Saturday, April 25, 2015

India Adventure II: 40 Days in Bodhgaya with Lama Zopa Rinpoche

Kolkata Mail #12322 train from Bombay/Mumbai to Gaya.
When I last wrote I was sitting on top of my blue vinyl covered bunk bed, on the Kolkata Mail #12322 train. At that time Kavita and I were in the middle of a 39+ hour cross country train ride that transported us from one of India’s wealthiest cities, Bombay/Mumbai to the town of Bodhgaya in India’s poorest state, Bihar.

The Kolkata Mail #12332 train route. Kolkata is another name for Calcutta.
Kavita and I had rushed out of Bombay/Mumbai on February 4 in order to reach Bodhgaya and our teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche before he moved on from Bodhgaya on a date that was unknown at the time, but could have been any day.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at the Mahabodhi Temple March 17, 2015. Photo by Venerable Sarah Thresher.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche had reached Bodhgaya on February 2, and was in residence at the Root Institute for Wisdom Culture. The Root Institute is a Tibetan Buddhism study and retreat center co-founded by Lama Zopa Rinpoche and his teacher Lama Yeshe, and is my favorite place to stay in India.

Entrance to the Root Institute.

Root Institute grounds.

Kavita and I had been at the Root Institute together atthe same time last year, to take a ten day Introduction to Buddhism course taught by one of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s senior students, western nun Venerable Sarah Thresher. We were fortunate that Lama Zopa Rinpoche had been at the Root Institute with us at that time, too.

When Kavita and I reached the Root Institute this year - midday on November 6 - we learned a four day Taste of Buddhism course taught by Venerable Sarah Thresher was starting that very afternoon. Kavita registered for the course without a moment of hesitation. Before having to return to Bombay/Mumbai about a week later, Kavita said the course had been amazing for her. We also participated in a Medicine Buddha puja led by Venerable Sarah Thresher and performed in part for her cousin. I am so glad that our visit to Bodhgaya this year was so meaningful for Kavita.

Lozang and Kavita sitting outside of the gompa, in Discussion Group at the Root Institute during a Taste of Buddhism.
While Kavita was getting ready for the start of the Taste of Buddhism course on November 6, I happily walked down the road to my favorite place in India - the nearby Mahabodhi Temple. Buddha attained enlightenment there 2,500+ years ago while sitting underneath the Bodhi tree. The Mahabodhi Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site is a center of Buddhist activity, attracting a never ending stream of tourists and pilgrims from all over India and the world.

Mahabodhi Temple. The stupa is in the middle of this photo.

As I drew near to the Mahabodhi Temple that day, I ran into a teacher I had studied with in India last year, Geshe Dorji Damdul who I later learned was in town from Delhi to lead Alan Wallace’s Buddhist pilgrimage group in activities at the Mahabodhi Temple. I got to tell him how much I was looking forward to his upcoming course, A Retreat on Bodhicitta: Cultivating Your Awakened Heart. I had planned my India itinerary around the dates of His Holiness’ December 2014 teachings in Mundgod, and the dates of Geshe Dorji Damdul’s February 16 – 28 course at the Root Institute.

Then, just in front of the Mahabodhi Temple security check point, I stood aside to let an older woman go in front of me. She hesitated for a minute and then asked if I would be visiting Ladakh, India’s most remote and sparsely populated region that only opened up to foreigners in 1974. I told her that yes, I had been considering it. I took down her name (Lden), the name of her guest house in Leh, Ladakh (Dorma Guest House) and her phone number.

The only other person I spoke with at the Mahabodhi Temple that day was a Ladakhi monk with a big smile and particularly kind face. We passed each other while walking around the stupa inside of the temple grounds and exchanged smiles. We then happened to be exiting the temple grounds at the same time, and had a halting conversation due to language barriers.

To my recollection, these were the first two people I met from Ladakh. It felt like a sign. I will get to Ladakh, “land of high mountain passes”, “Little Tibet”, and “the last Shangri-La” one of these days, and just may stay at Lden’s guest house.

I went back to the Mahabodhi Temple countless times before Geshe Dorji Damdul’s course began on February 16, walking along well worn paths between the Root Institute front gate and the temple.

On my way back to the Root Institute from the temple. A group of Thai monks are coming my way.
One early morning I ran into a roadblock on my way to the temple. Several Indian men had blockaded the road and were standing in the middle of the road angrily gesturing at oncoming vehicular traffic with long sticks. I was able to just walk right by and through the roadblock.

Being so early in the morning, and with the roadblock, the road leading to the temple was unusually quiet. I then saw black smoke rising in the air just in front of the temple main entrance. I stopped at the strip mall that was located between the road blockade and the black smoke, to ask my friend Venu, the owner of a travel agency and internet café located in that strip mall, what was going on and if it was safe to continue to the temple.

After asking around, I learned a young Indian man had been accused of stealing from a local shop, and had been murdered by someone associated with the victimized shop the previous day.

I was told – but fortunately did not see – that the murdered young man’s body had been brought to the road in front of the temple, and was lying in the middle of the road up ahead in front of the temple. The young man’s family and friends had also created the blockade and black smoke to promptly draw the Indian government authorities to the scene of the crime so that authorities could begin a criminal investigation. I was told regretfully this is the best way to get a prompt response from the authorities.

I later heard the road blockade, black smoke, and dead body in the road had had their desired effect. The authorities arrived in Bodhgaya a day or so later. I was also told a resulting trial, if there is one could take years to resolve. My 2009 India guide book mentions the Indian state of Bihar, in which Bodhgaya is located, has been plagued by significant hostile intercaste conflict and criminal misgovernance since India gained independence from Britain, but that the 2005 election results in Bihar may have changed that. I do not know much beyond what I experienced in Bodhgaya, but hope things are improving for the state.

I did not proceed further towards the temple gates that morning. I followed Lama Zopa Rinpoche to the temple that night, after dinner. By then the blockade and dead body were gone, the smoke had cleared, and there was an absence of protest activity.

In addition to following Lama Zopa RInpoche to the temple, and going alone during the day, I would sometimes visit the temple with my friend Lozang who lives in Bodhgaya. He is a volunteer nurse from New Zealand who looks after the 27 HIV positive children who live at Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Tara’s Children Project (TCP). It is the only orphanage for HIV positive children in Bihar. TCP shares a compound with Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Maitreya Universal Education School, which is located just down the street from the Root Institute. Maitreya Universal Education School is a free primary school for impoverished local Indian children, with an enrollment of 160 students.

Andy, Amy, Lozang and student outside of the Maitreya Universal School of Education and Tara Children's Project. The two programs share a building.
A clothing designer and Lama Zopa Rinpoche student is selling sweatshop free, organic t-shirts to raise funds for TCP. Funds raised through t-shirt sales help cover the costs of educating the HIV positive orphans who live at TCP.

Lozang and I would go to the temple to read the Golden Light Sutra or the Vajra Cutter Sutra in English, facing the stupa that contains the Buddha statue, as well as the Bodhi tree. I was completing acommitment I had made in Bangalore in January to independently read the Golden Light Sutra out loud. The sutras are the teachings of the Buddha, written down and passed down over the ages. This was the first time I had read (and heard) the Golden Light Sutra and the Vajra Cutter Sutra in English in full.

While we were at the temple, Lozang and I also distributed hundreds of rounds of flat, round bread (chapattis) on behalf of the Root Institute to the beggars outside of the temple gates. One pre-teen comically, confidently and repeatedly told me “These are not good chapattis”. I was impressed by her and enjoyed our interactions. Lozang and I also successfully sought help for a tiny brown puppy covered in scabs and insects who found a home with a monk at a nearby temple, and taught a young nun how to do a headstand to the amusement of our neighbors at the temple, one of whom was the Ladakhi monk I met on my first day back at the temple.

Mahabodhi Temple.
I also visited the temple to do prostrations. I had done prostrations at the Mahabodhi Temple a few times last year, and had felt great about it. I followed Lozang’s instructions and successfully completed my first set of prostrations to the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas and Seven Medicine Buddhas at the Mahabodhi Temple before Geshe Dorji Damdul’s course began. I was able to make use of a long, narrow wood prostration board that had been rented for free from a nearby monastery by a British monk who was in Bodhgaya expressly to do thousands of prostrations.

The prostration board I borrowed is in this photo.

Unoccupied prostration boards and cushions make good street dog beds.
The British monk began doing his prostrations each morning at 5am when the temple open. My friend Rich, who I met at the Root Institute last year and was back in Bodhgaya to also do a prostrations practice, used the monk’s board in the afternoon. I then used the board to do my prostrations, making use of some pads kindly offered and then loaned to me by a Tibetan man who was doing prostrations on the board in front of me. I had hoped to regularly do prostrations to the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas and Seven Medicine Buddhas at the temple but got caught up in a myriad of other activities.

Mahabodhi Temple Tour

One afternoon I joined Venerable Sarah Thresher, her Taste of Buddhism course students, and Lozang who was leading the course meditations and group discussions, for a tour of the temple. Venerable Sarah Thresher taught us that the British excavated and reassembled the temple site after the Muslims had destroyed it. If we had visited the grounds before the Muslim invasion then we would have been surrounded by a forest of large stupas.

Taste of Buddhism students with Venerable Sarah Thresher and Lozang on left, Kavita in black holding the scarf in the middle, underneath the Bodhi tree at the Mahabodhi Temple. Photo from Lozang.
There is a round stone within the grounds that is the oldest thing at the temple. Venerable Sarah Thresher taught us that it was there during Buddha’s time. It is said the original Buddha statue inside of the stupa glowed. Lama Zopa Rinpoche says Buddha’s relics are inside of the stupa, and that the whole stupa is a relic. The real gold spire that sits on top of the stupa was recently donated by the King of Thailand.

Mahabodhi Temple, looking down at the entrance to the stupa and the statue of the Buddha.
I noticed more recent changes that had taken place over the past year. One long side of the temple grounds is taken up with large pedestals, each one displaying a different passage out of a Buddhist text. The back of each indicates they were donated by a Thai devotee. I was at the temple the day that the new lockers were being inaugurated and blessed just outside of the temple main gates. I was also there the next morning, when the old lockers were being dismantled by Indian workers.

Venerable Sarah Thresher told us about the origins of the Bodhi tree. People have different ideas about its origins. Lama Zopa Rinpoche says the current tree is not the same tree that Buddha sat underneath, but that it grows from the same roots as the original tree. Lama Zopa Rinpoche says it is best to do your practice while sitting underneath the tree, but that the benefits generated by practices done anywhere inside of the temple grounds are multiplied eight times.

Me underneath the Bodhi tree at the Mahabodhi Temple.
We walked around the temple grounds with Venerable Sarah and Lozang, and took note of all of the countries and practices represented. Venerable Sarah Thresher said “The action might be ordinary, but you don’t know what someone is doing with their mind.” That was such a profound teaching for me.

While at the temple another day, I happily ran into a wonderful teacher I received deeply valuable teachings from in Bodhgaya last year - Dr. Verasambodhi, a Bangladeshi monk educated in Sri Lanka (alongside Bhante Wimala, my Sri Lankan teacher who directs the Nairobi, Kenya Buddhist Temple I attended in 2013). Dr. Verasambodhi used to run a meditation center in Santa Cruz, California and is now the abbot of the International Meditation Centre Buddhagaya.

Dr. Verasambodhi underneath the Bodhi tree. I took this one last year.
Dr. Verasambodhi told me he sits underneath the Bodhi tree every day at 4pm. I looked for – and found him sitting underneath the tree – whenever I was at the temple at or after 4pm. We had some great conversations, and he gave me some more teachings. I asked after and learned that Dr. Verasambodhi shares my concerns about the young Indian monks at the temple who look neglected.

I asked Dr. Verasambodhi for help identifying the countries of origin of the pilgrim groups that frequent the temple. It is amazing to think that no matter where I am at any given moment, that there are people practicing at the temple.

Pilgrims underneath the Bodhi tree.
Dr. Verasambodhi taught me that recent political changes in Myanmar have brought many more Burmese pilgrims to Bodhgaya. He said he also sees many Sri Lankan pilgrims at the temple.

Pilgrims at the Mahabodhi Temple.
The Thais come in large numbers – it seems to me the largest numbers of all – and are easily identifiable. They are usually wearing all white, are accompanied by Thai monks in mustard seed colored robes, and speak a language that makes me smile when I hear it because it reminds me of all of the nice people I met in Thailand last year.

I walked into a crowded, small shop near the temple one day, where all of the shoppers were Thai. I heard them make reference to me in Thai. I brightly smiled and enthusiastically greeted them in my extremely limited Thai. The look of surprise and delight on their faces – particularly the monk that was with them - was unforgettable.

I also found a friend from last year, Burmese monk Sumangala, outside of the temple one day. Sumangala has been shifting between Bodhgaya and Myanmar for the past several years. While in Bodhgaya he is reciting prayers at the temple daily, studying, and working on the equivalent of a PhD. During the hot season (summer) he returns to his home monastery in Myanmar to teach English to the young boys. He finishes his studies this year, and will move back to Myanmar.

Sumangala on the right and his teacher on the left. I took this one last year.
Sumangala and I went to lunch in a Bhutanese tent restaurant (a restaurant set up underneath a tent by a family from Bhutan, who came to serve food to tourists during the high season) where Sumangala practiced his English with me. Unfortunately due to scheduling conflicts I did not get to see him again, before leaving Bodhgaya.

Mahabodhidham Monastery’s Rose Apple Cafe

While in India last year I also met Damrongdham and Oat, two Thai monks from the Mahabodhidham Monastery located in the forested hills outside of Bangkok. The first of us first met and spoke while waiting in line at a government office in Dharamsala, India last March. I got to know them better while we were all staying at Deer Park Institute last spring and later accepted their invitation to visit them at their monastery.

I spent 13 days at the monastery last May. While there, Damrongdham, Oat, the monastery’s Australian English language teacher Patrick, and I began brainstorming ideas for a coffee shop Damrongdham was planning to open in Bodhgaya. We gave this coffee shop a name - Rose Apple Cafe.

I did not realize how serious Damrongdham was about opening this coffee shop until Oat sent me photos - sans explanation - of the finished Rose Apple Café six months later. I think my jaw touched the floor when I saw those photos of the beautiful café, with its branded white ceramic tea cups and matching saucers, and large, fancy espresso machine. It was even better to get to visit the Rose Apple Café, and Oat who is managing the day to day operations of the café, when I arrived in Bodhgaya this year.

Rose Apple Cafe. Oat is on the left. Thai monks (customers) at the other table.
Rose Apple Café, “where east meets west” is on the second floor of a building located in Araya Complex, just around the corner from the most well known Thai temple in Bodhgaya. Oat oversaw the construction process in addition to managing the café.

Araya Complex, with Rose Apple Cafe at the far end of this row of shops.
 Rose Apple Café employs a Thai chef, Ning and her Indian husband, Om who also cooks for Rose Apple Café. Two young men, Aadi and Rahul take care of everything else, including making Thai coffees and teas with ingredients Oat brought from Thailand. In addition to the things that make you feel good – delicious food, clean and peaceful atmosphere, wifi-  the profits earned by the Rose Apple Café will go to Damrongdham ‘s Mahabodhidham Monastery.

Rose Apple Café isn’t just meant to bring benefit to the monastery. Oat explained to me that there is a dharma purpose to the Rose Apple Café. He wants people to be able to find happiness even if it is just for a short time - while they are visiting the Rose Apple Café. People are welcomed to come in and simply enjoy the space without ordering anything. Oat said he is not a businessman. He does everything from the heart. You feel that as soon as you walk inside the front door of the Rose Apple Café. It is a special place in Bodhgaya.

Back at the Root Institute, Venerable Sarah Thresher mentioned that there are 54 temples in Bodhgaya, representing different countries’ Buddhist traditions. I always say that Buddhgaya is like the capital city of any country, where embassies represent and reflect different cultures. Bodhgaya’s streets are lined with beautiful Buddhist temples that are built, utilized and maintained by Buddhists from different countries instead of embassy buildings.

I visited more temples last year. This year I re-visited the Thai temple built and managed by the Thai government. Lozang and I read part of the Vajra Cutter Sutra at a Bhutanese temple nearby the temple. I later stumbled upon a beautiful, isolated Bhutanese temple deep within the interior of an Indian village situated on the outskirts of town while trying to find a particular primary school.

I also visited the Karmapa’s monastery in Bodhgaya before Geshe Dorji Damdul’s course started with my original passport, and Lozang’s passport. I went to see if I could put our names on the list of people wanting to offer khatas (white scarves) to the Karmapa at his monastery on one of the few days that he was in town, should the Karmapa have time to see us. Like Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the Karmapa frequently travels to give teachings. He is giving teachings in the USA right now. I was successful in getting Lozang and I on the list of people who could be called to see the Karmapa, but was already in Geshe Dorji Damdul’s course when I received the call. Lozang was able to see the Karmapa, though.

I was busy back at the Root Institute, too.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche is having a stupa built on a piece of property around the corner from the Root Institute, under the direction of Israeli volunteer Haggai. The interior of the main stupa and the surrounding smaller stupas will be completely filled with carefully rolled Buddhist mantras, so that no air space remains between the rolls. That’s a lot of rolls to make. I learned how to properly roll several pieces of long strips of paper printed with mantras that had been written in Tibetan into rolls, and then how to cover the rolls with gold colored cloth.

I had fun making mantra rolls in the Root Institute dining hall with Lozang, Amy, and Namgyal. Amy, who is Australian, volunteers at Tara Children’s Project. She was introduced to Buddhism when she was 14, and is also a student of Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Lozang, another student of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, has parents who have been students of Lama Zopa Rinpoche since the 1970’s. Namgyal is a Ladakhi restaurant owner who has spent a lot of time on Buddhist pilgrimage in India this year. He is also a student of Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Geshe Dorji Damdul.

Mantra rolling in the Root Institute dining hall with Amy, Lozang, and Namgyal.
I spent a lot of time with Amy and Lozang. I particularly enjoyed near daily picnic lunches underneath the trees in front of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s house with Amy and Lozang, and our evening bike rides between the Mahabodhi Temple and the Root Institute.

There were about thirty other long time Lama Zopa Rinpoche students who spent varying amounts of time at the Root Institute during the 40 days that I spent there with Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

I will not name everyone, but for sampling purposes I saw Venerable Legtsok and Venerable Namjong, photographers Bill and Neal, as well as Darima, all of whom I first met when I went to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s December 2013 teachings in Bylakuppe. Venerable Legtsok and Venerable Namjong are American monks who study at Sera Je Monastic University in Bylakuppe. Venerable Legtsok taught the Introduction to Buddhism course I took at Tushita Meditation Centre last year. Bill is an American living in Thailand, who I got to see when I was in Bangkok last year. Neal travels between the USA and India. Darima is Russian, but lives in Sarnath, India where she studies Buddhist Philosophy in Tibetan at the Tibetan university.

I reconnected with Venerable Paldron, who I traveled with from Bangalore to Mundgod for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Mundgod last December. I got to Venerable Samten who manages Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s study center in Delhi where I stayed for a few nights last year, as well as Zarina who lives in Sweden, but was also at Kopan Monastery during Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings last December. I had most recently seen Venerable Samten and Zarina at Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Bangalore teachings in January.

I also got to see Randolf from Singapore, who had been at the Root Institute with Kavita and I when Lama Zopa Rinpoche was at the Root Institute last year, and Michael from Australia who had also been in Gen Gyatso’s Mind Training course at the Root last January. It was also great to see Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s attendants – several monks - who travel with Lama Zopa Rinpoche. I also enjoyed spending time with the Root Institute staff that I got to know last year.

It was a nice surprise to see fellow students from last year’s November Course at Kopan Monastery who had also traveled to the Root Institute to take more Tibetan Buddhism courses, including Jonathan who is now the Root Institute’s Manager, as well as Kate from Russia, Michael from Canada, and Omar from England.

In addition to getting to know everyone better, I also made some great new friends. We were all bonded together by our teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche. As Zarina said, it is amazing to consider the karma we must have created together in past lives to be here together again, today.

Group activities included not only participating in Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s numerous activities – including teachings, pujas, tsok offerings, and korwas – but also preparing for and helping to run those activities.

Zarina took responsibility for arranging the beautiful cut flowers into vases to be displayed and offered during Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s activities. Kate and Amy put a lot of effort into creating beautiful flower lined walkways for Lama Zopa Rinpoche to use when entering and exiting the Root Institute gompa.

Flower arranging with Tenzin, Zarina, Venerable Khadro, Marie, and Amy.

Amy, Namgyal and Kate preparing a flower lined path for Lama Zopa Rinpoche to use when entering the gompa at the Root Institute.

Students waiting outside of the Root Institute gompa for Lama Zopa Rinpoche to arrive.
One morning Kate and I were invited to shop for crates of beautiful fruit, to be displayed and offered one hour later to the buddhas and bodhisattvas at the Mahabodhi Temple in a Guru Puja led by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Kate and I took the shopping list and an auto rickshaw to the fruit market near the temple, where we bargained for large quantities of oranges, apples, pomegranates, bananas, and yellow melons – and, it must be said - happened upon a white goat that had been slaughtered possibly seconds earlier by the men leaning over its neck. Kate and I also stopped off to buy juice boxes from a shop.

Our auto rickshaw driver then parked his auto rickshaw, now loaded with fruit and juice boxes, in front of the temple main gates. Kate, Omar and the Ladakhi monk I had met on my first day back in Bodhgaya, and I figured out how to quickly and carefully carry it all to the site of the puja, which was held behind the stupa, nearby the Bodhi tree. It was a fun adventure.

Preparing for the puja within view of the stupa at Mahabodhi Temple.
We started the puja in the late afternoon, using the Lama Chopa Jorcho text. It was beautiful to be there as the sun was setting over the stupa in front of us. Tibetans who had been doing korwas around the stupa joined us when they saw Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and sat in the back, spinning their handheld prayer wheels that release mantras into the universe with every spin.

Puja at the temple that night with Lama Zopa Rinpoche on the throne decorated with a white khata (scarf) looking to his left.
Korwas at Mahabodhi Temple with Lama Zopa Rinpoche

I also spent many nights at the Mahabodhi Temple with Lama Zopa Rinpoche, doing korwas - walking in a clockwise direction around the stupa and Bodhi tree, which sit in the center of the Mahabodhi Temple grounds. We never knew if he was going to go to the temple on any given night, or not but always hoped he would. We would all sit in the open air dining hall for dinner, with an eye towards Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s front door. When we saw him coming, we would get up and move towards his car, to respectfully watch him depart for the temple. As soon as the car had pulled down the Root Institute driveway, we would start heading to the temple by rickshaw or bicycle, with the goal of reaching the temple at the same time, or shortly after Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Once we got to the temple, Lama Zopa Rinpoche would buy 20+ Styrofoam plates full of brightly colored flower arrangements from the Indian flower sellers who stand near the entrance to the temple during temple opening hours. We would then carry those flower arrangements inside the temple to offer to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and would arrange them on a low hedge just inside of the entrance to the temple, within view of the entrance to the stupa that leads to the Buddha statue.  We would then gather around Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who would lead us in mantra recitation and prayers before we began to korwa the stupa together as a small group, sometimes adding pilgrims who happened upon us, as well as street dogs to live at the temple, to our group.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche and students offering flowers in the background of this photo at the Mahabodhi Temple. (Look for the group of maroon robes.)

Lama Zopa Rinpoche with hands folded offering the flowers with students.
When I first arrived at the Root Institute and began joining Lama Zopa Rinpoche for the korwas, he was reciting drang nges legs bshad snying po (drang nge leg shay nying po), also known as Lekshe Nyingpo, Treatise Differentiating the Interpretable and the Definitive: The Essence of Eloquence written by Lama Tsong Khapa, as we walked around the stupa. An English translation is available in The Speech of Gold, by Robert Thurman. A Partial English translation is available in Emptiness in the Mind-Only School of Buddhism, by Jeffrey Hopkins. The other students and I recited various prayers and mantras as we walked around the stupa, in keeping with an instruction booklet prepared by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, for how to properly do korwas around holy objects. Those booklets were distributed to us each time we did korwas with Lama Zopa Rinpoche by the Root Institute’s organized and efficient Venerable Dekyong.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche leading students in a korwa at the Mahabodhi Temple. Photo from his Facebook page - no photographer noted.
We would leave the temple at 9pm, when the guards closed the temple for the night, following slowly behind Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Our teacher would stop at each beggar (mostly women and girls, as well as severely handicapped men and boys with missing and disfigured limbs who are unable to properly walk) who lined the wide path that ran between the temple gates and his car. Lama Zopa Rinpoche would then look each beggar in the eye, and offer each a ten Indian rupees note, equivalent to roughly 16 cents. Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s generosity became known to the beggars, and they would come over as soon as they saw him exiting the temple. I was moved to see some of the young girls devotedly join us outside of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s car on a few occasions, to watch him settle into his car and leave the temple for the Root Institute.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche in the center offering rupees to beggars outside of the Mahabodhi Temple one night.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche was also busy back at the Root Institute, teaching us inside of the Root Institute’s large gompa. The first teaching held since my return to the Root Institute was on February 11. Lama Zopa Rinpoche continued teaching for the following two days.

He taught about the causes of our suffering and how to stop suffering, instructing us to correctly take the medicine that Buddha offered to us. Lama Zopa Rinpoche taught that one way to end our suffering is to acquire merit by practicing having a good heart. Bring comfort and happiness to sentient beings by bringing them to enlightenment with us, and by even bringing them temporary happiness in this life. Think of and cherish others like you cherish yourself.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching inside of the Root Institute gompa one night.
Venerable Sarah Thresher perfectly summarized how I felt during my first ten days back in Bodhgaya with Lama Zopa Rinpoche, before the start of Geshe Dorji Damdul’s course, when she wrote “It’s obvious to everyone that Rinpoche is a holy being, ordinary actions become extraordinary in his presence.”

A Retreat on Bodhicitta: Cultivating Your Awakened Heart with Geshe Dorji Damdul

I was so happy to see Geshe Dorji Damdul when he arrived at the Root Institute on February 16 for the start of his course, A Retreat on Bodhicitta: Cultivating Your Awakened Heart. The course flyer read:

Bodhicitta means “Awakened Heart”, the essence of which is loving kindness. By opening our hearts to others we can enrich our lives and the lives of those around us. Spend two weeks listening, contemplating and meditating on the essence of Bodhicitta with Geshe Dorji Damdul, translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The retreat is held during Losar, an auspicious time when all virtuous activity is greatly multiplied.

Geshe Dorji Damdul fully dedicated himself to us for the duration of the course, providing us all with a rigorous daily schedule that included three teachings by Geshe Dorji Damdul not including the 6:00 – 7:30AM Morning Practice session that he also used as an opportunity to provide us with further guidance and instructions on how to practice Tibetan Buddhism in the way that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama would like westerners to practice.

Geshe Dorji Damdul's Root Institute course schedule.
Geshe Dorji Damdul, his assistant Tara, and the Root Institute, acting under the direction of Geshe Dorji Damdul provided us with an assortment of study and practice tools. Each student in the course received a copy of the 2015 edition of the 317 page book Prayers and Meditation Manual published by Tibet House Delhi. The book was carefully prepared by Geshe Dorji Damdul over a ten year period, based on the 7+ years he spent with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, acting as a translator. Geshe Dorji Damdul collected information during those years about how His Holiness wants westerners to practice Tibetan Buddhism. The book we received is the culmination of Geshe Dorji Damdul’s efforts and is therefore beyond valuable.

We also received seven water bowls, a butter lamp and candle, lighter, box of incense, khata, cloth to cleanse the water bowls, laminated pictures of the Wheel of Life and the Buddha, and a wood mala. We also received a beautiful free standing, double window picture frame with a photo of Buddha on the left and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama on the right that was explicitly given to each of us as a gift from Geshe Dorji Damdul.

We learned how to use, and made use of these Tibetan Buddhism practice tools each day during the course. My day started at 4:45AM. I was responsible for ringing the gong at 5AM to wake everyone up so that they could do their water bowls and butter lamp offerings before I rang the gong again at 5:54AM to call everyone to the gompa for our 6AM Group Morning Practice.

During our Group Morning Practice we would do seven minutes of prostrations together, followed by the lighting of the butter lamps on the altar at the front of the gompa. The water bowls on the altar would have already been filled by students from our course. While lighting the lamps we would chant in unison along with Geshe Dorji Damdul, “With folded hands I beseech the buddhas of all directions to shine the lamp of dharma for all bewildered in miseries’ gloom.” We would then read prayers together and take the Aspirational Bodhisattva Vows, as printed in the Prayer And Meditation Manual.

My favorite passages from our daily prayers include:

In all my deeds may I probe into my mind,
And as soon as mental and emotional afflictions arise –
As they endanger myself and others –
May I strongly confront them and avert them.

The above is a verse from Eight Verses of Mind Training by Geshe Langri Thangpa and translated by Dr. Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama reads the prayer daily.

Just as I have fallen into the sea of samsara,
So have all mother migratory beings.
Please bless me to see this, train in supreme Bodhicitta,
And bear the responsibility of freeing migratory beings.

The above is a verse from The Foundation of All Good Qualities by Lama Tsong Khapa.

For all those guests travelling on the path of conditioned existence
Who wish to experience the bounties of happiness,
This will satisfy them with joy
And actually place them in supreme bliss.

The above is a verse from Chapter 3 of Bodhicharyavattara. “This” refers to conventional bodhicitta.

May the mind of those who wish for liberation be granted bounteous peace
And the Buddhas’ deeds be nourished for a long time
By even this graded path to enlightenment completed,
Due to the wondrous virtuous conduct of the Buddhas and their children.

The above is a verse from Final Lamrim Prayer by Lama Tsong Khapa.

It is taught by the consummate Buddha,
The supreme among all teachers,
The one who taught [this] peace,
Which is freed of elaborations.

The above is an extract from Mulamadhyamakakarika.

Therefore who could challenge you?
You who proclaim with lion’s roar
In the assembly of learned ones repeatedly
That everything is utterly free of intrinsic nature?

That is in reference to Buddha, extracted from In Praise of Dependent Origination by Lama Tsong Khapa.

I also like The Four Dharmas of Venerable Gampopa:

May I be blessed that my mind be directed towards the dharma
May I be blessed that my dharma practice be on the proper path
May I be blessed that the path be freed of flaws
May I be blessed that the flaws be seen in the light of exalted wisdom

We had breakfast after concluding our Morning Practice in the gompa with Geshe Dorji Damdul. Before we ate our meals, we would sit together in the dining hall and read prayers from our Prayer and Meditation Manual.

I then rang the gong again after breakfast - at 8:54AM - to call students to the gompa for our first teaching session of the day. (Michael from Canada rang the gong to call students to the gompa for the afternoon sessions, so my gong ringing responsibilities ended before lunch.)

There were 29 students in the course, including two Tibetans who have known Geshe Dorji Damdul since childhood, western monk Venerable Bodhicitta, two of Geshe Dorji Damdul’s students who study with him at Tibet House in Delhi, my Ladakhi friend Namgyal, Michael who was in Gen Gyatso’s Mind Training course at the Root Institute with me last January, and several others who had also taken the November Course at Kopan Monastery last year.

Geshe Dorji Damdul in the center of the photo surrounded by his students from the Root Institute course. I am on the bottom left in blue.
I got to know a handful of my fellow students better through our twice daily Discussion Group sessions. I loved our Discussion Group. It gave me an opportunity to ask for clarification of things I did not understand in class, receive support for things I was having difficulties with, and hear new perspectives. Our assigned group - which met on the Dining Hall roof overlooking open fields and trees that provide habitat to beautiful birds - was composed of Jenny from Melbourne, Yunus from Norway, Michael from Sydney, Migmar who is a Tibetan from south India, Omar from England, Bindu from Canada, Kirkyal from Russia, Stephanie from Melbourne, and myself.

Our Discussion Group - Top left to bottom right: Yunus, Omar, Jenny, Michael, Kirkyal, me, Migmar, Stephanie, Bindu.
Geshe Dorji Damdul also joined our Discussion Group on a few occasions, too. One day I realized that we had not yet had lunch, and Geshe Dorji Damdul had already spent four hours teaching us inside of the gompa, and then came and sat with us during Discussion Group, and taught us some more. He is amazing.

I know I am not the only student who thought so - I enjoyed seeing students offer Geshe Dorji Damdul heartfelt smiles as he passed by, and the smiles and nods he offered students in return. He also showed us so much compassion, reminding us that we have had this chronic illness since beginningless time, seeing things this way. It is going to take time.

While the course required stamina, it was greatly enjoyable and beneficial. I learned so much not only about how to set up a daily practice and why it is important to properly do the practice, but also about what I now see as the essence of Tibetan Buddhism – wisdom realizing emptiness, Bodhichitta, and how we should meditate on those two topics. We spent the first part of the course studying wisdom realizing emptiness, the second part on Bodhicitta, and the third part on the path to Buddhahood.

Losar: Tibetan New Year

Geshe Dorji Damdul took us to the Mahbodhi Temple twice, to give us the Aspirational Bodhisattva Vows in a spot nearby the Bodhi tree. The first time we went to the temple to take the vows, it was 5:30AM on February 19 – Losar, New Year’s Day on the Tibetan calendar. Losar might have also been a good time to think of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teacher and co-founder of the FPMT, Lama Yeshe, who I think passed away 31 years ago on Losar this year? (You can download free books containing Lama Yeshe's teachings here.)

The first 15 days of Losar, called Monlam, began on February 19 and ended on March 5. Those 15 days are particularly auspicious. It is a time when Buddha performed miracles, and any merits earned are multiplied 100,000 times.

When Geshe Dorji Damdul took us to the temple on Losar, he encouraged us to set our intentions to follow the Bodhisattva path as best as we are able, and to reflect on the fact that we destroy ourselves by being selfish. He told us to set an intention to cherish others as much as possible, and to see all things as dream like. He told us he was giving us the Aspirational Bodhisattva Vows to purify our minds of negative karma by rejoicing in others, and to gain merit. We also made commitments to become buddhas.

Geshe Dorji Damdul administered the aspirational Bodhisattva Vows to us on that red mat on the right side of this photo, within view of the Bodhi tree at the Mahabodhi Temple.
After taking the Aspirational Bodhisattva Vows and reading the associated prayers printed in our Prayer And Meditation Manual, we also read from a handout Geshe Dorji Damdul had given us that contained verses 150-167 of Chapter 9, the Wisdom Chapter of a Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by Shantideva.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama recently suggested to Geshe Dorji Damdul that his students read these verses after taking the Aspirational Bodhisattva Vows. Geshe Dorji Damdul told His Holiness that this was already being done, and his Holiness was so happy. Geshe Dorji Damdul explained to us that reading these verses seals the virtues accumulated by taking the vows, and helps us generate the wish that all sentient beings know what the real dharma is.

I now take the Aspirational Bodhisattva Vows as part of my personal practice, and read these verses after taking the vows. Reading them makes me think of His Holiness and smile. It is my favorite part of my practice.

[Therefore] wandering beings resemble dreams.
Upon analysis, they are like plantain trees.
Whether they are released or not released from sorrow
Ultimately, there is no difference.

With all phenomena empty in that way,
What is there to gain?
What is there to lose?
Who is there to respect or scorn?

From where does pleasure or pain arise?
What is there to dislike or like?
When investigated at the ultimate level
What [object] is craved by which [agent]?

Upon analysis, [what] world of living beings [is there]
That will die here?
Who is there who will come into existence?
Who is there who has existed?
Who is a relative? [Who is] a friend?

Those of my type, please understand
That everything is like space.
But those wishing for happiness for a “self”
Get agitated and overexcited

Through causes [such as] fights and festivities;
Then from the [resulting] distress and overexertion,
And [Disheartening] disputes, they cut and stab each other
Thus passing their lives in tremendous difficulties
due to [their] negative deeds.

Then, [despite] coming to the favourable states
Of birth over and over again, and
So often experiencing manifold pleasures,
After death, they fall to [experience]
The unbearable sufferings of the bad states of birth for a very long time.

In [cyclic] existence, cliffs [to fall from] are aplenty;
And there [in samsara], one remains deprived of
[the understanding] of reality
But since [samsara and nirvana] mutually contradict one another,
[one unceasingly cycles in Samsara]
In [cyclic] existence, nothing [compares with] the realization of the reality.

There, too, are incomparable and unbearable
Oceans of suffering beyond any end;
In [samsara], there is little strength;
The life span is too short.

There, as well, with activities for longevity and health,
With hunger and exhaustion,
With sleep and harms, and likewise
With fruitlessly keeping company with childish people,

Life passes quickly and in vain.
Yet, analytical wisdom is so difficult to gain!
Furthermore, where is there [in samsara] a means
To eliminate the habituated distractions?

Again, [when making effort to be free],
the demon is striving there
To bring about a fall to the most awful states of rebirth.
[In higher births, because] there are too many false paths,
Also it is difficult to transcend “doubt.”

And it is so difficult to gain respite again,
And the appearance of a Buddha is extremely difficult to find,
And the rapids of disturbing emotion are so difficult to abandon.
Alas, suffering will just go on unceasingly.

And they fail to see their own suffering,
Although they are infested with extreme suffering.
Oh dear, this really is the cause to lament
For those who are caught in the rapids of suffering

For example, some people perform ablutions,
Then they jump into fire again and again,
Even though in terrible states of suffering,
They believe themselves to be happy.

Likewise, there are those who frolic about,
[Fooling around], as if there were no old age and death.
First, they will lose their lives,
And then fall to a worse state of rebirth.

Oh! When shall I come to bring peace
To those tormented by the fires of suffering like these?
With a rain happiness from my collection,
Pouring forth from the clouds of my merit?

Oh! When shall [I] respectfully accumulate the store of merit
Through [insight into] the emptiness of the [object] of apprehension,
And then teach emptiness to those
Who have been ruined by [such] an object of apprehension.

This English translation was prepared by Geshe Dorji Damdul with editing assistance from Jeremy Russell and Venerable Tenzin Nordon, based on an earlier translation by Dr. Alex Berzin, for the March and April 2006 teachings by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama at Thekchen Chölin.

Geshe Dorji Damdul also administered the Eight Mahayana Precepts to us at the temple on Losar, and led us in three korwas around the stupa.

We then returned to the Root Institute and had our morning class with Geshe Dorji Damdul. After class, we joined Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Geshe Dorji Damdul, the rest of the Root Institute community, Venerable Robina and her pilgrimage group who were staying at the Root Institute that day, and many friends on the lawn for a delicious picnic lunch offered to us by Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Losar picnic lunch. Photo by Venerable Sarah Thresher.
Losar picnic lunch at the Root Institute. It was crowded. I took this after the lunch had ended and most people had left.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche sat on a throne in the front of the picnic group, and gave a teaching from that spot after lunch. Geshe Dorji Damdul sat on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s left side, at a right angle to Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s throne. It made me so happy to see two of my teachers sitting together, smiling, and exchanging words.

Geshe Dorji Damdul took us to the Mahabodhi Temple a second time, at 5:30AM on Feb 24 to take the Aspirational Bodhisattva Vows again underneath the same tree as before, to make flower offerings and prayers to the Buddha statue inside of the stupa together, and to take a tour of the temple together. I brought my portable audio recorder on behalf of the Root Institute and did my best to capture all of Geshe Dorji Damdul’s teachings underneath the tree, and as we walked around the temple as a group.

At 9am on the last day of the course, February 28 we did a Guru Puja for His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, with a tsok offering. Geshe Dorji Damdul taught that the tsok (food offerings) represent the wisdom of emptiness and Bodhicitta. We generate merit to support our practice in the long run – the Buddha’s qualities of perfect love, perfect power, and perfect knowledge - by offering the tsok to buddhas, His Holiness, bodhisattvas, and local evil spirits.

Geshe Dorji Damdul the kindly told us that Buddha looks upon us like a mother to her child. We shouldn’t worry about mistakes. It’s OK.

Some other students and I had bad colds during Geshe Dorji Damdul’s course. One day Venerable Khadro approached me, and offered me Tibetan medicine tea bags on behalf of Geshe Dorji Damdul. He had asked her to distribute the tea bags to his sick students. The tea helped.

On that last day of the course, after telling us not to worry about mistakes, Geshe Dorji Damdul said that being sick – the  sickness – is trying to keep us from going to his class. Going to his class anyway is our victory over the maras. He said anytime you try to escape samsara the sickness will come, and that it is intense. I was so touched by the gifted tea bags, as well as his remarks and compassion.

We then waited in line with our khatas to make offerings to him one at a time, and receive a blessing. It was a wonderful end to the course. Many students privately met with Geshe Dorji Damdul before he left for Delhi on February 28. I got to meet with him on February 27, his last night at the Root Institute. I felt so much better after we talked, and am convinced of the power of his prayers.

Offering khatas and receiving blessings from Geshe Dorji Damdul in the Root Institute gompa on the last day of the course.
Geshe Dorji Damdul joined us for the traditional picnic lunch served on the last day of every Root Institute course.

Lunch with Geshe Dorji Damdul.
He then went to Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s house for lunch before departing the Root Institute for Delhi on February 28. I hope Geshe Dorji Damdul will keep coming back so that many more students can benefit from his teachings and warmth.

Monlam: Merit Multiplying Days

I was fortunate to be able to generate merit during Monlam this year not only by participating in Geshe Dorji Damdul’s course, but by also following Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s merit multiplying activities.

The Root Institute staff and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s attendants converted the flat roof of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s house at the Root Institute into a teaching space. They set up a large altar, tables to hold water bowls, a temporary sun and rain blocking roof made of drop cloths, and brought in large rugs and throw cushions. The rooftop is only accessible via the house’s internal staircase. I was in awe of being inside of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s house each time I came and went from the rooftop.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche's house at the Root Institute.
I attended part of an afternoon puja led by Lama Zopa Rinpoche on the rooftop, an evening teaching on emptiness, and a late night refuge ceremony offered for the benefit of Venerable Robina's pilgrimage students that led into the unexpected administration of the Bodhisattva Vows. Lama Zopa Rinpoche said you receive limitless skies of merit every second, once you have taken the Bodhisattva Vows. “Life becomes rich. From kaka into gold.”

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching on the roof of his house at the Root Institute one night.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche offering refuge to a student.
I climbed to the roof for a third time to join an evening Medicine Buddha puja led by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. During pujas we read prayers aloud together, in unison. This time, we read from The Wish-Granting Sovereign: A Ceremony for Worshipping the Seven Sugatas. It was written by the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Losang Gyatso and translated by John Newman. Excerpt:

I beseech all the lamps of the world who have decided to demonstrate the way of passing into nirvana to remain for a long time, acting for the benefit of the world. I dedicate the entirety of whatever mass of merit I have created in this way as a cause for myself, and all others without exception, to actualize unexcelled awakening.

Once Geshe Dorji Damdul’s course ended on February 28, I became free to help out with more activities at the Root Institute, including helping with the hundreds of water bowls on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s roof. Those water bowls needed to be emptied, cleaned, purified, refilled, and then offered to the buddhas and bodhisattvas each day, even after Monlam concluded on March 5.

Water bowls and altar on Lama Zopa Rinpoche's roof.
I enjoyed spend the time after breakfast on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s roof, soaking in the morning sun with Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s other students who had become friends. Amy taught me that each of the eight water bowls is offered to the buddhas and bodhisattvas for a different purpose. The first bowl is for washing (“agam”), the second is for drinking (“padyam”), the third is for flowers (“pushpey”), the fourth is for incense (“dupey”), the fifth is for light (“aloke”), the sixth is for perfume (“ghande”), the seventh is for food (“navidye”), and the last is for music (“shabda”).

Prayers are recited during each step of the water bowl process. I practiced engaging my mind in the activity so that my physical actions would create merit for myself and all other sentient beings. As Venerable Sarah Thresher had taught at the Mahabodhi Temple earlier that month, “The action might be ordinary, but you don’t know what someone is doing with their mind.”

Once the hundreds of water bowls had been filled and offered, we would gather together on the rooftop to say a dedication prayer, dedicating the merits generated by our activity to benefit all sentient beings. I like Amy’s dedication:

We dedicate the merits to the long life of our gurus, because without the kindness of our gurus enlightenment for ourselves and others is not possible. So within our gurus the potential for enlightenment for ourselves and others rests.

I usually spent the day at the Mahabodhi Temple, returning to the Root Institute for dinner in the dining hall. I used my copy of Geshe Dorji Damdul’s Prayer and Meditation Manual to do the daily practice he gave us, as well as the practice he gave me for my Uncle Dick, who passed away March 18, 2014.

For my friends who I know recently lost loved ones – including, but not limited to – Michelle Wall’s father, Carter’s brother, Colleen Marshall’s friend Scott, Danielle Brigida’s childhood dog, Melissa’s cat Guster, Linda’s brother and her dog Cooper, Marc and William’s sister Jane, Michael Parle’s brother and mother, Billie’s brother Dean, the Schoell’s dog Bailey, all of the Parisi family’s past dogs, Andy, Jenn and Ryan’s dog Winter, Dee’s uncle Ravi, Kavita’s cousin Danny, Connor, Tim, Carrie, Eric, Kristi, and Marie Hess from Frost Valley, as well as all of my deceased family members plus Marie Richter … all are specifically named in my prayers. If there are others to include then please tell me.

People doing individual practices at the Mahabodhi Temple.
My favorite spot to sit with my book and mala is a short narrow alley running between two low stupa bases, near the base of the staircase that runs down from the long length of prayer wheels to the temple entrance.

I was just getting settled in my spot one afternoon when an elderly Tibetan man who was practicing nearby came over with his broom to clean the dirt and dead leaves away from my spot for me. Seeing that I was sitting on the bare concrete ground, he brought over a meditation cushion for me to borrow, as well as a stone tablet for me to use as a table for my prayer book. I was so touched by his kindness.

Maybe a day later a young woman who must have been walking throughout the temple grounds, making offerings to practitioners as people often do - approached me while I was sitting in my favorite spot, quietly reading my prayers, and made me an offering of 20 rupees. I was so touched.

One hot afternoon at the temple, I came across Lama Zopa Rinpoche and a small group of students sitting in the shadows of a small temple, reading from a Tibetan text. I sat down and joined them. Even though I could not understand the Tibetan, it was so nice to sit at the temple in the afternoon sun, just maybe four feet from Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

I later learned from one of Venerable Sarah Thresher’s blog posts that Lama Zopa Rinpoche was reading drang nges legs bshad snying po (drang nge leg shay nying po), also known as Lekshe Nyingpo, Treatise Differentiating the Interpretable and the Definitive: The Essence of Eloquence written by Lama Tsong Khapa. He had also been reading this text, in Tibetan during the times that I had been able to join him for korwas at the Mahabodhi temple prior to the start of Geshe Dorji Damdul’s course.

How To Practice Patience with Lama Zopa Rinpoche

In addition to attending events during Monlam on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s roof, I was also able to attend a series of three teachings on How To Practice Patience, held in the Root Institute gompa. Venerable Sarah Thresher explained in one of her blog posts that Lama Zopa Rinpoche had recently translated a text by the Kadampa masters containing simple, practical advice on patience and wanted to teach on that text.

Venerable Sarah Thresher also explained why the first two of three teachings on How To Practice Patience were about emptiness. Lama Zopa Rinpoche began the February 28 teaching with the preliminary prayer:

Do not commit any non-virtuous actions, perform only perfect virtuous actions, subdue your mind thoroughly – This is the teaching of the Buddha. A star, a visual aberration, a flame of a lamp, An illusion, a drop of dew, or a buddle, A dream, a flash of lightening, a cloud – see conditioned things as such!

Lama Zopa Rinpoche laughed at the end of that first teaching, and said that he would teach us How To Practice Patience the following day.

We joined him in the gompa again later that night from 9PM – 1:30AM for a guru puja, the benefits of which were explained by Lama Zopa Rinpoche during the 25th Kopan Monastery November course in 1992. At the puja I attended that night, Lama Zopa Rinpoche advised us to recite the Vajrasattva mantra 28 times each day in order to benefit our current and past lives by purifying heavy negative karma into small negative karma. The amount of purification generated by your practice depends on your level of faith.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche on his throne inside of the Root Institute gompa. Photo by Venerable Sarah Thresher.
After teaching us about emptiness the following afternoon, March 1, Lama Zopa Rinpoche laughed again and said we should come back the following afternoon for the teaching How to Meditate on Patience. We then dedicated the merits we had gathered during the emptiness teaching to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso by reciting the Prayer that Spontaneously Fulfills All Wishes:

Savior of the Snow Land Teachings and transmigratory beings, who makes extremely clear the path that is unification of emptiness and compassion, to the Lotus Holder, Tenzin Gyatso, I beseech – may all your holy wishes be spontaneously fulfilled!

The March 1 teaching strongly resonated with me. He taught a buddha or bodhisattva can manifest as anything, including as a butcher. We cannot tell who someone is by looking at them because what we see is a projection based on our obscured mind. We have been habituated to seeing things incorrectly from countless past lives. We try to fix our illnesses with medicine, but the problems return because we have not worked on the source of our problems - our mind - as taught by Buddha. The cessation of that obscured mind is the path to enlightenment and buddhahood.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche is known for repeating “wow” or “amazing” many times in a row during his teachings. On March 1 he explained that he does this to give his students time to contemplate what he has just said. So presumably not, then to emphasize a point or to make his students smile.

He also showed us that we can recognize that our dreams are not real, once we have woken up on the couch and realize we had fallen asleep. We can easily see our dreams as illusions, but we cannot see our day to day experiences as dream like illusions, created by the mind – “dream university, marriage, one hundred children, Disneyland trips”. The real kicker for me was the next part. I almost fell off of my cushion and on to the floor because the teaching hit me so strongly. “There’s no you, there’s no you, there’s no I … you think you have a son, and a wife, but you don’t even have a real I.”

Venerable Legtsok elaborated upon Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s March 1 emptiness teaching the following afternoon at a 2PM review session held in the gompa. He said we will continue to experience problems and suffering, which comes as a result of grasping at things as if they are real and concrete, until we have destroyed the root of samsara by acquiring the wisdom of emptiness. Venerable Legtsok said we cannot simply intellectually study emptiness. We must also meditate on it. Geshe Dorji Damdul had said the same thing. Geshe Dorji Damdul had taught us techniques for meditating on emptiness, and incorporated those meditations into the daily practice he gave us.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche taught us How to Practice Patience the following day, March 2 in the gompa. He gave us another example for the scenario he had given us the previous day, of the buddha or bodhisattva that is seen by our obscured mind as a butcher. On March 2 he said even if Buddha were to walk up to us today, we would only see an ordinary person with an ordinary body.

He then explained how our obscured mind causes us problems. He referenced a teaching by Nagarjuna, saying if you eliminate the anger that is inside of you, then you will eliminate all of your outside enemies.

I got this sticker when I lived in San Francisco. The company, No Enemy who made it is based in Santa Cruz.
Since we have already lived countless past lives, there is not anyone in the world today that we have not hurt or killed in one of our past lives. We did that by making someone else a target for our anger, and then acting on that anger. You then created the karma for that person to get angry at you in a future life, and make you into a target for their own anger.

Getting angry destroys the merits you have worked so hard to acquire. Prevent the destruction of your merits by dedicating and sealing your merits with emptiness. I have noticed that Lama Zopa Rinpoche does this at the end of every teaching.

This is his dedication from his December 7, 2014 teaching at Kopan Monastery:

Due to all the past, present, and future merits collected by me, all the three time merits collected by numberless sentient beings and numberless buddhas, which are merely labeled by the mind, may the I, who is merely labeled by the mind, achieve the unified state of Vajradhara, which is merely labeled by the mind, and lead all the sentient beings, who are merely labeled by the mind, to that full enlightenment, which is also merely labeled by the mind, by myself alone, who is also merely labeled by the mind.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche said we can avoid being harmed by others by not getting angry and putting targets on other people in the first place.

People who do things to provoke you are your teachers of patience. Think that “the enemy is most precious” and unbelievably kind. The enemy is giving you the opportunity to destroy your ego, which has enslaved you since beginningless time. Therefore, anger displayed towards you is a cause for you attain enlightenment because it is an opportunity to practice patience. Lama Zopa Rinpoche said you should “offer momos when your teacher comes to criticize you”. Make prayers that you become a disciple of patience.

He also tied the teaching on patience to his teachings on emptiness, reminding us that ultimately there is not harm giver or real action harming me. All of the phenomena we think are causing us harm – angry words, guns – are empty. They are illusions created by our hallucinating mind – by our ignorance of how things exist - that projects these angry words and guns as real. But the nature of the angry words and guns is emptiness.

Therefore there is nothing to be happy or sad about – nothing to bother you. “Separate the negative thought from the person. Don’t make it one.”

Akshay Educational and Social Welfare Charitable Trust

I ran into Australian friend Sally after one of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s How To Practice Patience teachings. Sally, who was the Project Manager at Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Maitreya Universal Education School when I met her last year, was sitting on a bench outside of the gompa with her Spanish friend Raquel Mason, the founder of Akshay Educational and Social Welfare CharitableTrust (Akshay Charitable Trust). Sally has been busy sourcing employment opportunities for Akshay Charitable Trust’s primary school and sewing program graduates.

After hearing about the primary school, I inquired about the possibility of a visit. Raquel kindly invited me to visit Akshay Charitable Trust’s primary school, Ashkay Educational Center on Tuesday, March 3. Akshay Charitable Trust is a 20 minute bicycle rickshaw ride from the Mahabodhi Temple, tucked just behind Dr. Ram Balak Singh Para medical College and Hospital (known locally as the homeopathic college) in the rural village Amwan, Bodhgaya.

Akshay Charitable Trust.
I spent a lovely afternoon with Raquel, touring the gorgeous Akshay Educational Center and Ekta Silae Center that Raquel built, followed by a visit to the nearby rural village where many of her students live with their families.

Raquel took a course with Lama Zopa Rinpoche in 2005, and then started the primary school the following year, inspired by a young boy she met who is from India’s lowest caste, the Dalit (untouchables) caste. I met that little boy - now a confident, well spoken teenager - when he came to the Akshay Educational Center later that afternoon for what Indians (and Kenyans) call “tuition” – academic support intended to help you excel in school.

Akshay Charitable Trust ensures its alumni can attain their educational goals by covering the cost of a secondary school education at a school in nearby Bodhgaya for its alumni. Those twenty one alumni come to Akshay Educational Center after secondary school lets out each day for two hours of tuition, one hour of computer time – including internet access - in Akshay Educational Center’s computer lab, and one hour of self study.

I got to meet seven lively, confident, healthy, polite, well spoken alumni – five boys and two young women. It was the highlight of my visit. I inquired with the alumni about their dream careers. Each boy gave me a different answer - singer, doctor, actor, teacher, and air force. One young woman told me she wants to be a teacher; the other young woman is undecided.

In India, primary school ends with Class 5. Akshay Educational Center has five students in Class 5; hopefully all will go on to secondary school next year. I got to meet those Class 5 students as well as Akshay Educational Center’s 148 other students who range in age from four to twelve. Raquel kindly gave me a school tour while school was in session. We poked our heads into each of the seven classrooms so that I could interact with the students and teachers. Each class has 20 students, with the exception of the classroom for the five year olds, which has 35 students in it.

Akshay Educational Center classroom and students.
All of the students belong to the Dalit caste, and come from three nearby villages – Nautapar, Amwan, and Amwan Colony. Raquel sets aside half of the enrollment spots for girls, and personally visits each home in the village to ensure she is taking the neediest children.

Each of the seven classrooms has its own teacher. Two teachers are from one of the three villages served by Akshay Charitable Trust, while the other five are from other nearby villages. An eighth employee, a woman of the Dalit caste who is from one of the three villages, works as a Social Worker. Raquel - who lives at Akshay Charitable Trust so she can be reached by the community when her help is needed - and her staff have created a community space that emanates kindness, competency, and hope. It is truly a beautiful place.

While touring the primary school auditorium, Raquel pointed to ten large signs hanging on one wall that explain the school’s Buddhist-themed Ten Guidelines that the students study and live by. I also got to see the school’s beautiful altar, located in the front office and meet Raquel’s two adorable former street dogs.

Raquel with one of her former street dogs in the school auditorium.
Raquel explained that the school is the key to helping the local community because she gets to know the families and their challenges by working with the children. She can then provide the resources the community needs to uplift itself.

She spoke about some of the problems in the community – domestic violence, rape, suicide, alcoholism, murder and violence. Students often report on deaths in their families during the school’s morning assemblies. Sometimes villagers die because they waited too long to seek medical help, and then by the time they do, it is too late. Raquel said it is unbelievable how the students still come to school.

Yet, they do come to school. One challenge the students face is that some higher caste Indians do not want these children from the Dalit caste in school. Raquel said the attitude is, “If you give education to these children then who is going to work the land?”

View of a nearby village from the Akshay Charitable Trust's roof.
The Dalit caste find only seasonal work - working fields, smashing big stones into smaller ones in preparation for construction projects, work in textile factories, and construction work, for which they are ill prepared. Things are OK now because it is potato harvesting season, so there is work, but overall Raquel says “It’s never enough.” She wants better employment opportunities for Akshay Charitable Trust’s alumni.

Akshay Charitable Trust is a registered charity in Spain and India. In addition to the primary school and alumni support program, the charity runs several other projects.

The Dada-Dadi Project feeds the community’s senior citizens. When a family has limited food, the man of the house eats first so that he has enough energy to find work and bring home money for the family. The senior citizens are the last to eat, which means they can go hungry. Also, when a woman marries she becomes a part of her husband’s extended family and can no longer look after her own family. As a result some senior citizens are left alone, without any family to help them. When Raquel and I toured the nearby village, she showed me a small home that the charity is constructing for one elderly woman who is all alone.

Since parents rely on their sons to take care of them in their old age, the parents may continue to get pregnant until they have a boy child. The parents must pay a dowry to each of their daughters’ in-laws. With even the lowest dowry being an exorbitant sum, it is a big burden for families. An educated young woman’s dowry is less; that is an incentive for parents to let their daughters stay at Akshay Charitable Trust’s primary school through Class 5. Girls can be married once they reach puberty, and as a result many have difficulties with their pregnancies.

The Ekta Silae Center, housed in the same building as the primary school is a sewing school for local women of all ages. Akshay Charitable Trust offers a six month sewing course, with 15 – 18 women enrolled in each course. The more advanced sewing course, which teaches women how to paint on fabric, has an enrollment of eighteen women. There were several women in the Ekta Silae Center when I visited, all comfortably sitting in front of sewing machines in an extremely clean, bright, spacious room.

Ekta Silae Center sewing room.
Raquel explained that Akshay Charitable Trust used to purchase their students’ school uniforms from the Bodhgaya market, but are now employing the Ekta Silae Center’s seamstresses to make the school uniforms. The seamstresses are also assembling things they can sell once they have their own businesses. I had fun browsing through Ekta Silae Center’s items for sale, and picking out a few small things to bring home with me. Raquel said that I was the first customer and that the women would be delighted. Wonderful. I learned families may not permit their women to travel outside of the community to attend sewing school, so the women are particularly thankful for the Ekta Silae Center. The center is also used as a safe gathering place for women from the community.

I learned it is important to create alternative employment opportunities for women from the community because the women – along with the men - can be exploited by their higher caste, landowning neighbors who employ the Dalit caste to work their fields. The women are supposed to be paid 220 rupees per day, but some women are being paid 80 rupees a day plus a four kilo bag of rice. In the marketplace, that bag of rice is only worth 80 rupees. So the women are unknowingly being cheated out of 60 rupees per day. Even by western tourist standards, that is the price of a meal in a decent restaurant.

The Social Worker visits the villages to provide Health Awareness information, and to provide them with information on how to access Indian government schemes available to members of the Dalit caste, such as pensions. Since the villagers can be illiterate – my 2009 Rough Guide to India says 49% of India’s total population is illiterate, and I am sure that is significantly higher among the Dalit caste - Akshay Charitable Trust walks the villagers through the entire process of applying for and securing government benefits. The village I visited with Raquel even secured funds for two toilets. Unfortunately the government has abandoned the half finished construction project, and one toilet is being used as a (nice looking, lockable) closet by villagers.

The Akshay Charitable Trust social worker also manages a new program – microfinance groups. One hundred and fifty women from Amwan Colony, one of the villages served by Akshay Charitable Trust formed microfinance groups last month. Each group has five members, who have deposited 100 rupees each into their group’s bank.

Raquel told me about a family who borrowed 5,000 rupees from what amounts to a loan shark to pay a hospital bill. Since a typical loan provided by a higher caste Indian requires the borrower to pay 10 rupees for every 1 rupee borrowed, the family who took out a loan to pay a hospital bill now owns the loan shark 30,000 rupees (roughly $490).

Akshay Charitable Trust has stepped in to offer loans at a much better rate. Farmers can borrow 100 rupees to buy seeds, paying just one rupee in interest on that 100 rupee loan. The farmer then begins to make monthly loan payments only after his/her crops have been brought to market. The social worker conducts an investigation before the loan is made to ensure the farmer would be able to repay the loan.

Other programs run by Akshay Charitable Trust include an Environmental Program, Water-pumps, Hygiene, Nutrition, and First Aid and Medical Care.

Akshay Charitable Trust is starting a new school in a village one hour away from Bodhgaya, for 38 students. Villagers gave Akshay Charitable Trust land to build the Kamala School. Akshay Charitable Trust then gave the community the supplies so that they can build the school. Akshay Charitable Trust is now interviewing candidates for the teaching positions. The Kamala School has not yet opened.

Raquel and one of her young female students took me back to the students’ single room home constructed from a pretty colored light brown mud, with a tin sheet roof.  I got to greet the young family, including a sister close in age to the Akshay Charitable Trust student, who does not go to school. That must be so hard. Raquel took me on an extended walking tour of the community, kindly allowing me to peer around corners and get to know the village.

I did not take any photographs in the village – sorry – but you can apply to volunteer at Akshay Charitable Trust for a minimum of five weeks, and can get to know this rural community, which Raquel says is “the real India”.

Volunteers are given a bike on loan to make it easier for the volunteer to travel between the volunteer’s guest house in Bodhgaya and the Akshay Charitable Trust center. The charity cannot pay for the volunteer’s housing, but there are plenty of inexpensive options in tourist-friendly Bodhgaya. Volunteers are given one meal per day, which they can eat with the students. Send an inquiry email to Raquel, whose email address is on the Akshay Charitable Trust website, stating in your email what you would like to do for the charity during your stay. If you are a dance teacher then you could offer dance classes, for example. Raquel will reply to your email, sharing current volunteer needs and other information about volunteering.

You can also sponsor a student for roughly $30/month, paying in a single yearly sum if you are making your payment to the charity’s Spain bank account from outside of Spain. You could organize a tea party for your friends, to help raise money for the charity. The international staff who maintain the website for example, are all volunteers. Perhaps you can volunteer remotely? Inquire with Raquel by sending her an email, proposing some ideas for how you could be of help.

I returned to the Root Institute for dinner that night feeling thankful for the wonderful work being done by Akshay Charitable Trust. I found a group of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s students were still sitting around a table in the dining hall where I had left them when I went to see Akshay Charitable Trust, rolling mantras.

We stopped once we had piled together enough mantra rolls to fill the hollow insides of a Kadampa Stupa and White Tara statue that would be offered to Lama Zopa Rinpoche during the following morning’s Long Life Puja for Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Stuffing the White Tara statue with rolled mantras.
Kadampa Stupa and White Tara statue filled with rolled mantas, and waiting to be offered to Lama Zopa Rinpoche. The face is covered in gauze to prevent the paint from rubbing off of the statue's face when the statue is handled.
The Root Institute held the Long Life Puja for Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s long life at 10AM the following morning, March 4, which had been identified as an auspicious date for the puja.

 Lama Zopa Rinpoche dedicated the puja to the long life of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama whose achievement, Lama Zopa Rinpoche said – bringing Buddhism and peace to the world – is an even greater accomplishment than independence for Tibet. Just as President Osama praised His Holiness’ work, so should we do a long life puja for His Holiness, our source of refuge.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche approaching the Root Institute gompa for the Long Life Puja.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche also dedicated the long life puja to all gurus and holy beings, the FPMT centers and staff who spread Buddha’s teachings, and to all people who do good for others. May they all have long lives.

Since the long life puja was performed for the long life of His Holiness, we added this verse to the prayers we read in unison from The Wish fulfilling Gem Enhancing the Buddha’s Doctrine: A Method for Making Offerings and Prayers to Guru Shakyamuni Buddha and the Sixteen Sthaviras With Purification:

May the life of Venerable Losang Tenzin Gyatso, (The Ocean of Doctrine with a Noble Mind), The wish-fulfilling jewel who increases intelligence, Source of all benefit and happiness in this cool land, Be stable, and may his virtuous actions flourish.

We stood in line inside of the gompa and waited for our turn to approach Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who was sitting on his throne at the front of the gompa, and offer him a khata and an offering envelope with cash in it, or anything else we wanted to offer him.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche blessing students during the Long Life Puja.
Each student received a length of blessed yellow cord from Lama Zopa Rinpoche that can be worn tied around your wrist, neck, or bicep. He also blessed each student who approached him on the top of his/her head, using a heavy cylindrically shaped object covered by a beautifully brightly colored fabric, that I have heard contains many mantras. I first noticed it when Lama Zopa Rinpoche used it to bless the students who took refuge with him at Kopan Monastery last December.

The following day, March 5 was the last day of Monlam. I spent the morning at the Mahabodhi Temple, where I ran into Tibetan friends Tenzin and Tsering Dolma. Most of the restaurants in town were closed for Holi so they took me down an alley behind the Bodhgaya bus stand to a small, casual Tibetan restaurant for lunch. It was great fun. Tsering is a wonderful story teller with beautiful stories to share about her family. I think I was the only non-Tibetan in the restaurant that day.

I went back by myself another day, and ate lunch in a room full of monks who were in their mid 20’s while watching a program on the restaurant’s TV. We watched a DVD of an old cultural program - Tibetans in traditional dress performing dances on an auditorium stage for His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. I just sat there smiling, soaking it all in.

I went to the stupa on March 5 for a 2,000 Tsok offering led by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and sat in the same spot where I had twice taken the aspirational Bodhisattva Vows with Geshe Dorji Damdul. Venerable Sarah Thresher blogged about the visit Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the famous The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying paid to Lama Zopa Rinpoche during the 2,000 Tsok offering.

The first time I saw Sogyal Rinpoche, I was at the Mahabodhi Temple with Venerable Khadro and two other students, Michael and Kate to string rows of Tibetan prayer flags between trees. We were hanging them for the FPMT centers and individuals from around the world who had sponsored the flags as offerings to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, so that they could generate merit during Monlam. (Sponsors had also offered nearly 100,000 Christmas strand style lights that had been draped around the temple grounds as light offerings to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, to generate merit.)

Venerable Khadro, Michael, Kate and I approached Sogyal Rinpoche, who was sitting on a throne underneath the Bodhi tree, leading a group of westerners who were on a pilgrimage with him in a practice. I was thinking of my friend Meckenzie, who was reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying earlier this year, wishing she could have been there at the temple. Venerable Khadro, Michael, Kate and I walked up to Sogyal Rinpoche one by one to offer khatas and receive a blessing. He leaned over and touched each of our heads with a wand that had a tassel like object dangling from the end. I heard he and his pilgrimage group would be in Bodhgaya through March 14. I sat underneath the Bodhi tree with them on two occasions.

The March 5 2,000 Tsog offering with Lama Zopa Rinpoche was my last activity on the merit multiplying days of Monlam.

Holi, India’s annual holiday where people dress in white, go out on the streets, and throw brightly colored powder on each other, followed Monlam on March 6. Funnily enough, I had been in Bodhgaya on Holi lastyear, too. As a result I knew that it was safe for me to venture out of the Root Institute on Holi.

I walked over to the Mahabodhi Temple in the morning. The temple was peaceful and quiet. People were either out celebrating Holi, or were home avoiding Holi. It was one of my more favorite days spent at the temple. Another favorite was the day I went to the temple when it was lightly raining. I did korwas with my umbrella, and then did my practice inside of the small temple, where I was able to keep out of the rain.

Small temple at the Mahabodhi Temple. This is one of my favorite spots.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche was supposed to leave Bodhgaya after lunch on Holi this year. I called Lozang from the temple before lunch that day to ask what time Lama Zopa Rinpoche was leaving, so that I could be there to say goodbye to him. I remember hearing Lozang say “He’s not leaving today”. His new departure date was undecided. We were so lucky.

I think some of his students thought he had delayed his departure so that he could receive an oral transmission from a gregarious older lama from Ladakh that some of us called “the Ladakhi Lama”. The oral transmission was given in the small gompa, on the ground floor of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s house. It went on for several days and was open to all. I went and sat with them in the small gompa when I could.

The Ladakhi Lama giving an oral transmission to Lama Zopa Rinpoche in the small gompa at the Root Institute.
When I returned to the Root Institute for dinner on Holi that night, I saw Venerable Sarah Thresher’s 10 day Experience Buddhism at the Root course had begun that afternoon. Just as when I took the course at this time last year, many of the students in the course were part of a tour group run by the Colorado based company Where There Be Dragons. They were young Americans – many doing gap years before starting college – who were doing an immersion program in Varanasi, India.

Amy led the group in their daily 6:30AM morning meditation sessions. Lozang, Venerable Paldron, and Andy who runs the Tara Children’s Project and the Maitreya Universal Education School served as the courses’ three Discussion Group Leaders. I was invited to go to the Mahabodhi Temple with the course to help keep track of the 20+ students and take photos for the Root Institute as Amy and Lozang taught about the temple. It was fun to get to share the temple with the westerners, many of whom were experiencing it for the first time.

Experience Buddhism at the Root students at the Mahabodhi Temple with Venerable Sarah and Lozang. This is the group I went on pilgrimage with to Mahakala Cave, Vulture's Peak, and Nalanda University. Photo from the Root Institute Facebook page.
I met some nice people from all over the world through my regular trips to the Mahabodhi Temple. I enjoy approaching people taking photos – either of groups or of themselves – that it looks like they might prefer to have someone else take, and offering to take the photos for them. I have only been turned down once, and that was by a three teenage girls taking group selfies on the boardwalk in Mumbai.

My favorite group that I photographed at the Mahabodhi Temple was a small group of Thai pilgrims and gregarious Thai monk from this temple in Thailand. They were traveling to many Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India and Nepal, and offered me the empty seat on their tour bus. I admit I gave it some thought.

I saw them again two nights later, at the temple sitting underneath the Bodhi tree. The monk called me over to show me photos on his iPad of brightly colored, round, opaque stones. Some were light purple but most were white. The stones had fallen from the sky and onto their group – including directly onto his robes - while they were practicing underneath the Bodhi tree. Listening to the visibly moved monk tell his story in the near dark, just outside of the entrance to the stupa … that alone was an amazing thing.

I also enjoyed photographing a large group of Vietnamese monks and pilgrims at night, as they stood behind many rows of candlelit lanterns that they had arranged in a courtyard in front of the stupa,

I was approached one night while doing a korwa of the stupa by an older Tibetan monk who wanted to practice his English. I offered to meet him at a bench inside of the temple grounds the following afternoon. We sat outside of the small temple perched on the hill that afternoon, overlooking the entrance to the stupa. He talked about his parents and siblings who remain in Tibet, who he has not seen since escaping Tibet many years ago. His father is now dead. His elderly mother wants to see him but he has been unable to get permission from the Chinese government to return to Tibet to see her. Each time I talk with a Tibetan refugee I realize that I take so many things for granted.

Animal Welfare

I also met a few dogs at the Mahabodhi Temple. I found a light brown dog on the korwa path one morning before Geshe Dorji Damdul’s course started that was wheezing with every breath, and had mucous dripping from its nose onto the pavement below. Its eyes were also dripping and it looked miserable. I did not have my phone with me, so just blessed it with the mandala and blessing strings I keep with me for this purpose and kept walking, hoping to find the dog again later. I never did see it again.

I found another dog, a larger brown and white male dog lying on the warm pavement a few feet further along the korwa path. This dog had a perfectly round hole in its lip about an inch and a half in diameter. Even though the dog’s mouth was closed I could see clear through the hole to the white teeth below. The wound was fresh but not bleeding. I blessed that dog, too and kept walking.

I saw that dog, though on many later occasions, usually in that same spot. Each time I saw him, his lip looked better. I would stop and talk with him, pulling back his lip to inspect the improvements, as if I were a vet. By the time I left Bodhgaya the wound had completely naturally healed itself. The only indication that there had been an injury was the circle of new pink skin on his lip. It was important for me to witness this – some street dogs do get better.

I came across a medium sized, light brown dog on the korwa path one afternoon that was calmly walking alongside the pilgrims as if unaware that his/her entire tail had recently been torn off. The stump was a bloody mess, and several inches of remaining tailbone were protruding from the stump. I blessed the dog and then watched as it trotted off ahead of me.

Another time, I was rushing past the preliminary entrance to the Mahabodhi Temple, engrossed in thoughts about whether or not I should buy a particular pair of earrings from a Ladakhi street vendor outside of the temple gates. I then looked down and saw a street dog with medium length brown and black hair lying in the path, in a sad state of affairs. This dog was lying there on its side, skin and bones, with heaps of insects circling its weak body. I just crouched down and stared, realizing how self-centered I had been a minute ago, caught up in worldly affairs, when there was so much suffering all around me. It was a strong teaching.

I ordered an omelet from a local restaurant – breaking my rule about not buying eggs and cheese - and brought it to the dog. It must have been delicious because the dog eventually lifted its head from the pavement with a display of unexpected energy to pick the last few bites off of the tinfoil wrapper. I blessed the dog multiple times, and tried unsuccessfully to reach Maitri, an animal welfare organization on the phone. I was only in Bodhgaya for a few more days, but I never saw that dog again.

There was also the street dog that I found at the intersection between the Mahabodhi Temple and water tower that had a ghastly large, oozing pink wound that looked like a volcano on the underside of its stomach. I only saw it because it was lying on its back on the sidewalk when I happened to drive by it in a cycle rickshaw on the way to visit Akshay Charitable Trust. I jumped off of the rickshaw to get a better look – and to document it with photos – but the dog ran off.

Street dog with terrible stomach injury running off from me.
I went back to that intersection to question the street vendors about the dogs’ whereabouts and habits. Two street vendors told me that dog is crazy. I would be, too if I was living with an untreated wound like that. I went back many times to try to find the dog, but never did find it.

Another time, I was walking along the main road towards the temple, and came across a loose, small horse oddly standing in the middle of the road completely unattended without even a halter on its head. I was surprised because whenever I see horses in Bodhgaya, they are harnessed to carts that are used to transport goods and people.

When this poor horse tried to move, I realized its two front legs were tightly bound together at the ankles with twine. It could only move forward by leaping, hobbled as it was. So much suffering.

Hobbled horse on main road leading from the Root Institute to the Mahabodhi Temple.
I did what I could. I photographed it so that I could share its story, blessed it, tried to get it to eat a cookie I had in my pocket for the inevitable hungry street dog, and then followed the leaping horse as it made its way down the center of the main road against oncoming, horn blaring traffic.

The small horse finally came to a rest in a grassy spot on the side of the road. I tried to give it an apple. It refused it. The compassionate street vendors nearby suggested I have the apple cut into pieces. I tried that, but still the horse refused the apple. I suggested we cut the twine away from the legs, but the men said that was too dangerous. I had to leave the horse there on the side of the road, looking a little more content and eating grass, with apple slice at its feet.

If you were reading my blog last year, then you might remember the Root Institute has goats rescued from the local butcher. I had been blissfully unaware of the nearby butcher’s exact location, but found it hard to miss this year. While I have not peered too closely, it looks like goats are killed behind this blue drop cloth, and then their bodies are vertically hung from a pole. This drop cloth is often up during the day, and is gone at night.

Haggai has many responsibilities at the Root Institute, in addition to overseeing the construction of the new stupas I mentioned, that we had been rolling mantras for when I first arrived at the Root Institute. He helps look after the Root Institute’s goats. One of the goats died after having maggots inside of its mouth – can you imagine – but overall the goats seem to be doing well. The Root Institute goats are turned loose in an open lot that borders the Root Institute during the day, where they can roam and eat grass. They spend their nights inside of a cozy goat shed, on a carpet of fresh straw.

The Root Institute has a new chicken coop for the chickens Lama Zopa Rinpoche rescued from a butcher while on his way to the Root Institute this year. He recently blessed the new chicken coop.

I peered over the stone wall into the field to see the goats one day, and found four small street puppies drinking out of the goats’ water basin, and eating garbage that had been discarded in the empty lot. They were born inside of the walled in empty lot, and are not yet big enough to climb out.

The puppies drinking from the goats' water dish.
Those puppies became my pet project (no pun intended), inspired by Vera, a fellow student from the November course who daily looked after the street dogs outside of the Kopan Monastery gates. Unfortunately one of the four puppies in the above photo died, but I think/hope the other three – including what must be the runt of the litter - are still doing well.

Two of the puppies.

The adorable runt of the litter.
The very compassionate Root Institute guards, hotel owner, and other friends are looking after the three puppies.

Root Institute guards looking into the empty lot at the puppies and I.
I heard there are no veterinarians in Bodhgaya. The Karmapa brings vets to Bodhgaya once a year. He sponsors and hosts Dog Camp at his monastery.  I was able to visit DogCamp last year, and learned about the great work being done by nonprofit Dogsof Gaya. I missed Dog Camp this time – it was held from December 2 – 8, 2014. In addition to Dog Camp and Dogs of Gaya, nonprofit MAITRI Charitable Trust helps street dogs.

Last year I wrote about a dog with patches of missing hair that was treated for cancer during Dog Camp. I looked for him on the streets this year. If the dog I found was the right dog, then his hair is still patchy but he otherwise looks great.

One day this year, I walked out of the Root Institute front gate and found that someone – presumably one of the Root Institute guards – had thoughtfully filled a paint can sized bucket with water, and left it out for the street dogs to drink from. I was so touched. I never saw any of the hot street dogs drinking from the bucket, though.

So one day I carried the bucket down the road to a group of street dogs I was familiar with, and tried to get them to drink out of the bucket. It was a hot afternoon, and I thought they could be particularly thirsty. I got one of the dogs to put its head into the bucket and take a single sip, but that was it. They could not be persuaded to drink from the bucket. I gave up and returned the bucket to its original spot.

About a half an hour later, I went by those dogs again on my way out, and saw two of them in the neighboring swamp, drinking from a filthy pool of water. What can you do but laugh.

Street dogs drinking filthy water on the side of the road, just down the road from the Root Institute.
Bowl of Compassion Soup Kitchen and Primary School

Students who are enrolled in Root Institute courses stay on campus and eat their meals in the dining hall. Once Geshe Dorji Damdul’s course ended, I began to eat out again. I went to the Rose Apple Café to see Oat and enjoy the Thai coffee shop/restaurant’s delicious food when I had time to visit.

Aadi at the Rose Apple Cafe cash register. He is the cafe's chief barista.
When I walked into the Rose Apple Café on March 8, I found Oat at a table with three young German friends – Michael, Lara, and Helena – who had been invited to the café by one of the café’s employees, Rahul.

Rahul is a graduate of the free primary school that Michael, now in his 30’s and his business partner, Murari opened in Bodhgaya in December 2009. They invited Oat and I to visit the school, A Bowl of CompassionSoup Kitchen and Primary School (A Bowl of Compassion) the following afternoon.

Oat and I also learned Lara and Helena had met while waiting to board a boat taxi in Bangkok, and immediately became close friends who see each other regularly in Germany. Lara has traveled throughout the Middle East with her German boyfriend who is of Iranian descent, and stayed with his extended family in Iran. I hope I get to see Lara and Helena in Berlin sometime.

Lara kindly met Oat and I at the Rose Apple Café on March 9 so that we would not get lost trying to find the school. A Bowl of Compassion is located in Tika Bigha, Bodhgaya - a village that borders the dry riverbed that runs behind the Mahabodhi Temple. It was a completely new part of town to me, and was fun to explore. Once we got out of the area behind the Mahabodhi Temple where the Post Office is located, all signs of tourism dissipated and we were embraced by village life.

We reached the school just as the school day was ending. I was immediately greeted by a group of young ladies, outfitted in uniforms that were in various forms of disarray, who asked to have their portraits taken. They were adorable.

A Bowl of Compassion students.
Michael explained that A Bowl of Compassion provides the students with everything they need for school, including their uniforms which they are required to keep clean. If a student comes to school dirty then the student is sent home to freshen up. Michael explained that the little ones have a harder time with this than the older ones, gesturing by way of example to one of the little girls. What can you do.

Prior to the start of A Bowl of Compassion, Michael was backpacking solo with just a day pack that contained the essential items. He met his current business partner, Murai in 2008 while eating daily at Kalyan Restaurant in Bodhgaya, a restaurant across from the police station that was founded by Murai’s father 35 years ago.

Initially, A Bowl of Compassion was just a soup kitchen. Michael had the simple idea of providing meals to people. Murai gave the land to open the Soup Kitchen in November 2009. Within a month, he and Murai had started the primary school. At that time the students sat on carpets on the floor.

Michael giving Oat and I a tour of A Bowl of Compassion.
The campus has grown a lot since then, and new construction was underway during our visit. Gesturing around the campus, Michael said he always wants to do more. The classrooms now have rows of desks, and are brightly painted with beautiful art.

Michael showing us a classroom at A Bowl of Compassion. Photo by Oat.
A Bowl of Compassion primary school is based on the English medium education system. The school has 120 students, ages four through 11 in classes Pre-nursery through Class 5. They are adding a Class 6 classroom because even though the students graduate from primary school at Class 5, the Bowl of Compassion alumni do not want to leave the school. They are also building a library and garden.

Michael spends as much time as he can at A Bowl of Compassion, but goes back to Germany sometimes for fundraising. He is not trying to balance a money making job in Germany with his work in India. He said “Money making feels good for security, but this feels better. If I can focus on one thing then I can do better.”

Michael and Murai.
I also got to speak with Murai, who lives nearby with his wife and young children. He passionately explained that when he dies, he wants the community to say he did good things. He wants to be remembered for his charity work.

The primary school day runs from approximately 8 – 12PM. The Soup Kitchen opens at 12:30PM.
The kitchen is also used to prepare meals for tourists visiting Bodhgaya. Michael and Murai built a small cafe as well as accommodations that go by the name Charity Backpackers. The property is next door to the primary school.

Tourists can have a bed in the nice dormitory for 100 rupees per night (roughly $1.63), free wifi, and free filtered water. You can also get your own room for a higher price. Charity Backpackers was also under construction when I visited, with new rooms being added.

Oat, Lara, Helena and I hung out in the café while Michael took care of some guests who were staying at Charity Backpackers. I got to play with Murai’s dogs.

Two of Murai's dogs. Candid photo by Oat.
We met one of the guests, Seth in the café. Seth is from Portland, Oregon but now lives in a mountain town further east of the city. He referred me to the Zen Center of Portland.

A Bowl of Compassion team member, Helena, Seth, Oat, Michael, Lara, me.
I was touched by the wall of photos on display in the school’s open air courtyard, acknowledging the many volunteers who have contributed their time and energies to A Bowl of Compassion over the years. Michael said some of the young people pictured were from his hometown. Lara found A Bowl of Compassion on her own and has returned a few times to volunteer. She brought Helena with her this time.

Wall of A Bowl of Compassion volunteers' portraits.
Michael is in need of volunteers who can stay for 1-2 months to teach and help with fundraising. A Bowl of Compassion provides volunteers with housing in Charity Backpackers, as well as prepared meals. The organization is active on Facebook. You can also reach Michael by sending a message to Mail (at) The organization’s phone number is 9931277814 if dialed from within India.

Saying farewell to A Bowl of Compassion's campus and neighborhood. The campus is behind the big tree.
Pilgrimage: Mahakala Cave

The following day, March 10 was another adventure. I got to go to the Mahakala Cave with Venerable Sarah Thresher’s Experience Buddhism at the Root course students. This was my second visit to the cave. I went withVenerable Sarah Thresher last year, too when I was a student in this same course.

The cave is located in a remote desert-like mountain region about a two hour drive from Bodhgaya. Buddha lived in the cave dug into the side of the mountain for years before walking down from the mountain and to the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya where he attained enlightenment.

Venerable Sarah, Lozang, the students and I meditated in the cave together, visited the room that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama stayed in during a retreat, and then received a teaching from Venerable Sarah Thresher while seated on the ground next to the stupa.

Me sitting out in front of the Mahakala Cave. Photo by Lozang.
Venerable Sarah Thresher teaching in the shadow of the stupa outside of the Mahakala Cave.
Lozang, the students and I then scrambled up the side of the mountain to the top, where we had a near panoramic view of the valley. It was incredible. One of the best things I have done in India this year.

View from the mountain top above the Mahakala Cave.
At this point – the evening of March 10 – I should have been packing my bags in advance of leaving the Root Institute for the Gaya train station later that night. Since train tickets quickly sell out, I had purchased this train ticket on February 15. But I was not going anywhere because I had cancelled that train ticket two days earlier, on March 8.

I had not been looking forward to following through with my arranged travel plans – crossing the India-Nepal border overland. It had therefore been easy for my fellow Americans, Venerable Namjong and Bill – who have decades of combined experience in Asia as well as strong ties to Lama Zopa Rinpoche – to convince me to change plans and cancel my train tickets.

Once I saw what I would have missed if I had left Bodhgaya on March 10, I was particularly happy that I had changed my plans.

Offering Monk’s Robes to the Buddha

I went to the Mahabodhi Temple with Amy and Lozang after dinner on March 10. Venerable Sarah Thresher had given us a beautiful set of golden robes and a set of silk scarves to offer to the Buddha statue inside of the temple that night, on behalf of Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Many pilgrim groups offer lengths of beautiful fabric (monk’s robes) to the Buddha statue inside of the temple. The buying and selling of those robes must be its own niche industry in Bodhgaya because offering robes to the Buddha is a near constant daily activity performed by pilgrims from all over the world at the Mahabodhi Temple.

View of the Buddha statue inside of the stupa at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya.
It is really fun to stand in the stupa and watch pilgrim groups offer robes to the Buddha, and then sing or recite prayers in their native languages as the Buddha is being dressed in their offered robes. It seems most of the offered robes are traditional gold colored silk, but I have also seen a set of plum colored velvet robes offered, as well as a set of mustard colored robes that were an exact replica of a Thai monk’s robes, down to the stitching style.

One afternoon, I sat on the ground inside of the tiny room where the Buddha statue is to recite some prayers. I was sitting next to a Tibetan woman who was praying in Tibetan, and behind a nun in light pink robes who was praying in another language. The three of us continued on, all praying out loud to the same Buddha in different languages.

One monk spends the day in that room with the Buddha statue, accepting the offered robes from groups of pilgrims, removing the previously offered robes from the Buddha statue, and then putting the newly offered robes onto the Buddha statue. Sometimes he will just put the newly offered robe on top of the previously offered robe. The amount of time any given set of robes remains on the Buddha’s body depends on the timing of the next offering.

Not all of the offered robes make it onto the Buddha statue. The frequency at which the robes are offered is just too great. Also, at the end of the night, if you try to offer robes after the monk has started cleaning up, then the monk will not put your offered robes on the Buddha statue. So if you are strategic, then you might be able to be the last group to offer robes that are put on the Buddha. If so, then Buddha wears your robes all night, until the first group offers robes the following morning.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche had been offering robes to the Buddha each night that we did korwas at the Mahabodhi Temple. His attendants always did their best to be the last group to offer robes so that the Buddha would wear our offered robes all night. That was what Venerable Sarah Thresher had entrusted Amy, Lozang and I to do, that night.

Amy, Lozang, and I did korwas of the stupa while waited for what we thought might be a strategic time to offer the robes to the Buddha statue on behalf of Lama Zopa Rinpoche. I saw Venerable Namjong and invited him to join us in the robe offering. I was happy that he was able to help us.

While doing korwas around the stupa, I also found Dr. Verasambodhi, the Bangladeshi abbot of the International Meditation Centre Buddhagaya that I am so fond of. He was sitting underneath the Bodhi tree with an Indian monk dressed in golden yellow robes that he introduced me to as Reverend Anuruddha. I learned Reverend Anuruddha founded and runs a primary school in Bodhgaya for Indian students, and was extended an invitation to visit the school. Wonderful.

 I think Amy, Lozang, Venerable Namjong and I were all delighted that our efforts were successful that night. The monk dressed the Buddha statue in Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s offered robes and the set of silk scarves as we stood and watched. He then started cleaning up, so no one else offered robes that night, and Buddha wore Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s offered robes all night.

The four of us stood in front of the Buddha statue quickly running through the offering prayers Lama Zopa Rinpoche would have wanted us to do, including the Robe Offering Prayer. Thanks to Amy for having those handy. We only left once the monk insisted on closing the stupa’s inner chamber where the Buddha statue sits. By this time the temple’s guards were insistently blowing their police whistles to inform us that the temple was closing and we had to leave, but we walked clockwise around the stupa to the long side that faces the pool to continue the prayers.

We stood there together under the stars, looking up at the stupa, and recited an older version of the Great King of Prayers (The Noble King of Vows of the Conduct of Samanthabhadra) that Amy had on her Kindle. The version we read was published by Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s nonprofit, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) in November 2000.

Excerpt from the King of Prayers on Amy’s Kindle:

May all the buddha realms of the ten directions
Remain forever vast and completely pure,
May the world be completely filled with buddhas who have attained illumination under sacred trees,
And may they all be surrounded by bodhisattvas.

May all living beings in the ten directions
Always abide in health and joy.
May they live in accord with the way of Dharma,
And may their every wish become fulfilled.

It was such a beautiful night - one of my favorites in Bodhgaya – and I would have missed it if I had left Bodghaya as planned on the March 10 train.

Side of the stupa from which Venerable Namjong, Amy, Lozang and I read The King of Prayers that night.

I spent the next afternoon, March 11 at the Mahabodhi Temple doing my practices. When I returned to the Root Institute for dinner, I found Lama Zopa Rinpoche sitting in front of the large, colorful Nagarjuna statue in the Root Institute main courtyard. He was surrounded by about 30 students sitting on the pavement.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche surrounded by students in front of the Nagarjuna statute at the Root Institute.
They were reciting Hymn to the Buddha, the World Transcendent Destroyer, composed by Nagarjuna and translated into English by Geshe Thupten Jinpa in 2007. I sat down and quickly read through it. The prayer, addressed to Manjushri reads:

Since they’re inert, dependent, empty,
Like an illusion, and arisen out of conditions,
You’ve made it familiar [to the world] that all phenomena lack reality.

Paschashil School

The next morning I set out from the Root Institute to find Reverend Anuruddha’s Pachashil School. Even though the school is only fifty feet off of the main road, across from the Royal Regency Hotel, I missed the school building entirely, and wound up deep in the interior of the Indian village that sits just behind the school.

Lost in an Indian village.
The first group of villagers I met were some pre-teen Indian boys who were busy brushing their teeth on the side of the road. One of the boys, in perfect English, sweetly gave me directions to what we thought was my intended destination.

I kept walking further into the village, walking down narrow dirt packed roads between shops, homes, and small children sitting on their mothers’ laps. Even though I was uncertain of where I was going, and I was already quite late for my appointment with Reverend Anuruddha, I was really enjoying myself.

Looking at my watch, I began to stop more frequently to ask villagers for directions to the school. The villagers were very kind but were unable to help me simply because we could not speak the same language. One woman I asked for help disappeared into a doorway after gesturing for me to wait there. A man emerged from the house, greeted me in English, and gave me directions to the school.
I followed the road in the direction he pointed in, and was soon approached by a cheerful young Indian man who greeted me in French. I replied in English, the only language (embarrassingly) that I can confidently and competently speak. Fortunately he also spoke English. I explained where I was going, and he said he would walk me there.

Along the way I learned Ram Kumar grew up in the village, and then moved to Delhi to study French. Ram did not enjoy noisy, polluted Delhi, and is happy to be back at home.

We soon reached the front gate of a Bhutanese temple compound. We walked through the gate and came face to face with a relatively small, uniquely beautiful gompa.

Bhutanese temple.
Ram inquired in Hindi with the only person we saw – a monk - about whether or not I could enter inside of the gompa. The monk unlocked the gompa doors for us, and then gave me permission to take photos. The statues were like nothing I have ever seen … so intricate and absolutely beautiful.

Inside of the Bhutanese temple/gompa.


Offerings for Buddha made from butter.
Ram mentioned that he had only been inside of the gompa once, and that was three years ago. Realizing how special and unlikely it was that I would get to enter this gompa tucked deep inside of an Indian village on the outskirts of Bodhgaya, I just stood at the back of the gompa, facing Buddha, and soaked it all in for a few brief minutes before glancing anxiously at my watch and heading for the door.

Ram and I continued down the road past the Bhutanese temple compound, working our way even deeper into the village. As I continued to describe the school I was looking for, Ram realized that the school we were headed to was the wrong school. We then realized that I was trying to find the school he himself had attended. I couldn’t believe my luck. Without even trying, I got to meet an alum.

We finally reached Panchashil School. Ram ushered me inside and led me to the school’s auditorium. There, I found Reverend Anuruddha sitting on a low stage, facing a room full of young Indian children sitting cross legged on the floor with their teachers standing over them. Reverend Anuruddha gestured for me to sit next to him on the stage. Ram stood against a side wall, next to one of the teachers and kindly coached me.

Reverend Anuruddha had previously explained to me that had lived in Sarnath, the site of Buddha’s first teaching during the 1960’s. The Thai government then opened the Thai temple in Bodhgaya in 1965. He was then invited to live at the temple, and moved to the Thai Temple in Bodhgaya in 1970. He has been living at the Thai temple ever since.

He opened the Panchashil School 25 years ago. He has 150 students who attend the school up through Class 5. Students attend school from 9AM – 3PM. Each student pays a tuition of 30 – 40 rupees (about 50 cents) per month.

The school has six teachers including Reverend Anuruddha. Students learn the Pali language, which is the language used in the Theravada Buddhist texts. For example, my Burmese friend Sumangala, a Theravada monk reads his prayers in Pali, whereas my Tibetan Buddhism teachers read texts printed in Tibetan. (And I read the English translations of the Tibetan texts.)

On Saturday mornings – I think I was told 7:30AM - the Panchashil School students visit the Mahabodhi Temple where they do a long meditation underneath the Bodhi tree. The students also pray underneath the tree on each full moon.

Once I had gotten comfortable - sitting cross legged on my cushion on the Panchashil School’s auditorium stage - Reverend Anuruddha directed me to the microphone in front of me, and asked me to introduce myself to the students. He then personally translated my English into Hindi.

Reverend Anuruddha asked me to tell the students about my experience with meditation. Feeling completely inadequate for this job, I started simply, explaining that I do not meditate to benefit myself, but to make my mind calm so that I can be nice to other people, animals, and insects.

Class 5 teacher translating for me in the auditorium at Panchashil School.
After a little while he rose from his cushion and asked me to take over his spot on the stage. The school’s Class 5 teacher joined me on stage to act as my translator. He encouraged me to keep talking and gave me some encouraging smiles.

I then began to paraphrase what I remembered of the teaching Lama Zopa Rinpoche had given his Maitreya School students two days earlier.

I missed that teaching because I was at Mahakala Cave with Venerable Sarah Thresher, her students, and Lozang. However, Amy attended the teaching at the school, and had been live texting Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s words to Lozang.

I sat with Lozang on the bus on the way back to the Root that afternoon, and he handed me his phone so I could read Amy’s texts. So it was only due to the kindness of others - Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Amy, and Lozang – that I was able to benefit the Panchashil School community with Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s message of kindness and compassion.

I particularly like this excerpt from a letter he wrote the students last month:

My most dear, precious, kind, wish-fulfilling children,

I want Maitreya School to help to bring peace and happiness, to bring wisdom light to life, not bring darkness, but to bring the sun – wisdom light – and as a result, bring peace and happiness. That is my real aim for the school. It is not just school.

Even in the Western world there are kindergartens, colleges, universities where you can learn so many things, but the mind never changes. The mind, which produces happiness and suffering, never changes; and the mind is used only to produce suffering, not to produce happiness. That happens because developing compassion, the good heart and wisdom is limited.

Per Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s request, the letter was framed and hangs in the school.

Back at Panchashil School, the assembly – and therefore my teaching – came to a close, and the students were dismissed. Ram then gave me a tour of the small campus, including the beautiful student-maintained garden. Ram had said the garden is his favorite part of the school. I now understood.

Class 5 teacher, Ram, and students in the Panchashil School garden.
I also got to see two of the Panchashil School’s classrooms just as the students and teachers were returning to class. I felt so privileged to get to see the Class 5 classroom, and to get to briefly sit amongst the young women who shyly avoided my gaze and even hid behind their books. This would not have happened if I had left Bodhgaya as planned on March 10.

Class 4 students at Panchashil School.

Class 5 girls at Panchashil School.
I then went to the Rose Apple Café with Venerable Namjong, and received some helpful guidance regarding my near future plans.

Venerable Paldron, The Saltman of Tibet filmmaker Ulrike Koch who was staying at the Root Institute, Venerable Namjong, and I went to the stupa that night to offer robes to the Buddha on behalf of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, as requested by Venerable Dekyong.

We made a good effort, but pilgrims had offered the Buddha statue a coat of gold paint earlier that day, and the paint was still drying. As a result we could not offer robes and have them put on the Buddha. It was amazing, though to get to see the Buddha statute unencumbered by fabric robes and glowing in gold.

Venerable Paldron and I then saw Venerable Namjong off to the Gaya train station. He was moving on to Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Tibetan Buddhism study center in Delhi to teach a six day weekend/weekday evening Introduction to Buddhism course.

I receive daily emails (you can subscribe here) from Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s FPMT international office in Portland, Oregon. One recent email contained advice from Lama Zopa Rinpoche about the benefits of doing the White Umbrella Deity Practice, also known as Arya Sitatapatra. I had downloaded the practice for free from the FPMT website, but had not yet read it.  I was therefore excited to see that a group White Umbrella Deity Practice had been organized for Friday afternoon, March 13 in the Root Institute’s small gompa.

The practice was led in Tibetan, by one of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s attendants. I quietly read it to myself in English. The practice is done for protection from fear. I love this part of the practice:

May the minds of whatever beings cause me harm or who have a hostile mind, who are cruel or have a cruel mind, who are bad or have bad minds, who disturb or have disturbed minds, who are malicious and have malicious minds, [have their minds] transform into minds of love and may they protect me and all sentient beings. May I live to be one hundred years of age; may I see one hundred teachers.

That perfectly sums up my understanding of the essence of Buddhism.

Pilgrimage: Vulture’s Peak

The following day, Saturday March 14 began what would become three straight, amazing days of pilgrimage.

I had been invited to join Venerable Sarah Thresher’s 21 Experience Buddhism at the Root course students, Venerable Sarah Thresher, and Lozang for a day at Vulture’s Peak and Nalanda University. We had such a great day.

In the morning, we squeezed into a few taxi cars for the long day of car travel through Bihar’s desert like environment. Venerable Sarah Thresher, Lozang and I shared a taxi with Adesh, one of Venerable Sarah Thresher’s Indian students. We were driven by a young Indian, Arun Kumar, who introduced me to beautiful music by Indian artist Arijit Singh.

Our first stop was Vulture’s Peak, located in the town of Rajgir. I came here last year as a student in Venerable Sarah Thresher’s course. Vulture’s Peak is the place where Buddha gave his second teaching. He taught on the correct understanding of emptiness and the Bodhisattva path, which is particularly significant in Tibetan Buddhism. Lama Zopa Rinpoche joined us for our pilgrimage to Vulture’s Peak last year, and taught at Vulture’s Peak. I filmed some of that teaching and put it on YouTube.

Just like last year’s trip, we started our visit to Vulture’s Peak with a teaching from Venerable Sarah Thresher, held over breakfast in the café at the base of the mountain. She explained that we approached the mountain (which hosts Vulture’s Peak) from the same direction as Buddha. I think this was the first time that Venerable Sarah Thresher had gotten to go this exact way. Normally the taxi drivers take a different route to reach Vulture’s Peak. She was very happy. She also told us that we had passed by Rajgir’s city wall - one of the oldest structures in India - on our way in.

We then climbed the long, gradual flight of wide concrete steps up to Vulture’s Peak. The sun was bright and the ledge occupied by other pilgrimage groups, so we tucked ourselves underneath some overhanging rocks and recited the Heart Sutra together in the shade. The Heart Sutra is the essence of more extensive teachings given at Vulture’s Peak.

Venerable Sarah Thresher leading students in a reading of the Heart Sutra at Vulture's Peak.
Vulture’s Peak is a beautiful, relatively small ledge that protrudes from the side of the mountain. Geshe Dorji Damdul taught us that when the bodhisattvas heard Buddha was going to teach at a peak on the mountain, they emulated themselves as vultures, and flew there, perching on the peak. That is why it is named Vulture’s Peak.

I enjoyed the view from Vulture’s Peak while most of the students in the course climbed to the top of the mountain to see the temple established by Japanese practitioners of the Lotus Sutra. I climbed the hill last year and saw the temple, but it has more meaning for me, now since experiencing the practice in Bombay/Mumbai this year.

Me sitting on a ledge alongside many prayer flags at Vulture's Peak. Photo by Lozang.
Me making prostrations at Vulture's Peak where Buddha taught the second turning of the wheel. Photo by Venerable Sarah Thresher's student Maja.
We then walked back down the hill, passing beggars along the way, and got in the taxis to go to a roadside restaurant for lunch.

Pilgrimage: Nalanda University

This was my first visit to the ruins of what was once Nalanda University. Established 400 years after Buddha’s passing, it was a place for people from all over the world to study, debate, and refine Buddha’s teachings, as well as the sciences and arts. Nalanda alumni taught all over the world. Nagarjuna and Shantideva helped create a curriculum that was taken to Tibet. Hence His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama says the Buddhism of Tibet is based on the Nalanda University tradition.

Although Nalanda University – including its large library – was destroyed three times by Muslim invaders, we know what it was like because three Chinese Buddhists visited and recorded their observations at the request of the Chinese king. The Nalanda University grounds were excavated by the British. It looks like many architectural changes have happened over the years.

Shariputra was one of the Buddha’s disciples. Shariputra is one of the two figures often seen standing next to Buddha. Nalanda University’s campus contains a large stupa dedicated to Shariputra. The sign in front of the stupa reads:

This temple is most imposing structure in comparison to others spread all around and having seven phase of construction. Earlier four phases are too dilapidated and very small in dimensions which have been concealed again. Fifth, sixth, and seventh phase may be seen clearly with their separate staircase. On the basis of art and architecture, the fifth phase has been assigned to sixth century AD which contains beautiful stucco images placed in the niches on the exterior walls of the temple. Decorative solid towers were erected at four corners but only two are now visible. Sixth and seventh phases are further enlargement in dimensions by way of concealing the earlier structure. Contrary to the general scheme of other temples at the site this temples is facing to north. The pedestal atop once contained a colossal image probably of Buddha. A large number of votive stupas and miniature shrines have been added around this temple by the devotees at different points of time among which a chariot shaped shrine near the south-east corner is worth mentioning.

Venerable Sarah Thresher and students at Nalanda University in front of the stupa dedicated to Shariputra.
At the conclusion of Venerable Sarah Thresher’s teaching at Nalanda University, held next to the stupa dedicated to Shariputra, we read a prayer composed by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to honor the 17 pandits of Nalanda called Praise to the Seventeen Nalanda Masters – A Sun illuminating the Threefold Faith.

We then had free time to explore the Nalanda University campus grounds.

Beautifully landscaped Nalanda University campus. Me with Shariputra's stupa in the background. Photo by Lozang.
Nalanda University campus. Monks' dormitory rooms in the foreground.
After lunch we traveled a narrow, winding road through more rural villages whose buildings, residents, and animals were so close to the road that I was joyously able to glimpse a lot through the taxi windows.

The road back to the Root Institute from Nalanda University.

The road back to the Root Institute from Nalanda University. The India state of Bihar is gorgeous.
That evening, Saturday, March 14 I forced myself to confirm my onward travel plans. My Bodhgaya travel agent friend, Venu then managed to secure an “emergency/tatkal” (last minute, more expensive) train ticket for me on my second choice departure date – Tuesday, March 17.

(I highly recommend Venu’s travel agent services, reasonable service fees, free travel advice, and internet cafe. His office and internet cafe are off of a below ground hallway in the same complex as the Himalaya Shop, near the Mahabodhi Temple. Go into one of the shops in that strip mall and ask where to find Venu, or email him at Bodhgaya2007 at hotmail dot com)

Pilgrimage: Sujata Riverside

Sunday, March 15 was another pilgrimage day initiated by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Zarina gently woke me up at 6:30AM or 7:30AM to tell me that we were going on pilgrimage, and could be leaving the Root Institute at any time. The other women in the dormitory and I pulled our clothes on and got ready. Zarina had already ensured that the taxi drivers had been called. They would soon be waiting just outside of the Root Institute’s front gate.

It was still a while before Lama Zopa Rinpoche came and we left the Root Institute for the pilgrimage site. Lama Zopa Rinpoche took us to the Sujata riverside, to the spot where Buddha practiced austerities for six years before walking to the Mahabodhi Temple and attaining enlightenment underneath the Bodhi tree. I had never been to this spot. It is possible that the site was new to all 25 of us who were able to go on the pilgrimage with Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

The site is not far from the Root Institute – it took about 30 minutes to get there by taxi. Lama Zopa Rinpoche began teaching at 9:30AM, while standing in the center of what felt like an open air temple. We were surrounded by small groups of Hindus performing pujas for deceased loved ones.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching above the spot where Buddha meditated. He is in the middle of this photo with his hand pointing down towards the opening in the floor.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche stood in the temple over a cavity in the ground shaped like a water well. He pointed down the well and said Buddha meditated there.

Spot where Buddha meditated.
We then followed Lama Zopa Rinpoche to the Bodhi tree next to the open air temple, and sat facing him and the Bodhi tree. Someone from the Root Institute had done some nice advance work before we arrived at the riverside. Strands of Tibetan prayer flags fluttered in the breeze above us, and the altar like spot at the base of the tree where Buddha had sat and practiced an aesthetic life looked beautiful. There were also plenty of cushions for us to sit on.

Sujata Riverside teaching with Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche then started teaching using the text The 10 innermost jewels as taught by the great lama Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo.

He taught that if we make offerings of lights, flowers, or prostrations then our merit doubles. If we rejoice in our merits accumulated since beginningless rebirths then our merits double within one second. If we rejoice a second time then our merits will triple. If we rejoice in a bodhisattva’s collected merit then we receive the same amount of merit as that bodhisattva within one second. Pray “May I collect that much merit for the benefit of all sentient beings”.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche told us nothing is more important in this life than practicing Buddhism (the dharma). He directed us to “WAKE UP. WAKE UP.” He said even if he makes offerings to us, his students, we cannot help him because we are not objects of refuge. We are in samsara. We must become free from samsara – attain liberation, enlightenment – so we can help sentient beings.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche about to look in my direction at the Sujata Riverside teaching.
I was holding my camera at chest level that morning at the pilgrimage, when Lama Zopa Rinpoche turned and caught my eye. He intently stared directly at me for such a long time and with such a serious expression that I froze, thinking the photography might be inappropriate. But then when he spoke again, his words were so powerful.

He said an armless being cannot help another being get out of the water because the armless being cannot even swim himself. Abandon the I, and then you can then let go of your own suffering and help other beings. When you have ego, there is only room for your own happiness, and you can’t even attain Nirvana for yourself.

Practicing dharma means renouncing your negative mind, not your physical possessions. If you cling to this life, and practice the dharma to find happiness in this lifetime then to your family and friends you may look like you are practicing the dharma, but you are just practicing worldly dharma. Practicing worldly dharma becomes the cause of samsara.

A real, pure dharma practice means renouncing the eight worldly dharmas from the depths of your heart:
(1) Craving for pleasures of the six senses,
(2) Craving to be free of the unpleasant,
(3) Craving to hear sweet, ego-pleasing words or sounds,
(4) Craving not to hear ugly, displeasing words or sounds,
(5) Craving to acquire material things,
(6) Craving to avoid losing or not obtaining material things,
(7) Craving for personal praise or attention,
(8) Craving to avoid personal slander, blame and criticism.

Source: Extended Lam-Rim Outlines: Beginners’ Meditation Guide, compiled by Karin Valham

Lama Zopa Rinpoche taught attaining enlightenment/buddhahood is all in our hands. He encouraged us to think about how in so many past lifetimes, we did not give up our lives for the dharma. Use this as fuel to do so in this lifetime, and practice with a strong mind not tainted by attachment. Renounce the eight worldly dharmas and practice pure dharma.

He said we went to the riverside where Buddha practiced an aesthetic life. This is the basic. Buddha worked for numberless sentient beings with holy body, speech, mind. He was most unbelievably kind to us. This is what it really means to practice dharma. May I become like a wish fulfilling jewel for all sentient beings.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche finished teaching at the riverside at 1:30PM. We then got back into the taxis to travel back to the Root Institute. The taxis were following Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s car, so when his car turned in an unexpected direction, the taxis followed. Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s car pulled up alongside, and then paused at a stupa that marks the spot in Sakya Sujata that marks the spot where Sujata lived during the time of Buddha. in Sakya Sujata, that marks where Sujata lived during the time of the Buddha.

We went to the Mahabodhi Temple with Lama Zopa Rinpoche that night to do a Guru Puja because the Tibetan calendar indicated March 15 was a tsok day. Lama Zopa Rinpoche taught all sentient beings have bodhiminds that are just temporarily obscured. We can wash the ignorance on our minds. He instructed us to meditate, and to work for other sentient beings who want happiness just like us, and do not want suffering. The purpose of our lives is to bring sentient beings to enlightenment, not to simply bring them happiness in this life.

He instructed us to go inside of the Mahabodhi temple stupa and pray that our lives become most beneficial to sentient beings. Lama Zopa Rinpoche said we do not have the karma to see a living buddha, but we can see the statue of Buddha. That statute inspires people to work on the path to enlightenment.

We used the Lama Chopa Jorcho text. This is an excerpt:

Even if the environment and beings are filled with the fruits of negativity,
And unwished for sufferings pour down like rain,
I seek your blessings to take these miserable conditions as a path,
By seeing them as causes to exhaust the results of my negative karma.
In short, no matter what appearances arise, be they good or bad,
I seek your blessings to transform them into a path increasing the two bodhicittas.

Pilgrimage: Hindu Goddess Durga Temple

The following morning, March 16 – my last full day in Bodhgaya – was the dawn of an incredible day. I was sitting at the picnic table outside of the women’s dormitory, eating breakfast with Amy and Lozang when Zarina walked out of our dormitory room. As she slipped into her shoes, she looked my way and asked if I would be able to leave the Root Institute in 5 – 10 minutes to do advance work for the day’s pilgrimage. We had heard Lama Zopa Rinpoche wanted to do a puja at a Wrathful Tara temple. I had no good reason to refuse Zarina, so I just said yes, I would help.

Venerable Paldron, Pema, Zarina and I piled into a taxi that Zarina had arranged for us, and we left the Root Institute. I had not asked what we would be doing. I just assumed we were going shopping to buy tsok (chocolate bars, packages of cookies, fruit, juice boxes, snack size bags of potato chips) and would then be delivering it to the pilgrimage site so that when Lama Zopa Rinpoche arrived, we would have tsok to offer the Wrathful Tara.

We did not go shopping.

Instead the five of us - including our young Indian taxi driver Panket Raj - spent the entire day in remote village in Bihar with a population of 20,000 people, admiring the Hindu goddess Durga’s temple and getting to know the villagers on behalf of Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Hindu Goddess Durga Temple

Hindu Goddess Durga Temple
Our main contact in the village was the Durga Temple’s Hindu caretaker, Pondeche Dubey (spelled phonetically). His family has been taking care of the temple for countless generations. He has three sons and two daughters to help him with the temple. One young son spent the whole day with us and his father at the temple, sweeping it out for us in preparation for Lama Zopa Rinpoche. One daughter, dressed in a bright red sari and headscarf also spent time with us at the temple, going into the innermost chamber of the temple to make the offerings to the statue of the goddess.

Pondeche Dubey's son holding Pondeche Dubey's granddaughter outside of the temple.
Pondeche Dubey was warm and welcoming. He told us this Durga Temple has been here since Buddha’s time, and that Buddha had spent time there. Some of the black stone statues inside had been removed from a nearby cave and brought to the temple for safekeeping. Most of the stone statues were approximately two feet high; some were so worn that it was hard to make out the statute’s image.

Entrance to the temple.
The energy inside of the temple was strong. I felt especially felt it the first time I entered the temple and walked up to the front of the temple and stood in front of the goddess, who was hidden from view. I was so thankful that Venerable Paldron, Pema, Zarina, Panket Raj and I got to see and experience all of this.

Pema and Zarina inside of the temple, looking towards the Hindu Goddess Durga who is not visible behind the gate and door in the front of the temple.

Inside of the temple, looking towards the entrance gate.
Aside from two groups of westerners who had visited the temple within recent weeks, Pondeche Dubey could not recall any western visitors in his lifetime. He said it was due to the Goddess Durga, to whom the temple is dedicated, that outsiders were now coming and bringing benefit to the village.

Statutes inside of the temple.
Indeed, the village felt completely untouched by the pilgrimage and tourist circuit. People – almost entirely men and boys – milled about the temple as we went about our work of gathering information and taking photos for Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Few people from the community spoke with us but we all enjoyed the day.

Pondeche Dubey in red, and community members spending time with us at the temple.
Pema, a Tibetan born in Nepal who teaches at Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Maitreya Universal Education School, was our translator. He speaks – at minimum – Hindi, Tibetan, Nepali, and English. Venerable Paldron also speaks some Hindi, so between Venerable Paldron and Pema we were able gather enough information to organize a puja at the temple. Venerable Paldron was also on the phone with the Root Institute, sharing information we had gathered and receiving additional questions for Pondeche Dubey.

Venerable Paldron at the entrance to the temple.
As the morning passed, we began to wonder when and where we would be able to eat lunch. Pondeche Dubey had already thought of that, though. He invited us back to his house for lunch. We could not refuse so we followed him from the temple back to his house, walking narrow dirt paths that led us between homes, animals, and neighbors. I was having so much fun.

The village, passed by these men on the way to lunch.
When we reached his house he took us directly to his bedroom, which opens up to the courtyard, and is adjacent to the kitchen. The house, which was made of light brown mud, was unpainted. One wall of his bedroom was decorated with framed family portraits. He took some of them down for me, and pointed out the family members in the photos. There was a nice one of he and his wife when they were maybe in their late teens or early 20’s.

He explained his wife had passed away from heart problems three years ago. Their two daughters – ages 15 and 17 – were busy preparing lunch for us in the small kitchen next door, while his son’s wife prepared the dough while crouched on the ground outside of the kitchen in the courtyard. His daughter in law is 20. She and his son have two children – a three year old daughter who it was obvious adores her grandfather – she followed him everywhere – and a two month old son. After asking about the children, one of the women gestured to the room next to Pondeche Dubey’s room. I walked into the dim room, unsure of what to expect and looked down. The two month old was silently lying on his back on a traditional bed made out of a wood board with a mattress on top, looking up at me. It was amazing. I silently backed out of the room.

Pondeche Dubey had insisted that we sit on his queen sized bed, which took up most of bedroom, while we waited for his daughters and daughter in law to finish preparing our lunches. Venerable Paldron, Zarina, and Pema sat on the bed cross legged. I sat in one of the two chairs in the room, and Pondeche Dubey sat in the other. I moved onto the bed when the food was served, so we could eat together picnic style.

The food was delicious. I had fun watching the young women prepare the food, oohing and ahhing as the flat pancakes of dough that the daughter in law had rolled out became round puffs of deep fried pastry when one of the daughters dropped the pancake into a pot of hot oil. I think the puffs are called puri. The women also prepared fried potatoes, a delicious green chutney, and a vegetable that may have been cooked cabbage. They served us each entirely too much food, coming back to refill my plate as I worked through the food they had already served me.

Our hostesses were strong, healthy, vivacious, vibrant young women. I later learned that as the temple’s caretakers, their family would be highly respected within the community. The three women either did not speak English, or were too shy to try. Although we could not communicate with words, I had such a nice time getting to know them. We laughed over the amount of delicious food I was eating, which I expressed was making my stomach big. We also talked about the new baby and the three year old. It was some of the most fun I have had in India this year.

Afterwards, I asked if I could take a group photo in the courtyard. Our taxi driver, Panket Raj who had eaten elsewhere but found us at the family’s house, took the photo for me so that I could be in it.

Pondeche Dubey's family with Venerable Paldron, Pema, Zarina, and I. The boy on the left is unrelated to the family.
Then the three women asked to have their photo taken with me. I was so touched. I was not the only one who held our meeting as a special day.

Pondeche Dubey's daughters on either side of me, and daughter in law on the far left.
We then walked back to the temple to finish up our work for Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Pema and I took photos of the temple’s interior and exterior. That morning, we had been given permission to see the goddess Durga. She is normally hidden behind a set of solid wood doors reinforced by a padlocked heavy metal gate.

Although Pondeche Dubey gave me permission to photograph the temple’s interior, I did not ask for that permission to be extended to the goddess. I remember her as maybe four or five feet tall. Her black stone figure protruded from the black stone wall behind her. She had a large bright orange sheet draped over and across her front. The corners of the orange sheet were pinned to the wall. Her face, which was exposed above the orange sheet was painted with colored powder.

Although Lama Zopa Rinpoche confirmed about a week later when he visited the temple on pilgrimage that the statue is the Hindu goddess Durga, and not the Buddhist deity Kurukelle (Wrathful Tara) he said it is a powerful place. He and a small group of students still did the planned tsok offering.

Before leaving the temple and village in the late afternoon, Venerable Paldron, Pema, Zarina and I had time to do some personal practices inside of the temple. I sat with my copy of Geshe Dorji Damdul’s Prayer And Meditation Manual, and started to read my prayers out loud. Soon I was joined by a group of young boys, who were hanging over my shoulder to see my book. It was adorable. We were also joined by an older man who sat next to me, reading aloud in English from my book. We had a great time reading until it was time to go.

Reading from Geshe Dorji Damdul's book with some community members inside of the temple. Please excuse that my red book bag is disrespectfully placed on the floor ...
What an incredible pilgrimage day, all thanks to the kindness of Lama Zopa Rinpoche

That night Lama Zopa Rinpoche took us to one of our regular spots at the Mahabodhi Temple – the platform on the side of the stupa, beneath the temple’s oldest tree - to give us the oral transmission of The ExaltedMahayana Sutra on the Wisdom Gone Beyond called the Vajra Cutter. He told us he had received it from his teacher Geshe Senge Rinpoche.

He taught from one of His Holiness the Fifth Dalai Lama’s commentaries and said that you should keep your mind clear when receiving an oral transmission. Listen to every word being said, and dedicate to the benefit of all sentient beings. Think you will liberate them by yourself alone, and for that, you need to attain enlightenment.

After giving us the oral transmission by reading to us aloud from the text, he instructed us to eliminate our self cherishing thoughts – the root of our ignorance – by practicing Bodhicitta. He told us to recite The Exalted Mahayana Sutra on the Wisdom Gone Beyond called the Vajra Cutter after we open our eyes each morning and pray “May I receive the blessings of the guru in my heart.”

Lama Zopa Rinpoche instructed his students who work at dharma centers to rejoice in the work that they do with the motivation to help sentient beings. He said you can attain enlightenment by cherishing a single sentient being, if you know how to practice dharma.

He translated parts of Chapter 10 of the Bodhicharyavatara by Shantideva from Tibetan into English, and taught we should all dedicate our lives for the happiness of others. “May we be able to cherish every sentient being, more than a sky full of gold diamonds.”

I spent March 14, my last day in Bodhgaya saying goodbye to the three puppies and spending time with Oat and his kind staff at the Rose Apple Café. On the way back I stopped at Tara Children’s Project and the Maitreya Universal Education School to say goodbye to Andy, see the school one last time, and take some photos.

Lozang, Amy and I on my last afternoon at the Root. Photo taken by one of the Tara Children's Project kids.
Amy, Lozang, and I then rode over to the stupa on bikes so that we could be there when Lama Zopa Rinpoche arrived to lead us in a 4:30PM Guru Puja.

Transportation in Bodhgaya. Thanks to Lozang for all of the rides between the Root Institute and the Mahabodhi Temple. Photo by Amy.
Lozang encouraged me to approach Lama Zopa Rinpoche on his way into the stupa, to offer my khata to him, tell him I was leaving that night, and to thank him for the teachings. He stopped and smiled when I leaned down next to him with my khata and spoke to him. He asked where I was going. When I replied “Dharamsala” he said “Good”. I was so happy. I thought I might have heard him then say “I’ll see you there,” but a friend who was standing next to me at the time said Lama Zopa Rinpoche did not say that.

Once we got inside and sat down underneath the oldest tree in the stupa grounds, I saw something that made me smile. It would have been hard to miss the bright pink shopping bag with my dog’s name printed on it in a bold white font. The bag sat at Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s feet, where the street dogs sometimes sleep while he teaches. Sabrina was there with us, on my last night in Bodhgaya.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche and my dog, Sabrina (via the pink bag) at the Mahabodhi Temple on my last night in Bodhgaya. Photo by Lozang.
Next Stop: McLeod Ganj by way of Delhi

After the puja ended at 9PM, Lozang and Amy helped me book an auto rickshaw to take me to the Gaya train station and hurriedly pack my bags. I had too busy on pilgrimage and at the stupa for the past three days to get that sorted. I also still wasn’t so sure about leaving Bodhgaya.

Amy and Lozang came all the way to the Gaya train station with me and helped me find my bunk bed on the Rajdhani Express #22811 which departed from Gaya at 11:11PM. They are such wonderful friends. (I also owe them for advising me on how to remove hard water induced shampoo build up from my hair. For future reference, the answer is baking soda dissolved in water and a fine toothed comb, but regular dish soap will work in a pinch.)

My train, the Rajdhani Express arrived in Delhi only an hour behind schedule the following day, March 18. I went down to the Delhi metro station, and found the platform for the train going to Delhi’s Tibetan refugee settlement, Majnu Ka Tilla. I had heard Majnu Ka Tilla was the place to catch an overnight bus for the 12+ hour journey north from Delhi to the town of McLeod Ganj in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

I met a Tibetan Buddhist monk and his niece, Tashi on the Delhi metro platform. They escorted me all the way to Lotus Travels in Majnu Ka Tilla, which was coincidentally their intended destination, insisting on paying my share of our auto rickshaw ride, no less.

I was so lucky to be introduced to Lotus Travels. The two young Tibetan men who own Lotus Travels, Tenzin Kelsang and Tashi Namgyal are so kind and helpful. After booking an aisle seat next to a woman, as I had requested, they let me leave my luggage in their office for the afternoon.

I then went to Dolma House Restaurant to meet Venerable Namjong and Venerable Samten for one of the best meals I have ever had in India. We shopped for Buddhist statues in a nearby shop until Venerable Namjong and Venerable Samten had to leave for Tushita Delhi, in advance of the beginning of Venerable Namjong’s Introduction to Buddhism class. It was so great to see them.

After purchasing an electric kettle and stainless steel pot for the hypothetical apartment I might rent in McLeod Ganj, and visiting the Buddhist temple in Manju Ka Tilla, I returned to Lotus Travels to pick up my luggage. Tenzin gave me advice on how to safely navigate my trip from McLeod Ganj to the Delhi airport in the early morning hours before the Delhi metro opens at 6AM. Tashi then helped me carry my luggage to the bus he had booked for me, and even offered to board the bus to help me find my seat. If you need a travel agency in Delhi, then I have one in mind for you. Email Tashi and Tenzin at TraveLLotus78 at Gmail dot com or call the Lotus Travels office 011-65099612 or 23814794. Their office is in the same building as the New Sakya House hotel and restaurant in Manju Ka Tilla.

The bright green Bedi Bus I took from Delhi to McLeod Ganj was the best bus ride I have taken in recent memory. The semi-sleeper (reclining seats like an airplane) bus was comfortable and clean. The driver did not play loud music or videos. I was not disturbed by the sound of a high pitched honking horn. The young Tibetan woman I sat next to was nice. The bus had wifi, which seemed to work, although I did not make an effort to connect to it. I would definitely travel by Bedi Bus again.

Our Bedi Bus reached Dharamsala, the town just below McLeod Ganj at maybe 7AM the following morning, March 19. Since road construction prevented the bus from making it all the way up the hill to McLeod Ganj, two fellow bus passengers and I shared a taxi from the place where the bus dropped us off to McLeod Ganj’s main square. One of the my fellow passengers took a look at my 60 liter backpack, now weighted down by a collection of books about Buddhism, and said I reminded him of Cheryl Strayed. Having read her book, I got the joke. It was a nice way to start the day.

Once in McLeod Ganj, I dropped my luggage off in the Shree Guest House reception area, and made my way down the hill for my first Basic Tibetan Grammar class at the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives. That was March 19, just about five weeks ago.

On March 28 I received a text from a friend who was still at the Root Institute, letting me know that Lama Zopa Rinpoche was leaving Bodhgaya that day - nine days after I had boarded my train to Delhi. Venerable Sarah Thresher later blogged about his last day in Bodhgaya. She wrote: 

“Rinpoche has been in Bodhgaya for two months now and tonight was the culmination of a constant stream of prayers, practices, teachings and blessings. A week ago, a Nyingma meditator commented to me how important it was that Rinpoche was in Bodhgaya: ‘This is one of the holiest places in the world,’ he said, ‘the blessings and presence of high lamas like Rinpoche keep it that way.’”

I then heard Lama Zopa Rinpoche was traveling from Bodhgaya to McLeod Ganj, and would be arriving at Tushita Meditation Centre (Tushita) on March 29. That was such an unexpected, nice surprise.

I attended the regularly scheduled Guru Puja in Tushita’s large gompa on Sunday night, March 29. Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who was staying in his house at Tushita walked into the gompa and joined us for the puja. We were all so happy to see him.

After the puja ended, I watched him leave the gompa, guessing it would be a while before I would get to see him again. It has been so amazing to get to spend so much time with him. He left Tushita two days later, on Tuesday, March 31.

And that concludes 40 Days in Bodhgaya with Lama Zopa Rinpoche. My next post will be about the past five weeks I’ve spent as a resident of an Indian/Tibetan village near McLeod Ganj and student at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Thanks for your interest and support. This post took an incredible amount of time to research, assemble and post but I had so much fun doing it.

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