This is a picture of the front gate of the Bodhi Zendo monastery, where I just finished a refreshing five-day sesshin (which is the Japanese name for a meditation retreat). It felt wonderful, relaxing, and peaceful to be there – Bodhi Zendo is, I think, one of the most tranquil and pleasant places I have been in my life. My time there was certainly a refreshing and quiet contrast with the chaotic overwhelm that for me has often characterized traveling in India.
The temple is two kilometers uphill from the small village of Perumalmalai, which is on the road to the resort and faming center of Kodaikanal. This is in the Southern tip of India, at the west end of Tamil Nadu state, almost to the border with Kerela. The temple, outlying buildings, and temple gardens sit on top of a ridge in a range of hills (elevation about 7,000 feet). The surrounding jungle hills apparently contain farm and forest owned by the Saint Joseph Agri Farm (which is part of the Jesuit order).
I visited Bodhi Zendo at the suggestion of some San Francisco Zen Center friends (Koji Rick Dreher and Michaela Bono) who had visited there a couple years before, and recommended it. I am glad that I took their advice.
The spiritual practice at Bodhi Zendo is, interestingly enough, an amalgamation of the Roman Catholic Christian, Japanese Zen Buddhist, and Indian Aidvaita Hindu spiritual traditions. These three disparate lineages came together in the singular and charismatic figure of one Father AMA Samy, a Catholic priest and Zen teacher. His biography from the Bodhi Zendo website says:
Father AMA Samy (born Arul Maria Arokiasamy) was born to poor Indian parents living in Burma in 1936. As a boy, he came into some contact with Burmese Buddhism and Buddhist monks. Back in India after World War Two, he was brought up for a few years by his maternal grandfather, who was caring for the burial shrine of a Muslim saint. After his grandfather died in an accident, the young boy was left without support and guidance, until he finished school and joined the Jesuits.
Even after becoming a Catholic priest, his heart was restless, not fulfilled by the then-Christian spirituality, and still seeking God. He began visiting Hindu ashrams and Buddhist meditation centers. He was introduced to the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharishi by Swami Abhishiktananda, and was much moved by Sri Ramana’s vision. Eventually, his quest and searching for the Divine led him to become a wandering beggar, and to settle down as a hermit near a holy shrine, where the people of the local village people fed him.
Eventually, it was the way of Zen Buddhism which drew him most. With the help of Father Enomiya Lassalle, Father Samy traveled to Japan, and was able to train with Yamada Ko-Un Roshi of Sanbo Kyodan. In 1982, Yamada Ko-Un gave him transmission and authorization to teach. Father AMA Samy teachings today are rooted in Christianity, Hinduism, and Zen Buddhism – he can be said to stand in-between all three. He stands true to Christ, true to Zen, and true to the human heart-mind.
Father AMA Samy has published a significant number of books and lecture transcripts over the years, and has gathered a sizable international community and following. In 1996, he founded the Bodhi Zendo temple in his ancestral state of Tamil Nadu (with, I am guessing, the generous support from his supporters from more affluent nations).
Father Samy apparently spends part of every year abroad, mostly in Europe, teaching, leading retreats, and working with his students. When he is in residence at Bodhi Zendo, in the winter and spring, there is a long wait list of students wanting to reserve a room for a (sometimes extended) visit to the monastery to study with him.
I read a description of him online that said, “… his tall frame is gaunt below his peach colored robes, but his eyes are kind and his smile is serenely warm and peaceful.” That fits. My experience of him was that his talks felt true and deep if a little predictable, and that he was engaging, present, and warm-hearted, with a gently mocking humor, in one-on-one interviews.
During the intensive, we were expected to line up each morning for a short visit with Father Samy. During these interviews, we were asked to present our answer to the koan he has assigned us. A koan is, in the Zen lineage, a paradoxical spiritual question that is intended to crack a person’s rational mind open when we contemplate it. Father Samy would sometimes laugh as I did my best to answer the question, and then (something I have not encountered in Zen practice before) he would just straight up tell me the answer he was looking for; “Look, it’s not so complicated – when you hear the temple bell, really hear the temple bell. Just hear it. That’s the answer. Try that.”
The meditation hall was called by the Japanese name from the Zen lineage, which is a “Zendo”. It was a large room, with a hardwood floor and windows on three sides looking out onto the jungle. Meditation cushions lined all four walls, with a long altar between the cushions farthest from the door and the middle of the room.
Like most meditation retreats, the intensive at Bodhi Zendo consisted mostly of seated meditation. We would sit for twenty-five minute periods (which is, I would say a relatively short time, by meditation retreat standards). As is usual in Zen contexts, we were expected to not move during meditation periods.
In between sitting periods, we would sometimes stretch our legs by doing five minutes of slow Soto Zen-style walking meditation around the meditation hall. Other times, we would be released for five minutes in the open air and sunshine. During the later episodes, we were supposed to use the time for mindful walking on the terraces and walkway of the monastery building. Many retreatants, however, instead used the time to disappear into their rooms, stretch, bathe in the sun’s warmth, or simply stare off into the beauty of the surrounding hills.
Most of the other people on the retreat were Europeans or Americans, although a fair number of them were South Indian Catholics. Most were older than me, but some were in their twenties or thirties.
We were asked to wear loose clothes that covered our legs and shoulders while in the meditation hall, and most retreatants seemed to have no trouble obliging.
We woke up at five am to start the day of meditation, and we ended at nine. This left more time for sleeping than most meditation retreats. We also had breaks after meals where quick naps were possible.
Just as in other Zen monasteries that I have practiced at, in America and Japan, Bodhi Zendo had an officer in charge of the meditation hall, known as an “Ino”. The Ino when I was there was a stocky German guy who often seemed stressed out by the task of trying to perfectly manage the patterns of drums and bells, trying to make sure that students actually did walking meditation during the outdoor meditation periods, and the rest of his responsibilities.
I skipped a period of meditation off the last day of the retreat, so that I could finish my laundry and hang it in the sun, because I wanted it dry by the time I put it in my traveling pack and departed the next day. I’ve meditated tens of thousands of hours in my life, and drying my laundry seemed more important to me at that time. The Ino came and found me at the clothes lines out behind the building, out of breath and red faced, and he had apparently having been looking for me for a while – I did not know that Bodhi Zendo was that tightly run. It was an uncomfortable interaction, and I wish that he would have showed understanding for why I made the choice that I did. But I also respected him for fulfilling his job so thoroughly, and I suppose that I was honored by his saying, “I expect more from you as an experienced student”.
The altar at Bodhi Zendo had both a three-foot all wooden cross and a Buddha statue.
Father AMA Samy gave a Dharma talk to us each night of the retreat. I enjoyed listening to him, but did not find that the talks said much that I had not heard before.
Twice a day we would chant a combination of traditional Japanese Zen chants and Christian prayers. As usual, I found the chanting boring, but, having lived in Buddhist monasteries, I also understand the purpose of it, I did my best to keep my meditative mindfulness going while chanting, and I sometimes enjoyed the “holy” feeling of it.
One evening, we stopped the sesshin to perform Eucharist in a traditional Catholic manner, to celebrate Easter. Much of the incantation was in the local Tamil language. Even though this was an optional event, and we were free to leave the hall and go to bed, just about everyone on the retreat stayed and enthusiastically joined in – even an Israeli. For me, the ceremony was fascinating, I felt a little uncomfortable with it, but I also felt honored to be allowed into something so intimate and heartfelt that the Tamil Catholics were enacting.
Here is a pictures that I found I found on the web of the way one woman, a long-term Bodhi Zendo guest, set up her room. The single rooms at the center were clean, spacious, roomy, and luxurious by the standards of Western meditation centers (and even more so by the standards of India).
My room had an attached bathroom, with a toilet and wash basin, although apparently not all the rooms did. There was a spigot that I could walk to out in the building to obtain hot water, for taking bucket-and-cup showers and washing clothes.
All the rooms seemed to have nice views of the jungles. We could hear the humm of cicadas and screeching of monkeys. And all manner of bugs and spiders will fly or crawl between the window bars, when the window panes were open.
The main building at the Bodhi Zendo compound was a large square of mostly dorm rooms, surrounding a courtyard garden.
I felt and delighted relaxed hanging out in the rich, colorful Zen-favored courtyard garden
One blogger wrote, “Everywhere you turn in Bodhi Zendo, someone’s eye to detail and beauty is revealed. The courtyard’s Japanese garden with fat koi swimming in the serpentine water canals banked by moss and meticulously cared for flowers and plants sprinkled near a tiny arched wooden bridge and stone foot paths. To the back, a serene and sinuous rock garden lies between two brick gazebos on the terraced hills. Dwarf palm trees, banana trees, pines and bamboo pepper the landscape. Five feet tall orange, red or pink gladiolas stand like nature’s sentries along some of the walls. The garden looks across a steep valley to the tea tree plantations and uncultivated land on the next mountain. The American founded hill station of KodaiKanal sprawls precariously on that mountain’s shoulder. Except for bird sounds, the quiet is so absolute that it is almost eerie to an ear accustomed to Indian music wafting its wailing tones through the air, the dull roar and horn beeping of passing cars, and loud conversations at night. The rooms themselves have wood parquet floors, spotlessly clean and efficient and feel like a rustic Holiday Inn. This ain’t Kansas but it surely doesn’t feel like India either!”
The day I departed the ashram was a sunny
The main monastery building was surrounded by luscious gardens providing much of the food for us.
I was just at the Bodhi Zendo for the five-day sesshin, and then a departure day the next day. I regretted not having some more time to linger and integrate into the monastery’s non-meditation-intensive daily life, but I had to hustle and leave to catch a train to Mumbai for a workshop.
Apparently, the monastery holds one intensive sesshin per month, but, for the rest of the time, has a lighter schedule: an hour of meditation and chanting in the morning, an hour and a half of chores/seva (work as service) after breakfast, half an hour of meditation right before lunch, and an hour and half of meditation and chanting in the evening. The rest of the day is free for personal projects, spiritual practice, walks on the jungle paths, or other activities. Sleep is from eight thirty at night until five thirty am, and I was told that there is a full day off of scheduled activities every week.
The cost works out to about $5.50 a day, which included three delicious, healthy meals. It seemed to me like a lovely way to spend time. Visits of one to three weeks are reportedly common, even among first time visitors, and, apparently, Bodhi Zendo’s thirty-six beds are often booked out months if not a year in advance, as some people annually spend weeks or months on retreat there.
[Edit – in the years since I visited Bodhi Manda, I have repeatedly had fantasies of returning there for a few months to meditate, enjoy nature, meet spiritually-minded travelers, read Buddhist books, and to work on writing projects and on my meditation course. It seems like a good place to feel centered, undistracted, and productive.]
The roof of the main building had spectacular views of surrounding hills and valleys.
Heavy jungle surrounded the temple.
The weather was a bit humid and warm, which I enjoyed, but mostly more temperate and moderate than the heat of the lowlands to the East or West.
This picture shows the path up from the main compound to a building where some of the staff (the cooks, maybe?) lived. Also, there was a computer room available with wireless access, which cost about a dollar per hour to use, where I wrote emails on my departure day.
The electricity at Bodhi Zendo was shut off during the afternoon, and again overnight, and also at random times that the power grid went out. The computer room had a large battery for backup, however.
Like I said, the monastery provided three delicious, nutritious vegetarian meals per day. There were some older Indian ladies who cooked the food each day, and who seemed a little closed off to, and perhaps amused by, the Western retreatants. We washed our own dishes, and I prep-cook-ed/chopped vegetables for an hour each morning after breakfast.
One blogger who stayed at the monastery longer than I did wrote about the food, saying, “Breakfast is usually a variety of local morning snacks (idly, vadai, oothappam), home-made bread (toasted if desired), cereals, porridge, fruits and the occasional fried eggs. Tea and brewed coffee are always available. Lunch, the main meal, is the highlight of the day and is eagerly awaited – especially since this is straight after two and half hours of sitting. The cooks continuously surprise us with some amazing dishes. The different types of South Indian curries (I suspect most of the vegetables are home grown) just taste divine. After a week here I still look forward to lunch daily. I have another three weeks here and I will endeavour to ingratiate myself with the cooks and uncover the wonderful recipes before I leave. Afternoon tea is served with a local delicacy and supper is a simple but still delicious affair (usually chappathi with dhal curry or some kind of soup).”
Another blogger wrote, “While predominantly south Indian vegetarian like the ashram, this place has amazingly good food with an wide variety of tastes and textures. This cook knows how to use spices! At lunch, there is even this garlic and scallion based vinaigrette to pour over the cooked vegetables and there is always a green salad picked fresh from their garden. Some of the dishes are spicy and there is salt and pepper on the table. It seems almost strange to me to use a fork, knife and spoon again and eat off of a real western dinner plate and small soup bowl. We regularly run out of food at the buffet line but there are always bananas and bread available to fill out any remaining stomach corners. Did I mention they have COFFEE? Yes, blessed coffee at breakfast and at the 9:30 am and 4 pm tea and coffee break. I’ve traveled around the world but never pass up a morning coffee. Breakfast, at 7 am after an hour meditation session, has now twice given me the moral dilemma of eating the offered fried egg and thus breaking my vegan streak from the ashram. So far, the egg is winning out. Supper is usually soup, bread and/or roti, and bananas as one is supposed to eat light if there is early morning meditation.”
I had never eaten an idly before I was at Bodhi Zendo, but apparently they are staples of South Indian cuisine. I expected them to taste sweet, like a cake, but they were bitter, vinegary, and dry. I enjoyed them, and ate them every morning I was at Bodhi Zendo. Not knowing their actual name, the name I gave them in my mind was “flying saucers”.
This is Pyry, a friendly guy from Norway who also sat the sesshin. I thought he looked like a young Kiefer Sutherland. He took the pictures of me at the monastery.
Pictures from the long road/driveway down from Bodhi Zendo to the crossroads at Perumalmalai.
After I left the monastery, I took a three-hour taxi ride down from the hills to Coimbatore, to catch my train. I don’t think that I have ever taken a three hour taxi ride before, and I felt guilty about the luxury of it. It was only about $30, tip included, however, and other forms of travel would have taken days.
I expected that the overwhelming hustle and bustle and dirtiness of the common streets of India would be a shock after the clean, simple, verdant tranquility of Bodhi Zendo. Even knowing that, however, the transition was still jarring.