No matter how I searched, the Wi-Fi wasn’t there. No television either. Even my phone, struggling toward two bars, conspired against modernity.
But that’s what you pay for at the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center and its 108 wooded acres just south of this state’s flagship university. Not that you pay much. Renting one of the four yurts in these woods costs $65 per night.
What you won’t get during your stay: what’s mentioned above. Or soap in the bathroom.
What you do get: an eight-sided, one-room yurt (plus bathroom) that’s nothing fancy but clean enough to walk across barefoot. You get a kitchenette, twin futons raised a couple of inches off the floor, a skylight and a small deck facing the woods. And, oh yes, inner peace.
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I arrived for a weekend stay one Saturday afternoon, pulling into a parking lot long on cars with battered bumper stickers extolling President Barack Obama and freedom for Tibet. Sixteen University of Michigan students in sweatpants and ponytails were also arriving for an “alternative spring break,” as one told me.
“We’re staying here for the week while volunteering at a domestic violence shelter in town,” she said.
“Wow,” I said. “Much more noble than getting wasted in Florida.”
“Well, some of us have already made that trip,” she said. “We’re just looking for a different experience.”
The Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center is the place to get it, and that begins with check-in. The office where I was directed is inside the temple, a connection I didn’t immediately make, which means I almost committed the no-no of walking in with my shoes on.
But I caught myself, which made it the first time I had checked in to an accommodation in my socks. In a yellow-walled office, a woman named Trish handed me a key, but I couldn’t get my eye off a bumper sticker affixed to the filing cabinet: “Whatever you do … is it necessary, truthful and kind?” Key in hand and shoes back on, I headed to my yurt, a simple hut at the edge of a dense gathering of trees.
Thubten Jigme Norbu, an Indiana University professor emeritus better known as the Dalai Lama’s older brother, started the center in 1979 not only to preserve Tibetan and Mongolian cultures but to “promote interfaith peace and harmony,” according to the center.
Of course, the place to do that, as well as stimulate the harmony within, is in the quiet of nature. Though this place isn’t quite in the middle of nowhere – single-family homes surround the property, and the closest Wendy’s is two miles away – amid the thick trees and classic Buddhist architecture, things still feel quiet and removed. If that’s not enough to feel a world away from the chain hotels of downtown Bloomington, three maroon-robed Buddhist monks live on the property.
In the quiet and stillness, you slowly come to expect more of yourself – more thought, more reflection, more deliberation. It slows you to the point that when finding a daddy long legs scurrying away for dear life on your yurt’s lime-green wall, you shrug and go about your business. All creatures have their place.
As night fell, life was enduringly idyllic: a sliver of white moon hanging before twinkling stars and an inky black sky. The only sound was the faint hum of tires just off the property.
Morning at the retreat
After a semi-restless night on one of those futons, I awoke to the bony trees quivering in the skylight. I wished it were summer, so I could see all these trees thick with life.
I made a quick oatmeal – from oats left in the cupboard; there also were some instant vegetarian meals – and headed to morning prayers. I knew nothing about them, but the regulars didn’t mind, welcoming me into their sanctuary of maroon pillows on a carpeted floor with a photo of the Dalai Lama at the front of the room. For half an hour we – or actually, they – prayed. Eyes closed and legs folded, I tried centering myself in their moment amid their gentle, rhythmic tones.
The monks, unfortunately, were away for the Mongolian New Year, so a Bloomington rabbi stood in as guest speaker. He talked for an hour on the value of compassion. When finished, several Buddhists noted that the religions share some identical concepts.
Then came the weekly vegetarian lunch, which happens every Sunday after prayers and lecture. As we helped ourselves to spinach pie, a rice casserole and fruit, I noticed ants scurrying around the table and across a sign that said, “We have ants. Many, many ants. We don’t kill ants, but let’s not feed them. Please leave food covered and sealed.” The daddy long legs must have shown me the way.
At the table I sat beside a man named Michael who was staying for a month. He had spent the last year driving across the country – from California to Oregon to Arizona to Texas to Arkansas to Bloomington.
“I just follow the synchronicities and live in the moment,” Michael said.
After lunch I headed out on the center’s several miles of walking trails that take you up gentle inclines and get that clean Indiana air into your lungs. Across the fallen leaves, I soon ran into a man named Charlie, up from Kentucky for a month, as he strolled with his black Labrador-Rottweiler, Lily. He grew up that Southern rarity of Baptist and Catholic before turning to Buddhism 10 years ago.
“It’s funny,” he said, while I tossed sticks for Lily. “The more I study Buddhism, the closer I feel to Jesus.”
He and Michael had weeks left there, but I was gone the next morning. You can be sure I remembered to remove my shoes at checkout.