I have talked about various aspects of days 2-7 in all the previous chapters. Concluding this series by talking about the last three days..
Days 8 and 9
The last two full days of retreat were completely dedicated to meditation with just a stupa walk as a breather on one day and a Dharma movie on the other (Buddhism is also known as Dharma). Teachings had concluded on Day 7 and yoga and group discussion were off for these two days. I was apprehensive. I could sit and meditate for three 45-minute sessions everyday but meditating all day? That was a whole different ball game! It gets tiring for the body. I had already changed meditation postures twice during the retreat – I had started with sitting cross-legged on the floor, then had moved on to using a Japanese meditation stool and when my body got tired of even that – I had shifted to one of the chairs lining the Gompa. I felt like an old person sitting on a chair to meditate but I didn’t care – my body was not prepared for ten consecutive days of so much sitting.
The eighth day began with Shamatha as usual. I was wary. What if they make us do Shamatha all day? It is very rewarding but also a huge challenge and gets boring. And sleep comes calling too. To my pleasant surprise, that was not the case.
The morning session was conducted by our meditation guide Felippe. But our post-breakfast sessions were conducted by our teacher Venerable Drolma. She took us through visualizations on loving-kindness and compassion. In one of the meditations, we were asked to visualize the most beautiful place we could imagine and then visualize a loving creature present with us there. The creature could be anyone from mythology or a real person like a grandfather. Then we were asked to visualize what this creature would say to us if we were beating ourselves up about something. We were asked to stay in that place with this creature, listening to him. When she asked us to say goodbye to the creature, I had tears in my eyes. I didn’t want to say goodbye. I was having a beautiful chat with my late grandfather. It felt so real. Venerable Drolma concluded the meditation by saying that the creature resides within us and we can summon him anytime. For me, this was one of the most impactful of all the meditations.*
Post lunch, the stupa walk was called off because of the rain. Instead we got to see the Dharma movie a day earlier. The Gompa was converted into a movie theatre by setting up a projector. The atmosphere was lovely. It was dark, the clouds were rumbling outside and rain was pattering the walls and windows of the Gompa. We got cozy- wrapping ourselves up in shawls and getting comfortable on the meditation cushions. We were not allowed to eat in the Gompa and that was the only thing missing from the matinee show experience. We saw a documentary called “Monk with a camera” about a wealthy American Nicky Vreeland who leaves it all behind to become a Buddhist monk. It talked about how his pre-monkhood passion of photography helps him after becoming a monk. It was an engrossing movie and also acted as an introduction to a guest teacher we were having the next day named Rato Rinpoche. After watching the movie, I was wondering that since the movie is telling the tale of a long time ago, how is this person still alive considering he was so old in the movie? It didn’t add up. Later when the teacher was telling us about him, she mentioned he was 97-years old. It finally made sense. I was in awe – such an aged person criss-crossing the globe to share his wisdom.
Day 9 was again a meditation day with the Dharma movie replaced by Dharma talk. We all stood outside the Gompa to welcome Rinpoche. He was a sprightly 97-year old with an unmistakable glint in his eyes. He gave a talk on “The path to enlightenment”. He was very engaging. I looked into his old visage and thought about what an incredible life he had lead – escaping the Chinese invasion of Tibet on foot across the Himalayas, then moving to New York to set up Tibet Centre there and dedicating his entire life to helping others. And while doing all this, also managing to star in a Hollywood movie! He had a sharp sense of humor. By then, I had already realized that the monks and nuns have a close relationship with humor.
Day 9 was also the day of the Mahayana precepts. They are eight vows that one keeps for 24-hours. Most of the vows like not killing a human being and not stealing seemed easy but my stumbling block was the vow on fasting – eating just once in the day. I wasn’t sure I would do well with just one meal. I didn’t want to spend all the meditations of the day thinking about food. I decided to forego taking the Precepts. So as most of the class took the Mahayana precepts at six in the morning, I went to show my support. It was followed by the usual Shamatha session at 6:30. I was already hungry after the end of the meditation session and I headed straight for breakfast as soon as it ended. I gorged on food and was happy I hadn’t given in to “peer pressure” and taken the vows!
Day 10 was a festive day as it was the day we could finally talk! Our retreat ended at 1 in the afternoon. After that we would be free to talk to people we had been silently observing all these days. There was a lunch picnic planned in the greenery infront of the Gompa .
It was also the last day of my Karma Yoga. The job ended with hugs and namastes and an appreciation of how everyone had worked with team spirit.
The lunch was a sumptuous spread (vegetarian of course) with everything from multiple varieties of salad and sabzi, pizza, pulav, daal, to a few varieties of sweet dishes. There was not enough space in the plate to try every dish at once. (To be fair, the food on a daily basis was sumptuous and healthy. Every meal had made-in-house peanut butter, honey, Amul butter and various varieties of freshly baked bread. For breakfast we had different varieties of porridge with bread, for lunch we had salad, a fruit, something special like manchurion or casserole, along with dal, rice and a couple of vegetable dishes. I used to eagerly look forward to meal times.)
As soon as we had filled our plates, we sought out people and started to chat. It was like a dam bursting. All these days everyone had dedicated themselves to silence and now everyone wanted to talk.
I got together with my discussion group girls. We all properly got introduced to Layla’s boyfriend . I told him how he had built a reputation in the group for cleaning out plates upon plates of food but still being thin as a pole. He joked, “I meditate the food away.” He also added that he had recovered the cost of the retreat in food alone. I had no doubt about that!
People moved from group to group so as to talk to different people. I joined a group that included two girls who were both gong ringers for our course. They had gelled and it was evident. Basically, everyone who had been grouped together in karma yoga jobs had become close. They talked about their experiences with gong ringing – how in morning duty when one of them had to ring the wake up gong, she had to deal with a few angry stares from sleepy retreatants. I used to wonder how the gong ringers got up.. I asked them. Apparently they were given alarm clocks by Tushita to wake up. So much work by Tushita just to avoid any use of cellphones in the campus. That was dedication!
I sought out the lone guy from Saudi Arabia in my class. Just a few days prior to joining the retreat, I had read a first-person account of the miserable condition of women in his secretive country. I had so many questions. I mean what are the chances of casually running into someone from Saudi Arabia? And then to actually be in a friendly environment where you can ask all your queries? It was like hitting a jackpot.
Then there was another guy I wanted to ask a few questions to. He used to sit in front of me in class and had captured my attention from the get-go. I knew that there were two Tibetans in my class and I thought he was one of them. He was very peaceful looking. He always had a serene smile on his face. He was like a taller, fairer Bruce Lee, with serenity as his superpower instead of martial arts. I sought him out to ask him “How??”. That’s when I got a shock. He was not Tibetan, he was French. He looked Tibetan to me because he had a Korean father. I didn’t see that coming! And here I was, projecting his qualities onto Tibetan people.
I had interjected while he was in conversation with his fellow karma yogi in toilet cleaning duty – an American guy who lived in the forests working for the American forest department. He had been a raging drug addict and had transformed his life to live as a yogi in the forests. He had shared his life story in the class and I was happy to be introduced to him. Just like other karma yoga groups , the faux Tibetan and the Park ranger guy got along like a house on fire. They said it came from “cleaning the sh*t of the world” together. Everybody seemed to have developed a sense of humor after the retreat!
To wrap up, it was a great learning experience, so much so that I went back for an intermediate course this September. That is a whole another story.