Wanders with Wit

Buddhism or Bust

Seeking inner sanctum on Gubbi Gubbi Country, Queensland, Australia
Ornate painted entrance gate in bush setting
The gateway to glee
"Happiness is an inside job" advised the church noticeboard.
Half an hour later, another ecclesiastical sign appeared by the roadside: "Happy is a man who keeps a quiet heart". (I assumed the adage applied to other types of people as well.)
How could these ministries have known I was on my way to seeking enlightenment - or at least fleeting insights of it - at one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist centres in the Western World? Three hundred and sixty million followers of the Buddhist faith had to be onto a good thing*, hence why I had booked an overnight stay at a highly-regarded hinterland retreat to soak up as much of the Mahayana Buddhist teachings in a 24-hour period as was humanly possible.
"Your karma is attracting you here," the wise receptionist informed me over the phone when I explained it would be my first visit to the place. Karma, and a deep desire to escape the bun-fight of the world for a while.
"Reception will be closed the day you arrive but please help yourself to one of the free maps on arrival." I was genuinely chuffed the receptionist had that much faith in me and my lack of Sherpa-style instincts to be able to locate anything on my own.
"Klip Klop Plop - $2 a bag."
With an abundance of horse poop for sale by the side of the road, it was no wonder the surrounding valley was so lush and fertile. Several steep descents, stands selling honey and/or pineapples and a dark olive snake slithering off the road later, I had arrived.
Country road with sun filtering through trees creating coloured balls of light
Country road with sun filtering through trees creating coloured balls of light
Orbs, anyone?
And so, it seemed, had the cavalry.
"Slow down! Wait!!" I frantically gestured as a stump removalist truck came boring down on me. Unsure if the first two car parks I'd come across were the actual car parks I was supposed to park in, I continued driving through the institute's grounds until I'd come face-to-face with the oversized vehicle, forcing me to reverse precariously along a narrow one-lane dirt road to let the truck pass.
As soon as the workmen departed, I pulled into one of the last remaining spots beside a Tesla and began unloading my gear. Although I had been warned about the challenging terrain in advance - and had brought sturdy hiking books in anticipation of scrambling up and down inclines like a mountain goat - for some reason I'd still insisted on packing my belongings in an oversized travel bag ... on ... wheels. Hello?!
The steep staircase leading up to reception tested not only my physical strength and stamina, but my ability to stop and smell the roses. Dotted along at regular intervals were signposts bearing wildly profound verses from a text known as The Jewel Lamp.
Sign containing phrase from "The Jewel Lamp"
Wooden stairway in rainforest
Sign containing phrase from "The Jewel Lamp"
Phrases from "The Jewel Lamp" & the Stairway to Enlightenment
I had no idea what bodhichitta meant, but it sure sounded important.
At the top of the staircase, I was gently reminded of the five lay precepts all visitors were asked to adhere to whilst visiting the peaceful monastic Dharma community: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct and no intoxicants.
Sign of five lay precept rules for visitors to follow
Sign o' the crimes
I was tested on the very first principle the moment my cumbersome luggage and I arrived at the retreat hut (after several unsuccessful attempts to locate it) where, resting on the inside window of my cosy little bathroom was the biggest mosquito in recorded history. Having already spent what felt like most of my adult life rescuing and releasing all manner of winged insects from inside my house - and everyone else's - I immediately set about freeing the poor sucker (pun intended), whilst pondering whether the blood of a committed community of vegetarians was of any interest to its fellow flyers.
With no television or obligatory bible supplied to distract guests (although, astoundingly, there was full mobile reception and, I'm assuming, the wonders of wi-fi), a desk and chair had been thoughtfully provided from which hearts and minds could be opened and transformed into their highest abilities in order to benefit others (just so long as no one lit up a candle, incense or cigarette). I was glad I had thrown my shampoo in at the last minute seeing as no complimentary bottles were on offer, most likely - I chuckled to myself - because Buddhists shaved their heads.
Aside from a young man I'd seen stretching off in the distance when I arrived, I could well have been the only person on the entire property. A pre-dusk chorus of birds and cicadas soon descended like a warm embrace and I stood mesmerised by the views from the cabin window. Although I'd registered to attend multiple talks while I was there, I would have been just as welcome to decompress and soak up the tranquil rainforest vibes and just be. But as the old saying from another branch of Buddhism goes:
Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
I had a state of nirvana to aspire to, people!
"Hi there. I'm Jenny. Is this your first time here?" a live-in volunteer with compassion in her eyes and charity in her heart inquired. I had just found my way up to the large, red-roofed Gompa at the top of the hill, via an impressively large white stupa, a garden of carved marble statues and an enormous prayer wheel.
Large outdoor stupa
Lavish interior wall of Gompa
Marble statue of Je Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa
Stupendous stupa, interior of Gompa, Buddha master statue
"It is actually," I replied as four other young male volunteers arrived. Glancing at their loose-fitting, plain-clothed attire, I kicked myself for not taking the institute's request to dress modestly a little more seriously. Muffin-topped jeans and a cosy T-shirt may not have been the wisest move, considering we would be sitting cross-legged on cushions for the evening. Following the volunteers' leads, I removed my chunky hiking boots and entered the Gompa's spellbinding interior. Polished wooden floors, high ceilings and lush wall hangings lead to a most spectacular blue backdrop adorned in dozens of gold Buddha statues, below which lay various offerings and candles.
As I settled down onto a cushion in front of a small wooden desk, the Buddhist teacher greeted the volunteers, alongside those watching online via a camera live-streaming the event, before I was specifically welcomed back to the fold.
"Oh no, this is my first time here," I innocently replied.
"Oh," the tutor responded warmly. "You look very familiar."
It was possible I had attended in a previous life.
"Kook-ka-ka-ka!!" a nearby kookaburra chortled as a robust chorus of cicadas threatened to drown out the speaker's instructions on developing a kind heart.
"The process of developing your mind," the twinkly-eyed monk explained, "is not just for this lifetime but for future lifetimes.
"Attachment is seeing someone else as a source of happiness, just like loneliness is deciding someone else will make you happy. Every one of us seeks happiness and wants to avoid suffering.
"Strangers may not be kind to you in this life but they will have been kind to you in a previous lifetime. Therefore, you cannot exclude anyone from your kindness or you will never truly be happy."
And ...
"Happiness is inside the mind."
(Just like the church sign had said on the way there!)
Whether it was the hypnotic surrounds, the profound philosophies, the mood lighting or the extreme gnawing discomfort in my lower limbs, I could barely concentrate and became increasingly distracted by how much beauty the tutor was radiating from within.
When the question and answer section rolled around, I waited patiently for the opportunity to ask the international Venerable leader (who was fluent in at least three languages!) a question but before I could gather the courage, the session was concluded and the volunteers began to disperse.
"Help yourself to one of the scrolls." Jenny gestured to a giant bowl of tiny, multi-coloured paper scrolls, each tied neatly with ribbon. I slipped a 10-dollar note into the donation box before reading my fortune for the evening.
"Whatever joy there is in this world, all comes from desiring others to be happy.
And whatever suffering there is in this world, all comes from desiring myself to be happy."
I should have packed up my weighty worries and left then and there, armed with the secret wisdom of the universe I'd been eternally searching for, but I was hanging out to sample the food at the café when it opened the following morning.
Looking up at Gompa building on top of hill
Gazing up at the Gompa
"Far out!" I inwardly puffed, gasping for breath. It wasn't the strenuous walk back up to the Gompa that had worn me out, nor setting my alarm for an uncharacteristically early hour, but my complete lack of diaphragmatic fitness during the morning Dharma practice that knocked the stuffing out of me. Whether blessing speech to create positive karma, purifying negative karma, strengthening connections to spiritual teachers or reviewing stages on the path of enlightenment, the hour-long chants of the local Sangha nuns were a supreme test of not only endurance but the ability to pronounce both Tibetan and Sanskrit and/or know how the exquisitely melodic English verses should be sung. When it came time to chanting a new sequence that was not in the supplied guidebook, a nun generously lent me her own personal copy. I beamed my gratitude back to her, before becoming distracted by a rather large yellow-and-black-striped wasp buzzing around the ceiling searching for an escape route.
"Should I do that too?" I then quietly questioned as several nuns began an energetic series of full body "I'm not worthy" protestations to the various Buddhas. Not long after, a rousing sound of cymbals and bells brought me back into full awareness. Looking down, I discovered handy little illustrations had been included throughout the supplied workbook to guide followers as to when to incorporate various instruments alongside the chants. Not wanting to step discourteously out of place (well, not on the first day anyway), I resisted the urge to have a crack at the impressive-looking drum and gong a few cushions over.
When the session was finished, the wasp was still pining for freedom but without any kind of container or beekeeper's suit handy to be able to set it free, I prayed the sentient being would be able to find its own path to liberation.
After a contemplative BYO breakfast (as the café wasn't open until mid-morning), I checked out and carried my burdensome baggage back down to the car, before trekking back up the main stairs to peruse the gift shop, where thoughtful merchandise emblazoned with the slogan "Kind people are my people" was on offer.
"Yikes!" I shrieked when I saw the time and scrambled back up to the Gompa for the final main talk of the day, led by a Tibetan monk who had attained the revered title of Geshe (the equivalent to a Buddhist doctorate). I was glad I'd booked my spot as there wasn't a single cushion available once dozens of devoted students arrived.
When the Geshe entered the Gompa, all of the physically agile attendees instantly prostrated themselves to the ground several times. Panicking, I followed suit whilst the stripy wasp watched from above.
The following 90 minutes were a powerful philosophical insight into the steps to enlightenment, discussed in Tibetan by the beamingly luminous, couldn't-take-your-eyes-off-him, dimpled (and occasionally giggly) Geshe - and translated by the sublimely entertaining teacher from the previous evening.
"Just as the major road works were completed at the institute yesterday to pave the way forward, we ourselves are paving the way forward with our mental development by being here."
(So that explained all the workmen.)
"The more you become involved in mental development, the more enthusiasm and motivation you will have. The way you think and speak need to be in agreement."
And ...
"Peace will only come from non-harmfulness and a clean protected environment."
I couldn't have agreed more!
The upcoming Tibetan New Year celebrations were fast approaching and the Geshe invited us all along, before gleefully insisting that everyone simply must come along. My ears pricked up when I heard about the large vat of special soup they would be making for the occasion. Ooh!
After more full body protestations - made even more awkward by my tingling extremities - the talk concluded. As I paid my donation and collected one last scroll, I noticed that the wasp had managed to find a gap in one of the screens and was moments away from finding an open window to freedom. Sweet relief!
As I put my boots back on, I spotted a sign at the entrance outlining ways to be respectful in the Gompa that I hadn't seen before: shawls were supplied at the back of the room if guests wanted to cover up their ill-fitting clothing; additional cushions were available if anyone was seeking more comfort; but, most importantly, the soles of any visitor's feet should never point towards the altar or teacher at any time. I instantly started sweating buckets. What if I had accidentally showed disrespect by baring my soles to the soulful Geshe whilst I constantly readjusted myself throughout his talk?
There was nothing left to do but sink my concerns into a steaming hot cup of homemade chai tea and a slice of luscious banana walnut cake from the café. As I was tucking into the scrumptious snack out in the garden area, a determined caterpillar appeared and kept making a beeline for my tea cup. On the table beside me, a brush turkey had froth on its beak from sampling the contents of a mug someone had left unattended for a few minutes.
The chai tea was that good.
Large building containing shrine rooms in Garden of Enlightenment
The glorious Garden of Enlightenment
"Wow!" I exclaimed after I had waddled down the newly-cleared road to the exquisite Garden of Enlightenment. His Holiness the Dalai Lama had spoken to thousands of people there when the gardens first opened, after 14 meticulous years of construction. A curious huntsman spider then watched as I circumambulated the outdoor prayer wheels - once I'd viewed the glorious mandala, stupas and paintings within the building's shrine rooms.
"Hello and welcome," came the greeting after my burning thighs and I had hiked back up the hill, yet again, but this time to peruse the extensive collection of Buddhist texts in the library.
"Thank you, ladies. I actually have a random request of you. Do you happen to have a cup and a piece of cardboard or something that I could use to catch an insect?"
Large building containing shrine rooms in Garden of Enlightenment
The glorious Garden of Enlightenment
"Wow!" I exclaimed after I had waddled down the newly-cleared road to the exquisite Garden of Enlightenment. His Holiness the Dalai Lama had spoken to thousands of people there when the gardens first opened, after 14 meticulous years of construction. A curious huntsman spider then watched as I circumambulated the outdoor prayer wheels - once I'd viewed the glorious mandala, stupas and paintings within the building's shrine rooms.
"Hello and welcome," came the greeting after my burning thighs and I had hiked back up the hill, yet again, but this time to peruse the extensive collection of Buddhist texts in the library.
"Thank you, ladies. I actually have a random request of you. Do you happen to have a cup and a piece of cardboard or something that I could use to catch an insect?"
Wooden display case lined with Tara statues
Tara, the "mother of liberation" (soon to be liberated wasp not included)
I had ducked into the serenely stunning meditation room next door to continue my quest for time out, only to discover I was not alone: another wasp had been vainly searching for the way out. The library volunteers kindly provided me with a plastic jug and piece of paper and, a few adrenaline-pumping moments later, the wasp was freed.
Outside, as I gazed up at the brilliant blue sky, I caught sight of yet another familiar friend just outside the Gompa: a stripy yellow-and-black wasp soaring with glee.
My acts of service - or at least hyper-concerned awareness for trapped creatures in my vicinity - were complete.
With a sated, Buddha-inspired belly and exponentially expanded mind, I floated back down to the car, ready to face the world with a renewed sense of curiosity and wonder - just as soon as I found out what the word bodhichitta meant.


* Which is why this travel article is in the "Mainstream Journeys" section and not under "Mysterious"!