On this page you can read the experience of participants from a variety of the activities and retreats that have been organised by SanghaSeva since 2004. If you have been on one of our retreats we would love to hear from you again please share your experience with us
My original intention in joining SanghaSeva in Palestine was to provide an opportunity for me to practice the Dharma while immersing myself in the West Bank in meetings with both Palestinian and Israeli Peace organisations while picking olives in the volatile West Bank. I had the opportunity to observe my many varied emotional reactions of fear, anger, sadness and judgment as well as feelings of connection and admiration for both Israeli and Palestinian people whom met during the duration of my stay in Palestine. It was a challenging though rewarding experience for which I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to participate. I think the most important insights came to me long after the retreat was over and I was able to reflect back on my experiences. Most importantly these reflections have helped me to let go of the opinions of judging mind and open more to heart, as I attempt to apply these teachings to my daily life. Many thanks to Zohar and Nathan for their warmth and for the conscientiousness which they showed in organising this retreat. It was an extraordinary experience and I thank them both for their wonderful support as teachers of the Dharma.
When I made my first steps in Anandwan, felt again the incredible atmosphere I had bathed in a few years before and met the first smiling faces and "Namaste", I knew I was exactly where I had to be. It was clear and pristine like a mountain river. I had arrived at a point in my path where I couldn't separate anymore the way of meditation and the way of life. My deepest wish was to integrate meditation into daily life, to engage in the world and serve people.
Zohar and Nathan's approach to spiritual practice was perfectly reflected in the way they conceived the "retreat": a silent week of meditation followed by three weeks of service, during which the integration in the community was done mainly through a "work" that each of us was invited to chose, allowing the space and time to meet the people living in Anandwan by integrating into their daily life. These three weeks of service-retreat were also regularly punctuated by moments of sharing in our little group: sharing of words, meditation, and chai delight!
Ajay-ji, my dear teacher, guided us through this exploration. He opened the silent retreat with a warm smile and welcomed us into this inner journey, inviting us to use the support of silence to dive deep into the roots of life. The meditation-hall was a big and empty space in middle of the community, like a wide-open womb in middle of the living body of Anandwan. It felt safe and big enough to receive all our beauties and monsters, light and dark corners.
Anandwan (literally meaning "the forest of bliss") represents a place of amazing acceptance, welcoming all the people rejected by society, lepers, blind children, deaf children, "invalid" people, out-cast... Anandwan gives them back their dignity and a place on earth, showing them their abilities and beauty, allowing them to be fully human.
This silent week of meditation in this place of all-encompassing acceptance was the opportunity to learn again how to receive fully the out-cast parts within, to welcome at last our rejected weaknesses, deaf cries and blind spots. A place to heal the ancient wounds within that are calling for tender care and clear understanding.
Baba Amte told us a story three years before, a few months before passing away;
A few kilometers away from Anandwan, there was a cave made from the roots of a tree.
It was not a special tree, but her roots were thin and soft like velvet. With time this cave became a home for bears, a refuge for wildness.
Then Baba Amte looked at us with his sparkling eyes:
"This is what you do with meditation, digging a cave within, with infinite patience and softness for your bears and scary monsters feel welcome."
Letting my bears dance into my tender womb.
Letting the heart sing her soft melody.
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Ajay-ji was translating songs from Kabir day after day, inviting us to taste the sweat nectar of unbounded love.
The body expanding into infinity
Losing control over its own boundaries
Preparing to receive Vastness
Steady and self-contained
And in the same time overwhelmed by its immensity
An infinite universe containing countless universes
Infinity pouring into infinity
Daring to leave the securing cocoon and opening the eyes to the all-pervading light.
Recognizing her radiant beauty, the sumptuous colors of her revealed body, the vibrations of love moving her open wings.
Giving herself to life
Her softness, power and vulnerability dancing together in the infinite space of her growing heart
Allowing life to flow
Allowing love to fly
Little butterfly born into colors and immensity
Crazy journey into boundlessness and falling free
Flutters by in infinity
Feeling the center
And simply letting life dance all around
That vibrant source of life
Feeling the center
And deep within, the roots of the living Unknown
Following those roots into their microscopic ways
Falling into the dark womb of life
And reaching out into the source of immensity
Infinite space, shimmering light
Strange journey into small dark roots deep within the body-earth
And daring to sprout into golden thread
Ajay-ji closed the silent retreat by inviting us for the coming work-retreat to act from the roots of life. And for the next three weeks, we explored how to speak and interact with people from a place of not knowing, with the precious help of Zohar and Nathan, their supportive presence and awakened heart.
If I had to sum up those weeks in a few words, I would say that it was a beautiful journey into the heart of life, with incredible teachers, in the art of love.
As for the actual daily experience of service in Anandwan, the day-to-day life with the large community, and our little Sangha of eleven people: In the morning, I chose to "work" with the old people, in a kind of retirement house, where around eighty old women -with a background of leprosy and a long life of hardship- were waiting for us to receive some massage and warm company. And in the afternoon, I was going to school to play with deaf children and blind children. Throughout one day, it felt like I was traveling through the whole range of life, from childhood to old age, the beginning of life, end of life, passing through sickness and death. Intertwining bottomless sufferings and boundless love.
Amongst the myriad of children playing in the courtyard, running in all directions, playing cricket, chatting, the only thing I could hear was the grating of the swing. So much life unfolding in full silence. Slowly slowly I learned to spell my name in sign language, to make jokes and to answer to the typical Indian questions (about my "husband", children, country...). Sometimes an older girl translated the non-sense of my gestures into proper and understandable silent language to her younger friends! I had more difficulties to answer what was my job in my home country, to mime that I was working in special education. With my clumsy hands and funny faces, however, they understood that I worked in make-up, or may be even as a hairdresser!
A little deaf girl, newly arrived in the school, was shocked to see people with "white" faces. She touched my hair with a kind of surprise and disgust in the same time. She explained to her schoolmates that she found my skin colour not so nice (may be even awful!) and my hair too fair.
It was really beautiful to simply hang around with those children, so smiling and joyful, and with a very easy contact. They were truly beautiful teachers, and their lightness balanced the intensity of my mornings in the old people's house. The deaf children were incredibly bubbling, as if the words they couldn't pronounce with their lips were dancing throughout their bodies. An onomatopoeic body of overflowing joy and aliveness. Fully embodied words. Shapeful silence. Allowing a direct contact infused with spontaneity and playfulness. A soul-to-soul connection, not needing any translation.
The blind children seemed more restrained, walking quietly in the courtyard in small groups, holding each other on the shoulder, to see their way through the darkness of their world. A garland of children, like night flowers on a shrine of shadows. I remember this little one, very small and very cute, with round cheeks and a missing eye, very silent also, putting one finger into his socket and pushing deep inside, into the nest of his missing eye-bird. Reaching into his night sky, like a finger pointing at the moon within.
One day, we heard enchanting music coming from the classrooms, we followed the thread of holy notes like the silent mice hypnotized by the pied piper of Hamelin, and we entered a blind classroom. Three boys were playing harmonium, tablas and drums and a group of girls chanting beautiful prayers. It was a beauty beyond beauty. A song of life piercing through darkness. An invitation to surrender to the light within, and celebrate the mystery of this existence.
Many times I left the school with a bindi on my third eye offered by a young girl, and a joyful spark in my heart, lightened by those hundreds of little teachers.
Every day, we went into a classroom, bringing some material and a few ideas as support for our creativity and playful interactions.
One day, we played with modeling clay and little wooden sticks. A lot of fun... Learning also to let go and see our little constructions completely collapse by the time they had come to completion! Perhaps because of the surrounding heat, but maybe also because of the ardent intensity of our will to give shape to that which has no form! After a few disappointing attempts, I resolved for the small and simple. A tiny cat, with no fixed structure but a big amount of tenderness. No vocal cords but a miaowing heart.
At the end of the "class", a child with huge eyes and a happy smile came straight to me, holding two little plasticine puppets in one hand and grabbing me with the other, pulling me strongly and walking me somewhere without hesitation. If he could hear me, I would maybe gently protest or ask him, what's happening, where are we going, or any question that we usually ask before taking a step into the unknown. Asking for answers to reassure ourselves, to feel that we somehow control the situation. Using our voice to fill up the unbounded silence, the deep void within, and to avoid the unexpected.
But by the grace of silence, I simply follow this little boy and let myself run with him, at full speed, out of the classroom, into the courtyard, then through a door, some corridors, a new courtyard and many rooms.
He finally slows down and opens a door. He brought me into his sleeping room, which he shares with five other deaf children. He gives me back my hand, climbs on his bed and reaches for a metallic box perched on a shelf. He searches into his pocket, finds a key and opens the mysterious box. I curiously look at its contents, and the only thing I can see is an old little bottle of hair oil.
He delicately puts in the box the little puppets, like a parental couple in miniature. He then closes the box, locks it with precaution and brings me back into the courtyard where hundreds of children are silently playing. And my heart silently melts... Feeling so privileged to have been invited in the secret world of the child. Feeling touched by his intensity and care.
The little child inside begins to cry. And I remember the words of a guided meditation:
"Letting ourselves be our own child, and cry
Letting ourselves be our own mother, and hold"
The first time I gave a massage to an old woman, I felt like I was putting my hands into the earth. Very dry earth. And by touching her skin, it was like watering the earth after a long draught.
I was moving from room to room, from bed to bed, the hands full of oil, feeling an overabundant source of joy and tenderness. Giving myself fully and feeling completely nourished... The "oil of love", as Zohar poetically called it, flowed from woman to woman, watering the soil of our shared heart. And by touching their bodies, I got in touch -literally- with the intuitive understanding of the reality of the body. A body-to-body experience of impermanence, decay and death.
The first day, I sat by a little "maousi" (an affectionate term for old woman in Maharati, the regional language) so tiny, only skin and bones, her whole body aching with strong pain, but still asking to be massaged all over again and again. Recognizing her need for a touch encompassing her distress was a beautiful but shaky prelude for the next three weeks of explorative interactions.
After a few days, I met Chandrabaga-Bain, an old woman with huge eyes and a tiny tiny body, who stayed most of the time in her bed. From our first contact, our relationship was filled with tremendous tenderness. Maybe I was seeing my grandmother through her. Maybe she was receiving for the first time in awhile the love and care of a devoted daughter. Touching her body for the first time, I felt that our destinies were bound forever.
The next day, she asked if I could put some oil in her hair and comb it. But I soon noticed a bed of insects in the back of her head, a living nest of lice, a crawling ball of parasites. I told it to the nurse and we cut her hair short. And with her freshly denuded head, we discovered that she had wounds on her scalp. The lice were eating her alive.
I asked Zohar's help to give her a shower, and then wash and change her rotting bed full of urine, and different kinds of insects. It was difficult emotionally, a feeling of disgust and deep sadness, the impression that she was completely abandoned, except by insects, who were living on and from her. Abandoned by her sisters and abandoned by herself. And she wasn't complaining; only a bewilderment and sadness in her gaze. While we were cutting her hair, she was crushing the lice crawling on the floor with her only valid finger -not rigidified or twisted by leprosy- a shocking image which stayed with me for long.
Before we left that day, she looked at us with eyes filled with gratitude and gave us her blessings. She joined her palms together in a Namaste, and because of her distorted fingers folded within, I saw the shape of a heart in her praying hands. I left the house with some aching scratches on my heart and itching beings on my head!
The day after, we were invited in a friend's house for a name-giving ceremony. The baby was three weeks old, and it was very beautiful to see all these women celebrating this newborn little being, in chants and prayers... This gathering of women, from different generations, all united in their greetings and support for the newborn child, was a poignant experience that revealed the beauty and care of the human heart.
It was like a reverse mirror with the abandonment of this other little being at the old people's house, with Chandrabaga-Bain, who was not supported anymore, not celebrated anymore, a little being completely forsaken.
The days passed by, each carrying a growing feeling of heaviness and tiredness. I encountered more and more suffering, in this room and in others. I couldn't stand anymore to give a massage to another maousi crying out in pain and her limbs filled with sadness, her feet cold and inanimate from leprosy, her roommates joking at her, teasing her, shouting at her.
The dark reality of old age. The harshness of the Indian behavior. Cultural gap. Heartbreak. A growing feeling of responsibility and powerlessness.
Then a conversation with Zohar came and unlocked a door. Questions arose. What is the place I am acting from? What is it that is moving me? It helped me to bring back some clarity in my intentions and motivations, and some joy in my actions.
I came back to the old people's house with much more lightness, giving up any feeling of duty and overwhelming responsibility. I remember holding the hand of an old woman for a long time, not giving her any massage, but simply holding her with tremendous love. Nothing else was needed. Nothing to change or achieve. Simply being there. Centered and grounded in our own presence and smiling to each other in our shared humanity.
And day after day, we saw Chandrabaga-Bain coming back to life. We noticed that she was changing her clothes, speaking more, moving more, asking for help, blessing us... As if she had been born to a new life. And not only her, but also many of the maousi who had slid on the steep slope of forgetful oblivion. As if the care and attention we were giving them was an open door for their empowerment. And from our care, they were learning again to care for themselves. They were finding a new dignity and self-respect.
Light springing out of darkness.
Her breath was frail and uncertain. We sat by her side, feeling gratitude and deep respect to accompany the woman in her last moments. The flow of life was becoming thinner and thinner in her body, the quality of our presence amazingly clear and intense.
Sitting in the heart, breathing her breath,
The heart sits in me, breathing the breath of all breaths.
Feeling life flowing happily in each of my cells, feeling life leaving her body and flowing back into the source.
The river of life is drying up, but she looks peaceful and her aching body seems to have finally found some rest. All the fighting and resistance has ceased. Offering herself to death, she has forgiven life for the weight of her misery. Each of her breath could be the last. Her whole life condensed in a tiny drop slowly evaporating.
Her friends enter the room, or spring their head through the window, saying goodbye with their eyes, a sadness in their tired bodies, and maybe thinking that they could be the next drops making their way back to the ocean.
I would like to caress her, to give her some warmth through my touch, but I don't dare. Afraid of being intrusive. I feel so much awe for the work of death, I don't dare touch with the tip of my fingers what death is already nearly fully carrying in her arms. This moment is so sacred that I'm afraid to spoil it by my intervention.
Nathan enters the room, comes close to her bed, and naturally approaches his hand toward her and gently caresses her head. When he leaves the room, I simply move my hand to her forehead and caress her with infinite tenderness. My heart skips a bit and then becomes even warmer when coming in contact with the surprising coldness of her skin. The sensation of the icy waters in the source of the Ganges comes back to memory. And I understand that she's already swimming in the arms of Mother Ganga.
Softly caressing her face and hair, I feel like a mother with her beloved child. Tenderness flowing through my fingers and infusing the atmosphere. Then I feel a hand on my shoulder. It's Zohar's touch. I look back and see Lorna giving her hand to Zohar. And my hand on the old woman departing. A beautiful circle of love surrounding the play of death and life.
A few hours pass by, with a deep care for each breath, an intense presence in each moment. Before leaving, we chanted her the mantra of the Medicine Buddha. Sacred chant for this holy dance.
When I came back in the afternoon, her soul had left her body and the death ceremony began.
When we arrived that morning at the old people's house, a woman sat at the entrance making a garland of flowers. She waved a hand to me as an invitation to sit by her side and help her put the flowers in the needle. It soon became clear that the freshness of night and wet atmosphere had taken another woman, and death accomplished her ineluctable work. The garland was for her and the flowers suddenly seemed painfully colourful in this cold and grey morning.
The old woman had died during the night, in her sleep. When we came and saw her in the morning she had a smiling and peaceful face. Except for the rigidity of her body when the men lifted her from the bed, I was ready to see her wake up at any moment. We've been told that she had no family left, she probably had been abandoned long ago by her siblings because of the fear and shame associated to leprosy and its stigma.
The ceremony was very sober. Three women washed her body and dressed her with a new sari, while Zohar and me held a blanket as a woollen wall for men not to see her nudity. Then, she was lied down on a horizontal ladder, with her body and hands attached by a rope, given a few leaves of Tulsi -the holy basil- in her mouth, colourful powders on her head and body, and the garland of flowers around her neck.
The men lifted the wooden ladder with the woman's body and began to walk, while the women started burning all the belongings of their dead friend. Nobody was there to accompany the last journey of this woman's body, so I decided, with another friend -Nurit- to follow them.
They went into a forest and stopped near a hole that had already been dug and lied her in. And I remembered that in Anandwan, contrary to the Hindu tradition of cremation, they usually don't burn the bodies, for ecological reasons, saving wood (except if the family or the person itself request it). We put some orange flowers on her before the darkness totally swallowed her. Then the men poured earth on her body. But I soon noticed that the earth that was slowly covering her body was already full of bones, vertebras and even a skull…
My first reaction was a combination of horror and fascination. But with each scoop of earth poured on the dead body, those feelings scattered on the ground of my being, and a simple acceptance began to sprout. I recognized that this is how things naturally unfold. How death plays with life but also how death plays with death itself. Old bones covering new bones. Old earth full of death nestling a cold skin. Dry bones and fresh flesh dancing together, out of breath. A simple stone on top of the buried body, a few incense sticks and the garland of flower were the only signs indicating that there was a corpse lying there, deep into the womb of the earth.
We left, and went back to the old people's house, where I finished to give to my sweet maousi the head massage I had suspended a few hours earlier, helped her to tight her sari and prepare for lunch. Some women asked us for some more oil and saluted us with their missing fingers and crooked hands, lovely smiles and tender gazes.
The goodbyes with all these people we had been sharing life with during those weeks were heart breaking, and especially with the old women, and my dear Chandrabaga-Bain. I wanted to tell them that we would meet again the next year, but my tongue couldn't pronounce that which only the Universe can articulate. Who knows if they would still be in life? And who knows what would happen with my little life in a year?
And while leaving all those unforgettable beings, I was thinking how funny it was to see a man with a missing nose and still to find his face so beautiful and his smile very graceful. His missing eyelids not taking away the beauty of his gaze. The depth of his wounds and the strangeness of his body melting with the beauty of being simply human. And the difficulties of his life being transformed by the alchemy of love.
"The sound, the first sound, the ever sound is the voices of children beginning their lesson by chanting… gratitude, does one misinterpret the first cry of a newborn baby? And then, immediately thereafter comes the metallic and manual ring of a makeshift bell, time for something, probably eating. Considering the fall of the night, I am seeing my shadow growing in intensity on the carpet, no I won't say what I think about the spotlight just behind me that pushes my head, so big head, just in the middle of the circle made of the eleven of us writing, not really desiring to bring our eyes up from our sheets of paper to see what is happening and that which we think we know without a need for looking. Just a quiet common time of writing the now, between two fingers, or three – we have five of them at each hand – the pressure of the pen becomes stronger (indeed it is the contrary, from where does the pressure come, and what if the answer was neither the fingers nor the pen but a place somewhere in the brain, as well a place where is located the sense of smell, here do arrive delicate fragrances of henna, here where the nerves of the forearm join the whatever-it-is of the mind).
That's enough, here out of our bodies we stand, in the meditation hall, together for the last but one time and alone with oneself in the meantime, for of course, here inside of our bodies we stand, meaning breath stands inside of us, leaves then comes back, goes and by again, that is the privilege of being alive.
Sometimes just a question of senses and no matter how many thoughts stick to them, would I anyway write about one or two of those thoughts that wander around as if by chance? Yes, for instance I haven't wanted to put my writing inside the drawing of a child (a deaf child, would it be clever to detail it?) that I use as recycled sheet of paper, because it seems to me like something holy in a certain way, added to the fact that this drawing of a child represents a child, angel face and devil hands, six fingers at each, with long and sharp nails, can you imagine that? In a place – a larger 'here' where we stand – so poor in fingers.
Right but every child has a smile, every man who was a child, sometimes hidden, sometimes hard to find back, but here, here! In the leper community of Anandwan where so few seem to lack, smiles are the least missing graces."
Fréd Le Van
In December 2009, Gaia House Resident Teacher Rob Burbea and a number of practitioners associated with Gaia House made the journey by train to Copenhagen to be there during the UN summit on climate change. Here he offers some reflections on the experience and on aspects of compassion and engagement.
Back in England, at St Pancras Station, saying goodbye as folks began to go their separate ways, Rachel said something beautiful - “It felt like a kind of pilgrimage.” The others seemed to share that sense keenly, and certainly for me it had very much felt that way.
The truth is, even in the first stages of mulling over the possibility of going, I had, just privately, envisioned it as a kind of ‘prayer’. But foolishly, not even consciously, maybe I had thought that perhaps people wouldn’t understand. So when we originally sent out the e-mail inviting Dharma practitioners to join us in Copenhagen, we wrote that we wanted ‘to be there together as a peaceful presence to ask world leaders to agree to a deal that would respond adequately to the Climate emergency facing the planet and human civilization’. And of course that was true. We were there for that, with a request for decisions and results, to be a few more bodies for the count, to try and persuade the politicians, (though not so completely naïve to believe that our being there would, in itself, make that much significant difference.)
But somehow it felt like there were also other dimensions and reasons for going, reasons which perhaps may not make much sense to a solely ‘practical’ or ‘rational’ mind-set. A desire to be there to give voice to something very deep and very (dare I say it?) precious. Regardless of the outcome. To stand and walk in alignment with our deepest care and truth. To sing the indestructible song of human care, no matter what. We wanted to make a pilgrimage, to pray. Read more
This year in Anandwan I felt both drawn to and repelled from spending some time with the old people. In short the old people’s quarters are not the most appealing of places to spend some time, yet some of the draw to go there was to once more expand my limitations.
In previous years some of the group had offered a very popular program of massage, hair care and nail clipping. So I headed down there with a bottle of warming massage oil and the anticipation that I would be met by eager yet achy elders. The women were already in the courtyard sunshine having their hair brushed by others from our group, so I headed off into the men’s quarters. The first person I offered a massage to said “NO” so firmly I felt I’d insulted him, I felt quite ashamed and a bit deflated. It took a bit of wandering around, before I found someone who looked a bit more receptive. He agreed to a massage, a little too reluctantly for my complete liking, but we got on with it. A small group of men gathered round to watch my technique-less technique of massage, maybe trying to decide whether I was doing more harm than good. But by the time I finished my first man another offered his achy shoulder and I moved over to him. When I had finished the shoulder, a swollen knee was indicated for me. Following the delicate knee work another man pointed at his lower back. In this way my morning was passed moving from man to man, pouring oil and stretching tired and tight bodies. I was popular at last.
A lot of the men had quite hard muscles and skin possibly an effect of Leprosy, and a lot of them were suffering from mild skin conditions. Either way they loved the oil as much as the massage, and some of them were happy to just get the oil and rub it in themselves. By the end of the session it was a softer place, and quite a bit more slippery. I continued to go down and massage most days and I feel that I’ve received as much as I’ve given. When I hit the right spot they would call out “Isa, Isa” (“That’s it, That’s It”) which gave me a sense of achievement I didn’t anticipate. I would leave when they were called to lunch, and there was always a few who I would promise to do tomorrow.
A few days in I got more comfortable with it all so I tried to converse in my very poor Hindi and Marathi. This added a nice element to the exchange, even though my questions were mundane, and repetitive, the willingness on both sides somehow lifted the relationship to new heights. In these conversations I noticed that it wasn’t just the elderly men who wanted massage, two of my biggest and most demanding customers were their younger helpers. At first I resented them pushing in front of the older men. But of course all of us need care and consideration, so I oiled them up and even gave them as much massage as they demanded, well as much as I could. It was gratifying to be able to give them attention and friendship too.
Massage is an amazing act, it is both very intimate and very soothing, it is also clearly therapeutic for the body, mind and soul, it allows the whole being to flow more freely. It is additionally transformative in Anandwan, a community of people cast away from mainstream society due to their physical condition. For just as it offers softening to the hardened, it offers touch to the untouched, support to the neglected. And it allowed me to get closer to a group of people who brightened my day as I hope I brightened theirs.
This last retreat in Palestine and Israel showed me once again the amazing qualities of human endurance in unbelievable situations. We set out once more with the intention to bring kind open awareness to all we saw, and to thereby try and be peace in the midst of conflict. Some times the feeling of conflict is obvious, and we can really feel it, sometimes it is little more than a point of view which doesn't leave the space for another to have a full life. Is there always a peaceful solution waiting for every uncomfortable scene? I don't know but it seems from what I saw that conflict brings out the worst in us all, and it also brings out the best in so many great souls. These great souls who are acting tirelessly, or even getting really tired, are an inspiration to me, not only in the field of peace work, but on the whole of life. They are truly human, fully amazing, my heart goes out to all of the unsung heroes of Peace. There is a peace in process, this is not optimism speaking, we may or not make it to peace, soon. But love and understanding are still getting through the barriers. I feel we should not stop until all the walls of separation are removed between us and another, in the 'real world' and in our inner worlds of heart and mind. This is real work, healing work, and I thank all who participated and taught me so much on this retreat out into the world.
During the Retreat some of us were asked to be interviewed for a television news magazine in Israel. Here are the videos, the language is Hebrew with homemade English subtitles.
Also Elin Wikström wrote an article in Swedish about her experience of 'Being Peace' please read 'Att vara fred i ett värkande land'
“Creating Ripples” Reflections on the SanghaSeva Retreat in South Africa.
When Rob Burbea, Resident Teacher at Gaia House, heard Thanissara speak about the work of Woza Moya and her involvement in it, his immediate response was, that this might be an opportunity for SanghaSeva to get involved.
It seemed obvious. The Woza Moya Project, an Aids and HIV outreach project was initiated by Thanissara and Kittisaro and is associated with the Buddhist Retreat Centre near Ixopo. Located in KwaZulu Natal, Woza Moya works in the region with the highest infection rate in the whole of the African continent.
However, there were also arguments speaking against the idea: the long distance to travel and the cost it would involve for those wanting to participate; the implications of travelling by plane for climate change; the potential difficulties in a country like South Africa which has no long standing tradition of Dharma practise and is still recovering from decades of apartheid; potential security issues with crime thriving in a climate of poverty, social deprivation and injustice; an atmosphere of deep rooted anger caused by the harsh and dehumanizing realities of apartheid and the loss of privilege for some which came with the end of it.
So looking back, did it make sense, was it worth it, what did we achieve?
On the most obvious practical level all we did was dig some vegetable gardens to provide healthy food for families affected by the aids pandemic.
All we did was get involved with the production of greeting cards in Woza Moya's incoming-generating scheme for women affected by the virus.
Nothing which could not have been achieved without us. But it turned out that there were other ripples created that were profound and far reaching though not at first immediately obvious. Lets have a look at some of these “unexpected”outcomes:
For more than seven years Woza Moya has been fighting an uphill battle against the further spread of HIV and they are still struggling against deeply held taboos around sexuality and widespread resistance to behavioural change.
And the project workers, although warm-hearted, very engaged and compassionate people feel dispirited at times and overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the problem.
At the end of our stay we received the feed back that our way of engaging with them and the project as a whole infused them with much-needed new energy and enthusiasm for their work. Energy which gave rise to new ideas:
One unforeseen but potentially extremely significant outcome of the SanghaSeva retreat was the foundation of the Khuphuka Project. This project will be based near Dharmagiri, Thanissara and Kittisaro's retreat centre. It will function in a similar way to Woza Moya but working mostly in townships. (please look at www.dharmagiri.org to find out more).
In many areas of South Africa it is still unusual to see white people walk along country roads on their way to work at such “menial tasks” as digging gardens.
Most members of the SanghaSeva Group had no experience of apartheid and did not grew up within its belief systems. Thus our interactions as white people with the Zulu people in the valley were indeed rather different from what is still often the norm in South Africa. Existing boundaries, boundaries we ourselves weren't even that aware of, were challenged in an open-hearted, non-aggressive way.
One member of the group, born in South Africa but leaving the country as soon as she could as a young woman, shared that the retreat had a healing quality for her: “l always wanted to relate to black people in a different way than was expected from me whilst living in South Africa. This was the first time I had the opportunity to relate to black South Africans in a truly equal way. This is very important and healing for me”.
White South Africans joining the retreat reported equally, that the framework of the retreat offered the opportunity to relate differently with each other and supported the healing of wounds all too common in their country.
Being in contact with so much “human goodness” certainly had a very profound nourishing and inspiring impact on me. Just being together with like minded people, some of them already involved in amazing service work created a fertile ground for inspiration, ideas and future co-operations.
Of course we witnessed a lot of human suffering and on my return I was asked if it wasn't, at times, overwhelming. I think that even when meeting people in the midst of suffering, and for us Europeans, sometimes unimaginable hardship we can always connect with them on a level beyond their suffering. Just one human being meeting another human being. I never felt like I was there to help, a helper, and those people in the valley were to be helped. We just did what we did and each and every encounter felt to me enriching, heart opening, humbling, sometimes confusing and often, in a quiet way, very joyful, but never overwhelming.
During our time together we had lively discussions about the vital role of service in relation to Dharma practice. Getting more and more aware that the movement towards service, generosity and care are natural and logical expressions and outcomes of one's practise.
For me SanghaSeva plays an important role in creating opportunities for service, opportunities to express one's care, love and generosity.
I think it is safe to say that the ripples of this retreat are still doing their work in many ways. Some of these ripples will fade out and others will manifest in concrete projects that will offer us opportunities to connect to our human goodness and our wish to alleviate suffering.
BUDDHIST RETREAT CENTRE, IXOPO
Black-faced monkeys like thunder on the roof
While I silently eat my meal.
A garden of flaming autumn trees,
Rolling leaves in the breeze,
Timeless undulating karki hills.
Clusters of simple habitations
On skyline and in the valley.
A world outside my regular familiar one
Of human dilemmas and disasters.
Yet within this idyllic setting
A secret plague makes it's relentless journey,
Sweeping all in it's path.
Interrupted only by a programme
Of drugs, obtained by a few
Where possible, but needed by many.
Difficult to comprehend the extent
Of the hidden suffering
Here in KwaZulu Natal.
Spending time with the beauty that dwells in the forest of bliss puts a smile in your being.