Nestled deep in the southern mountains of Tamil Nadu is Bodhi Zendo, an ace meditation centre. Of all the places I’ve visited in India, this place is up there. Unlike the hardcore regime of other centres, Bodhi Zendo adopts a soft approach and is suitable for any beginners looking to explore the world inside.
The daily program consists of 7 x 25 minute sessions of Sazen (Meditation) throughout the day. After breakfast, everyone, including the zen master help out with some cleaning or gardening. It’s called Samu and identical to the Karma Yoga I did back at Sivananda. There was a violent storm before I arrived and many of the trees had collapsed. Fortunately, I had my lumberjack and axe in my backpack to save the day. I actually did have to climb up a tree and saw off a branch while simultaneously hanging on with my left hand. It would have looked rather heroic had I not taken a break every 15 seconds. Instead, I just looked like an extremely inefficient monkey who smoked 10 a day.
Like most meditation techniques, Zen sounds easy but is incredibly difficult to carry out. The meditator sits on the floor with their hands in dhyana mudra. You then place all your awareness on the abdomen and simply observe the expansion and contraction as the breath flows in and out. Give it 30 seconds and the mind will likely slowly drift away and completely forget about the task at hand. The drifts last for a short or long time and exist in the past, future or some imaginary state. At least 90% of my time is spent unaware in lala land, that’s on a good day too! Lala land is where the mind likes to be, a completely pointless state of being with precisely zero benefits.
Zazen requires one to be relentless in bringing the mind back to the breath. It will literally happen thousands of times. It’s important not to be discouraged when the mind wanders and not investigate it’s cause. Just bring it back gently. Slowly but surely, moments of breath observation become longer and moments of drifting become shorter. The picture below nicely illustrates the practice of Zazen. Note, this cycle is over many years of consistent practice:
Sustained silence of mind is perhaps one of the hardest feats imaginable. It’s a bold claim but one that you can easily verify if you sit and meditate for 5 minutes. Even masters who have been practicing daily for 20+ years struggle to maintain 10 seconds of uninterrupted silence. That’s not to say they haven’t made progress, they would spend much more time in an aware state than the unpracticed meditator. Rather it demonstrates just how strong the addictive tendencies are of the mind to think.
During morning sazen, there will be dokusan. Here we get an opportunity to ask the Zen Master any questions we may have. Alternatively, the master may ask us zen questions called Koans. Koans are self-paradoxical riddles that are designed to exhaust the analytic and egoist mind in order to reveal a less conditioned and a more expansive mind. Some questions include:
- Does a dog have a Buddha nature or not?
- Two hands clap and there is sound. What is the sound of one hand?
- Show me your face before your mother and father were born.
There are correct answers but you have to turn off all intellectual stimulation to achieve a nod from the Zen Master. Give them a go and let me know!
Around 10 days into my stay, the centre hosted a sesshin for 2.5 days. It’s a period of intense meditation where daily sazen ramps up to 6 hours a day. The Zen Master will also give a 90-minute talk, usually on Buddhist scriptures or stories about the Buddha. Pretty sure there was an urban monk who returned to society after his enlightenment to teach sesshins in London pubs. Unfortunately, the term sesshin got misinterpreted for intense alcoholic consumption instead of meditation.
Outside of meditation most will be reading a book and trying to make use of the very impressive library. Food is sourced locally or directly from the vegetable patches onsite. The cooks certainly do justice to the vegetables, meal time is always a delight! Hot water is heated through the use of Solar PV panels. There is plenty space on the roof to engage in some Yoga overlooking the evergreen forests of Kodaikanal. I’ve kept topping up the Yoga but tweaked it a little to focus more on hip opening and back strengthening to improve my meditation posture. For me, Bohdi Zendo hits the spot on all levels and I was sad to leave. I would recommend it to anyone interested in meditation, newbie or experienced, doesn’t matter. I know I’ll be back again for a massive sesshin ;)