Lama Tsering sits across the table from me, sipping a cup of chai. I haven’t touched mine yet — perpetually afraid I’ll burn my tongue, I always let it cool for way too long first, then try my best to avoid drinking the skin that forms on top of the hot milk. Despite the fact that Lama Tsering has spent almost two hours a day, all week, talking to us about Buddhism, I still have so many questions for him. I want to know about the practice of solo retreats, where a monk will move into a cave to meditate and be alone, sometimes for many years. Tsering ji wants to do one soon, for “five to ten years. Most common is maybe three,” he tells me. I can’t help but show my shock on my face. I have known Lama Tsering to be a relatively social person — he is quick to laugh and happy to talk. “Are you nervous?” I asked him. But he grinned. “No! I am so excited!” After all the travel he has done across India in the last few years, he can’t wait to have time to reflect and meditate on his own. He tells us that some people spend many more years than he is planning to in a solo retreat, and come out with long beards and hair, and I joked that that would be him too.
I am not a religious person. In fact, I would say I am actively irreligious in my life at home. Living in San Francisco, this is the norm rather than the exception. But in India, religion permeates every facet of daily life. Going for a morning walk will inevitably result in a sandalwood paste tikka on my forehead from a Hindu priest. The Hindi word “shubh,” meaning important but with a religious connotation, is translated to English as “auspicious” and is one of the more frequently used words in India. There is a small shrine to Ganesha and Ram in my homestay family’s house, positioned right across from the door so it’s the first thing I see when I get home. And in Bodh Gaya, stepping outside, I know I will see Buddhist monks from all over the world who come as pilgrims to this place.
There is a discussion to be had about whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy, and with Lama Tsering we had it. Yet regardless of whether it is a belief system with gods and mysticism or not, I felt averse to fully engaging in Buddhism for a week. We spent time every day with Lama Tsering listening to his explanations of the Buddha dharma, or Buddhist truth. Then, in the afternoons, he would guide us in meditation. This was always incredibly difficult for me, and I found myself trying and failing to calm my mind over and over. Meditation was made even more challenging when we went on a field trip and tried to meditate amidst the other visitors coming and going from famous shrines or sounds of India around us — honking motorcycles and distant Bollywood songs. But it was challenging in another sense too, as I struggled to let go of my dubiousness of what I saw mainly as a religious practice. I wanted to embrace the uniqueness of the opportunity in front of me and be very intentionally open-hearted in this situation. Yet I was not ready to absorb and embody the dharma, especially the faith required in concepts like reincarnation that are so central to Buddhism.
We talked about reincarnation over dinner. Even in the evenings after Lama Tsering left, we had another Buddhist, Nick ji, to talk things over with. The understanding of how reincarnation works that I had already left something to be desired, so I asked Nick — “What are the chances that all these important people always get reincarnated in Tibet? Of all the places in the world, it just seems so unlikely…” Nick explained that those people who have meditated deeply and are closer to enlightenment have more control over the process of reincarnation, such as being able to return in certain locations. I was instantly back to my critical view: of course the Buddhist people who created the rules of reincarnation would put in a caveat like that to cover up such a clear flaw in the system.
Later, I felt bad for being so doubtful. Isabel said that without fully engaging and “buying in,” even in the short term, she can’t really understand another point of view, and I puzzled that over in my mind. Maybe it’s true, and maybe I did lose something by not meditating as deeply or encouraging myself to believe for just a week. Yet there are things I am taking away from Bodh Gaya, and things I am leaving behind. I will remember the overpowering smell of burning incense in a tiny cave packed with people. I will remember the sight of hundreds of people prostrating, stretching and standing on wooden boards which remind me of beach towels. I have memories of conversations with Lama Tsering and everyone in our group, our laughter and debates. But I am choosing not to embrace a new religion. I am holding on to my skepticism. In some ways I wish I didn’t have to, because as my grandma put it in an email, holding on to skepticism is holding on to the nonbeautiful. But for me, skepticism has opened doors. It lets me ask questions and get answers and ask more questions. It encourages me to try to think outside of belief systems, and I don’t feel a loss at that. So from Bodh Gaya I will also take a renewed confidence in that disbelief.