Do our Dharma retreats in India differ from the West? Oh Yes!

I first arrived in India in 1967 six or seven months after travelling overland from that wet and windy island off the west coast of mainland Europe. This February, 2014, it will be 40 years of teaching in India. We have moved our silent retreat from the Royal Thai Monastery in Bodh Gaya to the Thai Monastery, Sarnath, near Varanasi.

Thousands have attended the Bodh Gaya retreats in the last four decades. It has a special place in the hearts of many, but not all, undeterred by the harsh conditions. In the The basement, right underneath the temple,   60 men slept on a thin mattress on the floor. During the day they were forced to listen to the thousands of pilgrims entering the temple just above their ceiling.

They lived in cramped conditions, sharing the space with rats, mice, snoring men, others dreaming out loud and other tossing and turning in the night.  They had to squeeze through a tiny space, around a metre by a metre, one at a time, to get into the basement and out of it. The nightly experience become famous in the world of hard core meditators. Guys joined the retreat to take on the challenge of sleeping in the basement to test their equanimity. Not all passed the test. Outside the basement, we had two buckets for those who needed a night time piss.

The conditions for the women were not much better. Eight cramped into a room intended for two women. When they got up in the night, it was hard to get back to the mattress thought the rucksacks, clothing and other items on the floor. They were no cupboards. The barking dogs, day and night, were never far away. A dog would bark in another monastery and all the dogs in the Thai Monastery would respond in unison. Dogs everywhere in Bodh Gaya then went barking mad.

The meditation hall squeezed in around 120 or 130 internationals including monks, nuns and citizens from India. If you moved in the sitting meditation, you probably touched the knee of the person next to you. You would hear the weirdest of sounds coming out of the throats of the meditators, as well as screams, chronic coughing and primal noises. Pilgrim coaches turned up outside the Dharma, hall day and night, with hundreds of pilgrims getting off or on the coaches amidst much conversations. A silent retreat. Well yes, from time to time.

Men and women were provided with half bucket of luke warm water every three days for a shower. Retreats were held in January or early February – the winter season. For the first 15 years, we did not offer warm water. I gave the concession when meditators agreed to make a small fire outdoors to heat huge saucepans of water. Meditators then formed a queue for their ration of warm water.

Recollections of Retreats in the Thai Monastery

I have listened to countless stories in confidence from participants involving events, public or private, sometimes around power, money and affairs of gurus, lamas, ajahns, zen masters, vipassana teachers, yoga teachers, advaita teachers East and West including this wallah. I can also recall on the Bodh Gaya retreats:

  •  The Catholic priest from India who no longer believed in God.
  • The elderly American shouting out in the monastery grounds  at the top of his voice in the middle of the night “If the Dalai Lama does not get rid of his anger, it will follow him into eternity.”
  • The bank robber on the Interpol list who was on the run from the UK.
  • The 16 year old Scottish girl who fled her aristocratic family to travel overland to India. Her family had no idea what happened to her.
  • The US disciple plotting to kill Osho. Osho had convinced him to give up his inheritance to Osho.
  • The well educated European woman who believed for days she was the Buddha, She claimed I was her disciple, commanded to giving teachings on her behalf.
  • My six month old daughter sleeping on my lap in front of the meditation hall during a meditation.
  • The meditators arriving with malaria, dog bites, TB, cholera, hepatitis, appendicitis, amoebas, pneumonia, fever, parasites, drug addictions, bronchitis, dysentery, worms, bedbugs, fleas and numerous other ailments. At times, we relied on the wisdom of the doctor in the village to prescribe medicine, as well as our medical manager on the retreat. The nearest hospital is a three to four hour taxi journey to Patna where the most robberies take place on any road in India. Taxi drivers refuse to use the road at night.
  • The breatharian who lived on air, chai and a bit of biscuit for 20 days.
  • The Tibetan monk having a secret affair with a young Western woman
  • The Canadian who went into a spell of mental disorder after taking a new kind of anti-malaria tablet.
  • The Argentinean who had taken far too many drugs.
  • The Brazilian artist with her two young children. She died a decade or so later.
  • The various people from various countries who said they remembered their past lives, saw ghosts, left their body, could read the minds of others, got all their chakras spinning and developed psychic powers.
  • The anguished Dutchman who gave all his savings to a Lama. The Lama told him he would be reborn as a disciple of Maitreya Buddha if he donated  his money to him.
  • The young Israeli robbed of two years of savings in cash on the day he arrived in Bodh Gaya and four days after he landed in India.
  • The Indian bride who cried over the way her American husband and mother-in-law treated her on the retreat.
  • The range of ethics, Samadhi, jhanas and formless realms that the meditators experienced to varying depths.
  • The Chilean who had been tortured for a year during the military dictatorship
  • The English woman who killed herself in Dharamsala. Her friends found a long unfinished letter to me which they posted onto me.
  • The mother on a search for meaning after her son committed suicide.
  • The sadhu who heard voices telling him he was the saviour of the world.
  • The reports of happiness, joy, inner peace and gratitude.
  • The frantic Canadian citizen who I had to wrestle to the ground in my room at 3 am.
  • The GI who slaughtered Vietnamese villagers.
  • The  experiences and realisations of the significance of love (metta), compassion, appreciate joy and equanimity.
  • The Austrian who laughed aloud for eight hours on the lawn without a break.
  • Various Israeli soldiers traumatised in invasions of Lebanon in 1978, 1982 and 2006.
  • The kindly Argentinean professor who fell in love with the Dharma.
  • The French woman who cried and cried throughout the night. She insisted I hold her hand through the night  in her vulnerability under her mosquito net until she slept.
  • The mice or rats that triggered a collective stoic stillness or a pandemonium in one corner of the meditation hall.
  • The Spanish cyclist, who cycled to India from Madrid,  who bought several bicycles for people in the village.
  • The people in the Dharma hall who fainted, had hysterical moments, made animal noises and continued their meditation.
  • The meditators who rushed out of the hall in a panic. Some had told me in the on-to-one sessions they had thoughts of self-harm.
  • The countess numbers who sat cross legged on the teacher’s bench at the front of the Dharma hall with myself (or Radha) and bared the depths of their inner life to a hall full of people during the evening Inquiry sessions
  • The teachers who assisted me after around 15 years of teaching the retreat by myself. Some told me that all their retreats in the West were ‘a piece of cake’ compared to the minds they dealt with in Bodh Gaya.
  • The Austrian (and plenty of  others) who refused to take his daily medication for his schizophrenia.
  • The thief who stole two pouches from the huge chest where we stored for safety the meditators valued possessions, such as passports, money, VISA cards and other valuables.
  • The American carpet buyer who had made more than 20 trips to Tibet.
  • The French Canadian who needed heavy injections so he could be taken with the support of three of the Sangha on the 17 hour train journey to New Delhi for major mental health crisis before flying home.
  • The angry Israeli who obsessively found fault daily with everyone, especially teachers and managers.
  • The thieves who climbed over the monastery wall in the night and cleared the washing lines of all the clothes.
  • The thieves who tried to break in to get to the chest with all the meditators valuables.
  • The Englishwoman who lit a match and accidentally started a fire filling the small dormitory. No one was hurt.
  • The precious friendships and relationships that developed between Israelis and Germans.
  • The meditators who fell in love with another meditator – sometimes several fell in love with the same meditator.
  • The Buddhist monk from Germany who walked around 2000 kilometres from Bodh Gaya to Ladakh on the other side of the Himalayas and then back to Bodh Gaya without carrying any money.
  • .The occasional meditator from Russia or central Europe who could barely speak a word of English. They relied totally on their eyes to follow others in the daily schedule because nobody on the retreat could act as interpreter.
  • The young, beautiful Swedish woman who sat right in front of me to lip read as she was born deaf.
  • The elderly middle/upper class couple, with servants and personal chauffeurs  back in New Delhi,  who willingly endured our harsh conditions every January for a decade.
  • The Buddhist monk who walked through Bihar with his attendant days before the retreat. Bandits put a machete to the monk’s head threatening execution. The bold monk pointed to the side of his head as the place to hit – witnessed by his attendant.
  • The five local Indian cooks cooked  huge quantities of food with minimal equipment –  with every bit of rice loose from top to bottom. Dahl and subjee, chai and porridge tasted delicious. Chapatis were prepared on a mat on the floor. Nobody ever got sick from our delicious food- despite the basics, the rats and the flies. The gods looked after us.
  • A Swiss guide for Mount Kailash who sat annually the Bodh Gaya retreat for a decade before returning to the Himalayas.
  • The 70 year old German psychologist who lost his eyesight in a battle in World War 2 when a hand grenade blew up in front of him. An English soldier threw the hand grenade at him. In an Inquiry in the Dharma hall, he said: “In 1944, an Englishman took away my eyesight. Fifty years later an Englishman is teaching me to see.”
  • The countless numbers of  VRs and VVs (Vipassana Romances and Vipassana Villains) on the retreats. Two pairs of shoes close together would be interpreted as a sign of future intimacy or standing behind each other in the long food queue.
  • The meditators who at the end of the retreat left to go to Burma and Thailand to take ordination.
  • The women and men who left the retreat and, often unintentionally, started a family within hours, days or weeks.
  • The practitioners who cancelled their flights home to extend their time in the East for Dharma practice.
  • The practitioners who flew home early to start the process of healing painful relationships.
  • The accounts of insights and realizations that remained and stayed deep and steady for the person through their life.
  • The accounts of insights and realizations that did not go as deep as the person thought.
  • Those who confused an insight with completed enlightenment.
  • The meditators who returned to the Bodh Gaya retreat after 10, 20, 30, 35 years or more since their previous retreat in Bodh Gaya.
  • Some of these meditators said their retreat in the 1970’s, 1980’s or 1990’s acted as a major turning point in their life.
  • After returning decades later, some meditators wept with regret. “After I left India on my first visit, I totally wasted my life. I have returned to Bodh Gaya to start again.”
  • Some meditators from the early years have encouraged their grown up children to attend the Bodh Gaya retreat. They sat in the same Dharma hall as their mother or father did 20 or 30 years previously.
  • The numerous meditators from the Bodh Gaya retreats who became Dharma teachers, managers, founders and supporters of retreat centres, organisers, caretakers, facilitators, mentors, activists, fundraisers They continue to form a backbone of the Sangha, East and West.
  • Those who dedicated themselves to a wide variety of deep values, causes and campaigns including giving support for years to  Prajna Vihar School in Bodh Gaya, supported by the meditators, People First, Sister Mary, and other Bodh Gaya programmes, as well as elsewhere in the world.
  • The endless accounts of deep experiences, spiritual highs and low, awakenings, enlightenments and liberations using every kind of psychological, mystical, spiritual language available or a palpable silence.
  • And finally, the tears and frustrations of meditators having to endure the rock festival size loudspeakers from nearby weddings. Some practitioners took flights/trains direct from the West to attend our retreats. They imagined Bodh Gaya, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment, would be peaceful, tranquil, full of sensitivity, with clean air, no hassle, an oasis of peace. Far, far from it.  Indo-techno music blares out well into the night from the weddings held some 200 to 300 metres away.
  • It is a credit to you all  you endured so much, faced your existence hour upon hour every day, and listened to the teachings as clear, direct and straight forward as much as possible. I had no interest in sugar coating the teachings.
  • I bow down to all with appreciation and gratitude to everybody who participated in the annual Bodh Gaya retreats.
  • I bow down to all the teachers and managers who worked with me for all these years. You all made it possible.

Last February after the retreat in Bodh Gaya, we agreed. “Enough is enough. We have endured long enough.”  We agreed to take refuge in the Thai Monastery, Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first Dharma talk. We agreed to offer both our retreats there. An easier environment except for the nearby weddings, two or three times a week. The size of the loudspeakers got bigger as the years went by.

We run our retreats on dana (donations) putting out an appeal to cover the wide ranging costs and appeal for donations for teachers/manager.

Update. 2018. Radha Nicholson, a senior teacher in Australia, now gives an annual retreat in the Thai Monastery. The monastery spent a $1 million to provide a new Dharma hall, sleeping quarters, modern kitchen and much more. Since the mid1970s, Radha has made countless trips to India, as well as teaching with me Bodh Gaya and Sarnath. 



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