By Aparna Sharma
At the Deer Park Institute in Himachal Pradesh, modelled on Nalanda, the renowned Buddhist University, the Author Experiences a profound peace that passes understanding.
The reason no one has written about Deer Park so far is that it cannot be visited or written about as one writes about any other place. Deer Park has to be felt like you would feel pine-scented mist in the mountains. It is an experience that has to be lived.
My Deer Park experience began when I, utterly clueless about what was in store, packed my bags for the overnight bus journey to the Present Moment Meditation Retreat to be held at the Deer Park Institute in Himachal Pradesh. Nestled in a small village beyond Baijnath, it was established as the Dzongskar Institute in 2006 by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, a world-renowned Buddhist teacher and filmmaker. The establishment moved house to a bigger monastery when the number of monks grew. The core vision of the Deer Park Institute is to re-create the spirit of Nalanda, the great university of ancient India, in which all traditions of Buddhism were studied and practised, alongside other schools of classical Indian philosophy, arts and sciences.
Prashant Verma, the pony-tailed director of the institute, astutely remarked, “When the Buddha preached, there was no Buddhism as such. Buddhism was not a religion or a school of thought. Instead it was simply a heart-to-heart connection, a dialogue,” he said.
Shakyamuni Buddha moved from place to place, preaching for 40 years, connecting with people, answering their questions, solving their problems. It was in emulation of this wonderful spirit of the Buddha that the Nalanda University came into being in 500 BCE. Its courses were drawn from sources Buddhist, Hindu and foreign. Science, astronomy, medicine, and logic were taught there as were metaphysics, philosophy, samkhya, yoga-shastra and the Vedas.
When the great library of Nalanda was set aflame by Muslim invaders it is said that its manuscripts continued to burn for months.
Tenders of the park
Prashant Varma, who has been the honorary director of Deer Park since its inception in 2006, is originally from Chandigarh. Prashant, who has studied politics, philosophy and filmmaking, began devoting himself to studying and working for Buddhist teachers in the Himalayas in 2004.
Venerable Sudhammacara, who was taking the course I had signed up for, was an ordained Zen monk who has practiced and taught Zazen meditation for more than 18 years, before taking the Theravadan bhikku ordination followed by a serious study of Tibetan Buddhism.
It was on a sunny Sunday in chilly November that I reached the campus. Stepping out of the car I gasped, as the peace and beauty of the place hit me. I stood in the centre of a square compound, surrounded by single storey yellow buildings on three sides. Right in front of me, the steps led to a majestic red pagoda, richly embellished with gold and yellow and emblazoned with chants and prayers, standing imposingly against the snow-capped Himalayan peaks.
I was shown into a sparse, cosy little room on the first floor that had a low bamboo bed, a stark slim bamboo table lining the wall, a chair, a rug and a lamp and an incense burner. This was my home for a week inside the Deer Park, a zero-waste project, whose water is recycled. All heating here is done with the help of solar water heating panels on every rooftop.
The day began at 5.30 am with simple stretching exercises to open up the muscles making it easy to sit for long hours of meditation. An early morning guided meditation helped you settle in ananda or happiness, which is our true nature and a deep compassion that emerges out of it. Over the days, I realised that the silence was not barren or dead but a solid, tangible peace compounded by the energies of the meditating group. The practice is called zazen, or sitting meditation. The practice of mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati) on the basis of sitting meditation enables us to dwell in the present moment.
A motley group of seekers of various races and colours sat cross-legged on the floor under the gaze of a huge golden Buddha statue with Japanese monk Venerable Sudhammacara at the centre.
In a while the group broke for tea. A hot beverage of herbs, the sweet tea was an extension of the meditative experience as we sat, soaking in the warm winter sun, mindful of the sensation of the warm fluid going down the throat.
A silent retreat meant being silent 24X7. Silent meditation, silent eating, silent walking, silent everything. In the beginning, I was apprehensive if I would be able to pull it off. However, by the second day I realised that talking was not required at all. Not even in our daily life where we scatter words so frivolously.
Through all the meditations, our purpose was singular: Be awake, be aware. When we practice walking, we don’t do anything, we simply live every step. Touching the earth with our feet and deeply realising that we are alive – that is wonderful enough.
The dining hours were announced by an ingenious bell – the sound of a spoon banging on a copper plate that you could hear all over the campus. I loved the sound so much that I overstayed a day only to hear it one more time. During the retreat, even eating was oriented towards cultivating mindfulness.
Before you eat, you look at your empty bowl and contemplate:
My bowl, empty now,
will soon be filled with precious food.
Beings all over the Earth are struggling to live.
How fortunate we are to have enough to eat.
When many people on this Earth look at an empty bowl, they know their bowl will continue to be empty for a long time. So the empty bowl is as important to honour as the full bowl. We are grateful to have food to eat, and with this, we can vow to help those who are hungry.
While serving food
In this food,
I see clearly
the entire universe
supporting my existence.
When we look at our plate, filled with fragrant and appetising food, we are aware of the bitter pain of people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Looking at our plate, we can see Mother Earth, the farm workers and the entire chain of people and actions that are sustaining us at the moment.
The entire process of eating food itself, was another experience in mindfulness.
We would reassemble in the Buddha hall after the lunch break. In the afternoon, the routine was repeated. Sitting meditation, followed by tea meditation, walking meditation and then breaking off for the evening.
An hour in the evening was reserved for personal interviews with Venerable Sudhammacara. An early dinner between 6-7 pm set our body clocks in rhythm with the mighty sun. A post-dinner session at 7 pm included traditional Buddhist chants in Pali followed by another round of meditation.
At the end of the day, Venerable would say, “Now that you have been meditating all day, you have gathered a lot of merit. It is not good to keep all the merit to yourself. So you dedicate it for the sake of happiness of all living beings in all the worlds. May this merit be a cause for enlightenment of all living beings in all the worlds.”
This dedication to the good of others is what being a Bodhisattva is all about, I discovered.
When I walked out of the Buddha hall at 8.30 pm, I stepped into a different world altogether. In our unceasing attempts to light up every street, we city folk have forgotten the colour of darkness. It is black, I discovered, and not the neon-coloured, florescent-hued indigo I have become used to.
At that height, the stars seemed to hang so close you could stretch your hand and pluck them. In a distance the watchman played a slow, soulful tune on a harmonium. The full moon overhead, the fragrance of a winter night and no thought in my head. Could there have been a more sublime experience of present-moment consciousness?
Workshops offered at the Deer Park include the study of Tibetan, Sanskrit and Hindi and the fundamentals of traditional medicine, healing, arts, culture and engaged Buddhism.
In keeping with the Indian tradition of offering education free of charge, all courses at Deer Park are free (with the exception of a few specialized healing workshops).
The institute has so far hosted workshops on Chinese healing systems, ayurveda, hatha yoga, acupressure and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. There are also workshops on Zen poetry, classical Indian music, pottery, calligraphy and ikebana (Japanese contemplative flower arranging), photography and travel writing. Readings of Tamil Buddhist literature and Marathi folk tales and screening of films Asia have also been organised at the Deer Park.
Our group included people from across the globe. There was a group of American students fresh out of high school on a three-month trip to India to learn about Buddhism and Indian culture. There was Matthew, a Canadian builder, who had been travelling all over North India on a motorcycle during the past year following the call of his spirit, and Fenna, a social worker and healer from Germany, looking for answers to suffering. Participants included a poet, an engineer, a journalist, a homemaker.
After the retreat
On the fifth day, the retreat ended at 7 am. We were allowed to talk but nobody felt the need to. I began talking to the people around, getting to know them in an attempt to know what brought them here. By noon, I was utterly exhausted. I realised how much energy we fritter away talking in our daily lives without realising it. It is like the constant drone of the air conditioner, or the noise of static, which you realise only when it goes off.
No one wanted to leave. After staying on for another four days, I reluctantly returned home. Coming back to the city, driving in a crowded lane, waiting in a queue, cooking, walking, working, you get to know, by and by, that all life is meditation, every learning is Deer Park.
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