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Letter from a Retreat Centre

Talybont

Vajratara lives at Tiratanaloka, a retreat centre in Wales that specialises in running retreats for women who are training for Ordination. She gives us a flavour of a remote – but busy – life

The wind has finally died down and the sun is shining. When I went for my run this morning, the waves on the reservoir were spraying over the dam as the wind howled and crashed down the valley. The new and tender crocuses and snow drops were battered and lying flat against the grass. Now, in the calm of the afternoon, they have risen again, stretching their frail necks to the sun. They have their rhythms, just as the seasons do – just as we do.

Retreats, too, have their rhythm. Today is the first day of a retreat on ethics. We will spend the next two weeks exploring in detail each of the ten ethical precepts that are taken at Ordination – studying the precepts themselves as well as working out what they mean for us personally. The retreatants arrived last night and all of us, the team included, were apprehensive, feeling the distance and strangeness of new company. But even in a day we have started to relax, to open up. The conditions of retreat life are enough to bring people into contact with themselves, and that brings them into more contact with each other. In the mornings we have time for meditation and silent reflection. We meet in discussion groups to work out our relationship to the material we are focussing on. In the afternoons some choose to walk in the shadows of the mountains while others cook or rest. There’s more meditation and silence until supper, and after that a ritual or a talk. We live together as one large community, even if it is just for a couple of weeks.

I used to think I had to do something extraordinary to give the women coming here a special and profound experience. Now I think it is enough if we all give ourselves fully to the retreat and to the people on it. That alone seems to produce a sort of magic – something is created in each person who comes here.

When a retreat finishes, a different kind of change happens. This moment of transition is the hardest. The days are no longer planned and the team are thrown back on their own resources. There is correspondence to catch up on, work to be done in the retreat centre, laundry, food ordering, bookings, maintenance. So much is shared during a retreat, and it can feel as if I have poured out all I have into my communication. And then it is over, the retreatants leave and go back to their lives. Sometimes I wander around the empty building feeling lost.

I use the gaps between retreats to see my friends and family, to go on retreat myself or to visit Buddhist centres in cities. Sometimes I simply stay at home with the community. It is our friendships with each other after all, that are at the heart of Tiratanaloka.

And I go running. Despite living in a national park it is all too easy to get stuck in day-to-day concerns. I go running not so much for the exercise as to communicate with the environment around me. I like to follow the same route to observe the daily changes: the new buds, the activity of the birds, the path of the river. When you live closely to nature, the trees, rocks and rivers take on a personality of their own. You get to know them as friends. I go to the old oak tree and all year round I swim in the river as a simple gesture of intimacy. In summer I float on my back in the cold water and watch as the trees touch the sky. Every day there is something new waiting for me: a bumble bee sleeping in split bark; dark moss covering black branches and glistening after the rain; a piece of pottery worn smooth by the tumbling of pebbles in the river. ■

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