One of the must-do activities in Dharamshala is a visit and retreat at this Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist centre.
I had decided to do a ten day Introduction to Buddhism retreat before I set off for India but many of my compatriots had joined late following a teaching from the Dalai Lama at his temple and main residence in exile, Mcleod Ganj.
The two day teachings from His Holiness were inspiring as large crowds sat on the floor among the monks and were served Tibetan butter tea and bread.
Tushita is a meditation and retreat centre with various huts spread through its grounds for monks and nuns to stay away from the disturbances of the world. Our course, however, was more of an introduction to the philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism than a full on meditation retreat.
The format involved getting up at 6AM and having a meditation session for an hour before teachings from Venerable Robina Courtin, the Australian Nun who was leading our course. We had a short yoga session in the afternoon and an evening meditation with the rest of the time taken up with teachings and one discussion period. Although the retreat was ostensibly in silence it was not strictly enforced and Robina seemed open to the idea of us talking about the new ideas that were being introduced.
Robina is an imposing character and the idea of a peaceful meditation retreat was soon quashed by her forceful approach to presenting the teachings of the Buddha. I found this exhilarating and connected with so much of what she had to get across. When we found a bit more about her background it made sense that she was such an intense personality. She grew up in Australia and travelled to London and New York getting into "Sex, Drugs and Jazz" working with the Black Panthers and living with a group of radical feminist lesbians before discovering Buddhism and taking up the robes within months of meeting her guru Lama Yeshe.
Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche started the FPMT or Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, after seeing an interest from Westerners in the teachings. The organisation started in the 70's when the Kopan Monastery was founded on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal. This centre in Dharamkot was founded in 1972 and has been accepting students in the summer months ever since for these 10 day introduction courses and also intermediate retreats to deepen the practice.
Food and accommodation are of a good standard, particularly if you book early and are able to get one of the smaller dormitories. Breakfast was a hearty porridge with home made bread and peanut butter. Lunch was more substantial with a selection of Indian and Tibetan vegetarian foods, all non-spicy though, which was helpful since I went in with a touch of a stomach upset. Dinner was soup and bread but we never went hungry and there was a little shop to buy chocolate if you needed a treat.
All in all, Tushita and the course was a life changing experience. I met some amazing people who I still keep in touch with and with whom I travelled around the rest of India. I carried on my studies at their centre in Nepal and have a steady meditation practice to this day.