Getting to the retreat was, for those of us who arrived in the second week, quite an experience – the rains had turned the roads into deep mud, and alternative routes were equally rough. Other participants had travelled from the northern hemisphere, or from different corners of South Africa, all drawn to spend hours a day sitting on backsides watching monkey minds go wild…. Are we all crazy? If you’ve ever been to Tara Rokpa Centre, in the remote North West province and have breathed the freshest air, listened to the bird calls, experienced the stillness and possibly absorbed the energy of Tara herself, you will know why we go.
Dónal held the retreat together with the lightest touch, with always a sense of structure and purpose. Teaching took place in the morning, with him telling us the Irish story of Finn McCoull and of his heroic journey to save his people from a wasting disease. This was a beautiful allegory for the condition in which we find ourselves in today’s world, and the hero’s journey, one which we must all make inwardly. Later in the retreat, he gave us teachings on dharma as taught by Avalokiteshvara at Vulture Peak in the Heart Sutra, followed by an exploration of the different approaches to the understanding of truth and of prajnaparamita.
The ‘mind-only’ school’s approach to reality and truth as contrasted with the ‘middle way’ of seeing reality and truth. This was a complex teaching dealing with the nature of emptiness and whether there can actually be true emptiness, devoid of all form, or whether the emptiness and all things are actually filled with prajnaparamita – the inexpressible, luminous, clear seeing, wisdom nature of all things. While these teachings were intellectually challenging, we were left in awe at the depth with which the Kenpos, the Buddhist teachers and philosophers have put seemingly indescribable human experience into words.
The evening session took the form of a dialogue where we collectively came up with a topic to investigate, such as compassion, grief, loneliness, insecurity… The challenge was not to come up with definitive statements or personal stories relating to the topic, but rather to peel away layers of meaning and allow for greater awareness of whatever the concept was. This is not a technique we’re used to, but while as a group we floundered around quite a bit and required a certain amount of guidance from Donal, we came away with surprisingly new perspectives and a deepened understanding of what each of the topics meant to us personally.
The evenings ended with the Chenrezig puja, either guided beautifully by Dónal in English or using the text.
As usual, the food was nourishing and plentiful, and the care superb.
Till next year and thank you Dónal!
Photos Souad Hervé and Marina Vundum