12 December 2006
It’s 6.30 on a misty morning at the Buddhist Retreat Centre near the town of Ixopo in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. Thirty people are stretching through a session of “mindful yoga” in a hall with cool parquet floors and tall windows that frame the greenery outside.
Hours later, when the mist clears, they can walk through a forest up a gentle slope to the stupa, or shrine, and look across the valley to the clusters of homesteads that make up Chibini village.
The centre is among the most beautiful spots on the planet, with paths winding through a paradise of indigenous trees, rare orchids and tree ferns. Duiker and vervet monkeys live in the forest; otters have been spotted in the dam below the centre; there are horses there, and rescued cats and their progeny patrol the grounds.
When Durban-based Dutch architect Louis van Loon bought 140 hectares of derelict farmland in 1970, it was what he describes as a “wild wattle wilderness”.
Over the next decade he dug up pine seedlings on the roadside and replanted them on the farm to get a fast-growing forest going. Then he added indigenous trees. There are thousands of them now, attracting 160 species of birds, including the endangered blue swallow. For both accomplishments, the centre has been awarded National Heritage status.
It is just as well that the surroundings are inspirational, because the accommodation is spartan. Most visitors stay in a rambling residence – one narrow bed, shelves for clothes behind a muslin curtain, and a shared bathroom across the hall, as in an old-fashioned hotel.
Unsurprisingly, cellphones only work – and then sporadically – at the foot of a 5m-high Buddha statue sculpted by Van Loon and set in a small park.
But you don’t go to the BRC for mod cons and luxury. You don’t even go there for the fabulous vegetarian food. You go there to chill, or to learn how to live in the moment – a skill most of us lost when childhood ended.
It is called mindfulness, and can be learnt in a variety of ways. At the BRC, there are structured weekends called “the radiant awareness of being” or “the application of mindfulness” (this for health professionals working in HIV/Aids). But there are also weekends devoted to making and flying a kite; or learning to sketch; or drumming. There’s a very popular birding weekend.
The author of the best-selling Quiet Food cookery book runs an annual retreat titled “an introduction to mindful cooking”. Anthony Shapiro, the centre’s artist-in-residence (see sidebar), leads pottery retreats.
It’s an unusual programme for an institution devoted to unlocking the spiritual dimension in the individual. And when the centre opened some 25 years ago, the retreats and workshops were not without controversy.
How does “mindful birdwatching” qualify as a Buddhist retreat?
“Buddhists make it their business simply to sit down on a cushion and notice that that is all that’s happening: that they’re sitting, not standing. And that they’re breathing,” says Van Loon.
“This is being mindful – being present in the here and now, however simple and uneventful. It is the perfect antidote to our frenetic, compulsive-obsessive lifestyle.
“So why not extend this clarity of experiencing where you are and what is happening from moment to moment to everything else in your life, including watching a bird fly past? Or brushing your teeth?
“We can find profound philosophy and meaning in life in the moments when we are truly in touch with things. Sketching, for example, is a powerful way of getting out of our self-centredness, by closely observing something other than our own dramas.”
Van Loon describes what is practised at the BRC as “ubuntu Buddhism”, influenced both by the spirit of Africa, the concept of ubuntu, and the culture of the West. “I think Western science and psychology, African philosophy and art have an incredible richness and depth which can contribute to an exciting new Buddhism,” he says.
Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? He doesn’t actually answer the question. Some people call it a religion, he says, and some a philosophy. But “Buddhism doesn’t have the usual concepts and doctrines, dogmas, the articles of faith and belief built into its philosophy that most religions find absolutely fundamental, like a firm belief in a creator God, for example. For most people, that disqualifies it as a religion.
“It’s not that Buddhism denies or accepts the existence of God, but that it does not find theological concepts like original sin, judgement, heaven and hell, etcetera very useful or meaningful in living our day-to-day existence.”
The centre is remarkably laid back, and teachers – who, by the way, donate their services, in Buddhist tradition – also seem to follow Van Loon’s tolerant lead. If you skip a meditation session or a lecture, it’s no big deal. You can go deeply into Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice. Or you can put that aside for another day, another visit, so long as you adhere, at least while you’re there, to the most important stricture: do not cause harm.
You can attend every session in the hope that at some point you may be blissed out, if only for a moment or two. Or you can simply drink in the gentleness and joy that seems to pervade the BRC.
What’s remarkable is that it works, either way. For weeks afterwards, you’re not concerned about taxi drivers cutting in front of you, and stopping. You just shrug it off. It’s their karma. And it’s not that important.
In this world
What is, then? “We can’t sit on our meditation cushions and work on our spiritual well-being without incorporating the welfare of those around us,” says Van Loon. The Buddhist principle of living a noble life in the midst of everyday chaos has been applied towards improving the lives of the people in the valley.
Thus: Woza Moya (Come Spirit), a non-profit organisation linked to Chibini. The BRC has raised funds to build and maintain both a primary and secondary school. There’s an active HIV/Aids programme, with home-based care workers from the community trained at the clinic in Ixopo and involved in everything from counselling to orphan intervention.
Which makes it okay for retreatants to search for their spirituality without feeling hypocritical about contemplating their navel while surrounded by incredible poverty.
Nobody stops you from supplementing the pittance you pay for lodging with a donation to Woza Moya – but nobody will harass you for it either. It is, after all, your karma.
This article was first published in The Weekender. Republished here with kind permission of Barbara Ludman and The Weekender.