Starting from Zero: A new journey for the mind
My interest in understanding ancient Indian wisdom has been around for quite some time now. Perhaps that is why the movie Black Panther hit me so hard! Had we not lost faith in our own intelligence and techniques, not started running after misplaced aspirations for everything Western – could we be living our own version of Indo-futurism today?
The locally-rooted architecture that was so sensibly imagined and constructed.
The food and clothing which made absolute sense according to the specific weather conditions.
The daily routines, the ayurveda, the yoga, not just in India but across Asia…
Logic & intelligence everywhere.
Everything had evolved from an immense understanding of the human body, the materials that the earth provided us with, the environment on this earth and beyond.
In addition to these tangible aspects of ancient Indian wisdom are the intangible ones – the thought processes and philosophy which guide it all. Even in a country as diverse as India, there still seems to be a certain “Indian sensibility”, or rather an Asian sensibility. What do we mean by it when we show our disdain for certain ideas saying that “it’s a western way of thinking?” I have ever been able to put a finger on the exact reason, but surely this ‘Western’ way of thinking has always been understood as a detour away from “our own” thought philosophy. All of this, in the absence of ANY understanding of what “our own” philosophy is. The Eastern schools of thought, representing the knowledge from across Asia, have globally been associated with mysterious spirituality and esotericism.
Enter: the Nalanda Tradition & Buddhist Philosophy.
My first introduction to the strength of this knowledge system was at the conference titled “Quantum Physics, Brain Function in Science & Buddhist Philosophy”, hosted by the Tibet House in Delhi in December 2018. (Big thanks to my friends at Flowering Dharma!). At that point of time, I didn’t understand much of either of these 3 topics. At the conference, prominent physicists and psychologists from across the country shared the stage with Geshe Dorji Damdul la, the Director of Tibet House in New Delhi. While I did not understand much of the details, I went back with the introductory understanding that several question of modern science regarding quantum physics, the presence of the sixth sense in human beings and the mind-body relationship are those which had already been answered some 2500 years ago in ancient India. That thrilled me to no end! The very strong visual of these scientists deep in discussion with Geshe la was a strong enough imprint on my mind to make me more curious about the relationship between ancient Indian knowledge and modern science, as well as the Buddhist philosophy which seems to be the connector.
After having been associated with Flowering Dharma for the better part of 2019, I was surrounded by people who had attended, and swore by the brilliance of, the annual Nalanda Philosophy Study Retreat in Bir, Himachal Pradesh. As registration time for this year’s retreat drew closer, Tashi’s generous doses of encouragement pushed me to enroll for it. The website of Deer Park labelled this retreat at the “advanced level”. (Yikes!) But the fact that Geshe Dorji Damdul la would be teaching was something that made me seal the deal with myself in my head. “You’re not missing this, Nishita.” I was ready to be the new-comer, with absolutely no knowledge of the topic being taught. I braced myself, packed my bags and reached Bir on the morning of 29th October 2019.
The classroom was what I wish every classroom of my educational life had been. Geshe la explained the most difficult concepts like the “emptiness of objective existence” and “the nature of entities and isolates” with examples that make a new-comer like me believe that “yes, this is something I could possibly begin to understand” (unlike those structural mechanics lecture in college). His classroom was always one without hesitation or fear. Incorrect answers were never treated with condemnation, but most often responded to with a joke, leading to bursts of laughter from the 100 of us sitting in the class. Despite all the wrong answers that we gave, he continued to encourage us to ask and answer to the best of our capabilities. After all, the very strength of the Nalanda knowledge system comes from its tradition of questioning and debating. The Buddha said,
“O bhikshus and wise men, just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting, and rubbing it, so you must examine my words and accept them, but not merely out of reverence for me." – Ghanavyuha Sutra (Sutra of Dense Array)
Amidst all the cross-questioning and laughter was a whole lot of Respect. And this respect did not come from this red robes or age (he’s not thaaat old anyway). It came from the way he treated everyone around him, his knowledge, his wisdom and the resulting aura of his presence. I can only speak for myself, but respect came from the sheer admiration and possible aspiration for who he is as a person.
Outside the classroom, this life in a monastic complex was also completely new for me. The Deer Park Institute was earlier a monastery which has now been converted into a centre for education, yet the aura of a monastery remains, with the temple as the pivot of the complex around which all other activities take place. It was exactly the kind of complex that I’d visited several times earlier – across the Himalayas as well as in Karnataka. But I was living inside the complex, waking up to the morning bell, participating in the daily tasks, getting ready for the intense morning sessions way before breakfast and studying under the status of Arya Manjushri for the very first time.
Starting from zero comes with a lot of benefits. While doing a course absolutely new to me, I treated myself to an experience where I did not even need to be the person I was in my daily life. I could adopt a new sleep schedule and new tea habits. No-one expected me to already have any answers. All my naïve questions are treated with patience. The smallest bit of information gained was a precious new addition to my knowledge base. At many points of time during the course, I was surprised at myself, at how I had managed to grasp certain new concepts, no matter how small, which were completely alien to me just 3 days back. A whole new world of knowledge opened up to me. It was all seeming completely unrelated to my work and education at first. In hindsight, I realise that it actually ties together the loose ends of my work related to heritage and culture, and gives me even more confidence as a person who values logic over belief and questions over assumptions.
The one week at Deer Park Institute, another 3 days at the Tushita Meditation Center with Geshe Lhakdor la, and 2 more days living on the official complex of the Central Tibetan Administration showed me a whole new dimension of thought processes outside of what I had ever seen before.
It’s good to start from zero, because the new road that we’re starting to walk down might just be a by-pass to existing (mind-) blocks!