Greetings from Kittisaro & Thanissara
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blessings in the Dharma.
Kittisaro & Thanissara
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
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
- On the ground support: Housekeeper/Chef and Garden/Maintenance help.
- Clear role descriptions with responsibilities, accountability and communication lines clearly defined.
- More formally agreed terms of residence/employment at Dharmagiri including stipends, dana, leave, days off, etc.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- A financial committee to look into budgeting and local fundraising (Chris, Jane, Chandasara, Peter).
- An international fundraising committee (Kittisaro, Thanissara, Mike).
- A governance committee to secure a consultant as mentioned in point 4 above (to be included in the financial committee’s brief).
- 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.