48. The First Bodh Gaya Retreat
Speaking of retreats, and backtracking just slightly to the beginning of my time in India
before I went to Calcutta, the next time I crossed the A&P was about five months after the August 1994 retreat. I was then twenty-five years old. I was on my second insight meditation retreat, this time during a seventeen-day course at the Thai Monastery in Bodh Gaya, India, with Christopher Titmuss, Sharda Rogell, Subhana Barzaghi, Norman Feldman, and Fred von Allmen. I don’t really remember much about it, except that it left me feeling very inspired about practice and very dark about the “world”. However, three formative events stuck out.
The first was when Subhana Barzaghi, one of the meditation teachers on that retreat and a dual-lineaged Zen master and vipassana teacher (a very rare accomplishment indeed), answered a question from a retreatant during a small-group session. In that answer, she described how she would meditate on the breath for an hour or so and then attain a Fruition. She described it as if she was describing any other ordinary activity. There was nothing cryptic about it, nothing mysterious, nothing guru shi-shi, nothing pretentious, nothing self-effacing, nothing taboo. It was just straight-up reporting of her experience, her capabilities, her practice—articulated like it was the most natural thing in the world, like she was talking about what she had for lunch. It was the first time that I had ever heard that done in a way that was so down-to-earth and real, so straightforward, and, by example, so empowering. That experience would form the basis of the model I would later adopt, advocate for, attempt to emulate, and encourage. I offer Subhana very special thanks for showing me that it is possible to discuss deep practice as we would discuss any other ordinary activity.
Second, I remember Norman Feldman’s late-night readings, particularly his reading of the Pali sutta that would later become one of my favorites, Majjhima Nikaya, 121, called “The Shorter Discourse on Voidness”. I found its words spellbinding, and the thought arose, “Ah, this is it! This is the real thing!” To this day, I still think that. I am very grateful for him sharing that text with us by candlelight late that memorable chilly night.
Third was Christopher Titmuss himself, for whom I have profound gratitude. [Yes, I am aware of the controversy regarding Christopher Titmuss.] His embodiment of awakening as a living truth was palpable, open, and inspiring. His cultivation of awakened teachers around him who were from not only various strains of Buddhism, but also from traditions outside Buddhism, embodied a spirit of pragmatism and non-dogmatism regarding awakening as a human right rather than the property of some religion—that was a rare example of what is possible in terms of dharma cooperation. His message of engagement with life in all its rich and complex tragicomic glory, delivered from a place of awakening and encompassing a full range of powerfully articulated emotional reactions to a wide range of real-world topics, modeled lessons that it would take me years to assimilate.
Inspired by that retreat, I tried to sit for an hour every day and managed to do that most of the time. Those sits resulted in no particularly interesting insights or anything else that stands out, but I do suspect that just trying to keep up some basic skills helped. As noted above, after a few weeks volunteering at Mother Teresa’s original Home for the Dying Destitute at Kalighat, I began to volunteer full-time in a large, outdoor street clinic in the northern slums of Calcutta, called Calcutta Rescue, where I would serve for the next five months, mostly in the pharmacy and the Vitamin A project.