Driving along what could barely be called a road, a group of children and teens noticed us—some waved exuberantly; most looked astonished. The occasional motor bike, scooter, or jeep might pass through here from time-to-time, but a van filled with a dozen people from around the world was certainly a first for them. When the not-quite road came to an end, we all hopped out, excited to stretch our legs and start our walk through this exquisite valley and up the mountain side to the Pigeon’s Cave, a remote haunt that the Buddha used to retreat to from time-to-time.
Ramsingh, our local guide, was a kind and elderly gentleman from Jethian, a village on the outskirts of Rajgir. Being a Vipassana meditator, he understood and honoured our desire to walk quietly, meditatively. Our silent walk was punctuated from time-to-time with awe-inspired remarks about the landscape’s beauty: rugged mountains with jagged peaks formed a dramatic contrast with the vast riverbed below. The soundscape of wind, shimmering leaves, and footsteps imbued us with a feeling of isolation—a rarity for India. Even rarer was the fact that we weren’t harassed by throngs of beggars pleading for money or candy.
Upon reaching the base of Chandu Hill, however, we noticed the group of youngsters we had passed on the road, waiting for us. “Uh Oh,” I thought, “here we go again…” Ascending the mountain, the kids joined us on our journey, walking in front of us, alongside us, or behind us. My first thought: “What a nuisance, can’t they just leave us alone!” My second thought: “Are they going to rob us? We are in an area known with a history of bandit activity!” I glanced over at Ramsingh, our guide, who wobbled his head and reassured me with a wide smile that we were safe. Trusting the community elder and leader, I began to relax. A couple of boys started to chat with each other, and Ramsingh kindly, but with a firm look in his eyes, put his finger to his lips. The boys instantly hushed up.
Sweaty from the steep 20-minute climb, we arrived at the bat—not pigeon—infested cave and each of us quietly found a place to sit. Miguel, a Mexican pilgrim, inspired the group with some words of Dhamma and struck a Burmese gong to commence the formal meditation session. The dozen or so boys watched us for the entire hour, not uttering a single word. At times I opened my eyes a crack to see what they were doing. Nothing. Some picked at their toes or their nose; others flicked pebbles in the dirt. Most, however, just stared at us as if we were aliens from another planet. At the end of the hour, Miguel picked up the gong and offered it to one of the boys to strike. Too shy, or too frightened by this weird, seemingly inter-galactic instrument, he refused.
I had an idea. Realising that it was next to impossible for these youth to participate on a children’s meditation course at Dhamma Bodhi, the closest Vipassana centre about three hours away, I asked Ravi, a native Hindi speaker from our group if he’d teach these boys Ānāpāna meditation. Hesitating at first, he quickly recognized that this might be their only opportunity to receive Dhamma instruction. He asked the group if they wanted to learn how to meditate. Their reactions were so overwhelmingly affirmative one would have thought we had asked them if they wanted to go to Essel World (India’s Disney Land).
Ravi picked up the gong and lightly struck it three times. He gently began, “Sit comfortably in any posture that suits you. Keep your back and your neck straight.” All the kids immediately straightened up as if they received a military command from their drill sergeant. “Keep your eyes gently closed.” Two curious boys who peeked at their friends quickly shut their eyes. “Focus your entire attention on the area at the entrance of the nostrils, above the upper lip.” Faces scrunched up in concentration. “Calmly remain aware of every breath coming in; every breath going out. Natural breath. Normal breath. As it is, as it is.” Faces and bodies slightly relaxing. “If it is long; it is long. If it is short; it is short. If it is passing through the left nostril, be aware that it is passing through the left nostril. If it is passing through the right nostril, be aware that it is passing through the right nostril. If it is passing through both the nostrils, be aware that it is passing through both the nostrils. Just remain aware, do nothing.”
Most of the kids sat there in total, concentrated silence. A few backs slouched, and one boy seemed to fall asleep. Ravi’s voice was like the wind, “Remain alert…attentive… vigilant… alert…attentive…vigilant.” The boys slowly and mindfully straightened their postures. “Remain aware of the breath, the incoming breath; the outgoing breath…incoming breath…outgoing breath…”
The Dhamma flowed through Ravi, “Keep your attention steadfastly fixed, steadfastly fixed on this area, the entrance of the nostrils. Your attention is like a gatekeeper, like a watchman, constantly aware of every breath entering the nostrils, constantly aware of every breath moving out of the nostrils… Alert, attentive, vigilant.”
A few more minutes passed. Striking the gong lightly three times, Ravi, with a beaming smile, instructed the boys to open their eyes.
The vibrant atmosphere seemed even more so. The boys were all grinning widely as the Ganges of Dhamma had flowed into their hearts. Ravi pulled out a bag of oranges and box of Bangalore sweets, offering the radiating boys some material prasad. After everyone had their fill, we all walked down the mountain together. We walked mostly in silence, some of the boys holding the hands of the elder pilgrims, smiling and enjoying each other’s presence.
Gazing at this unlikely cross-cultural, spiritual intersection unfolding before my eyes, I recognized, once again, the power of Dhamma in teaching trust and creating meaningful human connection.