Buddhist Retreat Center on CNN top 10 list
South Africa has more than wildlife and outdoor adventure. There is also Buddha, dharma and sangha
Story and pictures by Wanda Hennig
This story was first published in the Sunday Tribune, South Africa
It will come as no surprise to fans to the Buddhist Retreat Center in Ixopo to learn that it scored a spot on CNN’s “10 of the world’s best meditation retreats” list, published earlier this year.
I mean, where else can you go take a long and lazy afternoon hike along pristine walking paths, through indigenous forest and park-like gardens after a lunch of 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 a bountiful organic veggie garden?
Contemplate your navel
Then go sit on a rock in a raked Zen Garden to contemplate your navel or your life before wandering through a creative bamboo labyrinth pondering the twists and turns of your life — only to end up feeling that twists and turns are, quite simply, what it’s all about.
And that just for starters, before you consider the schedule of classes, the morning meditations; perhaps yoga at the stupa or volunteering at Woza Moya, the center’s community focused HIV-Aids and poverty alleviation program.
Perched on a ridge at the head of a valley in the Umkomaas river system in KwaZulu-Natal, the BRC, which looks out on a vista of indigenous valleys, forests and rolling hills receding like waves in the blue distance, celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2010.
“When we first started to promote the place in the early 1980’s, we relied on the goodwill of friendly bookshop and health food store owners to allow us to put posters in their windows in the hope of attracting interest in our programs,” says BRC founder, architect and teacher Louis van Loon, who bought the land with the intention of opening a retreat centre in 1970.
The first retreat was held in 1980 and over the years it has become a place to go, meditate and learn about Buddhism for some — and a great escape for many.
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.
Tame your ox
Then, maybe three people signing up for a weekend retreat was a lot. Now, popular weekend retreats have waiting lists and retreats run from writing to painting, “how to tame your ox” to yoga and Ayurvedic healing, pure meditation to relationship wisdom.
Then, the property was pretty decimated. Now, in no small part thanks to the drive and enthusiasm of Chrisi van Loon, it has earned custodian status for the habitat it supplies to the endangered Blue Swallow and it has National Heritage Site status.
As the BRC has come into its own, so has meditation and “mindfulness practice” worldwide, which accounts for something like a CNN “Top 10 list.”
Not all that many years ago people were put off by the word “meditation” and “mindfulness” became the acceptable term for essentially the same thing.
Now the whole idea of “being present” is hip and popular — as are both terms, and practices.
Proof can be seen in a form of the newly launched (in the US) “Mindful” magazine, which “celebrates the basic human ability to be fully present and aware of where we are and what we’re doing”.
Meditation is now being widely studied and is seen as a mainstream antidote to stress, depression and many other modern-day ills. Many US and UK universities are doing research and finding all manner of physical, psychological and emotional benefits.
“There’s increasing international interest in the application of mindfulness meditation to achieve greater ease and wellbeing, productivity and creativity in one’s life,” says van Loon, who has run weekend workshops on related topics for going on 30 years.
Other retreat centers rated, by CNN Cape Town contributor Rebecca Weber, include Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s famed Plum Village in France and Pema Chödrön’s Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Check out the list of upcoming classes and book online through the BRC website, call 039-834-1863 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.