March 31st 2020

Ratnaghosha and I have just completed the second week of our three-month retreat. He arrived from Barcelona and Valencia on the day the Spanish lock-down started but I was able to pick him up from the bus station without any problem. The streets were very quiet, most shops were closed and the police were stopping cyclists and sending them home. But, for us, there is only an improvement in our retreat conditions. There are no walkers on the road nor planes in the sky. I go to Guhyaloka on Wednesdays to spend some time with the community and to pick up our food but other than that we just settle into our retreat. We meditate four to five hours a day, recite the seven-fold puja in the evenings, and do an hour’s physical work on necessary jobs or in prettifying the place. Ratnaghosha is reading and doing some study and I am doing a few bits and pieces of admin work for Guhyaloka as well as reading the Songs of Milarepa and a novel by Anthony Trollope.

I am still settling into the retreat – working in meditation to clear my mind from a sort of fug of distraction although I have picked up a little with Vajrayogini. The metta practice is rather more pertinent and alive than usual.

But mainly I am settling in from several months of engagement with Guhyaloka – and how it can develop and sustain itself. There is a lot I could say, but the need for a new Chairman and a renewed vision of Guhyaloka’s direction combined with the consequences of the ordination course and all our solitary retreats being cancelled has meant that we’ve had to think about what it is we are doing for the next year or so and indeed what we want to see in the future.

Under Maniraja’s leadership the primary purpose of Guhyaloka was to support the Ordination Courses. There is no intention to change this goal, but to put it in a slightly broader context. During it’s long history the vision for Guhyaloka has often included the establishment of a Vihara or a Monastic community. Sometimes there have been two communities a Vihara and a Support Community. I am proposing a vision of Guhyaloka/Uttaraloka that comprises one community which functions like a Vihara or Monastic Community and serves the needs of the Ordination courses and provides facilities for men who want to leave their world behind for various periods of time, to retreat into the mountains either alone, or as part of a community.

Pondering the nature of this community and how it might be presented to the world we thought that ‘vihara’ and ‘monastic’ could give a wrong impression of the kind of community we had in mind – generating false expectations. In the end I came up with the idea of calling it a ‘forest community’. This is a term that may need explanation, and what it actually means will no doubt become clearer over time, but the Buddha famously said ‘Here, a bikkhu, gone to the forest, or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect and established mindfulness in front of him,’ ….He meditates, enters dhyanic states and gains insight. (The first of these steps – going to the ‘forest’ – is often overlooked.) Going into the forest, the mountains, or the desert are universal symbols for leaving the confines of normal life so as to deepen one’s spiritual experience and I believe that for some men and women this myth is deeply seated and inspiring, although often rejected as unrealistic in the modern world. We intend to make it possible. So, the main characteristic of our ‘forest community’ is that it is isolated from the world. It is a place where men will follow a simple mode of life that is very different, even challenging, to the habitual urban lives they normally live these days.

Guhyaloka/Uttaraloka is not a teaching centre – we already have several superb teaching centres in Triratna – nor is it specifically a meditation centre – although meditation will be strongly represented in the daily program. The primary function is to provide a facility that supports Going Forth from the everyday world either for a short period, or as a way of life. We can do this through providing solitary huts, simple facilities for the ordination courses, longer communal retreats at Guhyaloka and Uttaraloka, and by inviting men to join a ‘forest community’ for periods of a week, a month, or several years.

This vision for Guhyaloka/Uttaraloka is, of course, not entirely new but it is a clarification of the ideals that have been implicit in Guhyaloka from the very beginning. Some people have responded to the idea with enthusiasm, others have expressed doubts, but time will tell whether or not we can establish what I personally think is an important development to the many different approaches to the spiritual life in our order.

But…I am 73 this year and I’m in pretty good shape but this will need a new, younger, enthusiastic chairman to take it forward. I hope we can find someone.

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