It’s easy now, 30 years later, to bask in the accolades of having people like Richard Gere call your 30-year project “an island of sanity in a very crazy world,” to enjoy hot showers (solar-powered), to whistle with the birdsong, to meditate in the relic-rich and blessing-rich gompa and to marvel at the giant prayer wheel, the 3 social projects and all of the respected lamas who come to the Root Institute for Wisdom Culture to offer teachings and to take personal retreats themselves. In January alone, Root Institute was visited by Khadrola, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Ling Rinpoche, Richard Gere and others. However, when Kabir Saxena was first asked by Lama Yeshe to set up the Root Institute dharma center, it took five years to secure the land. The first huts were functional, but rudimentary dwellings of “mud, without a proper foundation,” according to Kabir. Mosquitoes had a feast. Machine-gun armed bandits interfered with funding that was already, well, “tricky,” according to Kabir.
When you look at the early pictures of Root Institute and see a skinny, leggy, young Kabir beside a mud wall, you have to wonder if that adventuresome 27-year-old had any clue of what he would create on behalf of founders Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, with a lot of help from subsequent directors, architects, patrons, local staff, doctors, pharmacists, homeopaths, volunteers, artists, teachers, nurses, art therapists and more.
So, who better to advise other 20-somethings, who might be driving an Uber and wishing they could have a real impact on something other than their college loan payment and their rent? Kabir was stuck in Northern England, cold and unhappy, when he got the call from Lama Yeshe to establish a dharma center in Bodhgaya, the land of Buddha’s enlightenment, so as to “give back to the Indian people, who have been so kind throughout history, to the Tibetans.” Why was Kabir chosen? Why did he say, “Yes!” Why didn’t he give up when it took five years to find the land?
In true, Buddhist fashion, my impromptu interview with Kabir occurred due to a mystic wisdom greater than my own. I was walking away from the Root Institute offices, slightly annoyed, that my meeting with Director Venerable Paldron was to be delayed by two and a half hours. To calm myself I whispered, “Treat every inconvenient moment as if you wanted it to happen.” I looked up, my vision no longer clouded by stink eye, and there, just ahead, was Kabir. I had just put two-and-two together that this 60-something monk was indeed the young adventurer in the photographs from the early days. As the pioneer who started it all, Kabir was the perfect interview to have! So, I approached Kabir rather gingerly, and he graciously made himself available for a quick chat. Yup. Right on the spot. Of course, I had traveled 8000 miles to create that serendipity…
Natalie Pace: So, you’re 27. What kind of career path were you on, when you were enlisted to start the Root Institute?
Venerable Kabir Saxena: At that age, I knew I wasn’t interested in business, or going into the bureaucracy in England, which I could have done with the kind of university degree that I had. I wasn’t interested in any of that stuff.
Natalie Pace: Why were you picked to start the project?
Venerable Kabir Saxena: For starters, I was Indian. Lama Yeshe needed an Indian person who wouldn’t have Visa problems. I’m sure he knew that I had a family in Delhi, which I could use as a base. And through his wisdom, he knew that I had the capability to get things started here. How could he tell that? That’s what inner cultivation is about.
Natalie Pace: Why did you say, “Yes!” to such a daunting challenge?
Venerable Kabir Saxena: My mother had passed away in England. I’d given up going on to further studies at the university. I was ready to come back to India and do something meaningful. I’d found these extraordinary people who inspired me, who seemed to be very stable, very kind, very happy people. It seems high praise, but that is what I felt. There probably aren’t any better employers to work for than these Tibetan lamas. I was in England when they called me, at a center in the North of England. I was very unhappy there actually. It was very cold. The call came at the right time.
Natalie Pace: Did you ever imagine then that Root Institute would become such a beautiful place, such a sanctuary, here in Bodhgaya? Or that you’d have three very needed social projects offering education, health care and even an orphanage to serve this community?
Venerable Kabir Saxena: My powers of visualization weren’t that good. When you start something off in the face of a lot of difficulties or challenges, then it is hard to envision what it will become. It was difficult. Gradually, it began to come together. Then I thought, “Wow. With hard work, and the practical brave directors who came after me, many things are possible!” A lot of work went into the details that make Root Institute so beautiful, like the artwork and the prayer wheel and the gompa [temple]. It takes a lot of very talented people a lot of time and a lot of money, with kind sponsors over the years. It beautifully demonstrates what Buddha said about dependent arising. Things depend upon other things. Things are interdependent. So many different causes and conditions come together.
Natalie Pace: What were some of the challenges?
Venerable Kabir Saxena: There are many obstacles here. There is the weather. [Editor’s note: stifling hot, followed by monsoons.] Officials and other people who don’t cooperate. In the beginning, our boundary was only made of trees and barbed wire. It was only after the violent events of the bandits coming in with guns, and one lady getting shot in the leg, that the director at the time said, “Look. Give me money to build a wall, or I’m closing the center.”
Natalie Pace: How does it feel to see how far the Root Institute has come?
Venerable Kabir Saxena: It’s strange. Sometimes I feel disoriented. It was just fields in those days. This can’t be the same place! But of course it is. One feels very gratified. All of the trees have grown. Some buildings have been constructed, which have lasted. What’s been put together is beautiful and has stood the test of 30 years. It will go on for a lot longer.
Natalie Pace: What advice would you give to other 27-year-olds who wish to create the career of their dreams?
Venerable Kabir Saxena’s Tips for Creating the Career of Your Dream
My advice for young people is:
1. As His Holiness The Dalai Lama says, “Never give up.”
2. Try and develop good aspirations.
3. Work on the mind and understand that your mind is the creator of your suffering. Don’t depend too much on material things – on outer things.
4. Realize that you have extraordinary potential as a human being.
5. Try and patiently create the conditions to do what you really want to do. Link up with other people who are like-minded. One can’t do these things alone.
6. I think once one begins to tap what one really wants to do, or can do, then it can happen. It’s like an acorn grows into an oak tree. A Bodhi seed grows into a Bodhi tree.
7. Have a mind that doesn’t get too centralized on “me me me,” which is a big problem.
Venerable Kabir Saxena: The tragedy nowadays is that people, due to the world economic situation, are forced into jobs that they really don’t enjoy as their vocation. There are too many people sitting in airless offices behind screens driving themselves insane. [Writer’s Note: Kabir says this as the birds in the background are so loud I can barely make out his words.] Your great Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I think that’s what most of us are having to experience in this world, which leads to aggression, violence, unhappiness, pill-popping, etc. etc.
It’s the fortunate person who finds what they really want to do and follows their bliss. That’s difficult. When you get self-absorbed, then you cannot reach out to others. Fear, anxiety, insecurity, only increase when you are only thinking about me and what can I do blah blah blah. When we reach out to others, which is our capacity as human beings, then one can be much happier.
I’ll end with a quote from my teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, based on the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, “Real happiness in life starts when you begin to cherish others.” Up until that time, you’ll just experience superficial, short-term happiness based on me me me.
Check out my other Thrive Global blog on Root Institute, entitled, “Sanctuary in a Sacred Site.” https://www.thriveglobal.com/stories/22152-sanctuary-in-a-sacred-site