I remember when Donal and Akong Rinpoche came back from a visit to Zimbabwe and South Africa. We sat in the garden at Samye Ling, fascinated and impressed, as Donal told us about the African Buddhist Centres, and about their strong commitment to the dharma.

Then, many years later, in December 2017, I had the great good fortune to be part of that for a little while. I got to spend a precious month on retreat in Groot Marico.

For me, this was a time of many firsts – first time in South Africa, first time really seeing elephants, birds, snakes, baboons, kudu, zebra and other non-human inhabitants of those extraordinary landscapes. I know this is part of everyday reality for many South Africans, but for me the experience triggered something that was strangely like relief- the relief of being in an environment where humans are not actually the main act. It felt like the burden “having to be in charge” lifted, allowing an expansive sense of being in and part of life to arise.

In Groot Marico, each morning began with a smoke offering, which Donal described as “a friendly, neighbourly gesture towards whatever is there…visible and invisible”. This Riwo Sangcho practice is a terma connected with Guru Rinpoche, and it has an aspect of clearing difficulties and obstacles as well as the outer manifestations of negativity. Fire is transformed into a vessel of light. Beings and local spirits are invited. Offerings are made to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas first of all, and then to the local deities and hidden “landowners”. As Donal said, “it is considered a good thing to start the day by generating generosity and bodhicitta”.

Donal began the retreat by explaining how “Meeting Samantabhadra” means recognizing one’s own mind and “meeting Tara face to face”. He said the aim of dharma is the recognition of mind and when that is understood, innate qualities emerge and manifest, and that is liberation.

I thought that I had a working conceptual understanding of Buddhist terms, but when Donal said that Samantabhadra means that basic nature is good “but not in a dualistic way”, I noticed with a slight shock that I was still holding onto the notion of “good” in relation to “bad”. After all these years, it was painful to realize that I was actually still at the very beginning.

Donal said that the teachings are not intended to oppress, but to help set people free. However, in order to attain freedom you have to face the facts. Before meeting Samantabhadra, we have to meet life, meet the appearance.

And then, with immense skill and great compassion, Donal showed us how the concept of original sin (that sense of separation, which many of us have inherited), actually means to “miss the target”, to identify with something that is not the truth, and how this mistake is actually akin to ma rigpa, the Buddhist view of ignorance as the matrix from which all the mind poisons and mental afflictions develop.

Over the next few weeks, Donal took us on a journey through the vast and expansive landscape of the Buddhist Teachings, from The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, to the Mahayana Prajnaparamita Sutras and beyond. In showing us that the way we see things is according to how we experience them, he guided us towards developing a better understanding of the nature of suffering. Quoting Krishnamurti (“Without meditation, you are like a blind man in a world of beauty”), Donal said us that meditation is not just about perfecting a method, but is to be approached more as a skillful means to allow a quality to come forth- a quality beyond fabrication and beyond hope and fear.

In the final, more “secular” part of the retreat, Pippa joined Donal and offered wonderful sessions based on The Elements. It felt very special to do this in as elemental a place as Groot Marico, where there is such a palpable, physical sense of Akong Rinpoche’s presence. In fact, arriving in this new place was accompanied by a jolt of recognition because in some strange way, the atmosphere was the same as the first time I visited Samye Ling in the early ‘90s. Our last night in the Octagon was beautiful. People told stories, sang and played music and then, telling us that “joy is a factor of enlightenment”, Donal stood up to lead the retreatants in a dance. Truly, this was the music of what happens, as Fionn MacCuhhaill, an ancient Irish hero pointed out.

Thank you Donal, Pippa and everyone who made the retreat happen. Thank you also to the gracious, smiling dogs.

Ani Paldron, Ireland.