In the Sanctuary of Solitude

Pagoda at Dhammagiri

After 12 days in the sanctuary of Dhammagiri, my train is pulling out of Igatpuri station.

Nestled in the clouds of the Western Ghats, the Vipassana International Academy has been a mind bending experience in more ways than one.

You will have to observe complete silence; hand in all electronic and communication devices and all reading and writing material; gratefully accept whatever food is provided to you; rise at 4 am, sleep at 9.30 pm; observe strict discipline; practice meditation with an alert and attentive mind for 10 and a half hours each day…” the guidelines were clear and un-apologetic

Strangely, I had never heard about Vipassana before – or if I had, it had not registered. Nevertheless when it was suggested to me a few weeks ago, I felt drawn by a very strong urge to attend, notwithstanding the above strictures. Registration online at the website showed that the next available vacancies were several months away. The wait seemed too long, so after registration I put in a request to be considered for an earlier program should any last-minute vacancies arise. And 5 days before the current program  commenced, my request was granted.

As no rail bookings had previously been made, the journey from Mumbai was rushed and stressful. The combination of traffic and the compulsion to clear all pending matters and mails before loosing communication with the outside world, resulted in a typical work day – get as much done as possible and end with a headache. In many ways it was a relief to hand in laptop, mobile & blackberry and shut down.

Arya Maun or the time of noble silence commenced immediately thereafter, and we were instructed not to communicate even by way of gestures or smiles. Other than brief periods each day where one could ask questions or clarifications from our Acharyas, speaking with anyone else was strictly prohibited. So for the next several days, the sound of our thoughts was punctuated only by the voice of birds.

Daily instructions were communicated by notice boards which ended with the exhortation मंगल हो – Be happy ! Such as for instance : ” There will be no hot water today मंगल हो – Be happy 🙂

And in fact it was easy to be happy there. The campus of Dhammagiri was a balm to the mind. Centred around a Golden Pagoda and ensconced within a semi-circle of massive hills, we lived literally in the clouds. Drenched by torrential monsoon showers, the hills were a verdant green with beautiful waterfalls everywhere.

The campus was strictly segregated into male and female areas. Accommodation was spartan, but clean and functional. With 325 male students, 225 female students and 50 Teachers and Servers, the kitchens served 600 meals 3 times a day : breakfast at 6.30 am, lunch at 11 am and tea at 5 pm. Food was vegetarian, simple and wholesome.

In the ancient Indian tradition, that those who pursue the path of religion must do as mendicants, all students of Vipassana therefore live on the charity of those who have gone before and there is no charge for the teachings, accommodation or nourishment provided. At the end of the course, should one wish, one can make a donation, not as payment or in compensation for what has been received but as Dana : to make the gift of religion to others.

Greater than the gift of money, is the gift of service. Dhamma Sevaks and Sevikas, those who serve others on the path of religion, offered the service of their time during the course. Nameless and tranquil, they made our stay comfortable. The face of an elderly Sevika from Amravati, is etched in my mind for the love with which she served food every day and the selfless humility with which she cleaned up after all had left.

Greater even than service, is the gift of instruction by the Acharyas and Gurus. Inspired by his Guru, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, S N Goenka a householder and as he describes himself a Bania businessman who was born and brought up in Burma, brought Vipassana meditation back to India.

Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is believed to be one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. The practice of Vipassana is the process of self- purification by self-observation. It was taught in India more than 2500 years ago as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an art of Living by Gautama Buddha. As Buddhism spread to India’s neighbours, this practice was carried overseas – and though with time it got forgotten in India, was kept alive in Buddhist monasteries in Burma, through the Guru Shishya tradition.

The Burmese believe that 2500 years after the death of Buddha, his teachings would return to the land of India and from there spread across the world. Reflecting on this idea, I was struck by the thought that both, through the presence of the Dalai Lama and the return of Vipassana through the efforts of Guru Goenka, the timing of the revival of Buddhist teachings in India seemed more than just a coincidence.

Notwithstanding its Buddhist origins, Guru Goenka stresses that the path of Dhamma and the teaching of Vipassana mediatation, has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism. For this reason, it can be freely practiced by everyone, at any time, in any place, without conflict due to race, community or religion.

One begins the Vipassana meditation program by observing one’s natural breath to concentrate the mind. As the mind achieves a sharpened awareness, one proceeds to observe the changing nature of sensations experienced by body and mind and through this realises the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth-realization by direct experience is believed to lead to the process of purification, and with continued practice to eventual salvation.

The many hours of meditation proved one thing – concentrating the mind was hard. All one’s self beliefs of focus and discipline, quickly crumbled…but the serene tranquility of a Dhamma Sevika who sat alongside me inspired me to continue to keep trying. There were days that were really disheartening and others where small steps of progress gave hope. Each evening a discourse by Guru Goenka (now taped on DVD due to his age and frail health) and guidance from our Acharyas, answered questions that had arisen during the day.

On the last day of the program, we were permitted to break the oath of silence. The noise suddenly seemed deafening ! Fellow participants who had so far been shadows, acquired a face. They came from all parts of the country, and many from abroad. Lananh a young MBA student from Vietnam studying; Seema a tax consultant from Khandwa in Madya Pradesh, Suneeta a home maker from Baroda, Maria a Dhamma Sevika from Argentina…each one in their own way delighted to have completed this journey and sharing what they felt it had brought them.

Given access to communication, I read with great sadness of the bomb blasts at the Maha-Bodhi temple at Bodh Gaya. The messages of compassion, peace and harmony that the very essence of every religion seem to be under relentless attack.

Nevertheless, as I leave Dhammagiri, it is with a sense of deep gratitude. This has been a period of deep inner peace with the space for reflection in silence and solitude. I am returning with a sense of balance and perspective and deeply refreshed in body, mind and spirit, for the journey that lies ahead.


11 thoughts on “In the Sanctuary of Solitude

  1. thanks for sharing…Shall I request you to write a detailed article on vipassana for spiritual seeker’s point of view, if possible.

  2. Meera, thank you for sharing this very well written article. Very detailed, lucid, thought provoking yet not professorial! Silence as a form of communication is very effective but difficult to practice…but I keep trying.

  3. Dear Ms Meera Sanyal Ji,

    Nice to hear you after a break of few days. I am a military veteran. I came to know about you when I visited Mumbai on 23 March this year through Veteram Community. They were discussing the possibilities of fielding you for Lok Sabha elections from South Mumbai. Then one day I found your tweet and thought of subscibing to your blog.

    It was good piece of writing. Must have been a good experience. But your return to mundane daily affairs of world did probably saddened you. But the words “The messages of compassion, peace and harmony that the very essence of every religion seem to be under relentless attack” forced me to write few lines. Religions have been the worst thing to happen to humanity. Religion derives its origin for need to collective security and has been the major cause of bloodshed. Mazhab hi sikhata hai apas mein bair rakhana. We are into the era of clash of civilisation. We may accept it or may not but it is the truth.

    No religion is better than discipline. No philosophy is better than discipline. No GOD is better than discipline. and no thought is better than discipline. This universe follows disciple. So we shall adhere to discipline. Discipline is joy,discipline is life, disciple is worship and discipline is mission……………………

    • Dear Parmar Ji

      Thank you for your message. As an Armed forces child your message on discipline resonates with me.

      Interestingly, your views on religion and discipline are also very close to those of the Acharyas of Vipassana. Sadly in the name of religion we are desecrating its essence

      • Dear Ms Sanyal Ji,

        Thanks for the reply and its contents. Very heartening to read again and again. As our rishis and munnis said that world is mayajaal. That is true. This world is really a web. A web of energy in its different manifestations. But we fail to understand that. This web of energy is always keeping us under its watch.

        We are constantly under the influence of the solar radiations, the gravitational pull of Earth and the sun and the magnetic field of the earth. These energies the total control of all our body systems. Most of the man made luxuries interfere with these body systems making them to malfunction. These effects are so slow and minute that we do not appreciate them. But over a period of time they express the cumulative effect.

        Silence is the most important part of any meditation. To begin with it conserves energy. Secondly it gives rest to all our systems at various times. Thirdly, it helps our magnetic field to align with that of the Earth and be in harmony. This process prepares our body to get over the occurrence of bad dreams. Fourthly, the sound of silence makes you hear and think about one’s surroundings which we call environment.

        One must do the mind travel in solitude and try to understand the creation of energies which we differently call a GOD, nature, etc etc…………

  4. While I had heard abt this earlier as well, the fact that we now have a first hand account from you surely enhances its credibility. I think if one can carry on even 25 % of what one learns there in day to day life and becomes a regular as far as meditation goes, he would emerge stronger, clearer (in purpose) and more compassionate. Let’s hope me too can take time off from the daily rigours and make it to the center one day.
    P.S – Is there a mail ID where I can share a small document with you ? Thnx

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