Amidst the clamour of shlokas from the speakers placed next to the Maha Bodhi tree, I sat with closed eyes trying to meditate at 5:30 A.M. I wondered whether Gautama would have become Buddha in the cacophony, perhaps yes. I tightened my hoodie and tried to focus. A dog sauntered towards me and smelled the air near my shoulder. Then it walked up to a monk and sniffed him. What happened next surprised me.
The original Bodhi tree was destroyed by the queen of Ashoka, who was jealous towards it because of her husband’s attachment to it. The current tree is the direct descendant of the original Bodhi brought from Sri-Lanka. Immediately, to the east of the Bodhi tree was the Maha Bodhi temple. The temple was originally built by Ashoka, but the current temple is the oldest brick structure built in the 5th to 6th century by the Gupta Dynasty.
It was the Maha Bodhi tree under which Buddha had discovered Vipassana; he learned of the real nature of things or Dhamma. Hence, I chose Dhamma Bodhi Centre, about 5 kilometres from the Maha Bodhi Temple, to learn Vipassana.
For 10 days, I struggled to sit cross-legged. I had to prop my painful knees with rolled-up blankets. Thankfully, I could mediate with stretched legs in the cell of the pagoda . The cells were roughly 6 feet by 4 feet with a circular window. After unseasonal rains on the 2nd day, the room temperature dropped to single digits. The concrete floors and the walls of the cells felt like that of a walk-in freezer.
On the 4th night, my right leg swelled up. Due to my travelling job, I was sure that I had DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis – blood clots in the legs). A clot could reach my heart causing a heart attack. I felt something creeping through my veins. I had two choices; either to wake up everyone at the Centre to be carted to a rudimentary hospital or to come to terms with my fate and die on my bed. I chose the latter. Trying to have positive thoughts, I turned on the light. I was prepared when I closed my eyes. Like every other day, a gong woke me up; I was never that happy at 4:00 A.M.
10 days of being a monk, practising noble silence and eating two meals and a snack a day, was a challenge. With no cell phones, books, notebooks or entertainment, we took walks around the enclosed area we were in. A small lotus pond was to us like the Fountain of the four rivers or Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi was to people of Rome. Surely, some of us were losing it.
On the 7th day, at around 3 A.M, one of my neighbours started screaming profanities. He was having a schizophrenic attack. He was allowed to continue with the course under the supervision of a participating family member.
On the 10th day, we resumed speech. We had ignored each other’s presence for days, yet we felt connected. As one of the girls, later on, introduced us to her friend; we all were Dhamma friends or Dhamma Sakha.
Before the course, my knowledge of Vipassana was from secondary sources. An old participant had read and reread the labels on a shampoo bottle for entertainment. Another meditator’s consciousness flew out of windows. At the end of the 10-days, neither had I memorised a shampoo bottle label nor had I had an out of body experience. So what had I gained?
Let me get back to the incident of the dog. The monk kicked the animal in disgust. Had I witnessed it before the 10-day meditation boot camp, I would have felt immense anger towards the monk. Instead, I felt sorry for the monk, who had given up worldly comforts to adorn the robes. He was wasting his time, probably his life.
Later that same morning, I sat in one corner of the Maha-Bodhi tree. No sooner did a leaf from the tree fall than a boy sitting beside me swooped like a hawk and retrieved it. We laughed at our missed opportunity. Just as we got up to leave, the boy handed me two leaves, one for me and the other for my friend.
Was it a sign?