Thursday, 6 December 2018

Retreat

Salmon pink rose
Adhisthana, June 2018
I've been on another Buddhist weekend retreat at the same venue as before: Adhisthana in Herefordshire. There were more of us in the group this time, mainly because the weekend was promoted more widely. It started on Friday evening with supper followed by a gathering and ceremony, on Saturday morning after meditation and breakfast the group got together and then split into two for discussions, lunch, a walk, more meditation, dinner and another ceremony. On Sunday after meditation and breakfast we finished our discussion, had lunch, cleaned up and departed.

This time I ducked out of the ceremonies. The routine is that some passages are recited in Pali and in English, people are invited to make an offering at the shrine (a candle, incense, a flower) and matras are chanted. It doesn't suit me at all - I don't like the recitation or the mantras and I'm not going to make an offering. Last time I thought I'd just observe, but I sat there feeling a bit resentful, so this time I just avoided those bits of the programme.

It is an interesting time within the Triratna Buddhist movement. The movement used to be called the Western Buddhist Order, and was founded just over 50 years ago by an English man who was inspired by Eastern culture, religion and traditions, spent some considerable time learning about Buddhism, mostly in India, then brought his ideas back to the UK. He intended the WBO to provide a westernised version of the Eastern traditions and philosophies of Buddhism, so for example the Order does not discriminate between sexes and did away with the monastic tradition and the hierarchy of seniority. You could decide to become a Friend of the Western Buddhist Order, or if you felt enough commitment you could be ordained and be given a Sanskrit name, but you still live and operate in the world as you did before, albeit according to the ethical principles suggested by the Order.

The founder and leader of the movement was given the name Sangharakshita when he spent some time as a monk in India. He lived at Adhisthana ever since it was acquired as Triratna's headquarters a few years ago, and was buried there just over a month ago when he died at the age of 93. He wrote and published prolifically: poetry as well as learned and philosophical works on the subject of Buddhism, and many of his lectures and talks are recorded and available online. He was clearly a charismatic, visionary and pragmatic leader, and in only 50 years built a sustainable movement that seems robust enough to survive even now that he is gone. Quite an achievement, although some serious mistakes were made in the early days that are still causing a good deal of trouble today.

So visiting the Headquarters of the Order so soon after the death and burial of its founder and leader was interesting. While the end of his life was not unexpected, and leadership arrangements have been in place for some time, it still feels like a turning point - a 'weighty event' as one person put it. One of the leaders of our retreat was part of Sangharakshita's household for many years, and was happy to share his stories of coming into contact with and joining the movement in the early 1980s and his continuing participation up to the present day.

So where do I stand on Buddhism from a personal viewpoint? I went to the introductory course about 2½ years ago, and have carried on attending on Tuesday nights since then (whenever badminton hasn't interfered). We start with meditation, then a tea break, then a discussion on some aspect of Buddhism, which may be utterly esoteric or entirely practical. I sometimes meditate at home and usually enjoy it, and the meetings have prompted me to make some other practical changes to how I live and relate to other people. The group is planning to run another introductory course in January, and I have volunteered to host meetings at my house for those who don't want to attend the course.

There were a couple of reasons why I starting thinking about Buddhism 2½ years ago. With Mr A out of the picture I was determined to expand my social contacts, but going to the pub after badminton really didn't suit me, and the badminton social events that I organise are not very stimulating intellectually. I joined the music group and the Meetup walking group as well as Triratna, but the Meetup walks are no longer taking place and while I love playing in the music group the social contact hasn't extended beyond one afternoon a month. I was considering trying either the Buddhists or the Quakers, but went to the Buddhists because I have a longstanding friend who became a Triratna Order Member about 20 years ago, and I always puzzled over why he did it and what he gets out of it. He recommended the local group as one of a number of options.

To be honest, the social contact with the Buddhists has also been pretty limited: two hours weekly, of which most of one hour is silent meditation. But the discussions in the other hour have been worthwhile, and I feel much more comfortable with the whole ethos and philosophy of Buddhism than I did with Judaism, given that I don't believe there is a God. There are a few of us now who would like to work a bit harder at growing the group and doing a bit more than just holding the weekly meeting. I am finding the retreats to be an opportunity to relax and take some time out alongside like-minded people, and shed some of the cynicism and dissatisfaction with the terrible state of world politics at the moment. The effect wears off pretty quickly as soon as I get back into work, though.

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