On Retreat: Buddhism and Roman Catholicism together

Been away on a Buddhist/Christian retreat at a monastery (RC). My flower collecting habit just couldn’t stop and I picked some seed-heads from some lovely deep pink hollyhocks and a white ‘wild’ perennial sweet pea.

I was on a twilight walk around the semi-neglected gardens – they have just got a professional gardener to help them and he is doing his best, but there are many years and many acres with semi-neglect to deal with. Several acres of woordland, lawns (well they were lawns once but now it is like walking on a something very bouncy due to the thatch that has built up – treacherous too as the rabbits and moles have dug them up in many places), a kitchen garden now full of heleniums, sunflowers and marigolds – a sea of golden yellow – and an orchard.

There were two or more owls calling to each other, several bats and even more bunnies around in the dusk. Bizarrely the woodland smelled faintly of urinals – I am not sure what plant causes that in the evening – it certainly doesn’t smell as strong in the daytime – I walked the same area of glades the next morning to check.

We have spent most of the time in silence, with a lot of sitting or, as the weather has been wonderful – this glorious Indian Summer of ours – outside walking meditiations. I undertook my first walking meditation in the old walled garden, which is also a cemetery – ashes only I believe as there are no apparent graves just three crosses and some wall plaques to those monks and nuns who have died.

The walled garden is very peaceful and lovely in atmosphere. You feel most welcome there. But again my gardener’s hands itched – especially here where with a couple of days of intensive work the garden could be transformed due to its size. Some new perennials and wall climbers and it would be stunning, though something needs to be done about the pond and the blanket weed which is strangling the wonderful water lilies – they are actually curling up their leaves and dying. The leaves are brown and they are not flowering. Some clematis for the walls would certainly help – says me who has over 30 in her garden – and some new heucheras too and perhaps a Banksia rose – though they may grow too big but flowers so wonderfully early in the year – and it would be nice to have some flowers always there when you go to contemplate and meditate.

Whilst neither a Buddhist or a Christian I find great peace and learning from these weekends – although the snowstorm of emails from a weekend away takes some of the shine off very quickly! The monastery is almost unique in that it is both a convent and a monastery on one site and the nuns and monks share much of their lives – they hold joint services and events such as the retreat I was on and are allowed to talk to each other! Father Gregory usually manages to come to one or two of the sessions – he is ninety I believe or more and we used to call him Father Xmas when we first saw him, as he so looks like you might imagine, with the white hair and beard, although not the stomach I hasten to add.

The weekends are run by two nuns – one Buddhist and one RC and they talk together and explain ideas from their own perspectives and show how they complement each other – the Trinity for instance is very important for both – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – corresponding to Buddha, Dhamma and Sanga.

They explain from their own traditions things in a very easy and attainable manner – which is helpful to me as not being a Christian I have never read the new testament and so am very ignorant of much of it, except from hearsay. Their show the similarities and inclusiveness of both religions, though I am more and more inclined to Buddhism as I attend each weekend. I like the concept of the 3 refuges or places of safety. Not physical places of course and they without symbolism and cannot be objectified and treated as charms to ward off evil – not like crosses are often used I think. The first refuge is in wisdom and knowing. Knowing the nature of things as we experience them and observing their change and knowing that all things will change. The second refuge is in truth or the ultimate reality. Truth is timeless and movement towards truth is towards calm and silence within us. It is now and in the present but is not bounded by time or place. The third refuge is in group or community  in which we exist, both small and large, in harmony. We do not act to cause division, cruelty, unkindness to any living being including oneself as we are one with the community.

So we were taught about mindfulness and the practice of being in the present, the now, and to try and settle our ‘monkey minds’ – a wonderful phrase I think – from leaping about and around and chattering about what we have to do next, what we have forgotten to do, what we could have done better or differently, or even are we meditating properly…the last question being the one we Western trained academics find most difficult to deal with – hence the fact that I’ve been reading ‘Meditation’ by Ajahn Suitto – a how-to sort of guide!

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