As a sit comfortably in my friend’s home in Boulder, it sometimes seems hard to believe that two weeks ago I was in the middle of an intense, silent, 10 day Tibetan Buddhist meditation retreat high in the hills of India. Despite leaving the country and now being thousands of miles away, many of the powerful lessons of the week continue to walk alongside me.
I learned of Tushita from another traveler while in Rishikesh – originally my plan was to do a 10-day Vipassana retreat (right next door to Tushita), but given my interest and practice in Buddhism, Tushita seemed like a better fit. On the Vipassana course you can expect to learn a meditation technique and have the opportunity to practice it over 10 days of strict silence. Apart from a 90 minute video each evening, there is almost no teaching of the philosophy involved, while the emphasis of Tushita’s Introduction to Buddhism course is on explaining Buddhist philosophy, using a few different meditation techniques to help you to absorb and apply this knowledge to your own experiences. Sold!
The course preceded my flight home to America by just a few days, and it met all expectations of being a fantastic way to center, prepare for returning home and of providing an opportunity to evaluate many aspects of my mind.
The initial afternoon provided a chance to briefly get settled in, chat with other people before the silence began, get my Karma Yoga job for the week (scrubbing toilets!) and explore the meditation center. I was immediately impressed by the facilities, specifically the main Gompa (meditation hall). The meditation cushions were very new, the building itself was beautifully designed in Tibetan fashion with Buddha statues, Thangkha paintings and was adorned with photographs of the Dalai Lama and other teachers in the lineage. The meditation center itself was high on a hill above McLeod Ganj and was very near to where the Dalai lama lived for many years when he first fled Tibet into exile in 1959. The area was deeply forested and in habited by a large family of monkeys who provided endless entertainment in the wake of no television, iPods or other forms of modern distraction!
Our teacher, Venerable Robina Courtin, introduced herself to us on the first evening and with very little time to waste, dove right into the teachings. Robina, her teachers, Tushita, and the greater Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition(FPMT) all hail from one of the 4 major branches of Tibetan Buddhism, Gelug, under spiritual direction of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This school was started by Lama Tsongkhapa around the year 1400, and follows a treatise called Lam-Rim, often translated as The Great Treatise On The Stages Of The Path To Enlightenment. At first I felt a little turned-off by what felt like cookie cutter Buddhism, but soon realized the beautiful simplicity of these teachings that struck at the core of Buddha’s message.
The teachings were presented as two wings of a bird: Wisdom and Compassion. On the Wisdom path we discussed things such as impermanence and death, karma and the law of cause and effect, Buddha’s four noble truths, dependent arising and emptiness. These teachings are core to any branch of Buddhism – whether Zen, Hinayana, or Tibetan. I’ve read countless books intellectually explaining the meaning of each of these teachings, but until I’ve have a teacher skillfully deliver these teachings in the midst of a place where you can meditate and practice upon them, they haven’t resonated within my being. This has also been my experience in Zen practice. Robina, following the Lam-Rim method and her own teaching style and experience (living Dharma – each teacher creates their own Buddhism built on a mixture of their teacher’s teachings and their own human experience), skillfully walked through the Buddha’s teachings in one of the most simplistic and logical manners I have experienced. The Gelug tradition is famous for its use of spirited debate amongst its practitioners and Robina used this method consistently with us as we asked her questions, really challenging individuals assumptions and worldviews. On the second day I noticed that the evening meditation sessions were replaced by teaching sessions and simply asked her why ( I was concerned that a Buddhist meditation retreat would only have a couple hours of meditation in the morning). Before I knew it I was in a challenging debate about the meaning of meditation, my attachment to a specific version of meditation and overall being constructively told to not question my teachers methods! I really had to check my ego at the door during the debate because I clearly watched as my emotions around self-protection (being put on the spot in front of 50 people) were deluding my ability to have a clear conversation where I learned something from a teacher…
The other aspect of the teaching is the Compassion wing or path of the Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is the wish to attain complete enlightenment (that is, Buddhahood) in order to be of benefit to all sentient beings trapped in cyclic existence (samsāra) who have not yet reached Buddhahood. One who has bodhicitta as the primary motivation for all of his or her activities is called a bodhisattva. The teachings followed methods such as cultivating equanimity, recognizing all sentient beings as One’s Mother (at one point in a past life throughout eons of time), contemplating the kindness of all beings, recognizing the short-comings of cherishing the self and the benefits of cherishing others and generosity. For me these teachings were extremely powerful and touching. One can follow a logical framework that clearly shows that we will not find happiness through ourselves. The path is through others. We know this at a heart level yet we live our lives so completely in conflict with this. I’m nowhere near living bodhicitta, but I’m looking to plant small seeds where I can, to start turning the ship around in an effort to sail this path.
Alongside the teachings we would do guided meditations, and in the evenings something called a vajrasattva purification practice, a visualization practice which is sort of like a confession for Buddhists, but purely within ones own mind you are purifying seeds of negative karma. I’m not even going to try to explain it here – as I was very skeptical myself at first but the results were incredible for me. I had a ton of purification happen during the week, a lot of release around old regrets and misdeeds, things that haven’t even been in my conscious memory in a long time.
The ten days went by much too quickly. The schedule wasn’t too rigorous and I found time to read, continue my Yoga practice and reflect quietly with a cup of chai as I watched the monkeys play. I found myself very in tune with the environment, spending little time thinking of home despite its nearness. I connected deeply with several people despite the silence and imagine we’ll remain connected for a long time. Karma ripening, Robina would say. Its incredible how few words you actually need when people are living the dharma together, walking alongside each other in this beautiful journey of existence.
Ultimately my Tushita experience was an incredible opportunity to remain connected to my own mind, to watch habitual delusional and attachment thinking, to work on cultivating compassion and living a life more attune with wisdom, calm-abiding and love.