Deep Peace

Jennifer Radloff reflects on a transformative experience at Dharmagiri Retreat Centre nestled in a mountain on the Lesotho border in the Southern Drakensburg. 
DID YOU KNOW? The meditation practice at Dharmagiri is inspired by the ethos of the Theravada monastic contemplative life of the Forest School which traces its roots back to the Buddha. It is also inspired by the Bodhisattva intention of compassionate response symbolized by Kuan Yin through the lineage of Chinese Mayahana Buddhism. This ethos encapsulates the two great wings of Buddhism, wisdom and compassion.  It wasn't until I started listening to my heart and paying attention that my journey became possible. The retreat was an Insight Meditation Retreat aptly called Calming the Mad Mind, Knowing the Luminous Heart, hosted by two wonderfully wise teachers, Kittisaro and Chandasara. Recently, the poetry of Mary Oliver has been my refuge. Her words inspire such intense joy and help me direct my heart. I relate to the way she finds herself in nature; her belief in sacred silence; the praise of aloneness in order to connect meaningfully with others; and what I interpret from her lessons on non-separation between all living beings. She is my praise poet. As she says, 'To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.'  I carry volumes of poetry wherever I go. Hiking in the canyons or in the mountains, when I travel to other countries. I write lines of poetry in my diary which I carry with me all the time. But I forgot to bring them when I went on retreat. This turned out to be a blessing as one of the many lessons I learnt during the talks was to give my full attention to 'reading the book of the heart' (attributed to Ajahn Chah). For me, this was profound. I came to the retreat to learn how to calm my loud and busy mind; to find my way back to a steady sitting practice and to respond to a deep and persistent longing to go deeper into the experiences of my heart. I was feeling overwhelmed with the mysteries, the suffering, the gratitude, the confusion, the tenderness, the wide-open joy and the pain of this one human life. I wanted quiet amidst the noise of my work and my world. I felt tired and as if I was not being of much service in my work any more. I was not reflecting on my life, my heart or my path. I was not listening to myself and barely hearing others. I was meditating erratically. My Mom had recently passed away and her death had stunned me as no other loss had. And yet she had given me the greatest gift. The grief I felt was huge but so was the joy. I was proud of her life. She is everywhere now. She exists in me, in the sky, the wind, the rain. I wanted to honour this beautiful being by truly seeking to know myself better. So, I went to the mountain. The symbolism of 'going to the mountain' represents a pilgrimage of aspiration - of moving towards consciousness, of closeness and contact with celestial bodies. Going to Dharmagiri sitting at the foot of the sacred Mvuleni mountain, in the province of my birth, felt right. I had spent the past few years seeking a place, a practice and teachers to guide me. I slowly found my way to Dharmagiri through friends and reading the book 'Listening  to the Heart : A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism' written by the retreat hosts Kittisaro and Thanissara. Our mornings started in the quiet pre-dawn when the stars are still visible and the wild sounds of jackals can be heard howling. To chant and bow in the dark of early, cold mornings with a warm fire and candles on the shrine with Kuan Yin's sacred presence, alone but with an unspoken connection to the sangha, gave me deep comfort. While sitting on my cushion, wrapped in a blanket and in quietness as the sun rose and the mountain of Mvuleni in all her grace, power and steadfastness, became visible, I felt I had come home to myself. Each day we went deeper into our practice, guided with such gentleness and wisdom. The profound and lived knowledge of both teachers fed us during the dharma talks. We energised our bodies through chi kung and walking meditation. In Noble silence we ate delicious and carefully prepared food with each meal being blessed and each one of us expressing gratitude for the comfort of nourishment and shelter. During daily sessions with our teachers we found more insight into ourselves, each other and the practice through the thoughtful questions of the Sangha and the generous and reflective responses from our teachers. Each of us contributed mindful work through washing dishes, cleaning spaces and chopping vegetables, all in silence. The silence was welcome as it allowed us to turn inward and still be aware of our connectedness. As my friend who was also on retreat said to me: 'I have known you for many years but through this seven days of silence I know you more deeply.' The silence woke me up to so much more and to communication with self and others which goes beyond anything language can explain.  At night we gathered for chanting, meditation, a dharma talk and the sharing of blessings. The meditation room was full of quiet and of prayer as we let each thought dissolve and sought the silence between the thoughts. We rested together in the silence and the peace. On our final day we spent time finding flowers, a stone, a branch ' something from the environment which we could place on the alter and dedicate to a person, people, a cause ' what we chose to honour and bring into the room. We each had time to place our offering and to reflect and to witness others. Noble silence was suspended as we gathered in small groups each with a few minutes to speak whilst others listened to our experience of the retreat. I love storytelling and listening to stories. So for me, it was an intimate storytelling circle and it reminded me of what Muriel Rukeyser said: 'the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.' And what the poet Rumi said :'Don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.' From the stories of others, from their experiences and reflections, we learn, we breath in and are one with them and with all of creation. Through listening to others, we find parts of ourselves. Mary Oliver in her poem 'The Old poets of China' tells us how, because the world is so busy and often we need quiet to re-connect with our hearts, the poets went 'so far and high into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.' Dharmagiri offers a place of quiet refuge and generosity. I have such deep gratitude to have been there and to know I can return.

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