For those of you who missed the message i wrote in the clouds (poor timing: as soon as i enscribed it, the Mothership flew by and messed it all up… sigh…), here’s a plain-text version of update:
After a sweet and transformative two-week meditation retreat here in Sarnath, i’m now officially the same as i was before, which is to say nonexistent yet somehow still fond of fresh fruit. Truly miraculous!
The retreat was a collaboration between Christopher Titmuss (a gifted Buddhist teacher and former monk who spent enough time meditating in the forests of Thailand to learn to tell sticks from snakes) and my lovely new friends at Open Dharma, a noble project offering retreats that provide an “atmosphere of creative stillness where each participant can open and deepen in her or his own way.” (Incidentally, Open Dharma has just taken a cushion under the Earthville parasol, and we’re happy to have them aboard.)
Before arriving, i was inspired to participate in the retreat for three reasons: for the opportunity to meet these good folks i’d been hearing about; because i was overdue for a contemplative pit stop; and because the structure of this particular retreat is an unusual one that’s similar to a model i’ve been envisioning for some time (thinking, “why doesn’t somebody offer a retreat like this…?”) and i was intrigued to see how the Open Dharma approach to this model works.
Well, work it does, and it’s designed to work quite differently for everyone, which is one of the things i really like about it. It is an open retreat (everyone is welcome, costs are covered purely by donation, and all are free to come and go at will) and this one follows at the end of a more traditional structured retreat led by Christopher every Winter in Bodhgaya. On the heels of that intense silent Vipassana retreat, this dharma gathering in Sarnath provides a chance for people to integrate their sitting practices with the rest of life, and to explore that integration process with each other as it happens.
A typical day alternates between silent group meditations, multiple discussion groups on a range of topics (e.g. practice-related questions, service as yoga, living free from fear, death and dying, love and spirituality, inquiries into the experiences of the participants, and so on), meals (with the group or otherwise), and a more formal dharma talk every evening.
As much as i liked the whole program, i found the small group discussions to be particularly nourishing — not unlike the conversations we tend to share over meals back home at the Earthville House, but with dozens of insightful people from across the globe and skilled facilitation from the teachers. I felt closer to being in my element than i have since KhanaNirvana days.
The whole experience stirred my long-waxing aspiration to create a campus for the exploration of meditation in action, applied compassion, and service-learning as a contemplative practice, and i got the feeling it might be time to take that dream off the back burner.
I write you now from Kalimpong, where Artyom and i are pausing for the night en route to a small village near the Sikkim border. What’s there, calling us, you might ask? So might we… and, happy as we are to visit beautiful new places for no reason at all, our curiosity is piqued all the more in this case because of this tingling feeling that something fruitful is afoot and the universe, true to its coy sense of humor, has hooked us up for a blind date with destiny, so i’m mentally preening…
See, there’s an exceptionally devoted Tibetan nun (whom we still haven’t met), from a Nepali family, who has been wanting to use a few acres of sacred land she inherited to create a sustainable, non-sectarian retreat center and school. Her idea, as we’ve heard it, sound like a bare-bones version of that vision i’ve been dreaming since ’92. Feeling it wasn’t for her to develop such a project on her own, this nun entrusted the land to Leigh and Justin, two friends i first met years ago at KhanaNirvana. But, as it happens, they’re not in a position to make it happen alone either, so they were as delighted as we were when we bumped into each other in Sarnath and Artyom happened to mention that the other half of our reason for coming to India was to explore possibilities for creating just such a center. After a short and sweet conversation, they passed the torch to us.
So, suddenly, we find ourselves with the gift of a plot of sacred land that so far we’ve seen only in pictures and, we hear, an eager village full of enthusiastic Nepali-speaking collaborators of various syncretic spiritual leanings, ready to build traditional adobe buildings and grow organic veggies for the center. The Himalayan Connection Vortex churns on, it seems…
Tomorrow morning, we’ll be off to meet this nun and her family, see the land, and get a clearer sense of what might happen there. The village is totally unplugged, so the next update will come when we return from the blessed boonies.