Letter from a Buddhist Retreat CentreOn Fri, 17 April, 2015 - 16:33
Vajratara lives at Tiratanaloka, a retreat centre in Wales that specialises in running retreats for women who are training for Ordination. She gives us a flavour of a remote — but busy — life
The wind has finally died down and the sun is shining. This morning, when I went for my run, the waves on the reservoir were spraying over the dam, the wind howling and crashing down the valley. The new and tender crocuses and snow drops were battered and lying flat against the grass. Now in the calm of the afternoon they have risen again, stretching their frail necks to the sun. This is how it is living here, a life of rhythms. The rhythm of the seasons, the rhythms of the retreats and the rhythms of the day.
I go running not for exercise so much as to communicate with the environment around me. It is easy to get trapped in the day to day managing of retreats and I can lose a sense of where I am, even though I live in a National Park. I like to visit the same route, observing the day to day changes: the new buds, the activity of the birds, the path of the river. When you live closely to nature, the trees, rocks and rivers take on a personality of their own. You get to know them as friends. I get a feel of why the Buddha spent so much time talking, or even singing, to ‘devas’ or nature spirits, the gods of the trees. Sometimes, when my mind is clear and still, I think I could talk to them too. I go to the old Oak tree and I swim in the river all year round just as a gesture of intimacy and communion. In summer I float on my back in the cold water and watch as the trees touch the sky. Every day there is a new gift waiting for me: a bumble bee sleeping in the split bark of a tree, dark green moss covering black branches and glistening after the rain, a piece of pottery worn smooth by tumbling pebbles.
Life in a retreat centre, contrary to what you might expect, is busy. Our lives are governed by the yearly programme which is decided the year before. All other activity has to work around the programme: is there a retreat on or not? This is the first day of a retreat on ethics. We will spend the next two weeks exploring in detail each of the 10 ethical precepts we take at Ordination — applying them to the context of our own lives and working out what they mean for us personally. The retreatants arrived last night and all of us, the team included, were apprehensive, feeling the distance and strangeness of new company. Even in a day we have slowly started to relax, to open out towards each other. This is how it happens here. The conditions of retreat life are enough to bring people into contact with themselves, with each other and with their deeper aspirations. In the morning we have time for meditation and silent reflection. We meet in discussion groups to work out our relationship to the material we are focussing on. In the afternoon we walk in the shadows of the mountains, cook or rest quietly in our rooms. More meditation and silent reflection time until supper, and after that a puja or a talk. That is how it is most days. We work together, are silent together, we talk. We live as a community with each other, even if it is just for a couple of weeks. I used to think I had to do something extraordinary to create a special and profound retreat for the women coming here. Now I think it is enough if we all give ourselves fully to the conditions we have set up. There is a magic in that, an alchemy where something is created in each person who comes here. They leave with something. A new gift in themselves. Every time it happens I am humbled, privileged to be part of something so meaningful.
When the retreats finish a different kind of magic happens. It is this transition I find hardest. The rhythm changes. The days are no longer planned and the team are put back on their own resources. There is correspondence to catch up on and work to be done in the retreat centre. Laundry, food ordering, bookings, maintenance. Sometimes I wander round the empty building feeling lost. So much is shared during the retreat, I feel as if I am pouring out all I have into my communication. There are moments of the ‘vital mutual responsiveness’ that Sangharakshita talks about as the true potential of communication. It is deeply, deeply satisfying to communicate from the basis of what is most important for me and know it is understood and shared by others. And then it is over, the retreatants leave. Sometimes I use these times to see my friends and family, to go on retreat myself or to visit Centres. There are also times are when I stay at home with the community. It is our friendships with each other that are at the heart of the magic of Tiratanaloka. Those friendships are forged in sharing our day to day life. Every day there are 100 acts of generosity that bring us closer together. Cooking for each other, listening to each other, doing someone else’s washing up or folding up their dry washing, picking each other’s jobs up when they are left undone. ‘Why should I not set aside what I want to do and do what they want to do?’
What can I say about life here? It is all rhythms, rhythms and magic. A life of beauty, communication and friendship.
‘The wind has settled, the blossoms have fallen;
Birds sing, the mountains grow dark -
This is the wondrous power of Buddhism’
This article originally appeared in edited form as part of the London Buddhist magazine.