Meet Sue Cooper, Meditation Teacher

sue cooperSue will be offering a retreat at Dharmagiri at Dharmagiri from the 4 – 10 October, 2015. It is called An Integrated Awakening: Insight Meditation Retreat. We introduce you to Sue (below), who has responded to some questions about her love of Dharma, her practice background, and focus of the retreat. There are still a few places left on the retreat, (at the moment, mostly shared accommodation.) Dharmagiri is offering R500 reduction for each booking. This brings the cost to R1,900 single ensuite, and R1200 shared. Please do read Sue’s thoughtful response below, and below that you will find more information about the retreat. To book, please write to

Interview with Sue Cooper – August 2015.

I began meditating in the early 1980s, after I attended a Basic Buddhism weekend retreat with Louis Van Loon at the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo, KZN. I had gone there as a depressed and lost twenty-something year old and discovered a path that completely changed my life. Soon after that, I attended a 9-day silent retreat with Gavin Harrison, also at the BRC, and this resulted in me spending a year on a self-retreat at Gaia House in Devon, U.K. where I began a spiritual journey of self-discovery and healing, that has been a central part of my life.

sue and david

Sue and husband Dave, on top of Table Mountain

Instead of feeling a failure for struggling with life, Buddhism offers a different perspective, based on the understanding that one’s suffering is the gateway to freedom and therefore something to be valued and appreciated. This was a truly liberating insight! The Western medical model tends to pathologise our suffering, whilst the teachings of the Buddha provide insights and practices that offer a way of life that allows us to find freedom within our own body, heart and mind, if we learn to embrace our humanness with kind and compassionate awareness. This radical insight of the Buddha provides the starting point for my teaching and own practice.

After I qualified as a clinical psychologist in the early 1990s, I became aware during the many silent retreats which I attended, that retreats provide a unique opportunity for psychological and spiritual growth and healing. The silence allows one to access material that is not necessarily always available through conventional talking therapy, so I decided 5 years ago, to offer a group process which I called “Open the Heart and Still the Mind”, which is an integration of meditation and psychotherapy. It is a combination of what I call the “silent cure” and the “talking cure”.

Meditation provides us with many ways to find stillness and clarity within our busy and sometimes chaotic minds. We are so bombarded in our daily lives by a myriad of sensory impressions, and most people are longing for stillness and inner peace. It is a very paradoxical path, because we discover that when we learn to how to feel safe in the silence, training our minds through mindful and compassionate awareness, we begin to feel more grounded and connected with ourselves and this leads to a more secure and authentic sense of self. We begin to free ourselves of our destructive, habitual tendencies, and this leads to a greater self-confidence and increased ability to relate to others and to the world around us. In my experience, there is nothing that consolidates this process more effectively than a silent retreat.

A retreat offers an opportunity to step back from our daily lives and responsibilities, in order to develop a practice which can be life-saving and transformational. There is enormous depth of wisdom within the Buddhist teachings and they are extremely psychologically sophisticated. I have found in the groups and retreats which I facilitate, that this combination of meditation and Dharma teachings, within the context of my psychological background as a psychoanalytically-orientated psychotherapist, provides an extraordinarily powerful way of working with the heart and mind.

I consider the Buddha to be the first psychologist, who not only understood the significance of grappling with the tendencies and vulnerabilities of the human mind, but also understood the truth of our inter-connectedness with each other and the world in which we live. His teachings are timeless and totally relevant for us today, where the need for compassionate action is crucial, not only for our own survival, but also for the survival of our planet.

It is an enormous privilege, for which I am deeply grateful, that Kittisaro and Thanissara have offered me the opportunity to teach retreats at Dharmagiri. I have been extremely fortunate to have attended silent retreats regularly for 30 years with several wonderful teachers: Kittisaro and Thanissara, Ajahn Sucitto, the late Godwin Samararatne and Stephen and Martine  Batchelor; and at Gaia House in the mid-1980s with Christina Feldman, Christopher Titmuss, Guy Armstrong and others.  The lineage with which I identify is the Theravada tradition, particularly the teachings of Ajahn Chah from the Thai Forest tradition, as well as the Compassion teachings of Kuan Yin from the Mahayana tradition.

On my retreats, I hope to offer an experience that is nurturing, meaningful and inspiring and that will give people a sense of what this remarkable path of awareness can offer. We will learn how to calm and stabilise the heart and mind through various meditations and reflections, establishing an embodied awareness and an understanding of ourselves and life, with its challenges of change and loss, so that we can embrace life and death with compassionate awareness and wisdom.

Date: October 4 – October 10, 2015
Title: An Integrated Awakening: Insight Meditation Retreat
Teachers: Sue Cooper
This silent retreat, suitable for beginner and experienced meditators, focuses on the embodiment of wisdom and compassion. Through the cultivation of calm (the unification of heart, mind and body), we will deepen our understanding of ourselves, through connecting with the ground of our being. Through wise reflection and the development of insight in a nurturing atmosphere, we will discover that when we embrace and let go of the patterns within ourselves that cause suffering, we can experience a more expansive and peaceful body, heart and mind. This leads to a more authentic expression of who we are, so that we can act from a place of compassionate wisdom.

We will draw on the wisdom of Kuan Yin practice to deepen this process, for our own well-being and the well-being of others and the world in which we live. To enhance the integration of body, heart and mind, daily sessions of Qigong movement meditation will be offered, and there will be time for silent walks, individual sessions with Sue and the opportunity to relax and restore balance within ourselves.

Sue Cooper – Sue is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years of experience as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, working in private practice in Cape Town. She has a long-standing interest in the interface between psychological and spiritual approaches to self-discovery and inner healing, and has attended Buddhist meditation retreats since the early 1980s, both in South Africa and at Gaia House in the UK. Sue integrates Buddhist meditation and psychotherapy in her ‘Open the Heart and Still the Mind’ retreats which she offers throughout SA and in her 8 week courses, day retreats and on-going weekly groups in Cape Town. She has a particular interest in exploring how this practice enables us to embrace love and loss in our lives, so that we can live and die with compassionate awareness. Please see or email



Supported Self Retreats Now Available – Guided by Chandasara

Your heart knows the way to Heng Mountain.
You are not afraid; few people go there.
Inside the boat, you still hear birds and temple chimes
At the river’s source, you dry your monk’s robe in the sun.
You had a family, but left it when young;
Now there is no temple that would not welcome you.
Managing to find a shelter in the cold,
You do your usual zazen as snow fills up your door.

– Chia Tao (779-843)

For those who would like to spend some time deepening their meditation practice, immersing themselves in dhamma (dharma), exploring a particular aspect of their life situation, coming to terms with a bereavement, or with a loss or change in a relationship, assessing their work situation, considering options for the future or reflecting on their past, we offer supported self-retreats.

These self-retreats include meditation, and may include a choice of other relevant processes depending on the person and situation concerned, such as periods of silence, periodic check-ins or discussions, counseling sessions, journaling, dream exploration, creative expression, body work, reading, and walks in the mountains. The idea is to provide space and support for people who would like to shape their own self-retreat in consultation with us. A self-retreat could range in length from about 5 days to a month.

Click here, for information on costs, please check here. If you are interested in exploring this option, please write to, Chandasara, at

chandasaraChandasara spent her early adult life in political exile in Europe and America where she was recruited into Okhela, an Oliver Tambo initiative to facilitate and expand white involvement in the ANC. Following this, she worked as a political analyst with the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg for 14 years. During this period she was also involved in an esoteric spiritual school. Wishing to deepen her meditation experience, she undertook a 6-week self-retreat guided by Kittisaro and Thanissara at the BRC in 1998. Having discovered the revelatory power of sustained and focused meditation, she decided to enter monastic life.

She resided at Amaravati and Chithurst Buddhist monasteries from 2002 to 2010. She put down the robes in 2011. Since then she has resided at Emoyeni Retreat Centre in the Magaliesberg during which time she completed an Honours degree in Psychology. She moved to Dharmagiri in May 2015 where she offers supported self-retreats for individuals wishing to explore and engage more deeply with particular aspects of their life experience.

Introducing Jonathan & Anna, Vipassana Teachers in the Lineage of Ajhan Tong, Thailand – Resident Teachers at Dharmagiri, April – October, 2014

Sustain awareness at every moment and in every posture, whether standing, walking, sitting or lying down. Before you act, speak or engage in conversation, establish awareness first – don’t act or speak first, establish mindfulness first and then act or speak. You must have mindfulness, be recollecting, before you do anything. Practice like this until you are fluent. Practice so that you can keep abreast of what’s going on in the mind; to the point where mindfulness becomes effortless and you are mindful before you act, mindful before you speak. This is the way you establish mindfulness in the heart.” Ajahn Chah

Jonathan Preboy from KwaZulu Natal, and Anna Scharfenberg from Germany, have been resident teachers at Dharmagiri since March. They offer students staying at Dharmagiri guidance in Vipassana meditation. In the interview below, you can get to know them a little better. Jonathan has family in Underberg, the town local to Dharmagiri. Beside helping at Dharmagiri, they support their family as well as lead Underberg’s local meditation group. Anna has also been working in Underberg’s local SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.) Jonathan and Anna will be offering a retreat from September 1 – 26 at Dharmagiri. Please click here for further details. This retreat is run on dana (free will offering). Students are welcome to join in anytime between the 1st & 26th to start their retreat or basic course. 

Feedback from a student: I really enjoyed arriving at Dharmagiri, it was just what I had hoped for: simple, beautiful, good energy, and with the appropriate facilities for a retreat. Jonathan and Anna were great instructors of Vipassana: clear, knowledgeable, humble and available. It was very much my own journey (isn’t it always?), but I was left enough space (little dogma) to uncover insights by myself. I found the routine of the practice engaging; sometimes boring, sometimes unsuccessful, sometimes successful, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes nothing. And that was what it all came to be about: awareness of the present moment.

The Vipassana practice certainly enabled a change of consciousness: I lived in the moment, had a heightened sense of awareness, and my sense of self lightened. It was an experience I am grateful to have had. I also particularly enjoyed the alive silence of the retreat. My thanks goes to Dharmagiri for making the space available for retreat, and cultivating good energy there, and to David and Martin (Dharmagiri staff) for their quiet support, and to Anna and Jonathan for their instructions and enabling structure. If Dharmagiri was closer to Cape Town I would already be back for another retreat.
Christopher Higgo, Cape Town.

Interview with Jonathan & Anna


When, where and why did you start meditating?

Jonathan: My interest in meditation started with reading books like “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” (Sheldon Kopp) and “Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis” (Erich Fromm). In 1992 I went for a weekend retreat at the Buddhist Retreat Center in Ixopo and for the next 10 years my meditation was a mixture of Buddhist and new age practices. The main motivation for meditating was to understand myself/ life/ people better.

Anna: That was 2002. I was quite burned out from my studies, had a depression and a lot of anxiety. There were a couple of meditation techniques I had tried already plus some yoga. The strongest helping hand that reached out to me at that time was that of my flat mate, a former monk from the Thai Buddhist tradition. He taught me about the Eight-Fold Noble Path and I immediately signed up for my first Vipassana course in the tradition of S.N. Goenka.

Can you share any highlights from your meditation/spiritual journey e.g. teachers you have met?

Jonathan: Reading about meditating and mixing practices was not satisfying. The suffering and delusion was so overwhelming that in my early thirties I stopped practicing as a clinical psychologist and started traveling. In 2002 an inspiration (or desperation) arose to study with a meditation master. The desire to have a master was implanted, strangely enough, by the Destroyer book series from my teens and reinforced by Jack Kornfield´s book “Living Masters”. At Mahatat Temple in Bangkok I asked the abbot where I could find the greatest meditation master in Thailand. Following his direction, I found myself later that year practicing Vipassana meditation with Ajhan Tong at Chom Tong Temple in Northern Thailand. His wise teaching and loving kindness have guided my meditation practice and teaching since then.

A second inspiring teacher is Sri Ammaji, the Hugging Mother of India. I met her in 2003 and have been fortunate to travel and work with her every year since then. Her miraculous power of love is not only demonstrated by her ability to hug and comfort tens of thousands of people in one night but her charity work building schools (more than 60), orphanages, distributing pensions and emergency relief. Other teachers that have shaped me are my partner, Anna, family, friends and students.

Anna: Meeting the venerable Ajahn Tong, our master from Thailand, was a huge blessing. Through all the struggles that we encounter on the path he is such a light. It is a relief to have the chance to reflect on him or to be near to him when you are in pain because he is a living example of what the Buddha taught. Fortunately he has inspired some wonderful people from Thailand, Israel and Germany who are senior teachers in our tradition. I am very grateful to have received guidance from them over the past years.

Another source and teacher is Amma, the hugging mother. Being in her presence and in her ashram in India is a bit like the Wild West! You leave your room and you bump into somebody you have been trying to avoid; you get your lesson on your way to fetch breakfast or doing Seva (service.) It allowed me to have more insight into painful feelings such as insecurity, numbness, hatred, jealousy etc. Her being a powerful female teacher and the residence being mainly female provides with challenges and a lot of nourishment at the same time. Throughout my whole life my family has been a big teacher and in the last years Jonathan as well. My mother came to Dharmagiri to meditate with us and my father came to Thailand. My two beautiful older sisters did the full basic course in Germany. I am so proud of them!

You have meditated for many years, what have been the insights, struggles and benefits?

Jonathan: The biggest insight has been the density of my delusion. I didn’t know that I didn’t know. Thus while I thought of myself as clever and special and deserving I was mostly just an asshole. Other useful insights have been about anatta (non-self), the value of the Dharma and Sangha and the shocking reality of suffering. The greatest struggle has been to maintain awareness with painful and overwhelming feelings and thoughts. For nearly 10 years after starting Vipassana there were acute feelings of fear/panic and hysteria and during the last 2 years there have been strong feelings of hate and craving. These feelings arise everyday but are especially intense on retreats. The thoughts that are the most painful are negative self-attacks, distorted perceptions, false beliefs and pessimistic predictions.

The first Vipassana retreat resulted in some surprising benefits. I stopped smoking cigarettes (after 18 years), drinking and stopped having relationships for ten years. There was also a profound sense of relief and joy at having found a wonderful teacher and method of meditation. Subsequent benefits of meditation are more regular awareness, greater skillfulness, gratitude, loving kindness, an opportunity to work with good people, less physical contraction, new perspectives and contentment.

What encouragement would you give to those starting out?

Jonathan: Not sure how to be encouraging without falsely implying that I know something or have achieved something. Vipassana meditation is like a bitter medicine. It tastes terrible to the self and only works if you take it.

Anna: If you find something that appeals to you give it a fair try and stick with it for a while. A suitable technique will prove itself. With a good tool and some guidance, the path and everything that comes with it will unfold itself once we are ready for it. Vipassana is a very good technique for beginners, as well as inviting everyone to come and observe the true nature of things by simply using techniques as bowing, walking and sitting.

Many people have done the Goenka Vipassana retreats. Your retreats also are Vipassana retreats, yet you structure them differently – can you say something about that?

Jonathan: All Vipassana meditation aims to develop insight that will cut through delusion and lead to freedom but the techniques are slightly different. Ajahn Tong´s technique closely adheres to the Buddha´s instructions in the “Satipatana Sutta” (the four foundations of mindfulness) and the 16 Vipassana stages outlined by the Buddhaghosa in the “Path to Purification”. In addition, students benefit from using noting to build and maintain awareness and longer daily interviews with their teacher.

Anna: The tradition of S.N. Goenka has proved itself to many people and I am grateful to have come across one of his many centers when I started Vipassana meditation. Someone who has experience in the tradition of S.N Goenka would find a lot of similarities with our technique, but I start with some of the differences.

Our technique has it roots in the school of Mahasi Sayadaw/ Ajahn Tong. In the 21-day basic course or the 10 day retreats the daily routine consists of regular individual walking and sitting practice. The mindfulness is cultivated by observing and noting (naming) what is experienced in the present moment to gain insight in the four foundations of mindfulness. Additionally, once a day we have a short and simple work meditation and a report to the teacher about the conditions of the meditation practice. Same as in the Goenka tradition the courses are held in silence and are based on donation (free will offering). We ask students to observe the 8 Buddhist training rules* if there health allows it. Further anyone come anytime as long or short as they can; if it’s to receive an introduction into the technique, an afternoon, weekend or a couple of days.

*(Eight training rules are the 8 precepts, the 5 daily life precepts, plus the renunciation of entertainments, adornments, eating solid food after the midday meal, and over indulging in sleep.)

How can a retreat help in my life and how does meditation relate to our lives in the world?

Jonathan: The best type of retreat not only provides immediate benefits but also transferable benefits. The immediate benefit of a retreat is to remove the person from the stress of his or her worldly life and offer a safe and healing refuge. If the person practices meditation while on retreat they will gain an even greater benefit because meditation has the power to relieve stress and suffering and generate joy and peace. However, if this was all the benefit, the retreat would be of limited use in normal life.

The greatest benefit from practicing meditation on retreat is the development of skillfulness. The student learns and practices both how to overcome their own negative behavior, feelings and thoughts and how to cultivate their own positive behavior, feelings and thoughts. More practice leads to greater skillfulness and, because the skills are learned from direct experience, (not from a book or thinking), these skills can be transferred and used in their daily life. The main skill, which is aware, is always available, everywhere (on retreat and in daily life).

My days as a Thai Buddhist nun – Maartje Goudswaard

After a busy day’s work and some hectic times I couldn’t wait to get to my special place in the mountains. The winding roads through Lusikisiki and Flagstaff, passed Kokstad and over the most beautiful road through the mountains got me in the mood for what was coming. I arrived late and Martin was still up and waiting for me with a cup of tea and catching up stories, I couldn’t have wished for a better welcome and instantly felt like I had come home. The next day Jonathan and Anna introduced me to the ancient tradition of Thai Vipassana meditation. As the only student I felt very special and privileged to have all their attention to myself. It seemed like a blessing to receive these teachings without having to travel to distant hidden monasteries in Thailand.

Vipassana: I soon learned that it means to see things clearly, without the delusions of the mind. I needed to focus on what I was actually doing in order to quiet the mind and become aware of myself, my thoughts, my feelings, my actions, my body. Bowing, walking and sitting, in continuous cycles over and over again. And naming everything I did. Stopping stopping stopping, Wanting wanting wanting, Putting putting putting, etc. Taking the time and putting the effort in observing myself so intensely had magnificent effects. First of all it made me realize that I think and feel a lot of things, all the time.

It made me more aware of my thoughts and feelings and in time it made my mind calm down. It made me learn how to walk all over again and eventually it made me see things a little more clearly; the morning sun on the mountain, the unbelievable color red of the leaves, the incredible shapes of the flames of the fire, the beauty of the heath on my skin, the taste of sweet tea. It seemed I had never really seen these things before.

I had been a Thai Buddhist nun for a few days and I had bowed, walked and sat like many had done before me, it had felt sacred and purifying. I had tasted David’s divine cooking, which had been an absolute feast each day. I had bonded a little with my sista Zetu.* I had walked the mountain with Martin and we had cut out the path to the extraordinary beautiful hidden valley. But it could not last. The time came to go back to my life. I didn’t want to switch my phone on until hours after I had left. It felt too overwhelming. But of course, before long I was back in the routine of life, with all its distractions. But…, with a little more awareness of what lies behind our busy mind, a little more calmness, a little more compassion to myself (and consequently others) and a little more acceptance of what is.

*Zethu is currently working part time at Dharmagiri, learning about vegetarian cooking and helping David keep those lovely meals rolling out! Zethu is one of Sister Abegail Ntleko’s daughters. She lives at Kulungile.

ajahn tong

Temporary ordination at Bodhgaya April 2014 Ajahn Tong with Jonathan and Anna


Meet Judy Tobler from Cape Town, Meditation Teacher, Doula & Affiliated Teacher of Dharmagiri


Judy has had a long affiliation with Dharmagiri, attending many retreats and spending a sabbatical year at Dharmagiri when it was still in its infancy. Judy’s self effacing and humble style eclipses her considerable experience as a Dharma practitioner which spans 45 years! Find out more about Judy, and her thoughts regards spiritual practice, below.

To Join Judy’s group in Cape Town

Cape Town Dharma Group meets on the second Saturday of each month, in Rosebank, from 2 to 5 pm. Practice includes chanting, group meditation and audio Dharma talks. For details, please contact Judy at

When, where and why did you start meditating?

I started meditating in 1969 – that sounds like a lot of years ago, but there have certainly been many ‘breaks’ along the way! I was working in Los Angeles in California (I was born and brought up in England) and started going to yoga classes, and later, mediation classes as well, at the city’s Sivananda Yoga Centre. One evening, Swami Satchidananda (a disciple of the great Indian yoga and meditation master, Swami Sivananda) came to give a talk on yoga and meditation. He said that we couldn’t expect to find happiness and peace from someone else, or from anything outside of ourselves, but only within ourselves. Pretty obvious, I suppose, but nevertheless, a revelation to me! In 1970, I spent some months at an ashram in Canada doing a yoga teachers training. There, I met the teacher who I have always regarded as my guru, Swami Venkatesananda, another ‘Sivananda swami’ – many of Sivananda’s disciples came to teach in the West. From then, meditation and the spiritual path have been an important part of my life.

You have meditated for many years, what are the benefits?

For me, meditation ‘on the cushion’ offers an amazing opportunity to simply stop, be still, be present and awaken to what’s going on inside. It supports a path of enquiry in to who this being I call ‘my self’ really is. Meditation has been the foundation for me to be more present in my own life, to be more mindful in daily life (sometimes!) and more aware of what is really important and what is not. This path, for me, is one of gradually waking up, letting go and tasting peace and stillness – even if it is just for a single moment, that moment is one of being totally with one breath and resting in awareness.

What encouragement would you give to those starting out?

Meditation can be hard work at times and not always easy, and it isn’t all peace and happiness! I would therefore encourage those starting out on the path of meditation to be kind to themselves and to begin with as few expectations as possible – they only get in the way. And to really touch in to trusting in the process and in themselves – to know that this spiritual activity is worthwhile.

How can a retreat help me in my life and how does meditation relate to our lives in the world?

The Buddha recommended taking ‘time out’ from our activities out in the world to meditate – not out of resistance to the world or dislike of life in the world, but to practice mindfulness and awareness in a way that can increasingly become a way of being in the world that is more easeful, aware and compassionate. These times of ‘withdrawal’ may be simply a moment taken to stop, breathe and centre yourself, or a meditation practice woven in to your daily life, or occasionally going on a meditation retreat. A retreat offers silence, a safe framework for practice, and the opportunity to listen to wise Dharma teachers, all of which support inner enquiry, deepening awareness and the possibility for stillness and peace.

Can you say a little about your work at UCT (University of Cape Town) and as a Doula (birth attendant)?

I started studying for a degree, first at UNISA, then at UCT, in my early 40s. Later, I found myself pursuing postgraduate studies in Asian relgions in the Department of Religious Studies. During the years of writing my thesis (eventually a PhD in 1997, which included indepth study of the symbolic significance of Hindu goddesses), I also worked as a tutor and research assistant, and then increasingly as a lecturer. This included the Hinduism, Buddhism and Chinese Religions modules of the 1st year course on world religions, and the second year courses on Religion and Gender, and Psychology of Religion (also the Asian religions modules), as well as occasional postgraduate courses. These years were a stimulating process of examining religious contexts that meant a lot to me from the point of view of my personal spiritual path, but now from intellectual, academic and critical perspectives. It was a time of becoming familiar with feminist theory and developing a critical interest in the patriarchal dimension of most religions (most definitely including Hinduism and Buddhism) – becoming a bit of feminist, in other words!

I was a pioneer in the development of gender studies in the Religious Studies department, and was one of the creators of the second year course on that subject. Ironically, in a way, these years also included the revival of my own spiritual path and meditation practice, and a process of finding a ‘spiritual home’ in practice of Buddhist meditation, which eventually led to Dharmagiri and retreats with our wise Dharma teachers, Thanissara and Kittisaro. I left UCT at the end of 2006, but I still get called on now and then to do a few weeks teaching – I’m grateful for that, it keeps the ageing brain ticking over!

A couple of years ago I did a training to be a doula – a ‘birth companion’. A doula supports a woman in labour and childbirth, physically and emotionally, particularly offering the kind of reassurance, encouragement and comfort that can help her through the experience in as natural a way as possible. The doula is a consistent presence for the mother, and the father if he is there, throughout the labour and birth – her role isn’t in any way clinical or medical, but more like a ‘coach’, who holds the space for this miraculous journey to happen. It is something I do occasionally – I’ve done quite a bit of voluntary work in public hospitals and also have attended a few private clients. For me, labour and giving birth is a profoundly sacred experience and I always feel incredibly privileged to accompany a woman through this journey and help her to let go of fear and enter in to that sacred space. And then witnessing the birth of a new being is beyond words ….

Is there anything else you would like to add about spiritual life in our times?

Spiritual life is perhaps the most important of all things for our present times, I think. For me, spiritual practice is an island of sanity – or in Jack Kornfield’s words, ‘a lamp in the darkness’ – in a world gone insane, a world on the brink of destruction because of humankind’s greed and delusion. By ‘island of sanity’ I don’t mean as an escape from confronting and responding to the realities of this world, but rather as a practice that can support human beings to be in the world in a way that contributes to light, rather than to darkness. By this, I really do mean a ‘way of being’ – simply in our normal, everyday lives, doing whatever it is we do.

Can you share any highlights from your meditation/ spiritual journey – teachers you have met – insights – struggles etc?

This question needs a whole book to answer! But most important, I think, is the feeling of deep gratitude for the good fortune I have had in my life of contact with many wonderful spiritual teachers. Swamiji, my guru, who died in 1982, will always be in my heart. I was privileged to be with him in several different countries over the course of 10 years or so, ending up in Cape Town. And through him, we (myself and other sangha sisters and brothers) met other great teachers, for instance, Krishnamurti and Swami Muktananda, and even Ram Dass! Those of us around Swamiji were young, with a romantic view of ‘the guru’ and ‘enlightenment’ (it was the 1960s/70s, after all!) – which we all longed for, without much real understanding of what that might really mean. But I think nevertheless there was a true longing there for real freedom.

Swamiji’s core teaching was very much the non-dual teachings of Advaita Vedanta – now, in more recent years, having been blessed by hearing wonderful contemporary Buddhist Dharma teachers (either in person or audio recordings) – such as Kittisaro and Thanissara, Ani Tenzin Palmo, Pema Chodron, Chandasara, Ajahns Sucitto, Sumedho and Munindo, Ram Dass, Martine and Stephen Batchelor – I feel I am now really hearing what Swamiji was teaching all those years ago. And truly giving energy to practising these teachings. But there have been, and continue to be, many struggles along the way – difficult times of losing trust (‘what’s the point?’), resistance and difficulty in keeping meditation practice going when on my own, to name but a few.

judy - family

Judy with her daughter, son in law & grandchildren.

A highlight of my recent years of practice and connection with Dharmagiri, is ‘meeting’ Bodhisattva Kuan Yin and her practices – Kuan Yin, for me, is a symbolic embodiment of compassion, the power of the divine feminine, and awakening. I find some form of devotional practice vitally important in my spiritual life, and in particular, Kuan Yin practice is a support and comfort in my darker times of struggle. I am ever grateful to Thanissara and Kittisaro and the safe haven of Dharamgiri for so much, and ever grateful for the teachings of the Buddha, and for the company of dear sangha sisters and brothers along the way. And I am ever grateful that I have lived in times – no matter how dark – when wise teachers are so readily accessible – we are all indeed blessed!

Pistorius, Zuma, South Africa: When the Moral Centre Doesn’t Hold by Dain Peters

Pistorius, Zuma, South Africa: When the moral centre doesn’t hold



05 MAY 2014 11:23 (SOUTH AFRICA)

At the recent Daily Maverick Gathering, prominent economist Iraj Abedian, of Pan-African Capital Holdings, proposed that whenever the underlying value system of a society is diluted or destroyed, corruption appears. In a heterogeneous society, he says, when the moral system is not defined and internalised when, for instance, integrity is not prioritised, corruption and crime occur.

A topical demonstration of his argument is seen in the recent Oscar Pistorius trial where the state prosecutor has made a point of highlighting the accused’s apparent inability to take responsibility for a string of incidents, and therefore, by implication, that he won’t take responsibility for murdering his girlfriend. The notion of an individual not taking responsibility seems to have resonated strongly with many people.

Another poster boy for this lack of accountability is President Zuma. Both Pistorius and Zuma seem unable to restrain themselves or to take responsibility for their actions. They seem to have failed to internalise certain values that society insists on and have provoked much (self-righteous) outrage in society. It seems meaningful that the outrage around these two role-models should be so prominent in our country at present. What does it mean?

However, Abedian warns against the scapegoating of individuals or structures, emphasising the fact that these crimes could not occur without the support of a system which was itself riddled with corruption. He suggests that, while much of our attention is currently preoccupied with the corruption of the South African government and politicians, it must be remembered that the corruption is systemic and that no social organ is immune. All social units: academic, business, religious, even family, are implicated. He laments that there is much denial and, at times, defensiveness around this widespread corruption in society. “We know it but don’t discuss it and deal with it.”

The act of scapegoating is the process of projecting onto someone else unwanted aspects of ourselves. When we project our unwanted bits on others we tend to become enthralled by them, either with desire or disgust. Originally the goats were then eliminated, one was sacrificed and the other chased into the wilderness. Very often such scapegoating permits certain structural contradictions in society to remain unchallenged and this is how the term has come to be used. By such scapegoating, neglect, and complicity, structural and systemic corruption is allowed to fester within the body politic of the society. These include our attitudes towards, for instance, authority, gender, and wealth.

In both individuals and, it seems, in countries, such an experience is an attempt to redefine oneself more accurately and to set new limits that are broad enough to include greater diversity. Perhaps these current events under consideration are an invitation for us to hold both ourselves and our social structures more to account, rather than being mesmerised by scapegoats. This is not to say that such processes are not very expensively achieved. They are rarely without crisis and often involve great tragedy, as we are witnessing currently. What this emphasises is that we seem to need greater wholeness at any cost. We are compelled to take back our projections even if it involves great suffering.

A society bedevilled by systemic corruption, Abedian asserts, has a shortage of coherent ethical values. In other words it has had its centre knocked out. There is a lack of central agreement on a set of values. This creates a precarious position, the centre cannot hold. It destroys confidence in both self and the other, reducing the possibility of real relationship. Economically, he says, without this coherent and internalised set of defining moral values we fall short of social capital (even if we have financial and human capital) and our success as a country can proceed only in fits and starts. It cannot realise its true potential, it cannot be truly responsive and adaptive to circumstances. Any advances are ultimately unsustainable.

Individually when we lose our centres we tend to grasp at the external, heroic, and material, either by embodying these qualities ourselves or by worshipping them in others. Public opinion fills the vacuum and we tend to become reactive and impulsive rather than responsive. Substance abuse may become a way of dealing with the insecurity. While we long for connection, stability and belonging, we may find it increasingly difficult to commit to long-term relationships (in work and love), and tend towards quick-fixes, often using sex as an antidote for the lack of intimacy. While we long for guidance, we are sceptical of any authority and promote instead a self-sufficient individualism which is, paradoxically, conformist.

So, observing Pistorius and Zuma’s desperate and tragic attempts to maintain their particular false constructions of their selves, with their respective compensations of fast cars, beautiful women and big homesteads, we may allow ourselves to become a little dubious about these aspirations. The notions of responsibility and restraint have become prominent talking points in certain sectors of social media. These are not hip and groovy qualities and it is interesting that they have found traction. Certainly the juxtaposition of these two personages, Jacob and Oscar, encompass a great range of our diversity and perhaps it is this universality that has had some leverage of public opinion. Responsibility and restraint are certainly a great antidote to the tinseltown magic of the rags to riches stories that both these personages embody.

It seems helpful that such considerations, stimulated by the courtroom dramas and the approaching elections, draw such energy and become more prominent in social currency, and that these rather old-fashioned notions of restraint and responsibility become social memes. Rather than heroic celebrity, humanity becomes an aspiration and a guiding aesthetic. It is a process of being disillusioned into adulthood. After his death, it seems that we are now obliged to take back the positive qualities which we had projected onto Madiba, and it becomes apparent that the task of taking back our projections and becoming more human involves not only humbly taking ownership of our fallibility but also confidently reclaiming our beauty.

Perhaps, then, as a country with such a lauded Constitution sitting at the centre of its stated values, this is the process of the country internalising the value system from the ground up. As Sisonke Msimang argued so compellingly (also at the DM Gathering), we need to realise, sadly, that we aren’t exceptional. We cannot be protected from suffering. We have to do the work. With consciousness, compassion and courage and a little bit of luck, perhaps we can gradually learn to become human. Dain Peters is a qualified musician, Clinical psychologist and Jungian analyst. He serves on the executives of the SAPC (The South African Psychoanalytic Confederation) and SAAJA (South African Association of Jungian Analysts). In Cape Town, where he runs a private Psychotherapy practice, he is regularly contracted to support, develop programmes and train local NGOs. Previously he managed the Midlands office of Sinani (Kwazulu-Natal Programme for Survivors of Violence), an NGO addressing the multiple consequences of socio-political violence. He is committed to supporting the LGBTI community and has collaborated with Triangle Project for over 10 year

Beyond the Mind – Happy Mother’s Day (from England)

It is early morning, just after sunrise in England. Here it is Mother’s Day. It is a day to honour our own mothers, mothers everywhere, and to honour the often undervalued principle of nurturing. Today I also received a message from my dear friend Sarah Varcas who recently suffered a heart attack. I wanted to share Sarah’s reflections with you, I think you’ll see why when you read them. (Please see below.) Sometimes the most authentic perspectives come from those who suffer a collapse of certainties; when the unexpected strips away the carefully honed plans and assumptions we project onto life. A sudden illness, the ending of a relationship, death and divorce; these profound shifts in circumstance, unwelcome and unbidden, wake us up and offer an opportunity to listen beyond the voices of our conditioning; what we “should” be doing, what “people” think of us, what is expected of us. When all of that is stripped away, what remains?

As Sarah reconnects with her physical heart, she hears her deeper, intuitive, wise heart. She recognizes its gentle power to continually support her life while also “speaking” the truths so needed as a guide, but so often bypassed in the flurry of the minds activities. In the mirror Sarah holds for us, I see myself of course, and the pain of bypassing the heart’s promptings as I get caught in chasing after the crumbling facades the mind generates. But I also see our collective Mother that nourishes us all, our magnificent Earth.

In listening to our deeper, wise heart, we hear truth. We also hear our intimate connection with all life and with our extraordinary home which is this beautiful and beneficent Earth. As Sarah points out, we take our heart for granted and just like the mothers we take for granted, we also take our Earth for granted, that she will always be there for us. However, we are awakening to the brutal truth that if we don’t tend to her convulsions, her heart attack, we will not survive.  Just as Sarah encourages, we too are encouraged to begin our journey back to Earth, to our Mother, by listening into our Heart. The intensity of our times opens into our next collective journey, which is to hear the love of our heart, and to honour her promptings. In doing so, we are invited to reassess how we relate to our Mother Earth, to listen and love her too. The connection between Earth and Heart become clear when we listen beyond the mind,  to hear our most intimate guide. Surely, she will guide us home.

Blessings, Thanissara

Here Shariputra, balances perilous survival
twisting in the wind of our whims.
Here Shariputra, the brave leap of reclamation.
Our deepest heart implores it,
with liquid, fluid prayer.
So turn the mad mind around
from its callous scalpel to the world.
From the collapsing furnace of known lands
fierce and urgent cries mop up denial.
Millions sign: All Out Now!
Quick, before it’s too late
to walk again
in the rose-scented garden
where your soul patiently waits
among shattered fragments
of the empire
to break down your wall
of small expectations
and from nightmares
pull you awake.
Here is the faith of wild Warriors
Who leave dream-thinking far behind.
Who leap beyond the walls of the mind.
Who know the intimacy of all things.
And who return to this, our human
that feels the scream
in each mindful moment
and chooses
to soften.
To breathe the mystery.
To enter the unknown gate.
To love fiercely every living thing,
right down to the last blade of grass.
Quick, time, any time.
Here and now will do.
Move beyond your walled pastimes
to join the Awakening.
Time yourself out
from the needle of craving
and boogie down with intense
flamenco, disciplined passion
so we can crash the machine.
Soar over the edge
on the breath of our heart’s sorrow
and make a beloved circle
outside the wall
where the storehouse of untamed dreams
will decolonize our mind.

From The Heart of the Bitter Almond Hedge Sutra

From SarahHello everyone. Just wanted to check in again and let you know how things are progressing. Overall, life is good, despite the obvious challenges of recovering from a heart attack and adjusting to the meaning of my ‘new normal’. It is on the physical level that I most feel the challenge as my energy levels are still low and therefore any physical activity is severely limited at the moment. Cue a BIG lesson in patience! Okay, Universe, I GET THE MESSAGE! However, in the past week especially I have definitely noticed happiness creeping into my days and my heart has most certainly been smiling at life rather than cowering from it…

It does rather seem, from my current vantage point, that the blessings of this bizarre sequence of events are greater than the drawbacks, despite how huge those drawbacks sometimes appear (usually in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep and the poor-old mind takes it upon itself to run through the ‘doomsday scenarios’ just to keep me occupied!). Suddenly being awakened to the presence of my physical heart has triggered a process of what I can only describe as re-heartening, that is, the ‘heart’ is returning to aspects of myself, my life and my experience where it was previously absent or had withdrawn through lack of nourishment or nurturing.

There is now an echo that runs through my consciousness, a heartbeat, which reminds me that without heart in all its forms and guises, life becomes sterile and frozen. I knew this, of course, as do we all, but was I living it? Was I listening to my heart when she told me my mind was leading me off in the wrong direction? No. Well…yes, but then I’d come up with the ‘yes but’ response followed by all the reasons why I couldn’t possibly do what I knew I really needed to do. Or ‘yes I will do them but THIS and THAT need to change first’.

These days, it seems to me, my heart has found her voice, or perhaps I just hear her way more clearly now. I turn to her when I need to make a decision and I listen to her gentle prods in the right direction. Even (and especially) when my mind says something very different, which usually sounds terribly obvious and rational but comes as a harsh and echoing voice from an empty room, not as the soft tones of my warm and beating heart as she speaks into my life with every breath. During my first night in hospital I lay in bed trying to sense my heart inside my chest. I could see her activity laid out as in a foreign script on the heart monitor to which I was attached, but when I tuned in to her all I could feel was a deep sadness, as if she was weeping in there. I realised that in all of my 47 years I had paid her next to no attention whatsoever. She had beat through every minute, every hour of every day and I just took her for granted, assuming she’d continue to offer her unfailing support no matter how much I ignored her voice or hardened her shell to cope with the challenges of the outside world.

Yes, I had always had a good diet, lived a relatively healthy life, didn’t do anything that would particularly put her at risk of physical diseases, but often I neglected to listen to her, really listen, even when I knew I should. She was always relegated to a secondary role, a cameo in the drama of my life. She had the odd walk-on part, and even got a line from time to time, but mostly it was my head that told me what to do and my heart that just carried on beating away, keeping me alive to face another day in which I would pretty much ignore her again! It also became increasingly obvious to me as I lay there in the darkness of a hospital ward wondering what the heck was going to happen next, that the heart I had shared with many others I had, in fact, withheld from myself. I still wonder at the peculiar kind of martyrdom such behaviour entails!

Anyway, as I process the meaning and significance of all that has happened in these past few weeks I can come to only one conclusion that feels heartily right, and that is that my heart needs to expand (not physically, of course, because that’s never a good condition to be in!) but emotionally and spiritually. I need more heart in my life, enough to embrace everything within and without. Enough heart to know that no matter how rational the mind and ego can be, when it feels wrong to my heart it’s wrong, and whatever the outcome of walking the Heart’s Path, I can embrace it and contain it and move forward with it, remaining intact and whole no matter what needs to be let go in the process. I can hear so much clearer now the different tones of the heart and the mind. The nuance of fear and foreboding that underpins the mind’s commentary and the reassuring strength that the heart offers along with her wisdom.

I am also acutely aware that any notion of ‘protecting my heart’ feels completely wrong and out of kilter with her truth. There is nothing to protect her from. Nothing that can damage or diminish her. Any fear that I have had of opening her up to certain aspects of life and experience have been completely misplaced and born of ego that needs to feel in control and be top dog, and what better way to do that than through fear? Any damage done to my heart has been done by me, not by anything outside of me. This I see and feel extremely clearly now, hence my need to ‘say’ these words aloud in my time of clarity, so that if this clarity fades in due course I can return to its assurance of safety and truth through these words.

And on that note, I have received several messages from people who are concerned that I may have suffered this heart attack as a result of interference from outside forces with ill-intent. I would like to offer my reassurance that absolutely nothing in what I have experienced feels at all like anything has interfered with me in that way, other than myself that is! Indeed, as I listen with greater respect and love to my heart she tells me very clearly that there is nothing to fear ‘out there’, for ‘out there’ is also ‘in here’, and the more deeply I can live and breathe that truth the less the duality of ‘victim’ and ‘attacker’, or ‘self’ and ‘other’, can take a hold in my consciousness. She speaks to me very clearly on this: We are not part of the whole, we arethe whole. In embracing this fact more and more deeply I can begin to experience the peace of the heart, which truly knows no fear.

Needless to say, as I am sure is true for many people who experience a sudden health crisis such as this, the questions ‘Why me?! What made this happen?!’ have entertained me repeatedly in recent weeks. As I contemplate their demand for a satisfying logic and order in the universe I realise that true meaning is to be found not in the events themselves but in the consequences of them, in what I make of what has occurred in my life. As such, their meaning will manifest over time as the consequences of these events weave themselves through my life’s tapestry. It is all too tempting for me to find a handy ‘peg’ on which to hang my current situation, and preferably one which gives me back the perceived control I had over my life which I lost in the blink of an eye. But to do so would merely create a false and premature closure on a process which has only just begun.

For me, living with the unknown is my path right now, in terms of whether this will happen to me again, how fully I will recover, what this all means for my future, as well as the bigger questions of how this changes my understanding of and relationship with life itself. I have been plunged into deep mystery and am finding increasing peace in the knowledge that answers are not necessary when it comes to matters of the heart. She speaks in a different language which the mind may forever fail to understand.

So, yes, there are many blessings on this strange new path of mine. I am grateful to have been woken up to where I was neglecting my own growth. I don’t know what happens next. I’ve never been fond of event prediction and I don’t intend to start now! Life is a mystery and often best kept that way, revealing itself to us as it needs to in the moment, not set in stone in the form of events that can neither be avoided nor influenced. I have always used astrology to set the scene, not write the script, and as such its relevance becomes even more profound for me now as I look forward to new beginnings and different voices that guide my path. Whatever the future may hold in terms of happenings, one thing’s for sure, never have I loved my heart as much as I do right now and that can only ever be a good thing!
With much love to everyone.
Sarah Varcas

World AIDS Orphans Day – May 7

HIs Holiness the Dalai Lama & Sister Abegail

Unsung Hero Award offered by HIs Holiness the    Dalai Lama to Sister Abegail Ntleko 2009

My first direct contact with AIDS was visiting a friend over 20 years ago in the last stages of their life due to AIDS. Even though their body was ravaged by Kaposi Sarcoma they remained hopeful a cure was in sight. Tragically through the 1980’s, ‘90’s and well into the decade of 2000, there was no “cure,” only assured premature and painful death often accompanied by stigma and abandonment. I am sure you too can cast your mind back to first hearing about AIDS and know friends, family or communities who have been impacted. Or you may have been impacted more directly yourself. Since those early days AIDS spread like wildfire overwhelming millions of lives all over the globe, and none more than in Sub Saharan Africa.

After the highly lauded transition to a post Apartheid society, it seemed a cruel slight of fate that South Africa was then pulled into the whirlpool of the AIDS pandemic. From those early years the country moved through stigma, misinformation, blame and then ten years of blatant government denial accompanied by numerous court cases against both government and pharmaceuticals. Thanks to organizations like Treatment Action Campaign affordable and accessible Anti Retro Viral medication is now widely available. The last decade also saw the emergence of an “AIDS Industry” through the work of NGO’s funded primarily from overseas sources.

A few years ago UNAIDS reported that South Africa has one of the highest incidence of AIDS in the world, and within South Africa the province of KwaZulu the highest statistics of infection. The complex reasons that contribute to the continuation of infection rates are better understood due to comprehensive research. However, translating research into behavioral change has proved challenging. This has meant at the end of the day it is women, and particularly children, who have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Anyone who has access to rural South Africa knows it is women who weave social and family cohesion together, who are primary care givers of children, and who are ultimately the “back bone” of society.

Since 2000, Kittisaro and I have fund raised and help initiate and support various projects with varying degrees of “success.” We have received magnificent help from many generous friends, donors, communities and organizations. We also witnessed the death of young people we have known, and have directly seen the struggle of communities left without the proper resources to cope. A typical situation is a Gogo (granny) I visited with ten orphaned children to feed, clothe and school while living in a small hut with no electricity or furniture. On that day there was only an old sack of potatoes for lunch. Often children go to sleep on tummies filled with sugar water as no food is available.

The endless stories are usually laced with heartache, fear, struggle and defeat. However, there is also a profound shift of attitude accompanied by increased awareness, resources, courage and mutual support. A quantum learning curve has unfolded within deep rural communities where information and education, HIV/Aids support groups and access to medicines, resources and governmental aid are more available. Much of this has come about through the applied sacrifice and hard work of countless people involved in Non Profit work. Of course there are also those who have used the pandemic to shore up their own bank accounts and reputations which is sadly inevitable in any human crisis.

One woman who has unfailingly and quietly gone about responding to the crisis is Sister Abegail Ntleko who we are currently supporting as she endeavors to secure a safe house for the 21 AIDS orphans she has personally adopted. This is after already founding a caring home for 80+ children which now enjoys strong support. Sister Abegail has dedicated over 50 years in Community Service using her nursing skills and practical application of deep faith to make a huge difference in countless people’s lives. Abe does this without fanfare or any need for acknowledgement. However, in response to her huge spirit, she inspired Jurgen Mollers from Oakland to write a book of her life called Empty Hands which is prefaced by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She also inspired successful nominations for South African National Awards such as “Woman of the Year” (ShopRite & Checkers) and the Unsung Hero Award of His Holiness the Dalai Lama which she received in 2009 in San Francisco.

Today – May 7th — is World AIDS Orphans Day and I wanted to take a moment to write these few reflections in honor of all who have been impacted by HIV and Aids and to ask for your support. It is true there is “AIDS fatigue” but millions of children are still left vulnerable and orphaned who need help. The example of Sister Abegail is having an impact. We just received an order for 1,000 copies of her book from the guiding Professor of the Faculty of Health Sciences of Johannesburg’s Wits University which he intends to give to his students. In fact everyone who meets Sister Abe comes away feeling inspired to do better in their lives and encouraged by the faith to overcome adversity. We believe examples like Sister Abe’s life are important to highlight.

On this day we remember those on the front line who are responding to the Pandemic, and particularly the children who have been left orphaned and vulnerable. Tomorrow I am meeting with Sister Abegail and her children to talk over how things are going. We will also meet with our local Real Estate Agent to look at properties suitable for Abe and her children which can also host volunteers from overseas to support the children as they go about their daily lives.

We have received 70% of our Campaign goal, which alongside further donations into Dharmagiri South African account for Kulungile ( Sister Abe’s Non Profit), we are confident we can find a safe home for Sister Abe and her children. Kulungile means “All Is Well” and it is this core attitude of Sister Abe that I leave you with today.

The Dharma of Ubuntu – Article from BuddhaDharma by Kittisaro & Thanissara

How You Can Help

Sign: Kulungile Petition to President Obama: Keep The Light On AIDS Orphans By Increasing Global Support

Contribute: Kulungile Indiegogo Campaign

To Those Gone Before

Their spirits roam,

here in the twilight

of AIDS body

no way to say body

young body gone bad body

your body, my body

millions of spirits

they roam saying


why me?