issue 18 spring 02
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Presence Minded

Creating a Buddhist retreat centre amid the New Zealand wilderness has been a slow evolution. Taranatha describes how elemental rituals and respect for the land have helped to preserve the spirit of Sudarshanaloka

'This land was a living thing with energy that would join with ours if we could be receptive to it - but would just as surely obstruct any clumsy intrusion.'

We come to you in reverence and friendship;
We ask your help, that
Together we may rebuild your land and forest,
Together we may grow in love and wisdom,
Together we may find freedom from all
That binds us to sorrow and suffering.

We came to the place we now call Sudarshanaloka in the southern winter of 1993. We were the usual assortment of people that one might expect to find in a project like this - members and aspiring members of the Western Buddhist Order from the Auckland Buddhist Centre in New Zealand, sharing our enthusiasm for the Dharma and for a country retreat centre. Some had been nurturing the dream for many years; for others the thought was new, unformed, exciting. This was our own land: rough, raw and begging to be moulded to our needs. The project offered unlimited opportunities for creative team work in the service of the Dharma. So many dreams, such enthusiasm, and so little understanding of what we had undertaken.

The initial excitement of acquisition calmed to a sober assessment. What was this land that had already claimed much of our combined savings and was now offering us such challenge? Physically, it was 85 hectares (214 acres) of steep and rugged country in the form of a long, inverted triangle straddling a steep spur rising from the junction of two streams, to lose itself in the jumble of volcanic crags that form the Coromandel Ranges. At its lowest point, between the two streams, lay a wooden farmhouse, amateur-built and unfinished. Snaking up the central ridge, three kilometres of clay road rose 200 metres and then disappeared into the forest beyond the boundary. None of us knew quite where the boundary was. We still don't. Since we are surrounded by forest park, it isn't important.

We had travelled a mere hour-and-a-half from Auckland to this seemingly remote spot. Most of the journey had been through disarmingly civilised farmlands to the small town of Thames, squeezed between the sea and forested hills. From the outskirts of the town we had entered a narrow cleft in the hills, opening into the Tararu Valley and our newly acquired land. Ours was one of only four small pieces of privately owned land that dared to intrude into the forest of this wild valley.

Entering this place, one met primitive, elemental energy. Guarded by a stream over which the rough little road passed by a ford scarcely a hand's span above the gentle water, this land could so readily be isolated from the world by a mere morning's rain on the dark hills beyond. Old pasture was being taken over by manuka scrub, gorse and all the precursors of the forest reclaiming its own. Tumble-down buildings, old farm machinery, and a yellow bulldozer, crippled and awaiting rescue from the roadway where it stood, abandoned, barring access to all but those who would enter on foot. Slowly, breathlessly, we passed up the steep 'road' through increasingly dense regrowth, through more mature forest, to stand in awe among tall, dark trees, their great limbs carrying clusters of epiphytes up to the light and their feet covered with ferns and tangled vines. Through occasional gaps in the trees, we spied the surrounding jagged peaks, and beyond, the valley's narrow entrance and the sea. Quiet. The distant river barely audible. Tiny voices of fantail and warbler, and the silver notes of the bellbird.

This was a land formed by the primitive forces of fire and water: carved down the ages by water from mountains thrown up by volcanic fire. Overwhelming beauty, staggering potential already being realised in excited imagination. And yet, even the most pragmatic of us could not escape a sense of brooding darkness, a feeling of resistance to our entry - that we were being received with resignation rather than welcome. In a clearing at the end of the old forestry road, the crown of a once-noble kauri tree lay charred and forlorn, its great limbs amputated, 40 metres from the stump on which a century ago its trunk (too valued by man to be left) had stood. Remnants of old forestry roads leading to rotting stumps hiding their grief under masses of ferns.

Here and there stood a dying rata tree whose only crime was to grow leaves favoured as food by the alien brush-tailed possum. Possums were brought here long ago to provide a fur industry for settlers, now in their hungry millions they seriously threaten the survival of the native bush. And on the ground, the way of a passing goat was marked by the occasional broken sapling and a disturbing absence of the seedlings that will fill gaps created when ancient trees fall. The New Zealand forest, with no experience of grazing or browsing mammals until recent centuries, is defenceless against them. Alien weeds grew where native growth had been cleared: European gorse, English ragwort, Australian wattle and Scottish thistles.

Beneath the ground lay miles of tunnels from which enormous quantities of gold-bearing quartz had been dug with hammer and chisel, pick and shovel, by men working and living in indescribably squalid conditions. And there were the scars of a century ago when the last millable timber had been removed and much of the valley burnt to prepare for the hopeless attempt to establish pasture for sheep. Aided by man, fire had reclaimed its own; and the steep lands had slumped in the rains that followed, until manuka scrub clothed its nakedness, and the forest slowly reasserted itself.

Not all of the desecration was long past. Near the place where our imaginations were already creating a retreat centre, we had passed an evil-smelling steel cage baited with part of a goat carcass, set to trap pigs that a past tenant had released into the bush for hunting. A track had recently been cut through regenerating bush to a large tree, of which now only a bare stump remained. And there was the bulldozer brooding on the lower reaches of the road. This land, its forest, insects, birds and reptiles had been ravaged and plundered by our well-meaning, industrious, but misguided ancestors - and the exploitation was not yet over.

Our initial responses to the new property were as varied as the people involved. Some were ready to overlook the dark energy and the marks of desecration, being totally captivated by the elemental beauty and the confidence with which the bush was restoring itself. Others could scarcely imagine the possibility of transformation. But the consensus was that we could and would make this place our own. The potential was obvious; we just needed to make some changes. Foremost in our minds was the need for enthusiasm and hard work. There was our devotion to the vision, and we required ritual to support it.

Our first step was to dedicate the land to the Three Jewels. Near to the prospective retreat centre buildings was a noble puriri tree whose dense, evergreen foliage cast so deep a shade that little grew in the filtered, green light beneath it. Under its protection was a natural clearing some 25 metres across, carpeted with dead leaves and surrounded by a wall of tree ferns and hanging vines. A place of peace and reverence, whose silence was disturbed only by the song of the many birds that gathered to feast on the tree's abundant berries. This was more than just a forest tree. Here was a presence that evoked from all who encountered it responses of respect, reverence and even a sense of the sacred. Here we built a shrine to Shakyamuni Buddha. Here we recited a Buddhist puja, placing, so some of us thought, our Buddhist stamp on the land.

Over the first year little changed. The previous owner, with his hunting dogs, bulldozer and sundry farm machinery remained in residence, tidying up his affairs. With his departure, the work of transformation began. There was so much to do but so few people and so little money to do it. With more enthusiasm than sensitivity, we bulldozed the old logging road into more acceptable form, with the proper drainage and culverts that all roads should have. Big pine trees, threatening to fall on house and road, were felled with chainsaw and axe. Satyananda, the prime mover in this project, built the first solitary retreat hut with what materials and help he could find.

During all this activity came Denis, a sensitive man with Maori connections, first as a guest, then as a resident. Denis helped with building, cut firewood for the house and for sale, tended the garden, and shared in all the ordinary things that needed to be done. But into these things he brought a new and gentle playfulness. He built little stupas with rocks from the river to adorn the entrance drive, hung prayer flags on trees, and with a loving hand polished slabs carved from a felled pine to make a shrine. There were some among us who heeded, and needed to heed, these teachings of gentleness, playfulness and empathy for the land. Then, only a few months after he had arrived, Denis was gone. A road accident, a long period of coma, death, and a handful of ashes to scatter in the stream.

Denis was gone, but his gentleness and empathy with the land stayed to remind us that we were creating a place of love and wisdom rather than trying to subdue the land to our needs. There were some who had felt these things but whose voices we had not heard. It was Denis, in his presence and his death, who led us to pause and reflect. Far from being passive clay for the moulding, this land was a living thing with energy that would join with ours if we could be receptive to it, but would just as surely obstruct any clumsy intrusion. We could build a Buddhist Pure Land only with the co-operation of all local energies.

We needed rituals and symbols to deepen awareness of our interaction with the land. More urgently than buildings and bridges, the project called for a spiritual focus to gather its energies and to transform the land. In retrospect it seems inevitable that that symbol should be a stupa. So began a journey packed with myth and ritual in which people and resources were drawn from many parts of the world to create a stupa amid the New Zealand bush. The summer of 1996-97 saw a crescendo of physical and spiritual activity. Such a variety of people with a range of skills arrived to join building and support teams.

Friendships were made, skills learnt, muscles developed; the stupa grew and energy poured into what was quickly becoming a sacred place. We enacted rituals to the elements and these developed their own momentum. Increasingly we felt the need to offer placating rituals to soften the inevitable disturbance we were making to the land and to invite the spirits to join us in working for the good.

Harmony with the local forces did not come easily. The month the foundations were laid (the clay dug and 17 tons of concrete mixed and poured into the moulds) was unseasonably violent and stormy. Winds whipped cement into our eyes and caked our hair. The fire ritual that dedicated the stupa's base (the 'harmika') and the cone was held in torrential rain. But we persisted. The spiritual energy of building such a potent symbol was bigger than all of us, and the trial by elements was transforming. Nobody was unchanged.

Then, in round after round of ritual to prepare for the big dedication, the days became clearer and brighter. And so, Sangharakshita, founder of the Western Buddhist Order, led the procession from the gate on a clear day to dedicate the stupa and place inside it a relic of Dhardo Rimpoche, his teacher and friend. It was said that the stupa had always been there and we had merely manifested it. Certainly, the friendships we formed at that time with the land, with the vision of what it could be, and with one another, have continued to flourish.

For months our energies had been directed to planting in the bush our symbol of spiritual endeavour and of the Enlightened Mind itself. Now it was time to turn our attention again to the land and its own symbolic centre, the puriri tree. This tree and the area its branches protected had a quality of dignity, majesty and an atmosphere of mystery that both attracted and repelled us. A visiting English Order member drew our attention to the sense of resistance to our presence; he told us that in the course of exploring the land he had met an almost physical barrier as he tried to enter the precinct of the tree. It was as if the resident spirits, still suffering from the insults heaped upon them by our ancestors, had gathered here to defend their place from a new invasion. And here at the base of the tree was the Buddhist symbol of Enlightenment that we had installed at the initial dedication ceremony.

It was becoming clear that two streams of spiritual energy - of the Dharma and of the 'spirits of the land' - needed to be honoured in their separate ways. On the winter solstice of 1997, amid seasonal squalls and showers, we lifted the Buddha statue with due ceremony and installed it inside the stupa. At the foot of the puriri tree we placed a simple shrine 'to receive any offering that comes from reverence to beauty, wisdom and compassion by whatever name'. On the same day we installed on an old fence post (symbol of past attempts to tame the land) a bronze plaque bearing the name suggested by Sangharakshita for the place and the project - Sudarshanaloka - and its translation, Land of Beautiful Vision. From that time it seemed that the 'presence' at the puriri tree became progressively more friendly, until within a year or two overtly Buddhist rituals felt appropriate and welcome.

Whether the sense of 'presence' about the tree is related to previous Maori occupation we do not know. The tribal elders, traditional spiritual guardians of the valley, have been unable, or unwilling, to enlighten us. However, several people, including one particularly down-to-earth farmer, have reported hearing women's voices singing or wailing near the tree and in a stream-bed nearby. Some believe it is a 'placenta tree' where the afterbirths of children born to local tribes were buried. All feel a sense of presence; some of us interpret this as a gathering place of the spirits. Personally, I feel increasingly at home under the tree. Even in the dark, surrounded by the night noises of the forest that usually cause the neck to tingle with fear, under its protective branches I feel a sense of peace and harmony with all of life.

Change seems to happen so slowly, yet in a few years we have built the stupa, five solitary retreat huts, a shrine room, additions to the house, and a barn-like shed in which three ceremonies to ordain people into the WBO have taken place. We have planted hundreds of native trees to encourage the return of the forest, replaced the crumbling ford with a bridge and transformed the old forestry road into all-weather access to the stupa and the retreat centre site. All of this with a growing sense of co-operation with the energies that were here long before we came.

Now we face the biggest challenge of all, gathering the resources to build accommodation, services, buildings and a shrine room to house retreats for 50 people. For such a small team the task looks overwhelming. But, like all our previous projects, it will happen. As long as we maintain our friendship with one another and the spirits of the land, and our faith in the Three Jewels and the Sudarshanaloka vision, then it will be achieved.

From the beginning, the vision has attracted the world beyond the valley. A few from the local town have begun coming weekly to meditate with us. Visitors seeking friendship, beauty and peace come to stay at the community house or to camp by the stream. Meditators, many from the farthest parts of the world, come to deepen their practice in the solitude of huts hidden in the forest. They stay for days, sometimes months. Varachitta, an Order member from London, is still practising alone in the bush after more than three years in retreat. Others come to formal meditation and study retreats. All bring with them their own energy to nourish the project; all benefit in some way from what they find here.

After more than a century of tempestuous relationship with the land, humankind is at last making its peace. A footprint on the soft track where the tall trees make deep shadows; Khemapala paid homage here to an ancient kauri tree. A dakini glimpsed fleetingly through a tangle of vines; Varachitta on her full-moon pilgrimage to the stupa from her hut high on the mountain. A lone voice by the puriri tree reciting greetings to the spirits, or many voices chanting praises to the Buddha from a temporary shelter in the forest. All these add to the myth that is Sudarshanaloka.

For me that myth plays out the myth of my own life, from the violence and killing that was part of my early years on a hill country farm, through a phase of natural restoration, to active participation in the evolution of compassion and understanding. I share with the land and all it supports an empathy and joyful participation in the creative process of restoration and striving towards wholeness.