Thursday, March 20, 2014

India Adventure: Experience Buddhism at the Root Institute with Venerable Sarah Thresher

Experience Buddhism at the Root Institute course participants with Venerable Kadro, the Root's new Spiritual Program Coordinator, Venerable Sarah Thresher our teacher, and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. I am in purple, to Lama Zopa's left.
I wrote my last post 16 days ago, from my bed on a train bound for Bodhgaya. I was headed back to my favorite city in India to take another Buddhism course, Experience Buddhism at the Root Institute.

I shared a taxi from the Gaya train station to the Root Institute in Bodhgaya with the monk I had met on the train, in addition to a young Tibetan woman, western nun, and 2 French women I met at the Gaya train station. They were all wonderful people, and we had a fun 40 minute taxi ride into Bodhgaya.

When I checked into the Root Institute that night, I learned that Lama Zopa Rinpoche was still staying at the Root Institute. Lama Zopa is the Spiritual Director of the organization he co-founded, the Federation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). There are FPMT centers all over the world, for the purpose of teaching and supporting people interested in Tibetan (Mahayana) Buddhism. I learned that Lama Zopa, who had arrived at the Root when I was there for the 7 Points Mind Training course, hadn’t been at the Root in the past 2 years. So it was really special that I got to be on the Root’s campus with him on 2 occasions during my trip. He is much beloved by his thousands of students around the world. I fell asleep that night happy to be back at the Root.

My course began the following day, March 5. There were about 20 students in the course. All but 3 of my fellow students were traveling with a tour group run by a Colorado-based company, Where There Be Dragons. The company runs a 3 month program in Varanasi, India for youth ages 18 – 22. The Varanasi program includes some excursions, including a trip to the Root for a Buddhism course. The youth were coordinated by 3 Americans who also took the Buddhism course. It was so great. I felt like I was back at camp. One of the other students in the course was my friend Kavita, who decided to take the course after I told her about it in Dharamsala.
Experience Buddhism at the Root Institute was taught by Venerable Sarah Thresher, a western nun who has been a nun for over 30 years. She is a student of Lama Zopa, and teaches a lot of courses at the Root. I met her briefly at His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s winter teaching, and had been really looking forward to taking her course. While her syllabus was similar to the one used by Venerable Tenzin Legtsok, who taught the course I had just finished at Tushita Meditation Center (which is also a part of the FPMT network), Venerable Sarah has a different teaching style. She teaches by telling stories from her own and other people’s experiences to illustrate her points. One of the more memorable stories was about a monk who responds to everything that happens to him in life with the phrase “for me, no problem.”

While the students in the course were also required to remain silent for the 10 days of the course, we found ourselves talking quite a bit between the Discussion Groups and our pilgrimage field trips. We met with our Discussion Groups after lunch most days to discuss questions Venerable Sarah assigned to us, based on topics from her teachings. I really enjoyed my group. It was composed of “Dragons” Angela from Boston, Martha from Chicago, Rose from Annapolis Maryland, Katrina who runs the Dragons program in Varanasi, and a young woman from the Netherlands named Linda.

The pilgrimages we went on as part of the course were amazing. We went to the Mahabodhi Temple, where Buddha attained enlightenment underneath the Bodhi Tree. We read prayers out loud together, and meditated while sitting underneath the Bodhi Tree. The Mahabodhi Temple and the Bodhi Tree receive a constant stream of visitors from the time the temple opens at 4 or 5am until it closes at 9pm. I learned approximately 37,000 foreigners and 500,000 Indians visit the temple each month. It is amazing to witness all of the religious activities happening at the temple at any given moment, performed by pilgrims, monks, and nuns from all over the world.

We also visited the Mahakala Caves, located in a remote desert-like mountain region about a 2 hour drive from Bodhgaya. Buddha lived in the caves dug into the side of a mountain for years, before walking down from the mountain and to the Bodhi Tree where he attained enlightenment. The cave where Buddha lived contains a figure of the emaciated Buddha. His Holiness the Dalai Lama keeps an image of the emaciated Buddha with him, there is one in his temple in Dharamsala, and one on the Root Institute campus as a reminder of the persistence needed in the quest to attain enlightenment. His Holiness lived in a room just outside of the cave for a while. I got to go inside His Holiness’ room while I was there. Venerable Sarah held a teaching and led a meditation beneath the stupa that stands next to the caves and His Holiness’ room.

Our third pilgrimage was to Rajgir, a town about a 2.5 hour drive from Bodhgaya. We climbed a steep path up the side of a mountain to a stupa and temple, both built by the Japanese to mark the spot where a monastery was built for Buddha to live in. Just below the stupa and the temple is Vulture’s Peak, a place of great significance to Buddhists because it’s the spot where Buddha taught about emptiness, and turned the second wheel of law. There’s a small flat surface on Vulture’s Peak, paved with a concrete floor, surrounded by a low wall, where visitors can hold teachings and meditate. We sat on the floor with most of the other volunteers and visitors at the Root Institute, who had also traveled to Rajgir that day because Lama Zopa had decided to come with us, and teach at Vulture’s Peak. I cannot even begin to explain how incredible this was. I filmed some of his teaching, and will post it on my YouTube channel in June 2014: I got to walk up from the parking lot at the base of the mountain to Vulture’s Peak with Lama Zopa, the monks who assist him, and some of the other people from the Root. Lama Zopa stopped at each beggar sitting on the side of the mountain path to give them alms and say a prayer for them. At one point Lama Zopa pointed at the ground in front of him and said “ants”. One of the monks bent over and blew the ants away from the step so that Lama Zopa wouldn’t step on them. When I think of Lama Zopa, I think of compassion – especially because that is one of his core teachings. I can hear him saying “the purpose of my life is to end the suffering of all sentient beings.”

In addition to the teaching at Rajgir, I got to see and receive teachings from Lama Zopa every day that I was in Bodhgaya. In my last post, I mentioned that I celebrated the Tibetan New Year at His Holiness’ temple in Dharamsala on March 2. The first 16 days of the Tibetan New Year are particularly important because Buddha performed a series of miracles on these days. The strength of any good or bad activities sentient beings perform on these days is multiplied maybe a billion times. So these are very special days. Lama Zopa read The Golden Light Sutra aloud to his students each night, from a spot either next to the Mahabodhi Temple, or inside of the Root Institute gompa. So each night after dinner I would leave the course to go with Lama Zopa and the group of international students, monks, and nuns to listen to Lama Zopa. He always began by giving a short teaching. I recorded snippets of these, which I will also add to my YouTube channel. If we were at the Mahabodhi Temple, then we would also circumambulate the temple as a group, led by Lama Zopa. He had us memorize the Cloud Offering Mantra in Sanskrit, and recite it as we walked. Reciting the mantra multiples the power of our prayers one billion times. Lama Zopa says that reciting the Cloud Offering mantra is more valuable and powerful than a billion dollars, or winning a billion dollars in the lottery. I will always smile and think of him when I circumambulate the temple.

Lama Zopa has great compassion for animals. In my blog post about the Seven Points Mind Training course I took at the Root Institute, I mentioned that Tibetans had bought goats from the butcher, and brought them to the Root to be taken care of. There were more than 20 goats at the Root when I came back for the Experience Buddhism at the Root course  - some sick, some healthy and all recovering from the trauma of seeing other goats butchered while they themselves were tied to a tree next to the butcher. I had fun bringing a bucket of water to 6 small goats who spend their days in a field next to the Root campus. The weather in Bodhgaya was beautiful – sunny and hot. The goats would rush to the fence gate each time they saw me coming so that they could be the first goat to plunge their noses into the bucket. I got to tie red strings that had been blessed by Lama Zopa around each of the 6 goats’ necks. Someone also tied one onto my favorite street dog that lives outside of the Root front gate, and on the necks of the 3 dogs that live at the Root. Many street dogs live inside the Mahabodhi Temple. A few of the dogs would lie between us during Lama Zopa’s teachings each night. The Root’s 3 dogs joined us inside of the gompa on the nights that Lama Zopa taught at the Root instead of at the Mahabodhi Temple.

On the last day of the Experience Buddhism at the Root Institute course, Friday, March 14, Venerable Sarah took us to visit the Shakyamuni Buddha Community Medical Centre founded by Lama Yeshe. Lama Yeshe was a Tibetan monk who passed away in 1984. He was one of Lama Zopa and Venerable Sarah’s teachers, and co-founded FMPT with Lama Zopa. Shakyamuni Buddha Community Medical Centre provides free medical care for impoverished Indians in the Bodhgaya area, as well as the orphans with HIV/AIDS who live at a center founded by Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa. The third project established by Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa that is on the same road as the Root is the Maitrea School, a free school for local Indian children.

I was very excited to get to tour the health clinic. A woman from the southern Oregon coast who owns a yoga studio there, and works as a nurse in northern California named Lynn, that I met while at the Root for the Seven Points Mind Training course, is volunteering at the clinic for 3 months. She and the head doctor of the clinic gave us a tour of the clinic’s many projects. We also got to meet a young Indian woman named Pooja who is a graduate of the Maitrea School, and is now studying commerce at an area university. I was excited to meet her because I’d read about her in one of the Root Insitute newsletters. Pooja spent some time at Smith College in MA one summer, learning about women’s health. She currently goes to college in the morning, and works as a community health educator at the clinic in the afternoons. She gives lectures to the patients about preventative healthcare. I asked, and she invited me to come back to the clinic the following morning to join the bi-weekly Adolescent Girls discussion group that she runs. The girls would be learning about and discussing Early Marriage.

After our tour, we celebrated the conclusion of the Experience Buddhism at the Root Institute with a picnic on the Root lawn. Lama Zopa happened to pass by, and decided to join us. He sat in a plastic lawn chair next to the picnic tables, and gave us a dharma talk, followed by the distribution of pictures of Buddha and mala bead necklaces that he had blessed for us. It was amazing. I filmed some of this, too and will post it on YouTube in June. After he left and the crowd had dispersed, I found myself alone on the lawn, and decided to sit in the chair that he had been sitting in for the previous hour. I sat there for a half an hour, enjoying a flow of strong energy.

The next day, Saturday, I went to the medical clinic to join Pooja’s Adolescent Girls discussion group. The girls were ages 11 to 14-ish. The class was taught in Hindi, which I don’t understand but the girls were cute and welcoming, and it was fun. At the conclusion of the class Pooja took out some red, yellow, and green powder and put it on plates. The girls and Pooja then smeared the colored powder on each other’s faces, arms, and hands. They decorated me, too. We were celebrating the Indian holiday Holi a few days early. On Holi Indians wear white clothing, or clothing they don’t mind getting stained, and celebrate on the streets by throwing colored powder and water on each other. Everyone’s skin becomes stained with the colored powder, making everyone the same color, demonstrating that we are all the same. (At least this is how the holiday was explained to me.) The powder washes off without leaving a stain if you attend to it quickly. Later that day, I walked to the Tibetan Om CafĂ© for dinner, and then the Mahabodhi Temple with green feet:)

I ran into my friend Sumangala, the Burmese monk I met when I was last in Bodhgaya, at the temple. He goes every night to recite from one of his texts, which are written in the language Pali before returning to the gompa at the Root for Lama Zopa’s evening teaching and the continuation of the transmission of the Golden Light Sutra. We finished at 11:15pm.
We were back in the gompa at 5:30am the next morning, to take the Mahayana Precepts, administered by Lama Zopa. I also took the precepts with Venerable Legtsok during his Introduction to Buddhism course. Afterwards I visited the International Meditation Center to say goodbye to the center’s Abbot, Venerable Dr. Varasambodhi Thera, who I had met last time I was in Bodhgaya. He is amazing, and one of my most favorite people that I met in India. I had been keeping a list of questions about Buddhism that came up during my past 2 courses that I hadn’t gotten to ask a qualified teacher, hoping I would have the chance to ask him for a teaching.

When I arrived at his center, he was inside of the center’s temple, teaching a group of Indian families. The teaching was in Hindi, but it was a privilege to be there. His students then invited me for lunch in the dining hall. I learned the meal had been sponsored by Venerable Dr. Varasambodhi Thera’s Indian students, and that the monks eat whatever is offered to them. I was joined at lunch by some Mahayana monks who were staying at the International Meditation Center with a large group of other Mahayana monks who were in town for some events.
After lunch I sat with Venerable Dr. Verasambodhi Thera for an hour, reviewing my questions. He taught me that all things that happen to us seemingly without cause are the results of karma we have accumulated in past lives, going back eons. He taught me that enlightened beings who return to samara where we are living right now, to help us, know that they are enlightened beings. Enlightened beings serve as guides to unenlightened sentient beings. I also learned that we accumulate good merit for doing good deeds in this life, even if we are compensated for those good deeds or benefit from them in another way. He said we have to have jobs in order to support ourselves. If we choose to be a school teacher for example, instead of choosing a career that causes harm, then even though we get paid to be school teachers, that we are still accumulating good merit.

He gave me a book to read that contains some helpful meditations. I asked for a book recommendation that would be good for friends interested in Buddhism, and he recommended a book that he said is widely available in the US – What the Buddha Taught, by Walpola Rahula.

After saying farewell to Venerable Dr. Verasambodhi Thera and his students, I went back to the Root, where I got to meet with Venerable Sarah. Like Venerable Legtsok, she had made herself available for individual meetings with the course students to review questions that had come up during the course. It was great to be able to sit down and talk with her. She is an amazing person and an incredible teacher. I knew from her very first teaching that I had made the right decision in returning to Bodhgaya so that I could take her course. One night while we were at the Mahabodhi Temple with Lama Zopa, he had her tell us a story about her time in Mongolia. As her teacher, he had sent her to Mongolia to teach the Mongolians. She made copies of the Golden Light Sutra to distribute in this very impoverished community where she lived and worked. The copies were in great demand by the community, who kept and treasured their copies for years. The Golden Light Sutra brought peace and prosperity to the community, so much so that the leader of Mongolia awarded both Venerable Sarah and Lama Zopa medals.

After my meeting with Venerable Sarah I went to the Mahabodhi Temple and spent 1 hour and 10 minutes doing full body prostrations in a corner of the temple property alongside Tibetans and two foreign lay practitioners, facing the temple. It was a sweaty workout. I was touched to be given offerings by 4 different Tibetans who were going around to each practitioner doing prostrations, and giving money, food, or drinks. By the time I was done it was past sunset and I had a swarm of mosquitoes hovering in front of me, amazingly not really biting. This was the first time I had attempted full body prostrations, which had been suggested to me by Venerable Legtsok. It felt really good, especially that I accomplished this on the last day of the Tibetan (Mahyana) Buddhism’s 16 days of miracles.

I then met up with Sumangala and one of his female relatives, a pilgrim visiting from Myanmar. We dropped her off at the Burmese vihar, where the Burmese pilgrims stay. It was fun to see Myanmar’s lodging and center. We then sat at one of the few restaurants open in town during the Indian holiday of Holi. I learned more about Myanmar and saw photos on Sumangala’s phone. It looks beautiful. For those I know from college, Ashley Pritchard from school is living and working in Yangon, Myanmar. I then went back to the Root for Lama Zopa’s evening teaching and transmission.

I spent my last day in Bodhgaya, Monday, March 17 generating compassion for the people who cannot visit Bodhgaya, or were able to visit but not be able to return, or live in Bodhgaya but wish to visit someplace else, instead of feeling sad because I had to leave Bodhgaya on a train that night. It is such a special city.

I went to Sumangala’s school, Myanmar Buddhist Academic Center, for lunch with the Burmese pilgrims who were visiting, and had sponsored that day’s lunch at the school. The monks take turns cooking for all 30+ students who live and study at the Myanmar Buddhist Academic Center. The food was delicious. After lunch I received a teaching from Sumangala’s teacher who lives at the center with his students. He is a really good teacher. He explains things really clearly, and speaks great English. We were joined by Sumangala and a few of his fellow students, and another foreigner from Chile who had been invited to the school for lunch by one of the other students. I then took a tour of the Myanmar Buddhist Academic Center, which wrapped up on the roof where I sat with a handful of newly arrived students from Myanmar who wanted to practice their English. We sat and talked for quite some time. Their English is good, but I offered to Skype with their teacher and the students to give them an opportunity to practice. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be, living in India, not speaking Hindi, and not being comfortable with English. They said they speak amongst themselves in Burmese, so don’t have a lot of opportunities to practice English. They read 3 languages – Pali, English, Burmese. Sumangala can also read some Hindi. Do Google searches for the Pali, Burmese, and Hindi alphabets. The characters are beautiful, and look absolutely nothing like the English alphabet.

I then said goodbye to Sumangala and the monks, and walked to the Mahabodhi Temple with Kavita for one last visit. I did another 20 minutes of full body prostrations next to a Tibetan monk, and was again made an offering. This time it was raisins “for energy”. It was so kind of the woman who came by and gave them to me. Kavita and I then went back to the Root for Lama Zopa’s final night transmitting the Golden Light Sutra to us. He finished that night, just before I had to get into a taxi and head to the Gaya train station to catch my train. It was a great way to end my last night in Bodhgaya.

I shared a taxi to the train station with Greg, an Australian who has known Venerable Sarah since before she became a nun, 32 years ago. He has helped start FPMT centers, and now spends 6 months of the year living in Dharamsala, the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. We were both heading to Delhi, and then from Delhi to Dharamsala.

I traveled in 3rd Class A/C, in my favorite bunk bed position – top bunk, on the side running along the train aisle. I slept relatively well all things considered, worn out from the past 13 days enjoyably spent making the most of my time in Bodhgaya and with Lama Zopa. My train arrived in Delhi the next morning relatively on time. Greg and I met up at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi. The highlights were paintings by Abanindranath Tagore, and Balkrisna Arts. It was a nice way to spend the afternoon. I then went back to the same restaurant I always go to in Delhi, that has locations in the Bay Area, Dallas, NYC, and NJ for dinner, before returning to the train station to catch my overnight train to Dharamsala.

I had gotten one of the last tickets available on that train, so had to travel in Sleeper class again as opposed to 3rd Class A/C. However it worked out to be fine. I was sitting with a nice group of Indian men and a young woman from Greensboro, NC named Cinthia who was on her way to Dharamsala to take a course at Tushita Meditation Centre. A nun also going to Dharamsala was sitting near us. The nun made sure we all got off at the right train station, and I then led the way to the nearby bus station, where we needed to catch a bus to Dharamsala. That was yesterday morning.

I found a few foreign travelers at the bus station, including a woman from London named Cheryl who like Cinthia and I, is also traveling alone. The 3 of us spent the next several hours hanging out on the bus to Lower Dharamsala. They then traveled on to Mcleod Ganj together, where the hotels, His Holiness’ temple, and the Tibetan Parliament offices are located. I had to stay in Lower Dharamsala to visit an Indian government office, and apply for a Protected Area Permit (PAP) to visit a nearby Tibetan refugee settlement, Bir Colony. I am on my way to Deer Park Institute, located in Bir Colony, to take 2 Buddhism courses, the first of which begins on Sunday, March 23. In order to go to Deer Park I need to get a PAP.

The Indian government office where PAPS are issued was surrounded by a small group of other foreign women, and 2 Thai monks who were also going to Deer Park for the March 23 teaching with a very famous western nun that Irene Schiavo first told me about, Tenzin Palmo. Well, the Thai monks aren’t going for the teaching – they are in retreat at the center, and are leading morning meditations at 6am, which they invited me to. The younger Thai monk is a student of, and translator for the older Thai monk. They were really wonderful. I am looking forward to seeing them again at Deer Park.

While at the office I also met a young woman from Portland, OR named Tazzy who is traveling for a while, and her friend Sharnon from New Zealand, who lives in Mcleod Ganj and has been taking a Tibetan language translator course for the past 1.5 years. (She is studying to be able to translate Tibetan into English.) They were wonderful. They helped me with my bags on the bus from Dharamsala to Mcleod Ganj, invited me to share their taxi up to Deer Park on Friday (tomorrow), and to dinner with them and 2 of their friends in Mcleod Ganj last night at a Tibetan restaurant I had not yet heard of. People are so nice. One of their friends, who left Dharamsala for Tokyo today, Ian, is from Mahwah, NJ. Their other friend, Yaron, from Israel, is staying at the same guest house I am staying at near Deer Park during the Tenzin Palmo teaching, and is sharing the taxi to Deer Park with us. Perfect.

This morning I went to Tushita for the 9:30am drop in meditation, led by Jonas, who I had heard of, but not yet met. He lives at Tushita 6 months of the year and leads meditations, and spends the other 6 months at monasteries in Nepal. Cinthia, who I had met on the train from Delhi to Dharamsala, was also at the meditation. I also ran into Venerable Legtsok, who had just finished his retreat at Tushita, and Richard, the meditation teacher who had led the meditations during the course I took with Venerable Legtsok at Tushita, before heading back to Bodhgaya. It was wonderful to see them both. They were happy to hear about the time I got to spend at the Mahabodhi Temple, and with Lama Zopa.

I then walked down the hill to meet up with Yaron, who is doing the Tibetan language translation program with Sharnon. He invited me to join him for a teaching with Rinpoche. The teaching was held in a small room near His Holiness’ temple. I imagined it would be a large group, but it was just Yaron, 2 nuns, a foreign woman who also speaks Tibetan, and a translator, who happened to be a guy who was sitting near my mom and I during His Holiness’ winter teaching in South India, named Ben. I didn’t know Ben spoke Tibetan and was a translator – very cool. People’s stories here are just amazing. I’m looking forward to hearing more of the stories, since I will be around here until approximately April 24, when I will then make my way back down to Delhi, and then to the Delhi airport  to fly to Bangkok.

I will probably be offline for a while, since I have 3 courses coming up. I leave Mcleod Ganj tomorrow for Bir Colony. I will be taking a Mind Training course with Tenzin Palmo at Deer Park Institute from March 23 – 24. I will then stay in Bir Colony until my next course begins on March 28. That course will be taught by Geshe Dorji Damdul, one of His Holiness’ translators, who translated when I first saw His Holiness at Lehigh in 2008. I have heard Geshe Dorji Damdul is an amazing teacher. His course will also be held at Deer park Institute. That course ends on April 1, the day that my next course begins, a 10 day Vispassana Meditation Course held at the Himachal Vipassana center in Dharamkot, just next door to Tushita Meditation Center. I think we begin meditating each day at 4am and continue for maybe the next 12 hours? I imagine it’s going to be challenging, but friends in Nairobi who did the same course in Thailand and Nairobi said it was great. Wish me luck. If you need to reach me between March 23 and March 30 then leave a message with the Deer Park Institute ( or email me, and I will do my best to check email and reply. If you need to reach me between March 31 and April 12 then leave a message for me with the Himachal Vipassana Center in Dharamkot ( I should be online more frequently after April 12, when my last course in India ends. And it’s warmer at the foothills of the Himalayas now, but still colder than I’d like at night. I’m glad I still have my wool socks:)

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