40-Day Meditation Retreat at Pa-Auk Tawya, Burma
I spent 40 days meditating at Pa-Auk Tawya, in Burma. Pa Auk is a forest meditation center renowned for rigorous concentration practices.
Why I decided to go meditate at Pa-Auk Tawya
I heard about Pa Auk by doing a web research. Exploring the fascinating world of concentration practices appealed to me. In my previous 10-day Goenka Vipassana retreats, we only did 3 days of concentration practices and then proceeded to insight meditation. I always wondered what the results would be if I pushed my concentration further, so I decided to go meditate at Pa Auk for 40 days.
I e-mailed the monastery and they agreed to send me a sponsorship letter. This letter made it possible to get a special meditation visa. This visa allowed me to stay for as long as a year in Burma (Myanmar) as opposed to the 28 days normally allowed for tourists. I got the visa at the Burmese embassy in Vientiane, Laos. The process only took a day.
Getting at Pa-Auk Tawya Monastery
I flew to Burma from Bangkok, took a bus the next day from Yangon to Mudon, and asked the driver to drop me off at Pa-Auk Tawya Monastery, which was on the way. It took a couple of crappy drawings to get my point across, but eventually, he understood!
I got there at about 3am, walked around and in fact, kind of got lost in this vast monastery! This allowed me to explore this beautiful place while the sun was rising. At Pa-Auk Tawya, the wake-up bell is struck at 3:30am every morning so the monastery was already very lively. I didn’t see any lay people though, there only seemed to be monks.
Eventually, I found the foreigner’s registration office, where a monk – who spoke accent-heavy and hardly understandable English – asked me a few questions on my reason for coming to Pa-Auk Tawya and my earlier meditation experiences. He and two other monks also kindly gave me some of their alms food so I could eat. Seemingly satisfied with my answers, he then handed me a copy of the Pa-Auk Tawya Monastery’s rules as well as the daily schedule:
|4:00 – 5:30 am||Morning Chanting & Group Sitting|
|5:45 am (approx.)||Breakfast
(Exact time depends on the time of dawn)
|7:00 – 7:30 am||Cleaning & Personal Time|
|7:30 – 9:00 am||Group Sitting|
|9:00 – 10:00 am||Interviews,Walking Meditation & Personal Time|
|10:10 am (approx.)||Lunch|
|1:00 – 2:30 pm||Group Sitting|
|2:30 – 3:30 pm||Interviews & Walking Meditation|
|3:30 – 5:00 pm||Group Sitting|
|5:00 – 6:00 pm||Interviews, Work Period & Personal Time|
|6:00 – 7:30 pm||Evening Chanting & Dhamma Talk (in Burmese)|
|7:30 – 9:00 pm||Group Sitting
He then proceeded to recite the 8 Buddhist precepts in Pali, which I had to repeat after him, as is the tradition. Thumbs up to him for not laughing at my terrible Pali accent!
Another monk then led me to my assigned room, which I shared with another guy. As the 8th Buddhist precept dictates, the bed was low and “not luxurious”. It was an elevated wooden plank, with no mattress. It did, however, have a small pillow.
From then on, I started following the regular schedule. At 9am, I met my appointed teacher. The teacher interviews happened in a group setting, my group consisting of about 30 monks and 2 other lay people. Turn by turn, we went up front, answered the teacher’s questions, asked our own and received instructions. I really liked this “case-by-case”, personalized approach! It was fascinating to hear about other meditators’ experiences, especially since some of them seemed very advanced in their practice.
My first impression of the teacher was good. He spoke fluent English and explained in a very clear and concise way. He definitely seemed to speak from experience.
Like I expected, I was instructed to start by focusing on the breath at the region below the nostrils, above the upper lip. My teacher specified not to focus on the sensations that made up the breath but on the breath itself, seeing it as a continuous entity. In pure concentration practices, individual sensations are not the object of meditation since they can’t lead to absorption states (Jhanas) because of their impermanent nature (they’re always changing). At Pa-Auk Tawya, meditators typically wait to master pure concentration practices before proceeding to insight meditation (in which sensations are observed). He also taught me the Burmese meditation position, which is the meditation posture I use the most nowadays.
After meeting with my teacher, it was lunch time. Unlike in the Goenka Vipassana retreats I had attended before, I had to go for almsround, like the monks. This was made possible by the local people who supported the monastery by providing meals for us twice daily. We therefore stood in line with our bowls, which was generously filled with vegetarian food. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and diversity of food we were given. I was even given some energy drink powder and a wet towel!
Going for alms is a very humbling experience ; you basically depend on the generosity and goodwill of other people to eat. It provided extra motivation: alms are given to us so that we can dedicate ourselves fully to our meditative practice. After lunch, I went for a nap and then proceeded to the meditation hall.
With temperatures often exceeding 40°C, Burma is hot as hell. Drenched in sweat, I could hardly maintain awareness of my breath.
After an afternoon of meditation, I went to the monastery’s library and talked with an Indian monk who recommended me the book “A Map of the Journey” by U. Jotika, which was indeed a very good read, detailing the stages of meditative practice and addressing some practical concerns meditators may encounter. I then went to the evening meditation, which went better than the afternoon one (it was a bit cooler, so that definitely helped) and then went to bed. As is usual, especially when I do a lot of meditation, I had sleep paralysis and some cool lucid dreams. This allowed me to somehow maintain my practice while sleeping.
First week – Getting the mind into it
The next day, I woke up at 3:15am, 15 minutes before the wake-up bell. Even though I slept on a hard wooden plank, I actually felt mentally refreshed, even though my body was a bit sore. I did some stretching and a little physical exercise and then took a shower to chase the sluggishness away. I then went to meditate, I was clearheaded and it went well.
The breakfast was simple but good, consisting of noodles with tea. I also chatted a bit with my roommate, a 30-year-old Iranian guy, and went back meditating. The morning session went well, I got some early “lights”, which typically are a sign that concentration is improving, although these lights weren’t stable at all. I kept my attention on the breath, and for some brief moments, it actually was quite pleasant and effortless. One of the first checkpoints in concentration practice is when your meditation object appears as a bright light in your “mind’s eye”. This “mind object” is called a Nimitta. The more solid and stable the Nimitta gets, the better one’s concentration is.
Carrying on with the daily schedule, the afternoon session was uncomfortable, the discomfort caused by the heat made it very hard for me to concentrate and maintain peace of mind. I thus decided to ask the monk in charge for permission to meditate in my room, which he granted without hesitation.
In the evening, I started coughing and sneezing pretty badly. I woke up the next morning feeling sicker, so I slept in to attempt to speed up my recovery. It’s ridiculous how I always seem to get sick when I go on a meditation retreat. That day, I had no success in solidifying the Nimitta. My ceaseless cough didn’t help me concentrate.
The next day, I still felt quite a bit sick but the worst of it was behind me. In the morning, a monk gave me a bag of potato chips, a peanut bar and a carton of soy milk. Monks aren’t allowed to store food overnight, and therefore often gave me stuff they couldn’t keep for themselves.
I also began to really see the value in taking formal resolutions before meditating. These resolutions mostly consisted of stating exactly what I was doing, for how long I was doing it and why doing it was a good idea. It made it easier to stay focused and committed to my meditative practice. Here’s my resolution for mindfulness-of-breathing meditation:
For the next hour, I will train the mind to stay aware of the breath. This will improve my relationship with the present moment, generate peace and happiness and sharpen the mind for insight meditation. I will not let a single breath go by unnoticed.
I felt the mind becoming increasingly malleable and less resistant. However, I still didn’t get as deeply concentrated as I wanted. About halfway in a session, I realized that even though my gross thoughts were sparse and weak, there was still an underlying layer of very frequent “micro-thoughts” that impaired me from becoming fully absorbed. These micro-thoughts lasted only for a blink of an eye after which I went back to the breath. These thoughts could be anything, from awareness of a surrounding sound to a subtle opinion or judgement about my practice.
The mind always wanted to grasp on to something, ANYTHING! The mind is so damn wild.
The following morning, everyone had to go to a hall and take the 8 precepts again by repeating them after a monk. I’m not a huge fan of “taking precepts”, I find it dogmatic and somewhat useless but hey, they were hosting me so the least I could do was respect their tradition.
That day, the perception of my “meditative progress” really shifted. Although on the one hand, I saw that concentration was improving fast, I began to see how much of a beginner I still was, even after a few years of regular meditation practice. It was getting clearer that the impression of having good concentration abilities was only caused by the grossness of my mind. Isn’t it ironic that the better my concentration got, the weaker I felt it was? Great lesson of humility!
I also began to include a fair amount of walking meditation in my routine. Practicing walking meditation helps to develop the habit to meditate in everyday circumstances. It gives the body some exercise and chases tiredness and drowsiness away. In the context of a meditation retreat, it helped me keep up my practice throughout the day, and not only in formal meditation periods. In my experience, it also makes sitting meditation much easier! I find it unfortunate that walking meditation is not encouraged in Goenka Vipassana 10-day courses. When my mind was very agitated or I simply wanted a “break”, I just did walking meditation. It gave me all the benefits of a standard “break” without me losing the inertia of my meditative practice.
Following the breath was slowly becoming my mind’s “default activity”. Of course, the mind would wander once in a while, but these gaps in my practice were getting sparser and shorter. I really began making use of every opportunity and free time to practice. Even upon waking up at night, the pleasure of going back to sleep was weaker than my desire to meditate, therefore I sometimes meditated for a good part of the night. Obviously, the fact that I was sleeping on a wooden plank didn’t help me want to indulge in excessive sleep!
Again, my concentration was improving, my meditation sessions were peaceful, but I was still not getting a clear Nimitta. Was I doing this right?
On a side note, one day I was given some ice cream for lunch! Definitely didn’t expect that in Burma. And it was good!
Second week – Am I doing this right?
I began to wonder if I was practicing correctly. I remembered the teacher telling me I had to focus my attention on the “conceptual breath”. Was I putting too much emphasis on the individual sensations themselves? Perhaps the impermanent nature of the sensations made it impossible for concentration to become very stable, making my attention waver in a subtle way.
After the last meditation of the 8th day, a sense of frustration emerged in me. I felt puzzled and clueless. Interestingly, I felt like the “conceptual breath” was easier to nail down and focus on when doing walking meditation than when sitting, perhaps because the act of walking made me not “try too hard”, which is common in sitting practice.
Nevertheless, the mind was definitely getting more and more inclined to watch the breath – or the breath sensations – to the point where it would take strong conscious effort not to be aware of it.
The next day, I read the section of Mastering the Core Teaching of the Buddha discussing concentration practices (the book was available at the monastery’s library). This passage helped me:
Try not paying too much attention to the individual sensations themselves, but conceptualize the breath as a coherent and continuous entity, with many different types of sensations all being thought of as a single breath
In the morning session that came right after breakfast, it felt like I kind of “nailed it” for a few instants. I got a pretty clear, bright and round Nimitta for what felt like a few seconds. Obviously though, I couldn’t help but get excited so it quickly faded away. I think that the key thing in “nailing” the conceptual breath was to seek and find the only constant and unchanging part of the breath, which is the mental conceptualization of it. Note that this concept is not “ultimately real”, it’s just an idea, an agglomerate of diverse sensations that we identify as the breath.
I went to my teacher to describe my experience, and he told me that I got the “light”, as he called it, very quickly. He proceeded to tell me that this was likely because I had practiced this technique in a recent past life. I’m skeptical about that claim. He told me to keep practicing and that if sensations arose, not to fight them but to keep the attention on the conceptual breath. There’s no point in seeing sensations as enemies. In this concentration practice, they are seen as an indicator that the breath is present. They shouldn’t be the primary focus of attention.
The afternoon meditation sessions went well. The Nimitta appeared once in a while, correlating with the intensity of my concentration. The appearance of the light was really helpful in letting me know that I was on the right track. On the other side, in some later meditations, I felt like my breath wanted to progressively stop, and that I was gasping for air. According to theory, this is normal, but I still couldn’t “break through”. Once in a while, I had to take deep conscious breath, since I felt like my breathing had stopped. My concentration was always “blocked” by this.
In the evening, it didn’t go so well, I was quite tense and my eyes were flickering. Perhaps was I trying too hard? I definitely needed to relax and realize that only an attitude of positive openness and acceptance was likely to produce any results.
The next day, I was still experiencing the shortness of breath, and I felt like this was really stopping my concentration from getting deeper. I also started to feel some sort of tension in my solar plexus and overall, I felt agitated, sort of as if there was something stressful going on. Nothing external seemed to have triggered this, so maybe it was just some subconscious thing coming up. It happened regardless of my posture, I tried sitting, lying, walking, and nothing seemed to make a difference. My heartbeat was constant at 60-65bpm, so nothing abnormal. I resolved to simply keep practicing and see how this evolved. At that point, although it had already been 10 days, like in my previous retreats, I still felt like a lot more stuff had to be done. I didn’t feel like I’d want to re-enter the “real world” anytime soon.
During the day, these sensations faded away and my concentration improved. I saw the Nimitta on many occasions, but it was hard for me to keep focusing solely on the breath when it appeared.
Randomly, in the late afternoon, a monk came up to me and gave me money (about 5$ in Kyats). Someone probably gave it to him but since he wasn’t allowed to keep or use it, he decided to give it to the first non-monk guy he saw (and I was one of the only ones at Pa-Auk Tawya). Didn’t expect that!
The next day, the early morning meditation didn’t go so well. I was lost in thoughts and had trouble finding and staying with the breath. A defilement I could clearly notice is the tendency for the mind to try to “plan” the future. It uses this as an escape from the present moment. Somehow, the mind doesn’t like to surrender to the NOW. This tendency felt like a boulder tied to my ankle, and I couldn’t seem to let it go.
Concentration improved in the session before lunch. I had hints of blissful bodily feelings, which also are an indicator that concentration is getting deeper. In the evening session though, my eyes began flickering again, this always seemed to happen during the end of the day.
The following morning, I went to my teacher and asked him about my flickering eyes. He told me it was likely because I was trying to “see” my meditation object with my physical eyes. He said it was a natural tendency, and that I should strive to ignore my physical eyes and to just perceive the breath with my awareness/mind.
Again, I felt that although my concentration had its ups and downs, overall it was improving. I had (and still have) the common and bad habit of trying to “seek” specific states as opposed to simply resting in simple awareness of the breath in the present moment, and I should definitely make efforts not to indulge in that tendency. When meditating, one must let go of expectations and be fully mindful of what is occurring NOW.
That night, I had an interesting dream.
I was coming back home, so I went through the day of taking the plane and eventually arriving back home, in Canada. I was having lunch with my family and discussing my trip. Strangely, I found that I was left unchanged. Basically, I felt like I had wasted the opportunity and I felt disappointed. After lunch, I went outside and reflected on my meditation retreat experience at Pa-Auk Tawya.
Thinking about it and wondering “what went wrong”, I realized I couldn’t remember anything past the 13th day. What had happened? I wondered how I would blog about my retreat, not remembering a thing. It then occurred to me, my meditation retreat wasn’t over yet!
The dream thus turned into a semi-lucid dream. I was still puzzled and although I knew I was dreaming, it was very hard to recall waking life and be aware of the experience. I figured I had to “go back” to the monastery, so I teleported back to Yangon’s airport and then jumped really high and landed in the dining hall (it’s a lucid dream so hey, might as well do fun things). People looked at me with smiles, welcoming me back: “You’re here just in time!” they kindly said. A woman approached me and told me in a gentle yet serious way: “Watch out showing off these powers, there are newcomers here!”.
I then woke up to the 14th day, motivated and determined to practice persistently. I was happy the retreat wasn’t yet over.
Third week – Shifting the practice
It was the full moon, which is sacred in Buddhism. I was astounded by the quantity and variety of food and stuff we received during the almsround. It included flowers, pieces of cloth, cough medicine, skin balm and even DVDs of conferences by the main teacher of the monastery, Pa-Auk Sayadaw!
Although my body was getting adapted more accustomed to long periods of sitting meditation, it got very hard to concentrate. I was swarmed by thoughts, especially thoughts about the future. My teacher told me not to fuel these thoughts, and that it was typical for the mind to try to “escape” the meditation practice by grasping to thoughts and creating stories.
Despite knowing that, my mind felt incredibly agitated. More than 2 weeks of trying to tame it, and I still couldn’t?! Was I just perceiving subtler levels of agitation or was I regressing?
I saw that I was dealing with some thoughts/sensations in a problematic way. I was reacting to thoughts way too much. I was either letting myself “participate” in some of them, drawn by the entertainment they seemed to promise, or simply tried to overcome them by force, which obviously led to more and more agitation.
I took the resolution not to indulge in this habit. I did my best to try to simply acknowledge them without participating and when they were attempting to get me off track, I immediately put my full attention on the breath. Almost instantly, I felt a shift in my state of mind. I stopped seeing thoughts as “enemies”, and this definitely helped me maintain mindfulness, peace of mind and concentration.
It’s so easy to “try too hard” and to develop expectations of oneself in meditative practice.
The next day, concentration went up and my overall level of agitation went WAY down. Meditation felt really good.
The Nimitta also improved and became more stable, and for one of the first times, I started getting strong waves of bliss and peace. Practice became effortless and the days went by quickly.
I still definitely wasn’t getting into full absorption (Jhana) though. To be considered proficient in absorption at Pa Auk Tawya Monastery, a meditator has to be able to enter the first four Jhanas at will and stay in them for a few hours, being so absorbed that he can’t even notice if someone screams at him. Without getting into too much detail, the Jhanas are characterized by their respective factors, which get subtler and subtler as you progress through the Jhanas.
Different schools have different classifications for Jhanas. By some standards, I was already decently proficient in at least the first Jhana since all its factors were present to some degree. However, my teacher told me to keep focusing on the breath until the Nimitta and breath “merged” and pulled me into the first Jhana.
I got discouraged by the whole thing. Yes, my concentration was getting good, and yes, I was noticing improvements. Yet, as I kept learning more about the Jhanas taught at Pa Auk Tawya, I felt like I wasn’t even going to achieve the first one before leaving. In the group interviews, I repeatedly heard of monks that couldn’t even reach it yet. Was I wasting my time?
My confidence in the path taught at Pa-Auk Tawya went down, and even accessing blissful states seemed pointless. What were they good for? Like everything else, they would come and go, but leave me unchanged. I didn’t feel ready to return to the real world at all. How was this practice making me a better person?
After 20 days of focusing solely on the breath, I decided it was enough. I was strongly determined to use this retreat to grow as much as possible as a human being, and didn’t feel like pure concentration practices were an efficient use of my time. I turned my attention to the always-changing and fascinating reality. I switched to insight meditation.
And that’s when shit got real.
Fourth week – Sickness strikes again
Now, for those of you not familiar with insight practice, my object of meditation now became the sensations, thoughts, emotions and states of mind that made up my reality, from moment to moment. This is the technique taught in the Satipatthana Sutta, which is one of the most influential discourses of Buddha, and upon which Vipassana meditation is based.
The technique consists in mindfully observing reality as it is being experienced to gain understanding and wisdom.
Upon changing to insight meditation, reality immediately started “breaking down”. It was incredible to witness, sensations deconstructed into tiny vibrations by the mere act of observance.
Unlike in Goenka Vipassana retreats, where meditators are instructed to only pay attention to the body sensations (at least in 10-day courses), I also turned my attention to thoughts, emotions and states of mind, which are subtler.
From that point, I embarked on a roller-coaster that took me back and forth from extremely blissful states to severely depressed ones. And it was mind-blowing.
While reading, keep in mind that it’s very hard for me to put into words some of these insights and experiences, but I’ll do my best to make this understandable to you readers.
On the 22nd day, in the late afternoon, while meditating, I began experiencing my sensations and thoughts as very distant. They seemed to be “out there”, and my sense of self, which I guess we could call “the observer”, was “over here”.
And trust me, this was not merely a small mental game I was playing with myself. Physically, my five sensory inputs were experienced with so much distance that it didn’t even feel like it was actually happening to me. My sense of sight was strongly affected. I couldn’t even see properly! I could only “see” reality from far away, with my two eyes acting as two round separate windows. The best way I can describe is that it felt like I was “watching” a movie that included all 5 senses and thought. Everything was experienced, yet none of it felt close to me.
This experience lasted between the sitting meditation sessions, and it was so intense that doing anything besides meditating seemed pointless. While meditating, the notion of time was hard to keep, as if it was suspended and somewhat irrelevant.
At that point, although most of “my” experience of reality seemed very clear, a gigantic problem was still left unsolved.
Who was I?
As soon as that question arose, I felt very strong vibrations and palpitations throughout my body. Nothing made any sense. Nothing was me. Who the hell was experiencing all of this? Who was looking? Who was “The Observer”?
It didn’t make sense that experiences were “out there” and that the observer was “over here”. On some visceral level, it became obvious that this created a fundamental tension that was inevitably tainting all experiences of reality, regardless of them being pleasant or unpleasant. The subject-object duality was profoundly flawed.
After a few hours of meditating – that seemed like half an hour at most – I went back to my room and drifted into sleep.
The next morning, upon waking up, I instantly began to meditate, it was effortless. However, I felt really weird, physically and mentally. I was still experiencing reality in a very spacious and distant way, so it was hard to put these sensations into proper perspective. My condition worsened as the day progressed ; in the afternoon, my body was hurting terribly and I had strong fever (to give you an idea, the outside temperature was above 40°C and I asked for a blanket because I was cold). The only thing I found relief in was meditating, not because it “removed” any symptoms, but because it made them seem so distant that they didn’t bother me at all, it was as if they were happening to someone else. Equanimity – the ability to see reality without desire or aversion – was maintained effortlessly.
Although it wasn’t making me “suffer”, I still can say that the pain was extremely strong, it felt like every muscle and organ of my body was twisting in the wrong direction. In fact, I didn’t know that experiencing such strong pain was humanly possible. At times I truly felt helpless, and my only comfort was found in meditation. I had no appetite, and barely ate for the next several days.
The rest of the week basically consisted of almost non-stop meditating, since it was the best way to deal with my physical discomfort. My meditative insights pretty much remained the same, “I” still couldn’t figure out who was “watching” all of this, and it clearly felt like something was wrong.
On the 28th day, to my relief, I was feeling better. To this day, I’m still unsure what this sickness was. The symptoms sound somewhat close to Dengue Fever, but since it happened in such a unique context, it’s very hard for me to properly identify it.
Fifth week – Is Consciousness me?
It was a huge relief to finally feel better.
Continuing to meditate, the nature of phenomena kept getting clearer. I still experienced sensations, thoughts and mind states in a very spacious and distant way, and the big “who’s seeing all of this” question was puzzling me on a visceral level.
It also got increasingly obvious that nothing “out there” would ever bring deep and lasting satisfaction. Maintaining the illusion that things were “solid” was downright impossible. Everything was always changing. Everything was moving in a subtle but undeniable way. Somehow, this gave me a strong sense that everything was profoundly connected. The most predominant mind state was peace, but even peace was experienced with distance and detachment. This brought the overall experience to a whole new level of peacefulness… which disappeared as soon as “I” clung to the peacefulness.
On several occasions, even thoughts were very hard to form. It’s complicated to describe how I experienced them, but they just seemed like tiny abstract ripples. Observing them in their “abstract” form was in fact a “sober psychedelic experience” in itself. Thoughts were so much more comfortable in their “abstract” form that it was hard to understand how I could ever go back to normal “formed” thoughts. Even “intentions” were seen in “3rd person”, which was somewhat weird, since intentions were strongly associated with my sense of identity. Like everything else, they were just arising and passing away, and were definitely not “me”.
What was unchanging in all of this? What was left of “me”?
No. None of this was stable. None of it was me.
The only thing that seemed stable was the consciousness that was noticing and “knowing” all that was happening.
But was consciousness me?
I used to think so.
Upon meditating, around day 30, there was a shift in the way “I” experienced reality.
It occurred to me that I wasn’t conscious of sensations. They were conscious of themselves.
It might not make sense to you. You might wonder why this would be relevant. But it made all the difference in the world. “Consciousnesses” were arising with their respective sensations. It all came as a “package deal”. There wasn’t “anyone” watching. The process was just watching itself. Consciousness was permeating phenomena, just like yellow is imbued in a lemon.
Nothing was happening to anyone. It was just happening. And it was fine! How could it not be fine anyway? How could fineness be defined without a subject? All of this wasn’t even happening to anybody! It was just happening.
It’s very hard to describe how this made “me” feel. Questions like how “I” felt can’t be asked. They are fundamentally flawed.
What does a camera see when you turn it off?
Last week – Preparing to leave
After this insight, I felt relieved. While going through it though, all of this wasn’t as clear as it is now.
As I was going back home the next week, I started thinking a lot more about “real life” and about what I was going to do next. Somewhat “satisfied” with my insights and experiences so far, I relaxed my meditative practice, and mostly meditated for enjoyment as opposed to insights. I also read The Way of the Superior Man, which brought back in me strong motivation and enthusiasm to go back to the world and merge my spiritual insights with “real life”. It’s quite a shock to return to normal life after a retreat, especially a long one. I figured it was a good idea to relax on the “heavy-duty” meditation a bit.
A few days before I left, a monk also offered to teach me yoga in a wooden cabin he had built himself on top of a nearby mountain. This was my first yoga experience, and I absolutely loved it. Yoga does an amazing job at integrating the body and meditative practice, something I had neglected in the past, as I saw “mental” practices as superior. I now include yoga in my daily routine, along with meditation. I feel like they both reinforce each other in very positive ways.
Then, it was time to return home. I feel like 40 days was the right amount of time, as a shorter period might not have been as insightful. A longer time would probably have been a little too much for me, as I felt eagerness to return to “real life” at the end of the retreat. I packed my things, said goodbye to my roommate, and took the bus to Yangon. I left Pa-Auk Tawya behind, but preciously kept the wisdom it had helped me cultivate.
Although at some point I felt like they were leading nowhere, concentration practices helped me reach some very interesting territories. It’s hard to describe into words what has changed since then, but some strong shift has definitely occurred, especially in my perception of “who I am” and in the way “I” experience reality.
Everything is always all right.
Special thanks to Klaus, a German monk, for the stunning photos in this post.
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Thank you for taking the time to write your experience down. It was an enjoyable and insightful read.
Thanks a lot for your post.
many doubts have been clarified.
I am going to Pa-Auk Monastery in Oct-16.
This post was very insightful and helped me to understand more about Pa Auk Center. Thank you so much for sharing this.
I plan to stay and learn meditation at the Pa Auk Center from January to March 2015. I currently am having some trouble with obtaining the Sponsorship Letter in the USA because the Sayadaw who can issue sponsorship letter has gone to Europe for a meditation retreat and will not be back until early January.
The USA center suggested me to contact the Myanmar center and request the Sponsorship Letter from them. Unfortunately, all the emails to Pa Auk Myanmar that I found online were invalid :(.
This is the website that has some information about it:
I am at lost of finding a way to get the Sponsorship Letter. Please let me know how you obtained your Sponsorship Letter.
Thank you so much,
I’m glad you found my post insightful and thanks for taking the time to comment!
It is indeed quite hard to find proper information online concerning Pa Auk Tawya. Internet access is still uncommon in Burma and the country is changing very rapidly, so most of the information you’ll find will be outdated.
The e-mail I used to get a sponsorship letter in April 2014 was “[email protected]”. They responded quite quickly with a sponsorship letter attached to the e-mail, which I used to get my Meditation Visa in a Burmese embassy. The Sayadaw is not the one who actually issues the sponsorship letter by the way, as far as I know these matters are dealt with by other monks.
The only other option to obtain a sponsorship letter would be to mail them directly at the monastery, but this could take quite a while so it might not be your best bet considering you want to go there in a few months. You could also go there directly with a tourist visa, but this would limit your stay to 28 days, after which you would have to do a “visa run” (go out to Bangkok’s Burmese embassy, obtain a 2nd 28 days tourist visa, and come back).
Let me know how that works out for you and I wish you an insightful and valuable meditation retreat. Don’t hesitate if you have any other questions.
I got a response from them!!! They asked me to sign an agreement letter and informed me that a sponsorship letter will be issued afterwards!
Thank you so very much!
Gabriel… Really appreciate all the info you give. I found your site looking for info on how to apply. I plan to read your experiences once (if) I go. I emailed them, and very quickly got an application. I mailed it back and never heard back. I need to go on May 15 … And am told it would take a month at the embassy in Phnom Penh to get the 3 month visa, so I am faced with going for 28 days. I will just arrive and hope they take me. You said you trouble finding the office on the spacious grounds.. Any advice on how to find it? Thanks.. Fascinating stuff here… Will need time to explore it all. Steve
As soon as you have a letter of acceptance, you can get the meditation visa easily. I got it from Vientiane (Laos) in 24 hours, and I heard you can get it from the Burmese embassy in Bangkok even quicker. If you get a 28 days meditation visa, the monastery will be able to help you extend it when you get to the monastery. It’s much easier to get a 28 days meditation and then extend it in Myanmar than to get a long one beforehand. Be sure to get a meditation visa though, that’s the only way that the monastery will be able to extend it for you.
Thanks, Gabriel. This really helps. The embassy in Phnom Penh told me it would take more than a month once I had the invitation letter. I didn’t realize you could get a 28 day meditation Visa.. that sounds like the best option for me at this point. Will post here if it works out.
Do they charge for accommodation?Is it safe for females?
Pa Auk accepts female practitioners, there’s actually hundreds of women staying at the monastery! In fact, they live in a separate area of the monastery, so male and female don’t practice/live in the same place.
Pa Auk doesn’t formally charge an amount, as it is donation based. You are free to donate whatever you feel is appropriate.
I hope you received the sponsorship letter…
I received my ss letter in about two weeks from the mentioned email as an attachment. It was also recommended to me to use a color printer.
I will be travel there sometime at the end of Dec, thru who knows??? I’m first heading to Thailand for a couple of weeks to Wat Pah Nanachat than to the Myanmar Embassy in TL. to get the visa. Heard it’s pretty easy…
So maybe we’ll run into each other long the way!
I received the sponsorship letter a little more than a week ago from the mentioned email too! I was so glad and happy! I just sent my original passport, the sponsorship letter, and the applications to the Myanmar Embassy in order to apply for the meditation visa! Hopefully, I can get it in a month or so.
In the event that they reject or delay my meditation visa application, my course of action is to fly over to Thailand and then apply for it at the Thailand Embassy.
As we are both Dhamma followers and plan to stay at the same meditation center at the same time, it would be great if we can keep in touch! My email address is [email protected]. Please shoot me a message whenever you feel like!
Thank you so very much for taking your time and responding to my question. I already wrote an email to “[email protected]” as well as sent a physical letter to the Burmese Pa Auk Tawya. Hopefully, I can get a response from them soon! I will definitely keep you updated if I do obtain the Sponsorship Letter.
By the way, what is “visa run” ? Is it something along the line – travelling to Bangkok by land, staying there a few days while obtaining a new 28 days tourist visa and returning back to Myanamar ?
Again, thank you so much for the response!
A visa run is when you move to another country to renew your visa. Traveling in and out of Myanmar by land is pretty much impossible (and very long), I wouldn’t recommend it. The best way is definitely to travel by air, you can get some very cheap flights (under 100$ two-way) from Bangkok to Yangon.
Enjoy your day,
Thanks for the information! The air travel is surprisingly cheap – only $100 for both ways from Thai to Myanmar! So nice!!!
Hi there, i am planing to go there in January with my girlfriend, is open for women also?
Yes, Pa Auk Tawya also accepts women, she will be staying in a separate monastery, about a 10 minutes walk away from yours.
l Really enjoyed your post as I will be going there myself by end of Dec. thru ?
Could you tell me about the hotel you stayed at when you arrived at Yangon. I assumed you traveled at night by bus to get there so early? That information would be very helpful…
I did get my ss letter by email in about two weeks and plan on going to the Embassy in Thailand to get the visa, Heard it was pretty easy… Any thoughts on that?
Thanks again for your post!
Glad you enjoyed reading my post.
I was fortunate enough to have a friend living in Yangon when I arrived, so I stayed at her place. There are guest houses and hostels where you could stay for about 15-20$ a night, and hotels which are more expensive.
I indeed traveled by night bus, with a ticket from Yangon to Mudon, and asked the driver to drop me off at Pa Auk Tawya, which is on the way.
The Burmese embassy in Bangkok, Thailand is indeed the easiest and quickest way to obtain the visa.
Was your ticket to Thailand an open ticket (one-way) and any problems with that??? Also, who did you fly into Burma?
I have a one-way into Bangkok and a tourist visa and still wondering if I should worry about an out bound. If not I might book a ticket on one of the local flights when I know an exact departure date from Thailand.
My ticket to Bangkok was one-way and generally, there aren’t any problems with that. Thailand issues 1-month tourist visas at every airport for free. If there’s any problem, you can always just say you have a bus or a train ticket to Cambodia or something. The worst that can happen is that somehow you have to book a ticket out of Thailand and show them, but you can always do that with the Airport WiFi. Honestly though, it’s unlikely you’ll run into problems with a one-way ticket, a lot of people do that in SE Asia.
That’s great! I had read different opinions and just wanted to get recent clarification about it, so thank you…
How about the flight from Thailand to Burma, who do you use?
Sorry for all the question but this in immensely helpful…
I flew with Nok Air from Bangkok to Yangon. For most dates, the prices are really cheap, below 50$ one-way, especially if you book a little while in advance. It’s a pleasure to help you.
Do you know if I can fly to Myanmar with a one way ticket and a mediation visa valid for 90 days ? Or Must I book a round trip airfare ? As of now, I do not currently have a fixed departure date.
I would expect it to be fine to fly to Myanmar with a one way ticket and get the visa, but your best bet would be to ask at the Embassy itself, since I can’t guarantee it would be fine. I would be quite surprised if it was not, though.
I just found out after trying to confirm my seat that China Southern Airlines in Los Angeles tells me that I need a outbound ticket back to the states… This is coming from their toll-free service center in LA. What do you think? Will they check it at the gate? Urgent! Please…
I find that surprising that you would need an outbound ticket back to the states. Are you sure that an outbound ticket to another country wouldn’t work? It wouldn’t make sense for them to sell one-way tickets if they require you to have a ticket back home. I obviously can’t say whether they’ll check or not at the gates, but it might be a good idea to arrive a bit more in advance in case you need to change your plans (e.g. buy an outbound ticket) at the airport. Also, perhaps you could buy a refundable ticket?
I just called the service center again and was told a complete different store that it was o.k. with a one-way…wth can’t these guys get their story straight.. I think that’s a good idea to show up a bit earlier just in case I need to purchase an outbound.. I don’t’ have an outbound for a different country was just going to ground travel. If I need one I guess I can do the same at the local airport? I also call the consulate here and they basic read what I already know about a Thailand visa…Frustrating.
Really appreciate your help, Thanks!
i read your older blogs which i found very interresting and entertaining,
but your latest one was truly amazing.
Im not sure if you’re aware of that you’ve been probably just inches away from enlightement ?
I think it was a pitty that you’ve been in a samantha retreat, which i think is probalby not prepared to guide people through the final stages of vipassana ?
Nevertheless, i really think you have all it takes, to go all the way. The mindblowing facts, that there is actually no more ‘me’ in the comon sense of understanding is basicially turning the old world up side down,
Fear creeping up your spine, with the question…how do i life without the good old ‘me’ ? …well, it schould be al lot easier, ..isn’t that the reason why we somehow feel its the right thing to do ?
But fear schould never be the reason to stop a strong instinct..schould it ?
Best luck to you 🙂 ..and keep on blogging.
Pa Auk teaches you the entire path from beginning to end. It is more than prepared to take one through the final stages of Vipassana.
Your post was just what I was looking for, because I’m planning to spend some time meditating at pa auk monastery in 2-3 months time, and I was searching for meditators experiences at pa auk on the internet when I came across yours. Could you answer me these questions please? Hope its not too much trouble!
1) Is getting them to accept you a problem? Do they accept everyone who sends them an email? Or is there something like a wait list or outright rejections depending on accommodation availability or something?
2) I’ve never travelled internationally before, so I could use some help once I’m in myanmar. Do you know someone reliable in yangon that I can contact and who can help me get from yangon to mawlamyine? This would be really helpful.
Thanks a lot!
1) Getting them to accept you is no problem at all. I haven’t heard of anyone behind denied residence!
2) Getting from Yangon to Pa-Auk is quite easy, there are tons of travel agencies or kiosks who can sell you bus tickets, and will give you the directions. Generally, people take the bus from Yangon to Mudon, and ask for the driver to drop them right before Pa-Auk’s entrance, which is on the way. There are a bunch of hostels and guesthouses in Yangon you can stay at, and the people there will also be able to help you with any questions you may have. Buddhism and meditation there is held in very high esteem, so as soon as people know you want to go meditate at a monastery, they’ll be more than happy to help!
Did you get your utensils and insect repellant and blanket, mosquito net etc local or you carried with you from overseas. Did you carry any medication with you or
I didn’t bring any utensils, blankets or mosquito net, everything was provided at the monastery. I did carry some insect repellant as I had been traveling in SE Asia before, but no medication.
Thank you very much for your info. Hope you have a great time in India. Thanks again for taking time to respond.
Many thanks for putting your experience out there on the web! I’m interested in taking a 3-month sabbatical at some point in the next three years to focus on my meditation practice, and starting to consider the financial side of things. AFAIK, staying at Pa-Auk is funded by donations?
Could you share how much one is expected to donate per week/month, and/or how much one could expect to need to budget for per month?
Usually, there is not “expected donation amount” in donation-based centres. The general principle in such places is that one should give in accordance to its capacities, and that everyone – poor or rich – should have the same access to meditation retreats. No one will frown upon you if you donate nothing, but of course it makes sense to give some financial compensation in exchange for the lodging/food and teachings provided. Should you need someone to tell you how much to give, I feel like 5-10$ a day is a reasonable amount for a SE-Asian monastery. You could also compare the prices of retreat centres that actually charge money to have a rough idea.
I wish you success in your retreat, and thanks for commenting!
A friend and I are interested in spending a month at the Pa-Auk Tawya Monastery. We are planning on using a 28 day tourist visa obtained in Singapore. Is any length of visit possible? We are not sure what length of visit would be appropriate. Neither of us have any experience meditating and are curious if the Monastery is open to teaching beginners. Also is it common to upkeep physical condition via yoga or other methods?
Our main concern is whether it is possible to show up unannounced. We will be in Singapore in 10 days and are worried we don’t have enough time to get in contact with the Monastery. Will we need to receive sponsorship beforehand?
Any help would be truly appreciated.
You can show up at the monastery unannounced, and they accept beginners. When I was there, several foreigners showed up at the monastery unannounced and stayed for a few days. You’re free to practice yoga or do other physical exercise, as long as you don’t disturb other people. You only need to receive sponsorship if you want to apply for a meditation visa. Meditation visas are not required to go at monasteries, but they allow you to stay for longer than 28 days.
Thank you for posting your experience.
Did you take any medication against the threat of Malaria
and if so what did you take please?
Also is there a reason you didn’t request your own kuti?
I did not take any malaria medication.
I didn’t request my own Kuti because I wasn’t sure of the total duration of my stay. Also, it started to rain heavily and most of the Kutis weren’t very adapted to such weathers, so staying inside one of the main buildings seemed like a better option.
Thanks for commenting,
how is it possible the visa allowed you to stay for a year? I thought it was only 3 months meditation visa. I tried looking up information on applying for the meditation visa at the myanmar embassy in Laos but could not find anything except for tourist visa.
appreciate your comment.
The meditation visa (at least the one I had) initially allows you to stay for a month, but you can extend it in Myanmar via your monastery for up to 1 year. I went to the embassy in Laos with a sponsorship letter from Pa Auk and asked for the meditation visa form. The lady working there didn’t seem to know what I was talking about, but went to ask her boss and came back with the form. The visa is also sometimes called a “religious visa”.
Thanks Gabriel. your blog is very usefull. it provided me with paauk’s email address which i failed to find on their website. i received paauk sponsorship letter in one day and planning to go in two weeks for 3 months retreat. wat pra nanachat in Thailand is another one i believe is worth visiting, except i couldn’t find their email address anywhere.
What are the conditions to be registered to meditation?
Who have I contact for registration ?
Do you have a point of contact for me?
Many thanks for your feedback and your help.
Very best regards,
There are no requirements to be eligible to stay as a meditator at Pa Auk Monastery. You simply need to commit to follow the rules.
The e-mail I used to get a sponsorship letter in April 2014 was “[email protected]”. I simply wrote them that I wanted to stay at their monastery and that I needed a sponsorship letter to get a meditation visa. They answered within a week or two.
Hope that helps,
I saw a blog commenting bed bugs in the monastery, do you have any encounter of the issue.
thank in advance for response
I had no problems with bed bugs at the monastery and didn’t hear about other people getting them. However, since there’s a lot of people coming and going and sleeping at the monastery, it’s likely there could be bugs sometimes.
I enjoyed reading your article. It gave good insights to the retreat. Do you think a 51 yr old female would find the retreat difficult? Not the meditation but getting to the monastery and living arrangements. I am quite fit and suffer from no illnesses and not on any medication.
I’m sure you could do the retreat without problem. Of course, every retreat is difficult, but Pa Auk’s infrastructures are basic but good. When I was there, there was lots of women above your age staying at the monastery.
Awesome post and a great inspiration, i think i will go there in 2 months, sounds EXACTLY what i was looking for. I´m curious about your state right now after such a long time.
How long did your “meditation feeling” last? Did you continue meditating, have you become a constant meditator?
And my most important question: Did you feel a lasting boost of concentration? Or even intelligence?
I heard already the craziest stories of how it is possible to “upgrademeditate” the human mind (of course without craving for it 🙂 )
Your blog is very helpful. Thank you Gabriel. I’m planning to go attend the retreat at Pa Auk on October 15 but was not aware how long it take to obtain a meditation visa. Do you have any suggestions how to get it quicker? How can I get the visa from the embassy in Bangkok from the States?
One of the fastest ways to obtain a Burmese visa is to go at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok. You can obtain it within 24 hours there. Wish you success at Pa Auk! 🙂
Thank you very much for the info and for taking time to respond. Wish you all the best!
Sorry for not understanding it completly after reading all the comments but I emailed the given address, got an answer: “PIs find attached” with a list of rules and an agreement document.
So, does this mean I have to send an “offline” letter with the filled out agreement letter to Pa-Auk and get 6 weeks later the sponsorship letter for the embassy by post?
I´m just confused because in the comments it sounded like everybody got his final sponsorship letter directly per e-mail the first time…
Keep up the good work
The attachment sent to you by Pa Auk has to be filled and sent back to them, either online of offline. If everything is all right, they will then send you a sponsorship letter, which you can use to obtain a meditation visa at a Burmese embassy.
Thank you for a really interesting post- very informative!
I’m going to Pa auk in a week, aiming for around a month. I was just wondering if you have any advice, and also if there’s anything you’d recommend I take/ not forget?
Thank you and warm wishes,
Glad you found the post informative. I can’t think of anything particular to bring. I’d recommend bringing as few distractions as possible, and to fully take this opportunity to practice.
Thanks for commenting and I wish you success,
My dear Gabriel,
What a wonderful post and informative comments.
It’s funny that I found and read it just after coming home from my surgeon! Because of knee surgery, I can’t sit in traditional eastern fashion.
I understand this is a funny culturally derived question but are there any chairs used in the meditation hall?
Many thank for all,
While I was there, there weren’t any chairs in the meditation hall, in fact there hardly were any in the whole monastery! I suppose people could bring their own and meditate in their room though. Walking and lying meditation could also be options.
Hope your knee heals well, and thanks for commenting.
Do you know if Myanmar Ambassy in Bangkok still issue Meditation Visa ?
From what I’ve heard, yes, the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok still issues Meditation Visa.
There was a couple of people that had chairs in the meditation hall when I was there last year… But he’s right, there’s hardly any in the monastery as a whole.
Fascinating experience! Really useful for me since I wanted to try something similar. I have some questions for you, of course 🙂
1. How did you decide on 40 days? Did you have this number in mind or it just felt right to stop after that time? Did you have experience with retreats longer than 10 days before?
2. When you switched to insight after 20 days, was your teacher okay with that and gave you guidance?
3. For insight, did you mainly use Goenka’s sensation-base practice? How did you observe others, thought and mental contents?
4. Was it hard to get back to real life after so long? What did you do? I feel like after such an experience “normal” things in life don’t make much sense, only option is to become monk full time 🙂
Thanks Gabriel and Tony on the question of chairs.
I leave this evening to spend two weeks with Tina Rasmussen, the American woman who has the teaching mantle of the Sayadaw.
For those interested here is she and her husband’s web site:
Also in America and Europe is Leigh Brasington with a variation the jhana method:
Cool. I read her book. Best book I’ve ever read on Jhanas.. How did the retreat go?
Once you start to listen to life does it ever bring you to great experiences.
No coincidences in life that each time you did this retreat illness came. PAIN came and afterwards a new experience of further going deeper happened.
I truly believe the pain is needed for growth.
To be put in an uncomfortable space to recognize I no longer want to live in this space, therefore the pain helps to make it so unbearable that you must move and come out of the comfortable space created and into new dimension.
The mind is so powerful and so crippling. Will do just about anything to ensure it keeps control creating the illusions to make you “think” there nothing more.. there’s nothing beyond this line here.
Then you cross the line and poof the mind hits and becomes more weak on creating these illusions.
May I ask are you single? Do you have children?
I believe these factors have an impact on reaching these levels of unattachment.
Also letting go of control.
Thank you for sharing your experiences.
… oups I forgot… any available Internet at Pa-Auk Meditation Center ?
There isn’t a direct access available at the center, but you can give walk out and go to an Internet cafe if necessary.
Merry Christmas to you!
I read your very helpful posts and am amazed at your helpfulness. I plan to visit Pa Auk for about 3 months (or longer) next year when Pa Auk Sayadow is there, and get a temporary 10-precept nun’s ordination to try it out; if it works I might stay there for much longer time. I know it’s possible to purchase an already built kuti there, and I read the kutis there all have electricity; is it allowed to install air conditioner and water heater in the purchased kuti due to health reason, or have my own kuti built there with air conditioner and electronic water heater (for warm shower — I suppose there’s no warm water shower there?)
Do you happen to know the life of 10-precept nuns there? I heard that nuns need to find lay supporters to provide them with things not available at the monastery (such as air tickets for travel and medical costs). What if some of them can’t get sufficient support from lay providers? Do they have work duties ?
Sorry to ask you so many questions. Looking forward to hearing from you and take care,
Thanks for the very informative post!
I am interested in staying at the monastery for a meditation retreat later this year, and am wondering what kind of meditation experience you had when you first arrived there? I don’t have any experience meditating, so it is definitely going to be a first for me. Would I be expected to have any former experience? What would you suggest?
Also – I find 40 days is long for me for a first-time experience. Is meditating for 2-3 weeks on a meditation visa even allowed? Would it have any effect?
Thanks a lot in advance ,
When I went to Pa Auk in 2014, I had previously been to two 10-Day Goenka Vipassana retreats. I had also been meditating for several years (although not always regularly). Experience is not required to go meditate at Pa-Auk though, they’ll accept you even if you’re a beginner. However, keep in mind that Pa-Auk focuses on concentration practices up to very high levels of concentration (Jhanas), so I would only recommend going there if that’s what you’re going for. If you’re looking for insight meditation, I would instead recommend retreats in the Goenka or Mahasi tradition.
40 days would indeed be a long first retreat, although it depends on your motivation level. There’s no minimum duration for your stay at Pa Auk, some people stay a week or less, while others stay for years.
Meditating for even a day would definitely have effects. Although staying for longer periods does make it more likely to get interesting experiences/insights, results aren’t a direct function of the length of your retreat. What matters (a lot) more is how you practice, from moment to moment. I’d prefer 2 weeks of non-stop, dedicated meditation practice over 6 months of unmotivated and lazy practice.
Wish you success!
Thanks so much for your reply! (by the way – your “Notify me of new posts by email” option doesn’t work)
I signed up for an introductory meditation course in the Theravada tradition which will focus on both theory and practice – hopefully I’ll feel better prepared after completing it. I might go on a Goenka retreat later this year 🙂
Two short questions about the visa:
1) I’ve heard if you issue a Myanmar meditation visa, you are required to stay a certain minimum time at the monastery. Is that true? From what you wrote I understand that it isn’t, but I’m asking specifically about the meditation visa.
2) Is travelling around the country allowed on a meditation visa? Or are you required to stay at the monastery for your entire stay in Myanmar?
Thanks a lot!
do you think people with depression can attend the retreat?
I don’t think there are any restrictions as to who can attend the retreat.
how physically and mentally fit one is needed to be to live in the monastery for long term? I heard people and even monks had been asked to leave if they were sick or ill. But you seemed to survive some degree of sickness without any issues in staying.
do you have any thoughts on these?
thanks in advance in response.
I guess it depends on each monastery’s administration, as they’re the ones deciding who can stay at the monastery. While I was at Pa Auk though, quite a few foreigners got sick at some point (although generally from trivial stuff), and none of them left unless they wanted to. I assume that it makes sense to leave if you have a major contagious sickness.
I also got sick in a few other meditation retreats in the past, and have never had an issue with staying. I think that a lot can be learnt from meditating while experiencing physical and mental discomfort.
thank you very much for sharing your experience.
I am planning to go to Burma and possibly Pa Auk Forest Monastery in May to do a 3 month retreat there and I have some questions that you may be able to answer.
1. I have tried to contact them through the [email protected] address, but I have not received a reply in weeks. Also the phone number on the website does not work. Do you know if it has changed and do you have a current email address for me please? Time is running out for me to get my visa in time and I do not know how to get in touch with them for the sponsorship letter.
2. You talked of high temperatures, have you been there in May? This is exactly when I want to go, but it is the hottest time during the year, so I am worried how it may affect my meditation practice.
3. Do you know of people who went on a little holiday within Burma after their retreat? Do you know if this is possible on the meditation visa?
I would be very grateful for your (or anybody’s reply).
hi Gabriel, would you tell us the after effect of the retreats to date.Does it has a permanent change on your perceptions on your compassion, good will and peace. Are you not much affected by the up and down in life and around you? Wish you can share some of these with us if you are happy to. How profound your life has been changed in youself? Do you keep up with daily practice ?
thank you in advance for sharing.
Hey man I’m planning to go in November. I have got a sponsorship letter from them so just need to get my meditation visa from the embassy now. What happens when the meditation visa runs out and I am allowed to stay longer? How would I go about extending it while I am there? Also any recommendations regarding what to take – any essentials?
Wonderful! I have been meditating for over 15 years – 13 vipassanas with Goenka and was looking for something a little different, thank you for this inspiration. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and may very well be visiting this monestry in the near future. Thank you!
You definetly make this place looks awesome.
After reading the post and some comments I have a question:
1.- Is there any fee or payment for the retreat? I have heard that usually there is not but I would like to be sure.
2.- Can I go to the retreat just with a tourist visa? I would like to start with a 10 days retreat and the first stamp is for five teen days. With this should be enough, right?
1. There is no official “fee” to go on retreat at Pa Auk. It is donation-based, meaning than you are free to give whatever amount to the monastery during/after the retreat.
2. As far as I know, there’s no problem going there with a tourist visa, as long as you don’t overstay after your visa’s expiration date.
Do you think that your switching of method (samantha to vipassana) help you progress and get the fulfilling experience you have? Can you specify the technique of vipassana that you practised?
“A Map of The Journey” is one of my favourite Dhamma books! I stayed in Pa-Auk for 26 days and it was a very interesting experience. It seems like you were living there as I did, but for longer. While I agree that Pa-Auk is quite strict, I wouldn´t call it a retreat, even though might be harder in certain ways to some meditation retreats. It might confuse people.
Congrats on you quest!
Yes, it is definitely not a retreat. It is hardcore, barebones monastery.
Thank you for your clear and direct report on your meditation experience. I attended a 30-day samatha retreat in the USA two years ago and was able to understand much of what you wrote about. It is very helpful and kind to offer this kind of information to others on the path.
I hope to visit Pa-Auk Tawya monastery later this year and also appreciate all the practical information you and others have offered about making that journey.
May we all be well in 2017!
thank you very much for the information. Will help me a lot. You have mentioned some people stay for years. How is that made possible according to visa an all? I wud love to spend a couple of years in a place like this. tc Gabriel.
You can renew your visa through the monastery. Once you’re in, you’re in.
What is a woderful experience, a detailed article.
Like you, I have attended 10 days Goenka ‘s Retreat and experienced some important results but I feel wasn’t fullfill in Goenka ‘s way, so now I research in Tipitaka, others Training Way called drived from origin, practicing by myself and looking for a proper monastery.
Thank you for all and best wish for you.
Saadhu ! Saadhu !! Saadhu !!!
Thank you for your sharing. I just went through the “teaching and training” booklet of the Pa Auk monastery and then found your post.
I really like your story and when you describe your shift to vipassana.
I have a a question regarding your shift.after shifting to vipassana, have you continued to see your teacher and report your findings/exploration ? Did he help you in your exploration despite you move away from a pure concentration practice?
I am asking that because I am interesting to go there for around 2 months , and I want to understand the mindset overthere, as like you I think at one point of time I will be interested in shifting to vipassana earlier than the “book” say (because it already happened in former retreats 😉 )
All the best and thanks again for your sharing.
Thanks for your comment. Actually, when I shifted to Vipassana practice, I did not go to see my teacher and report my findings and exploration. My guess is he wouldn’t have approved of me practicing a different meditation technique than what he taught me.
If you go to Pa Auk, best to go for the right reasons. The right reasons being you want to broaden and deepen your awareness such that you can prepare properly for vipassana later on. Trust me, if you work seriously on it, your results will absolutely be worth it. They have a very specific path on the way to vipassana, and it really isn’t worth jumping into vipassana – you may miss out on the gems.
Thank you. Awesome and inspiring report!
I am fascinated by your article!
In an earlier Post you said, you would recommend other retreat Centers if one is planning to do Vipassana.
Does Pa Auk Tawya only teach concentration Meditation? From their Website i got the idea that they just beginn with a lot of concentration and once the meditator masters Absorption concentration he can go on to vipassana.
I want to do a reatreat for about 6 Months and maybe even longer.
Do you think in that time i could first train my concentration and than go on to the insight meditation
Iam a bit scared to do it without any guidance from the teacher, as you did.
Also, if i would only Focus on concentration for the whole time: would you say that this would bring any benefits for the further practice at home? Or does the ability to contentrate vanish very quickly, once you go back to normal life?
Thanks a lot!
Pa Auk Tawya teaches the development of high degrees of concentration, and once these are achieved (not an easy task!), one proceeds to insight meditation. This document details the meditation process taught at Pa Auk Tawya.
Six months is a long period, and I’m sure that with diligent and serious practice you could make great progress. However, what stage you would reach really depends on your natural ability, your current practice and your commitment to practicing seriously on retreat. I do think that the focus on concentration is great and does have immense benefits, and actually am now practicing the method taught in “The Mind Illuminated”, which recommends developing high concentration before proceeding to insight. However, I should also mention that the supreme and most lasting benefits that come from meditation arise from insight, and not only concentration. You can’t develop insight without concentration though!
I wish you well!
First of all, thanks for being so responsive to everyone’s questions! Really helpful.
I was hoping to do something intensive and more long-term like the retreat you so wonderfully described above but I’m a bit skeptical of the focus on attaining jhanas and having to master it which would presumably take longer than the couple of months I could give.
I really love the approach in the Mind Illuminated and was wondering if you could recommend any other retreats. I’ve done 10 days of Goenka’s vipassana meditation before but found more or less abandoning breath and concentration work after the first 2 or 3 days unhelpful
It sounds like we both have a similar path and interests. I also love the approach in the Mind Illuminated, but struggle to find the “perfect” retreat. I’ve actually done a couple of solo retreats, meaning periods of time where I stayed at home and practiced 5-6 + hours a day, and went back to a Goenka Vipassana retreat recently. You could also ask on the TMI subreddit about recommended retreats, and maybe find some groups who practice a similar method or organize retreats in your area.
Hope that helps,
Thank You Gabriel. Do they allow one to spend 2/3rd of the time with insight? How did you shift from anapana (samtha) to vipassana after 20 days? Does the teacher guide you when you shift to insight meditation or does one do that at one’s own peril?
Pa Auk doesn’t have this 2/3rd time insight-practice thing like at Vipassana retreats. They instruct you to begin Vipassana practice only after you master some concentration states (Jhanas). I had not attained these states when I began Vipassana, and therefore did so at my own risk!
Thanks so much for sharing your experience at Pa Auk Tawya! Fascinating.
I found this point you made particularly interesting: “Unlike in Goenka Vipassana retreats, where meditators are instructed to only pay attention to the body sensations (at least in 10-day courses), I also turned my attention to thoughts, emotions and states of mind, which are subtler.”
I’ve been doing Goenka Vipassana for 17 years & naturally, over time, I intuitively moved from just observing sensations to observing the more subtle sensations of thought, perceptual conditioning, emotional quality & mind. So it seems we practice Vipassana exactly the same way! : ) Which I found interesting.
Did anyone teach you to observe the subtler realities? Interestingly, since I started practising this way earlier this year, I found out that U Ba Khin (Goenka’s teacher) taught some of his students to observe all 5 sense doors. (Goenka also mentions in the 10 Day that you can practice Vipassana on any sense store however, encourages students to give importance to sensation).
I also have recently befriended a Sotapanna who advised me to observe all 5 sense doors. He encouraged me to go with these intuitive feelings that arise to practice in certain ways. It’s his belief that you have to approach practice in your own personal way to experience Nibanna.
Would love to hear more of your meditation experiences!
May you be successful on the path – sounds like you are making excellent progress!
I actually learned to practice this Vipassana method by reading the Satipatthana Sutta and “Practical Insight Meditation” by Mahasi Sayadaw. I feel like observing body sensations is effective for getting one to a certain level of insight, but past that, faster progress can be made by including other sense doors and subtler realities.
May you be successful too 🙂
I am amazed on how quickly you got nimitta. It takes years to even get to 1st Jhana. But I have a question, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sayadaw Tejaniya and other masters often says that Buddha didnot teach Jhana. He already mastered Jhana from previous masters but that did not lead to end of suffering.
He rather taught Anapanasati Sutta then Satipanasati Sutta and one did not need to achieve jhana in both cases.
So my question to you. is it necessary to achieve 4 jhanas before going for impermanence? I am in Myanmar and is scheduled to go to Pa Auk tomorrow. I liked your 40 days schedule. Right now I am going for 21-22 days but I am thinking to do for 70 days next year.
Have you heard of Sayadaw Tejaniya (She oo min). I heard he is really good and teach mostly Satipatana Sutta.
Dear Gabriel, thank for your informative article. I am preparing a request to stay and practise at Pa Auk Forest Monatry for about 40 days. Could you kindly advise what stuff that are needed to bring with me? Of course there are a list in the Monastery website, but like in Goenka Center, many listed stuffs could be available there to borrow. Your advice would be very helpful for my preparation for a long flight from the USA. Regards and thanks.
While it’s true than in Goenka centers most things can be borrowed, the same did not apply to Pa Auk when I was there (e.g. no meditation cushions, but there were mosquito nets available). However, an option you could consider is buying some of the necessary stuff when you arrive in Yangon (some clothing and common supplies). That way, you won’t have to pay extra luggage fees and won’t have to carry the stuff around so much.
Thanks for your comment and I wish you a rewarding and pleasant stay at Pa Auk!
Thank you so much Gabriel for sharing your experience. It’s great to connect with other’s profound experiences. I discovered your post today from a google search. I was handed a piece of paper with the name of the retreat center earlier today while sitting in meditation. I’m in Bodhgaya at the moment on informal retreat. Well to be honest, my life has become an informal meditation retreat the last few years. “Normal” is long gone and shifts in paradigm and perceptual “reality” seem fairly common now. I spent much of 2015 living and volunteering at a Goenka vipassana center and experienced similar levels of concentration to what you describe using anapana. I went into clearly demarcated states that I labeled jhanas at the time, but I can’t say they were deep enough not to notice someone shouting next to me. The most profound experience though occurred out of the blue one day when I sat down and “I” disappeared into a peace beyond all understanding, and then from there at some point the sense doors closed entirely. I think you can relate when I say that it’s a strange thing knowing on some level that the personal self doesn’t exist, and yet experientially still living in samsara and getting quite caught up sometimes in thoughts, emotions, etc.
I kind of abandoned concentration for insight meditation and a more holistic approach to spiritual practice and evolution. Meditation has become a lifestyle, rather than a compartmentalized activity, although I like to sit, a lot. I’ve found myself drawn more into the non-dual scene. My primary teacher for a while has been David R. Hawkins. I really appreciate his map of the journey (scale of consciousness) as well as how he doesn’t separate out meditation from the rest of life. I’m interested to check out your recommended books though. And I might go and do a retreat at Pa-Auk myself. Thank you for the inspiration. It’s lovely to connect with a soul like yours in this world.
Hi Walter! Thank you for the kind and warm comments 🙂
Knowing that the self does not exist, yet feeling the “divide” (some sensations on “this side” while others are on “that side”) is strange yet interesting. This is what I’m investigating these days.
I’m remember reading Power vs. Force several years back. I found the scale of consciousness fascinating, and it was a big eye-opener for me that “Rational” didn’t top the list (was it 400-ish over 1000?).
Thanks for sharing your experiences, and I do strongly recommend reading The Mind Illuminated ; never before had I encountered such a beautifully laid out map of the journey!
Yes, reason, logic, science, and the pinnacle of the intellect is the 400s on Hawkins scale of consciousness. It’s humbling to realize that thinkingness as a way of being is so limited and that lovingness is much more powerful.
You might really like Hawkin’s book ‘Transcending the Levels of Consciousness’. He delineates different stages and the obstacles, as well as temptations. It’s definitely a different context to hold things in though than the Theravada scene. He seems to focus on one’s way of being in the world, one’s experiential seat of awareness as it were, rather than on formalized meditative states that one goes in and out of.
I’ve heard of this place for a long time and am considering going this summer. It is interesting to note that it is concentration based and not vipassana based. My question is about instruction that was provided. Were you receiving instructions in English? Was this only happening during interviews? Are the interviews daily?
It also sounds like this is not a silent retreat, is that that true?
Thanks for any help or response
I was assigned a teacher at Pa Auk who spoke English fluently. I could meet him daily in group interviews to ask questions or request advice. Pa Auk is a monastery, which is not the same as a meditation retreat like Goenka Vipassana centers. It is basically a community of monks, and therefore silence is not mandatory. Practitioners who would prefer a quieter place to stay can request a Kuti, which are small cabins throughout the woods where you can stay.
Hope that helps!
I hope this message finds you well and that you still active responding to this thread.
Thanks so much for your detailed post, is both inspiring and very instructive.
I have straight away made my registration to go to this monastery. I was wondering if I could ask your opinion about something?
I have a whole year to spend meditating and I found your post after endless searching online for a place just like this, however I sort of like that “retreat” like environment that Goenka has manage to organised and specially the silent. I had booked – still not confirm – to go to 60 days retreat at Saddhamma Foundation, do you think it would be great learning stay at monastery for the whole year or is also good learning to explore other centres ?
I have to admit that sometimes I feel a bit lost with so many “road” of the same Dhamma path, I am not very good with many options.
I would love some considerable long time sitting as well as some intellectual knowledge along the way, somewhere that I could read books while meditating seems attempting but worry that could also a distraction.
I would love your opinion and thank you in advance for your time,
if you prefer, I don’t mind if you send an email: [email protected]
Thanks heaps for sharing your experience and also responding peoples question over so many comments, your dedication to help others is amazing and inspiring.
Would you be ok to share which website have you use to contact the centre?
I am also wondering if do you think would be better to get in Myanmar under 28 days visa and extend to a year while I am there?
I am thinking to stay for a year !
I would love to have a few emails with you if you have time. If you do: [email protected]
The concentration practice will help your “real” life – send the good states you get to others. Metta and the brahma vihara practices are meant for this. After you’ve got some bliss state – send it to other people. Wish that happiness to them – to your friends, enemies, to animals, and every being in every universe.
That will help your daily life, and in turn improve your meditation.
What would you consider a fair donation for stay at Pa-Auk?
Hard to say, as dana is often offered in the spirit of “give what you can afford”. Personally, I would tend to recommend a donation of at least 10 USD per day.
Thanks for the detailed blog post. This is really helpful for me!
I have had many concussions in the past which leads me to needing to get at least 8-9 hours of sleep per night. I am curious if it is allowed to sleep until breakfast at 530am or if they are strict about the wake up time? I have done long term retreat getting up at 3:50am and it caused me serious physical harm. Thanks in advance,
There will be no problems with you sleeping until breakfast, as the schedule is not enforced strictly.
Wishing you the best,
I wanted to know your experiences regarding group sittings and chantings? Do they help in making attention stable?
How would you compare the usefulness of group sittings, and say meditating in private?
Really appreciate you documenting your experiences!
I do find advantages to both group sittings and private sitting. In group sittings I generally find it easier to stay disciplined (I move less during meditation) and in moments of lower motivation, I find that the commitment to a group really helps keep my practice alive. However, I find that attention generally gets stable more easily in private, as there are less distractions in the forms of surrounding sounds or thoughts pertaining to other meditators (or even self-conscious thoughts like “what do I look like”, etc.). I found the chants at Pa Auk enjoyable, but I did not really practice them as a mantra or a meditative exercise when I was at Pa Auk. If I was to go back, I’d use them as an object of concentration and see how that goes.
Hope that helps 🙂
An absolutely exceptional account of your retreat experience. Probably the most profound I’ve read. It’s been a while since I engaged in any meaningful meditation practice (Goenka Vipassana meditation retreat in 2013). I have however, more recently, felt a strong pull to do another retreat, but not a Goenka retreat. You outline some of the reasons in your post. My aversion to doing another Goenka retreat is in no way any slight towards the organisation or the beautiful gift of meditation the organisation presents to the world.
I’ve been watching a number of Dhamma talks on YouTube recently by various monks of the Theravada tradition. Two of whom I’ve been drawn to but have had a couple of small reservations in the back of my mind. Then, one day this week, I was looking to listen to another Dhamma talk on YouTube and one of the recommended videos was a Dhamma talk by Bhante Kovida of Pa Auk Monastery. During the talk, I knew I had to visit the monastery to practice. There were no doubts in mind. Investigating further, I stumbled across your blog and must say that the detail in your post absolutely brought me into your experience.
Things aren’t conducive at the moment to allow me to travel to Myanmar with this whole COVID-19 situation and my family obligations, but I know I’ll find a way at some point to get out there.
Thank you again for the post and may manifold blessings continue to shower you like rain.
Thank you for the warm and encouraging comments 🙂 I’m happy to read that you found my account useful. I encourage you to pursue meditation in Myanmar when the right circumstances arise. If you’re interested taking a deeper dive into the Pa Auk method until then, I encourage you to read “Focused and Fearless” and “Wisdom, Wide and Deep” by Shaila Catherine.
Wishing you the best.
Your post is very helpful in understanding the complete schedule at Pa-Auk. I’ve query on evening dhamma talks. It is mentioned that evening Dhamma discourses are in Burmese.. What is the option available for foreigners ??
Regards & Metta,
I remember there being a couple of discourses that were in English, but most were in Burmese indeed. However, the teacher assigned to me did speak fluent English.
Hope that helps,
Thanks for your Wonderful blog post. This is really helpful for me!
I also had a good experience in Yoga and Meditation retreat program at Kep, Cambodia. Its a 4 day Healing program which includes the various forms of massage, ayurvedic therapies, sound healing, and energy healing. When I read your blog I missed my days.
I’ve got a bit of nostalgia reading this article.
I’ve spent more than 4 years at Pa-Auk and it seems first months are always more impressive. I guess it’s the time when many extraordinary experiences happen. But in fact, the whole point of the practice is something else which is more difficult and less exciting.
If someone told me I’m going to stay that long in retreat, I’d have thought I’m going to get enlightened by that time. But it’s not like that in reality and I’m talking not only about my experience but about the experience of many others I met here. Although, I have to add that I don’t know if any other experience would be more valuable than this one.
Someone asked me recently whether I’m happy after all these years here and I couldn’t answer positive. It’s just how it is.