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 itTawya

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.

Pa Auk Tawya Monastery

Pa-Auk Tawya’s meditation hall as seen from a nearby mountain.

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:

 

3:30 am Wake-up
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. I found it to be an extra motivational pratcice reason, since 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.

Wake-up Bell Pa-Auk Tawya

The wake-up “bell”

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.

Precepts Hall Pa-Auk Tawya

The hall where we took our precepts every week

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.

The Road Leading to the Meditation Hall

The Road Leading to the Meditation Hall

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

Pa Auk Sayadaw

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 wronwog 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.

Meditation Hall Pa Auk

The Pa Auk meditation hall

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”?

Sensations?
Thoughts?
Emotions?
Mind states?
Intentions?

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 toex Yangon. I left Pa-Auk Tawya behind, but preciously kept the wisdom it had helped me cultivate.

Conclusion

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.

If you want to learn to meditate, I recommend this effective guided meditation.

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86 thoughts on “40-Day Meditation Retreat at Pa-Auk Tawya, Burma

    1. Pankaj

      Hello Gabriel,
      Thanks a lot for your post.
      many doubts have been clarified.
      I am going to Pa-Auk Monastery in Oct-16.

      Reply
  1. Hunter

    Hello Gabriel,

    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:

    http://myanmarpedia.blogspot.com/2007/10/pa-auk-forest-monastery-information-for.html

    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,

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hey Hunter,

      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.

      Gabriel

      Reply
      1. Hunter

        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!

        Reply
      2. Steve Scena

        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

        Reply
        1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

          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.

          Reply
          1. Steve

            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.

        1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

          Hello Priyam,
          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.

          Regards,
          Gabriel R.

          Reply
    2. Tony

      Hello Hunter,

      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!

      Reply
      1. Hunter

        Hello Tony,

        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!

        Regards,

        Hunter

        Reply
  2. Hunter

    HI Gabriel,

    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!

    Hunter

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hey Hunter,

      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,

      Gabriel

      Reply
      1. Hunter

        Hey Gabriel,

        Thanks for the information! The air travel is surprisingly cheap – only $100 for both ways from Thai to Myanmar! So nice!!!

        Hunter

        Reply
  3. Tony

    Hello Gabrie.

    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!

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hello Tony,

      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.

      Regards,

      Gabriel

      Reply
  4. Tony

    Hey Gabrie.

    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.

    Thank you

    Regard,
    Tony

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      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.

      Reply
      1. Tony

        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…

        Reply
        1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

          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.

          Reply
          1. Hunter

            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.

          2. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

            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.

  5. Tony

    Hi Gabriel
    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…
    Thanks

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      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?

      Reply
      1. Tony

        Hi Gabriel.
        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!

        Reply
  6. werner

    Hello gabriel,
    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.

    Reply
  7. alex

    Hi Gabriel,

    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!
    Alex

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hey Alex!

      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!

      Gabriel

      Reply
  8. Paul Yeung

    Hi Gabriel,
    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

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hey Paul,
      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.

      Reply
      1. Pau

        Hi Gabriel,

        Thank you very much for your info. Hope you have a great time in India. Thanks again for taking time to respond.

        Metta

        Paul

        Reply
  9. Gustaf

    Hi Gabriel,

    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?

    Best regards,
    Gustaf

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      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!

      Reply
  10. Ryan Galloway

    Hey Gabriel,

    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.

    Cheers,
    Ryan

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hey Ryan,

      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.

      Regards,

      Gabriel

      Reply
  11. Cliff

    Dear Gabriel,

    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?

    Thanks

    Cliff

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hello Cliff,

      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,

      Gabriel R.

      Reply
      1. caitlin

        Hi Gabriel
        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.

        Reply
        1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

          Hi Caitlin,

          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”.

          Regards,
          Gabriel R

          Reply
  12. caitlin

    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.

    Reply
  13. Philippe DUBOISDENGHIEN

    Hello Gabriel,

    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,
    Philippe
    Belgium

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Bonjour Philippe!
      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,

      Gabriel

      Reply
  14. paul

    hi Gabriel,
    I saw a blog commenting bed bugs in the monastery, do you have any encounter of the issue.
    thank in advance for response
    cheers
    Paul

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hey Paul,

      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.

      Reply
  15. Linzi Whittingham

    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.

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      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.

      Reply
  16. Buddha jr.

    Hi Gabriel!
    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 🙂 )

    Be happy

    Reply
  17. Tia

    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?

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hi Tia,
      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! 🙂

      Reply
  18. Mark

    Hi Gab!
    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…
    Thanks
    Keep up the good work

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hey Mark,
      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.
      Regards!

      Reply
  19. Gem

    Hi Gabriel,
    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,
    Gem

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hey Gem,
      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,
      Gabriel

      Reply
  20. Bill

    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?

    Any thoughts?

    Many thank for all,

    Bill

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hey Bill,

      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.

      Reply
    2. Tony Q

      Hi Bill
      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.

      Reply
  21. Dimitri

    Gabriel,

    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!
    Dimitri

    Reply
  22. nat

    Hi Gabriel,
    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.
    Nat

    Reply
  23. Y

    Hello Gabriel,

    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,

    Dhamma Farer

    Reply
  24. Yuval G

    Hi Gabriel,

    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 ,

    Yuval

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hello Yuval,

      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!

      Reply
      1. Yuval G

        Hey Gabriel!
        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!

        Yuval

        Reply
  25. paul

    hi Gabriel
    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.
    regards,
    paul

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hi Paul,

      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.

      Regards,
      Gabriel

      Reply
  26. Tanja

    Hi Gabriel,

    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).
    Thank you!
    Kind regards
    Tanja

    Reply
  27. paul

    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.
    regards, paul

    Reply
  28. Chintan

    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?

    Reply
  29. Oliver Milton

    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!

    Reply
  30. Uve

    Hi Gabriel,
    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?

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Rocheleau Post author

      Hello Uve,
      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.

      Regards,
      Gabriel R.

      Reply
  31. jungelbobo

    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?

    Reply
  32. Niki

    “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!

    Reply
  33. Sui Oakland

    Gabriel

    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!
    Sui

    Reply
  34. gaya

    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.

    Reply
  35. Minh

    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.

    Reply

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