I attended my first Buddhist retreat in the summer of 2009. I had been wanting to check out a meditation retreat and when I saw the advertisement for a retreat led by Changling Rinpoche, I knew the time was right. I mean, I’d come all this way to make changes in my life so what better teacher than one whose name included the word “change”.
As it turns out, his name is pronounced “chong-ling” not “change-ling” and, while that made me laugh at the absurdity of my rationale for attending, it didn’t change anything. The pure peace and joy I felt in this man’s presence over those three days is beyond words. It’s the most natural high I have ever felt, far surpassing any artificial high brought about by puppy love or artificial stimulants.
The man simply smiled at me and I felt light as a feather. Was it love? Yes, but not the sort of love one usually feels at first sight, most often romantic love, or the love so often felt and expressed when drugs like ecstasy are coursing through one’s veins. This love was different. It was pure. Unconditional. And it was there to help me understand that we can all feel it, naturally.
I’m not a religious person. I’m spiritual. I consider myself a bit of a loner, never wanting to fully integrate myself into a particular group. I even stayed at a separate hotel that weekend. But I do like to explore as many things as I can when they interest me and the opportunity presents itself. I like the diversity.
I don’t attend retreats every year. I don’t meditate with a group of Buddhists every Sunday, or on any given day for that matter. And I’m not all that comfortable with ceremonial pomp and circumstance. But I do consider myself a Buddhist.
I took refuge that weekend in order to become a Buddhist. Changling cut a lock of my hair and gave me a new name as part of the ‘ceremony’. The name he gave me was Goma Devi. When I asked what the name meant, Changling explained that Goma Devi was an Indian Princess in 100 BC and was the first woman to reach enlightenment. I felt honoured and a little overwhelmed to be given such a name.
Of course, it was hard not to let my Ego get in the way and start believing that I was this woman. This amazing Indian Princess who had achieved such accolades. But I did have to laugh at the fact that, years ago, I had been fixated on Big Turk chocolate bars, eating two or three a day at one point, and had exclaimed to a friend who was expressing concern, “I must have been an Indian Princess in a past life!”
I believe I’ve had many past lives, one reason why I believe in reincarnation, a key element of Buddhism. After all, it is a child who is chosen to be the next Emperor of China and this is determined by his ability to recognize the possessions he had prized in his previous life.
But these things are all a bit far-fetched for many people and that’s perfectly ok. While I have a vivid imagination and believe that anything is possible, my primary reason for becoming a Buddhist is its philosophy.
My Father, an Atheist, recently asked me what it is I like about Buddhism. I said that what I like most is that it is inclusive, it encompasses everyone, no matter what your beliefs, religious or otherwise. It is about kindness and compassion, without judgment or a need for redemption. It allows us to understand that we are all connected.
But it’s more than this. It is about understanding ourselves. Becoming aware of how our minds work and learning to work with this knowledge to improve not only our own lives, but also the lives of others. And the positive energy that results from such study reaches far beyond our most immediate surroundings.
When I asked my Buddhist friends about attending this retreat, they told me that the teachings were very “high” for someone just starting to study but that, if I was being drawn to it, I should most certainly go. They also warned that there may be some people there that might not understand why someone as “novice” as I was would attend.
I didn’t understand how this could be. If Buddhism is all encompassing, how could anyone, especially a long-time Buddhist, lack the compassion and understanding to welcome whoever may be interested in joining in? But my friends were right.
I was still fairly new to meditation, having learned most of it through my yoga classes, so I decided to attend the morning meditation lesson. Changling had asked one of the attendees at the retreat, and someone who had clearly known Changling for some time, to lead a meditation for those who wished to learn more.
I was excited. I had seen this man and his wife with their prayer books and all the proper gear so imagined I would be learning from someone very knowledgeable. He was certainly knowledgeable, but he used his knowledge to make us feel inadequate.
There were four of us there that morning: myself, the two teenage daughters of the couple running the retreat, and their grandmother. We were asked a few questions and when we expressed that we were not familiar with the various names and forms of meditation, the teacher immediately said snidely: “Then what are you doing here?”
I felt the anger rise up inside of me. How incredibly rude and insensitive of this person. “What am I doing here? I’m here to learn. And you are supposed to be teaching me”, I thought to myself, among a few other things I won’t mention.
I was blown away by the size of this man’s, this Buddhist man’s, Ego. I had studied enough by that time to understand that my frustration was suggesting that this was a reflection of my own behaviour somewhere, but I wasn’t quite ready to face that yet. And I was only just beginning to learn about compassion.
Instead, after the disappointing class, I turned to the two young girls and the grandmother, all of whom had never meditated before, and suggested they might like to try what I do: setting a timer for 15 minutes and just sitting, focusing attention on the breath and watching as thoughts come and go, bringing yourself back to the breath when you see that you are caught up in your thoughts again.
This experience didn’t deter me from taking refuge though. In fact, Changling taught us that very same afternoon that the Buddha devised his teachings so that anyone could learn them, no matter where they were in their life and studies. Two very different people, with very different levels of understanding and experience could be at the same lecture and still receive the teaching they were meant to receive.
When I heard this I was amazed and chuckled to myself while trying to contain my inner “Take that you mean old meditation teacher” voice. In fact, lessons like this occurred frequently throughout that weekend. Questions would come to my mind and suddenly, without having to speak a word, the answer was being given. It truly was an incredible experience.
I returned the following year, but only for two of the four days. I had a rental car, a little hatchback, and I put the back seat down, curled up and slept in the trunk. The next morning at the breakfast table, a few of the other attendees laughed and said they’d been standing outside the car, watching me sleep, slightly amazed that I could fit back there.
An Indian Princess you say?
I can only imagine Goma Devi, wrapped tightly in her purple sari, traveling across the desert on her elephant to attend a similar retreat, retiring to her trusty ‘vehicle’, and curling up to spend a night sleeping in its trunk.