Gardening and Gilding the Buddha in Bodhicharya Retreat Centre

Pat Little’s Diary of her visit to Bodhicharya Retreat Centre, Sikkim, and a fascinating insight into the creation of the new kitchen garden for the recently completed Buddhist Retreat Centre and the medicinal Himalayan plants project.

“In November 2009 I had the great privilege of spending three weeks in Ringu Tulku’s Bodhicharya Retreat Centre in Rumtek, Sikkim, helping in the early stages of setting up the Sowa Rigpa garden for endangered Himalayan medicinal plants that is Rinpoche’s long-term dream. What follows are some notes on my experience.

As it happens, I arrive at the Retreat Centre at the same time as Ringu Tulku, who goes regularly to give teachings to the retreatants, and Rahima, who has been the on-the-spot manager of the Sowa Rigpa project so far, as well as chief researcher of the potential plants, but who has been in Nepal for the past few weeks organising the renewal of her Indian visa. We make the journey from Gangtok in Pema’s big people-carrier, a journey that takes approximately one hour, descending down to the valley floor over rough and winding roads and then up the other side. It’s a journey that has such a clear geographical logic to it that I feel it’s familiar, even though I’ve only done it once before, and I don’t recognise any of the detail. At the entrance to the Retreat Centre, discreetly unmarked, a mere pathway into the forest, we’re met by Tashi, one of the small permanent staff, and a helper, who carry my bags for me – I’m the only one staying this time. And then we set off at a brisk pace through the green jungle of the forest, thick and lush so soon after the rain. But since so much of it is evergreen, it probably always stays like that. It’s only when we go through the Tibetan-style gateway that we begin to get the stupendous view of the mountains beyond Gangtok, the skyline hard and clear in the morning light; they won’t be in full sun until much later, as it’s the Rumtek side of the valley that benefits from that in the morning. And then, round the last bend, the Retreat Centre itself comes into view; it’s a large, white, Tibetan-style building, looking totally at home in the landscape, with its brightly-coloured decorative detail and strings of prayer-flags fluttering in the light breeze.

The initial impression of the garden is not encouraging: the former rice-terraces, where Rahima had experimented with various medicinal plants, and the gardeners had sown vegetable seeds, have been completely taken over by weeds, notably a very pretty lilac-tufted one that I don’t recognize. Giving some of it a quick pull, I realize it won’t be easy to eradicate, as the stems are tough and it seems pretty tenacious. But it appears aromatic, and in some ways seems to resemble a type of mint.

No time to plunge straight into anything, though, as Rahima has to go back to Gangtok almost immediately, and I’m on my own for a couple of days.

When I get out into the garden the following day, my initial impression is confirmed. The weeds have colonised everywhere; there are indeed some vegetables – peas, beans, radishes, some beet, an unidentifiable brassica that has gone to seed – but the peas and beans are spindly and seem in need of a good feed, and the radishes look as though they should have been harvested some days ago. As for the weeds, where to start? Which beds should have priority? I decide to wait until Rahima’s return.

My arrival has coincided with that of a seven-foot high seated figure of the Buddha, destined for the shrine room. It was cast, in brass, in Nepal, and brought over the mountains in a lorry in three pieces: head, body and lotus on which he is seated. On arrival at the roadside entrance to the long, rocky path down to the Retreat Centre, the Buddha, carefully wrapped in sacking, was strapped to a sort of palanquin made of bamboo poles, needing around fifteen sinewy locals – probably a mixture of Nepalis and Tibetans – to bring him down here. All the finishings have now to be done, including the gilding, which I have the great privilege of watching over a period of several days. The work is done outside, in a shelter specially constructed for the job, by goldsmiths, who are also brought in from Nepal, as is the gold leaf. The precious metal, cut into small pieces, is melted with a blow-torch, in a small pot, into which is mixed mercury, so that, when painted on (with toothbrushes), the initial effect is silver. The blow-torch is then applied to the whole surface, which burns away the mercury and reveals again the gold. The goldsmiths wear face-masks throughout. During the whole process of applying the gold, there are a couple of ’supervisors’ – mainly Pema and one of Ringu Tulku’s other brothers, Salga, the thangka painter, plus Lama Yitin, the resident lama here, since gold has a tendency to ‘walk’! Today I notice they’ve put a further coat of something reddish on the statue, but I don’t know what it is. And, having done the trunk, they’re now starting on the head. The lotus-seat is in the shrine-room, but has not yet been treated. When finished, before the head is put on finally, the statue will be filled with mantras, prayers and jewels, and it will then be ready to serve its sacred, ritual purpose.

A couple of days later, Rahima returns, and at the earliest possible moment we get out into the garden together to establish priorities. It seems that, before the monsoon, a large area of what is now weed was cleared with the aid of oxen and a plough, and then formed by a couple of local women into short ridges at right-angles to the terracing which runs along the contours of the hillside. It was there that the medicinal plants were tried out, and also a number of varieties of green manure: clover, summer vetch, lupin, phacelia. When the weeds began to grow again, the land was cleared a second time. Rahima then departed for Nepal, hoping the gardeners would look after things in her absence, but it seems they were diverted. We decide, therefore, which of the terraces to tackle first, unsure at the beginning of the best way to clear: Rahima pulls at the tough stems, most of which break off; I try to get at the roots, using a large Dutch hoe, but the patch I’ve chosen is desperately hard, baked to clay by the fierce mid-day sun – there’s been no rain here for about a month – and it’s going to take a very long time to make even a modest impression. Rahima suggests we try a terrace higher up, where there are only about four hours’ sunshine a day, and the ground has remained damp. That proves more successful. But the final solution is found only a couple of days later, when the diminutive Nepali gardener, Nyima, turns up with a couple of sickle-like tools, remarkably sharp, and proceeds to slash his way rapidly through the vegetation. I watch the long sweep of his practised hand, as he lets the tool do the work, and try to do likewise. We immediately make rapid progress. The roots remain, but the heads are prevented from seeding, and in any case we plan to make compost with a mixture of the cut greenery and cow-dung, which we can use as a mulch. We may also add composting worms, for which Rahima has a local source.

Anyway, we give Pema money to organize the manure; it’s expensive in Indian terms, since it has to be brought in baskets on the backs of porters, but we can’t do without it. At a later stage, there may be a case for getting the soil analysed; but that will be after the end of the long retreat, as soil scientists would not be allowed on the premises while that is going on.

A couple of sessions in the garden by myself today; Rahima has stayed inside with a heavy cold, the consequence no doubt of her stressful return from Nepal, and Nyima has disappeared. (It’s Sunday, so maybe it’s his day off.) Slash, gather, slash, slash, slash, gather; the stems of the weeds are wet, and exude a browning juice which stains my hands. The soil is also damp, easily compacted, as I work along the rows. Rahima says rice is a very hungry crop, and of course many nutrients will have leached out of the soil with the constant flooding the rice needs. The sooner we can put something back, the better. I notice to my satisfaction that the first basket-load of manure has arrived! It looks good stuff, clean and well-rotted. But we’re going to need a vast amount.

As I go back down to the Centre, I notice that I’m like a hedgehog, with dozens of tiny seeds that have buried themselves in my fleece and elsewhere. It takes twenty minutes or so of patient plucking to get them out. Another hazard is leeches, Rahima tells me. She used to come out of the garden covered with them during the monsoon. The idea doesn’t appeal, I must say. They’re too closely related to slugs, at least in appearance, for my taste.

Great excitement today. Rinpoche arrived back, this time with his mother, known as Amma-La, and uncle, and they’re all three staying, though I don’t know for how long. All the retreatants went up to the perimeter gate to meet them, though Rahima and I, who aren’t supposed to mix with the others, stayed at a discreet distance. Uncle, who is aged and getting frail, had to be carried from the road. We don’t know the detail, but imagine some sort of palanquin affair, similar to that used or the Buddha, but more comfortable!

Rinpoche – or more likely Pema – had organised a chocolate cake for lunch – and a mug each of Coca Cola! Such a celebration! Rinpoche is very family orientated, and has most of them around him now in the Pomra in Gangtok. (Uncle was previously in Kathmandu.) His mother is a country-woman born and bred in Tibet, and we’re hoping she may have some tips for the garden.

Very little sign of Nyima, the gardener. He seems to be occupied most of the time helping to build a temporary house for the carpenter who’s coming to construct a dais for the Buddha-statue. But this morning, as soon as I went out towards the garden, Rinpoche came out too, clearly with the intent of making contact. He says the gardener is employed full-time to garden, and not to build houses, and he’ll make sure he understands this. He also says the other men (Nyima has been here only for a month or so) assured him that Rahima told them on her departure that they were not to weed!! Crossed lines somewhere.

But it’s difficult establishing the chain of authority: we obviously come very low down in the hierarchy. Rahima says that in any case, if you suggest a way of doing things that’s not to their liking, they’ll just smile but walk away from the job.

We both spend a couple of hours this morning trying to rescue the peas from the infestation of weeds. These have such tenacious roots, and the soil seems so heavy and compacted. I’ve put some of the cut weed-stems around the peas as a mulch, to try and stop the re-growth of the weeds, and keep a little moisture in the soil. We’ll see what happens.

Rahima, Myriam (another short-term retreatant) and myself get the chance for an individual chat with Rinpoche. There’s so much to discuss, but the conversation turns naturally to the garden. Rinpoche is very keen on getting a couple of cows, and I go along enthusiastically with the idea. They would provide milk for the community, and solve the manure problem. There are improved local breeds that would do well here, apparently. His mother kept cattle, and also great herds of yak. This is not yak territory; they need an altitude of 9,000 ft plus. But Amma-La could certainly be brought in as consultant for the purchase of cattle. With her experience, she’d have a good eye. She seems to have her feet firmly on the ground: it was she who provided a chocolate bar for each of us after the soup and momos last night!

After the conversation on cows this morning, Rahima and I think we should strike while the iron is hot. Rinpoche doesn’t know where to get a cow, but Tashi, reputed to know about cows, and from the local village, surely does. So we look him out down at the little house which is being built for the carpenter, and broach the subject. Yes, he can get cows in the village; we think that’s a good idea, as the cows would stay in a similar environment, and they could walk here. How much? 15,000 Rs (around €200.) And two cows? 30,000. Of course. Seems a lot for India. Probably includes Tashi’s cut for the introduction. We’d better talk about it with Pema next time he comes over. Along with tools – we don’t have enough – the duties of the gardener, etc.

This morning the valley and the mountains opposite are completely obscured by cloud. It’s so dense and immobile that it looks much more like fog. But fog for me has quite different associations. There’s not a breath of air. Even the birds have stopped singing. Eerie. Behind this grey, featureless curtain, I can imagine all sorts of things, any landscape I choose, its congruity limited only by the immediate horizon: the dull green of the belt of evergreens and banana palms fifty yards away at the bottom of the garden.

Rahima has just been planting out into the very first patch I cleared, some ‘rescued’ aloe vera, from a previous planting, which she had found hiding among the weeds. Someone had been taking off bits of leaf, presumably to use. How do you prepare it? I must find out. There is both a hybrid, with pale variegated leaves, and a darker, native Indian species.

Nyima is working really well, now that he has been prised away from house-building and various other jobs for which he was never employed. I think he feels his junior status and, maybe timid by nature, is easily cowed into submission by the big lads who seem to have all the authority. But he’s made a lovely job of a couple of patches of cabbages he’s planted out, preparing the ground with great care, making the holes with his hands, little craters in the fine soil, and refusing my offer of a trowel. The healthy crop of French beans I picked today is entirely his production. When the cooks will get round to using them is another matter: if we don’t pick, then nobody does, but we have the distinct impression that they think that proposing items for the menu is interfering.

Watering the garden has been something of an occult science so far. Rinpoche has always said that there is a plentiful supply of water from a spring at the top of the garden, which never runs dry, and which is collected in a tank. A hose-pipe leads from the tank down into the garden. Nyima, who knows about these things, says the water comes on at 3 o’clock every day, but somehow we always seem to miss it. Today was particularly frustrating: I was waiting for water to dampen the compost heap we’d made with weeds and cow-dung, and was checking with Nyima occasionally that the water was indeed coming. ‘Pani, pani? 3 o’clock?’ However, at 2.35 he disappears up the hill with Dilik the cook, waving his arms at the hose-pipe as he throws a parting-shot in Nepali. And then I see the water is in fact already running. Panic-stations: no viable container to collect it in. I’ll have to go right down to the end of the hose-pipe by the Centre and lug it back up the hill. Or find one of the many improvised joins and take it apart. But most have been nailed together. Altogether it takes me 20 minutes to get the end of the hose from which the water is flowing, to our compost heap – just in time to get the last trickle. And it’s still only 5 to 3. Who is the malevolent spirit who turns the water on and off like this? Up here one could believe anything.

It’s not until Monday, when Nyima returns to work, that the mystery is solved. Rahima and myself go up the hill with Nyima and Dilik’s wife who happens to be going towards the gate too. Nyima has promised to reveal all. Which he does, as he understands it. The end of the hose-pipe is inserted permanently into a hole at the top of the tank, and when the stream fills the tank to the level of the hose-pipe, the water can be ‘drawn’, in other words, encouraged to flow by a quick suck on the right end of the pipe at a join near the tank, temporarily dismantled and then hastily reassembled. What Nyima didn’t know, however, but Dilik’s wife is able to demonstrate, is that the hose is mobile in the tank, so can go much deeper into the water, and therefore you don’t need to wait until the tank is nearly full to get at the water.

But why 3 o’clock? I still don’t understand.

This morning, at last, after three days, the cloud lifts, and dawn breaks over the mountain-range beyond Gangtok. It’s still hazy, the successive layers of mountain standing out two-dimensionally, as in a Chinese water-colour, but at least they’re visible, and you have again the sense of a landscape developing to a clear-cut horizon, and the space beyond. I think that’s what I miss most, when the normal spaciousness of a mountain landscape (normal in the sense that I know it to be there) is refused me, and the objects of visual perception are blotted out, limited to those within 50 yards or so.

One day when we’re in the garden at our usual job of hacking down the weeds, we see a small figure coming up the steps in determined fashion. It’s Amma-La, whose countrywoman’s instincts can’t resist a session outdoors. She’s not allowing the years to put a brake on her activities – she’s in her eighties now – as she comes up to us, seizes a cutter and starts to demolish the weeds in expert fashion. She then turns her attention to the heavy right-angled fork which we use for preparing the beds, and starts to lift the roots, accompanying the demonstration with a commentary in voluble Tibetan. It’s a lesson we won’t forget – both the gardening expertise and the spirit behind it!

But, like the indulgent granny she is, she is mindful to slip us each a couple of sweets from her capacious pocket!

Ringu Tulku is making himself so accessible to us, so open with us, and we know that we can call on him to discuss the garden at more or less any time. We have a particularly helpful meeting with him one morning, during which he is entirely positive about the future. He sees the problems Rahima has had as an inevitable part of the experiment; they’re not even setbacks, in his view. Rahima admits that the people in Darjeeling, who are experimenting with ruta, took ten years to get any results. He doesn’t feel we have to limit ourselves to what normally grows at this altitude; in fact, they’re growing high altitude medicinal plants in a research project in Edinburgh, where, under protection, they grow bigger than in their original setting; but the Tibetan doctors feel that the medicinal value of the plants may be less concentrated. – though whether this is an impression or something experimentally verified is not certain.

The fact that Sowa Rigpa, the Tibetan system of medicine, has just been recognised by the Indian Government to be on a par with the Ayurvedic system is obviously very encouraging for him. He is setting up a Sowa Rigpa Institute, of which the Bodhicharya garden is a constituent part but, as with all these things, it takes time. However, once it’s up and running, Sowa Rigpa can be registered as a project with the Department of Horticulture, who have promised support (although Pema wants nothing to do with government departments!)

But Ringu Tulku has so many stories of how people have been cured – sometimes by him personally administering the medicine – of all sorts of ailments, from headache to serious tumours, passing though digestive problems and analeptic shock. His enthusiasm is infectious and will carry us along through the ’setbacks’.

On my final day, Rahima and I walk the garden, to fix in our minds the overall plan we’ve been creating over the past three weeks, aware nonetheless that it’s an evolving situation, and nothing will be final. We’re aided for the first time by a contour plan of the garden, including all the relevant features, making the overall situation easier to envisage. Spaff, one of the 3-year retreatants, has suggested a new path, to link up with the present steps down from the garden, in concrete, so that the retreatants have a circuit which is protected from the leeches during the monsoon, and we discuss various possibilities for this, with little areas leading off, which could be paved for sitting, and aromatic plants – often edible – established. Important not to forget the planting of trees on the sun side of the path – oranges, perhaps? – to protect from the fierce sun in certain seasons. Ringu Tulku is anxious that we should suggest a location for the cow-shed, to house three cows, and also envisage space for a number of individual retreat cabins, which could well figure in the Retreat Centre’s future. The wood at the top of the garden poses problems: in spite of Rinpoche’s wish to fell all the self-sown alder and replace them with medicinal- or fruit-trees, Pema says the Forestry Department is against the cutting of any trees at all. Sikkim is the only State in India that has actually increased its acreage of forest in the last few decades, and this has only been possible through a very pro-active and closely-monitored conservation policy. Spaff and Cathy (his wife) would also like to see an area at the top of the present wood kept as a wild-life run: in recent times all the undergrowth has been cleared, and wildlife has diminished accordingly. It would also give the upper area some privacy, screening it from the public part of the forest.

All this is in the future, but after an hour or so we have a clearer idea again of what that future could look like.

Monday morning, and I’m off to Gangtok. But not alone: Rahima, who has a ‘garden’ meeting, accompanies me, as does Ani Jampa, who needs to get some new glasses. Lhakpo accompanies me to the gate, as does Lama Shenka, who makes a little speech and offers me the kata, the traditional scarf of greeting or farewell. I’m sorry to leave these warm-hearted people, who have been a constant if silent presence most of the time. The abrupt break is inevitable as I get on the road again, but I feel hugely sustained as I go through the gate and take the path towards the road.

My stay was all too short. But seeds have been sown, both literally and figuratively, and others will come to nurture them, strong in the belief that the principles of Sowa Rigpa are the way forward for the planet, and that, because everything is interconnected, small seeds that are sown in Sikkim can become forests whose positive potential can only be guessed at.”

Pat Little

3 thoughts on “Gardening and Gilding the Buddha in Bodhicharya Retreat Centre”

  1. Margaret Richardson

    This is a wonderful insight to the garden and it’s development. Thank you so much Pat.

    Donations for helping with the medicinal plant project are happily received at and and click on the Donate buttons.
    This is what we have written on the blogspot:
    In Sikkim we are supporting traditional Tibetan Medicine and the conservation of Himalayan medicinal plants under ecological threat with a pilot project for growing medicinal plants in Sikkim meditation centre. The Buddhist Medical System widely practiced across the Himalayan regions of Tibet, Ladakh, Bhutan and northern India is called ‘Sowa Rigpa’ and is approved by the Indian Government as one of India’s recognized medical traditions.

    We have sent some funds to pay for tilling the land and planting 3 medicinal plants Ruta, Titta and Manu as an experiment to grow Tibetan and Himalayan medicinal plants.

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