I had been thinking of attending a meditation retreat since last year. I had mentioned it as one of the things on my to-do list in a previous blog. I had been meditating under the guidance of an app ever since I moved back home and thought it was high time I learn from actual flesh-and-blood teachers. I finally took the plunge this April.
I had already checked out a couple of retreat centres in Dharamshala more than a year ago. On checking their respective websites, I found out that one of them had a wake-up gong at six while the other one had at four . The thought of waking up at four in the morning didn’t really make my heart sing. So the decision was easy to make– the retreat centre with 6 AM gong it was (Of course google reviews and my impression of the centres also played a part). This one wasn’t only about meditation but was a ten-day “Introduction to Buddhism” retreat, unlike the one I didn’t choose which was a pure Vipassana meditation retreat.
The Tushita meditation centre was nestled in the forests of Dharamkot and the environment was extremely conducive for meditation. It was surrounded by majestic, tall, coniferous trees on all sides – even within the campus. Only the monkeys broke the complete silence of the retreat.
The reporting time was 1 PM but I got a little late (Lesson: public transportation can be unreliable). A long winding road from the entrance of the centre lead to the campus. Most of my fellow retreatants had already dropped their luggage in the mess and gathered outside it for orientation by the time I got there. I had expected some life-worn IT guys to show up for the retreat but lo! What did we have here – a whole bunch of foreigners amidst which it was difficult to find an Indian face. Well, clearly the IT guys didn’t have time for this. I thought back to my days in the corporate world with my 15 annual leaves. Would I spend 10 of them in retreat? Umm, not really. I would rather be lazying at home or living it up in Goa. Well, there was my answer.
I would find out gradually that these people were less the type wanting respite from living hectic, busy lives in pursuit of material gains and were more the type seeking spiritual knowledge and self – actualization. We were a batch of 102 belonging to 35 different countries with just 5-6 of us belonging to India. Most of the foreigners were on months-long trip to the subcontinent and Tushita was just one of the stops.
A German nun laid down the ground rules of the retreat – no phones, no sex, no alcohol, no killing, no leaving the retreat premises and total silence at all times. Her speech was peppered with humor. It was never boring. Let me give an example.
The nun while explaining the tenet of not harming any living being during retreat began, “At this altitude we do not have any mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue. But we do have mosquitoes. Now if a mosquito sits on your arm and you have the instinct to kill it, think that you have litres of blood in you. The mosquito just needs a tiny bit of it.” She gestured her hands to show how little. She continued, “You should think why not? You would hardly feel a sting and lose negligible blood but the mosquito will feel full. If you still don’t feel like sharing your blood with it, just shoo the mosquito away. Don’t kill it. It can find another kind soul to do the needful.”
So I already liked the first person from the centre. Whatever else the nuns had renunciated, they clearly hadn’t renunciated humor.
After the orientation, the process of checking in began. It included room allotment (I got a place in a four-bed dorm), deposition of mobile phones and other electronic items, making the donation for the course and assignment of karma yoga jobs.
Karma yoga in Sanskrit means “work which is done to benefit others”. Karma yoga jobs basically involved helping around the centre. The stated aim was to help us be humble, foster a sense of community and remove any sense of entitlement apart from the obvious goal of keeping the place up and running. It was also an opportunity to practice meditation by being present in the moment while going through everyday chores. I was given an option of choosing either toilet cleaning or dish-washing. Not that I have a problem with toilet cleaning (I have done that aplenty) but it didn’t necessarily fill my heart with joy to think of cleaning the toilets used by 102+ people. There were some more serious seekers who vociferously volunteered for toilet-cleaning jobs. Good for them! There were multiple such jobs like cleaning the mess, sweeping the campus, watering the plants etc. After the check-in process, everyone was given instructions on how to go about their respective jobs. I was amused to know that my job had a detailed plan of five people over four sinks performing various sub tasks in the dish-washing process. Who knew washing dishes could be so technical!
Later, in the evening we gathered in the main teaching hall called a Gompa. It was a magnificent work of art with thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist paintings) all over the walls and the ceiling. The artwork depicted various Buddhist themes and teachings. At the head of the room was a huge statue of Lama Tsongkhapa – the founder of the Gelug school of Buddhism which is taught in the centre. (It is one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is the head of this school)
The teacher for our course was an American nun Venerable Drolma. She took us through what the course would entail and talked about the basics of meditation. To my pleasant surprise, she had a sense of humor as well. It looked like it was going to be a fun ride. Day 1 was basically a getting settled into the retreat and introduction day.
The routine : Days 2-7
The first session everyday was meditation at 6:45 in the morning. It was taught by a very un”monk”y Bolivian – Felippe, our mediation guide for the course. He dressed in fancy jackets everyday, had all his hair (unlike the monks and nuns who had shaved heads) and kept a goatee. I thought he added some pizzazz to the teaching staff. It was nice to see a regular guy teach meditation in a sea of monks and nuns.
We practised shamatha (mindfulness) in this morning session. I loved the name of the meditation- sounded really grand even though it was the most basic meditation. It was the practice of developing a calm and focused mind by concentrating on an object of our choosing like breath.
It was followed by breakfast and my karma yoga job. The best part was I didn’t have to stand in line at breakfast and could go straight to the food as I was a part of the breakfast dish-washing team (the earlier the dishwashers finished their food, the sooner they could start on the very detailed process of cleaning dishes).
The rest of the day consisted of two Buddhist philosophy sessions, two more guided meditation sessions, a 45-minute yoga session and a one hour group discussion where we contemplated on the topics taught in the philosophy class. Group discussion was the only hour in the day when we were allowed to talk. We could ask doubts in the class, but that was it. Even breakfast, lunch, dinner happened in total silence.
We had a two hour lunch break during which some people did their karma yoga jobs (some had them in the morning break, others in the afternoon) , some visited the library, some read books, some watched the monkeys play and create a ruckus. I used to take a bath and lounge in the sun on a yoga mat, plenty of which were available on campus. I also liked sitting on any of the multiple benches strewn around the campus and ogling at the beauty of the forest all around. The weather was very pleasant through the day and it made the break so much more enjoyable.
The sessions wrapped up at 8:15 in the evening every day. Some people continued meditating even after the session, some read Buddhist philosophy books, some stretched their tired limbs. And what did I do? I would head straight to my room and doze off! I was too conscious of having enough energy for the day and being extra cautious, I was easily sleeping for nine hours everyday, which was far more than I usually did. Our phones had been deposited and to make matters worse, my wrist watch had stopped working. So apart from the ringing of the gong, I had no way of knowing the time. I let the gong direct my day. It was a unique experience. It had an old world charm- it reminded me of school days where we used to wait for the gong for a period to end. Except in this case I depended on it for doing every single thing throughout the day!
To be contd.. Chapter-2