By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
Ever heard of a Catholic priest devoting his life to promoting the teachings of the Buddha and the practice of Buddhist meditation? You might think it unbelievable, for Christianity is premised on belief in a creator-god and in a saviour whose death is thought to have washed away the sins of those who believe in him. Buddhism, on the other hand, has no room for a creator God, and insists that one has to be one’s own light. Yet, such fundamental theological differences between the two religions do not deter Father A.M.A. Samy, a Tamilian Jesuit priest, from running what is probably India’s only Christian centre for Buddhist-style meditation—Bodhi Zendo, located up in the Perumal Malai hills in Tamil Nadu, near the popular hill-station of Kodaikanal.
As its name suggests, the meditation practised and taught at Bodhi Zendo is based on the Japanese Buddhist Zen tradition. The word ‘Zen’ is derived from the Sanskrit word Dhyana or the Pali term Jhana, denoting meditational practice. Although the Zen style of meditation was developed initially by Buddhists, it can be used by non-Buddhists, too. That explains how a Christian like Fr. Samy (who studied Zen with a Zen master in Japan and has penned several books on the subject) and many other non-Buddhists who visit Bodhi Zendo find no difficulty at all in meditating in the Zen way while still following their own religions or ways of life. An image of the Buddha shares the altar in the Zendo—the meditation hall—with a crucifix and no one seems to find this incongruous in the least.
Recently, I spent a week at Bodhi Zendo—and that was definitely one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had. The centre’s location is perfect for contemplation. Located two kilometers off the main road, deep inside a coffee plantation and surrounded on all sides by rolling hills, what I cherished most was the almost pin-drop silence that prevailed throughout much of the day, broken only by the calls of birds and occasional thunder. Unlike in some other meditation centres, the meditation regime followed at Bodhi Zendo was not heavy—a major blessing for a novice likes me. Many ashrams, are centred on a guru, in whom faith is a must, and are controlled by a rigid hierarchy, but Bodhi Zendo has none of that. You are free to believe quite what you want, and Fr. Samy is definitely not the typical ashram-wala baba! He’s cheerful and easily accessible, and one can have private interviews, or what in Zen terminology is called doukusan, with him to discuss one’s problems or spiritual practice.
Life at Bidhi Zendo follows a relaxed routine. An hour of zazen or silent meditation in the early morning is followed by breakfast and then by samu or shared work. Residents at the Centre are assigned various tasks for samu—cutting vegetables, tending to the kitchen garden, sweeping the floors, cleaning the toilets and so on, which they do together. Thereafter, one is free till noon, to meditate on one’s own, to use the Centre’s well-stocked library, to take a walk in the hills around or to simply sit in the elegant Zen garden watching the clouds roll in and the birds hop about. Half an hour of meditation at noon is followed by lunch, with an hour’s meditation again in the evening. Throughout much of the day, silent hours are strictly observed. Every once in a while, Fr. Samy gives lectures on Zen, Buddhism and Christianity, and conducts intensive meditation retreats or what in Japanese are called sesshins.
Bodhi Zendo’s doors are open to people of all faiths or none at all. Partly because most of Fr. Samy’s disciples are from Europe, where he spends several months every year, most visitors at the Centre are Europeans, and the place has a decidedly Western feel to it.
One can stay on at Bodhi Zendo for between a day and several months, depending on the availability of accommodation and one’s seriousness about meditation. For a sum of three hundred rupees a day you get a comfortable single room with an attached bath and toilet, three wholesome meals, and all the silence and peace you crave for—and you also get to learn what meditation is all about. Very well worth a try, you will definitely agree!
(For more details about Bodhi Zendo, log on to www.bodhizendo.org)
Yoginder Sikand is a New Age Islam columnist