The Forest University: Reflections on a 6-Week Meditation Retreat

The following reflection originally appeared in
the newsletter I sent out on March 29th, 2024.  And, just for fun, the above picture is of my hut in the jungle.  I did most of my sitting meditation in the covered area behind the brown robes / beneath the roof, and most of my walking meditation on that white path.


*** For easy reading, feel free to just read the bold points and skip the rest *** 




I just returned from about six weeks on retreat — some of it here in Oregon, and the bulk of it at a monastery in a remote forest in Northeast Thailand.

This particular monastery was in the lineage of Ajahn Maha Boowa, one of the most venerated meditation masters of the modern era.  The current teacher at the monastery I visited, a German monk who goes by Ajahn Martin, was one of Maha Boowa’s direct disciples and one day shared the following anecdote:

If a monk, nun, or layperson staying at Ajahn Maha Boowa’s monastery complained to him about someone else at the monastery, Maha Boowa would immediately kick the complainer out of the monastery.  If it turned out the complaint was valid, like someone was egregiously breaking the monastery rules or committing ethical violations, the complainer would still be told to leave, but he would also kick out the other person.

While this sounds a bit harsh even to me, he was making a really powerful point: liberation is an inside job.  In other words, you will never find true happiness by changing other people, making the things you don’t like go away, or fixing “the problem.”

To put it in the words of my primary teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya, “Nobody outside of this mind can upset it, make it angry, averse, afraid, joyful or grateful. Nobody outside of the mind triggers it. The mind is itself responsible for its own feelings, gladness, and suffering.”

The spirit of the practice at the monastery I just visited was to face difficulties head-on, to learn how to meet them with mindfulness and wisdom, and to see them as just empty conditions, incapable of impacting our true well-being.



To teach this lesson, it started by whittling life down to the core.  After a wake-up bell at 3:30am, we gathered at 5:45am to set up for the meal and do some light chores.  Around 7am, we had our only meal of the day, followed by clean up.  Fast forward a half-day, and at 4pm, we did about 30 minutes of sweeping leaves from the monastery path, before having a cup of juice.

Apart from the above activities, the rest of the day was spent by oneself in a private hut in a secluded part of the jungle.  The hut itself was a little empty room with no distractions — they even collected your phone, tablet, and/or computer upon entering the monastery.  Although, they do give you an old-school mp3 player, loaded with talks from Ajahn Martin.

In terms of the environment, I was there during the hot season, when it’s pushing 100 degrees and humid every day.  During the monsoon and cold seasons, instead of being drenched in sweat, one gets drenched in rain or shivers!  The forest is also covered with fire ants, mosquitos, lizards, snakes, and these strange little flying insects that love to buzz and burrow in your ear lobe.

As for the culture, even in the brief communal times, we were discouraged from conversing with others, and instead keeping mindfulness with our own process.  Curiously, everything was done very fast, like eating, sweeping, and walking, which I didn’t entirely understand why, but I do know that it had something to do with how true mindfulness isn’t about the velocity of your actions, but rather the quality of your mind — on this note, I sometimes like to note the distinction between “hurrying” and “going fast.”



All of the above is held in a container of seclusion, silence, and this incredible encouragement to “go for it” and wake up already.  Even if there are bugs and heat, there is something rightly idyllic about meditating by oneself in the forest.

In turn, Ajahn Martin was fond of calling this setting, “the forest university.”  Apart from the general vibe already described, much like being a young adult for the first time going off to college, at this university, there is no one to supervise you, provide external discipline, tell you what to do, or make you keep meditating when you feel restless or sleepy.  Even with the method, there is some general guidance, but you have to log the hours to figure out how to sustain a relaxed, alert awareness.

Add it all together, and the idea of the forest university is that you’re given the opportunity to figure out your own mind & how to work with it, regardless of what arises.

In everyday life, when we feel uncomfortable, we look to fix it. Here are some common examples:

  • If we’re bored or grumpy or sad, we hurl ourselves into our electronic devices, socializing, to-do lists, or anything we can come up with to eliminate the unpleasant feeling.
  • If we feel pain, we look for what herb, drug, yoga pose, or remedy we can apply to make the pain go away.
  • If we don’t like where we live, we move somewhere else.
  • If a co-worker is bothering us, we avoid talking to them; or perhaps complain to management, hoping the authority figures will get them to change their ways!

If you look closely, a large amount of your life’s energy is devoted to getting rid of the uncomfortable and going towards the comfortable.  Of course, I don’t mean to say there is anything wrong with comfort.  Instead, it’s the never-ending chasing of comfort that causes us trouble.

The spirit of the forest university is that this isn’t actually a recipe for true happiness, as “the finish line will always keep moving.”  And so the conditions are set up at the monastery to teach us how to find peace right now.  Not to do it because someone else tells us to, but because deep in our heart, we’re tired of running.

And, in that, discomfort is not shied away from; however, you might read the above descriptions and think this is too extreme or ascetic.  Remember that this is a practice of The Middle Way.  Ajahn Martin said he only sleeps for two hours a night (because he can enter such profoundly deep restful meditation), but would also say it’s foolish to sleep that little if you’re just going to be tired all day.  Similarly, he discouraged fasting, sitting for longer than you can handle, and other idealistic austerities.  Do what you can handle, but also realize you can handle much more than your thinking mind believes!



I had one period on the retreat where it wasn’t going as well as I expected it to.  I became despondent, and for a night or two, slept a lot, as this is basically the only real form of escape at a monastery.  And then I had to sit with myself, and say, “David – what’s going on?  Are you really going to let this be your retreat?  Let this be your life?  Right now, it’s like this.  Mindful of the body.  This is the path.  Yes – it’s unsatisfactory, but it doesn’t need to be satisfactory to be perfect.”  And so the despondency dissolved.  A peacefulness of heart resumed and retreat continued deepening.

At another point, a memory arose of a family vacation I took years ago, and right alongside it was a current of sadness.  It had something to do with a thought of my parents aging, my brother and myself both forming our own nuclear families, and a recognition that aging and the passing of time are real.  However, the sadness came, and I just felt it.  I didn’t make a story around it or think about it.  I just let the feeling be there.  Some tears came and went, and so did the feeling.

When I returned from Thailand to the Oregon part of the retreat, I was absurdly jet lagged, and was half-asleep for every meditation period for a day and a half.  The body felt heavy and icky, but I just kept going.  I didn’t get lost in stories about it.  I didn’t run off to my bed.  I just let the tiredness be there and kept going.  When the kernels of frustration arose that said, “I’m not actually meditating!  This isn’t doing anything!”  I just noticed that too and didn’t proliferate around that.  “Tiredness is here and that’s okay.”

On the flip side, during the first meditation period on the retreat where my mind became very collected and settled deeply into the present, I noticed some excitement arise.  Along with the emotion was an urge to grab hold of the experience and to plot and plan about how to capitalize on the moment.  I noticed a feeling of pride or “I’m such a great meditator.”  All of this too was something just to face head-on.  To notice the tendency to “add something extra” to the simple peacefulness of being present.

I could go on and on with these little experiences, but the point of the forest monastery is that whatever pulls you from non-clinging presence is something to investigate, something to face, something to see with wisdom & move through — not something to avoid or get away from.



As I go back into my everyday life, I am filled with inspiration for keeping alive the spirit of the forest monastery.  To look closely: where do I run from my experience?  How do I use the internet, socializing, sexuality, food, sleep, or any number of other things as vehicles of craving/aversion/delusion, and how do I use them as vehicles of wisdom/love?

I invite you to look closely at yourself.  What plagues your heart?

Pervasive anxiety and worrying?  A sense of the meaningless of it all or that you don’t matter?  Mad, really mad at life, at others, at the injustices, at all the little inconveniences, at madness itself?  Boredom?  Busyness?  Sadness?  A compulsive relationship with your smartphone, reading the news, checking your email, Coca-Cola, or Jack Daniels?  Unhealthy eating habits?  The subtle sense of malaise?  Your disappointment with others or with your own averageness?

Most of the above I’ve contended with at some point or another, and the list could certainly go on.

I share these little bits as the whole point of this reflection is to invite a turning towards — not to just try and make the things we don’t like go away, but to find a genuine inner freedom.

In other words, it is absolutely possible to be completely at peace, right now, no matter what conditions are present.  Sometimes it can be difficult to see this (or remember it). In turn, to deepen this capacity we may go off to a monastery, sit still for a half hour in the morning, use some discipline to abstain from our favorite distractions, or read a reflection like this.

However, the teaching of the Buddha would only be as powerful as it is if those were all just helpful aids to realize something that’s always available right now.

Before continuing, maybe take a moment to breathe, let go, and touch into that basic okayness you know in your bones.


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