Jeffrey Oliver, an Australian with a relaxed presence and penetrating blue eyes, is discussing Vipassana, or insight meditation, at a large temple in Bangkok.
“We call it mindfulness meditation,” he said. “It also refers to awareness and just paying attention to your body and mind. You may start with just breathing in and breathing out to calm the mind. You may observe the rising and the falling of the abdomen...”
Mr. Oliver was a Buddhist monk in Myanmar for eight years. He is one of a number of Westerners who have exchanged their modern lifestyles for a life of service, poverty and meditation. Mr. Oliver says he enjoyed living in Australia, yet wanted to develop his spirituality, a hard task in what he describes as the West's frenetic pace.
“We live in the superficial part of our minds. We drive our car, we eat food, we party, we laugh and sing, but we don't have a very deep or sincere connection to our heart. We don't have a great deal of mindfulness. We function on a level of superficial awareness of life. So my intention was to deepen my meditation practice and to be as helpful to other people as much as I can.”
Mr. Oliver established a Burmese monastery in South Africa and has written books on Buddhist meditation. About 20 foreigners listen to his reflections at the temple in Bangkok. They came for a variety of reasons. Dutchman Michael Ensink is on a long journey through Asia. “I am just on holiday here in Bangkok for two days and I was walking by,” he said. “I haven't done anything with meditation but I am curious and that is why I came here.”
Moppy Barr, a 60-year-old American from Phoenix, Arizona, wants to learn more after she met Buddhists in India. “That's my first experience of Buddhism, where I saw a gentleness in the people that I wanted to explore,” she said. “I am kind of tingling and frightened at the same time. I don't mean to make light of it. This is not easy...but it could be what I've been looking for.”
Branca Pereira of Portugal came to study neurology in Bangkok. “I think neurology is related to Buddhism because both help you to understand how your mind works and what you need to get well. If you understand your mind, you can become happier.”
She wanted to experience longer periods of meditation. So she joined some 50 people led by Jeffrey Oliver on a nine-day retreat. Such retreats take place for visitors and locals alike in temples throughout Thailand.
In the midst of forested mountains in central Thailand's Khao Yai National Park, the wake-up bell rings at four in the morning. The group rises for a pre-dawn meditation and then sits down for a modest breakfast. The rest of the day is dedicated to meditation. Students remain silent and are encouraged to avoid worldly activities involving alcohol, radio and television. All of this is designed to slow the mind down and develop concentration.
Buddhists have been meditating in this way since 500 B.C., when an Indian prince known as the Buddha, or 'enlightened one,' founded what has remained a dominant religious force in much of Asia. Buddhist attitudes of peace, mindfulness and care for all living creatures attract many westerners.
Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana, Director of the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University, says Thailand is a natural magnet for seekers of Buddhism because the country has well-developed tourism infrastructure and an unusual history. “There is some truth in the fact that because the country was not colonized the Thai people do not look at Westerners with great suspicion and are more welcoming. There have been some negative affects of colonization around the region but Thailand has been spared quite a bit of that.”
Although the Buddha's teachings have been known throughout Asia for thousands of years, the West has learned about them only in the last century. Buddhist monasteries and centers are growing in Europe and the Americas as a result of both Asian immigrants and Westerners who return with Buddhist ideals from countries like Thailand.