Buddhist Retreat Center celebrates 30 years
Letting go of thoughts; being present in the moment. Tolle — Zen — Oprah’s favorite Buddhist Pema Chödrön — Louis van Loon who founded the Buddhist Retreat Centre. They are all essentially saying the same thing — and there’s nothing devilish about it.
Story and pics by Wanda Hennig
First published Sunday Tribune, September-October 2010
Her words came back to me during a visit to the Buddhist Retreat Centre (BRC) last week. I had gone for a long and lazy afternoon hike after a specially good lunch of a dreamily light shepherd’s pie made with brown lentils, sweetly spicy caramelized baby onions, tenderly crisp roasted veggies and a sprout salad ablaze with orange nasturtiums, nearly everything picked fresh from the centre’s bountiful organic veggie garden.
My walk took me through the Buddhist Retreat’s park-like gardens, an Impressionist’s dream splashed as they are right now with the biggest and brightest pink and red azalea ‘trees’ I have ever seen, plus patches of orange clivia seemingly at their peak, and luxuriously abundant assorted protea.
I passed the raked Zen Garden, where you can sit on a rock and contemplate your navel or your life and the bamboo maze of the labyrinth where you can ponder the twists and turns of your life and perhaps end up feeling that twists and turns are, quite simply, what it’s all about.
I then took one of the retreat centre’s many pristine walking paths that, along with cattle tracks, less formal trail-paths and fire-paths, criss-cross the 300 acre BRC property, and made my way across to the indigenous forest. From here I continued through the working-farm part of the place — the section under wattle — stopping to photograph reflections in the dam where guests can submerge themselves on hot days.
Cry, the Beloved Country
After about half an hour that included crunching, in places, through patches of undergrowth dry from controlled burning, I arrived at a rocky outcrop on a ridge. Nalanda Rocks looks out over the patchwork of rural homesteads that dot the valley and surrounding hills — “grass-covered and rolling” where erosion has spared them and “lovely beyond any singing of it”, to quote from Alan Paton’s scene-setting opening to Cry, the Beloved Country, where he is talking about the Ixopo countryside.
Sitting alone, I feel the rock beneath me warm from the sun. A soft breeze cool-dries the sheen of sweat on my face. Every so often a single blast of a vuvuzela emanates from the valley.
In between, a rooster crows — in rehearsal? I let go of my thoughts about lunch and how, if vegetarian was always like the food they serve here, same as when you go the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California, who would ever want to eat meat?
For a moment, focused on the sights, the sounds — and fresh-and-dry country smells — thoughts disappear. My mind empties. I notice that I am feeling at one with the world and experience a profound sense of peacefulness and well-being.
I do not imagine that this is what the young woman had in mind when she warned me against emptying my mind.
Perhaps, I think, she should come to the Buddhist Retreat for a weekend.
She could read Eckhard Tolle’s Power of Now if the word “Buddhism” turns her off.
Letting go of thoughts; being present in the moment. Tolle — Zen — Oprah’s favorite Buddhist Pema Chödrön — Louis van Loon who founded the Buddhist Retreat Centre. They are all essentially saying the same thing and there’s nothing devilish about it.
Celebrating the BRC’s 30th anniversary
The Buddhist Retreat Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year (2010). Thirty years, that is, since it opened and the first retreat was held.
Zen and Now
Then — and when I visited for the first time about 25 years ago — accommodation was in a single lodge.
Now there are options, including three simple but pretty luxury chalets.
Then the landscape was mostly wattle.
Now much of this has been replanted with indigenous forest.
Then maybe three people signing up for a weekend retreat was a lot.
Now popular weekend retreats have waiting lists.
Then the property was pretty decimated.
Now it has earned custodian status for the habitat it supplies to the endangered Blue Swallow; it has National Heritage status; here is a mineral lick for the growing resident population of reedbuck and duiker; there are otters and porcupines; and 160 bird species have been recorded.
How it all began:
Some people know the story of why Dutch–born Durban–based architect and civil engineer Louis van Loon decided to open a retreat centre and how he bought the property “blind”, having seen it only in mist and rain. Many don’t know the story.
I love to hear it again and again, because van Loon is always amused and amusing in the telling of it. Although it doesn’t sound like it was funny at the time.
Van Loon came to South African from Holland at age 20, in 1956. Before he got into Buddhism, he got into vegetarianism.
“When I got to South Africa, I saw people eating these massive amounts of meat,” he says.
“I’d never seen that in Holland where during the war there was very little meat and afterwards, it was very expensive. I came to South Africa and saw tables groaning with corpses and thought, ‘how barbaric’,” so he established a vegetarian society, launched a magazine, won support — and alienated a lot of meat eaters.
While on trips to Asia in the 1950s he came across Buddhists. Impressed at how they handled adversity, he began studying Buddhism, which he would formally introduce into South Africa when appointed to teach Buddhist Studies at universities, including what was then Durban-Westville.
Meanwhile, on one particular trip and in fact, while at Vulture Peak in India “where the Buddha gave some of his most important teachings”, van Loon felt “a stab come from the sky into my abdomen”.
It was not a revelation, but the start of a serious illness that “probably arose through reckless eating and drinking during a seven-month trip through Asia”.
He lay for three days sweating
He dragged himself from India to SriLanka and collapsed on the floor of a tiny guest house on a mountain peak where he lay unconscious for three days and two nights, sweating.
On the third day he recovered and “bright as a pin, went for a walk — or shall I say a stagger, as I had not eaten for three days”. He stopped by a lake, looked out over rolling hills disappearing into the distance, and thought: “I must look for something like this in South Africa and establish a retreat center.”
Rolling hills disappearing into the distance
Back in South Africa had been searching for quite a while when he was shown the site that he would, in a flash, buy.
“It was misty and rainy and the place could have been flat with no views for all I knew.”
When he returned, he realized he had bought useless farmland and a property that had been seriously neglected. But he had his views. The rolling hills disappearing into the distance.
Van Loon bought the land in 1970. The lodge was completed and the first retreat was held in 1980.
A great escape
Over the years it has become a place to go, meditate and learn about Buddhism for some — and a great escape for many. The first time I went to the BRC, it was to do a creativity workshop.
Burned out at the time, I returned two weeks later for a 10-day personal retreat. It was a start of an ongoing relationship. It’s the sort of getaway where you get to look inward as well as outward and experience what Marcel Proust proposed was the “real voyage of discovery” consisting “not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”.
We’re on honeymoon
“We’re on honeymoon,” Peter and Sarah Goodwin told me when I met them there last week. They had just completed Daniel Jardim’s seasonal cooking weekend retreat. Jardim, formerly resident cook at the Buddhist Retreat Centre, is the author of The Cake the Buddha Ate, the BRC’s second cookbook, due out later this year. (Their first, Quiet Food, is in its fifth reprinting.)
The newly married Goodwins, from Mooi River, had been on honeymoon at a nearby resort for five days. That was a wedding present to them from Sarah’s dad.
The three days at the Buddhist Retreat Centre?
“This has been our gift to ourselves,” said Sarah. “We wanted some time to really relax. Peter’s dad has been here often and recommended it. We looked at the retreat schedule. The fact that there was a workshop on seasonal cooking and nutrition was perfect when we’re just starting off as a family.”
Jardim is running “kitchen secrets” retreats at the centre every second month.
Other weekend retreats cover a spectrum ranging from drumming as therapy, to yoga, to explorations of Buddhisms different flavours, ranging from Zen to Tibetan.
Some Buddhist teachers come from overseas. Others come from around South Africa. Van Loon holds regular workshops ranging from basic Buddhism to more esoteric aspects. I have run a couple of workshops at the BRC focused on writing as meditation.
Thoughts are not the enemy
“I had tried to meditate before but didn’t really understand what it was about,” said Sarah Goodwin.
“The first night Tessa (Pretorius — writer, philosopher, ex-trauma counsellor, currently doing office admin at the BRC) gave us meditation instruction. She pointed out that thoughts come when you meditate. They are not the enemy. When you notice them, you just return to the breath and the present moment. That instruction made sense to me.”
Buddhists often call the untrained mind ‘monkey mind’. It runs all over the place, a fact we often only become aware of when we start to meditate.
Given this, the fact that a troop of vervet monkeys have made their home at the BRC seems appropriate. Spend a weekend there and you can get to develop a relationship with the monkeys running around inside and out.
Accommodation (includes meals) ranges from around (single) R300 a night (lodge, shared ablutions) to R860 (chalet, en suite) per night (subject to revision, so please contact them and check). A surcharge is added for most retreats to cover the expenses of teachers, who are not paid (Buddhist tradition has it that teachings are priceless). You are invited to give a voluntary contribution of dana (generosity) at the end of your stay. Book online through the BRC Website.