The Lamas and the Guru: On the Way to My First Vipassana Course

By Luke Matthews | 7/23/2021

On December 10, 1970, I crossed the Pakistan frontier into India at Wagah, having travelled overland from Europe, mostly on local buses. After only a couple of days in Delhi, on Janpath Marg, a main commercial artery, I unexpectedly encountered an Australian man whom I had known only slightly two years before in Frankfurt, Germany. Incredulous, we immediately recognized each other. He invited me to stay with him in the small house he was renting in Arjun Nagar, then a semi-slum in south Delhi―which I did on and off for the next two years. Initially I used his place as a base for travelling to Rajasthan and other areas of interest in northwestern India. In early 1971 while I was at his house, he entertained two American visitors who were on their way to Burma to visit a meditation teacher. This caught my attention since I had had an interest in meditation and Eastern culture in general for some years, but unfortunately I no longer remember who that teacher was.

In May 1971, as it got hot and hotter, I set off to tramp around the Himalayan foothills north of Delhi in the state of Himachal Pradesh―initially to Dharamsala, which, in spite of the presence of the Dalai Lama, I found to be far too busy and touristy, and then to Dalhousie, my favourite of Indian towns. There in Gandhi Chowk, the main square, I inquired of two Americans about hotels they might recommend. Over some chai and sweets, as we got to know each other a little, they informed me that they were renting an old British stone bungalow called Cerne Cottage in Upper Bakrota, an area in the pines above the town. I would be welcome to join them.

Before dinner we talked about meditation―Vipassana meditation―which they had recently learned at a course, and they explained that they had an unseen companion who was staying alone in a small stone hut behind the cottage doing a ten-day silent retreat. They showed me a photo of two gentlemen, their teacher S.N. Goenkaji and his Bengali friend Munindraji, and invited me to join them during their evening meditation―which I declined, not knowing how to practise. I was very interested in the course they had attended, but they had no schedule of upcoming courses and no way to help me find one.

After a couple of days I set out on a two-day hike over the hills to the town of Chamba, returning to their cottage about a week later. It was then that I met the third occupant of the house, bearded and with long hair as many of us were, and fresh from his self-course. We had no clue that our new relationship would endure for more than half a century.

Before coming to Dalhousie I had applied for and received an Inner Line Permit from the Indian government's Department of Northern Affairs to visit Sikkim, then an independent country. This permit was due to expire soon, so from Dalhousie I took a train to Delhi and then directly across north India arriving in Darjeeling toward the end of June, just as the monsoon broke. I remember well my first experience of its intensity at 7,000 feet in the hills of Bengal and in the Teesta River valley as I travelled by jeep-bus through the dense jungle up to Gangtok, Sikkim's capital.

During my week there I went to pay respect to the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, the leader of the Tibetan Kagyüpas, who had a monastery at Rumtek about 15 miles from the town. The monks graciously invited me to stay. Perhaps because we both spoke English, I quickly encountered Freda Bedi, already about 60 years old and at the time a samaneri or novice, who in 1972 became the first Western woman to take ordination as a full bhikkhuni or nun in the Tibetan tradition.

Through her intercession I met the Karmapa, was initiated by him into Tibetan Buddhism, and began practising. Leaving Rumtek with a sizable clay Buddha they had given me, and more questions than answers, I headed for Kalimpong seeking ... confirmation, I suppose, from the Dodjum Rimpoche, head of the Nyingmapa school. Long-haired, married, and more extroverted, he seemed less otherworldly to an itinerant hippy and hence easier to approach. We talked one-on-one in his cottage.

Some days later, In pelting rain, I arrived by bus in Ghoom, a small village outside of Darjeeling where there is a Gelugpa gompa or monastery that enshrines an image of the Maitreya Buddha. At that time Kalu Rimpoche was in residence. A young American woman whom I met near the bus stop offered me a place on her floor for a few days. She told me that some foreigners stayed in the monastery, and others like her had accommodation nearby. She mentioned in particular two who were meditating seriously in a hut behind the monastery.

I was struggling with my new meditation practice: silently reciting a mantra seemed both unnatural and unsuitable, like wearing someone else's ill-fitting clothes. I went to discuss this with Kalu Rimpoche who was interviewing a number of Western practitioners and bestowing upon them Tibetan names. After listening to my difficulties he counselled, "Your path is not the Tibetan path; your teacher will be a Hindu." Huh?!? Say what?? A Hindu guru? So I missed out on a Tibetan name; he assigned me a Sanskrit one instead: Shankaradana.

Simultaneously confused and relieved, I decided to visit the two meditators out back. Arriving at their hut soaked from the rain and the long sodden grass surrounding it, I knocked on the door. All was quiet inside. After a minute or two a woman appeared looking as if she had just awakened. She immediately invited me inside, introduced herself and her companion, and explained that they had been meditating. As our conversation centred upon meditation, they explained that they were practising Vipassana, which they had learned a few months earlier from Mr. Goenka. However, unlike my new friends in Dalhousie, they had a schedule of courses. The next one was in Bodh Gaya starting on July 29―just two weeks away. I immediately left Ghoom for Siliguri and a train via Calcutta to Gaya. I had no reservation and the third class coaches were packed. I seem to remember standing on one leg a good deal of the way.

Conducted by Goenkaji, my first ten-day Vipassana meditation course was in the Gandhi Samanvaya Ashram in Bodh Gaya―hot, humid, mosquito-ridden, cramped, painful, demanding, life-altering. Kalu Rimpoche had been correct! I remain grateful to him, to Dodjum Rimpoche, and to the Karmapa for having compassion on an earnest ignoramus and the wisdom to encourage him, though they all probably knew that he, unknowingly, was already on a slightly different Path.

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5 Comments

Louise
Date: 8/5/2021
Thank you so much, very inspiring text!
Michael Cunningham
Date: 8/20/2021
Luke, although in hindsight I might say I was on a spiritual search, I had no relevant background when I crossed the border at Amritsar in late 1972. But two months later, you registered me for a Vipassana course in Varanasi, a course which changed my life and probbaly saved it, and led to ongoing Dhamma service from 1973. Metta.
Joe Lynch
Date: 8/20/2021
Thank you for sharing. I'm sure like so many, I always find these heartfelt storied both wonderous and inspiring.
Bill Crecelius
Date: 8/20/2021
Thanks Luke, that is a good one. Let's see some more. It brings back many memories of those days.
Daniel mayer
Date: 8/21/2021
Merits and gratitude for sharing these experiences and insights.

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