Thursday, July 20, 2017

Metta above the clouds, or being a Sevak at Dhamma Sineru, Sikkim

Disclaimer: My name is Madhur Daga & this is my 1st attempt at a blog about my experience of serving a Vipassana meditation course & subsequent attempts at integrating the profound learning into daily life. Having recently started Vipassana in Jan 2016, I am a relative novice & have taken baby steps on this long, challenging yet rewarding journey of self-realization. I have now completed five 10 day Vipassana courses, 3 as a sadhak & 2 as a sevak. I wrote an essay about my first 10 day course as a sadhak at Igatpuri, which is available to download at the very end of this blog. My intent of the original essay authored in Feb 2016 & this blog almost 18 months later is to simply share my experiences & truths as they unfolded while I walk the path. This is NOT a 'How To' of any sort & I have intentionally omitted any mention of core Vipassana techniques. The ONLY way to learn Vipassana meditation correctly is under the guidance of a qualified teacher while sitting a 10 day course. Please do not view this blog as a theological piece which challenges any religious or spiritual beliefs. Should you choose to meditate, your truths & experiences may be entirely different from those of mine.
Skip directly to the video log


Dhamma - pali word for 'Dharma' & also prefixed to the name of each Vipassana course center (eg: Dhamma Sineru) 
Metta - unconditional loving kindness aka Maitri
New Student - one who is attending aka sitting their 1st 10 day Vipassana course
Old Student - one who has sat at least one 10 day Vipassana course
Sadhaks - students attending aka sitting the course
Sevak's (aka Dhamma Sevaks or Servers) - volunteers donating their time by serving (giving seva) during the course
S.N. Goenkaji - an industrialist who moved from Burma to India in the late 1960s & did our country a priceless service by re-introducing pure Vipassana which was lost in India but preserved in Burma
Vipassana - a type of meditation rediscovered by Gautama Buddha more than 2,500 years ago & taught by him as a universal remedy for eliminating suffering while guiding meditators on the path to Nibbana (liberation)

Getting There

On 5th July, I boarded the 0955 hrs Air Asia flight from Delhi to Bagdogra, West Bengal. This was the start of my journey to Samdong, East Sikkim, location of Dhamma Sineru & venue of the 10 day Vipassana course where I would be a Sevak until July 16th. I was blessed to be accompanied by Mr. Pempa Tshering Bhutia, an experienced senior meditator & a Trustee of Vipassana Sikkim. It quickly became evident how much there was for me to learn about Dhamma from Mr. Bhutia & given that this was my 1st trip to Sikkim, we chatted pretty much throughout the flight. Soon, the white clouds gave way to an endless expanse of deep lush green forests, a reminder of how far I was from my urban life in New Delhi. After
SNT Bus station at Siliguri
collecting our checked in baggage, we met a couple of other meditators who were also attending the same Vipassana course & shared a short cab ride to the main bus station at Siliguri, West Bengal. The plan was to ride on a Sikkim Nationalised Transport (SNT) bus to Gangtok, Sikkim. We arrived at 1315 hrs to find 2 empty seats on the last bus to Gangtok. Unfortunately, that was 2 seats less than the 4 of us needed so it was decided that we would proceed to nearby
Transport to Salugara
Salugara locality in Siliguri and take a cab to Gangtok. The light drizzle increased to steady rain as we took an 'interesting' mode of transport to Salugara.

Negotiating the cab rate to Gangtok while standing without cover in the rain took its toll on our energy reserves. Despite being well behind schedule, we scooted into a nearby 'restaurant' where my 3 companions
Just my kind of place (not)
quickly ordered their respective meals. The only thing I did before sitting down & watch them eat was take a picture at the entrance & think 'Vipassana & its associated righteousness must be round the corner for me to cross paths with 'Laddoo Gopal.. 😊'.

Soon we were on our way to Gangtok, driving through absolutely gorgeous natural beauty. Most
Beautiful Sikkim
of the terrain was mountainous & lush green, with the occasional lakes which were overflowing in the monsoon with brown silt water. Many of the mountain roads were extremely narrow & prone to landslides. I was, in fact, surprised not to see any accidents en route for majority of the drive until

we stopped & didn't move for almost an hour. Eventually, the congestion cleared to reveal that an over turned military truck was the cause of a huge jam. We reached Gangtok at 1830 hrs & after a
Dangerous drive
short tea break at Mr. Bhutia's residence, continued the last leg of the journey which was an hour long drive through more mountains to Dhamma Sineru at Samdong. Mr. Karma Jigme, another experienced meditator & Assistant Teacher (not for this course) drove us to our final destination. Darkness had fallen so I was unable to get my bearings during this last part of the trip.

Arrival at Dhamma Sineru

The 10 day Vipassana course formally begins at 2000 hrs with the declaration of 'Arya Maun' or Noble Silence (silence of speech, body & mind) on what is called Day 0. On this day, which for our course was 5th July, Sevaks are required to arrive as early as possible so that they can assist Sadhaks with various administrative tasks such as registration, rules familiarization, deposit of valuables, assigning accommodation etc. Arriving early on Day 0 also gives everyone some time to ease into the Dhamma campus & mentally prepare for an absolute disconnect from the external world for the next 10 days. I arrived very late at 2010 hours & plunged into the deep end immediately, finishing a super quick dinner before being whisked away to the main meditation hall for commencing Sevak duties. 

Just prior to disconnecting, I looked at my WhatsApp for one last time, specifically the 'Sikkim Vipassana Centre' group. I wasn't sure
Uhh what?
whether I was reading one of the messages correctly so read it again. And then again. It hit me that I was going to be the only full time male sevak for the course, assisted on certain days by other part time sevaks. My initial confidence as an old student quickly gave way to a creeping nervousness & a distinct feeling of being totally unprepared. The fact that I had arrived late in pitch darkness also left me quite disoriented which was ironical given that Day 0 is all about orientation.

I had promised my family a phone call before switching off & probably left them wondering why that call never came.

Who are Dhamma Sevaks & what is their job?

Any student who has successfully completed at least one 10 day Vipassana course taught by Respected S.N. Goenkaji or any of his assistant teachers & has not practiced any other meditation technique since the last completed Vipassana course is qualified to be a Dhamma Sevak.

The job of sevaks is to simply assist the sadhaks in whatever way possible, while following all rules as laid down in the code of conduct. It is taught that courses and centers are for sadhaks who are the most important people doing the most essential work. Therefore, Dhamma servers should always attempt to selflessly, compassionately & politely defer to the welfare of the sadhaks who are sitting the Vipassana meditation course.

What specifically does a Dhamma Sevak do?

The first rule about Dhamma Seva is that you don't talk about Dhamma Seva. The second rule about Dhamma Seva is that you don't talk about Dhamma Seva. We must always keep in mind that when one talks about specific tasks done or effort invested as a Dhamma Sevak, it instantly converts the activity from seva to dikhava (showing off).

Contrary to what you might think, its not entirely foolish for me to publish a blog about something I can't talk about. While there will be no mention of specific duties that were done by me in the capacity of a sevak, I will share my thoughts on a remarkable concept underlying true seva, the time spent, challenges faced & memories made at Dhamma Sineru & some of my invaluable learning while discharging sevak duties.

What compelled me to be a Dhamma Sevak?

Respected S.N. Goenkaji teaches us that the 'wheel of Dhamma' can only turn when sadhaks also invest their time & energy as sevaks. It is good to absorb Dhamma knowledge as a student but not without 'giving back' to the system. Therefore, doing seva is considered an important form of 'daan' (donation).

During Day 1 of my first 10 day Vipassana course
at Igatpuri,  I had quickly hit one of the lowest points of my life. Humbled, in tears & crushed by the weight of introspection, I was literally a few seconds from calling it quits. Sunil Sarwade a 20
something sevak who I will never forget helped me compassionately & that decision of continuing the course has transformed my life. After completing the course, I decided then that once I grasp the Vipassana meditation technique as a sadhak, I will alternate between sitting & serving courses.

The Seva Paradox: Self-Centered Selfless Service

The Buddha taught a remarkable & essential lesson about true seva to his disciples. This isn't typical course material for Dhamma sevaks so I was fortunate enough to have our conducting teacher Acharya Ananta Jena play an audio recording to Dhamma Sevaks from Respected S.N. Goenkji which explains this seemingly paradoxical underlying concept.

Before attempting selfless seva, The Buddha advised sevaks to introspect, asking themselves a single self centered question: 'Am I going to gain something by providing seva? In other words, will I benefit myself before benefiting others?'. He said if that answer to that question is a yes, only then can true seva be provided. In this context, being selfish was a prerequisite to being selfless.

Why? Because he taught that it is impossible to help & benefit others unless one first helps & benefits the self.

How does one benefit the self while providing seva? By ensuring that every single moment serving others is done so with a compassionate state of mind. If a sevak loses the sense of compassion for even a moment while serving others, the gain to self will be lost & therefore there will be no true gain to the recipient. 

So, it was taught by The Buddha that seva without relentless compassion is also a form of dikhava.

What an awesome lesson. And let me state for the record, much easier said than done.

Challenge #1: Troubled new Sadhaks

When was the last time you met someone, well into adulthood, who looked towards spirituality &/or meditation while everything else was sorted in life? I would guess the answer would either be 'never' or 'rarely'. Several new students come to a Vipassana course with an unusually elevated level of angst. This could be channeled via a variety of ways with the most common being anger, impatience, irritability & depression. Often, some of this is related to being under the influence of strong medication. While its always incredible to see new students make the supreme effort of sitting through the infamously tough 1st 10 day course, it pushes many to the boundaries of their already fragile state of mind. Even for those who are mentally strong / stable, the physical demands of sitting silently without changing posture for an hour at a time, 11-12 hours a day for 10 days takes a heavy toll. Who said deep introspection is easy? 

The above isn't based on assumptions as I've been there myself while sitting more than one Vipassana course. And let me again state for the record, when Noble Silence is enforced and one cannot speak to a loved one or anyone familiar, the only way of venting frustration is to approach sevaks. Sometimes, when what a sadhak wants isn't practically deliverable, they want to bite the head off a sevak's head.

And compassion isn't the first thing that comes to mind when your head is in danger of being bitten off 😊

This is when the resolve of sevaks is tested. Irrespective of the sadhaks' state of mind, we must stand with a bowed head, folded hands & always maintain a compassionate, polite & respectful state of mind. The most important tool that sadhaks have to achieve this state of relentless compassion & equanimity is by practicing their own meditation during seva. While 3 hours a day is the minimum recommended meditation time for sevaks, I did my best to meditate actively for at least 5-6 hours a day while discharging core sevak duties. This helped me immensely while dealing with a variety of sadhak related situations at Dhamma Sineru.

You can imagine how strongly this prepares one for application in real life as we leverage the knowledge of Vipassana meditation to shield ourself & counter life's ubiquitous negativity & drama.

Challenge #2: Fatigue

As my alarm rang at 0340 hrs on Day 1, I remember struggling to get out of bed. As I did, there was an usual sense of demotivation & lethargy. While brushing my teeth as I looked at myself in the mirror, it suddenly hit me.. Ramzan Running Month (June 2017) was showing its effects. I was absolutely exhausted & felt like I needed to sleep an entire day & then some. Obviously that was an impossibility so somehow I willed myself on & carried on through the first few days until the Dhamma rhythm took over & by the end of Day 3 I was physically almost back on track.

However, there was a far more challenging problem which I had not anticipated at all.

Challenge #3: The Deafening Silence

June 2017 was all about movement. When not at work, I was either running or in the frame of mind that I needed to run. The daily fasting-led calorie deficit situation meant there was simply no letting go of the relentless focus to make sure I complete every run. On 1st July, I had reached my goal & thought this running journey was over. I was so severely mistaken. Between the 1st-4th July, there were so many reactions to the Daga Bhaga blog that my mind was still in a constant state of movement. And suddenly, literally overnight on 5th July, I stepped into a world which required absolute stillness.

No matter how much I tried, my mind refused to quieten. The attempts at silence were deafening.

Each time I sat to meditate, it felt like I was a new student with no control of my thoughts. What an irony given my primary role as a sevak was to assist other new students. My mind wandered relentlessly & it was endlessly frustrating. 18 months of hard work including daily meditation, three 10 day sadhak & one 10 day sevak course seemed a total waste & didn't come to my rescue at Dhamma Sineru. Soon enough, thoughts that I had made an error in judgement to choose Vipassana immediately after Ramzan Running Month started flashing several times during each meditation session.

It took me until Day 5 to gain control. I returned to the basics of Vipassana & did my best to apply the hard earned leanings from my time as a sadhak at
Difficult but invaluable lesson
Igatpuri, Ladakh & Bodh Gaya. In hindsight, these

5 days reminded me of a virtue that is absolutely priceless during Vipassana & in life: patience. It is often said that 'good things come to those who wait'. Indeed, when patience is combined with persistence, the law of nature dictates that the outcome of good deeds will eventually be favorable. It also validated a fundamental belief which I probably overlooked during my brief struggle: while the effort & its timings is in our hands, the outcome and its timings is in the hands of Dhamma. Our job is to invest in the most diligent effort & then accept the reality as it unfolds before us. Key word: accept.

Challenge #4: Lack of Belief

During Days 0-3, there were 2 part time sevaks (of which one was a very senior mediator & trustee) helping me discharge duties at Dhamma Sineru. This was comfortable & I felt like I learnt a lot & became more effective as a sevak. From Days 4-7, there was 1 part time sevak assisting me, which required some extra coordination & a shift in balance between core seva duties & my own meditation. The long days were stretched which was still manageable. It was the end of Day 7 & I faced a reality which made me uncomfortable: at 0900 hrs on Day 8, the only part time sevak would leave & I had not been given any information about a replacement. So, my Virgo brain quickly analyzed & concluded that it would not be possible for me to discharge all seva duties alone, so the logical thing to do was to approach the conducting teacher & request a replacement.

It turned out to be the shortest conversation I had with Acharya Ananta Jena since meeting him on Day 0.

Later that night, I found myself lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, unable to comprehend why Acharyaji had refused my request given I had the
Spot on
sadhaks' welfare in mind. I also asked myself how I could be at different places in the Dhamma campus all at the same time to discharge various duties. Although my meditation was strong again, I was nowhere close to real time teleportation. I look back now & have no option but to admit that I had no belief in my abilities to manage the situation. My mind had already visualized 2 very dangerous words: 'not possible'.

Necessity is indeed the mother of all invention. The alarm clock found itself in my hands & I set it to 0300 hrs, 40 mins earlier than usual. I would wake up & have an hour to do what needed to go get done for the sadhaks to start their day at 0400 hrs.

When Days 8 & 9 passed without incident (except a literal hiccup when I dumped a tablespoon of salt into a sadhak's tea when he clearly pointed towards sugar), I returned to Acharya Jena's room & with folded hands expressed my gratitude for his belief in me, which in turn made it not possible for me to do seva alone until the end of the course.

Self belief is absolutely essential, but may not always come naturally. As we go about life, the power of believing in others, especially when their self belief is faltering, can create possibilities that would otherwise be thought impossible.

Awesome Memory #1: The Weather

I'm not really a Rain Man. I mean, I guess I like rain. But its the 'for a limited time only' & 'terms & conditions apply' type of like. Having lived in New Delhi all my life, my experience with rain is limited to a few weeks of the year with intermittent torrential downpours for few hours every monsoon season. Of course, the real issue isn't the rain. Its my Virgo OCD. I find rain messy. It creates puddles which ruin shoes and in the event that I happen to be wearing chappals, the aforementioned puddles with their dirty water ruin my sparkling foot soles. My hair or whatever has remained of it gets all curly & unmanageable & somehow when its raining & windy, the umbrella is never at an angle which prevents me from getting wet. Lets not even discuss spectacles & how rain so annoyingly destroys the 20-20 vision which I get from painstakingly & repeatedly cleaning the lenses. Oh & the dark skies & lack of sunshine. Grey everywhere. Not good.

Yes, I have weird issues with rain. If you have OCD, you will understand. Otherwise, God bless you.

There isn't an iota of exaggeration when I write that from Day 0-8, it rained non stop at Dhamma Sineru. There was not a single ray of sunlight to be seen. My duties included moving about the Dhamma campus, so despite using an umbrella (if there was one spare), I was between slightly & soaking wet pretty much the entire day. Whenever I showered, my only towel never really dried.

Pre-Vipassana, any one of these factors would have agitated the daylight out of me.

Vipassana teaches us to observe & accept reality
Infinite wisdom
 AS IT IS, not how we want it to be. It conditions us to observe & stay equanimous, breaking the usual cycle of see-judge-react. I am happy to report that not only was I devoid of any weather induced agitation, I was actually grateful to be in a part of the planet where the monsoon is such a delight to experience in all its natural beauty. Dhamma Sineru is at an altitude of almost 5,000 feet & throughout the day, we were well above the lowest layer of clouds. Looking through the mist & rain at these amazing shapes float by, with a backdrop of deep rich forests & green mountains gave me so much peace & joy. 

I believe I now love rain. No terms & conditions apply. Thank you Vipassana. Thank you Sikkim.

Awesome Memory #2: The Diet

Did you ever watch Man vs Food on The Travel Channel? Possibly one of my all time favorite food shows with the brilliant emphasis on eating rather than cooking. Let me be unequivocal in my belief: if there was ever a show called Man vs Rice, Sikkim would be the undisputed Milky Way champion.

It is beyond comprehension how much rice the locals can eat. There were times when I piled up rice so high on a sadhak's plate it seemed like a base camp was needed to get to the top.

From Day 0-2, I was spreading my usual low carbohydrate gyan. In Sikkim, low carbs equals fasting. Having just completed Ramzan a month
Bring it on
ago, I wasn't really about to fast again. So, as they

say, if you can't beat it, eat it. And boy did I.. By Day 5, there was word in the kitchen that some
Sikkim DNA may have slipped by my way in some past life. I guess along with the fatigue I mentioned earlier, there were also some deeply suppressed hunger issues which were brought forward from Ramzan. By Day 8, my time in the Dhamma Sineru kitchen could have found mention in the Basmati Book of Records.

Needless to say, I am totally riced out.

Awesome Memory #3: Iron Papa

Along with 24 men, 16 women sadhaks sat the 10 day Vipassana course which I served. While men & women sevaks & sadhaks are totally segregated, the kitchen & main Dhamma meditation hall is common to both sexes. During some work in the kitchen, I happened to find out that one of the female full time sevaks had a wonderful situation on hand - her parents were sadhaks sitting the course. She served her mom but as per the code of conduct, had no direct contact with her dad. After the course ended, she introduced me to her papa & it is then that I told her that he had been a silent inspiration for me throughout the 10 days.

I do not know his name but refer to him as 'Iron Papa'. At almost 80 years of age, he diligently sat through every meditation session without leaving
My only selfie with a sadhak
the Dhamma hall. Not only that, he refused to ask for a back support or, like several other sadhaks, request for a change of seating location so that he could lean against a column or wall. Absolutely 

incredible strength of will. On Day 8, when one of the sessions ended, he slowly walked to me, bowed his head, folded his hands & informed me that he had been feeling sleepy during meditation. He then requested if I would be able to arrange a tablet for him which would keep him awake? What a moment of magic. Absolutely overwhelmed with compassion, I almost choked on tears, composed myself & told him he was free to splash cold water on his face & walk about for a few minutes whenever he felt sleepy.

Iron Papa, I salute you.

Awesome Memory#4: The Beard, or how the book got judged by its cover

I clean shaved on May 21st. I remember because it was the day before my travel to Europe. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Vipassana course, my face had been consumed by a fairly dense beard. A beard which had weathered several storms, especially during the 360 km Ramzan Running Month journey. I would say it was a good beard. But little did I know that it was a beard destined for goodness.

Well, my beard & I showed up at Dhamma Sineru
I didn't quire understand this until..
& somehow, every sadhak assumed I was a much more senior meditator than I actually am. Not only did everyone call me 'Sir', several meditators referred to me as 'Guruji' & one called me 'Babaji'. If I needed to correct someone as they were breaking a code of conduct, their response was immediate along with a clear look of apology. I am convinced that the beard effect had many sadhaks on their best behavior at least when I was around in the general vicinity.
Badhti ka naam daadhi

When the course ended & some found out that I had only been meditating for 18 months, I think they probably needed every ounce of their newly developed Vipassana skills to restrain themselves from shouting some compassionate obscenities at me 😊🙈


Its 0530 on Thurs, 20th July & the usual early start for me at home in Delhi. I have returned to complete this blog after my morning meditation session. And guess what? I've been hearing my new found love since waking up; yes, its raining & I miss Sikkim.

Dhamma Sineru & my time in Sikkim has been nothing short a magical experience from so many different points of view, some of which I have
Its now time to rethink this.. 😊
attempted to distill into this blog. I have returned a stronger meditator, better sevak & a more compassionate being. For the 1st time since starting Vipassana, I am inspired to sit the 20 day advanced course for which I hope to qualify in 2019. This will require some (more) challenging commitments & life style changes over the next 24 months. Inshallah, I shall succeed.

Vipassana meditation has transformed my life & it is my hope that more people in this world give meditation a try. We owe it to ourselves to be the best we can be & my experience tells me that meditation can go a long way in assisting with this objective.

Here's a 7m 40s video log of some visual memories from my time at Dhamma Sineru:

I end with verse 204 from the Dhammapada:

arogyaparama labha samtutthiparamam dhanan
vissasaparama nati nibbanam paramam sukham
health is the greatest gift, contentment is the greatest wealth
a trusted friend is the best relative, nirvana is the highest happiness

God Bless & Be Happy. Metta 🙏🏽

Madhur (formerly known as The Ramzan Runner)

Acknowledgements & Gratitude

LMI & SKCA for the Effective Personal Productivity (EPP) class & Sameer Kamboj for being my EPP mentor in late 2015. It is my belief that the 'centering' process within EPP watered the dormant Vipassana seed within my being. My assistant Honey Panwar & the OBL leadership team without whose support I would be unable to completely disconnect stress-free from the professional world for upto 2 weeks at a time. Sevak Sunil Sarwade without whose compassionate help, I would have likely quit my 1st Vipassana course at Igatpuri. Mr. Pempa Tshering Bhutia for being my companion during my trip from Delhi all the way to Dhamma Sineru & his family for being so hospitable before & after the course. Acharya Ananta Jena for being a wonderful conducting teacher & leading by example as he taught compassion & the virtue of observing without judgement. Kalu Bhutia & Vikas leading the Dhamma Sineru kitchen crew who were incredibly accommodating as I transformed from Shri Atkins to Baba Basmati. Finally, deep gratitude to my Lama brother Mr. Karma Jigme for taking so much time out after the course & being my patient tour & spiritual guide in & around Gangtok. Karmaji, I am indebted to your incredible family & you for literally adopting me after the course until I left Gangtok. Most of all, spending time in Mr. Bhutia & your home helped me realize the inexplicable bonds of a family who meditate together. Its nothing short of a divine gift, & the perfect example I needed to absorb before seriously discussing Vipassana within my own immediate family.

My 1st experience of Vipassana | Igatpuri, Jan 27th - Feb 8th 2016 [Download PDF]