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Home » Dispatches » What happens at a Vipassana meditation retreat in Bodhgaya, India?

What happens at a Vipassana meditation retreat in Bodhgaya, India?

In 2019, your Guide visited India to facilitate some mental health workshops and I took that opportunity to visit Bodhgaya for a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat at the International Vipassana Centre. Are you eager to leave behind the humdrum of everyday life and embark on an unforgettable journey of sitting and being? In this post I’ll give a brief overview on what Vipassana meditation is and share details about the retreat so you can know what to expect if you’re in the neighborhood.


An introduction to Vipassana meditation

Vipassana is often translated in English as “insight”. The Sanskrit would translate as something like “super seeing”. Vipassana meditation is about practicing mindfulness in order to gain insight into the true nature of existence. It’s about seeing past the delusions and judgments and stuff we stick on reality.

Vipassana meditation originates in the Theravada school of Buddhism and the practices taught at the International Vipassana Centre in Bodhgaya are in the lineage of Shri S. N. Goenka and Sayagyi U Ba Khin, part of a revitalization of Vipassana meditation in Burma that has spread around the world. 

In practical terms, the meditation style at the retreat is about bringing up a subtle tingling sensation on your body and then sweeping it down and around your body. As you practice bringing up that physical sensation everywhere, it’s like turning your physical experience into a wall of static, it all becomes part of the background, and you can drop that heavy physical meat sack you’ve been dragging around. Awareness!

The approach, although coming through a different school, is not that different from the aim in a Just Sitting / Silent Illumination Zen practice of meditation.

Despite being the birthplace of one of the world’s major religions, many people haven’t heard of Bodhgaya, and in a country full of spectacular historical sites, it seems to get a bit lost except for Buddhist pilgrims. The airport in Bodhgaya is international and receives flights from predominantly Buddhist countries, like Thailand.

Is a Vipassana retreat difficult and strict?

No. It seems like people who haven’t been to one, have an idea of Vipassana retreats being especially difficult. I’m not sure if that’s from marketing by Vipassana organizations or somebody said it on a podcast and it got repeated, but for whatever reason, when I mention Vipassana or meditation retreats in general, over the years I’ve heard several comments from people about it being difficult. I wouldn’t say that’s the case if we’re comparing retreats (not that we get into that kind of judging and comparing, but…).

There were a couple of factors that made this easier than other retreats I’ve been to: There was no work practice, silence and phone usage weren’t strictly enforced, there was a lot of dialogue through instruction and dharma talks, and Vipassana involves a kind of repeated body scan in your meditation practice. That type of body scan technique can be helpful for beginners because it gives you an object to follow.

So I’d say a 10-day Vipassana retreat is more accessible for a first-timer than something like a 7-day Just Sitting / Silent Illumination Zen retreat.

Why do a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat?

A meditation retreat in Bodhgaya provides an opportunity to disconnect from the outside world. You can focus entirely on your practice. With no distractions to contend with, you’ll have plenty of time for dedicated meditation practice. 

Giving several hours of your day to a meditation practice is a noticeably, significantly different experience than giving 20 minutes of your day. And several hours of your day meditating, for more than a week, allows you to really work on some of the common barriers that might challenge you with short practices.

Dedicated meditation practice also leads to the brain operating differently in interesting ways. After a few days of focused practice, I’ll experience my dreams always being lucid dreams, I need less sleep but don’t feel tired, and my brain learns how to shut up. 

Doing a meditation retreat in Bodhgaya is also a special experience because you can visit the town, a center of Buddhist study for more than two thousand years.

Make sure you add in time for exploring the town and the historical sites in the surrounding area. Check out my previous post on the Mahabodhi Temple, the temple complex on the site where the Buddha awakened, meditating under the bodhi tree through the night. 

What to expect during a Vipassana retreat in Bodhgaya

What was the retreat schedule?

In the schedule below, there are several sections of “individual meditation practice”. That meant you could meditate in the meditation hall or in your room. During the group meditation practice, that often included instructions on technique.

4:00 am Wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Individual meditation practice
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation practice
9:00-11:00 am Individual meditation practice
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch
12noon-1:00 pm Rest (a good time for mindful walking)
1:00-2:30 pm Individual meditation practice
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation practice
3:30-5:00 pm Individual meditation practice
5:00-6:00 pm Tea
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation practice
7:00-8:15 pm Dharma talk
8:15-9:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:30 pm Lights out

We each had a designated meditation cushion in the hall and there was a storeroom full of cushions, bolsters, and back supports practitioners could use to create a comfortable seat for vigorous sitting.

How were the rooms?

I was in a two-person dorm room with two single beds. Each bed had mosquito nets. My bed had Tigger bed sheets which I appreciated immensely. The shower was manual (a bucket and a ladle under two taps) but the hot water was hot. When a Himalayan winter vortex swept down and temperatures plummeted, that bucket of hot water was so wonderful!

More on the frigid temperatures below when we discuss preparations for the retreat.

How were the meals?

There were some good dishes that repeated a few times, but let’s say the food was different from other vegan food I’d eaten in India.

On the final day, the person who had sat next to me at each meal turned to me and said: “I struggled so much with the food but I saw you finishing every meal and I told myself: if the foreigner can eat this food, then so can I.”

Preparations for a 10-day meditation retreat

For the retreat in Bodhgaya, instructions in the email said to bring two passport-sized photos and my passport but when I got there, they wanted a photocopy of my passport and told me I’d have to walk to a gas station somewhere. Eventually we agreed on me sending a photo by email. But take a photocopy even if the instructions don’t mention it.

Be sure to pack some warm clothes! There was an unseasonably frigid block of cold air that swept down from the Himalayas and sat on us for days. Nobody was expecting it. Many people did what I did and just wore all of their clothes all of the time, along with the mismatched blankets from our dorm rooms. My room had a fuzzy brown blanket with hot pink roses on it. I looked like an anime character walking around with my flowery meditation poncho.

If you’re feeling a bit nervous about the amount of meditation at the retreat, try practicing some 50 minute unguided sits before you leave. 

All things considered, a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat in Bodhgaya, India is an opportunity to deepen your meditation practice and understanding of meditation practices around the world. But remember: You don’t need to do a Vipassana retreat in Bodhgaya! There are plenty of options for taking a similar retreat closer to home. And you already have everything you need to practice longer meditation sits wherever you are right now. No matter where you take your meditation journey to next, enjoy the sitting and being!

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