provide wisdom; pithy aphorisms in English such as, “An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching” – a kind of mantra for meditators – are nailed to them.

The meditation centre here offers three-day courses, with a strict schedule of practice from 5am to 9pm. Apart from that, the men’s and women’s dwellings look like a neat spot to chill out in the forest for a few days.

Those who sign up for the course will no doubt hear the legend of the founding of the temple’s meditation tunnels, which were seemingly built by King Ku Na in the 14th century to accommodate his adviser, a senior monk named Thera Jan.

The meditation tunnels at Wat Umong were seemingly built by King Ku Na in the 14th century to accommodate his wandering adviser. Photo: Ron Emmons

Apparently Jan would disappear into the forest to meditate for days or weeks at a time, frustrating the king when he needed to urgently consult his adviser. The tunnels were thus dug to facilitate Jan’s wandering tendencies while allowing the king to locate him when necessary.

The tunnels are the main attraction but the temple also has a large lake, where visitors like to feed the fish, and a memorial to leading 20th century Buddhist thinker Buddhadasa Bhikkhu on an island in the middle.

Other points of interest include a large stupa above the tunnels; relics of broken Buddhas collected from Phayao province, to the east of Chiang Mai; and a “spiritual theatre”, with artwork depicting Buddhist principles such as the impermanence of all things.

4. Wat Ram Poeng

Students practising walking and sitting meditation at Wat Ram Poeng. Photo: Ron Emmons
This unassuming temple to the south of Wat Umong is home to the mother of all meditation courses, in this writer’s humble opinion. The 26-day course in Vipassana (“insight”) meditation begins gently, with practice in sitting and walking for a few hours each day, and ends with a commitment, or “determination”, to meditate non-stop for three days and nights.

This might seem an impossible task to a person who lives their life in the busy modern world, yet can be attained with constant practice.

Courses begin two or three times each month, registration is 500 baht (US$14) and although the dhamma is given for free, a donation towards food and lodging is only to be expected.

Wat Ram Poeng’s striking, stepped stupa is a favourite spot for meditators. Photo: Ron Emmons

As well as the usual assembly hall, ordination hall, scripture library, lodgings for monks and meditators, the temple contains a striking, stepped stupa with Buddha images tucked into its niches.

The area around the stupa is a favourite spot in which to practise walking meditation, so if you encounter people dressed in white and walking in slow motion, you will know what they are up to.

After exploring the grounds of the temple and perhaps watching a few foreigners practising sitting or walking meditation, there is just one decision to make: do you head back to town and your life as it was, or do you enter the Foreign Meditation Office – where foreigners register for courses – and take a few more steps along the dhamma trail?

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