Women’s Retreat

I’ve just spent the last few days recovering from what must have been the most intense 12 days of my life.

A few months ago I realised that the Women’s Retreat, which happened the 14th – 21st September, didn’t have a facilitator or a site organiser, and so, in my tireless enthusiasm (it was the beginning of the season, after all) I volunteered myself. Cue, 2 months later, me realising just what I had let myself in for.

The epic mental journey started on the 7th September as I joined a team of Buddhafieldites to tat-down the massive Big Fat Buddha site at Frog Mill, in order to move our retreat head quarters onto our other piece of land at Broadhembury. I had to make sure that all the structures, cushions, blankets, pots, pans and rupas were stowed away in the right vans to get to Broad Hembury to set up the next retreat. I’d never taken on a leading role in this area so I arrived on site armed with a note book, which became my bible, and a pen, which I frequently lost. I also had Sean, who is our usual site co-ordinator/facilitator, who answered my every question with utmost patience and supported me amazingly. After 3 days of deconstruction, scratching my head and writing millions and millions of lists, at about 6pm on Sunday evening, we threw the last of the vegetables into a van, made a last neat tat pile against the hedge to come back for later, and stood in a circle, joined hands and transferred our merit. It is always an intense moment, leaving site. However long I have been there, whether it is just for the few days of a festival, the three weeks of Buddhafield Festival, or a site that I have come and gone from over a longer time, there is always something momentous about driving out of an empty field, with everything you need to create your home in the vans following you in convoy. It really brings home to me again and again the truth of impermanence and non-attachment, and then I forget it so easily, and have to remember that I know it. I feel as if, with Buddhism, I am constantly learning something, realising it a little bit, then falling back into old patterns, and then coming back to remembering what I’ve learnt, only each time it’s a little easier, feels a little more natural.

After one last night in the warmth and comfort of the van, we, a team of 5 women and 1 man, set off for Broadhembury, as usual, running late. The site is a beautiful boggy woodland, which, fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you view it, hadn’t been visited or had any upkeep done, all summer. This meant that at the bottom of the main track we had to stop and 3 of our team had to cut back brambles and bracken so we could get the vans down there. Once parked up, we had to do more bramble fighting and grass wading to make our way into the main hearth area of the retreat site. I stood at the end of the board walk and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The rain this summer, though bad for us, has been amazing for the land. The grass was lush and almost waist height in places, a big line of bracken has sprouted up, dividing the field, its wide, deep green, unmistakeable leaves providing some different textures from the yellowing ripening grass heads. The gravel paths which we spent so many hours digging, lining and filling in December were totally obscured by greenery, and I wasn’t sure if we would ever find them again. Ripe blackberries dangled from every plant, and even after just a few minutes of being on site my fingers were purple and my mouth full of dark sweetness. After a while of the team wandering around, re-introducing themselves to the land, we came back together and as it was starting to get dark, decided that all we could do would be to make a cup of tea and go to bed, to start early and freshly in the morning.

The next few days were a whirlwind of action. Each morning we would meditate, have breakfast outside round the hearth fire, check in, have a work meeting and then, after another few cups of tea, spring into action. Over the days the team grew until we were a group of 10 strong women (with Sean still helping for the first few days), each bringing something special to the group. We built a kitchen and tea tent, put domes up, cut grass back, built showers and shower cubicles and put the hot tub together without problems. Though I was running the site, and led the work meetings each morning, it always felt very much like we were all running it, we were all creating the space. In a very short time we felt like a community, and I knew I could rely on each of these women to do each thing to the best of her ability. The honesty within the group about what was going on for us personally, and the way in which those gifts of speech were received was awe inspiring, I have to say that I have never been on such a harmonious set up before. It was a nuturing space where we were able to take the time we needed to be in touch with ourselves, while also working really hard to do what we were there to do. Our morning meetings were long, full of laughter and joy, and yet also able to hold the sadness and grief that also came, which is an intrinsic part of our experience as living creatures.

By Friday lunch time we were all exhausted, and yet the retreat was only just about to begin! As some of us tended the hearth fire and put the kettle on, others trundled wheel barrows down to the car park to meet the new members of our community. I found myself helping people put their tents up, guiding them up and down the hill, pointing out the amazing sweet track, where I’d found the sweetest black berries, and of course, the all important question of where the toilet was. As it grew dark, we had our first meal as a full women’s community and headed off up to the shrine tent under the old grandmother oak at the top of the site, to welcome each other and perform the dedication ceremony.

We very quickly settled into an even rhythm, morning walking meditations from Vidyadasi, followed by an open sit, porriage for breakfast before a usually late work circle, through into a morning activity, lunch, free time, then another activity, then dinner, shrine and hot tubs and bed. Though I had volunteered to be both site manager and retreat facilitator, in the rush of the season, I hadn’t thought very much about the latter role, and shocked myself when I realised what I’d let myself in for. Speaking in front of groups, directing people I don’t know, being the person at the end of the chain of responsibility; these are all things I would not happily choose to do, I think I must have managed to blank out that those would be part of my role when I volunteered for it! I struggled a bit at the beginning, especially with calling the work circle and having to make the final decision on things, but by the end of the retreat I was really enjoying gathering people and holding the space, and I found a real sense of letting go of the doubts that I have about my abilities, and an incredibly deep sense of empowerment.

As a result of the powerful experience of setting up, combined with other recent happenings, I had my mitra ceremony on Wednesday night of the retreat. I first thought that I wanted to be a mitra when I was on the Young Women’s Retreat in January at Tara Loka, and since then I have been dancing round the idea, sometimes pushing it far away and thinking, ‘Never!!’ sometimes coming close to it and feeling into it. More recently with the end of the season I have had more time to connect with what I feel and where I want my life to go, and have been sitting with the thought of becoming a Mitra and making that commitment. I hadn’t come to a concrete decision yet, I had tentative plans to have it at the Team Retreat which is coming up next week, but when Mumukshu suggested that it would be good to have it during the retreat, something clicked and it felt like the right thing to do. Alix, another woman on the team also wanted to have hers then, so we combined our ceremonies, and it was the most intense amazing deepest joyful experience of my life.

Personally, my theme of the retreat, as well as the official one of ‘doorways to freedom’, was, in my mind, ‘keeping it silly and joyful’. I think it is very easy to be overly serious about the spiritual path, and to take yourself too seriously. In my experience bringing joy and laughter to everything you do, from meditation to work, can have a really profound effect. So, Alix and I agreed to have a fancy dress mitra ceremony. I must have sub-consciously been planning this or something as we’d brought two big bags of fancy dress clothes with us, and so over Wednesday women would disapear into the dome, we’d hear laughs and giggles and shouts of joy, and then smiling women would emerge, clutching piles of fabric bundled up, telling us they couldn’t wait to reveal the outrageous outfit they had decided upon.

Later that night, sitting at the front of the dome, right next to the shrine, I looked around and was filled with such pure joy I felt like water. It was so clear to me that I was doing the right thing, that this was the path I was meant to be on. As I looked round the dome I could see old friends, new friends and women I had hardly spoken to, all united, each full of joy and beauty. Each had thrown herself wholeheartedly into the community, into practising and learning, and I felt honoured to share my experience with them, and honoured that they shared their experiences with me. Part of me wishes that I could or would share more of my experience of this with you reading this, but at the same time, I know that no words are deep enough, no sentence that I could construct would really tell the reality of what I felt and thought during those few hours, and so I won’t try, I’ll just say, I have no words, it is something that has profoundly affected me in many way, most of which, I’m sure, I don’t know or haven’t seen yet.

After this pinnacle, the rest of the retreat seemed to flow as smoothly as water does downhill, one thing seamlessly blending into the next, meditation into work, into deepening friendships and trying to work through old ones. I felt full of a deep calmness, and like, to use the word again, joy was just bubbling through me. Before I could comprehend it, it was Friday again, and tents were being taken down, I had a last minute scramble to make sure everyone got to their trains and buses on time, hugs were given and a massive email list drawn up so we could all keep in touch. Our little community of heroines disbanded, and we dispersed, carrying stillness, simplicity and contentment in our hearts.

Apologies

Apologies for the long unexplained abscense. Both Lou and I have been living and working in an ancient woodland near Norwich. Lou is still there and I am in Bristol, exploring the community, so posts will be returning shortly when we are reunited. Meanwhile, here are some pictures of what we have been doing!


Lou holding some epic ivy.


Looking downstream.


Lou in her natural habitat!


My tree tent!


Taking a well deserved rest after building the hurdles you can see round the coppiced hazel stumps.


The pole barn that Tom and Lou built, where, for the last week of my stay, we cooked, ate and lived.

Art Corner — Andy Goldsworthy by Ruth

>For this first post in our ‘Artist’s Corner’ series, I will be writing about the natural artist Andy Goldsworthy. I think his art is really relevant to us as Buddhists, as it is rooted in awareness of surroundings and the natural world. We strive all the time to be aware, of how we feel, what we are doing, what we are looking at, and Goldsworthy’s outdoor natural sculptures are the product of such awareness. To create sculptures such as
the one below, named ‘Rowan Leaves with Hole’, takes hours of being in a constant state of meditative awareness, which is a state that we, as Buddhists, try to live within. Goldsworthy’s work fills me with awe, also reminding me that the world is an achingly beautiful place, and if we work with it, in non-destructive ways, we can create things that are truly wonderous. This doesn’t just apply to art, but to everything, from buildings, to festivals, to food, and strikes me as being intrinsic to mine and Lou’s chosen way of life. His work also makes me think about the reality of change, the sculptures themselves decaying and changing along with the landscape that they are part of. His work brings back into the foreground of my mind how everything, including myself, is changing constantly, and how there is nothing I can do to stop that, and so the best thing I can do is embrace it, love the changes and keep going.
Here is a selection of his work, these pictures are a few of the ones that caught me most strongly, the ones that made me stop and catch my breath, the ones that made me feel, made me be in the moment.

Related links:
Interesting article in the Observer, another one in the Telegraph, part of the documentary on his work, called ‘Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy working with Time’, and the Online Digital Catalogue of his work. Go have a look! I bet you will find something that takes your breath away!

Life at Trevince

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Snow covered back garden
Tat down at one of our last festivals.
Snow ball target practise.
Chilling in the living room.
Trevince House
Living in a community is something I have always wanted in my life. Knowing that there are people around to support and comfort you just feels like it should be reality for many people and it makes me sad to know that people struggle because there are on their own and do not feel protected in the place they live.
There is support, enthusiasm and comfort at Trevince house along with creativity, music, study and hard work. The energy in the house can sometimes be low and sometimes high but that is what you get in a community, a chance to vent your anger, a chance to jump for joy and a chance to be listened to, no matter what.
It is mostly cafe crew that live at Trevince but being the Buddhafield open community house, anyone is welcome. Every morning we have a meeting, a check in where we all have a space to say how we are feeling and what we are planning to do for the day. The work is plenty, help is always required, our communal dinners always need cooking in our tiny tiny kitchen.
We do everything at Trevince to help our pockets, the vans are all serviced before MOTing them and any failures will also be corrected at Trevince, we are growing a part of our own vegetable needs, bread has recently be baked regularly but as our star bread baker has moved out, who know if this will still happen. When the temperatures are above freezing we heat our hot water via our sauna system that comes to the festivals with us and we heat the house with wood burners.We believe in sustainability, living low impact lives and creating a supportive and creative place to be and learn.

Trevince house is siuated not that far from Dartmoor on top of a hill, it’s surrounded by open fields and woodlands and steep slopes perfect in the snow we just had for sledging. The stars shine out brightly in the massive expansive sky and the openess in the surrounding area impacts on our own openess as a community.
-Lou
Living at Trevince, I am the happiest I have ever been. Each morning I get up, with a thrill of excitement that I am spending another day in the place I want to be most in the world. As I make my morning cup of tea I am greeted with sleepy smiles, and warm morning hugs, and gradually (for we are a group with a large range of sleeping patterns!) we all congregate in the living room, to check in and decide the plan of action for the day. After a few minutes of silence as no one ever wants to start check-in first, Satyajit usually relents and gets the ball rolling. I think check-ins are my favourite part of the day, everyone is in one room, we hold the space for each other, and we open to each other in a way I have never experienced before. Anything and everything is said in that space, every emotion, from joy to despair, is expressed and sat with. I always finnish check-ins with a sense of awe, it is so hard to try and understand yourself, to understand what it is that you are really feeling and express it, with as much awareness as possible, but we are trying, and it is so beautiful. I look round the room, in those few moments before we start to talk, and some days I feel as if I could burst, showering everyone with stars, I am so happy and proud to be living with these people, to be part of Buddhafield.
Post check-in the day’s work, the cooking and when we will meditate is discussed, and eventually, the larger group dissapates, each of us wandering off, after another cup of tea of course, to get on with our alloted tasks. A few of us will go to Easterbrook to tend the garden and pick salad, Ruperdarshin will be in his dome, chipping away, others will be working on vans or moving things around, canvas’s need to be sorted and repaired, and there is always cleaning or cooking to be done. Each day is different, even doing the same tasks, there is always something that changes, yet one thing is always the same – my joy at being here, my astonishment at how lucky I am to be living this way. 
About 6pm, or later, it depends on who is cooking, dinner is ready and we all gradually arrive in the living room from the different parts of the house and garden that we have been in. This is also one of my favourite times, we all sit together eating and catching up with each other, we swap stories of our adventures that day and talk about different ways of solving problems we are facing. The food is always amazing, we take it vaguely in turns to cook, everyone has their own way of doing things, so it is always interesting eating! Our evenings are spent, again, with each other, people wander in and out of the living room where some read or carve, draw or write. People move from van to yurt to TV room to the office, in search of the perfect warm spot, the kettle whistles sporadically, and over it all there is a low hum of laughter. 
-Ruth

Study Night #2, Enlightenment

As Louise said last week, we are both ‘beginner Buddhists’ and these study nights are invaluable to our first steps along the right path. Again, Vidyadasi led this group and held the space really well. I feel like a lot of my questions were answered!

Enlightenment – The Goal of Buddhism


To quote Sangharakshita, ‘Human Enlightenment is the central theme of Buddhism’. All aspects of Buddhism are concerned with it, teaching in order to help others to gain Enlightenment was what the Buddha was fundamentally concerned with. This knowledge causes us to ask three questions:

  1. What is Enlightenment?
  2. How do we know that this is the idea state for man?
  3. Where does the idea of Enlightenment come from?

Traditionally, Enlightenment is said to consist of three main things. Firstly, it is a state of clear, pure awareness. Some schools of Buddhism claim that within Enlightenment the subject/object duality is no longer experienced, that the Enlightened one sees no difference between himself and others, between ‘out there’ and ‘in here’. There is just awareness. This awareness is an awareness of things as they really are, which is seeing all things clearly and truly, without the delusion, obscurity, prejudice and mental conditioning that all humans experience the world through. It is direct spiritual vision of the reality of our existence, also referred to as a state of knowledge, or an awareness of Reality.

Secondly, Enlightenment is referred to as a state of intense, over flowing love and compassion. It is often compared to the love between a mother and child, as in the Metta Sutta, ‘the Discourse of Loving Kindness’, which says ‘Just as a mother protects her only son even at the cost of his own life, so should one develop a mind of all-embracing love towards all other living beings’ . The attitude is one which the WBO endeavors to cultivate, the Metta Bhavana, (Metta meaning lovingkindness and Bhavana, meaning cultivation or development) being one of the two key meditation practices within the movement. This lovingkindness is not just directed towards human beings but towards all ‘living’, that is, sentient beings and also manifests itself in a deep desire that all beings should gain Enlightenment, thus being set free from all their suffering.

Thirdly, Enlightenment is also described as a state or experience of ‘inexhaustible mental and spiritual energy’, and ‘a state of uninterrupted creativity’.  It is an experience of perfect freedom from all the conditioned limitations which humans construct for themselves, such as attachment to the self, hate, expectations, attachment to others and many more!

Through I have attempted to describe Enlightenment in these three aspects, in reality Enlightenment cannot really be put into words or confined into definitions. It is a constantly shifting combination of all of these aspects; knowledge passes into love and compassion, passes into energy, passes into knowledge and so on and so on. This description can only give a hint or explore a tiny fraction of what Enlightenment truly is. In short, Enlightenment is a state of supreme knowledge, love and compassion and energy.

Within us all are the seed of enlightenment; we all have love in our hearts, and feel compassion for others, we all have some experience of Reality, we all have some energy. We already have enlightened qualities within us, and it is this that shows us that Enlightenment is the ideal towards which we should aspire. When we feel love and compassion, when we are tackling a project with creative energy, when we are able to rise above our conditioning and start to see things as they are, we feel a serenity which is missing from our everyday lives. This is our glimpse of Enlightenment. Within Enlightenment these qualities are developed to a degree that we can hardly understand, but it is our possession of these qualities, however slight, that gives us a natural affinity with the idea of Enlightenment, and the ability to achieve it. When Enlightenment is talked about, when love and compassion, energy and Reality are talked about we can feel something, we can feel a connection to them, the seeds are within us already. We can tell that Enlightenment is the natural ideal for us too because nothing else can satisfy us. No matter how many things we own, how much money and material safety we have, how many achievements we obtain, there is something within that is not satisfied, that can only be satisfied by seeing the truth of things. This feeling of unsatisfactoriness is called, in Buddhism, dukkha.

There are three forms of dukkha. The first is ‘the suffering which is suffering’, this is when, for example, we cut our finger, or if someone disappoints us. The next is ‘suffering by way of transformation’. This is when we obtain something, get pleasure from it and then lose it. because we have become attached to it, we suffer when it is gone. This suffering comes about as a result of change and time. Lastly, there is ‘the suffering of conditioned existance itself’, which is the suffering of everything which is not Enlightenment.

The ideal of Enlightenment comes from us from humankind itself, from the ever present struggle to understand ourselves and the suffering we live with and to rise above it. We struggle to grow, to develop, but to do this properly, we need an ideal to consciously aim towards. For us, growth means a growth in awareness, of ourselves and of our surroundings and the ideal of Enlightenment gives us direction.

In the extract from ‘The Ideal of Human Enlightenment’ by Sangharakshita which we used for the study and from which all quotes are taken, he says that ‘if we look back in history we can see various people who have actually achieved Enlightenment.’, however, he doesn’t name any, and after searching the internet I found no concrete names of people who are Enlightened now. This raises some interesting questions for me, such as, if part of being Enlightened is a deep desire for others to gain Enlightenment then surely you would reveal yourself to be Enlightened and try to teach others like the Buddha did? Revealing yourself to be Enlightened would be key to this as it would make teaching people and bringing them closer to Enlightenment easier as they would give more weight to your words knowing you were Enlightened. The fact that I couldn’t find any information about Enlightened people now raises doubts in the rational part of my mind, but I still feel very strongly connected to the ideal of Enlightenment, and do connect with it spiritually as something to aim for. I think that I need more discussion on this part of the subject!

Having been brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness my tendency is to think in theistic terms, that is, in terms of a god who has created the universe and who governs it. This is not so useful when looking at Buddhism, as the Buddha was a man who, through gaining enlightenment, woke up and began to experience reality as it truly is. The very word ‘Buddha’ means ‘he who is awake’. The emphasis on the fact that Buddha started life as an ordinary man really helped me to start to see Enlightenment as something attainable. I began to see that the Buddha was an extra-ordinary man, one who surpassed his conditioning through his own efforts, and thus, becoming a Buddha was something I could do too – I’m not sure about my chances in this lifetime though!

Beginning to see the Buddha in evolutionary terms, as the next stage of man, has helped me feel a deeper connection to Buddhism. Due to my upbringing and subsequent rejection of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Faith I have a unconscious negative reaction to religion and the idea of god, and have found that this has been holding me back somewhat in my learning. Seeing the Buddha as the next stage of evolution of man, along with other things I have learned have helped me start to overcome my resistance.