Friday, July 26, 2013

Bodhi Zendo

 Disclaimer : This post is a bit late but at least its out now, so yay!

Attending a meditation retreat has been on my mind for quite sometime. For several reasons.

1) I used to be an active meditator in 2011 and 2012 had too much going on to maintain a regular practice. I needed something to kick me back into meditating regularly.
2) I'm in India, of course I have to attend a retreat! (No I'm not American/European, its just that its so much cheaper and people don't chant mantras with annoying accents)
3) I needed to get away from the scorching heat of Chennai's agni nakshatram that was threatening to gobble up my vacation.

Plus, I needed something that would end before May 20th. Most meditation retreats are on hills and they have patchy cell phone reception and internet, plus they are all about 'being' and not doing, so I was pleasantly surprised when Bodhi Zendo got back to me in a matter of hours.

So it turns out that Bodhi Zendo is apparently the only Zen Buddhist center in ALL of INDIA. It is located in Perumalmalai, about 12 kms before Kodaikanal. If you're going from Chennai/Pondicherry/Madurai or any major city in Tamilnadu, there are plenty of direct buses to Kodaikanal, and Perumalmalai is a stop on the way. Even if you aren't leaving from a city, you still have those buses - I took a train from Chennai to Dindigul and took a bus to Perumalmalai. Oh the joy of listening to Ilayaraja songs on a mofussil bus, watching paddy fields :) (That will need a post of its own).

Bodhi Zendo is up on an estate, so you'll need a jeep to take you to their premises.

The day you arrive, they'll take you through an orientation session that covers everything you need to know about the premises, rules to follow during the meditation sessions etc.

Their schedule is somewhat like this :

5:30 am : Wake up gong
6-7 am : Formal Zazen (sitting meditation)
7-8 am : Breakfast
8-9:30 am: Samu/Seva
9:30 am : Coffee/Tea
10:30 - 12 noon : Silence
12-12:30 : Free zazen
12:30 - 1:30 pm : Lunch
1:30 - 4 pm: Silence
4 pm : Coffee/Tea
6 - 7 pm : Formal Zazen
7 - 8 pm : Dinner
8-8:30 pm : Free zazen

The formal zazens happen in the meditation room and are mandatory, whereas the free zazens can be done in your room or anywhere, as long as you're silent and maintain the spirit of mindfulness.

5:30 pm to 7 am is silent time everyday and Wednesdays are reserved for full silence. If you're the social butterfly type who can't be quiet for a second, this part's going to be hard. However, I found silence to be hugely refreshing - to be able to hear the sound of every bird chirping, every cricket and frog croaking.

This is their regular shcedule. They also have mini sesshins and full sesshins, three days and six days in length respectively, where one spends longer hours in meditation. (something like 6-8 hours everyday!). Be prepared to have a sore back from hours of sitting still. The sesshins however are absolutely silent. So if you're new to meditation, you might want to check out their daily schedule before committing to a full sesshin. More info here :

Thursdays are free days - people head into Kodaianal to shop, lounge by the lake etc. I decided to Join Meg and Bridgette (An Australian and a Belgian), on a trek to a small waterfall in an unknown village. Despite warnings about wild dogs and lack of local language knowledge, they were ready to march into the wilderness with only a stick for protection! Just as the center's manager Sasi was in the process of dissuading them from going, I joined them and reassured him that we'd all be fine.

It was an 8 km trek and I can't remember the last time I trekked such a distance, but after a few hours we reached a village called 'Anju Veedu' (Five houses). The lady at the potti kadai (Box shop) sent a boy over to guide us to the falls. (He was in the midst of playing an intense cricket match and hated the interruption). We crossed two streams, hopped skipped and jumped over some boulders and 20 minutes later, found the falls. It was not a very big one, but silent and non-touristy. Perfect. After sending the boy off and lounging around, taking photos etc., we made our way back.

Everything was fine and dandy until we heard a strange, angry moo-ing behind us. Turn around and there's a cow charging at us on our trail! We hid behind some trees, hoping and praying it wouldn't butt us. At one point, it indignantly stared Meg in the eye. Those were the most tense two minutes I've had in a long time.

The next day we had an impromptu music session at the tea house in the Japanese garden - an aurovillean on the flute (If you didn't know, that's what people from Auroville call themselves) , me and a couple of others on vocals.

Bodhi Zendo has been a great place to 'do' less, wander about and gaze at nature, chase bees for pictures (I spent a full hour trying to get a good shot of one of them as it hopped from sunflower to sunflower and trust me, that hour went by in the blink of an eye), talk to fellow retreaters (is that even a word?) and write. I enjoyed writing my diary after ages, sitting in my room overlooking the hills. It felt like the silence in nature inspired silence inside of me.

There is enough flora and fauna within Bodhi Zendo to go bird watching or plant watching.

And they have this step cultivation thing going on. (The first thing that struck me when I saw it was 'wow I remember that from fourth grade geography!')


It took me a few days to get into the routine but once I did, I did not want to leave. Bodhi Zendo definitely gives one a seamless 'each day flows into the next' kind of peace.

My last day here happened to be my thirtieth birthday and I remember thinking to myself - "When was the last time I woke up at 6 on my birthday?" It was quite a pleasant change to spend it quietly, without anyone knowing its your birthday. It was just me, the birds, bees, and the mountains. Loved it.

The retreat stilled my mind in ways nothing else has in recent times, so much so that I felt the effects of it even after I returned to hot, sweaty Chennai in the middle of May.  I look forward to going back to Bodhi Zendo and staying longer :)