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Root Institute, Bodhgaya: Enter the monastery

Posted by daveb on December 16th, 2008

(Day one.)

I’m writing to you from the Root Institute in Bodhgaya, Bihar: a semi-monastic Buddhist Dharma center — for wisdom and culture. I’ll be spending the next ten days of my life learning about and practising Dalai Lama-style Tibetan Buddhism. Getting here was a big mission that began yesterday evening from a railway station near Agra. We got to the station a good two hours before the scheduled arrival of our train and spent the time despairing over how dirty the place was. At our first bench–before we moved to another–I counted five rats within a twenty metre radius. The train was an hour late (as always), but once inside we settled into our top bunk in our air-conditioned sleeper carriage without too much fuss. About ten hours later, onboard food vendors woke us with their vocal offers of chai (spiced tea), crisps and–curiously–children’s comic books. More curious, however, were the four Hari Krishnas who boarded our carriage, drummed and chanted their way down the aisle to the opposite end and then simply disembarked without further ado.

Arrival at Gaya was not as easy as I had hoped. Our guidebook describes this region as “seriously troubled by poverty, [with] a lack of infrastructure, inter-caste violence, corruption and general lawlessness… [with] frequent kidnappings, murders and acts of banditry”. Needless to say, we were very keen to get to the Buddhist retreat in Bodhgaya with the minimum of fanfare; the route between the two towns is “dangerous bandit territory”. The rickshaw touting began even before we left the train platform and was extremely persistent. For the first time since Africa, I physically moved a tout aside. Another followed our tourist office-arranged car for over a mile, pulling up aside us on the road and shouting at me that he’d get us there cheaper!

As we entered the Root Institute entrance gate–which was under armed guard–we stepped into a tranquil world a million miles away from the India to which had become accustomed. The sign on the door indicated that the Root Institute is a “semi-monastic Dharma centre”, leading Squiffy and I to ponder whether we would need to to undertake a day or two’s silence as part of the course… It soon became clear to us that during our ten days here, we were to be silent for nine of them…

The silence started that evening just after dinner (watery vegetable soup, two bread rolls and a sugared ring doughnut) which was a bit of a shame because we didn’t get a good chance to learn much about the other people on the course and those we did meet were so interesting that it felt strange to know that we couldn’t ask too many more questions. First there was Tom (Israeli) a Camden Town market trader and reforming door-to-door oil painting “artist” — he passes-off Chinese factory-made paintings as his own work and sells them to anyone that’ll open their door to him. Andrej (Slovakian) a former London derivatives trader and his partner Freddy (British), a budding entrepreneur. Both have recently completed a two year MBA and are squirelling themselves away in Buddhism for couple of weeks to delay their inevitable return to the real world*. Christine and Deborah (Austrian), Netta (Israeli), Kara (Canadian), Tracy (American), Tina (German) and finally Iris (Israeli), who insisted on being called by her Hindi name, Riya. Riya is the group’s self-elected union representative. Whilst sharing out the daily chores, she refused to perform any sweeping unless a full-size broomstick was provided. The half-size grass brushes hurt her back and she implored everyone else to boycott all sweeping until management provided more suitable equipment. Go lady, that’s the spirit!

(Gong rings.)

Inside the gompa we met our Dharma teacher, Glen (Australian), and our meditation/spiritual guide, Tamir (Israeli). We attempted our first meditation: one in which I didn’t try to hard to do anything other than rest — I was so tired from the journey to get here that I knew trying to concentrate would be futile. After forty-five minutes in a state of awake-sleep, I was rather pleased to be given the opportunity to enjoy a proper night’s sleep on a bed; albeit a thin futon sat atop a rickety wooden frame. It’s better than being sat bolt-upright. If it weren’t for the two hours I’ve spent writing this diary, I’d have been asleep by half-eight.

We’ve been asked to refrain from reading non-Dharma material, listening to music and using computers throughout the course, so I’m keeping this handwritten diary instead. Darn that imitation Parker pen refill that I bought in Abu Dhabi; it’s running out of ink already and we’re not allowed to leave the site until until after the course ends. Let’s hope they sell pens in the onsite shop, else this diary is going to be a very short one.

* The real world; at least as we in the West would know it. Buddhism holds a different view on the nature of our ‘true reality’.


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Time: October 24, 2012, 6:56 pm

Actually I have been thinking of visiting the place for a change. I found your article while searching for information on root institute. The article is nice and helpful. Thank you.

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