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

Greetings from Kittisaro & Thanissara

K&T DG fire

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.

k&t oakland

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.


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.

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

Team DG - Bots '17

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).


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


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.


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.


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 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.


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!!

Dharmagiri, August, 2017
Access the Conference Live Stream Here.


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.