On a brisk, winter morning in January, I rode on the back of Rajesh’ motorcycle through Bodhgaya, India, coughing as we passed circles of men crouched over a fire of coal, the carbon fumes evanescing into the fog. Tuktuks (rudimentary three-wheeled jeep-type vehicles) with people popping out of every crevice chugged down the road, honking and swerving around pedestrians, cows, goats and dogs. The air was so toxic – dense with dust, smoke and exhaust – that it hurt to breathe.

And then we arrived at Root Institute – a true sanctuary in the sacred, but polluted, land of Bodhgaya. Immediately upon stepping through the gate at Root Institute for Wisdom Culture, I took a long, deep, healing breath. Everywhere I looked there were trees. There is something palpable about the blessed energy in the air, as if your soul is being massaged. The gompa (temple) is beautiful, intimate and accessible for private meditation. There is birdsong, the ting of the giant prayer wheel being turned and the occasional gong. Richard Gere, a frequent retreat guest at Root Institute, spoke briefly at the 30th Anniversary Celebration of Root Institute on January 14, 2018. He praised the spiritual leaders and staff at Root for creating an island of sanity, where great teachers make “romantic visions of possibilities real for us… where we can see that it is possible to actually live this way.”

In Bodhgaya, temples, monasteries and monks sing praises and prayers daily, honoring the land where Buddha achieved his enlightenment. There is an ancient Bodhi tree and the Mahabodhi Temple, which is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. However, many seasoned travelers, particularly those seeking spiritual training, base themselves at the Root Institute, during their pilgrimage to Bodhgaya. (I stayed at the Hotel Bodhgaya Gautam because it was important to me to have WI-FI to publish my blogs; WI-FI is not offered at the Root Institute.) There, at Root Institute, you can escape the madness of the throngs, which can range from 50,000 people to a quarter of a million people when His Holiness the Dalai Lama is offering a teaching. There you can deepen your own compassion and fill up your spiritual gas tank with enlightened teachings from respected lamas. In addition to hot water, electricity, cleanliness, comfort and vegetarian meals, Root Institute hosts some of the most revered spiritual teachers in the world today. Khadrola, the State Oracle of Tibet, led a special New Year’s Day teaching. Other honored lamas who have led teachings at the Root Institute include Ling Rinpoche, Karmapa, Lama Zopa Rinpoche and select Western teachers. Root Institute hosts mindfulness retreats, yoga retreats, pilgrimages and solo retreats. The grounds offer two temples, many holy objects, a giant prayer wheel, an outdoor dining area, shared and private rooms, a stupa garden, an organic garden, solar water heaters, clean water and electricity. Venerable Tenzin Paldron, the current director of the Root Institute, told me that she is looking into solar power, and that they opt for paper instead of plastic, as part of their sustainability focus.

It’s hard to imagine that this oasis of Bodhgaya was just a plot of land with a few mud huts on it 30 years ago, when Venerable Kabir Saxena took on the challenge to create a dharma center for Lama Yeshe. Lama Yeshe’s vision was to return the kindness that the Indian people had given, generation after generation, to the Tibetan people, including providing sanctuary to Tibetan refugees beginning in 1959 and bringing Buddhism to Tibet in the 7th century AD. Root Institute has become the “mother ship” of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, which was co-founded by Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Today, Root Institute is indeed returning kindness to India, through its three main service projects and by attracting tourists from all over the world to the area.

Kabir Saxena (right) with Nick Dawson in 1988, at the inception of the Root Institute vision, when it was little more than a few brick, wood, tile and mud “turds” with a grand vision and noble ambition. 

The state of Bihar, where Bodhgaya is located, is a rather impoverished area. When HH The Dalai Lama is in town offering teachings, panhandlers will come from far away to receive alms. Many bring children who are forced to beg or walk across tightropes, instead of attending school. Dowry and child marriage are still a problem. The empowerment of women and the education of girls is something that the central government and the local schools are serious about promoting. There is a great need for education, for health care and for improved employment opportunities to make it possible for the locals to see beyond their ingrained cultural traditions. Many tourists throw a few coins into the beggar’s hands, however, giving alms only exploits child labor and encourages the status quo. At Root Institute, you know your donations are actually tranforming the community. Root Institute offers three central, ongoing service projects to empower, heal and enlighten the locals in Bodhgaya and the surrounding villages: The Shakyamuni Buddha Community Health Care Clinic, the Maitreya Universal Education School and the Tara Children’s Project (an HIV orphanage), each of which I toured this week.

The Shakyamuni Buddha Community Health Care Clinic

The staff at the clinic embody the wisdom of His Holiness The Dalai Lama, who says, “Real care of the sick does not begin with costly procedures, but with the simple gift of affection and love. In the practice of healing, a kind heart is as valuable as medical training because it is the source of happiness for both oneself and others. People respond to kindness, even when medicine is ineffective, and in turn cultivating a kind heart is a cause of our own good health.” Dr. Khan, who has been with the clinic for 17 years, brings passion, experience and up to date information to serve, heal and transform this community. The Clinic offers health education classes and a mobile clinic for the villagers, in addition to treating over 51,000 locals in 2016 with homeopathic and allopathic medications. Thich Nhat Hanh planted the banyan tree that is providing shade to the community clinic.

The Maitreya Universal Education School

The Maitreya School, which educates students up to the 6th grade currently, follows the advice of Root Institute’s spiritual director Lama Zopa Rinpoche and the counsel of HH The Dalai Lama, who encourage ethics and compassion as important academic subjects, in addition to the ABCs, math and computer skills needed for the modern age. His Holiness stresses that “mental hygiene” is as important as physical hygiene. Lama Zopa Rinpoche writes, “A child who develops a positive mind is like the sun shining, eliminating the darkness in the world for all to enjoy. Therefore, a child who develops these qualities brings great benefit to the world and millions and millions of sentient beings.” Currently, over 200 local children, who could not afford to go to school without the free education offered by the Maitreya School, are enrolled. Students from the Maitreya School sang the Heart Sutra for HH The Dalai Lama during his teachings January 5-7, 2018 in Bodhgaya.

Maitreya School Students and principal Pema Tsering, performing the Heart Sutra to His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, in Bodhgaya, India, on January 7, 2018. Photo (c) Bill Kane. Used with permission. 

217 students of the Class of 2017-2018 at the Maitreya School, with principal, faculty and support team. Photo by Anrich Bester. Used with permission. 

The Tara Children’s Project

Many of the children living in the HIV orphanage run by Root Institute come from harsh circumstances, facing abuse and rejection, in addition to the challenges of being HIV positive. They benefit from the medical services of the Shakyamuni Clinic, the kindness, love and compassion of the TCP staff and the education offered by the school. One young boy whom I met had the most delightful smile, ear to ear really. That genuine smile was all the more cherished when I learned that only a few months ago, he was depressed and having a very difficult time getting over the abuse and hardship that he had endured before coming to TCP.

Volunteers Anabela and Anrich after completing a wall painting with the TCP team in 2017. Photo (c) Tara Children’s Project. Used with permission.

Art Therapist Laure Bury and her friend Jill with the Tara Children’s Project kids after making mandala pieces. Photo by Anrich Bester. Used with permission.

Root Institute has flourished through many grave challenges, including the extreme summers and monsoons, intermittent electricity, mosquitoes, funding challenges and even a few armed robberies. There is an excellent film on the 30-year transformation of the Root Institute, from an empty plot of land to the sanctuary it is now, which I encourage you to watch at www.RootInstitute.ngo. Visiting VIPs often plant trees at Root Institute. Visiting professionals offer their wisdom and time to the school and orphanage, helping with art therapy and more.

Whether you want to deepen your own spiritual practice, accumulate more merit, enjoy the wisdom of high lamas, take a pilgrimage to a very sacred land, or just support the good work of a dedicated team of individuals who are transforming the lives of the locals of Bodhgaya, I encourage you to visit www.RootInstitute.ngo. There you can become a member, schedule your own pilgrimage, sponsor a student for just $21/month, support the clinic or even volunteer. As Venerable Paldron says:

Imagine people who are highly realized beings
coming and giving you teachings and blessing you. It changes the energy of the
place. It touches you deeply. Through the teachings we are able to connect
with the lamas to clear ourselves, to become a little less heavy, to become more joyous
and to do things more effortlessly, like they do.

I can only pray that the daily drink I’ve had of the Root Institute this past month will stay with my soul in the days and months ahead, so that I can offer compassion and love to those I encounter wherever my footsteps may lead. Root is a cleansing elixir for the soul, located in a very sacred place that spiritual seekers of all faiths should aspire to partake. And they need our support to continue to realize their dreams of helping all dharma brothers and sisters, all sentient beings and particularly the Indian people, who have been so kind to Tibet.