Vipassana Research Institute

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Vipassana Research Institute
Dhamma Giri: The Early Days, By Dr. Geo Poland
Vipassana Research Institute

I remember the first time I heard about Dhamma Giri. It was at the end of the course in Khandala, when Goenkaji announced that they had been looking for a centre near Bombay; they had found a piece of land and purchased this land in a town named Igatpuri, about three hours north of Bombay. As it happened, our train to Bombay stopped at Igatpuri for about twenty minutes to change engines. And so a friend and I got off the train and looked around at the beautiful landscape; we were so inspired and excited about the possibility of a centre coming up, that then and there we decided to go and see Goenkaji at his office in Bombay the next day and ask his permission to return to the land to sit and meditate for a few days.


In those days I was a hippy with long hair and long beard, as was my friend. But it also so happened that at the end of that course I decided to leave those hippy days behind. So I went to the local barber's shop and had my haircut and beard shaved off. Then we went on down to Bombay. The next day we went to Goenkaji's office and requested the secretary if we could have a few words with him and we were told to wait in the waiting room. I must admit I was a bit nervous as I'd never had any contact with Goenkaji, other than as a student sitting at his feet. After a short period of waiting, I was told I could go in and see him and so I walked into his office. As soon as he saw me, he burst out laughing. I couldn't understand what was going on and I reached nervously for my beard, which was my habit whenever I got nervous. Then I realized that my beard had been shaved off and that he didn't recognize me. I asked if we could go and meditate at the land. He was happy to let us do so and he was also happy that we had cut our hair short and shaved off our beards, because he felt that it was very important that the first few people that went to Dhamma Giri would be viewed by the townspeople as representing Goenkaji and the technique of Vipassana meditation.


So the next day we took the train up to Dhamma Giri and contacted Mr Bhojraj who showed us up to the land. At that time there were only three buildings on the property. There was an old farmhouse where some resident farmers were staying and a large warehouse. And then there was a three- room bungalow, which is still in existence at Dhamma Giri today. So Mr Bhojraj showed us up to the bungalow and opened the door and told us this was where we could stay. That night he came back with a few other meditators from the town and we had a small group sitting outside, under the stars. We stayed to meditate for a few days and then we had to leave, due to previous commitments.


When I returned to Dhamma Giri about two weeks later, Graham Gambie from Australia, who had been living up in Darjeeling, had heard about the land being purchased and had immediately come down. We were both very excited about the new centre and we wrote a letter to Goenkaji, requesting his advice as to what we should do: should we start digging gardens and planting flowers; what should we do to improve the site and begin the work on the centre? We very soon received his inspiring reply: "Dear Geo and Graham, Be happy! Meditate! Meditate! Meditate!  

Clean yourselves and clean the atmosphere of the centre." So this became our goal.


However, there were some physical problems we had to overcome before we could start doing self-courses. The bungalow which we decided to use for meditation had three rooms. There was a large central room which seemed best for the meditation room, however it had been used for many years for keeping goats and hence the floor had a very thick layer of goat dung ground into it. In addition, after many years of people cooking in these rooms with fires, the walls were black with soot. The only water available was at the bottom of a steep hill where there was a well. So for a few days we walked up and down the hill carrying water, throwing it on the floor and scraping and scrubbing the floor clean.


Shortly thereafter, Graham was called to Bombay to manage some of Goenkaji's courses, so I was left alone at the centre. In consultation with the other local meditators, we decided that we should whitewash the soot-covered walls. And so the first worker was hired for Dhamma Giri. His name was Sonu and to this day he is still working at the centre. Sonu is a man who has been deaf and dumb since birth. He cannot speak, he cannot hear, yet he can communicate very well in simple sign language. He is a very hard-working and honest working man. Sonu was coming every day to whitewash the walls and again in my enthusiasm, I explained to him in sign language that I would like to help him with the whitewashing. But he made it very clear to me in his own sign language, that my job was to meditate and his job was to whitewash.


There were three rooms in the bungalow and I would sit in one room meditating and he would be in one of the other rooms whitewashing. When he had finished one room, he would come into the room where I was and indicate to me that I had to go into the next room to meditate. Then he would whitewash those walls and again come in and move me on to the next room. So for a few days, we went on moving from room to room. And gradually, from day to day, layer after layer of whitewash went on the walls and they changed from black to grey to white. This bungalow is all that remains of the original buildings; and due to its high ceilings and thick stone walls, it's one of the coolest, most comfortable buildings, even today in Dhamma Giri.


When Graham returned from Bombay, we started doing self-courses in which one of us would meditate and the other would cook and take care of the centre. After some time, we hired a local village lady to come and cook for us, so we would both have time to meditate. At one time, Narayan and I went to do a short self-course in a cave near the village of Tingelwari, behind the mountain at Dhamma Giri. At the time, we were thinking of what type of accommodation we should have at the centre.


The Trustees from Bombay had already begun to build the dormitories and dining halls but we wanted some smaller huts. On our way back from the cave, we were inspired by the simple mud huts with grass roofs which we had seen in the village. So we asked the Trustees if we could construct two circles of 10 huts, one for males, one for females. They agreed and so we set about getting them built by local villagers.


The workers came with their families and camped out on the Shanti Pathar and the work began. One problem we encountered was that we could not easily get the necessary materials close at hand. The huts were made of clay and cow-dung mixed with water to a thick consistency and then packed by hand onto the walls which had already been woven together from small branches. Because we were building so many huts at once, we could not get all the necessary mud we needed, so we had to get mule-trains carrying sacks of clay from some distance away. Also it was not possible to get enough cow-dung from the local village and so it was ordered from a dairy in Bombay.


I remember very clearly the night we awoke about 2 a.m. to the sound of the truck's horn blasting and next thing we knew the workers were up to their waists in cow-dung, unloading the truck. By this time, a number of Westerners had come to Dhamma Giri to help with the construction of the centre. Although we were all very enthusiastic to help, as often happens, personality differences led to disagreements and eventually quarreling developed between different factions as to what we should do. When Goenkaji heard of this, he gave us such wonderful advice, which I remember to this day and I am happy to pass on to other centres, when they find themselves in the same situation.


He said: "This is how mara (which is nothing but the manifestation of your own impurities) gets into the centre; you start fighting with each other and generating bad vibrations of anger and hatred and this spoils the entire atmosphere of the centre. You have come to help develop good vibrations of love and compassion and peace, and in the name of Dhamma you have started harming the centre and also harming yourselves. Be careful to see that you do not fight with each other; you must live together in peace and harmony."


This is such a valuable lesson to learn for all of us who wish to help the spread of Dhamma. Before the centre actually opened for courses, Goenkaji held a short course to develop the Dhamma vibrations on the Dhamma land. This was organized at the last minute and so we did not have much time to prepare. At that time, no facilities were ready, so a temporary Dhamma hall had to be improvised. This was quickly constructed with the easiest materials available - in this case, corrugated iron walls and roofing. However, this became known as the "oven", because in the heat of the midday sun, that is exactly how it felt and we all had to cook in there for the rest of the day!


During this course, out of fear, a snake was killed by some workers. When Goenkaji came to know, he held a special sitting, where he chanted, giving special mettñ. He declared that from that time onwards, no animal or reptile or other being should be harmed on this land, which was a refuge for all beings, a place where all beings should feel safe and happy. Later on, as courses began, we often encountered snakes and scorpions as the land at that time was very raw and not too many people had been there, so snakes were coming from the lowlands in the monsoon up onto the hill to take refuge from the water. Nowadays, because of the heavy traffic of people coming for courses, they tend to stay away and we see very few.


At that time, I remember we were having a group sitting in the old bungalow one afternoon and one of the Western students, Bill Crecelius, was sitting in the kneeling position with his legs facing backwards. During the sitting he felt a funny sensation on the back of his legs, but as it was adhitthanna, a sitting of strong determination, he did not move. After the sitting, we looked behind us and there in the corner was a cobra all curled up and peaceful - he had come for the group sitting and crawled over Bill's legs! We quietly put a large tin pail over the snake and then slipped something under the tin to trap him and then took him far away into the jungle to release him unharmed.


Even today, if a snake is found on the land, we have a special contraption for catching them and releasing them unharmed in the wild, away from the centre.


Finally the courses began in 1976. The Dhamma hall in those days was the where part of the now-male dining Hall (formerly 'X' dorm) and 'Y', 'Z', dormitories are now. I remember that on the tenth day, after giving metta, Goenkaji would walk slowly up the main walkway towards the Shanti Pathar; and he would stop at each little tree which had been planted and holding his hand over each tree, he would give metta to each one. As one walks up this road today, these same trees are high above, giving delightful shade to the meditators.


These have been some of my fond memories of the early days at Dhamma Giri. I am sure they will stir other ones in the minds of those who were so fortunate to be there at the beginning of this wonderful centre.


I hope too that they may inspire the newer generation of Dhamma servers, who are equally fortunate to be involved in the establishment and running of all the various centres which are coming up now or will arise in the future.



Vipassana Research Institute
Vipassana Research Institute