Buddhism with Peanut Butter


Buddhism with Peanut Butter

A seven-day course in silent meditation is buttered bliss.

Are you a morning person?” she asked. The bristles of hair on her shaven head were golden,her skin alabaster and she wore androgynous clothes.

This was at an “Introduction to Buddhism” course at Tushita,a meditation centre in Mcleodganj,Dharamsala. I was taken aback to see a hundred-odd people trooping into the quiet retreat and felt momentarily lost in the crowd dominated by foreigners. Most looked like spiritual shoppers dressed in psychedelic tops,T-shirts and scarves with Om and other spiritual symbols,harem pants,shawls,silver jewellery,braided hair,ear and nose piercings,even tattoos. I looked like an aunty from Delhi in an Anokhi kurta and white churidar.

After you fill a form specifying emergency numbers,allergies and psychiatric problems,if any,and agree to abide by the rules,you submit your valuables,cellphone,laptop,iPod,even books on distracting subjects. You are allowed to keep some cash for spending at the tiny in-house store that stocks mineral water,chocolates and toilet paper. Students are expected to maintain silence for seven days (except during specified discussions),not to consume alcohol or drugs,engage in sexual activity or pursue any hobby. Meals can be had out in the open,gazing at the horizon or inside the dining room but quietly. Unlike the Vipassana centre located next door to Tushita,where even reading and writing are disallowed,here you can read Dharma books,take notes or spend free time in the library. Smokers could go out of Tushita a couple of times but not in groups.

On the first day,chatting is allowed till 8 pm; as everyone settles into their rooms or dormitories (single rooms are few),and the karma yoga is assigned. Students do everything from toilet cleaning,dumping garbage,dish washing,scrubbing floors in the dorms and the Gompa (meditation hall) and sweeping the gardens.

Yes,I am a morning person,I replied. “You will be the A.M. gong ringer,” she said. “You have to wake up everyone at 6 am every day,then ring the gongs for meditation and teaching sessions,” said the coordinator.

Most participants had come in groups or pairs,with like-minded groups,girlfriends or boyfriends. No married couples. It turned out that 90 out of 95 participants were foreigners,only five were Indian. The introduction round was revealing,as besides names,everyone had to say why they were here. This was not just a bunch of spiritual tourists surfing the Buddha bar; some were,in fact,students of religion. If there were Buddhist groupies doing the Leh-Ladakh-Dharamsala-Bihar route,there were also serious yoga and Vipassana practitioners. An Indian lady from Dubai said she had left behind an angry family to come here,while a young American confessed he had been disturbed ever since he visited Bosnia. A French girl said she was healing from an abusive marriage. There was an equal mix of men and women but most people were young. Divorce,death,disillusionment,depression,drugs,dreams,lust,love — the afflictions were common. Many had come for the silence the retreat mandates; others for peanut butter. Tushita’s homemade peanut butter served with honey at every meal is the only indulgence for which the quantity of consumption isn’t specified.

I felt homesick that first evening. The thought of total silence without TV soaps,BBM chats or nagging my husband mortified me. I had cancelled a visit to the US to do this. In that monastic room,with a small statue of the Buddha on a prayer shelf,the Dalai Lama’s picture on the wall,a bed and a tiny toilet without a shower,I understood exactly why bad girls went to Vegas and foolish ones came to meditate.

“The self-cherishing mind is the root of all suffering,” said Geshe Kelsang Wangmo,the next morning. The nun,our spiritual teacher,a German by birth,had a radiant smile and a gift of the gab. With an overview of Tibetan Buddhism,the cause and effect of karma,rebirth and reincarnation,she spoke of her own emotional challenges and why she chose to become a nun.

Silence turned out to be the easier part of valour. Initially,it can freak you out as it unleashes demons in the mind. But the superimposing calm of the Gompa,teachings on detachment and compassion and guided meditation sessions,open the door to a quiet inner sanctum. I felt challenged instead by the bland meals (lunch was filling but it was only white soup and a piece of bread for dinner),queuing up for food or showers,the pain in the knees that hits you as you spend hours meditating in the lotus position on the floor. Monsoons are heavy in Dharamsala,the atmosphere is dank and musty,the sky looks grey and dull,at dawn or dusk. For those who rely on sunlight for cheer,monsoons are not the best time to take this course. Many fell sick. On the first day,I had smiled when I saw some students hurrying back from the Chai Shop outside Tushita with bags of potato chips,chocolates and nuts. On the third day,I wiped the smug smile off my face and chomped down a full bag of Lays chips as if they were going out of fashion.

Denial and indulgence continue to couple inside the mind,but you calm down as the hours tick by. By the time a brief Q & A session is allowed,you don’t want to say anything. That’s how I felt.

I did get flustered by the behaviour of those around me. Some participants would repeatedly raise hands to ask questions despite being advised not to,others got into long statements,ostensibly to display their knowledge of Buddhism. Even though the teachings are ladled out in a manner that pre-considers Western,scientific resistance to rebirth,most students are unable to accept the idea of reincarnation. An Israeli boy commented on the Buddhist meditation pose,where one hand symbolises compassion and the other wisdom: “In our country,one hand holds the gun,the other pulls the trigger”. The argumentative Indian,more in tune with the belief in past lives and rebirth as a fruit of good karma does better. Out of the 15-odd participants who quit the course by day three,not one was Indian. Some stayed on but broke rules by whispering or written communication. Yes,a few times we all burst into uncontrollable laughter over something,and the guffaws would keep surfing up. But many people kept absolutely quiet,refraining from smile or eye contact. Some read late into the night in the Gompa,bent over low,wooden desks. Others prayed,rosaries in hand,long after Losang Richen,our meditation guide,would retire for the night.

An unmissable sense of well-being continued to be generated. On the last day,as I packed my bags,I felt a bliss course through me. When you don’t use your vocal chords for some time,the voice becomes a croak and I loved its broken-like-a-twig fragility as we said goodbyes.

Will I go again? Yes,for the Buddha butter as it really helps you lose weight. From the head.