Friday, February 7, 2014

India Adventure: Seven Points of Mind Training

Cooking at Natalia's guest house the day after the course ended. Left to right: Karen, Rick, Natalia, Michael, Milly, Jeff, Astrid. This photo is from Natalia's camera.
I am registered for a few Buddhism courses in India. When I last posted a blog entry, I was about to start The Seven Points of Mind Training course at The Root Institute of Wisdom & Culture in Bodhgaya. That one started on the evening of January 22 and ended 8 days later, on January 29.

The course was taught by Tibetan monk and teacher Gen Gyatso. He is a graduate of the Buddhist Dialectic School in Dharamsala, where he studied Buddhist philosophy for over 10 years.  He received his Geshe degree from Drebung Loseling Monastery in South India in 1995. Gen Gyatso teaches at the Buddhist Dialectic School, which was founded by his teacher Gen Lobsang Gyatso. He also travels the world, upon invitation to teach. He’s well known and loved by his Tibetan and western students for teaching complicated Buddhist philosophy to Tibetans and Westerns in simple and clearly understandable ways – something I can definitely attest to.

Gen Gyatso taught us following the text of The Great Kadampa Teacher, Geshe Chekawa’s (born 1102 – died 1106) celebrated root text “TheSeven Point Mind Training”. The text is an explanation of Buddha’s instructions on how to train your mind, a practice known as lobjong in Tibetan Buddhism. “The Seven Point Mind Training” teaches how to transform adverse conditions into the path to enlightenment, principally by developing a compassionate attitude towards all sentient beings. The text is a list of slogans organized into groupings. We studied the slogans to learn the antidotes to mental habits we have, that cause us to suffer.

Wikipedia has a list of the slogans, although slightly different from the list we studied in the course, and a list of references if you want to read more about lobjong. There were about 20 people in the course, all westerners, including a monk born in Wales, a nun born in the UK, and Gen Gyatso’s student and interpreter, who is from France. Some of the other countries represented were Australia, New Zealand, Doha, Finland, Sweden, Israel, Canada, Italy, and Germany. The Americans in the course were from Michigan, Florida, Georgia, and Nepal. At least 6 of the students already knew each other because they completed a month long Tibetan Buddhism course at Kopan Monastery in Nepal last November, and have been traveling (mostly independently) since then. I had never heard of this course, but it sounds amazing, and fills up shortly after registration opens each year.

That Kopan course and the Root Institute were founded by the same teachers, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Lama Yeshe passed away, and was reincarnated as Lama Osel, who I learned about at His Holiness’ teaching this winter. I received two blessings from Lama Zopa at the same teaching this year, and got to receive a third blessing from him while I was at the Root for the Seven Points of Mind Training course. A few days after the course began, we learned that Lama Zopa would be coming to stay at the Root for a silent retreat. We stood in the Root courtyard to receive him, and received individual blessings. It was amazing. He would come and go from the Root sometimes while I was staying at the Root. One night I was heading to the kitchen to wash cups, and saw him spinning the large prayer wheel located in the courtyard outside of the dining hall. It was late, and the only other people in the courtyard were the nuns, monks, and staff who stay at the Root. I was the only one in the dining hall that overlooks the prayer wheel and the walkway back to the building where he was staying. I stood with my hands folded, and nodded when he happened to turn my way. He put his hand up in the air above his head, and waved at me. It was amazing. I was very glad I had decided to wash those cups.

Most of the course participants slept at the Root during the course, but a few stayed at other guest houses in town. If you were staying at the Root then you were not allowed to leave campus during the course. We were also supposed to remain silent for the duration of the course, all for our own benefit so that we could focus on our studies and Dharma practices. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served in the Root dining hall. The cinnamon rolls are delicious. I shared a room with Milly from New Zealand, Keren from Israel, and Astrid from Sweden. Milly and Keren met at the November Kopan course. Astrid met Rick, who had also taken that Kopan course at the Varanasi train station. He told Astrid about the Seven Points of Mind Training course, and she decided to sign up. We had a lot of fun staying together, and everyone who took the course were wonderful.

Our mornings started at 6:45am with a 45 minute guided meditation held in the meditation hall, called a gompa, where Gen Gyatso held his teachings. The morning meditations were led by Gilad, the Root’s Spiritual Program Director. We then had breakfast, followed by 2 hours of class, then a yoga class held on the roof of one of the buildings, taught by a wonderful yoga teacher from Florida who was taking the course. After lunch we met with in assigned discussion groups to check in with each other and review the course material, followed by another 2 hours of class, and then dinner.

After dinner we had another 45 minute guided meditation in the gompa, sometimes led by the nun who also joined us for the course, who I met at His Holiness’ winter course, Venerable Sarah Thresher. I am taking a course with Venerable Sarah in March. Very excited about it – I really enjoyed her guided meditations. Some of our other evening guided meditations were led by one of Lama Zopa’s Australian students who was also taking the course.

The Root has a nice library, with a selection of books reserved just for course participants to read and reflect upon. The Root campus is beautiful, with many nicely placed benches. IT was common to see course participants sitting with one of the library books, at any given point during the day when we had a break between activities. I would read for a little bit each night before falling asleep before 10pm.

It was a very restful and great 8 days, although also very challenging. Learning the material, and then working to put it into place in your own life is far from easy. Gen Gyatso was so kind. He would often remind us that it would require many, many years of study, and helped us figure out how we can practice the teachings in the meantime. He also welcomed questions at the end of each 2 hour class. I asked a few questions, and was so appreciative of how seriously he took my questions, and the depth of his answers.

His student and translator, Claire, was also amazing. She was born in France, but now lives in Dharamsala, where she serves as an oral and written translator for Tibetan teachers who need translations into French and English. Gen Gyatso would speak for a length of time in Tibetan, and then Claire would interpret what he had said to us in English. Gen Gyatso speaks very good English, but is more comfortable having a translator.

On the last day of the course, we got to have lunch with Gen Gyatso. After lunch we all walked over to the Mahabodi Temple and Bodhi Tree. We sat under the tree and recited prayers, and then entered the main temple to present robes we had purchased as an offering to the large Buddha statute, which is a highly revered representation of Buddha. The robes we purchased were beautiful bright yellow material with a shining gold pattern on the fabric. I didn’t know what would happen, so was so surprised when the monk who attends to the Buddha statute received our offering, and then actually draped (dressed) the statute in the robes we offered the Buddha. At the same time the Tibetan monks and nun with us sang a prayer in Tibetan. It was … really amazing and so special.

After parting ways with Gen Gyatso outside of the Mahabodi Temple entrance, I started to circumambulate the temple with Rick and Astrid. We came across the teacher at the International Meditation Center in Bodhgaya, that I had spent several hours with in his office before my course started at the Root. I was so happy to see him there, sitting underneath the Bodhi Tree, performing a ceremony. He smiled when he saw me, and when the ceremony had concluded I went to speak with him. He said that in the Theravada tradition, lay Buddhists can temporarily become novices if they are under age 20, or monks if they are age 20 or above. He was offering novice vows (and robes) to three young men who had come, with their families from northeast India to go through this tradition and take their vows. I later saw them standing in their yellow robes in front of the entrance to the Mahabodi Temple, having their photos taken by their family members. Amazing. Such a special day for me, too.

I was supposed to leave Bodhgaya for Varanasi the day after the course ended, on January 30. That morning I went to find a street dog I’d been worried about, that I’d learned had been taken to “Dog Camp” (officially known as Kagyu Monlam Animal Camp, a temporary veterinary facility set up behind one of the Tergar Monastery in town.

Tergar Monastery is in a part of town I had not visited before, so in trying to find it I got to walk through and explore other monasteries and temples. There are so many people, and so many things going on in what, on the outside looks like a small town – it’s amazing.

Dog Camp was set up by His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, a highly regarded teacher and the head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and was supported and staffed by a lot of people, including three people I met while interacting with animals in Bodhgaya – a westerner named Joy who lives in Bodhgaya and runs Dogs of Gaya, and a Nepalese monk Lama Dhundup (Sonam Gyaltse) who is from the Gangkar Kamala Buddhist Association who invited me to come volunteer with the dogs he and his teacher are helping in Nepal.

When I visited Dog Camp I found not only the dog I was worried about, who I learned was treated for cancer, but pens full of other dogs and puppies who were receiving treatment for cancer, spay neuter surgeries, and an assortment of other conditions. I was invited into what looked like a garage, where the surgeries were being performed. It was so beautiful. I took many photos, which I will post at a later date. (In the meantime check out the Dogs of Gaya Facebook page.) Please wish a healthy recovery and future for the dog that brought me to Dog Camp. Prior to his surgery at Dog Camp, he had bright red cancer lesions on his stomach and one leg, and was hoping on 3 legs because the 4th leg was in so much pain from the cancer. I have never seen anything like it. There was another dog with an even larger and more progressed cancer lesion at Dog Camp. Please send her your thoughts, too.

I left Dog Camp with Sonam, the Nepalese monk I met at Dog Camp. It turns out he is friends with someone who took the course with me, and was walking to the Root when I saw him, to help his friend to the airport. He made sure I got back to the Root safely, and I taught him the meaning of the phrase "it's a small world" and he reminded me about karma:) 

After saying goodbye to Sonam and his friend, Maria, I went to the guest house where Natalia, the course yoga teacher had been staying while taking the Mind Training course. It was right across the street from the Root. A group of us cooked Israeli food under Keren’s guidance in Natalia’s guest house kitchen, and then ate together on the guest house patio. I had an eye on the clock, because my train was at 4:08pm. When I looked online to see if my train was running behind schedule, I learned I was actually the one running behind schedule. My train had left the station at 4:08 in the morning. Ha. So I bought a train ticket to leave Bodhgaya the following day, January 31st, instead, and sat back to enjoy the rest of the party. 

After leaving the party, I found a street puppy with what looked like a poorly healed broken leg on the road between Natalia's guest house and the Root. I walked inside of the Root, contemplating how to get this puppy some help before I left Bodhgaya the following day, and walked straight into someone wearing the blue uniform that I had seen people wearing at Dog Camp. I was so happy. Perfect timing. 

Things then got funny. This vet in the Dog Camp uniform said he had seen me that morning, down at Dog Camp, and that we had also talked a few days ago, at the Root. I then recognized him as the vet I had met when talking to one of the Root's sick baby goats, during the Mind Training course. He and his team came by while I was talking to the goat, to give that goat an IV. The baby goats at the Root had been bought from a butcher by a Tibetan, who then brought them to the Root. They were all sick with a lung infection, and some of the baby goats had already died at the Root. The vet showed me how to massage the goats' bodies to move the infections out of the lungs.

So, now that I was meeting this vet for the third time, I finally got his card and learned about his work. I was then even more amazed. He is Dr. Thinlay Bhutia, the Local Coordinator for Sikkim, India’s Anti-Rabies & Animal Health (SARAH) Program, and is a part of Vets Beyond Borders. After we talked, Dr. Thinlay Buhtia checked on the goats, and then the street puppy before he left to perform more amazing work.

Later that night a few of us sat in the movie room at the Root to watch the Martin Scorscese 1997 film about His Holiness, Kundun. If I had made my train then I would have missed out on Dog Camp, meeting Joy, Dr. Thinlay Bhutia, Sonam, the party, the movie, and overall what was the perfect way to end this part of my time in Bodhgaya.

My next post will be about the city I traveled to from Bodhgaya … Varanasi. The post after that will be about the following city, Agra. I'm now in Jaipur with a more leisurely schedule and better internet access.

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