THE BLOG

Meditating With Snakes and Corpses: A Week At A Rural Thai Buddhist Temple

03/25/2013 10:38 am ET | Updated May 25, 2013

It was a feeling just below my navel I've never experienced before, a feeling so intense I felt like I'd lost control. I just lay on the ground writhing around not in pain, but in consciousness. In my first day of meditation I had awakened a part of me I never knew existed.

Bang Mun Nak is located 300km (186mi) north of Bangkok. It's not on the tourist track at all, though the train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok does pass through. With a population of less than 10,000, Bang Mun Nak is just a sleepy, average Thai town. But in this sleepy, average Thai town I had a truly extraordinary experience.

When I was in Prague in 2010 a friend of mine extolled a Buddhist temple she visited in Thailand. She told me that if I ever visited Thailand I had to visit this temple. So, when I started planning my time in Southeast Asia, I got in touch with her and asked her for the details. She gave me the name of the town and the temple. In a leap of faith I'm used to by now, I showed up unannounced with no common language and hoped for the best.

The best is exactly what happened and I was welcomed with open arms into the temple. This temple is special in that it teaches anyone and everyone who comes in off the street and wants to learn about Buddhism and spirituality. It's also special for its "extreme" meditation techniques as you'll soon see.

The temple sits on a 40-hectare plot of land where there is farmland, a cemetery, and many trees to sit under and meditate. While there I helped plant trees in the cemetery.

Every morning the residents of the town go out at dawn to donate food to the procession of monks. This almsgiving is part of the Buddhist faith and the monks live by a strict set of guidelines such as sleeping on a hard surface, eating twice per day, celibacy, and severing family ties. All are said to be a distraction on one's path to enlightenment.

Despite the extreme meditation and strict guidelines, monks can generally pass their time the way they want here. Some have daily tasks, others are perpetually meditating. It all depends on the individual, the master, and where they are in their spiritual progression.

On my first day of meditation something wholly unexpected happened. I was meditating the way they told me to, the first time I had ever meditated and only the fourth time they've given instruction to a foreigner, and the incident described above happened. You can see it unfold in the video below. It may look like a conditioned response, but since it was my first day I truly had no idea what to expect.

I passed the first stage of meditation, which brought on the second stage -- meditating in front of an open coffin. Yes, the coffin contained the body of a student of the temple who died four days earlier. Fear of ghosts is really big here, but I'm not afraid of ghosts. The fear is supposed to help take your meditation to new heights. It didn't work for me though.

What did work?

Oh, meditating with pythons worked! Yes, on my last evening at the temple I was led to a small pen and sat down. I knew I would be meditating with snakes but I didn't know the snakes would be huge! There were two snakes, each about 10ft (3m) long. Enormous.

I thought they would leave me in there for a few minutes. No. I was there for an hour. As someone who had never meditated before, I can't hold the legs-crossed pose, or lotus pose, for very long. When meditating in the temple I either switched positions every so often or sat in a chair. With the python I had no choice but to remain still even if it meant getting stuck in that position permanently!

I didn't move, but the snakes did. They bit me several times and at one point encircled me and started squeezing. I also thought someone would stay with me just in case, but no, I was on my own.

Luckily the snake stopped squeezing, but it made my heart and mind race -- exactly the purpose of this exercise.

I learned a lot at the temple. I saw a sense of calm among the long-term residents that's all but impossible to find in modern life. Life at the temple, in many ways, is far less complicated than in everyday life. You can focus within and truly focus on self-improvement and enlightenment without all our modern-day worries.

Although I have no interest in withdrawing from the modern world, it was tempting. It was like opening Pandora's box and discovering a whole new world within myself. I saw a different way of living and approaching life.

I guess the lesson learned is to keep life as simple as possible and continue one's spiritual journey of self-discovery regardless of the setting. Easier said than done, but infinitely rewarding in the end.

A Week at a Rural Thai Buddhist Temple