Zen retreat, the cyclone, and sickness






Last Sunday marked the halfway point of our time here in the Vihar. We had a halfway ceremony – which is a euphemism for a major cleaning and room inspection. We were told that if we had our room sparkling clean and disinfected by 10am last Sunday, we would get Nutella for Sunday morning breakfasts. Gwendolyn, the Vihar manager (and resident of Japan for four years!), ordered us to “dettol” (really pungent Indian cleaning solution that burns your skin if you use a really concentrated amount) our bathrooms and showers and floors as if we were moving out and new people were moving in. I guess it’s pretty Zen.

This week was rough – I was starting to get a bit sick (sore throaty and achy, probably because the weather has been changing) so my motivation to get up at 5am to meditate with really really upright posture in a hot black robe in a room with no fans on (Sensei doesn’t want unnecessary electronic noise) plummeted. It was a tough week. On Wednesday, I came home and Hannah was super sick – I think it must have been food poisoning. By the next morning, Shira also got super sick with a fever as well. Taking care of my roommates seemed to bring my spirits up a little bit. But they were bedridden until Friday, which wasn’t so good.

Each night, we have the opportunity to sign up to take Sensei out to dinner. Four of us meet him after evening meditation and take him to a restaurant in town (all of which he has been to before, since he’s been teaching at this program for over 30 years). We tried to keep it informal. He loves to talk about how American culture is so much about intellectual thinking and “me me me me me me me me me me” and rationalizing everything. And he believes that it turns us into machinery. Zen, he explained, addresses those habitual ways of thinking and asks one to just pay attention to whatever you are doing.

On Friday, despite the fact that I wanted to stay around to take care of my sick roommates, I decided to attend the 24-hour Zen retreat at the Root Institute across town. I was hesitant, but I thought it would be a good challenge. The retreat was completely silent, and we wore our practice robes the entire time. We alternated walking meditation and sitting meditation pretty much the entire day. Thirty minutes of sitting meditation facing each other, ten minutes of walking slowly in the temple then walking around the temple three times, then thirty minutes of sitting facing the walls. Over and over again. This was my first proper retreat actually – I’ve done a monastery stay in New York for several days (with 4:30am wake up time, sitting meditation, walking meditation, working meditation, etc.), but never an intensive meditation retreat like this one. Although it was only 24 hours, sitting upright in Zen posture all day long was pretty painful. Every few hours I made plans to skip out on some of the sessions – as others were doing – but never actually skipped out. It was also really tough to sleep while I was there – being silent was much more uncomfortable than I thought it would be. I felt like I couldn’t escape my mind. I’m glad I went. It strengthened my meditation endurance level. And the Root Institute is a beautiful Tibetan Buddhism-based retreat center with prayer flags and a big prayer wheel. And they served us good food.

We are (were?) in the midst of a cyclone – lots of rain and not a lot of power. On Sunday, we woke up to heavy rain and felt really cozy all morning. I wore my nightgown to breakfast and we were served pancakes with chocolate syrup. Since there was no power and pretty dark outside, I lit a candle and spent the day in my room reading by candlelight. I lit some incense to cover up the smells of the shitmarsh that is outside our back window. It was a shame that the cyclone hit Bodh Gaya this weekend, because the town had been preparing to celebrate Durga Puja – a big festival that is celebrated in the state of Bihar. Usually, Robert said, there would be tons of people on the streets and men dancing and women would wear all their new clothes and surround the altars that are constructed on the streets. This year, it was pouring rain.

Dengue fever is currently in Bodh Gaya. I’m not sure how many cases there are here, but we’ve been told to be extra cautious by wearing mosquito repellent all day. Gaurav-ji, my Hindi professor, assured(?) me that I would survive dengue fever if I got it, “the pain would just last for months.”

Zen ends on Thursday morning. By that afternoon, I’ll be heading to Varanasi with my roommates for the short weekend we have off. Varanasi is known to be the one of the holiest sites for Hindus. There are ghats (long stretch of steps leading to the water on the Ganges) alongside the holy river which Hindu followers used for bathing. The goddess river cleanses away your sins (it’s a holy river but that doesn’t mean it’s clean nor safe for us to bathe in; really don’t want to get giardia). Varanasi is a really holy place to die – along the river are ‘burning ghats’ used for public cremations. This is one of the must-sees in India.

When we get back from Varanasi on Saturday night, we will start Tibetan Buddhism with Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, a really important Buddhist figure and author of many books, who we will only have for one week. But because we only have him as a teacher for one week, it “is going to be chaotic” says my anthropology professor. We will be meeting with him for several hours in the evening, instead of just for one hour of meditation practice. He will also have the power to ask us to meet whenever – even if it’s during class – so we’ll have to reschedule classes. My chore I’ve been assigned is to offer him water at his Dharma talks – I hope I’ll get close enough that his wisdom rubs off on me.