The Journey so Far – Natural Connections by Ru

I truly felt the magic and the benevolent power Mandaza has when he took my hand in greeting and looked me in my eyes. You can instantly sense some people’s energies when you meet them, and he is one of them. I did not get to attend all the workshop sessions due to my responsibilities in the kitchen, however when I did sit in, I was overwhelmed by the peace and the love which radiated from Mandaza and all the other incredible souls that took this journey with us.

Having had some profound experiences surrounded by water in the past, my once idle visions, thoughts and intuitions were reaffirmed and rooted… the water spirits are real and they seek to illuminate our world with compassion and wisdom. They love song! The song which Mandaza sang for us brought tears to my eyes, and as we joined in, even a little bird came and sat on a tree branch near us and also joined in on the song.

Ru - Mandaza gift

Here is a Nyami Nyami (Zambezi River God/Snake Spirit) bead necklace. Mandaza’s wife back in Zimbabwe makes beautiful beed pieces, some of which Mandaza brought along. This one chose me.

When we learn to appreciate and respect nature, we align with our true selves, and we are indeed reminded of that old saying “We are spiritual beings having a physical experience.” And the more we align the more we realize that we don’t “need” as many “things” from this physical realm as we once did. Nature, in all its forms, the mountains, the waters, the birds, it is all part of us; an extension of our spirit. I feel that this is a truly important reminder for anyone feeling disillusioned in today’s consumerist paradigm.

The retreat made me feel in-tune with the unity of the collective human spirit and the plight of the natural world. My dream is not just my dream, it is a dream for all who seek to find meaning. Leadership is a force that lives in the hearts of all of those who choose to listen, even the meek at the back of the pack. Forgiveness is where true strength and peace are found. We are all leaders, healers, peacemakers… and our intention is the key to unlocking our power. “Better than a thousand hollow words is one word that brings peace” today I want to expand on that, not only one word but one song, one dream, one feeling.

The soft and gentle energies I felt from nature and the earth and my fellow humans was something extraordinary. Within me, I felt the importance of manifesting this “state of being” regularly, and it is doable by simply following a few suggestions made by Mandaza. For example visiting the stream daily and making an offering to the water (water spirits)… I myself am the offering if I so choose: my presence is my present! Another is continuing with the dream circle once a week (kudos to Chandasara for encouraging us to do so). As I become more aware, more mindful, I too become more grateful and walk the earth with gentler steps.

Mandaza’s words stick with me: “One day we will all meet again in the Ocean.”

by Ru, Dharmagiri’s excellent cook & housekeeper

About Ru. 

RuGive me the outdoors so we can go for a hike, and a lake, to paddle and swim. I have had several jobs in my past across several fields. A manager, a writer, a capturer (I’m not gonna tell you what I was capturing but I’ll give you a hint: It wasn’t buses), yes I even gave stand-up comedy a go in Manchester (UK), but that one didn’t go too well as you’ve probably guessed by now… but ultimately in my heart I am striving to leave the rat race as much and live as sustainably as possible with nature. Nature, as I see it, is the symbiosis of all manner of life on our realm, including but not limited to: the plants, the animals and other human beings. This yearning along with the spirit of Ubuntu and Sangha in my heart, has sent me to the most beautiful parts of the world… but also to those that are truly sacred.

One feels the energy with which Dharmagiri is blessed, as it sits at the foot of this mystical mountain, a mountain Mother-Nature took millennia to sculpt. I am fascinated by the human mind, in what makes it work (is it only the brain, or is this “I” something more…), and how it communicates with and perceives the world around us. I care about nutrition; I want to feed my soul and the world around us only excellence, and that within itself suggests sustainability. My passion has taken me to cooking (at which I am alright if you compared it to my stand-up – let’s just say I was hackled off the stage in the first minute or so)…

I am very enthused and deeply grateful to be joining such a beautiful team of people here and continue my career as a cook. What an incredible opportunity: To feed people healthy food! I am excited to meet some awesome new people as well! I am very sensitive over many things but not emotional, I find there is a difference, for example I recently read Sister Abigail Nkleko’s book, Empty Hands, and I must have cried cover to cover, but if someone were to taunt me about it I wouldn’t burst into tears, so I would say I’ve curbed having a ‘reactive’ attitude.

My first step towards Buddhism and meditation was at the BRC in 2013, after a friend of mine had past-away and I decided to do something good (rather than destructive) to morn him and for myself. After attending a weekend silent retreat with Stephen Coan – I was truly humbled to my core. Humbled by the things I learned about Dana and the kindness and generosity that has been, and still is, such a powerful force of prosperity within the community. Humbled by the teachings that were passed down to me and the blessings I received. May we all walk a humble path, and may we all truly know how to love ALL of life. Namaste.

 

 

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Reflections on Mandaza’s “Understanding Our True Connection with Nature” Retreat

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The theme for this retreat was: understanding our true connection with nature.  What emerged from the experience for me was not so much ‘understanding’ as waking up to a living oneness with nature – of being gently reabsorbed into nature –  the sense of separation between ‘me’ and ‘nature’ softly fading away and being replaced by a vivid sense of oneness, of belonging, of being of the same fabric.  Something perhaps like Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘interbeing’ including all and everything.  Mandaza spoke of it as the great spider web of Spirit that interconnects everything in the universe.

 

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On reflection it seems to me that this sense of separation is something that we unconsciously create when we withdraw from an active relationship with the abundance all around me – because it was through consciously engaging with this abundance that the vibrant sense of oneness sprang out of its dormancy and into life.

On the first day of the retreat we were awakened to the earth.  We sat outside on the rocks and grass in the beautiful spaces cleared by Martin, beside the stream flowing and babbling down from the mountain, and were asked to identify all the other communities present there with us: the grasses, mosses, flowers, trees, soils, minerals, insects, mammals, birds – in the earth, on the earth, above the earth.  Our group identified over 70 within a very short time.  We looked at just some of their roles and contributions to the web of life.  In simply bringing this to mind, an awareness of the abundance of interconnected support all around us arose together with an awareness of our forgetfulness as humans – of our dismissive disregard for all that gives and supports our life  when we imagine ourselves to be separate and superior.  We blindly blunder on in our arrogance, caring little for the source of our lives or for the wellbeing of future generations.

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This led to a lot of discussion about how this way of conceiving ourselves leads to such flagrant abuse and destruction of that upon which we depend for our lives and wellbeing.  Mandaza spoke of all that we receive from the earth and how the earth receives all our waste, transforming it into fertile life-sustaining nutrients.  He asked how often we say ‘thank you’ to the earth, how often we give back to the earth by seeing, feeling, noticing, appreciating, tending and caring for the earth and all her communities?  Later in the day we were encouraged to take a handful of seeds and go out to the places on the land that we feel a special bond with and express our gratitude by giving some seeds back to the earth as a gesture of recognition and thanksgiving.  It is difficult to describe how powerfully meaningful and moving it felt to do this. And the earth took her rightful place as our mother.

On the second day of the retreat we were awakened to water.  We began by talking about water – its qualities, attributes, roles and contribution.  A rich dialogue followed about water – the beauty and functions of its various forms like ice, snow, rain, rivers, ocean, mist, steam; its volume and extent on the earth and in our bodies and all other bodies, its network of streams and rivers and oceans, its life-giving and sustaining role, its role in circulating carbon dioxide, cleaning the air and maintaining the atmosphere, its molecular structure and capacity to respond to sound and other forms of energy, the pleasure we feel in playing and bathing in water….and so much more.  And then Mandaza asked us, each one individually, instead of speaking about water as if it is something separate from us, to speak as water about water’s contribution to the web of life: “I am water, I ……”  And water came to life within us.

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In the afternoon Mandaza took us each through a water ritual at the stream after which we spent time on our own outside contemplating our individual experience of the ritual.

In the evening we began to talk about dreams and listening to the messages that come through our dreams – both for ourselves individually and communally.  So began the process of integrating the dream world into the healing of our wholeness.  Each morning then began with a dream circle where we shared the dreams we could remember from the night before and shared what we saw in each others’ dreams.  And the messages lived among us.

Dialogues continued through the remaining days on our purpose as humans on earth, on our relationships with our partners, families, children, elders and ancestors, on race and gender, on what love is, on the languages that we use – of love and hate and gossip, on leadership, on service, on prayer, on healing, on forgiveness and justice in our personal and national lives, on living in peace. Interspersed among the dialogues were meditations, laughter, play, song, and drumming. And the birds and butterflies came to join us.

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I was left feeling both immense joy and sadness.  Joy at the taste of fulfilment of a deep yearning from childhood for this immersed attunement with all that is – and sadness at the tragedy of what has been lost and devalued through the alienation and arrogance of human hubris. May we yet have the humility and courage to ask for the help we need from the wisdom keepers among us for the wellbeing and joy of present and future generations of all life on our planet.
by Chandasara

 

 

Ending Plastic Pollution

Greetings! We missed getting this out for Earth Day, (April 22nd) but then as our wellbeing and survival depends on a healthy environment, Earth Day awareness nowadays has to be every day. We all know we live in an intensified world where resources are increasingly limited, our eco-systems are under great threat, our wildlife too, and our warming biosphere threatens to tip us into climate melt down.

But it’s never too late for a reminder about how we can do our piece, and certainly awareness around consumerism is a very large piece. Below Dharmagiri’s recently employed office admin manager, Penny-Jane, has penned an encouragement for us all. Take 10 mins to read how we can take steps to leave the planet in better shape for those who come after.

First, to introduce you further to Penny-Jane

penny-janeI am an environmental scientist by training with a strong background in environmental law and policy. Having grown up and studied in Stellenbosch and Cape Town I feel a strong connection with nature and feel blessed to live in, what I think is one of the most beautiful countries in the World. I have spent the past four years of my career working for Greenpeace Africa as part of their Climate and Energy team with the majority of my work focusing on renewable energy as an alternative future for Africa (and the World), with a move away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy. My studies as well as my work are based on my strong belief that we as humans need to find a more sustainable way of living in harmony with our planet if we are to survive as a species. Our fundamental disconnect with ourselves has led to a society that has forgotten it is a part of the natural World that we are systematically destroying. Travel is one of my great passions and I have spent time in many parts of the World, most recently a four month working period in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This also allowed me to fulfil a life-long dream of seeing a glimpse of South America which included the majestic Iguazu Falls, Machu Picchu and the jungles of Peru.

I have had the privilege of attending retreats at Dharmagiri in the past and I have been on a long journey to find my way back. I believe that Dharmagiri creates the space for us all to reconnect with our inner truth and to feel part of the beautiful natural surroundings here. I feel strongly in the work that is being carried out at Dharmagiri and look forward to being of service here to further that work. This opportunity to live and work at Dharmagiri is a real privilege for me and I look forward to meeting you all.

Earth Day 2018 (and every day!) – End Plastic Pollution by Penny-Jane Cooke. 

Here’s the thing about plastics right, they have become a pervasive part of our everyday lives, they are the substance that makes our lives more convenient, from that shopping bag when you forget your lovely reusable material one (again), to that straw that seems to make your smoothie taste extra good. They are the substance we love to hate.

The dark side of this everyday convenience is that they are polluting our lives and the lives of so many species that share this planet with us. My heart breaks every time I see a picture of a turtle suffering with a plastic ring strangling its body or a beached whale with a stomach full of plastic. Our everyday convenience has become a problem on a Global scale that is impacting our health and polluting the environment at an unprecedented rate.

But what can we do, sometimes these issues seem so unsurmountable that it is impossible to imagine that an alternative World exists. The good news is that there are alternatives, there are solutions and in Earth Day 2018 there is the support we all need to realise our ambitions to kick that plastic habit.

The call for Earth Day 2018 is for all citizens of the World to band together help end plastic pollution by finding out how many plastic items you consume every year and make a PLEDGE to reduce the amount. To this end there is a fantastic update to the traditional 3R’s that we all know so well, to now bring you the 5R’s Reduce – Refuse – Reuse – Recycle – Remove

So what does all that mean…

Reduce (ok so you knew this one already)

Consume what you need – Many plastic products you may frequently use are generally unnecessary – do you really need a straw to drink a glass of water? It is important to only consume what you need, especially when it comes to plastics. Many of the most commonly disposed of plastic products have viable alternatives. Always ask yourself if you can get the same product without consuming plastic before you buy something.

Refuse

When you order a drink at a restaurant, you can tell the waiter that you don’t want a straw. If you know you need a straw, you can purchase a metal or wood/paper based straw and bring that with you. You could also go a step further and ask the restaurant to stop providing plastic straws or to only provide straws to customers when requested.

Plastic bags are one of the biggest sources of plastic pollution. Refusing the plastic shopping bags given away at retailers and grocery stores is easy. If you need a bag to carry your purchases, bring reusable canvas bags instead. And buy cloth or mesh bags to carry fresh produce to the cashier.

Take a little extra time while doing your shopping, select products without plastic packaging and always be sure to avoid or even boycott products that are excessively wrapped in plastic (for example fresh produce).

When you go clothes shopping, it is best to avoid fabrics with plastic microfibers such as nylon and polyester. Or check ways to collect the fibres in your washing machine.

Reuse

You can buy reusable mesh bags that replace the plastic bags you use for bulk produce at the grocery store.

You can purchase canvas shopping bags and leave them in your car for anytime you go shopping.

Get a reusable water bottle instead of buying plastic ones and throwing them out.

There are reusable wax lined bags and wraps that effectively replace single use sandwich bags.

When you finally decide to get rid of old clothes, toys, furniture, or electronics, donate them rather than throwing them away.

Use dishes, glasses, and metal silverware instead of their plastic counterparts.

Consider trying washable reusable cloth diapers instead of disposable ones

Many food containers from restaurants are durable enough to be reused for kitchen storage.

Recycle

You have made it through the section about adopting a plastic reduction regimen. You are now thinking about turning down straws, carrying your own shopping bags, and encouraging your friends and family to do the same. But in a world where plastic is so ubiquitous, there are going to be instances where consuming plastic might be necessary. It would be difficult to expect you to reduce your plastic consumption to zero overnight. That’s where recycling comes in. Your next step is to learn about recycling. Recycling is far from the final solution to the Plastic Pollution problem, but it is an important part of it. It cannot replace the need for reducing consumption or refusing and reusing plastics when you can. If recycling is the best option, you should do so following the rules of the community, town or city in which you live. For the most part, only recycle if you are positive that the item is truly recyclable.

Should I recycle this?

Plastic bottles for recycling, Tel Aviv, Israel

Remove

Help the effort to remove plastic:

Start a beach or river clean-up in your local community.

Support the work of organizations removing plastic from the environment.

Purchase innovative products created from recovered ocean or environmental plastics.

Personally, I am really amped for Earth Day 2018 and keen to get started, for more information and to take the pledge check out the Earth Day website – https://www.earthday.org/

And most importantly the awesome tool kit they our friends at Earth Day have put together here – http://www.earthday.org/wp-content/uploads/Earth-Day-Network-Plastic-Pollution-Primer-and-Action-Toolkit-updated-2.20.2018.pdf

Blog post by: Penny-Jane

A bit about me… World Traveller, environmental activist, passionate about education, empowering communities and finding solutions to some of the environmental issues facing the World today. Part time blogger, currently living in the Underberg, KZN.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/penny-jane-cooke-45529a76

Penny- Jane (second left) at our recent retreat with Mandaza Kandemwa, focusing on deepening our relationship with nature within an ensouled world. 2 mandaza

 

 

Dharmagiri – AGM August 12

Précis of Dharmagiri Vision Meeting, facilitated by Nobantu

The morning began with an exercise introduced and guided by Nobantu – of each person writing down points, on small pieces of paper, about their sense of
1) what is working at Dharmagiri?
2) why does Dharmagiri exist – what does it offer?
3) so where to from here?
After looking at all the points which were put up on the walls, we divided into three groups to synthesize this input.

The input about what is working at Dharmagiri included comments about the blessing of dharma protectors, the beauty and sacredness of its mountain location, as well as the retreat centre being a sanctuary and spiritual home where there is a sense of sangha and community, an established and well-maintained place that is not to big where people can practice, grow, heal and find silence, peace and compassion. The depth of dharma in the teachings, especially Kittisaro and Thanissara’s teachings which include eclectic Buddhist perspectives, as well as the availability of international, resident and local teachers, the encouragement of diversity and openness, flexibility and openness to change, as well as an availability of overseas financial support were also noted, as were Dharmagiri’s reputation, authenticity, generosity, goodwill and willingness.

The synthesis of this input by one of the sub-groups reads as follows:

“The stable and vigilant mountain; a spiritual home and sanctuary where healing, love and compassion are natural. Dharmagiri is well maintained and a place where groups and spiritual friends can meet and it is a strong and effective source of dharma.”

A further synthesis reads:

“The mountain is a source of nourishment and guidance for all of us: the space is sacred, holds and protects us. There is a committed core group of teachers and sangha members, who are demonstrating flexibility and openness to change. Relationships with local communities have been established and can be deepened over time; there is a feeling of good will that can be nourished in turn to do much more. The space has a feeling of authenticity, generosity, and a depth of dharma teaching that has manifest a particular ethos of the sacred mountain that is accepting of so many different pathways and ideas. The small community has nurtured this, and a reputation has been built around this authenticity.”

The input on why Dharmagiri exists – what it specifically offers – included comments in the areas of Dharmagiri being a refuge; a place for practice, healing and transformation; a place that models a way of being; and a place from where spirituality can be integrated into the world. Firstly as a refuge, Dharmagiri provides a spiritual home, a hermitage, a sanctuary, a safe place; secondly, as a place for practice and healing, Dharmagiri develops love, compassion, reflection, insight and facilitates personal, social and nature-related healing, and offers a space where it is okay to acknowledge our suffering and develop a way of relating to it, and a space where the pain and separation from apartheid can be healed; thirdly, as a place that models a way of being –compassion, generosity, wisdom, awareness and inclusion are modelled through the teachings; and lastly, as a place where spirituality can be integrated into the world, Dharmagiri demonstrates a deepening of spirituality and a way to build bridges from there into the world.

The synthesis of this input by the second sub-group reads as follows:

“We come for enrichment, for peace, for personal growth and for friendship”.

A further synthesis reads:

“We begin with honouring a legacy of inclusive sacredness in people, tradition, and place, which includes depth of practice, teachers, intentionality, and influence. Qualities, values, experiences and practices that support this include authenticity, nurturing, compassion, love, wisdom, generosity, sparkliness 🙂. These qualities emerge through and in this location: through connection, through experiencing the sacredness of ancient place, and through sangha.

DG is a place and a space that enables transformation, healing, liberation, refuge and re-membering through depth-practice, relationship and self-knowledge. With that comes an inner purpose for all those who to come to this place, and from there a relationship with community and community purposes: this includes bridgebuilding, mending structural violence and the actions that emerge from those processes, in friendship, and in healing.”

Input contributions on the question of ‘so where to from here?’ included continuing to offer depth practice and healing through offering mainly longer retreats and self retreats but including a few introductory retreats as well, and by building sangha through involvement and communication, continuing to involve local people, and reaching out to more black Africans and more young people. A focus on developing an African view of the dharma, or what some referred to as ‘Afro-dharma’ including an honouring of indigenous spiritual traditions, was also mentioned as well as continuing to offer a place of dialogue and reflection on South African issues. Also raised was the offering of trainings using mindfulness in different contexts. The need to identify the core principles and guiding ethos of Dharmagiri, and the need for better marketing, communication and organisational structuring and support came up as well.

The synthesis of this input by the third sub-group reads as follows:

“Dharmagiri offers an environment of simplicity, a sense of belonging, bonding, a feeling of coming home. It encourages dropping social niceties, being real, and working with suffering. Dharmagiri’s space generates an ethos conducive to sharing authentic communication and practice of awakening. A lack of hierarchy, being inclusive, grounded in heart space, generosity, and a desire to help are foundational. Dharmagiri should stay small perhaps with an ability to host small groups. It should not over develop or become focused on making money and growing.”

Having completed this process, a general discussion about Dharmagiri’s vision statement concluded by delegating the task of formulating the vision statement to a sub-group. The vision statement that emerged read as follows:

Dharmagiri, nestled in the ancient and sacred presence of Mvuleni Mountain; and we, who practice, guide, and teach here, hold a dream that healing and liberation is the birth right of all. This is catalysed through contemplative practices and the transformation of consciousness that reconnects with the core of who we are, beyond the masks we wear, at the timeless level of our being.

The legacy of the sacred mountain and the long tradition of wisdom teachings enable the unfolding process of awakening from personal and collective wounding. This activates an innate intelligence, which guides our way home where we remember that we are loving and compassionate and as unique and authentic selves, belong together within the inter-connected and mysterious web of life.

After some later reflection and consideration, the final formulation of the vision statement for Dharmagiri emerged as follows:

At Dharmagiri, we hold a dream that healing and liberation is the birth right of all. Our focus is to catalyse this potential through contemplative practices that reconnect with the core of who we are, beyond the masks we wear, at the timeless level of our being.

The power of Mvuleni-Bamboo Mountain where Dharmagiri is nestled, and Dharmagiri’s legacy of Buddhist inspired wisdom teachings, enables a process of awakening from personal and collective wounding. As dysfunctional conditioning is released, our innate, intuitive intelligence is activated, guiding our way home so we remember that we are loving and compassionate, unique and authentic, and belong together within the inter-connected web of life.

For advertising purposes:

Dharmagiri Sacred Mountain Retreat is dedicated to well-being and the transformation of our individual and collective consciousness through insight meditation, mindfulness, and healing modalities.

Dharmagiri is on the border of South Africa and Lesotho near Underberg, KZN. It was founded in 2000 by Kittisaro and Thanissara, who trained in the Thai Forest monastic Tradition, and is guided by them, Chandasara, who also trained in the same tradition, a board of directors, and members of Sacred Mountain Sangha, an affiliated community of South African and International Dharma practitioners.

We offer guided silent meditation retreats, self-retreats, and a range of shorter retreats that promote physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Within an ethos of open inquiry, we share teachings and practices that encourage the cultivation of mindfulness, insight meditation (vipassana), compassion, integrity and wisdom. We believe changing the world for the better grows from each person’s ability to access peace, clarity, and their positive creative potential.  

Various other topics discussed included what is meant by “Afro-dharma”, aspects of Dharmagiri’s finances, issues of governance and organisation, marketing and publicity, and programme issues.

Points raised in relation to “Afro-dharma” were that while much attention has been given to the East meeting the West in Buddhist practice, there has not been much attention given to the meaning of the East meeting Africa. There was a real passion to explore this. It was suggested that Dharmagiri host a workshop to explore this.

The need for a proper budget detailing all areas of income and expenditure was raised, including income from overseas benefactors, dana, fees, retreat costs, and teacher dana / fees. Stipends and general HR issues such as role, responsibility and decision-making definition, communication and accountability, and general conditions of living and working at DG also require attention.

Regarding governance and organisation, the possibility of having a ‘council of elders’ was raised. Such a council would play an advisory and mediating role and would comprise people who have been supporting DG for a long time but who are not immediately involved in its running. The need for a management committee including community residents to link to the DG Directors (all of whom are not currently resident at DG) was also raised. It was suggested that we consult an organisational specialist to help with structuring and clarifying these issues of governance and organisation. A committee to take the governance, organisation, and financial issues forward was agreed. Chris K, Jane P and Chandasara would take up that role.

While the need to look at marketing and publicity was raised several times, discussion was postponed in order to focus on other issues, so no decisions were made in relation to this aspect of DG functioning. At the moment Thanissara and Marlene are fulfilling this role and will be liaising with Peter who will be gathering and editing content for the website, newsletter, and DG Facebook page.

Regarding DG’s programme, it was decided to continue to offer longer retreats, self-retreats and to hire the centre to groups who are aligned with DG’s vision and ethos, for running their retreats. Offering nature connection retreats and insight dialogue based retreats including some focused on race and gender dynamics was also agreed. Developing further mindfulness based courses and linking the Jo’burg, Durban and Cape Town groups in more closely with DG and the American Sacred Mountain Sangha in relation to this, was discussed. Exploring “Afro-dharma” and linking this in to local groups and consulting with Sister Abe in this, was agreed.

A sub-group volunteered to meet in the evening to try to consolidate this discussion into a “way forward” statement that could be brought back to the larger group for discussion and agreement. The statement that emerged from this process is as follows:

The Way Forward
Dharmagiri Retreats

The focus of taught retreats offered at Dharmagiri will be aimed at supporting the development of depth practice rather than offering short introductory retreats which are already adequately provided by other retreat centres. In practice this means continuing to offer annual month long retreats as well as five and ten day retreats throughout the year. Between taught retreats, Dharmagiri will be available for supporting individual self-retreats, guided or self-determined.

In addition to retreats taught by Dharmagiri teachers, we will continue to invite outside teachers, both local and international, to offer retreats that are aligned with Dharmagiri’s vision and ethos, in areas such as, for example, Meditation, Mindfulness, Yoga, Healing modalities, and the Enneagram. We will also continue to offer Dharmagiri for use on request by outside groups that are similarly aligned with Dharmagiri’s vision and ethos.

Dharmagiri will continue to offer the annual Yatra retreat with a view to developing and expanding its orientation to include more of a conscious focus on raising awareness of our connection, relationship with, and care for nature, other forms of life and the environment. These retreats could involve, for example, walks in the mountains – not so much to walk as to sense and connect with the plant, insect, and animal life, the water, air, earth, sun, the history of the people who came before us through their paintings and other artefacts, learning from other cultures about their understandings of living in balance with their natural environments, developing awareness of the skies – the moon, stars, milky way galaxy and touching into how awareness of these has helped people plant, harvest, navigate, mythologize, find meaning in awe and mystery, and feel a sense of connection to something greater than ourselves. We could possibly walk out to spend a night in a cave as part of the retreat. All this would be held in a meditative space – exploring the relationship between inner connection and outer connection.

We also plan to continue to offer Insight Dialogue-based retreats both to deepen insight into the Dhamma and also as a safe and containing space for an ongoing exploration into our race and gender conditionings with a view to fostering greater understanding, empathy, and mutually enriching relationship. The term “Afro-dharma” came up during our AGM and these retreats could be a way of feeling into what is intuited with this term. Is there a connection between, for example, the philosophy and practice of Ubuntu and the kind of human relationship encouraged through the Sangha?

At Dharmagiri we will be developing some new mindfulness-based modular courses particularly looking into the characteristics of existence, and especially into the anatta or not-self aspect of the Dhamma. We hope that through these courses, and some of the retreats we will be offering, to draw in more younger people and more black Africans to join with us and share their perspectives as we deepen into a transformation of consciousness that takes us beyond our conditioning into the heart of who we truly are so that we may find each other there.

Resources Needed to Carry Out the Vision

  1. On the ground support: Housekeeper/Chef and Garden/Maintenance help.
  2. Clear role descriptions with responsibilities, accountability and communication lines clearly defined.
  3. More formally agreed terms of residence/employment at Dharmagiri including stipends, dana, leave, days off, etc.
  4. Help from a temporary organizational structure adviser/consultant to help us formulate a good practice organization model and process that fits our particular needs and circumstances.
  5. It was suggested that we establish a council of elders – a small group of people who have been long term Dharmagiri supporters and are not involved in the directing or running of Dharmagiri and who can advise, mediate and offer suggestions from an empathic and objective perspective.
  6. Additional buildings: A tremendous offering was made by Julian Kiepel last year, who examined the land in detail and made very helpful suggestions that would enable further buildings to fit within the requirements of land use in the Drakensberg. His extensive document is still being studied. Thanissara briefly shared a plan she sketched post conversations with stake holders as a spring board for discussion. There wasn’t time to look into this. Kittisaro and Thanissara have proposed a further longer meeting at a future date, over serval days to a week, with an interested group of stakholders to explore the building project.
  7. A financial committee to look into budgeting and local fundraising (Chris, Jane, Chandasara, Peter).
  8. An international fundraising committee (Kittisaro, Thanissara, Mike).
  9. A governance committee to secure a consultant as mentioned in point 4 above (to be included in the financial committee’s brief).
  10. A programming committee to schedule retreats and events, contact teachers, and manage the process of liaising with teachers, the office, and on the ground community members. Currently Thanissara & Chandasara, Marlene, Jane, advice from Sue.
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Our Team DG at the August 12th AGM. Back row, L-R Jane, Chris, Sue, Chandasara, Martin, Judy, Marlene, Moyra, Nobantu, Jess. Front row L-R Peter, Thanissara, Kittisaro, Mike.

 

Message from K & T, and Dharmagiri’s Vision Meeting, August 2017

Greetings from Kittisaro & Thanissara

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K&T after helping to put out a fire in Dharmagiri Canyon with Martin and neighbours. August 6th, ’17

Some day, along the way, you realise you got older, and you are thinking less about life ahead and more about leaving something of value for those that follow. At such transitional moments it’s good to take a pause, which is what we did. We called it a sabbatical, but even though it was our first real break from teaching in 25 years, it was still a full year. We completed a move from the family home in Tennessee, after Kittisaro’s father passed, to a new base in California, while at the same time working with our Dharmagiri team to consider how best to support the running of the centre. We also took time for our own personal retreats, which were essential for recalibration, healing, and clarification.

We so appreciate the support we received during our that time and thank all who helped us. We were sorry we weren’t more present at Dharmagiri, or able to lead our usual retreats. However, we’ve been heartened by the work of Chandasara, Martin, Jane, Marlene, Chris, and Nobantu, who not only kept the wheels on, but are beginning to forge a more collaborative running of Dharmagiri. This is in line with it being time to shift from a founder led organisation to a community led one. We also thank Sue Cooper, Dain Peters, Nobantu Tsengiwe, Helen Altman, who have returned to teach at Dharmagiri over several years, alongside many other wonderful teachers who have offered their wisdom so generously at Dharmagiri.

For conscious engagement with the future, Dharmagiri’s Annual General Meeting in August  was important. It went a long way to clarify the vision of Dharmagiri and how we aim to apply it on a practical level. We thank Dharmagiri’s co-director, Nobantu Mpotulo, for facilitating such a heartfelt, wonderful, fun, profound, and creative process that produced the kind of results we were hoping for. Chandasara has put together a summary of the meeting below, which will interest those who support Dharmagiri.

As we both move into “what now”, it’s clear to us that Dharmagiri and our deep connection with South Africa since 1994, is woven into our hearts and is part of our future planning. We look forward to continuing our month long retreats, offering shorter retreats, and to spending time in the mountains, while also continuing to support Dharmagiri and our co-sangha members in S.Africa. This is our ongoing commitment.

Alongside that, our work in America has grown out of our decades of retreat work at Dharmagiri, which primarily enabled us to forge a synthesis of Theravada and Mahayana practice. The first flowering of this was the Sacred Mountain Sangha Dharma Training in 2008, which began as 3 five day modules over a year at Dharmagiri. With considerable help from Peter Woods (now Dharmagiri’s Offsite Service Provider), who spent that year at Dharmagiri, the training went online enabling people to access it locally, then around the world.

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K&T doing street protest, San Francisco

In about 2009 we created a small Non Profit in Tennessee called Sacred Mountain Sangha, which has now transferred to California as a 501(c)3. In September 2018, we will launch the core work of SMS USA, which is a seven module training over 2 years. You will be hearing more about this shortly through our Sacred Mountain Sangha newsletter, which you’ll have the option to sign up for, alongside Dharmagiri’s newsletter.

Before leaving you with Chandasara’s report, we wanted to encourage support for our emerging Dharma teachers at Dharmagiri. You may not of practised with them yet, but we highly recommend you take the opportunity to do so if you can. We are very grateful, in particular, that Chandasara, Nobantu, and Solwazi are stepping up to help us over the Christmas and New Year period so we can see Thanissara’s family in the UK and Ireland. Something that’s been hard to do at Christmas these last decades, as we usually teach at that time.

Team DG - Bots '17

Team DG 7 friends. Chandasara is 3rd from the right on the back row, between Martin and Jess & Ahmed. Next to Martin on the back row is Jane, Garth, Marlene, Kittisaro, Thanissara. Front row is Pip, Robyn, Peter, Moyra, Sister Abe. (At the Mind & Life Conference on Ubuntu, a Dialogue on Spirituality, Science & Humanity, Botho University, Botswana.)

Chandasara has a great depth and breadth to her understanding and practice of the Dharma from her monastic training, study of psychology, and deep interest in engaging and healing the particular wounds and challenges within the South African experience. Chandasara will be furthering her training in Insight Dialogue next year in the U.S.A. Beside supporting self retreats, Chandasara is also offering several taught retreats at Dharmagiri in the near future.

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Teacher Trainees at Insight Meditation Society, U.S.A. Nolitha is far left at the back next to Joseph Goldstein.

Nolitha has a long Dharma practice background to draw from, is a psychologist and practicing therapist, and has just entered teacher training with Joseph Goldstein and leading Dharma teachers at Insight Meditation Society in the U.S.A.  Nobantu, who like Nolitha is a graduate from Spirt Rock’s 2 year Community Dharma Leader program, is in demand by the UN for her leadership training skills and understanding of group process. She now teaches all over Africa, the Middle East, and beyond.

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1. Xoli, Nobantu, Wapo

R-L – Wapo, Nobantu, Xoli at Dharmagiri

We’re also delighted that Solwazi Johnson, from Colorado, will be teaching at Dharmagiri. Solwazi has studied Dharma in Asia, has been on our retreats at Dharmagiri, and is a trainer with Intrinsic Resilience Training Institute, dedicated to teaching mindfulness and resilience skills to people in high stress occupations. Currently Solwazi is in teacher training at Spirit Rock with Larry Yang and Gina Sharpe. Solwazi will be leading retreats in Dec & Jan with Chandasara and Nobantu, which will also include walks in the mountains.

Very last thing to mention is the change of name that emerged from our collective process at the AGM. We are now Dharmagiri Sacred Mountain Retreat. All of us at the AGM felt it was important to acknowledge the timeless, powerful, benevolent, and inspiring presence of Mvuleni-Bamboo mountain as a major contributor to the transformative work at Dharmagiri. And, in case you didn’t know, one translation we like of Dharmagiri is Sacred Mountain!

We look forward to practising together again at the mountain.
Until then,
Blessings in the Dharma.
Kittisaro & Thanissara

T - '17  K - 2015

Précis of Dharmagiri Vision Meeting, facilitated by Nobantu

The morning began with an exercise introduced and guided by Nobantu – of each person writing down points, on small pieces of paper, about their sense of
1) what is working at Dharmagiri?
2) why does Dharmagiri exist – what does it offer?
3) so where to from here?
After looking at all the points which were put up on the walls, we divided into three groups to synthesize this input.

The input about what is working at Dharmagiri included comments about the blessing of dharma protectors, the beauty and sacredness of its mountain location, as well as the retreat centre being a sanctuary and spiritual home where there is a sense of sangha and community, an established and well-maintained place that is not to big where people can practice, grow, heal and find silence, peace and compassion. The depth of dharma in the teachings, especially Kittisaro and Thanissara’s teachings which include eclectic Buddhist perspectives, as well as the availability of international, resident and local teachers, the encouragement of diversity and openness, flexibility and openness to change, as well as an availability of overseas financial support were also noted, as were Dharmagiri’s reputation, authenticity, generosity, goodwill and willingness.

The synthesis of this input by one of the sub-groups reads as follows:

“The stable and vigilant mountain; a spiritual home and sanctuary where healing, love and compassion are natural. Dharmagiri is well maintained and a place where groups and spiritual friends can meet and it is a strong and effective source of dharma.”

A further synthesis reads:

“The mountain is a source of nourishment and guidance for all of us: the space is sacred, holds and protects us. There is a committed core group of teachers and sangha members, who are demonstrating flexibility and openness to change. Relationships with local communities have been established and can be deepened over time; there is a feeling of good will that can be nourished in turn to do much more. The space has a feeling of authenticity, generosity, and a depth of dharma teaching that has manifest a particular ethos of the sacred mountain that is accepting of so many different pathways and ideas. The small community has nurtured this, and a reputation has been built around this authenticity.”

The input on why Dharmagiri exists – what it specifically offers – included comments in the areas of Dharmagiri being a refuge; a place for practice, healing and transformation; a place that models a way of being; and a place from where spirituality can be integrated into the world. Firstly as a refuge, Dharmagiri provides a spiritual home, a hermitage, a sanctuary, a safe place; secondly, as a place for practice and healing, Dharmagiri develops love, compassion, reflection, insight and facilitates personal, social and nature-related healing, and offers a space where it is okay to acknowledge our suffering and develop a way of relating to it, and a space where the pain and separation from apartheid can be healed; thirdly, as a place that models a way of being –compassion, generosity, wisdom, awareness and inclusion are modelled through the teachings; and lastly, as a place where spirituality can be integrated into the world, Dharmagiri demonstrates a deepening of spirituality and a way to build bridges from there into the world.

The synthesis of this input by the second sub-group reads as follows:

“We come for enrichment, for peace, for personal growth and for friendship”.

A further synthesis reads:

“We begin with honouring a legacy of inclusive sacredness in people, tradition, and place, which includes depth of practice, teachers, intentionality, and influence. Qualities, values, experiences and practices that support this include authenticity, nurturing, compassion, love, wisdom, generosity, sparkliness 🙂. These qualities emerge through and in this location: through connection, through experiencing the sacredness of ancient place, and through sangha.

DG is a place and a space that enables transformation, healing, liberation, refuge and re-membering through depth-practice, relationship and self-knowledge. With that comes an inner purpose for all those who to come to this place, and from there a relationship with community and community purposes: this includes bridgebuilding, mending structural violence and the actions that emerge from those processes, in friendship, and in healing.”

Input contributions on the question of ‘so where to from here?’ included continuing to offer depth practice and healing through offering mainly longer retreats and self retreats but including a few introductory retreats as well, and by building sangha through involvement and communication, continuing to involve local people, and reaching out to more black Africans and more young people. A focus on developing an African view of the dharma, or what some referred to as ‘Afro-dharma’ including an honouring of indigenous spiritual traditions, was also mentioned as well as continuing to offer a place of dialogue and reflection on South African issues. Also raised was the offering of trainings using mindfulness in different contexts. The need to identify the core principles and guiding ethos of Dharmagiri, and the need for better marketing, communication and organisational structuring and support came up as well.

The synthesis of this input by the third sub-group reads as follows:

“Dharmagiri offers an environment of simplicity, a sense of belonging, bonding, a feeling of coming home. It encourages dropping social niceties, being real, and working with suffering. Dharmagiri’s space generates an ethos conducive to sharing authentic communication and practice of awakening. A lack of hierarchy, being inclusive, grounded in heart space, generosity, and a desire to help are foundational. Dharmagiri should stay small perhaps with an ability to host small groups. It should not over develop or become focused on making money and growing.”

Having completed this process, a general discussion about Dharmagiri’s vision statement concluded by delegating the task of formulating the vision statement to a sub-group. The vision statement that emerged read as follows:

Dharmagiri, nestled in the ancient and sacred presence of Mvuleni Mountain; and we, who practice, guide, and teach here, hold a dream that healing and liberation is the birth right of all. This is catalysed through contemplative practices and the transformation of consciousness that reconnects with the core of who we are, beyond the masks we wear, at the timeless level of our being.

The legacy of the sacred mountain and the long tradition of wisdom teachings enable the unfolding process of awakening from personal and collective wounding. This activates an innate intelligence, which guides our way home where we remember that we are loving and compassionate and as unique and authentic selves, belong together within the inter-connected and mysterious web of life.

After some later reflection and consideration, the final formulation of the vision statement for Dharmagiri emerged as follows:

At Dharmagiri, we hold a dream that healing and liberation is the birth right of all. Our focus is to catalyse this potential through contemplative practices that reconnect with the core of who we are, beyond the masks we wear, at the timeless level of our being.

The power of Mvuleni-Bamboo Mountain where Dharmagiri is nestled, and Dharmagiri’s legacy of Buddhist inspired wisdom teachings, enables a process of awakening from personal and collective wounding. As dysfunctional conditioning is released, our innate, intuitive intelligence is activated, guiding our way home so we remember that we are loving and compassionate, unique and authentic, and belong together within the inter-connected web of life.

For advertising purposes:

Dharmagiri Sacred Mountain Retreat is dedicated to well-being and the transformation of our individual and collective consciousness through insight meditation, mindfulness, and healing modalities.

Dharmagiri is on the border of South Africa and Lesotho near Underberg, KZN. It was founded in 2000 by Kittisaro and Thanissara, who trained in the Thai Forest monastic Tradition, and is guided by them, Chandasara, who also trained in the same tradition, a board of directors, and members of Sacred Mountain Sangha, an affiliated community of South African and International Dharma practitioners.

We offer guided silent meditation retreats, self-retreats, and a range of shorter retreats that promote physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Within an ethos of open inquiry, we share teachings and practices that encourage the cultivation of mindfulness, insight meditation (vipassana), compassion, integrity and wisdom. We believe changing the world for the better grows from each person’s ability to access peace, clarity, and their positive creative potential.  

Various other topics discussed included what is meant by “Afro-dharma”, aspects of Dharmagiri’s finances, issues of governance and organisation, marketing and publicity, and programme issues.

Points raised in relation to “Afro-dharma” were that while much attention has been given to the East meeting the West in Buddhist practice, there has not been much attention given to the meaning of the East meeting Africa. There was a real passion to explore this. It was suggested that Dharmagiri host a workshop to explore this.

The need for a proper budget detailing all areas of income and expenditure was raised, including income from overseas benefactors, dana, fees, retreat costs, and teacher dana / fees. Stipends and general HR issues such as role, responsibility and decision-making definition, communication and accountability, and general conditions of living and working at DG also require attention.

Regarding governance and organisation, the possibility of having a ‘council of elders’ was raised. Such a council would play an advisory and mediating role and would comprise people who have been supporting DG for a long time but who are not immediately involved in its running. The need for a management committee including community residents to link to the DG Directors (all of whom are not currently resident at DG) was also raised. It was suggested that we consult an organisational specialist to help with structuring and clarifying these issues of governance and organisation. A committee to take the governance, organisation, and financial issues forward was agreed. Chris K, Jane P and Chandasara would take up that role.

While the need to look at marketing and publicity was raised several times, discussion was postponed in order to focus on other issues, so no decisions were made in relation to this aspect of DG functioning. At the moment Thanissara and Marlene are fulfilling this role and will be liaising with Peter who will be gathering and editing content for the website, newsletter, and DG Facebook page.

Regarding DG’s programme, it was decided to continue to offer longer retreats, self-retreats and to hire the centre to groups who are aligned with DG’s vision and ethos, for running their retreats. Offering nature connection retreats and insight dialogue based retreats including some focused on race and gender dynamics was also agreed. Developing further mindfulness based courses and linking the Jo’burg, Durban and Cape Town groups in more closely with DG and the American Sacred Mountain Sangha in relation to this, was discussed. Exploring “Afro-dharma” and linking this in to local groups and consulting with Sister Abe in this, was agreed.

A sub-group volunteered to meet in the evening to try to consolidate this discussion into a “way forward” statement that could be brought back to the larger group for discussion and agreement. The statement that emerged from this process is as follows:

The Way Forward
Dharmagiri Retreats

The focus of taught retreats offered at Dharmagiri will be aimed at supporting the development of depth practice rather than offering short introductory retreats which are already adequately provided by other retreat centres. In practice this means continuing to offer annual month long retreats as well as five and ten day retreats throughout the year. Between taught retreats, Dharmagiri will be available for supporting individual self-retreats, guided or self-determined.

In addition to retreats taught by Dharmagiri teachers, we will continue to invite outside teachers, both local and international, to offer retreats that are aligned with Dharmagiri’s vision and ethos, in areas such as, for example, Meditation, Mindfulness, Yoga, Healing modalities, and the Enneagram. We will also continue to offer Dharmagiri for use on request by outside groups that are similarly aligned with Dharmagiri’s vision and ethos.

Dharmagiri will continue to offer the annual Yatra retreat with a view to developing and expanding its orientation to include more of a conscious focus on raising awareness of our connection, relationship with, and care for nature, other forms of life and the environment. These retreats could involve, for example, walks in the mountains – not so much to walk as to sense and connect with the plant, insect, and animal life, the water, air, earth, sun, the history of the people who came before us through their paintings and other artefacts, learning from other cultures about their understandings of living in balance with their natural environments, developing awareness of the skies – the moon, stars, milky way galaxy and touching into how awareness of these has helped people plant, harvest, navigate, mythologize, find meaning in awe and mystery, and feel a sense of connection to something greater than ourselves. We could possibly walk out to spend a night in a cave as part of the retreat. All this would be held in a meditative space – exploring the relationship between inner connection and outer connection.

We also plan to continue to offer Insight Dialogue-based retreats both to deepen insight into the Dhamma and also as a safe and containing space for an ongoing exploration into our race and gender conditionings with a view to fostering greater understanding, empathy, and mutually enriching relationship. The term “Afro-dharma” came up during our AGM and these retreats could be a way of feeling into what is intuited with this term. Is there a connection between, for example, the philosophy and practice of Ubuntu and the kind of human relationship encouraged through the Sangha?

At Dharmagiri we will be developing some new mindfulness-based modular courses particularly looking into the characteristics of existence, and especially into the anatta or not-self aspect of the Dhamma. We hope that through these courses, and some of the retreats we will be offering, to draw in more younger people and more black Africans to join with us and share their perspectives as we deepen into a transformation of consciousness that takes us beyond our conditioning into the heart of who we truly are so that we may find each other there.

Resources Needed to Carry Out the Vision

  1. On the ground support: Housekeeper/Chef and Garden/Maintenance help.
  2. Clear role descriptions with responsibilities, accountability and communication lines clearly defined.
  3. More formally agreed terms of residence/employment at Dharmagiri including stipends, dana, leave, days off, etc.
  4. Help from a temporary organizational structure adviser/consultant to help us formulate a good practice organization model and process that fits our particular needs and circumstances.
  5. It was suggested that we establish a council of elders – a small group of people who have been long term Dharmagiri supporters and are not involved in the directing or running of Dharmagiri and who can advise, mediate and offer suggestions from an empathic and objective perspective.
  6. Additional buildings: A tremendous offering was made by Julian Kiepel last year, who examined the land in detail and made very helpful suggestions that would enable further buildings to fit within the requirements of land use in the Drakensberg. His extensive document is still being studied. Thanissara briefly shared a plan she sketched post conversations with stake holders as a spring board for discussion. There wasn’t time to look into this. Kittisaro and Thanissara have proposed a further longer meeting at a future date, over serval days to a week, with an interested group of stakholders to explore the building project.
  7. A financial committee to look into budgeting and local fundraising (Chris, Jane, Chandasara, Peter).
  8. An international fundraising committee (Kittisaro, Thanissara, Mike).
  9. A governance committee to secure a consultant as mentioned in point 4 above (to be included in the financial committee’s brief).
  10. A programming committee to schedule retreats and events, contact teachers, and manage the process of liaising with teachers, the office, and on the ground community members. Currently Thanissara & Chandasara, Marlene, Jane, advice from Sue.
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Our Team DG at the August 12th AGM. Back row, L-R Jane, Chris, Sue, Chandasara, Martin, Judy, Marlene, Moyra, Nobantu, Jess. Front row L-R Peter, Thanissara, Kittisaro, Mike.

 

Afro-Dharma & Botho/Ubuntu: A Dialogue on Spirituality, Science and Humanity. A Mind and Life Dialogue with the Dalai Lama 17-19 August 2017

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Team Dharmagiri (L-R, back row, Thanissara, Kittisaro, Marlene, Garth, Jane, Martin, Chandasara, Jess, Ahmed. L-R, front row, Pip, Robyn, Peter, Moyra, Sr. Abe)

It was a long-awaited and wonderful opportunity for those of us from Dharmagiri to be able to attend this conference together immediately following our vision dialogue meeting and annual AGM. We were all very grateful to Kittisaro and Thanissara for making this possible and to friends in Botswana for making their home available for us to stay in during the conference. So when, a couple of days before the conference was due to begin, we heard that the Dalai Lama would not be coming to the conference due to his exhaustion and concerns about his health, we were all sorely disappointed, although naturally supportive of his taking care of his health. Questions about whether this was the result of Chinese pressure on the Botswana government came to mind.

A surprise awaited us when the conference opened with a videoed talk by the Dalai Lama. He encouraged us to go ahead with the conference without him, assuring us that his spirit and mind were very eager about this dialogue, even though his body did not agree! He emphasized his apology especially in light of the genuine interest shown by Botswana President Khama in his visit and despite some real difficulties, and added that he considered the situation to be merely a postponement of his visit. The following day an article appeared on the front page of the Botswana Guardian newspaper quoting President Khama as revealing that China had indeed pressured Botswana, threatening to recall their ambassador and to engage other African states to isolate Botswana. Botswana however, would welcome a visit from the Dalai Lama at any time.

“The oneness of 7 billion human beings.” the Dalai Lama.

In his talk, the Dalai Lama noted that he has been promoting the oneness of the world’s seven billion human beings and believes that the African philosophy of Botho/Ubuntu has great potential to contribute to realizing this oneness. The problems facing humanity currently are those of differences in nationality, religious faith, and race and the only remedy for these problems is a greater sense of oneness among human beings. He regards humanity as becoming more mature as indicated by an increased desire for harmony and peace than was the case in the early 20th century where violence and war were simply accepted as part of life. He attributed current violence to be the result of the past century’s outdated way of thinking about solving problems through force. He emphasized that peace has to come through inner peace, respect for others, and mutually agreed solutions. We are now moving towards solving problems of disagreement (that will always be there) in a human way through dialogue and referred to the 21st century as the ‘Century of Dialogue’. He encouraged our dialogue in Botswana by commenting that sometimes smaller nations have greater potential to create peace.

In these reflections about the conference, I would like to focus on three main areas of the dialogue: firstly, what is Botho/Ubuntu?; secondly, the ethical dimension: how do we rescue Botho/Ubuntu from extinction?; and thirdly, what does evidence from research in neuroscience tell us about Botho/Ubuntu in terms of how human groups form and how trauma impacts the brain and the biological processes that underlie empathy, compassion and recovery?

What is Botho/Ubuntu?

“I am because of you.” Prof. Michael Onyebuchi Eze

Botho is a Sotho-Tswana word meaning humanity, humaneness, kindness, compassion, sharing, humility, mutual respect and responsibility, interconnectedness, harmony – a universal bond that connects all of humanity. Ubuntu is a word in the Nguni languages which has the same meaning.

The philosophy of Botho/Ubuntu comes from indigenous African religious beliefs and practices where all of life, nature, spirit, and Creator, are inter-related, inter-connected, and inter-dependent. Botho/Ubuntu applies intergenerationally and also inter-species-ally. The self emerges from the relationship with others, other life forms, the natural environment, ancestors and the spirit world, and is healthy when this relationship is harmonious. This implies an ethic of reciprocity: all is one and what is done to one, is done to all. Perhaps Botho/Ubuntu is best expressed in English by the term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh: Interbeing.

Botho/Ubuntu has been adopted as one of Botswana’s five national principles (the others are democracy, development, self-reliance, and unity) and it also underlies the South African constitution and is seen in the country’s coat of arms which depicts two Khoisan rock art human figures facing each other and joined in unity. The Khoisan language motto means “people who are different coming together”. It is surely also reflected in the languages, national symbols and principles of other African countries as well.

At the conference, one of the key phrases expressing Botho/Ubuntu was discussed by many of the speakers at the conference: motho ke motho ka batho. Motho means a person (or, at a deeper level, one who has emerged from the great unknown). Ke means is; ka means by means of, with, or through, and batho means people (plural of motho). So – a person is a person by means of or with or through people. There is a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu that expresses this beautifully:

A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. (Tutu, 2004:25).

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Prof. Michael Eze

Another version of this phrase that was discussed at the conference is: ‘I am because we are’. Questions that came up in relation to this phrase were: who is the ‘I’ and who is the ‘we’ here? What is the notion of personal subjectivity in the traditional African worldview? Michael Eze, who teaches African political theory at the University of Amsterdam, emphasized the performative aspect of this subjectivity summing this up as: “every encounter is a recreation of the self” and “we are each others’ creators” – “we are like small gods to each other”. Michael referred to the work of John Mbiti, teacher and writer on African philosophy and religion, who argues that this phrase should be translated as I am because you are rather than ‘we’ because ‘you’ is more inclusive and can refer to anyone, whereas ‘we’ tends to denote and amplify group identification. Michael also noted that Botho/Ubuntu implies a positive interpretation of the other’s condition and intention and that difference is seen as a gift rather than a threat. Through dialogue we come to understand each other and this understanding leads to a noble-mindedness.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who holds the Chair in Historical Trauma and

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Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Transformation at Stellenbosch University, described Botho/Ubuntu as expressing a state of being in which there is awareness that my subjectivity depends on being recognized and witnessed by others – that my existence is confirmed through relationship with others. She brought in the Zulu greeting sawubona meaning ‘I see you’ or ‘I acknowledge your existence’ as an example of how Botho/Ubuntu is embodied in African languages. The reply ngikhona means ‘I am here’ – an affirmation of existence. A comparison with the English greetings ‘hello’ which conveys little meaning, or ‘good morning’ which conveys a good wish, reveals an absence of substance in common greetings in the English language.

Pumla pointed out that Botho/Ubuntu goes beyond mutual existential recognition to include putting oneself in the other’s shoes – sensing what is going on in the heart and mind of the other – and in this way illustrating the inextricable interwovenness between us. She encouraged us to explore the notion of Botho/Ubuntu through sayings and meanings that are embodied in African languages as well as through the processes of forgiveness that took place during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Forgiveness, she said, involves dropping our denials and justifications and opening ourselves to feel the pain of the other and the shame of having inflicted that pain. Remorse is the key that opens the door to forgiveness and healing. The web of our interconnectedness can be ripped apart through violence and trauma and only repaired through reconnection by means of acknowledging each others’ experience – bringing us back into harmony with each other.

Pumla however, also pointed out that many young people in South Africa find it difficult to connect with Botho/Ubuntu and don’t feel much intergenerational connection. Augustine, a young man from Kenya on the youth panel, commented that young people in modern Africa are encouraged to ‘get a good life for yourself’ and are seldom challenged to think about others. But some young people at the conference indicated that they were working on developing a Botho-quotient to raise awareness about the inadequacy of intelligence without Botho. Justine, on the youth panel from Namibia, said that Ubuntu is being able to see each other as human through all the layers of our various identities.

Several other speakers commented on the commercialization of the term ‘Ubuntu’ as seen in the name of bottled drinks, security company names, PC operating systems, restaurant names, etc. – where it is used as a feel-good term. While the term has become popularized, its real meaning is being lost in superficiality.

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Mandaza Kandemwa

Mandaza Kandemwa, spirit medium and medicine man from Zimbabwe, gave a powerful and moving talk, saying that when he looks through the eyes of Ubuntu, he sees no hierarchies, no VIPs, and no “nobodies” – as required by the spirit of oneness. Ubuntu is not a concept to be studied but is a way of being: you become Ubuntu. We need to understand Ubuntu through our hearts. Humanity needs healing from conflicts, separation, and wanting to own and control everything. He asked: “where are the trees, birds, wild animals, waters, the children who are born as wisdom keepers, in this conference?”, recommending that future Ubuntu conferences be held in nature and include the children. He pointed us back to our own minds to find the source of war, conflict, and corruption, rather than accusing political and business leaders out there. In order to heal, our minds need to become like the ocean that refuses no river. We first need to get rid of the boundaries in our minds and heal the bleeding wounds there. Then we can dispense with passports and boundaries and live in one world on one earth. We need to be the temple of the great spirit that wants us to have Ubuntu. Instead we are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered everywhere. There is no race or culture that has not been abused or controlled by another. Spirit is saying “don’t live in that yesteryear but make a new history. Don’t leave this world in chaos.”

With Africa modernizing rapidly, there is a sense of a loss of community, African identity and the relational richness of Botho/Ubuntu in traditional African ways of life. Concern was expressed about Botho/Ubuntu being reduced to a mere formality, upheld in public and civic forums but losing influence in daily social interactions and becoming less of a lived reality. Africa still remains deeply colonized – its philosophical ideas are marginalized and its own stories remain untaught at schools.

This reminded me of my own experience as a white child at school in SA studying English literature. While much inspired by it, it remained alien to my own lived experience of the seasons, colours, earth and skies, people, cultures and images around me. Afrikaans literature and poetry were for me much more intimate in reflecting my own experience. It is so important that children hear the stories of their own experience, environment and culture so that they can feel included and part of the way of life they are born into. As Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s interpreter, pointed out, there is a need for the building of a pan-African identity based on a shared philosophy and societal values that can transcend the impact and trauma of the colonial mentality. As he said: “if you don’t tell your story, someone else will. Africa needs to know and own its own story”.

Several speakers pointed out that Botho/Ubuntu implies inclusivity – that in traditional African communities, strangers were always welcomed. But the question was also raised about how many of these communities are in fact diverse, and whether these communities actively practice diversity beyond the welcoming of occasional strangers? A further question was raised about some of the more oppressive aspects of traditional culture and the fear of being different, or of exploring beyond the boundaries of traditions. The issue of wars and conflict between nations and groups in Africa was also raised – how do we reconcile these with the philosophy of Botho/Ubuntu?

The Ethical Dimension: How do we rescue Botho/Ubuntu from extinction?

“If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. Africa needs to know and own its own story”. — Thupten Jinpa

While Africa is rapidly modernizing and adopting the individualist values of the West, the individualism in Western societies is resulting in serious problems of atomization and alienation – from other humans, other life forms, and the earth itself. Family and community structures are breaking up, exploitation of other species, the earth and seas is rampant, communication between people is mediated through technology, and levels of anxiety, depression and other mental problems are unprecedented. Thupten Jinpa pointed out that there are hardly any communal values left in the current Eurocentric ethical understanding. It is as if we have become blind to our interdependence which, ironically, science is simultaneously revealing to be the fundamental nature of reality itself.

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Thubten Jinpa

In his book A Fearless Heart, Thupten Jinpa comments: “To the naive eye of someone who grew up in a poorer part of the world, at first glance, people in the West seem more confident, more efficient, and better able to take care of themselves and enjoy life.” But he goes on to point out that all is not as it seems. People neglect “their basic needs for sleep, nutrition, and exercise, and drive themselves harder and harder at work because they don’t know how else to find validation as human beings. People lash out or shut down when they are criticized, because they are all too ready to believe anything bad about themselves, but at the same time they can’t stand to hear anything bad about themselves because they lack a sense of self-worth to balance it. …… People feel anxious and depressed and desperate and they don’t know what to do – and they blame and berate themselves for this too.”

The economic system of Western capitalism with its inexorable drive for increasing growth and profit is impacting the delicate balance of our ecosystem, littering the planet, oceans and atmosphere, and creating waves of alarm about our very survival. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that we have lost our way and return to consult with our elders.

Botho/Ubuntu may offer a philosophical and ethical model that could help us to reconnect with a sense of oneness and wholeness and lead us back to a feeling of belonging and caring for each other, our environment, and the great mystery of our existence. Pumla emphasized that Botho/Ubuntu needs to be placed in the context of large current global ethical dialogues and debates. She noted that it is important to start these dialogues without any specified goals or agendas, so that people can simply come together to listen to each other and meet each other at the soul level where we can re-establish the connection that we have lost with each other.

Many speakers at the conference advocated dialogue as a beginning to finding a way forward, in keeping with the spirit of the Dalai Lama naming the 21st century as the century of dialogue. Lily Mafela, professor of History and History Education at the University of Botswana, suggested that dialogue about Botho/Ubuntu is needed in small communities as well as at national and transnational levels. National leaders as well as leaders of the African Union need to be engaged to make these dialogues a priority and to budget for them with the goal of placing Botho/Ubuntu at the heart of government policy.

The question is: can we find the common ground where we can agree about common values? Thupten Jinpa suggested the question: “what do we want for our children?” as a way of revealing these universal values. How do we expand our tolerance and appreciation of differences among us so that our differences don’t trigger threat responses? Can we redefine “self-interest” to include our interdependence and communal values? How do we embody these values in institutions so that they become the norm and not remain only an aspiration?

What does evidence from neuroscience tell us about Botho/Ubuntu?

  • Uri Hasson, Professor at the Psychology Department and the Neuroscience Institute
    uri-hasson 2

    Uri Hasson

    at Princeton University, demonstrated very graphically with his slides how our brains become synchronized through sound when we are communicating: the same areas of our brains are activated as we speak and listen. We literally become physically interconnected in the sense that the activity of our brains becomes synchronized when we communicate.

  • All is well when we are on common ground and agree about values, but what about forces that polarize us? We can’t say that all values are equal while also preserving differences between us. For example, we may accept the value of freedom, but for some this may mean a society with guns while for others it may mean a society with no guns. These two can’t both be accepted as of equal value and reconciled.
  • How do we break down the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and open ourselves to new encounters beyond our in-group? This may involve a recreation of the self for a new humanity where the dynamic changes to accepting the other as different but also equal. This means finding a way to increase our capacity for empathy.
  • Two ways for Botho/Ubuntu to become a reality in society are 1) seeing the benefits of it as being in my self-interest and 2) that it becomes institutionalized in the basic structures of governance.

 

  • Carsten De Dreu, Professor of Psychology at Leiden University and also affiliated
    carsten 2

    Carsten de Dreu

    with the Center for Experimental Economics and Political Decision Making at the University of Amsterdam, provided three reasons that people live and function in groups: to cooperate, to care for each other; and to compete against other groups both to aggressively exploit them for resources, and to defend our group against such exploitation by other groups.

  • Experiments show that the neuropeptide oxytocin is involved in care and cooperation within groups, but not between groups. It is also involved in aggressive defence of our own group against outside threat but is not involved in aggressive exploitation of other groups. The two main conclusions of these experiments are: 1) we are biologically prepared to serve our own groups and 2) serving our own group creates deprivation and discrimination in out-groups so that they feel a sense of threat which leads to conflict.
  • Group formation is based on similarity, proximity, and common fate. Where all three apply, a tightly bonded group is formed. So can we achieve peaceful coexistence with other groups that are not similar, are not in proximity to us, and with whom we don’t share a common fate?
  • In modern life in the context of globalization we may be beginning to recognize all other humans as similar, to feel proximity in relation to our all occupying the same planet, and to perceive our common fate in terms of planetary conditions such as climate change. If so, our biology could support the development of a sense of oneness and unity among all human beings.

 

  • Rebecca Shansky, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University in
    rebecca

    Rebecca Shansky

    Boston, addressed the questions of how trauma impacts the brain and which biological processes underlie empathy, compassion and recovery in her presentation.

  • Stress and trauma impact two main areas of the brain: the more recently evolved prefrontal cortex (PFC), involved in the higher cognitive functions, personality, decision making, and regulation of social behaviour; and the older amygdala involved in emotional reactions such as fight, flight or freeze and emotional memory.
  • Stress and trauma affect the neuroplasticity of these two areas. PFC neurons shrink and synapses become more rigid, affecting cognition and decision-making and resulting in a loss of the ability to regulate emotion and social behaviour. In contrast, amygdala neurons grow resulting in stronger fight, flight, or freeze responses. The good news is that given recent findings in relation to neuroplasticity, it is possible to create new associations to override neural trauma patterns.
  • Experiments with rodents suggest that there are differences in male and female responses to fear, and in male and female comforting behaviours.
  • In further experiments designed to determine whether rats understand when others are distressed and whether they then help each other, it was found that rats only help others if they have lived with them previously, even if they are a different kind of rat. However, if given anti-depressants, there is no empathic response. Since anti-depressants suppress amygdala activity more than PFC activity, this suggests that empathy is a very basic, preconscious and prerational response.

What do these findings mean in relation to Botho/Ubuntu?

  • Through brain synchronization when we communicate, we are already demonstrably interconnected.
  • We need to find out what the values are that we hold in common, so that we can strengthen the sense of our interconnection and interdependence.
  • We need to clarify how these communally held values support our self-interest and how we can institutionalize these values in our structures of governance.
  • We seem to be biologically prepared to bond with and defend our in-group based on similarity, proximity and a common fate. If we are to achieve a greater sense of interconnection and oneness beyond our in-group, we need to find ways to break down the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and to develop our capacity for empathy and bonding beyond our own groups.
  • Empathic response appears to be more related to conditioning (previous living together) than physical similarity which suggests that greater familiarity with one another strengthens our empathy for each other.
  • We need to address the causes of increasing levels of depression in modern societies and find alternatives to anti-depressants as a remedy if we are to successfully cultivate our capacity for empathy.
  • Given neuroplasticity, the effects of stress and trauma suffered through colonial oppression may be alleviated through the creation of new associations. This highlights the importance of creating a new narrative for ourselves: defining who we are as Africans, what kind of society is it is that we want to create for ourselves, and what it is that we have to contribute to alleviating the current world predicament.

Conclusion

Let us begin these dialogues at all levels of our society: what is it in the Botho/Ubuntu way of being that we can bring into modern life and how do we do this in the contexts of our governance, education, economic, justice, and spiritual institutions? Can we motivate our governments and the African Union to support these dialogues?

Secular mindfulness-based training programs are being used in multiple contexts in society and are contributing not only to relieving the stresses of modern life but also to increasing awareness of the need for radical change to arrive at a more sustainable way of life.

A newer Stanford-based Compassion Cultivation Training has been developed by a team headed by Geshe Thupten Jinpa and began running trainings in January 2011. This could be a model that could be introduced and adapted to incorporate Botho/Ubuntu principles in offering this training at least initially in Africa. As part of Dharmagiri’s vision of exploring “Afro-Dharma”, it is our intention to develop a training program along these lines following dialogue-based retreats as encouraged by this Botho/Ubuntu conference. Anyone interested in participating in initial exploratory conversations about this, please do get in touch with us!!

chandasaraChandasara
self.retreat.dharmagiri@gmail.com
Dharmagiri, August, 2017
Access the Conference Live Stream Here.

 

References:
Thupten Jinpa (2015). A Fearless Heart. Why Compassion is the Key to Greater Wellbeing. London: Piatkus.
Tutu, Desmond (2004). God has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for our Times. New York: Doubleday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quantum Theory & Self-Reflection

 Listen to a Taster on Quantum Theory  with Gavin & Thanissara

Born of attention are all things.
The Buddha

The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment. Bernard d’Espagnat

The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts. Werner Heisenberg

Click Here for: Info for Retreats below Sept 16-19 & Sept 30-Oct 4

Sometimes we need to shift set; to take a quantum leap from the daily grind and a world seemingly falling apart. At Dharmagiri, we are set to enter the world of Quantum Theory, designed to collapse the regular mind! Seriously, this leading edge science is so extraordinary that even the most revered quantum theorists say things like, “Anyone not shocked by quantum mechanics has not yet understood it.” (Niels Bohr.)

Yet…. it tweaks a whoa wow feeling, indicating that a quantum leap is not from but into’ deep reality. A long forgotten dream whispering like distant temple bells heard while walking along a winter beach calling attention to something….. important. (Poetry, it seems, is a language of the infinite. “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.” Niels Bohr.) We recognize something, even as we struggle to cognitively place its truths or compute its implications. We recognize the resonance of QT pointing to the primacy of consciousness, and there’s nothing more personally impersonal than that!

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   Gavin Roberston

We are delighted to have a competent and excellent guide into this territory who will be leading a retreat at Dharmagiri from the 16-19 September. Gavin Robertson is currently engaging a Ph.D. exploring the relationship between Vedic concepts of consciousness and Quantum Theory. Gavin, a psychologist, has guided many people (including traumatized youth), through transformational journeys and rites of passage in the wilderness (including the Drakensberg). He brings to his work a profound yoga practice, including experience of facilitation of Yoga Teacher Training in Uganda, Mozambique, and South Africa, and a long interest in integrating Western and Eastern psychology.

In this interview Thanissara (Dharmagiri co-guiding teacher), asks Gavin about his understandings of QT. What unfolds is a fascinating journey into the nature of light and matter, that all possibilities exist simultaneously, the determining factor of attention, shifting consciousness, choice, freeing ourselves from old assumptions and patterings, quantum insight into death, and more! Reality, it seems, is not what we thought!

Gavin will also be co-leading another retreat from Sept 30 to Oct 3 with Chandasara on a closely related subject, which is death and dying. Perhaps if we approach death with the insights offered by QT, and ancient wisdom schools like Buddhism and the Vedas, then our understanding of our lives would positively change. Chandasara will also be exploring very human experiences like grief when dealing with loss.

We look forward to seeing you at Dharmagiri for the leap!

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In the beginning, there were only probabilities. The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it. It does not matter that the observers turned up several billion years later. The universe exists because we are aware of it. (WHOA WOW!)
Martin Rees

And… try these on for size:

We now know that the moon is demonstrably not there when nobody looks.
N. David Mermin

I can’t accept quantum mechanics because I like to think the moon is there
even if I am not looking at it.
Albert Einstein

let go