By Nolan Stevens
The words Tara Rokpa Centre (TRC), are words often mentioned within the South African Buddhist community. For a practicing Buddhist but newbie like myself to this community, I had often conjured up images of a hidden spiritual Utopia whenever those three words were uttered. Which is why when news of a Lama visit caught my ears and that I could be going to experience this place that I had only ever seen with my mind’s eye reached me, excitement, fear and anticipation were the only emotions that existed during the weeks and days leading up to the Human Rights Day holiday long weekend, which this four day long retreat would take place. This is my account of those four days:
When the day eventually arrived and Ashley and Ethan, the comedic-duo, punk-Buddhists (commonly known as “the boys”), eventually arrived to pick me up for our three hour trek from the city to TRC in Groot Marico, the ever-increasing trail of trees and rolling hills only added to the anticipation that had been forming within me of what this Tara Rokpa Centre must be like. Unfortunately, nothing could have prepared me for the hidden piece of wonderland which introduced itself to me as we drove over the sand and stone paths. The drive up with the boys definitely helped to calm most of the emotions I was carrying. To the extent that by the time that other people had arrived, the boys and I had already checked in, served the land, so to speak, dropped off our bags in the dorm room we were to be sharing with someone else.
Because this was my first ever Buddhist retreat, I had imagined a larger scale of people fitting the age demographic what I was used to, but instead of this setting being populated solely by an older population. I was greeted by a mixed bag of mature seasoned practitioners, idealistic teenagers and a surprisingly large number of 20 to 30-somethings, all eager to get their spirituality focused in some manner. There was even another black person, which was nice too.
After a hearty vegetarian welcome lunch in the dinning area, the mixed bag of Buddhists, yoga-enthusiasts and a few people who were there to see if ‘this Buddhist thing’ was a good fit, it was time to experience the first Dharma talk from one of the three visiting Lamas held in the shrine-like space named the Octagon. Lama Katen; this soft-spoken tall man in Buddhist monk robes from the Tibetan tradition who conducted this first talk is the nephew of Lama Yeshe Rinpoche (another of the visiting Lamas, along with Ani Lhamo a Buddhist nun). Once the hour and a half talk had completed there was first of the interview sessions; a scheduled time were retreatants could have one-on-one time with either Ani Lhamo or Lama Yeshe Rinpoche to discuss one’s practice or gain clarity on the path from a Lama. Tea time then gave all in attendance a chance to catch up and reflect on the events thus far. This was quickly proceeded by an evening walk through the surrounding area and a soup supper. By seven o’ clock it was time for Lama Katen’s second Dharma talk on the importance of lineage in Tibetan Buddhism. By half past eight most of the retreatant were more than ready to call it a day in preparation for the next day, but a few of us were still charged from the day’s happenings and gathered around the dining area to catch up and share our perspectives on the Lama talks, interviews, quirky people and the TRC space as a whole.
I’m still torn as to whether or not staying up later as a group was a wise move; ; on one hand the group who stayed up together that first night were perhaps the tightest group for the duration of the retreat, on the other hand, Day two’s 6 AM start of Green Tara practice with Ani Lhamo was rough for most of us as those not as accustomed with the practice spent most of the hour long session trying to find our places in the text. This became an unfortunate trend for some but we all contined waking up before the rooster called to try again… and again… and again, simply because we understood the value of this practice. As it would become routine as the days passed. Shuffling from the house shrine room to our respective spaces to lace up walking sneakers for the morning walk, fast became what the younger members would call “a thing”. This, however, was a thing I realised I couldn’t handle after the first evenings walk and the night spent in pain for my efforts. Despite my fears of this creating a wedge between myself and the rest of the retreatants, the opposite became true; during the breakfast that followed I was shown support and encouragement by most of the retreatants. With some admitting to also finding the walks difficult and others saying its okay if I sat them out. A few suggesting that I take my own less challenging walks.
The meditation that followed breakfast, and which also became routine proved to be the mental and psychological anchor that we all needed to charge the mind and remind us all why we were all there. A Sang Puja (a cleansing smoke offering practice), followed the thirty-minute tea break after the meditation, and lead into interview sessions with Lama Yeshe Rinpoche and Lama Katen, which ran concurrently with a Dharma talk by Ani Lhamo in the Octagon space, which thankfully aimed to demystify the Green Tara Puja. Thereafter the three hour lunch break was followed by another session of interviews; this time with Lama Yeshe Rinpoche and Ani Lhamo, both whilst Lama Katen held a Dharma talk. I was lucky enough to get a second interview at this stage with Lama Yeshe Rinpoche, after having had one with Lama Katen during the first round of interviews. This was thanks to the kindness of Ashley my room mate and now close friend who had suggested the night before that I take his slot with Lama Yeshe. After catching the last thirty or so minutes of another hour and a half insightful Dharma Talk by Lama Katen, I was convinced along with a few of the others to check out the Dharma shop during the break that followed. I’d heard nothing but good things about this shop – managing to get myself a Medicine Buddha statue for my mum. And being lucky enough to get gifted a few other gems by the group. We returned in time for supper, skipping the evening walk which I later realise was yet another kindness shown to me by my new spiritual family. That evening I went to bed early; missing the slide show presentation and Chenrézik Puja due to illness.
The cycle of early morning routine of Green Tara Puja, a skipped morning walk and breakfast was shaken up a bit with the part two of the Green Tara Puja instructions by Ani Lhamo; a very welcomed event in the day’s schedule, which also included an evening talk by Lama Yeshe and a Chenrézik/Sur Puja (a fire cleansing practice of feeding the hungry spirits).
With it being the last day of the retreat I’d decided to take part in the morning walk, despite widespread legendary tales of Lama Yeshe Rinpoche having the pace of a man who had nitric oxide for blood. I stupidly thought that an old man with health issues and one lung couldn’t possibly walk that fast. I found out after the Green Tara session that the legend was true. Luckily for me, my spiritual family hung back with me helping me negotiate the path. The four of us never did get to see the retreat centre which was the destination of the walk . We only managed to catch the rest of the retreatants as they made their way back. If you’re keeping count, where are we on the official count of love and kindness shown to me?
The breakfast, tea and meditation sessions was just enough time for me to recover ahead of the Refuge talk and ceremony. The celebratory lunch session was a bittersweet one as there was cause to celebrate with those who had taken Refuge and Vows but all sad in that this would be the ending of an incredibly powerful four days of retreat.