While most people were indulging in samsaric pleasures over the Christmas holidays, a group of aspiring Bodhisattvas gathered on an African farm to receive teachings on the profound subject of emptiness. “Understanding and experiencing emptiness is the quickest way to enlightenment. If we are able to rest our minds in emptiness, negative karma is purified. Most people are baffled by the teachings on this subject …” Except us, of course, we had it explained during ten intensive days of Enlightenment training! But this newsletter will be empty of explanations, because it’s actually an experience … So here I am, staring at an empty page, waiting for form to manifest out of emptiness. What to say? How can the abundance of teachings and rich diversity of experience from a retreat be contained in a short newsletter? I can only give a small glimpse of a small facet … 




We spend so much of our precious time and energy focused on worldly matters. Taking time out to focus on spiritual practice, is a precious opportunity to nurture and nourish that which truly matters.


Retreats are opportunities to receive live transmission of teachings from a qualified teacher. Good and proper spiritual guidance is rare and difficult to find, and therefore extremely precious. There are opportunities to ask questions and have private interviews with someone who is more advanced on the Spiritual Path than you are. It is important to have access to teachers. Their knowledge and guidance is valuable, because you can get stuck on your own if don’t have proper guidance. [I have included my notes from one of ROB’s Dharma talks below, on an area where many people get stuck.] 


ROB NAIRN was the teacher on this retreat, and his years of experience benefited us all. His explanations of how the mind works and his attention to detail is quite remarkable. He presents the teachings in a direct and relevant manner with great clarity. Thank you to ROB for his generosity in sharing the Dharma, and for all the good work he initiates and does in South Africa, which includes bringing out enlightened lamas from overseas. Dr AKONG TULKU RINPOCHE will be in Cape Town and Johannesburg in February, see for details of his visit.  


You also learn a lot from other retreatants. Some ask stupid questions and you admire their bravery because we all have some stupid questions. Some ask clever questions and you admire their intelligence and insight and wish you’d thought of that. Some share personal experiences that clarify things we all go through, and it helps to know we are not alone. Some make jokes and seem to have an endless supply of funny chirps, and everyone enjoys a good laugh.


Group support provides a context of safety within which to explore deeper levels of your mind, which you probably wouldn’t do on your own. With this support, it is easier to allow yourself to open to deeper layers of consciousness. Retreats provide meaningful encounters with yourself, the person you most need to get to know and make friends with. You are the Pathway to the Divine, because your enlightened or Buddha Nature exists within yourself. This Sacred Emptiness, the Kingdom of Heaven, is within. It is the pure essence of everything.




Real meditation happens when there is no effort. The mind comes to rest by itself. There is no need to do anything, except rest in effortless presence. The only effort made is to be mindful, to be focused in the present. There is no effort or attempt to change anything. Just allow things to flow. But the ego’s bottom line is “I want to feel good. This influences our mindfulness and state of mind, which is intolerant and judgemental of our inner environment. This causes us to struggle, fight with ourselves, and get anxious and tense.


Our underlying preferences – the mind poisons of attachment and aversion - are stronger than our mindfulness, and they overwhelm us without us being aware of it. We re-inforce our habitual patterns of grasping what we like and want (attachment), and trying to escape what we don’t like and want (aversion). We desire peaceful mind-states, and we desire to avoid painful mind-states. So we end up doing furry ball meditation (expression coined by ROB). We learn how to ease ourselves into a cosy little corner, where we feel slightly drowsy, out of focus, but very comfortable and relaxed. We turn our attention inwards, ignore everything, and wrap ourselves up in a cosy little furry ball.


You attain a superficial level of calm-abiding or tranquillity. The furry ball state creates a cocoon, an inert non-moving bubble around itself. This state is peaceful but not very alive, and there is still a sense of self. Mindfulness must go deeper to reveal underlying self-grasping. The deepest mind poison is ignorance, and it does its best to keep us ignorant. The mind does this by ignoring, suppressing, going into furry ball - all of which are methods to protect ignorance. The mind remains trapped. Meditation will then perpetuate our condition instead of liberating the mind.


This is how many people meditate, and it is a spiritual dead-end. This is why it is important to have a teacher, or you can get stuck. Many meditators get stuck here their whole lives. It is fairly peaceful and blissful, but this peace is not very deep, and this bliss is an obstacle. It fuzzes you out and takes away your clarity of mind. Meditation is not about experiencing bliss. Meditation is about training in awareness - knowing what’s there, without adding any story, comments, judgements. We are training to be present in a completely impartial way. We are training to be at peace with all that is.


When training in mindfulness, you must develop rigor. You must be curious about what is happening, and allow things to reveal themselves to you. Meditation does not involve getting rid of unpleasant feelings. Meditate on the unpleasant feelings – how interesting, now I have the opportunity to observe this state of mind and find out what it’s all about. Instead of getting rid of it and getting into furry ball, you relax into the feeling, allow it to be there, allow mindfulness to embrace it. Learn to relax unconditionally into what is there.


Otherwise you perpetuate non-acceptance, which causes suppression of the feelings. Resistance and non-acceptance actually keep unwanted mind-states in place. They don’t go away – they remain hidden beneath the surface, and they continue to influence you, as underlying attitudes in the mind, and dis-ease in the body. Furry ball is not the solution – it makes the surface nice but it keeps things suppressed. Furry ball meditation is a distortion of calm-abiding or shinay. Calm abiding does not mean feeling lovely abiding. It means calmly abiding/remaining with what is, being at peace with what is, no matter what it is. This is a big difference. This is true peace. Emotional states are not a problem anymore.


There is a huge difference between cosy, comfy furry ball mindfulness, that keeps emotions blocked and suppressed; and clear mindfulness that is relaxed and at ease with everything, even difficult emotional states. Eg, there is anger in the mind. The observer grasps at the anger, takes possession of it and thinks “I am angry”. Just let the anger be. No need to do anything about it, no need to take ownership of it. All you need to do is recognise it, relax and allow it to be. If you accept it, then tranquillity and peace arises in the mind, because you are no longer fighting. True tranquillity doesn’t depend on any emotional state – you can be tranquil even while there is anger in the mind. Tranquillity is a much deeper state of mind – it doesn’t matter what is happening on the surface, the deeper mind remains calm, undisturbed and at rest. This is true peace - what we all long for. No money can buy it – only with spiritual practice can it be attained.   




The last night of the retreat was Old Year’s Eve. We reflected on the past year, the good things and the not-so-good things. We recalled the harmful things we had done, with body, speech or mind, and we resolved not to do them again. We recalled the beneficial things we had done, and we rejoiced in them.


We meditated on this precious human life, and contemplated the year ahead. What was worthwhile doing? How would we like to spend our time, resources and energy? What to do more of, and what to do less of? Then the wakeful did an all-night puja and recited CHENREZIG MANTRAS the whole night: 236 000 mantras in total!


I felt blessed to be spending Old Year’s Eve with people who are genuinely trying to become beautiful human beings, the world needs more of this rare and endangered species! I salute my spiritual friends, buddhas-in-the-making. OM MANI PEME HUNG: may we all become the jewel in the lotus and carry its radiance and blessings into the world. With love and wishes for a peaceful New Year, from SAT CHIT ANAND BUDDHIST CENTRE. Click here for dates of our 2006 PROGRAMME OF RETREATS. Retreat descriptions will be sent out soon.