Towards the end of 2019 we set out on an adventure. I call it an adventure because, apart from a few logistical certainties everything was uncertain, just like the rest of the year.
2019 was where the anticipations and apprehensions of the past couple of years were giving way to mini-victories and dream-come-trues. With that in mind, I packed my bags and drove heart first into the experience. But I was not alone, 40 other humans were going through similar emotions. Packing their everyday necessities into a bag and trying to leave inhibitions, doubts, comforts and luxuries behind for a learning experience, deep in a South Indian village, at a Buddhist monastery. Little did I know, words like Tsongkhapa, Geshe, Rimpoche, Lama, Gaden Shartse that were flying around during planning meetings would end up occupying such a special place in my heart, leaving a forever mark.
The adventure in waiting was Katy’s dream project come to life. Katy Saeger is the CEO of the company I work with here in Los Angeles. We were putting together, sort of, a Buddhism 101 learning retreat and bringing together a group of 40 exceptional people: thought leaders, creators, actors, poets, conscious business owners, basically people who inspire by their mere presence.
We were at the monastery for 11 days and every minute was a lesson in crisis management. But crisis management, when done right, deepens relationships. And that’s exactly what happened during our trip. A shout out to my dear friend Rakesh, thank you for helping me tame all the production work in Bangalore, it was a beast and couldn’t have done it without you. There were several measurable outcomes from this trip but what makes me happy is, this event was successful not only for us, but for every individual who was a part of it – a testament to our efforts.
This project was being planned against the backdrop of His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama’s teacher, Tsongkhapa’s, 600th year of Nirvana celebration in the Tibetan Monastery in Mundgod, a sleepy village located 200 odd miles from Bangalore. There is lot I learnt about Tsongkhapa and his teachings, some of which I’ll dive into in subsequent posts. Thupten Jinpa, a scholar-practitioner and primary translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom we had the privilege of interacting, offers a comprehensive portrait of Tsongkhapa in his book Tsongkhapa: A Buddha in the Land of Snows.
The most soul-stirring moment of the trip definitely was the 20 minutes I spent in close proximity to His Holiness The Dalai Lama. Soaking in his words, surrounded by the energy of people who I had come to care deeply for. Tyler Wakstein has captured the essence of the wisdom that His Holiness passed on to us in his article Buddhism is not a religion, it’s a framework for life. Even if you stop reading my words here, you shouldn’t miss out on Tyler’s.
Not in my wildest dream did I think I would have a private audience with The Dalai Lama. I knew I’d probably be in one of the large prayer halls at the monastery, breathing the same air as him, along with thousands of people, but this definitely goes down as a ‘never-had-I-ever’ moment. When you are part of organising an event of such magnitude, it becomes a selfless pursuit, where you want those attending to have the most blessed experience. But it happened! I met The Dalai Lama!
I wanted that moment to expand not in time, but geographically to include my parents, my friends and my family for everyone stands to gain from meeting the highest of the high Lamas. That was not possible so I blocked out all the mind chatter, decided to be fully present in the moment, not worrying about logistics, not worrying about the needs of the immediate future or the happenings of the past and that is how, for the very first time in my entire adult life, I came to be engulfed by this overwhelming feeling of being blessed. Trying to articulate the blessings I received from the Dalai Lama would be futile. It exists as an unseen reserve that I could tap into every time I feel stuck in the present or apprehensive of the future.
Here are some of my takeaways:
- We are all one. Let’s do something nice for others. Everyday.
- Impermanence: We need to accept change and learn to work with it.
- There is no Planet B: Start small but pledge to leave a positive footprint.
- The importance of having good emotional hygiene: The most important education there is and the need to make emotional training part of every school’s curriculum.
- Empathy vs. Compassion: Empathy is a feeling and compassion is an action.
- Debates: Seen below are snippets from the debate sessions. Learning, listening and debating are integral parts of monks’ education and life. Never take anything at face value. Train the mind for constructive questioning.
Meeting His Holiness, the time I spent working, playing and learning with the monks, the candlelight walk with thousands of people who had congregated at the monastery, the energy of collective chanting, sitting under the canopy of prayer flags on the monastery steps as the wind rustled and the sun set behind us, being surrounded by people who find joy in living the simple life and the random acts of love expressed by complete strangers – I got to live it all a 100%. My gratitude to ace photographers Peter Ruprecht and Hannah Hardaway who captured the magic behind all moments featured here.
On the day of our departure from the monastery, Letsok, a young monk who became a dear friend; who asked me a thousand questions in a day, and followed me around and made me do all the work I requested him to do, came up to me, with tears brimming in his eyes and asked “tum next year aayega na?” (“you will come visit me next year?) My heart burst with the love that he was radiating and the possibility that I may never see him again. Hopefully I would return to the monastery sometime soon but it definitely was not going to be in a year’s time.
Our lives are going to take us on separate journeys but this fabric of love that blankets our hearts is ours to keep. When we look back the warmth we felt can never be erased. We’ll go on living our lives but the circle of oneness will grow, to include people who stroll in and out of our lives. That is the true learning from this thought-changing event.
I leave you with a chant, the melodies of which still linger on. It transports me to the night where the glow from the candles and the vibrations from the collective chantings filled the air and our hearts. Seen in the video is my friend, Letsokh. I pestered him for this recording and he finally relented.
Thujeche (with gratitude)
Hi Smi great writing. I really touched with your words expressed in the last paragraph regarding Letsok. Keep writing and you are really blessed with this visit.
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Hi Papa, yay glad you liked it. Yeah Letsok is was the sweetest lil friend. He added so much love and laughter to the experience.
Hi smitha chechi , I read the whole writing and enjoyed it thoroughly! .
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Hi Sachu, Thank you. So happy you read it. Lots of love.
Hi Smitha, This is Ramana. I read your article. Its wonderful. I must say you are quite lucky as well as destined to have this experience. I’m happy for you.
We happened to come to this famous buddhist temple 4 to 5 months ago when Sandhya’s mom was here. I loved the place. The vibration there is so serene. You can sit in a corner close your eyes and be lost in time and space.
Take care and stay safe
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Thanks Ramana, glad that you like the blog. Which Buddhist temple are you referring to? I’d love to go there someday soon 🙂 This particular monastery I went to was in a town in Karnataka called Mundgod.
Hi Smitha I was talking about the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, Los Angeles. Didn’t realize the one you went to was in India. Must have been a great experience.
This temple in LA is also awesome. Sprawling place with 3 levels, multiple temples, sculptures, a small museum and a all vegetarian restaurant run by the monastary.
If you haven’t been to that temple then you must go there when this COVID quarantine is over.