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Studying Buddhism at a Tibetan monastery

Dharamsala, the co-capital of the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, was my base for a sizeable chunk of my trip. Dharamsala is notable for being the home of the Dalai Lama and where large numbers of Tibetans call home after sadly being exiled from their own country over the last half century. 

A long twisty drive on a bus from Chandigarh through the smoggy fields of Punjab brought me to the chilly capital late at night. This was followed by an even more twisty, frightening trip by a hurried taxi driver to Mcleod Ganj, a town adjoining Dharamsala located at 6000 feet above sea level. 

Mcleod Ganj

Mcleod Ganj straddles a hilly suburb adjoining Dharamsala, and as such the streets are narrow and tight with lots of steps to traverse if roaming by foot. This was particularly the case to reach my hostel.

My first impression was that I felt I had left Indiaa. The complexion of the locals struck me as notably different to anywhere else I’d seen in the country, and the language is different too. The climate is relatively cold in the region with crisp mountain air, and after sunset it was a struggle to stay warm despite wearing multiple layers. 

The town is somewhat commercialised – especially the street heading towards the Dalai Lama’s temple, so I wouldn’t say it has an especially peaceful vibe despite the scenic views. Even inside the temple complex there were hordes of people so it’s not a place I’d recommend to spend too long. I did however find a long temple perimeter walk seemingly unnoticed by the tourists, with a few smaller temples to stop at to meditate or catch a glimpse of the smoggy city of Dharamsala below. 

McLeod Ganj is a short walk away from the small town of Dharamkot, a quieter backpacking suburb with various lively cafes overlooking a mountainous backdrop. The peaceful hike along from Mcleod Ganj to Dharamkot, and higher still into the valley, was worth the effort for the rewarding view at the end from a small shrine.

There was nothing quite like a masala chai to warm me up in the chilly evenings. Crispy fried snacks, momos and soups cooked fresh felt hearty and well deserved after days of hiking. 

One morning, I visited a Buddhist monastery called Tushita Meditation Centre at 9AM for a short meditation session. The centre is perched on the top of a steep hill just near to Mcleod Ganj, nestled in pine trees and as disconnected from the chaos of India as it’s possible to be. Having spoken with some of the students finishing on their course, and researched more online afterwards, I took the plunge and decided to enrol on an upcoming 11-day Introduction to Buddhism Course which happened to be starting the following week.

For the remaining days, I spent time exploring Dharamkot and the town of Dharamsala further, before once again making the trek up a steep hill from Mcleod Ganj into the Tushita meditation retreat to bid farewell to civilisation.  

Starting the Noble Silence

As we all gathered in the patio, we were given a long but informative introduction to the logistics by a German nun. My first observation was that the 60-or-so students on the course were mainly international, long-term backpackers (many of whom sporting dreadlocks and covered head-to-toe in tattoos). I hadn’t seen so many westerners in one place since the departures lounge at Heathrow. I managed to briefly speak with a few of them, who like me were seeking some wisdom and direction in their lives. 

Through a very organised induction of collecting bedsheets; offering donation and assigning karma yoga jobs (more on that later), the moment came where I bid goodbye to the outside world and handed over all my technology to be sealed away in a steel case for the duration of the course. 

We were given a choice of dormitory, and I ended up with an especially small room with two other men. One was a young Canadian Punjabi guy called Sunny, and the other was a senior Dutch gentleman also on sabbatical…from his wife!

That evening, we gathered in the gompa (a Tibetan monastery) where the nun introduced the subject matter for the course. The gompa has a peaceful, spiritual vibe with Tibetan paintings and messages on the walls. The end of the introductory session marked the beginning of the Noble Silence which would keep us mostly hushed for the remainder of the retreat. And with that, it was off to dinner and in bed by 8:30PM. It felt like returning to my childhood days being in bed that early!

As much as I look back and reflect fondly at my time at Tushita, I can vividly remember at my difficulty adjusting to the living conditions there. My first night’s sleep was awful. The temperature dropped to what felt like freezing, and my bed was rock-hard. I was shivering the whole night and barely managed a couple of hours of sleep. It wasn’t a good start to the retreat.

Daily routine

Our course was led on short notice by Renato Unterberg, a softly spoken Austrian filmmaker who had been studying Buddhism for several years. Our typical daily structure for the 9 days of teaching looked something like this:

6:00 First wake-up gong
6:45 – 7:30 Morning stabilising meditation
7:30 – 9:00 Breakfast
9:00 – 11:00First teaching session
11:15-12:00Stretching session
12:00 – 14:00Lunch & Karma Yoga 
14:00 – 15:00Discussion groups
15:00 – 15:30Tea break
15:30 – 17:00Second teaching session
17:30 – 18:15Evening analytical meditation
18:15 – 19:30Dinner
19:30 – 20:!5Second evening analytical meditation

The two teaching sessions each day started with a short moment of meditation, before Renato introduced the subject matter which focused on the practical concepts taught in Buddhism. These covered topics including karma; emptiness & the theory of inter-dependence and living with compassion without attachment. 

The stretching sessions were a great opportunity to get some relief from the endless cross-legged floor sitting and shake off the midday energy slump. I was struggling to sit on the floor for extended periods and found this helpful but tended to embark on my own routine given my poor flexibility. 

Lunch breaks were long and a good opportunity to sit and admire the surroundings, and I’d often do that reading a book while sitting on the terrace of the library. 

Karma yoga jobs are assigned on the first day. Karma yoga means ‘yoga of action’ and is about acting selflessly in the service of others. In practice, this meant allocating part of our lunch break to support the upkeep of the monastery. My job was to sweep the main patio to remove leaves, branches, crumbs of food and the occasional piece of monkey poop. Call me sad, but as someone who takes an unusual amount of pleasure in sweeping as a way of unwinding, I found it a great way to practice mindfulness and connect with the peaceful surroundings, 

Discussion groups: This was situated on the lawns outside the gompa and was only chance we had to talk throughout the course. Some people treasured as an opportunity to relieve themselves completely from the total silence. I found these sessions engaging as we respectfully challenged each other’s views on the day’s thought-provoking subject matter. 

Farinha, a young aspiring nun, led the three meditations sessions each day. The morning session was a stabilising session intended to bring peace by sitting in silence and observing the breath. The evening sessions were geared towards introspection through analytical meditation. The focus was different each day but would involve imagining oneself in a difficult situation and training the mind to overcome them. One technique I learned was sound meditation, the concept of recognising sound for what they are not being triggered with emotion. It certainly helped me overcome the irritation of dealing with my Dutch roommate’s incessant snoring each night.  

There were a few deviations to the schedule in the second half of the course. One day we left Tushita and made the silent walk to a nearby school & monk’s village, to get a sense for the simple life they’ve chosen. On the last two days, we watched a film in the evening about Buddhists who had dedicated decades of their life in retreat. On the final day, we were offered the chance to fast and participate in an auspicious religious ceremony to wish us well in future pursuits, before we finished the course with a delicious feast on the lawn.


Out of respect for the Buddhist teachings, I won’t share content or specific concepts taught on the course at Tushita. But I’ll share a few takeaways:

  • Wish happiness and freedom from suffering for all sentient beings, right down to the smallest beings.
  • Recognise impermanence – the idea that everything is temporary. Consider limiting deep attachments to things or people. 
  • Doing good deeds plants positive karma seeds that will ripen and bear fruit in the future (in this lifetime or perhaps a future one) 
  • Recognise that all beings have a close inter-dependency on one another. There’s nothing that we do in life where we are truly independent. 
  • Recognise that all objects and people exist through our perception and not in reality. 
  • Give compassion equally to friends, enemies, and strangers (equanimity) 
  • The difference and benefits between stabilising and analytical meditation
  • Sound meditation – switching object of focus from the breath to sound. This is a great way to avoid getting worked up by annoying noises.
  • Intentions matters more than their actions. Have honest, genuine, and compassionate intention and don’t beat yourself up over having any negative actions that may result.
  • The importance of being genuinely happy and compassionate for people. See that their gain is a positive gain for all of humanity, and not something ever to envy. Equally, someone else’s suffering is our own suffering, whether friend, foe, or stranger. 
  • Let go of things not in our control. Focus on admiring and appreciating surroundings as they exist today.
  • Someone being charitable isn’t necessarily so if they’re bragging about it. Those doing good deeds in good faith are only doing so if it’s selfless. 

Reflections living in retreat 

The first few days of the retreat were a struggle to acclimatise to the cold weather. I fortunately purchased a cashmere blanket to wrap myself up in, which mostly made up for the lack of heating at the monastery. Unfortunately, I’d picked up a stomach bug just prior to arriving and was also sick for the first few days. Being tired and weak meant that I was half asleep in the initial morning sessions.

Eventually, I slept extremely well, barely managing to turn a few pages of the book I was reading (‘The Culture Map’ – which I’d highly recommend). The absence of caffeine and technology and the general relaxing atmosphere probably helped. There was only one night towards the end of the course where a huge thunderstorm struck, and I was awake the whole night to the sound of lightening echoing across the valleys. 

Admittedly, throughout the course, I changed clothes far fewer than I’d have liked. Showers were cold and partly outdoors, with a risk of monkeys running away with the clothes. Staying warm was hard enough and I wasn’t brave enough to get even colder. Most of the toilets at Tushita are eastern style, squat toilets although there are a couple of western style ones too. 

The food at Tushita is entirely vegetarian, freshly prepared for each meal but basic – typically some variation of vegetables and rice for lunch and dinner, with very little spice or flavour. For lunch there’s occasionally be an additional western/junk food option and in the morning, porridge with freshly baked bread. Seconds are available, but on a first come, first served basis. While I’m usually one to eat healthy, bland food, even I was craving some flavour in the last days!

It was easier than anticipated to forego all my gadgets, and I didn’t find myself trying to reach out for my phone after a few hours. It’s amazing how much more time there is for deep thinking when there the temptation to reach for phone is abated.  Being oblivious to what was happening in the outside world was very therapeutic. It was refreshing to be grounded and experience the world entirely from my own eyes. That said, I began to cherish my family more and not knowing their wellbeing occupied more and more of my thoughts as time went on.

As an introvert, I didn’t find it hard to stay in silence – in fact, it was quite relieving. That said, in the absence of being able to speak, I noticed everyone’s physical behaviour much more. Not only was I more self-conscious, but I was also more aware of people’s self-centeredness – not holding doors, hoarding food during mealtimes, or not maintaining silence. It also felt as though my classmates built close relationships with one another despite not speaking with each other throughout.

There’s a special feeling of tranquillity at Tushita thanks to being nestled amongst trees and surrounded by the snow-capped Himalayan mountains. This is heightened even more so during early morning and late evening, when the sun’s rays glisten through the trees into the gompa and cast long shadows. Even not knowing the time meant I was more connected with my environment. One of the students would sound a gong 10 minutes before the next session to indicate when to return to the gompa. Other than that, with no watch and few clocks, it was mainly the sun and the shadows that helped convey the time.

It was wholesome watching families of monkeys jumping around in the trees and occasionally causing havoc while helping themselves to our food. I also had to put Buddhism into practice by not accidentally killing any of the large number of insects, instead gently re-homing them elsewhere. It’s safe to say I don’t fear spiders in my bed anymore!

Putting Buddhism into practice

My time at Tushita seemed to pass in a flash. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to forcefully disconnect from the world and engage in new spiritual topics in a peaceful setting. A ‘dopamine detox’ and extended period unplugging from the always-connected modern life is something we should all strive for regularly to curb anxiety and enable deep self-reflection. 

One the one hand, learning Buddhism at Tushita validated my own philosophy on life, particularly the concepts of detachment and impermanence. I’m pleased that I’ve already cultivated a good way of thinking, and Tushita re-enforced those values.

Reflecting on my experience at Tushita, now many months later and back in the fast-paced life of London, regrettably I’ve found it hard to put many of the lessons into practice. The teachings of compassion and putting others before myself are in stark contrast to the greedy, capitalist world we live in today. Working to keep multiple businesses afloat requires a cut-throat mentality, and compassion and kindness tends to put one at a disadvantage.  My mantra of detachment from material objects is tested away when surrounded by a social circle that prizes accumulation of things and building of individual wealth. 

Nevertheless, closing my eyes and casting my mind back to sitting in the gompa still invokes a sense of calm and longing to return once more. 


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