Buddhist Studies in Bodh Gaya, India: Buddhism on the Brain

27 February 2024

This fall, Carleton’s Global Engagement Program in India is returning to Bodh Gaya, a town in northern India. Rich in its history, the Buddha-way grew dominant for a while in India, and spread in all directions.

Since 1979, Carleton students and others have traveled to Bodh Gaya to spend a semester practicing Buddhist meditation with recognized masters, studying the faith with academic experts, and doing fieldwork on independent study projects rooted in what they’ve learned. The program, founded by Antioch College and taken over by Carleton in 2016, gives students the opportunity to walk in the literal footsteps of the Buddha.

Bodh Gaya refuge group

Buddhist studies came to Carleton in 1960 with a Yale-trained assistant professor of religion named Bardwell L. Smith, who was also an Episcopal minister. During his career, he brought senior Buddhist teachers to campus to give students a sense of how Buddhist teachings are embodied in real lives. 

In 1989, Roger Jackson, a scholar who specializes in Tibetan Buddhism who also practices the religion, became the religion department’s South Asian and Himalayan specialist, with Smith handling China and Japan. With Smith’s retirement in 1995 and Jackson’s in 2016, other scholars have taken over. Today, Asuka Sango, a specialist in Buddhism and its relation to medieval Japanese politics, teaches introductory Buddhism courses and covers Japanese religion in general. The department’s South Asian specialist is Kristin Bloomer.

In 1996, Jackson, his wife, Pamela, and a group of friends founded the Northfield Buddhist Meditation Center, which is still going in a second-floor space on Division Street. And when, in 1997, Carolyn Fure-Slocum ’82, a United Church of Christ minister, became the college’s chaplain, Buddhist meditation found another champion.

Today the chaplaincy has more Buddhism more often, specifically, Buddhist meditation every Thursday. There’s also Time to Meditate, 20- or 30-minute sessions of various meditation styles, led by associates. And Buddhist chapel services continue, once per term.

students practice meditation

The students who traveled to Bodh Gaya this fall are being exposed to a wide range of different Buddhisms in a comprehensive curriculum. Living together with instructors in the Burmese vihara, the guesthouse for Burmese pilgrims in Buddhism’s most important pilgrimage center, they commit themselves to observing Buddhist moral precepts, including no intoxicants, never telling a lie, and giving up phones and laptops.

But meditation is the touchstone. The 30 or so students rise early and meditate for an hour under the guidance of a senior practitioner. (In 11 weeks, they’re trained in vipassana with a Theravada teacher, then Zen and Tibetan meditation with respected teachers in those traditions.)

A full day of classes follows, then another hour of sitting at the end of the day. As C. Robert Pryor, the Antioch College professor who founded the program, puts it: “If you want to know what Buddhism is, you need to do what Buddhists do. It’s classic experiential education, but to that we added an interior part—serious meditation.”

For Arthur McKeown, associate professor of Asian studies at Carleton and the program’s current director, the experiential becomes transformational. “There’s the stress of being in India,” he says. “They’re learning how to meditate. They’re in the classroom. Those three factors create a feedback loop that transforms them. And once you can meditate in Bodh Gaya, which is a loud, intense, Indian city, you can meditate anywhere. The full range of life is there and then you’re immersed in it. You learn, okay, I need to let go of something, because the world around me is not going to change just for me.”

students work while sitting around table

Madeline Egan ’19 is studying to be a doctor of osteopathy. Already committed to spirituality and medicine when she entered Carleton, she majored in religion but also took pre-med courses and was a dedicated cross-country runner. Buddhism intrigued her and, per Roger Jackson’s suggestion, she applied to the India program. “It was right in my wheelhouse because experiential learning and religion were exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. “I loved India right away. I was in awe of how open the people were, how everything was just so full of life and so vibrant.”

Egan had also come to India with a sorrow—the then–recent death of her grandmother, whom she calls her best friend. Meditation meant she had to sit with the sorrow and make some difficult discoveries. “You’re sitting with things about yourself that maybe you don’t like or you haven’t created space for,” she says. “You can’t go on social media and pull in other identities or put a fake sense of self out there. And I had to confront what death and dying means to me.”

Egan says her biggest realization was “being able to see myself clearly, almost from a third-person perspective.”

students stand in black robes

All the Bodh Gaya students pursue a thesis project, for which they travel somewhere, usually in India or Southeast Asia, for field research. Egan went to Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s north Indian place of exile, to interview doctors and undergo treatment at the most important center of traditional Tibetan medicine in the world. Her topic: what is the role of meditation in Tibetan medicine?

What Egan learned not only capped off her Bodh Gaya experience, but in many ways summed up what Buddhism and meditation contribute to a liberal education of the mind and heart.

“The resounding answer I got from the doctors was: yes, we meditate! The heart and mind of the physicians have a direct impact on the patients they’re present with. I believe that the simple presence of another human can be healing or harmful. It’s hard, you know, to be gracious with ourselves and to open that space of acceptance for everything in our hearts and minds. But how can we even attempt to do that with someone else if we haven’t done it with ourselves?”