Monday, September 17, 2018

My Meditation Retreat at Tushita

During my visit to India earlier this year, I attended a ten-day Introduction to Buddhism & Meditation retreat at Tushita, a Tibetan Buddhist center in Dharamsala.

An assemblage of shoes outside the meditation hall.

As there would be no contact with the outside world for the ten days, the hours leading up to the retreat felt as though I was preparing for my impending death. There would be no connection with friends or family; we had to surrender our phones and laptops. In fact, we had to surrender all electronics -- cameras, eBook readers, iPods. All matters needed to be tidied up in advance; all final communications had to be made, and all final electronic pleasures had to be enjoyed.

While we weren't allowed to leave the premises,
we were allowed to walk the paths through the meditation center.

As is the case for many meditation retreats, there was a strict code of conduct:
  • Respect all life; do not intentionally kill any living beings.
  • Respect others' property; do not steal or take anything not freely given.
  • Be honest and straightforward; do not lie or intentionally deceive others.
  • Be celibate; do not engage in sexual activity, kissing, holding hands, hugging, massaging, or other displays of affection.
  • Be alert and mindful; do not consume any intoxicants.
  • Be silent; do not communicate with verbal, written, or body language.

Plaques were posted on trees and buildings
reminding visitors to respect all sentient beings.

Even the scornful scorpions were to be respected.

The first few hours of the retreat were dedicated to registration and orientation matters. During this time, we took care of logistics and learned of the expectations for the next ten days.

We were each assigned rooms. Those over 50 years of age and those early to register for the retreat were offered a single room. Having registered early, I was offered my own room. I opted, instead, for a four-person dorm room. In retrospect, I should have accepted the single room, as the solitude would have been preferred.

We were also assigned our daily karmic jobs. Assignments included tasks such as dishwashing, bathroom cleaning, and sweeping (there is nothing sweeter than seeing a sweeper relocate a ladybug from the sidewalk to a nearby plantling). I was entrusted with the most "prestigious" karmic job -- morning gong-ringing.

The gong.

The morning gong-ringing schedule.

My gong-ringing duties earned me celebrity-like status. With nearly 100 students from all over the world attending the retreat, it felt a little awkward having the limelight shone upon me:

Suffice it to say that everyone knew the morning gong-ringer -- me, Sarah.

The end of the orientation session marked the commencement of the silence.

Our silence was interruped each day by the Venerable Namgyel, who provided insightful teachings on Buddhism. Venerable Namgyel is an Australian monk who has been studying and teaching Buddhism in India and Nepal for the last 30 years. (It was Venerable Namgyel, from the audio clip above, who advised the retreat participants not to hate Sarah.)

Venerable Namgyel.

I loved Venerable Namgyel's sense of humor. And I adored his accent. I loved his mantra for today's dwellers of the western world: "Om, me, me, me." I loved that he said prostrations are a form of Tibetan aerobics. I laughed when Venerable Namgyel compared the unknowns of dying to traveling through India without a Lonely Planet Guide. And I laughed when he described the way we rewrite stories in our minds as "putting jam on caca."

The meditations were of the analytical variety. The goal of analytical meditations is to gain deeper understanding and an eventual intelligible realization via systematic investigation. Once the realization is reached, one then uses single-pointed meditation to concentrate on the realization, thereby habitualizing an improved way of thinking.

The meditation sessions were guided by a young man named Renato. Renato had a peaceful demeanor and a soothing voice -- perfect for meditations. I loved whenever Renato said the phrase "clean/clear"; the repeating "cl" sounds were like clinking crystals.

Here is a brief snippet of Renato giving a meditation on the topic of "Precious Life." My apologies, but Renato does not say "clean/clear" in this clip:

The teachings and meditations were held in a cheerfully painted meditation hall, or gompa.

The outside of the gompa.

The inside of the gompa.

Painted on the walls of the gompa were various quotes. My favorite was this: "If it can be remedied, why be upset about it? If it cannot be remedied, what is the use of being upset about it?" Tis such beautiful advice; too much of our lives is plagued with exaggerated and unnecessary worry and upset.

Adding to the vibrance of the buildings and prayer flags were the many monkeys who lived in the forests surrounding Tushita. Venerable Namgyel joked that if we wished, we could sit outside and be entertained by Monkey TV.

At times, the monkeys were a joy to observe -- when the mothers carried their babies or when the monkeys groomed each other. At other times, though, the monkeys were frighteningly aggressive. If you decided to eat your meals outside, you needed to closely guard your food, else a monkey swoop out of nowhere to steal a biscuit. And though you very well may have intended to walk the short path to the meditation hall, you sometimes were detoured along the longer path so as to avoid the troop of monkeys dawdling in the middle of the sidewalk.

During one meditation session, it seemed as though the monkeys had engaged in flat out war just outside the gompa. Their screams were blood-curdling loud, and they kept rattling the security bars on the windows. I couldn't help but imagine a movie plot in which a group of peaceful meditators in India are massacred, one by one, by a tribe of monkeys scheming to gain superiority on the hierarchy of species.

Though we were asked not to feed the monkeys,
the monkeys weren't shy about feeding themselves. 

While the monkeys were amusing to observe, what was more amusing was observing my monkey mind, as it freely swung from one thought-branch to another. As the volume of the external world was decreased, the volume of my internal world became overbearingly loud. Silence was amazing at amplifying the thoughts in my head.

I was surprised at how annoyed I was by my fellow retreat goers. One girl wouldn't shut up with her coughing! Another woman, the one with the bleached dreadlocks, the one whose face looked like that of a bulldog, kept falling off her meditation bench! And the guy with the curly black hair, the one who I nicknamed "Tourettes guy," well, he had this annoying fidgety twitch! Egh!

I was surprised by how such trivial nonsense became utterly paramount. I was hating people I had never even met! It crossed my mind that my fellow retreat goers were likely actors, paid to help teach me the concept of compassion.

Thankfully, my annoyances were not unique to me. There is a term for such aggravations: "vipassana vendetta." (Vipassana is a type of silent meditation retreat.) On the flipside, there is a phenomenon called "vipassana romance," in which a meditator fantasizes about a fellow retreat-goer. Yeah, ok, I had that going on, too. That Israeli-American with the gray locks and the blue eyes was adorbs!

While nothing ever came of my imagined romance, I did get to spend time with one of the most admired men on the planet. As you may recall, I was able to meet the Dalai Lama just days after arriving in India (see My Meeting with the Dalai Lama). During the retreat, my fellow meditators and I had the great pleasure of meeting with the Dalai Lama...again. Two meetings with the Dalai Lama! How fortunate was I!

The retreat goers at Tushita have their photo taken with the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama's face is circled (in green).
My face, also circled, is just to the right of the Dalai Lama.

I learned a lot of wonderful things during my time at the retreat.

On Meditation
  • Meditation is a means of investigating ourselves. If we want to understand more about ourselves, we should meditate
  • Meditation is about controlling our minds. If we want to be more in control of our thoughts and the way we live, we should meditate. 
  • Whenever there is resistance in meditation, we should go into the resistance; that's where progress is made.
  • We should make sure that whatever decisions we make on the cushion are carried through off the cushion.

On Karma

Karma is the concept that a person's actions decide their future fate. If you act badly, bad things will result. If you act goodly, good things will result.
  • In the words of Venerable Namgyel, negative karma is like "throwing out a boomerang that is lined with broken glass"; the karma will eventually come back, and when it does, it won't be pretty.
  • To avoid a bloody mess, we should fill our days with lots of positive karmic imprints. 

On Self Love
  • Self-love is ultimately about giving more to other people; without giving to ourselves, you have nothing to give to others.

On Living a Good Life
  • We, particularly in the western world, believe that happiness is external -- that it comes from things and people outside of us. In truth, happiness is internal. Why rely on other things and people (for which we have no agency) to make us happy when we can make ourselves happy?
  • Create causes of happiness, and avoid causes of unhappiness.
  • Whenever negative thoughts arise, offer love to the negativity.
  • Whenever negativity arises, don't suppress it, as this does damage to the body. Likewise, don't express it, as this does karmic damage. Rather, analyze it.
  • If something bad happens, regret it, fix it, and make peace with it right away.
  • There is always a choice between drama and dharma. (Hint: One of these choices is better than the other.)
  • Rather than judging and criticizing, see things simply for what they are. As Venerable Namgyel explained, "Just see shape and color. Shape and color."
  • Though people may tell us that we are good or bad, we remain the same, irrespective of what is said. Other's words can't change our realities, and so we shouldn't inflate or deflate our egos when people praise or criticize us.
  • Sometimes intellectuality can be problematic. We can read tons of books and develop countless intellectual ideas. But if we don't have an understanding of how to put that knowledge and those ideas into action, we waste our time and energies.
  • It is human nature that as soon as we find something we like, we start looking for something better. To end this cycle of endless suffering, we should appreciate what we have.

Despite the learnings, I struggled with a lot of material presented in the teachings. After due consideration, I decided to leave the retreat a day and a half early. I left for three reasons:
  1. The teachings were becoming too dogmatic for my liking. I've always appreciated Buddhism for its secular teachings, but more'n'more the teachings focused on reincarnation, a belief I do not recognize. While I believe in a form of reincarnation within a lifetime -- the ability to transform oneself into a better being -- I don't believe in reincarnation across lifetimes.
  2. I was hoping to gain appreciation for a new style of mediation during the retreat. Prior to the retreat, I had a form of meditation, one supported by music, that suited me quite well. While I see the value in analytical meditation, it's not my preferred style of meditation. (Note the final bullet point under "On Living a Good Life": appreciate what we have.) 
  3. Life is short. Time is valuable. As the retreat came at the end of my two-month stay in India, I felt I could make better use of a day and a half.
In addition to my month-long yoga class (see Reflections on My Yoga Learnings), and my Volunteering with the Tibetan Refugees, my experience at Tushita was one of the defining experiences of my trip to India. Thank you, Venerable Namgyel, for your wonderful teachings.


  1. Thank you Sarah for your kindness. We missed you at the end of the retreat.

    1. And thank YOU for sharing your insightful teachings. :)

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your experience Sarah and as always I enjoyed your blunt honesty about how you felt and I love that you do not compromise your time for anyone. I like the teaching "Shape and colour".. definetly going to try this as a mantra when things and people annoy me. Love

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Unknown. Wish I knew who you were.


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