There were sessions on not just "sitting meditation", but also "walking meditation" and mindfulness exercises such as calligraphy and even doodling. There were also some tai qi sessions.
These were some of my learnings:
One of the sessions was a tour of the temple complex conducted by a person who wasn't part of the monastic order. She provided some interesting history into both the temple and Buddhism itself. However, one of the things she said surprised me and made me research her claim after I got back home.
As would inevitably happen with a Western group, the Swastika on the Buddha's chest attracted some comment. Most people seemed to get the idea that the Nazis had appropriated an existing symbol and given it its modern unsavoury association, but there was no knowledge that the Swastika was an ancient Indian symbol.
Our guide didn't help matters by claiming that it was called a 'Sauvastika' and that it originated in ancient Greece! My first and rather sarcastic thought was that she was confusing it with Souvlaki. Wisely, I held my tongue and didn't contest her claim outright.
After I got back home, I did some research of my own, and learnt that 'Sauvastika' was an actual word used to refer to the backwards-facing Swastika, but this was a term coined by 19th century Europeans to highlight the distinction, not an original Indian term.
Also surprisingly, it appears that there exists a Greek connection after all. The symbol appears in ancient Greek art, but it was never called the Swastika or Sauvastika. It was called a Tetragammadion, because it looks like four Gamma (Γ) symbols joined together.
The most interesting thing I learnt, though, was that the Swastika appears as a religious symbol in all cultures where a god wields a lightning weapon, because its jagged shape represents bolts of lightning. Indra, Zeus, Jupiter, and Odin - all of them are said to be associated with this symbol. This is yet another piece of evidence to me that "Vedic" civilisation is "Aryan" and came to India with the Steppes Pastoralists.
So the lady wasn't outright wrong, but her information was misleading all the same. The most direct connection from the backwards-facing Swastika on the Buddha's chest is to the Swastika symbol used in ancient India. Yes, it's called the Sauvastika, but that's a 19th century European word. Yes, it was also used in ancient Greece, but that's not where the Buddhist symbol came from.
My philosophical takeaway from this episode is that, until India becomes an important world power, a lot of cultural misconceptions and appropriations will continue.
The style in which the monastics chanted the hymns sounded familiar. After some reflection, it struck me that they were singing in a scale known as Bhoopali (in Hindustani music) or Mohanam (in Carnatic music). This is a pentatonic scale and most commonly heard in all East Asian music.
1. As you can see in the top photo, there are five huge statues of the Buddha in the main shrine of the temple, making it impossible for devotees to circumambulate them, as would be the practice otherwise. One of the priestesses - called "venerables" (which reminded me of Hillary Clinton and her "basket of deplorables") - told us we would have to circumambulate the cushions (pews) instead. It struck me that if we couldn't circumambulate the Sakya prince, we could simply walk around the Kushans.