Visakha Bucha in Wiang Haeng

On Friday, May 24th Buddhists from all over Thailand gathered to celebrate one of the most auspicious Buddhist holidays: Visakha Bucha Day. Visakha Bucha falls on the full moon of the sixth lunar month and marks three important events in the Buddha’s life: the Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and died, all of which occurred on the same day (many years apart, of course).

Visakha Bucha is a national holiday where many Buddhist Thai families take the time to visit their temple and celebrate the Buddha’s life. This was my first time partaking in a Buddhist holiday and I have to admit, I found it quite moving. The day started off with a festive breakfast where we were joined by over 30 guests, many of whom had spent the night at Pleekwiwek the night before. Our breakfast consisted of more vegetable dishes than usual (four different leafy-green stir-fry dishes and sticky rice wrapped in green banana leaves) and the “green” theme carried on throughout the day’s activities.


String ceremony.

After breakfast we headed to the main Sala where the visitors assembled donation “trees”. We then proceeded to sit down and hear about the Buddha’s life and teachings (the Dhamma). We were then instructed to pull the strings that were hanging from the ceiling and wrap them around heads, the most sacred part of our body, as part of the blessing ceremony.The string unites all of us to the blessing and links us directly to the Buddha image at the front of the Sala. The string ceremony helps to raise your spirits and help you overcome challenges in your life. This ceremony can take place during different days of the year as well; you can ask a monk to perform it if you feel as though you are in low spirits and need strength to overcome the challenges you are facing. The monks and novice monks at the Center then proceeded to chant for 30 minutes, as they blessed the participants for their contributions to the community.

The main individual needing their spirits to be lifted would sit under the three branches with a string wrapped around his/her head. The three branches represent three important tenants of Buddhism: speaking no evil, thinking no evil, and doing no evil.

The main individual needing their spirits to be lifted would sit under the three branches with a string wrapped around his/her head. The three branches represent three important tenants of Buddhism: speaking no evil, thinking no evil, and doing no evil.

After the chanting ended, we each pulled down our string and were instructed to keep the prayer flag and keep it to bring luck, prosperity, and protection. These flags would normally be added to the spirit house one has outside their home or a small shrine in their home.


On the way to planting trees!

We then proceeded to the field behind the Center to partake in a tree-planting ceremony, as Visakha Bucha has also been designated National Tree Day in Thailand. Many of the individuals at the ceremony had donated funds in order to purchase nearly fifty trees that will be planted throughout Pleekwiwek Center.

Similar to the string ceremony that was held in the Sala, the tree planting ceremony also used a string to connect all of us to the tree (the new life) that was being planted. The string was attached to the small sapling and each participant held the string in their hands as the monks and novices chanted and blessed ceremony. Incense and small fruit baskets were given as an offering, along with white paper flowers.


Blessing ceremony for new trees.

After the first sapling was planted, we proceeded to the next site where two trees were planted. Everyone participated by either physically touching the tree as it went into the ground, or if you were unable to reach it, you would gently put your hand on the back of the person in front of you who was touching the tree. It was not unlike the string – we were all connected to each other and to new life. The next site had four trees to plant, and the last one had eight. After planting the fifteen trees we then ended the day with a festive lunch before sending our visitors off.


My friend Wan preparing the offering.

In the evening, one of the Center’s close friends, Wan (meaning sweet), invited me to join her in making offerings to the Buddha. She spoke to me in Thai quickly and without hesitation as if I understood every word. I listened attentively and looked for hints in her body language, piecing together the few words I could understand. I was eager to learn, not only about her culture, religion and language, but also eager to find understanding beyond words and find a universal language. She patiently showed me how to make a banana leaf cone in which we placed flowers, three sticks of incense (one representing the Buddha, one the Dhamma, and one the Buddha’s followers, or Sangha), and a candle. We then proceeded to visit the first sapling we had planted earlier in the day. Wan prayed aloud and we then had a moment to silently pray or reflect. We then slowly circled the tree three times chanting, clasping our offerings in prayer position and then left our offerings with the sapling.

Traditionally one circles around the pagoda at their temple with candles and flowers in the evening as they mark the end of Visakha Bucha, but as we do not have a pagoda at the Center, we decided to end our day by coming full circle to that first tree – and symbol of life – that started our day.

Maria Moreno, on-site intern


Photography Corner – Lawa village part 1

This photography corner is broken up into two parts.  Recently the ATMA SEVA team went to the Lawa village outside of Mae Sariang for one week.  The purpose of the trip was to help Katherine, our current on-stie intern, get set up as she will be living and teaching there for two months.

It was an action packed week and some of the highlights were hiking out to local farms and helping to harvest rice, visiting neighboring Karen villages, learning about Lawa culture, and seeing the auk pansaa ceremony.

Auk pansaa is the day when Buddhist lent ends and there was a ceremony at the local village Wat.  The first thirty minutes or so, was chanting in the temple.  Before coming to the Wat, everyone brought banana leaves with flowers, incense, and a candle wrapped up.  After the chanting everyone lit their incense and candle and proceeded to walk around the main temple three times.  The reason for walking around three times is to pay respect to 1 the Buddha, 2 the dhamma (Buddha’s teachings), and 3 the sangha (Buddhist community).  After three times of walking around and chanting, everyone left their flowers/candles/incense in front of the temple.  By attending this ceremony it is believed that you are making ‘merit’ and gaining positive karma.  Auk pansaa is also some what of a celebration and all of the children in the village had a blast shooting off fireworks!

The reason we went to neighboring Karen villages was to find the father of one of the monks whom Katherine taught.  After talking to the novice monk we found out his village was close to the Lawa village, and thought it would be nice to bring the father a picture of his son, whom he had not seen for many years.  It took us around three hours to find the village as it is extremely small and there are no direct roads, but driving in the lush jungle with rolling mountains is not a bad way to spend an afternoon!  After finally finding and meeting the father, he was extremely grateful for the picture and glad to hear his son was doing well.  The village was extremely poor and ATMA SEVA will be working and collaborating with other local NGO’s to help as best we can.  Stay tuned for details how you can help or visit ‘Our Work‘.

Stay tuned for part 2 which includes pictures from the first day of school and English class!!

Click here to see part 2

Photos by David Poppe

ATMA SEVA in the News –

ATMA SEVA was recently featured on which “is a digital platform about making a difference in the world. We are a dynamic website about social action and travel for a purpose, home to videos, blogs, photo galleries and more. We are a social network, a collaborative community of activists, travelers and creative contributors, all of us humanitarians.”

The featured blog post is about our unique monk chat program! Click here to read the entry.

Thanks Mission TV and we are looking forward to many more successful monk chats!!!

PS) Check out Mission TV on Facebook

Photography Corner – Wiang Haeng trip

ATMA SEVA went to Wiang Haeng to meet with a new Buddhist school we will be working with.  We visited the Thai/Burma border, a Shan refugee camp, local temples, Chang Dao caves, and a Dhamma center.

Hope you enjoy the photos!


Photos by David Poppe

Photography Corner – Mae Sai part 2

In Mae Sai part 1, the ATMA SEVA team went to the White temple and also Mae Sai.  On our second day, in the morning we went to Wat Thampla MaeSai also known as the Monkey cave temple, as monkeys roam around and live on the premise.  The temple is set right into the mountain and jungle and there are two caves you can hike up to.  There are great views and the caves are fun to be in and the Buddha shrines within are stunning.  There are quite a few monkeys and visitors are accompanied by local teenagers who carry bamboo sticks in case the monkeys bite or jump on people.

After Wat Thampla, we set out to find a very unique temple named Wat Maa Tong or the Golden Horse temple.  The temple is famous because of the abbot Phra Khru Bah Neua Chai Kositto, who is a former professional kick boxer, and has also helped the local hill-tribe community immensely.  He also teaches self-defense and muay Thai to the young men to teach discipline and give them strength.  The monks in this temple ride horses to collect alms in the morning, hence Golden Horse temple.  A while back a horse was donated to the temple and the abbot saw how the horse could help him spread the Dhamma.

We went for a hike next to the temple to try and reach a stupa on the mountain.  After about forty minutes of hiking we found a farm in the jungle where lots of horses were and we also saw the abbot, but he was unable to speak as he was in the middle of a seven day meditation.  The area was so mystical with a muay Thai training area, horse farm, and Buddha statues nestled into the lush green background.  We never reached the stupa, but we were overly satisfied with what we had found.

Stay tuned for the next Photography corner as the ATMA SEVA team went to Wiang Haeng several days after this trip!


Photos by David Poppe

Wat Doi Saket project – Washing the robes to clean the mind by Phra maha Ake

This morning I taught Dhamma to novice monks and after lunch I prepared my robes to wash by machine.  I went to the building with washing machines; it is a public place for monks and novices living here at Wat Doi Saket. The washing machines are about 500 meters from my room.

When I was walking to get there, I thought of a question about clean and dirty. “Why must I as a human wash robes every week like this?”.  After I thought of the first question, I got more and more questions about this. When I got there, all of the washing machines where being used, so I decided to wash them by hand at my room.

I brought the robes back to my room and also brought those questions to contemplate.  I started to think about the teachings and the beliefs that I have studied to support my doubts.  First, I thought of the idea from Buddhism that we have two parts, body and mind, for each human being.

After I got to my room, I prepared the things for hand washing.  I continued my thoughts:

“Body and mind are both able to be cleaned and get dirty but in different ways.  The body gets clean by taking a shower or by washing and it gets dirty by sweat, dust, smoke or other things. How the body gets clean and how it gets dirty, is easy to see with your eyes.  The mind, on the other hand, is not like that because how the mind gets clean and dirty are not easy to see with human eyes but we can see them by using ‘wisdom’ eyes”.

When I was washing the robes in the bath room, questions, ideas, doubts, and answers came up on the thoughts as a cycle:

“Now I’m washing the robes which are used for the body.  Whatever they got dirty from, they have to be cleaned by water with a machine wash or hand washing.  How about the mind?  How does it get dirty and how can it be cleaned?”

I stopped washing and tried to remember about the teachings of Buddhism that I have studied. I remembered this:

“According to the teaching, the mind of human beings can be cleaned and can get dirty but it does not get dirty from the things like the body does.  The mind gets dirty from the things coming through seeing, hearing, smelling, eating, tasting, and touching.  How about my mind?  How can I clean my mind at the same I am cleaning my robes? The teachings tell that we must clean it with Dhamma, but how?”

The doubts came more and more. Then I figured out how to stop these thoughts. “Thinking-norh..Thinking-norh..Thinking-norh” and “Doubting-norh..Doubting-norh..” ; this is one way to meditate.  And then I finished washing.

After I brought the robes to hang out, I knew that all the times my thoughts came up meant I made my mind get dirty from the doubts, thoughts, and many questions created. However, everything can be both good and bad.  So if we know the way to get the good and the bad from each thing, we can get it.  It depends on what you want, how you get it, and where you get from.  Considering the doubts, thoughts, and questions happening to me today, they seemed good but it also meant I was making my mind dirty until I was able to settle my mind.  Usually, every day we get a lot of garbage that our mind has to process.

Today, my robes got dirty but I washed them with water and my hands.  My mind got dirty and I washed it with the Dhamma and knowledge; a way of meditation.

How about you? How does your mind get dirty? How do you clean it?

By Phra Maha Ake

Read more from Phra Ake

“Changed thinking killed the anger”

“Giving (Dhana)”

Wat Doi Saket project – “Keep having fun” he said..

……..And it made me wonder…… What do we mean when we say that? What images flash in our mind when we out that phrase?……I think this is a phrase we use a bit too often, but when asked: what do you do for fun? It is a whole different story…Isn’t fun anything that brings us joy and happiness?

Web definitions of FUN:

  • Fun is the enjoyment of pleasure. Fun may be encountered in many human activities during work, social functions, recreation and play, and even seemingly mundane activities of daily living. Fun may often have little to no logical basis, and opinions on whether or not an activity is fun may differ. The distinction between enjoyment and fun is difficult to articulate but real, fun being a more spontaneous, playful, or active event. A source of enjoyment, amusement, or pleasure.
  • Light-hearted mirth, pleasure or amusement.

What about the other side of the story…the parts that are ‘not so nice’? Like when we go on a trip: the waiting in line, the mishaps with the airlines or the transportation, the hard beds……..or when we go to the beach: the sand all over, the heat……..I bet not everything was always lovely, all happy and bright yet when we come back we say: we had so much fun!!

Can we have fun amidst mishaps? Can we have fun while enduring hardships? If fun is doing something joyful, or that brings us joy, are joy and fun synonyms?.

I have been in Thailand volunteering for 6 months….Is ‘having fun’ what I am doing? Let’s see….I am going to give you a glimpse about this volunteering experience:

What do I do here?

I teach English, better said, I help others understand a different language, a language that will empower them to communicate with others when Asia opens its borders like Europe did years ago. These ‘others’ are Buddhist monks/novices. I enjoy teaching them, but I do not understand what they say and it is very hard to verify if they have understood the concept. My students are enjoyable and very nice….yet I cannot ‘high five’ them nor hug them.

Why Buddhist monks and not others?

Well, the Buddha’s teachings resonate with me more than any others I have studied. I feel that if I can help at least one Buddhist monk to communicate in English, eventually he will be able to convey these teachings to non-Thai speakers and point the way towards the end of suffering…towards enlightenment….. Buddhists do not encourage people to become Buddhists, nor be necessarily religious, (maybe some do, but I have yet to meet one) instead they encourage people to practice loving-kindness and awareness….to find the end of suffering…..and to experience this by themselves, not by ‘believing’. However, I have experienced and seen how any good advice like the Buddha’s teachings and his experience can be turned into a religious belief…and Buddhism is indeed a religion.

Why in Thailand and not in Mexico?

I needed to move away for sometime, to re-learn to be independent, to trust that regardless of my tight-limiting boots and gloves I could be OK. To do this I thought I needed to leave my comfort zone. I do not know really why Thailand, something inside me felt always drawn towards this country. Thailand is lovely, but it is also hard to not be close to family and friends, and many days I crave Mexican food.

Why in a Monastery ?

I wanted to be in peaceful place, a place that would also allow me to make peace with these tight gloves and boots…..this 24-7 pain, or sensation. A busy town reminds me constantly of how limited I am now; how I cannot just decide to go down for a stroll down the streets, or go for a hike by a nice waterfall….to name a couple. Keeping my surroundings simple and close gives me certainty of my improvement, of how I can still do lots of things in spite of the limitations I now bear. The monastery has given me this. Students come to class to the building where I live. The school is in walking distance. Life is simple. And yet, pain is pain, here or there.

What is it like to be living at the monastery and/or being in Thailand?

Aside from all the great stories and adventures that I have shared on Facebook and on this blog, aside from me loving it here……..there is the ‘other side of the story’. I leave in a building within the monastery, it is a ‘multi-activity’ place. People who look for a few nights of shelter stay here on a donation basis. Families of new novices stay here when bringing their kids to the monastery. Meetings of all sorts take place here…..etc….My room is inside this building, it is spacious yet simple,….one bed, one tubular structure for a closet, a small desk, and a small weak tubular end table. The bathroom is of communal use -somedays I have to stand in line to take a shower- There is a stove-less kitchen which didn’t use to have a microwave, now it does, and finally after 3 months of cold food, I can heat it up.

There are lots of spiders and rare insects, which I do not find precisely loving. Spiders build their webs faster than I have ever imagined!

If I leave my food or drink unattended for a few minutes the ants get to it before me! In the beginning I would not eat anything previously visited by them, currently I just shake them off….;) I must have an ant colony inside me by now!!

At the market…colorful, new vegetables, everyone smiling….and yet it is very hard to recognize what kind of food they are selling….all looks very different and no signs in English to help me, people do not speak English and when they see me…they smile and say “aroy, aroy” which means ‘delicious’.

Many activities go on at the monastery, most of them I am not aware of, nor do I understand, yet I participate and join in to experience and take pictures. Every activity is held, of course, in Thai….so I just sit there, observing, smiling and attentive to a signal from one of my friends to tell me what happens next.

Thai language is rather difficult because it has 5 different tones to each syllable…and if I am not careful I can end up saying some not so nice things. ;) Some sounds are so new that I can hardly pronounce them. But I have learned quite a bit.

I live alone, if there are no classes I really have no ‘thing’ to do and…well…like my great aunt always said: ’No hay nada mas tranquilo que un bolsillo vacio’…..there is nothing more tranquil than an empty pocket….

I have a roof and there is always food somewhere, so basic things are covered. I have seen how simplicity can bring great joy.

Which country will you go next?

A lot of people have asked me this particular question. I guess most volunteers are usually volunteering while they travel…..You see, I have not been able to work like a normal(?) person since October ’06. In order to accomplish this new recovery step I received help from many friends and family, who are always in my prayers…(for lack of a better word). My budget is extremely limited so unlike other volunteers who have participated in this program, I am not here ‘traveling’, I am here…just volunteering, which it is in itself a wonderful activity. Everyone usually asks me: ‘what country will you visit next?’…..This is not my case, I am here doing a simple thing: helping out, working without any monetary retribution. However, I have been very lucky for I have been able to visit and see many different places with the friends I have made here. I love what I am doing and it feels great. Traveling..?…we are all already traveling…on this earth.

Two sides of a story…….Two ends of the stick…..if a stick always has two ends, then…. which of the ends is the stick?..the right the left?…the top the bottom?….I think life is the same way……some are good days, some are not…some great feelings, some not so much…some laughter, some tears….some joy, some sadness….some days Thailand is great, some days is hard…some super busy days, some free days…… happens in both ends….we cannot have one without the other.

Volunteering is great but it is also challenging…leaving my comfort zone is enriching but it is also tough……..I am working hard helping as much as possible but I am also allowing myself to rest and do recreational activities…………therefore, if experiencing both ends of the stick fully while dancing to the music played by life is what it was meant with the phrase: “keep having fun”…then I guess that is exactly what I have been doing and hopefully will continue to do so. I hope you do too!

Marcia Somellera