A Jorney to Il Convento


At 12.20pm Rose rang the door bell at no. 80 Park Hill, which is situated round the corner from Madhyamaloka. She had come to drive Ratnasuri and I to Stanstead Airport from where we would be flying to Pisa, Italy. After a day sight-seeing we would then travel by train and taxi to our final destination, Il Convento, or to be more accurate, Il Convento di Santa Croce, Batignano, Italy.

We were embarking on a journey of historic significance at least from the point of view of developements within the FWBO and WBO. Moreover we were not alone in our journey. By the evening of September 14th 1998, twenty-nine women had gathered beneath the ruined arches of the great church of Il Convento in the warm Tuscan evening. We were about to commence a six week retreat together, during the course of which nineteen more women would enter the Western Buddhist Order. Nineteen more women would symbolically enter into the life of the Bodhisattva, which the Western Buddhist Order aspires to become, and of which Sangharakshita has suggested the Order is a symbol. In just over three weeks time we would be a community of Order members living and practicing together. For many it would be their first experience of being in the midst of such a large gathering of the Order for any length of time and for all of us it would be the longest retreat we had ever been on with others. Moreover we had all journeyed from different countries in order to gather at Il Convento. We had all journeyed from the familiar to the comparatively unfamiliar. I hoped the location and the length of the retreat would give all of us a deeper experience of going forth than would otherwise have been possible.

I have been involved in leading or supporting women’s ordination retreats for many years now. Over that time they have gradually increased in length and in 1997 we held a one month retreat at Tiratanaloka. On some of these retreats we have generated a remarkably strong sense of the mythic and to some extent an experience of going forth. Nevertheless, those of us most involved in running these retreats see it as desirable to eventually offer women the same opportunity that many men have had, of being ordained within the context of a four month retreat — a retreat held in a secluded, even remote location, in continental Europe. Such a retreat would undoubtedly offer the participants at least some of the conditions likely to lead to a stronger experience both of going forth and the mythic dimension of ordination.

From 1981–1986 the men held ordination retreats at Il Convento. Now the old monastery was once more to be the venue for ordinations, this time of women. When I first set eyes upon Il Convento I felt a wave of excitement. Stepping within the crumbling remains of the church I looked up into the blue vaulted ceiling of the apse and my heart soared. I delighted daily in the building and environs and it was a relief to me that it was nothing like Tiratanaloka where our recent ordination retreats have been held. It is a lovely place and oh so comfortable! My heart felt delight at being freed from such comfort at least temporarily. Not that I see asceticism as the path to liberation for myself or others. Now I am back in wintry England I am only too happy to have central heating on tap. Also I am aware that had we stayed on at Il Convento for a further month I might not have enjoyed being there so much. The building, being old, would be drafty and there were only very limited sources of heating for a few communal areas. But I do sense we all need regular doses of going forth from the familiar. We need to go beyond the comfort zone. And for those of us in the West who live in relative luxury compared to many peoples in the world, I think it’s spiritually beneficial to live for a time in simpler surroundings. At Il Convento there was simplicity of form: bare stone corridors and rooms, spacious vaulted ceilings which uplifted the spirit, a secluded cloister for walking meditation, simple sleeping accommodation and wash facilities, all set within the wooded hillsides and olive groves of the Tuscan countryside. I found the physical simplicity liberating and it seemed like we lived closer to nature because of it. We ate meals in the apse, performed various rituals in the cloisters and olive grove, and several people slept outside. We probably all spent more time outside than we generally do, Varabhadri excepted. She had spent all summer under canvas with others involved in the FWBO’s Buddhafield project.

I found being in nature deeply satisfying, experiencing myself more tangibly to be part of a vast, interconnected web of being and becoming. Il Convento was teeming with life, particularly insect life. There must have been millions of ants living in the olive grove, there were anthills and ant tracks everywhere, then there were the preying mantis, butterflies, moths, dung beetles, crickets, spiders, large bees and wasps, and the ubiquitous house flies who made themselves more and more at home in the kitchen and adjoining room. Beyond the insect world were toads and frogs, snakes, scorpions, bats, some birds (many have been shot unfortunately) and lizards. The latter were most numerous. I easily sighted a hundred or more on a single walk rapidly criss-crossing the path before me. More rare sightings (not all by myself) included wild boar, deer, porcupine, wild tortoise. These latter I did see, and were they wild, with their bright yellow shells! Then there were the feral cats who became less wild in our presence, and the sheep and horses. And all the lovely wild flowers and aromatic herbs whose fragrance filled the air. We witnessed many beautiful sunrises and sunsets, spectacular thunder and lightening and the wonderful deep blue of the Tuscan skies when the sun shone and the clouds had floated away. How fortunate we were to be amidst the natural world, the elements, going for Refuge.

Being on retreat for six weeks and on an Ordination Retreat in particular isn’t the same as having an extended holiday, although the setting and climate would have easily lent itself to the latter. It is a spiritually intense time where one is focusing on the essentials of the spiritual life in an uncompromising way. There is no escaping the fact that one is embarking upon a serious endeavour which will require all one’s energy and attention if one is to succeed in one’s purpose of gaining Enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I lived in retreat centres for a decade before moving up to Birmingham in January 1997 and consider myself as someone who has had a reasonably substantial experience of going forth from city life. It certainly felt like a going forth when I moved from London to Taraloka back in 1985. Nevertheless this retreat gave me a new experience of going forth due to its length, location and purpose. The meditations and reflections all pointed in the same direction; Truth. Truth which by its nature is unutterable and inexpressible and most certainly unattainable by the limited ego-bound identity. Yet must be sought and wooed like a beautiful woman who one eventually gives oneself up to once and for all, losing oneself forever in her formless form. This intensity of purpose was set within the mythic and symbolic which gave richness and colour to the quest we were embarked upon. There was scope to develop shrines and rituals to a degree that had never been possible before on our ordination retreats due to constraints of time and space. The opening and closing rituals devised by Samata and Varabhadri were particularly effective in helping us all to really ’arrive’ and, some six weeks later prepare to leave. We also created shrines to the five Jinas in the cloisters which became significant spiritual orienting points for us.

In the first few weeks at Il Convento I really had no sense of what a six-week retreat was like.The ending seemed unimaginable and I entered into a timeless space that had no boundaries. This was both very enjoyable and a little scary at times. I found myself full of respect and admiration for all the men who had been on four month ordination retreats and for all those who had led these retreats; Vessantara, Subhuti, Sona, Suvajra, Cittapala, Padmavajra, Yashodeva. It surely takes stamina, focus and inspiration to lead retreats of such length to say nothing of other qualities. I also began to understand more why some men have found being at Guhyaloka for their ordination difficult. I sensed the challenge of being away from the world one is used to and familiar with for so long. The challenge of being without distraction or hardly any hooks for distraction in one’s environment. It also felt a relief to be on such unfamiliar territory . By the end of the fifth week I had a sense of the end of the retreat and at the same time could imagine just carrying on living with these other women day in, day out; month in, month out. What had seemed barely conceivable a few weeks before and even a little scary, now seemed imaginable and definitely attractive. As overall leader of the retreat I had more of a sense of how one would pace oneself to lead or co-lead a four month one. I didn’t particularly want to come home, neither did a number of others. The life I was leading was rewarding and enjoyable as well as challenging. I found the daily devotional outlets and foci of devotion embodied in our various shrines enriching and more than once reflected on how much I enjoyed pujas, yet hardly ever did them at home. They are really a collective practice and entering into them with others was very much part of what made them so rewarding for me. After one such puja I couldn’t help feeling that an evening out seeing a good film — which is something I do now I am back living in a city — bore no comparison.

Speaking of pujas, I’d like to tell you about one more thing we did at Il Convento. After the Public Ordinations we usually spend several days on what we term ’the Order Induction’ which goes through the nuts and bolts of life in the Order. This year, with a little more time available to us, we set the induction within the context of reciting out loud Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara. This is the text from which our own Seven-Fold Puja is drawn. The recitations were punctuated by simple rituals in praise of Shantideva as well as ones which reflected themes we had been focusing on in the Order Induction. The Bodhicaryavatara is a poetic work with much beauty within it. It is also strong medecine. Shantideva doesn’t pull his punches! He is concerned to show us very clearly what is involved in taking up the Bodhisattva’s way of life and that we need skill and determination in treading the path. We need to be on the look out for the ever present danger of becoming complacent and settling down, which really means slipping back into less skilful ways of operating. To Shantideva, hell is an ever present possibility which is generated by our own mind states. We need to guard the mind from distraction and the conflicting emotions (klesas). City life offers many opportunities for distraction and when we are distracted it is easier for the klesas to hold sway. Retreats by contrast give us constructive outlets for our energy and help us to channel more and more of our energy in the direction of the spiritual. The challenge is to carry over into our lives back home something of what we have generated on retreat. For myself I have returned to Birmingham with a clearer sense of what I need to bring into being more in my life back here in order to keep going forth ever more effectively.

I found the experience of being at Il Convento rewarding and beneficial and consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in this historic retreat. Now I have had those six weeks — well, almost seven, since the team arrived early at Il Convento — I feel even more sure than I did before that it will be of great benefit to the women’s wing to have their own retreat venue, where four month retreats will be possible.

Originally published in Madhyamavani: Spring 1999 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 1999).

N.b. In 2004 the purchase of a property to create a women's Ordination Retreat Centre for the Western Buddhist Order was completed.Akashavana is located near the village of Penarroya de Tastavins, Northern Spain, about 4 hours travel south west of Barcelona.