Root Institute began with a single phone call...
In 1983 Jackie Keely, Lama Thubten Yeshe's secretary, called one of Lama's students, Kabir Saxena, who was then living in England.
My only wish is to return the kindness to the Indian people who are so kind to the Tibetan people, generation to generation. I want to return the kindness and this is probably your wish too.
Lama Yeshe to Kabir Saxena
And with that Root Institute was born.
The early days
Three years later, having overcome a constant stream of delays, Kabir was successful in securing enough land to label it as ‘Root Institute’. The first mud hut was built among a sea of rice fields with the silhouette of the Mahabodhi Stupa in the distance.
Tenzin Osel, the young incarnation of Lama Yeshe, visited in 1987 and the following year saw the first wave of construction.
The team of students who first collaborated with Kabir included long-term FPMT students Nick Dawson, Onju Roy and an Italian monk called Pino. Initial buildings were nicknamed 'turds', small buildings made of brick, wood, tiles and mainly mud. These basic constructs were very compatible with the hot Bodhgaya summers. Temperatures often reached 45-50 degrees and still do! A plethora of trees endemic to the region were planted, eventually growing into the lush garden that was to become our modern day garden of eden.
The Shakyamuni Buddha Health Care Clinic - or Destitute Clinic as it was originally named - was the very first project for Root, enabling the local villages to access quality health care without cost. The first patient was found lying by the roadside, fatally ill and requiring comfort for his last few months.
A largely agricultural state and one of the poorest in India, Bihar provided Kabir and his fellow students ample opportunity to make Lama Yeshe's wish a reality. The ability to repay the kindness was limitless due to the disproportionately high rates of illiteracy and poverty, as well as lack of health services and employment opportunities.
Rinpoche's first teaching at Root Institute
In 1989, Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche came to teach at Root Institute for the first time. Kabir recounted that special event:
The first time Rinpoche came to the land he said it was like the beach, so relaxing except no water and that people came with different motivation. I offered Rinpoche a conch shell as he stepped on the land. Rinpoche blew for so long and melodiously the sound still reverberates at Root. It has been so rich and full in offering the Dharma since that moment.
Over the next decade and due to the tireless efforts of many FPMT students and staff, Root Institute grew from a cluster of 'turds' to a collection of retreat huts, accommodation blocks, offices and a meditation hall. Root had developed a very good reputation and its simple accommodation was constantly in demand. The Institute’s socially engaged projects also expanded further afield, supporting the local communities by way of reliable village water pumps and schools and eventually with its very own Buddhist school, Maitreya School for Universal Education.
While Prince and Madonna were dancing it up in the 1990s, the very first offering of 100,000 lights was made during Saka Dawa upon the request of Lama Zopa Rinpoche. A handful of Root staff rallied familiar and not-so-familiar Western practitioners who were to be found practising around the Mahabodhi Stupa. Together they purchased 100,000 clay bowls to serve as water offerings, along with 100,000 flowers, incense and food offerings, all within 24 hours! This was truly an extraordinary effort in a place where objectives were rarely achieved so quickly and without obstacles.
Beginnings of the Festival of Lights and Merit
It also heralded the beginning of Root's annual Festival of Lights and Merit (FLAM) at the Mahabodhi Stupa. FLAM celebrates the four holy days in the Buddhist calendar - 15 Days of Miracles, Saka Dawa, First Turning of the Wheel and Buddha's Descent from the Realm of the Thirty-Three.
Thousands of tiny electrical lights created a starry heaven around the Stupa and give practitioners the illusion of doing kora among the stars. This beautiful and inspiring Festival continues each year, providing students throughout the world with the opportunity to eliminate obstacles and create skies of merit in the holy place where Buddhism began.
While our students and staff were busy collaborating on the collection of projects upon which Root Institute dependently arose, they also lived through uncertain and sometimes very dangerous times. Bandits regularly roamed the countryside and found their way to Root.
In the early 1990s, our then Director Gabriel had a gun held to his head while bandits robbed the Institute! Another time a group of men with machine guns turned up at Root’s entrance demanding access. Again Gabriel placated the bandits and they dispersed without injury.
It may seem like something out of a movie but our students and staff relied upon their courage, determination and refuge in the dharma to overcome these dangerous and challenging times.
Up to the present day
The Bodhgaya of today is a very different place. Services have increased somewhat and the bandits are no longer seen. The town itself has spread across many of the original rice fields and the streets are busy with buses, cars, rickshaws, motorbikes and the occasional elephant! In contrast, the epicentre still remains the holy site of the Mahabodhi Stupa, the place where Prince Siddhartha overcame his maras and actualised his inner potential for Buddhahood.
Root Institute has continued to grow into a wonderfully beneficial family of projects which includes:
- Maitreya School
- Shakyamuni Buddha Health Care Clinic
- Tara Children's Project
- Root Institute Dharma centre itself, as well as
- Stupa Garden of Compassion.
Today we have volunteers and staff from within India as well as abroad in each project, helping to facilitate further growth. Our family of students, guests, volunteers and staff have many opportunities to connect with highly respected teachers.
Our spiritual programme now runs from September to April each year and allows us to host our Spiritual Director Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche as well as His Holiness 17th Karmapa, Geshe Dorji Damdul, Dagri Rinpoche, and many more special and noble beings.
The lineage of Root Institute directors
Here is a more detailed history of the centre told via the lineage of directors of Root Institute - PDF.