An interview with Sam, Shantideva volunteer and member, about how his recent trip to India and Tushita Meditation Center (FPMT) has inspired his Dharma practice.
Why did you go to India?
I went to India in for 30 days to attend a wedding, and afterwards joined my friend on a spiritual tour to Bodhgaya, Varanasi and Sarnath. I also visited Tushita Meditation Center in Dharamsala for four days and four nights. I was hoping to attend a full 10-day retreat there, but I wasn’t able to because of my schedule. Still, I am grateful for the opportunity to have visited.
What was Tushita like, and what did you learn there?
I’ve always noticed that the Dharma tends to deliver a message one needs to hear when one needs it the most. One of those messages was conveyed to me during my visit to Tushita.
Coming from the McLeod Ganj main square, I hiked up the trail to the Center. It was a relaxing walk where I saw beautiful lush scenery and even a crowd of monkeys. I’d never seen anything like that before. The place itself had a very peaceful vibe.
On my second day, I attended a Tuesday morning guided meditation on refuge led by Renato. I had first heard about taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha from our Shantideva Discovering Buddhism study group. Before this meditation session at Tushita, I hadn’t really thought about the fact that if I didn’t take refuge in the Three Jewels, then what would I take refuge in? This particular meditation went through a list of things humans normally take refuge in, like material wealth or objects. Through meditating, I came to understand that I took refuge in personal relationships and even on a more subtle level, in what could be termed ‘altruistic activities.’ I noticed that in the past, while engaging in good and healthy activities, my motivation and intentions weren’t 100% pure. This particular meditation along with remembering past and present teachings, made me realize that it is okay not to have a 100% pure motivation and that it is important not to be too hard on myself. We are, after all, a work in progress. I am grateful for the meditation at Tushita, and for the teachings, in giving me clarity and confidence that I can apply this concept to different topics going forward.
You recently took refuge for the first time in a ceremony with other Shantideva students in NYC. Have the thoughts you had about refuge in India changed?
Yes, if anything, my conviction and understanding have only gotten stronger. We have been fortunate to have Venerable Amy Miller and Venerable Tenzin Chogkyi since I’ve been back from India. Both only helped further my understanding on the same topics. The last Discovering Buddhism Module on Transforming Problems was a gift as well.
What were other highlights of your trip?
Visiting the Mahabodhi Temple was definitely the highlight at Bodhgaya. Being able to meditate close to the same location where Prince Siddhartha achieved enlightenment was truly an experience. The Mahabodhi Temple Complex also had a meditation park where my friend and I were able to meditate. Being around such holy places with a spiritual friend also gave me further clarity on other topics I had pondered before.
Before I visited India, I had always pondered the differences between Hinduism and Buddhism, and felt that intellectually they were very much alike. My time at the Mahabodhi Temple furthered my understanding. The friend I was with was a self-realization fellowship follower and our knowledgeable tour guide was a Hindu. It was interesting to listen to my friend, and hear our tour guide’s take on Buddhism from a Hindu’s perspective.
In my past readings about Hinduism and Buddhism, one of the biggest conceptual differences that I found was that Hinduism has a creator who thus created the “atman,” also known as the soul. Yet, as I talk to my Hindu friends, it seemed like semantics. The Buddhist very subtle consciousness and the Hindu atman, though having a core difference between being impermanent and permanent, respectively, still seemed effectively the same to me. Even though the atman is permanent, my Hindu friends still could relate to the concept of emptiness. I felt that it was important to understand the difference if I was to fully understand what the “I” being a “false intrinsic entity” really meant, which is a very important idea in Tibetan Buddhism. After our discussion at Mahabodhi temple, I again felt that Hinduism and Buddhism were very similar, but learning more about their differences helped my understanding of the Buddhist path. I’m sure I’m still a long ways away to really understanding, but I’m grateful for this growth.
Sam is a volunteer and member of Shantideva Meditation Center. He first walked into the Center in January 2015 and has been studying Buddhist teachings ever since.