The Buddhist Retreat Center, in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, has been ranked among the top 10 on CNN’s “world’s best meditation retreats” list.
To visit is to see why. And while it might seem a little off the beaten track, it attracts people from around the world.
During a recent 10 days I spent there, one woman arrived by cab in the early evening having flown to South Africa from Canada via Germany specifically to spend five days at the BRC en route to participating in a volunteer project and safari in Tanzania. Her plan was to unwind, walk, meditate and to experience this place she’d read about online. A young German woman and her Australian boyfriend, on their Africa adventure, had heard about it from friends. They arrived for a weekend retreat eager to learn more about Buddhism and meditation.
The weekend retreat in question, called “New Year intentions: starting where we are,” run by Lucy Draper-Clarke and Kerri Martinaglia, both on the board of Mindfulness Africa, an organization founded by South African Buddhist teacher Rob Nairn, had a Tibetan Buddhist flavor and drew people from Cape Town, Johannesburg and around KwaZulu-Natal, which is not unusual.
The BRC is, as far as I know, the only place you’ll find in South Africa where you can you go for a long and lazy afternoon hike (or an energetic one!) along pristine walking paths, through indigenous forest and park-like gardens. They’re an Impressionist’s dream when splashed with the biggest and brightest pink and red azalea “trees” you’re likely to have seen, plus patches of orange clivia and luxuriously abundant assorted protea.
This after a lunch of dreamily light shepherd’s pie made with brown lentils, sweetly spicy caramelized baby onions, tenderly crisp roasted veggies and a sprout salad ablaze with orange nasturtiums, much of it picked fresh from a bountiful organic veggie garden. What’s not home-grown is brought in from farms in the area. Just like at Green Gulch, the San Francisco Zen Center’s Japanese Soto Zen practice center in Marin County acclaimed for its organic farm and garden, “no anonymous food” is the norm.
The BRC has unarguably one of the best vegetarian tables in South Africa. Their two recipe books (a third is in the pipeline), Quiet Food and The Cake the Buddha Ate, are both best-sellers, beautiful, and the inspiration for all the meals.
Then you can go sit on a rock in a raked Zen Garden to contemplate your navel or life’s mysteries before wandering through a creative bamboo labyrinth pondering the twists and turns of existence — only to end up feeling that twists and turns are, perhaps, quite simply what it’s all about.
No blaring TV. Designated times of “noble silence” when you’re asked not to chat. Quiet places. Spaciousness. No schedule pushing you to go, go, go. Instead, time to be…
To read and write, if you wish; to contemplate and meditate — and to feel nurtured (and that you’re nurturing yourself): these are some of my favorite reasons to head on up there whenever I can.
And all of the above is before you consider the schedule of classes, perhaps yoga at the stupa or volunteering at Woza Moya, the center’s community focused poverty alleviation, empowerment and HIV-Aids program.
Perched on a ridge at the head of a valley in the Umkomaas river system, the Buddhist Retreat Center (a hop and a skip from the rural town of Ixopo — inspiration for Alan Paton’s scene-setting opening to his long-acclaimed novel, Cry, the Beloved Country), is about an hour-and-a-half by road from Durban. It looks out on a vista of indigenous valleys, forests and rolling hills that recede like waves in the blue distance.
“When we first started to promote the place in the early 1980’s, we relied on the goodwill of friendly bookshop and health food store owners to allow us to put posters in their windows in the hope of attracting interest in our programs,” says BRC founder, architect and teacher Louis van Loon, who bought the land with the intention of opening a retreat centre in 1970.
The BRC — which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year — invites teachers both local and international (Steven and Martine Bachelor, Kittisaro and Thanissara — who used to be resident teachers — and Joseph Goldstein have all taught there, among many other well known names).
It draws students and teachers from the various Buddhist schools — from Tibetan, with its elaborate and colorful rituals and visualization, to the stark simplicity and rigors of Zen and the more gentle and contemplative practice of Theravada or insight meditation.
It also attracts many non-Buddhists to courses that range from bird watching to sketching to t’ai chi ch’uan, chi kung and yoga. And more and more, people who simply want to explore mindfulness.
The first retreat was held in 1980 and over the years the BRC has become a place to go, meditate and learn about Buddhism for some — and a great escape for many.
When I visited for the first time, more than 25 years ago, accommodation was in a single lodge. Now there are a number of options, including three simple but designer-cool luxury chalets.
Then, the landscape was mostly wattle. Now, much of this has been replanted with indigenous forest.
Then, maybe three people signing up for a weekend retreat was a lot.
Now, popular weekend retreats have lengthy waiting lists — and retreats run from writing to painting; “Make Life Your Guru” to going with the flow (integrating yoga into daily life as a mindfulness practice); “African Zen” (white Xhosa sangoma John Lockley’s heart-beat meditation retreat) to Ayurvedic healing; pure meditation to relationship wisdom.
Then (in the beginning), the property was pretty decimated.
Now, in no small part thanks to the drive and enthusiasm of Dutch-born Louis’s wife, Chrisi van Loon, it has earned custodian status for the habitat it supplies to the endangered Blue Swallow and it has National Heritage Site status. Alien trees and plants have been taken out and replaced with indigenous groves and forests. There is a growing resident population of reedbuck and duiker; there are otters and porcupines; and 160 bird species have been recorded.
Louis van Loon will tell you if you ask him to share some of his wonderful stories that he got interested in Buddhism in the 1950s while on a trip to Asia. He had the idea to create a retreat center in South Africa while ill in SriLanka on another (seven-month) pilgrimage around Asia in the 1960s.
He is currently adding a “Buddha boma,” which includes eight newly planted trees, all of them significant in Buddhist teachings. The idea is that one will be able to do a kind of Indian Buddhist pilgrimage at the BRC in South Africa.
The BRC has come into its own as interest in meditation and “mindfulness practice” has grown worldwide.
Meditation is now being widely studied and is seen as a mainstream antidote to stress, depression and many other modern-day ills. Many US and UK universities are doing research and finding all manner of physical, psychological and emotional benefits.
“There’s increasing international interest in the application of mindfulness meditation to achieve greater ease and well-being, productivity and creativity in one’s life,” says van Loon, who has run weekend workshops on related topics for more than 40 years.
Check out the list of upcoming classes and book online through the BRC website or e-mail email@example.com.
Copyright story and pictures (2016) Wanda Hennig: Author of Cravings: A Zen-inspired memoir about sensual pleasures, freedom from dark places, and living and eating with abandon (Say Yes Press) which is set, in part, at the Buddhist Retreat Center.