Following the rush of the festive season, my husband and I decided we needed to take a few days out to reflect upon the year ahead and past, and to gain a bit of mental balance through meditating and doing a self-retreat at BRC in the lush greenery of Ixopo. We had seen pictures and heard tales of people’s visits to this special part of the world and were intrigued to discover it for ourselves.
The Buddhist Retreat centre welcomes people from any spiritual path, or faith, so there is no pre-requisites to visit this special place. We wanted to explore our meditation practice, others were using their time to deepen their knowledge of Buddhism, while many guests were they to take a well-deserved break in the scenic valley. More than half of the people we chatted to had been several times before and they make an effort to return at least once a year.
One can feel how much care and thought has done in to developing this unique venue. Founded in 1980 by Louis van Loon, helped by his wife Christi, they built up the centre, its library, lecture room, mediation hall, accommodation facilities, gardens and helped rehabilitate the surrounding land. The BRC was declared a Natural Heritage site by Nelson Mandela due to the centre’s commitment to preserving the Blue swallow, as well as the indigenous biodiversity of the area.
The centre also founded the community-based NGO Woza Moya that works with the local community, providing access to information, to facilities and to education to help the communities grow their own food, learn to care for HIV infected family members, get access to legal advice etc.Originally Woza Moya was situated on the centre’s grounds but they have relocated to a newly-built community centre that neighbours the BRC property. The work that Woza Moya does looks extraordinary.
For our three day stay, we had opted to do a mid-week self retreat but they offer an interesting variety of retreats and workshops on offer through the year from gardening, to cookery, to ‘Stoep Zen’, to exploring Sangoma practice in a ‘Heart-Beat meditation retreat’. One can explore Buddhist meditation, Tai-chi, Ayurvedic healing or take part in yoga workshops. The list abounds and it certainly warrants a thorough look-through and, in our case, a good reason to return.
The accommodation options vary from comfortable single rooms to free-standing chalets with the most magnificent views out over the valley. We stayed in a spacious double room with a balcony and we spent most evenings before dinner watching the sun drift across the green hills, and the lights appearing in the different homesteads, while cattle sauntered home and blue swallow ducked and dived in the warm evening air.
Tasty vegetarian meals are included in the price and much of the produce comes from their impressive vegetable gardens. Two well-known cookbooks detailing their popular recipes have been published – ‘Quiet food’ and ‘The Cake that Buddha ate’. Breakfast is eaten in noble silence, allowing guests to sit quietly and eat together savouring the rich flavours of the meal in a peaceful communion. It takes some adjusting as we all seem to be programmed to engage with people when sitting together, but after a while one feels how everyone relaxed into the space and it set the tone for a thoughtful and restful day.
We spent a large part of our three days doing different walks on the 300acre property. Perfect blue skies looked down on us as we crossed the valley exploring the area set aside as breeding ground for the rare Blue Swallow. The sweet smell of the long grass, the pops of colour from the wildflowers, the fluttering of passing butterflies make the walk a feast for the senses. Grazing cattle watched us sweat our way up and down the red earthen paths and birds eyed us as we rested with our feet in a cool stream. For a good two or three hours you can disappear into your footsteps, your breath, your thoughts, the sights, the smells, the sheer magnificence of the surroundings. There are short and long walks as well as lush gardens, a Zen garden and a labyrinth to explore.
The rest of our time was spent quietly meditating in the mediation halls and in the gardens. A brief introduction to meditation was given on our first evening and as a guest one can visit the well-stocked library and attend any activities that they have on offer if prolonged meditation sessions are not of interest. In fact, sitting with a good book under a tree near the stupa with the views of the hills was just as good a way to pass the time.
Being surround by such natural beauty, it becomes quite easy to dip into the serene energy that seems to pervade this unique piece of land. The goodwill and care that keeps this centre functioning is palpable and it is a shining example of how a holistic approach to running an institution benefits both the environment, the surrounding communities and its visitors.
We left Ixopo feeling refreshed, in slightly better balance, inspired to tread a little lighter in the world, and very much in awe of how much good can be done with a vision. This green valley has a certain magic to it, and it is all the sweeter with a sanctuary like this to explore.
Words and Pictures: Verushka Vogt Nel