Hi once again to you all.Or perhaps I should say ‘Namaste’ – a truly beautiful Indian greeting that is deeply embedded in their spiritual culture. It translates as ‘I honour the place within you where we are one’.

Recently I attended a 10 day live-in course at the Tushita Meditation Centre, which is located in a monkey-infested pine forest on the hillside above McLeod Ganj. The theme of this course was An Introduction to Mahayana Buddhism, with a balanced structure of lectures, discussion groups, yoga and meditation sessions which have all combined to give me a basic grounding in Buddhist philosophy.

We were a gathering of about 30 Western travellers, mostly young and many travelling alone like myself. When you sign on at Tushita you are accepting to be isolated from the outside world for the duration of your stay and, outside of specific discussion times, to maintain silence much like monastic life would require.

We quickly became a little community of our own – at the beginning each person was assigned a duty, such as kitchen-hand, cleaning, timekeeping and gong ringer to keep the community functioning through teamwork and camaraderie. Accommodation was in simple dorms or private rooms, meals were vegetarian but plentiful and nutritious. In fact everything was planned well and rostered. It reminded me of school camp but for aspiring Buddhists!

The only times set aside for talk was a 1 hour discussion session each day where we would split into small groups and sit in the forest sharing our observations swapping knowledge and experience. It may sound difficult for some, but I found the vow of silence kind of cool, and it did create an internally focused train of thought that made learning and meditation much easier. But of course we all learned to bend the rules a little, and we would create our own sign language, leave little notes, joke around and even flirt with each other without so much as speaking a word.

So what did I learn? Well, Buddhism is more less like a religion and more like a spiritual self-development. Tolerant and respectful of all other religions and spiritual beliefs, Buddhism’s real appeal is in its simplicity and may be practiced by anyone.

A large focus of the Buddhist path is on meditation practice – training the mind through the cultivation of mindful awareness and attention to the present moment. The Buddhist belief is that all the difficulties and suffering in life are the result of ignorance, deluded thinking and conflicting emotions. The obvious solution is to get wiser, more aware, better balanced and more loving. All these can be achieved through the mental discipline of meditational practice, a path that will eventually lead to a state of eternal bliss called enlightenment. To get there can take a long time though, in fact many, many lifetimes and incarnations. To determine what quality of incarnation you will receive in your next lifetime you must accrue positive and negative karma throughout this life. It means you have to start being a good person or you may be reincarnated as a cockroach, a bacteria, a hell-dweller, a Carlton supporter, or something equally distasteful – all making it more difficult to pursue the path to enlightenment.

I really liked the fact that if anything in the teachings doesn’t sit right then that’s ok, Buddhism demands doubt, questioning and reasoning. I can get all the benefits of Buddhist meditational practice without making any firm commitment to the faith and remaining open to other spiritual pathways and teachings (so rest easy everyone, I’m not about to become a monk just yet!).

Highlights of my stay at Tushita was the chance to discuss philosophy with other people, who like myself, are on a kind of inner quest, seeking a more peaceful and balanced path in their life.

I also loved sharing the forest with all the monkeys. Big ones and little ones, they were everywhere – through the mossy pine trees, the lawns and all over the rooftops, they were a constant source of entertainment. They were also very cheeky, if you turned your back they would steal your food, or clothes and towels and carry them of into the forest. Not surprisingly, they were very cautious of the Indian and Tibetan staff, who weren’t afraid to give them a whack if they got too close. But with the Westerners, they sensed our inexperience and would gang-up to menace any lone walker, especially the girls.

You really had to assert yourself with them. I had a run-in with one of the big dominant males who got territorial and would not let anyone use the pathway to the showerblock. When I confronted the mangy bugger he took a swipe at me and made me break my vow of silence with some language that was neither noble, sacred or kindly Buddhist (but very Australian!). The monkeys left me alone after that.

India still continues to fascinate me – where else in the world can you see some guy walking casually down the street completely naked, dreadlocks worn to the waist and skin smeared all over with ash, and not only will people tolerate him, they will hand over a few rupees so he can continue his spiritual journey. Such a strange, strange place.

Light and love to all of you,

Paul