Saturday, March 22, 2008

Vipassana Retreat at Wat Ampawan

From 24.2.2008 to 3.3.2008 I went for a 1 week Vipassana retreat at Wat Ampawan in Singburi, Thailand with my meditation group. This is the temple of LP Jarun, a widely renowned Vipassana master in Central Thailand. Our meditation teacher, Sister Soo Ngoh, has learned under LP Jarun for many years. I had wanted to attend such a retreat for very long as I have no time in Singapore to practice with that kind of intensity. We arrived at Wat Ampawan from Suwarnaphum Airport after a 2 hour journey by mini-bus.
The 3 monkey statues at the entrance tell us the rules here: See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. The teacher's advice for us was also to talk less, eat less, sleep less and practice more.
The flourishing Bodhi Tree in the meditation centre. Perhaps a sign of the Dhamma prosperity among the yogis here?
My dormitory in the centre. By this time we have changed into the white attire of an Upasaka and have taken the 8 precepts. Room conditions are relatively sparse but it is kept neat and clean by people staying there.
My room-mates. At least we have a mat and pillow to sleep on. Thankfully, the windows and doors are fixed with mosquito netting to keep the mosquitoes out.
Looking out of our dormitory, we can see the outer compound of Wat Ampawan.
Below is the courtyard, where yogis practice walking, standing and sitting meditation. The timetable there is like this: we wake up at 3.30am everyday, wash up and go to the chanting hall for morning chanting at 4am. We finish the chanting at 5am, after which we practice meditation until 6.30am. At 6.30am we have our breakfast, which is the same everyday - a bowl of plain porridge with some vegetables and mock meat. Well I thought to myself that this is the kind of food that encourages dispassion in eating! How nice..
The Jow Mae Thoranee (Earth goddess) shrine in the centre. After breakfast we go back to our rooms to rest for a while. At 8am we begin the 3-hour morning meditation session that lasts till 11am. Normally we start with standing and walking meditation for 1 hour and switch to sitting for 1 hour after that. At 11am we have our lunch, which is actually quite nice compared to breakfast. There's rice with 2 dishes and 1 dessert. That is our last meal for the day as we cannot eat after noon time, in accordance with the precepts.
The Pang Palelai (Wednesday PM Buddha) shrine. After lunch we rest for an hour, before starting the 3-hour afternoon meditation session, which lasts from 1pm to 4pm. Then we have a 2-hour break for us to take some liquid refreshments, rest or do our laundry (service provided by volunteers at centre). At 6pm we do the evening chanting until 7pm. From 7pm to 9pm is the 2-hour eveing meditation session, the last for the day. After 9pm we retire to our rooms for the day to wash up and sleep. We are also supposed to do lying meditation until we fall asleep. If we don't include that, each day spent at the centre allows us to do up to 9 and a half hours of intensive meditation!
The Phra Sivali shrine. The first 2 days at the centre was quite tough as many of us struggled to adjust to the spartan meditative lifestyle there. But by the 3rd day, I started to get used to the aches experienced during the intense sessions and the hunger felt at night. Towards the end of the week, I no longer felt hungry at night and could meditate quite fluently. On the 4th day I experienced a strong vedana (feeling) of pain in my torso during the afternoon sitting meditation, during which I acknowledged and later gain some knowledge of a past existence. I verified this with my teacher after the session, and she also thought that it should be a reliable experience. I finally knew for myself what it meant when the teacher said, "Pain is our teacher".
The main Buddha Image in the Ubosot hall, Luang Por Chalotorn. It is named after the patron Mr Tongyoi Chalotorn, who contributed to the casting of this Image as well as building this new Ubosot. Although he died in a traffic accident due to his karma of killing turtles, but because of the merit he gained from building the Ubosot and the Image, he had been reborn as one of the Devadas protecting Wat Ampawan. The smaller Buddha Image is called Luang Por Samret Phon. It was brought over from the old Ubosot.
This is the shrine of Somdej Puttajarn Toh beside the Ubosot, unique in the whole of Thailand. It is unique as it shows Somdej Toh in a sitting posture, holding a font to sprinkle holy water. This Image was casted and presented to Wat Ampawan by patrons Mr Seng and Mrs Pongsri Jaiboon in 1987, along with the Image of LP Saeng, who was Somdej Toh's teacher. A group photo taken by one of the ladies in the meditation hall. Notice the numerous white orbs on the right side of the photo. LP Saeng's painted Image is in the middle, on the right side of the Buddha Image. Originally Somdej Toh was placed in the Ubosot and LP Saeng in the meditation hall, but Somdej Toh did not want to stay in the Ubosot as there were too many people moving around there. So he enter the dreams of 3 different people, asking them to tell LP Jarun (who was the abbot) to build him a separate shrine. LP did not believe at first, but finally relented after the 3rd person pleaded with him. So LP offered joss sticks and candles to Somdej Toh and told him that it would be done. The Image of Somdej Toh "smiled" and the shrine for him was completed in a month. Since then many devotees came regularly to pray to Somdej Toh and plenty of money flowed into the temple as a result. LP also taught 2 of Somdej Toh's kathas for our protection. The 1st is for subduing fierce animals, spirits and people who might cause you harm:
Metta Gunnang Arahang Metta.

It is said that Somdej Toh was able to pacify the ghost of Mae Nak Phrakanong using this katha and even teach her to meditate. The 2nd one is for driving safety:
Mettanca Sabbalokasaming
Manasambhavaye Aparimanang.

This katha will invoke a ghost to help you while you are driving.
A closer look at the unique Image of Somdej Toh. Notice the white orb above his right hand. During the casting and consecration of the Image, Phra Sangharaj Yansangworn also came to participate in the grand ceremony. Many miraculous signs were recorded. One of the patrons, Mr Hua Suphapak also saw with his own eyes that Indra (king of the gods) and another female Deva had came down from Tavatimsa heaven to pour the gold into the mould. After that they slowly disappeared. Readers might find it amazing, but these are all true accounts.
The shrine of King Naret the Great's elephant, Don Mongkonchai. It is also beside the Ubosot. This elephant deity came to stay in Wat Ampawan in 1991, after it manifested a miracle during the World Bank Conference at Queen Sirikit Convention Centre and later at Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok. Before these events, the deity had already appeared before LP Jarun, informing him of its intention. True to its word, it was brought here by Dusit Thani Hotel staff 2 months later.
This is the Walking Buddha Image in front of the Assembly Hall. No legends regarding this one.
Another group photo taken in the Assembly Hall with one of the resident monks. There are also plenty of white orbs in this one.
The Phra Leela and King Naret shrine in front of LP Jarun's kuti. LP has a strong affinity with King Naret the Great. In 1990, King Naret manifested a miracle at Maehongson province, driving away Burmese and Karen bandits with a powerful storm. This inspired the governor, Mr Pramuan Rujanaseri to create a batch of King Naret medals to commemorate the event. Again, Phra Sangharaj was invited to consecrate these medals. Mr Pramuan gave some medals to LP, and he took them with him on his trip to Los Angeles in 1991. King Naret manifested himself to a Thai Chinese girl living there, prompting her to invite LP to her house and request a medal that she saw in her dream from him. By this time LP had already given out all the medals except for his own personal one. But LP still gave the very last piece he had to her as she could describe clearly what the medal looked like. When LP returned to Thailand, King Naret's elephant came to stay in the temple with him towards the end of the year. All these events are by no means coincidental.
The meeting room below LP's kuti. This is where he meets the lay people coming to see him.
A painting of LP. Below the painting is the photo of LP with a broken neck when he met with an accident that would have killed him if not for the merits of his meditation. He had to suffer this negative karma at 49yrs old as he had broken the necks of birds when he was young.
A photo portrait of LP in his youth.
This is the Ven Ajarn who gave us our 8 precepts. He is of Chinese descent and speaks both Mandarin and Teochew dialect. Ajarn is also very kind and accomodating with our requests for photos as well as the chopping of LP's books with LP's signature.
On Sunday (2.3.2008), after we have completed our 1 week retreat, we went to see LP along with the other devotees, all eager to make offerings as you can see above.
But we still got to take a group photo with LP after making our group offering. Behind LP is the sacred scripture shelf with a painting of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). The story of that painting was also told in one of LP's Law of Karma books.
The banner advertising a new batch of LP Jarun medals made last year (2007). The front is LP's image, behind the medal is an image of Phra Prom (Brahma Sahampati). LP seldom consecrates amulets (the last batch was 11 yrs ago), but this batch of medals is to raise funds to build the biggest Phra Prom statue in the whole of Thailand (and thus the world). This statue is to be located in Promburi district, some distance away from Wat Ampawan. It should become an important tourist attraction in the future. We left for home the next day (3.3.2008).
The good stuff I brought back from Wat Ampawan (except for the golden Ganesha medal on the right). This had been a very fruitful first retreat for me spiritually and I hope to be able to go back again next year.
Visiting and making offerings to LP again in Jan 2009.
A closer shot of LP. Now he needs an assistant to support him when he walks.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Lydia Sum returns as White Locust

On Saturday (16.3.2008) the Shin Min paper reported that the late HK actress comedian Lydia Sum returned as a big white locust on Tuesday (11.3.2008), 3 weeks after her passing away. According to traditional Chinese beliefs, that day was supposed to be her "Soul-returning Night". On this night, King Yama would allow departed souls to visit their former houses and see their relatives for one last time, under escort by Oxhead and Horseface. The uncanny thing was that a fortune-teller, Mr Lin Bingnan had earlier predicted that during the evening on Mar 11th from 7 to 9pm Lydia would return to her residence from the northwest direction. He also mentioned that she would transform into a white yellow animal or insect upon her arrival, and would appear bigger than normal. Just as Lin had predicted, the reporters stationed outside Lydia's residence felt a strong cold wind and heard dogs' howling after 7pm. Later at 8.30pm they sighted a big white locust flying in to perch on her manager's car outside the house. Was the locust Lydia herself?
Lydia passed away with a lot of attachment in her mind. Besides clinging strongly to her physical body, which had been tormented by sickness for a long period, everybody knows she still worried much for her daughter's future. When a person dies with such a clinging mind, the consciousness would be drawn by karma to be reborn in the realm of the Petas (hungry ghosts). Although the traditional belief in "soul-returning night" is not recognised in Buddhist doctrine, there is nevertheless some truth in it. According to the Book of Bardo, the consciousness is bound to go back to see its former family during the 7 weeks after a person dies. During this bardo period the consciousness does have some degree of psychic powers, like teleportation and transformation. So it is highly possible for Lydia to come back in the form of an insect. But the question is, where would her consciousness go after its last visit? Without any relatives to make merit for her, it is inevitable for her to be reborn in the lower realms to reap her karmic fruits. Fortune-tellers may be knowledgeable enough to know when and how a person comes back after death, but they cannot guide the departed one to any real happiness. Only the Buddhadharma can offer reliable refuge from the endless suffering of dying again and again. Lydia's daughter should use her (Lydia) wealth accumulated through the years to perform Sanghadana (offering to the Sangha) in her name. This would prevent her from being reborn in the woeful realms and lead to her long term happiness. If the daughter can practice meditation and transfer merit to her, that would be even more effective. Thus, the importance of making merit for one's departed relatives cannot be emphasized enough.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

LP Tuad of Wat Prasat

On 19.1.2008 morning I went to Wat Prasat, the famous LP Tuad temple in Bangkok. I took a taxi there from Yaowarat, but unfortunately the driver had no idea where the temple was. It was only after searching around in the Dusit district for a long time and praying to LP Tuad for help that I was finally able to reach the temple. Entering the temple, I'm immediately greeted by a large image of LP Tuad Towrid (Iron). I gratefully thanked LP Tuad for guiding me to the temple.
The Ubosot. Inside the Ubosot is a Phra Buddha Chinaraj image.
The golden chedi near to the Ubosot.
Inside the side shrine there are images of LP Tuad, Phra Sangajaya, LP Toh (Maitreya) and many more.
In the shelter beside the office are the statues of LP Tuad Sivali as well as LP Tuad Yiab Nam Talay Jerd. Curiously, they are the same style as that of Wat Pako, Songkhla; except for the crystal ball that seated LP Tuad images of Wat Pako hold in their hands.
There was a lot of construction going on; they were building a new Sala using the funds gained from selling this batch of amulets. We can see from the billboard in the shelter that it was the 2548 (2005) Sala building batch.
This is the 12-inch tall LP Tuad Sivali bucha I obtained from the temple, made from black bronze material with partial gold coating. Most of the other stuff in that batch were all sold out, but I was satisfied with the few items I got there. Will visit Wat Prasat whenever I'm in Bangkok to pay homage to LP Tuad.
For those of you who don't know how to go there, you can show the taxi driver this map. Wat Prasat is at the circled location.