A Zen Retreat: Finding Inner Peace In Tamil Nadu's Perumalmalai

Seeking digital detox and inner peace? Escape to Bodhi Zendo, a unique Zen retreat in Tamil Nadu's hills for meditation, community and a chance to reconnect with yourself
Perumalmalai in Tamil Nadu
Perumalmalai in Tamil NaduItz_manikandan/Shutterstock.com

Sometimes, I need to escape to my hushed nearby retreat. The rough and tumble of everyday urban life necessitates coming up for air every so often. My secret getaway is just a few hours away from the maddening city rush.

An overnight bus takes me trundling up the hills whenever I wish for such a reprieve. As the early dawn breaks through my sleep, the driver calls out and soon I alight at my destination: Perumalmalai, near Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu. A small taxi ride up and I am in Bodhi Zendo, a Zen Buddhist centre shrouded by a thicket of verdant hills. It is very much a secret retreat, hidden and unbeknownst to the wider world.

The altar of the Cross and the Buddha
The altar of the Cross and the BuddhaGargi Guha

There’s a heavenly feeling up here in the hills. Far, far away the forests create a veil-like partition from the bustle beneath.

A Tranquil Escape In The Hills

Upon entering Bodhi Zendo, one is immediately struck by the unique charm of the place. Right at its heart is the oasis of a Zen garden. Perfectly manicured Japanese-style pebble structures enable gurgling brooks to gush out unhindered through shocks of colourful flowers. The soft green grass surrounding it gives it an ethereal otherworldly feel. The gardens are surrounded by around 40 rooms for guests to stay in. There’s a massive zendo or meditation hall upstairs which is the heart and soul of this retreat. The altar is a blend of a Cross and a Buddha; a strange amalgam of faiths.

The daily flower arrangement at the Bodhi Zendo
The daily flower arrangement at the Bodhi ZendoGargi Guha

Bodhi Zendo has been welcoming people interested in practicing Zen Buddhism since January 1996. It is a labour of love by Father Ama Samy, a South Indian Zen master and Jesuit priest. Styled after his unique approach and inspired by Japanese design, this unique homestay reflects his belief in both Christianity and Zen. His Sunday Eucharist service here runs alongside daily zazen sessions. A chat with the man himself reveals his quiet and gentle persona.

Don’t mistake this place for a monastery. It is a fully functional Zen centre that serves the community. One will find a mix of nationalities here whenever they visit: Italians, British, Swiss and a large number of Germans. Father Ama Samy runs the place with a small coterie of staff and his direct successor, the young and bright Father Cyril.

The Zen garden
The Zen gardenGargi Guha

A Day Of Zen

Days here are a fluid blend of free and unhinged thoughts interspersed with the prospect of not being able to run away from oneself. After all, there is no diversion of a computer, phone or TV. This is what a typical day looks like:

5:15AM: A gong sounds and everyone silently moves to the zendo for an hour of zazen (sitting in silent meditation).

The Zen garden is inspired by Japanese rock gardens
The Zen garden is inspired by Japanese rock gardensGargi Guha

6:30AM: In true Zen style there is a dokusan or personal Q&A session with the master.

7AM: Time for breakfast and a chance to exchange greetings with others.

Nurturing the garden
Nurturing the gardenCopyright: Gargi Guha

8:00-9:30AM: This is the time for samu or community service. Everyone is assigned a daily duty like sweeping the courtyard, chopping vegetables for lunch (my favourite), cleaning the bathrooms or doing the dishes and pots post lunch.

10AM: A short tea break followed by another session of zazen.

Taking a walk in the Zen gardens of Bodhi Zendo
Taking a walk in the Zen gardens of Bodhi ZendoCopyright: Gargi Guha

12:30PM: Lunch and washing your own dishes.

5:30-7PM: Walking meditation followed by more zazen.

Koi fish in the pond
Koi fish in the pondCopyright: Gargi Guha

7PM: Dinner

8:00-8:30PM: Zazen to close the day.

And repeat.

An arch formed by plants in the garden
An arch formed by plants in the gardenCopyright: Gargi Guha

Days like these are hard to explain in words. There is a mystical blurriness about them. An abstract sameness. And a comforting, humming rhythm. There is a gentle flow of one activity weaving into another. Then another. And another. Before you know it night has fallen and sleep is but a deep cloudless crossover to another day of floating through it all.

Meeting Your Own Self

The toughest part in this saga of similitude is to block out incoming thoughts and feelings. Thoughts of worry, anxiety or any distraction for that matter. “Wherever you go, there you are" is a well-known Buddhist saying. There is no escaping one’s interruptive thoughts.

Meditators take a walk in the garden
Meditators take a walk in the gardenCopyright: Gargi Guha

Inaction and sameness are the two potent magnets which have drawn me in whenever I come to visit. There is nowhere to go. Nothing to achieve. Just one day spilling gently into another. Nothing to differentiate or earmark it as any different from the one just gone by. Living like this in the company of one’s self is a deeply humbling experience. There is no morning rush, no flitting from one task to the other, no deadlines. Just me. Only me.

Finding The True Inner Voice

Everything is suddenly luxuriantly amplified. Chopping vegetables on the board with a repetitive click-clack is music. The swish of the mop head, as it forms a generous pattern on the floor, is an art form. That tiny tight bud outside my window slowly giving way to a flourish of red petals in full bloom is a glory in itself. The curls of smoke rising languorously from my coffee mug. The little cat sunning itself on the sill looking just a tad imperious.

The Japanese influence can be seen in the garden
The Japanese influence can be seen in the gardenCopyright: Gargi Guha

Suddenly, I know. I am home.

For more information on Bodhi Zendo, click here.

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