Buddhafield — A New Going Forth


These days there's a wilder and more colourful shape at the edge of the FWBO Mandala. It's called ‘Buddhafield’. In Buddhist Mahayana scripture, the Sanskrit buddhaksetra, which literally translates as ‘Buddha-field’, means ‘the field of influence of a Buddha’. The name of the FWBO Buddhafield obviously refers to that. However, it also suggests actual fields — green ones, that is, and (so far, mostly) English. Buddhafield is the FWBO as lived in the great outdoors, amongst the raw elements. It consists of practitioners who, from April to October at least, conduct Buddhist activities on the land, in moveable dwellings.

This way of practising Buddhism has many precedents. Indeed, the Buddha himself is known to have lived in a similar fashion. For most of his long life, he simply wandered here and there at the edge of society, as he meditated, reflected, and communicated his Enlightenment. Even during the monsoon rains, the period used for intense meditation retreat, he didn’t usually shelter in a conventional building. He meditated in a leaf hut or a cave, as did his band of followers. On a Buddhafield event, people meditate in a tent, yurt, bender, geodesic dome, under the open sky, or perhaps under a tree. The Buddha’s life of outdoor simplicity has clearly inspired this. Yet Buddhafield is also the product of a less austere influence: hippy culture.

It all started six years ago when a few Order members decided to teach meditation at alternative festivals, such as Glastonbury. In the UK, there are hundreds of such gatherings every year, catering for hundreds of thousands of people of all ages. Many of these people don’t wish to be fitted into conventional society; they feel there is something unhealthy in it. Such a feeling resonates with Buddhist radicalism. Throughout the already rich Westernised nations, prosperity has visibly increased. From a Buddhist point of view, the consumerism that so easily accompanies economic growth contains, at its heart, the mental poison of selfish greed. If young people notice this, they can feel disillusioned with society, and look out for alternatives.

This creative unease may underlie the current nostalgia for 60s and 70s culture. The FWBO was born in those times — and, partially, out of the same kind of resistance to consumer society. It was founded in 1967 on the vision of Buddhism as a more civilised basis for society, as a positive way out of the cyclic trap of need and greed. Buddhafield can be seen as a renaissance of that more ‘political’ Buddhist vision. Why did this radical spirit reappear in the 1990s? Well, for over thirty years, we have been building a new Buddhist culture: we have evolved new structures for living, and many have learned actually to use these, and to live happier, more insightful lives. Nevertheless, for young people these days the FWBO, with its established centres and confident, middle-aged populace, probably doesn’t appear to be very radical. Hence its rebirth in the form of Buddhafield, a new variety of FWBO ‘Centre’. It is natural, from time to time, for there to be such new upsurgings of the Dharma. Probably, any Buddhist movement that is spiritually alive will find itself continually being remade.

Nowadays, Buddhafield continues to take the Dharma to the great alternative gatherings like Glastonbury. It also runs a large café at these events. The Buddhafield café is a right livelihood enterprise, employing at times up to a hundred staff, which supports all Buddhafield’s Dharma activities as well as its fleet of large vehicles with their cargo of special equipment.

Buddhafield even runs its own Festival. This year, the five-day Buddhafield Festival attracted 1500 people to a large field in Somerset ‘to explore Buddhism, meditation, theatre, music, eco-activism, alternative living, healing arts, shamanism, ritual, and play’. There was, I would say, a considerable emphasis on the latter. Two hundred children swung, bounced endlessly on trampolines, and rolled around, twenty at a time, over and under an inflated beach ball the size of a small house. Clowns, jugglers, and a carthorse (complete with cart) careered around, vying for everyone’s attention. In various tents adults were massaged, healed, and challenged to partake in a variety of debates, usually of anarchic, Buddhist, or anarcho-Buddhist interest. Beneath one of the huge trees was held an early evening performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. During the day, drumming sessions throbbed hour after hour, and at night several electric bands, from two large stages, regaled those possessing exceptional capacities for enjoyment. Against this festive background, meditation classes were held in the main shrine tent. There were classes for newcomers, and practice sessions for more established meditators — who sometimes looked as though they needed a little peace and quiet.

Who would attend such a gathering? Vimalaraja, Buddhafield’s demon organiser and treasurer, told me that amongst the crowd were ‘five hundred FWBO Buddhists (counting sixty Order members and a hundred volunteer workers), two hundred children, one hundred tepee/yurt/van dwelling full-time travellers; not to mention miscellaneous shamans, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, anarchists, naturists, drunks, and dope heads’. The rest of the festival-goers, it would seem, were somewhat more ordinary folk.

In addition to introducing Buddhism to the colourful UK counterculture, Buddhafield runs serious Buddhist retreats on the land. This is an increasingly popular development in the FWBO. To meditate and experience oneself more deeply, and to reflect on the timeless Dharma, seems only natural in these elemental surroundings.

This autumn I led a silent shamatha-vipashyana retreat for all comers. Seventy of us took part — a larger group than could easily have participated if the retreat had been held at a typical retreat centre. Speaking was largely confined to introducing ourselves on the first evening, and sharing our experience on the final morning. There were, of course, opportunities to ask questions in the teaching sessions, and anyone could speak at any time with me, the retreat leader. The retreat lasted for ten days. The first few days were taken up with the development of shamatha: uncluttered, relaxed concentration. To untie the gathered knots of habitual mental tension and distraction, we meditated, session after session, on the experience of breathing. As the general level of shamatha grew, we incorporated more sessions of Metta Bhavana. There eventually came a point where the majority of the retreatants were in or near ‘access concentration’ — that state of consciousness in which sustained attention becomes easier and more pleasurable. It is at this stage that the mind develops at least some capacity for vipashyana, and may start to sense some glimmering of the real nature of things.

I therefore introduced vipashyana in the form of reflection, in meditation, on such themes as universal impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and insubstantiality — the three lakshanas or ‘characteristics of existence’. I then gave talks on each of the three samadhis of animitta, apranihita, and sunyata. These states of illumination arise from a realisation of the universal truth of the lakshanas. One realises that which is beyond words, beyond needs, and beyond characteristics of any kind. In particular, I spoke about the lakshana of impermanence and the animitta samadhi.

All this might sound abstract here on paper, but I think I managed to present the idea of impermanence in ways that each person could appreciate and put to good effect in their meditation. I explained how prajna, Wisdom, is cultivated at three successive levels. Firstly, of course, you do need to take in some abstract ideas (for example, the teachings about impermanence). Then, once established in a clear mental state, you can reflect on them, and gradually absorb the ideas into a more concrete understanding. This understanding creates a basis for a third and final level of wisdom. This, the meditative wisdom that transforms one’s whole life and world, is achieved when you experience directly the reality indicated by your understanding. I explained that few of us would be in a position to practise much at that highest level. Most of us would be developing the first level, learning more about the idea of impermanence. And we would all be working on the second level — reflecting, making sense of the teaching in our own experience. Then, on that basis, we might occasionally participate in some deeper kind of insight. I believe this model enabled us to work sensibly and to enjoy the practices.

Impermanence is certainly fascinating as a topic. I soon noticed that almost everyone on the retreat tended to a pre-set view that ‘things coming to an end’ necessarily entails something unpleasant. However, this was certainly not based on experience, for unpleasant things end too (to our great relief!). Once one actually manages to engage with impermanence reflection, one quickly finds in it a sense of liberation. This may not yet be liberation in an ultimate sense, but it is of great benefit, if only as a means to gain respite from the grip of the five hindrances to concentration. As we dwell in the awareness that all our experiences are impermanent, our expectations become less of an unhealthy focus, and the time-bomb pressure of our craving, anxiety, and aversion naturally becomes de-fused.

From that point on the retreat, we aimed to establish awareness of the impermanence in all our experience. I led reflections on the impermanence, not only of the breathing, but also of life generally, occasionally mentioning the physical elements, nature, civilisation, — anything, in fact! Whatever our attention turned towards was thereby revealed as an impermanent flow. I think we all found that living amongst the elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space stimulated a greatly increased awareness of the incessant change in our experience.

In addition to Dharma teaching at festivals, and open-air retreats, there is a third aspect of Buddhafield’s activity: the development of a new way of life more in harmony with nature. Alayavajra, the chairman, is especially interested in this, the cultivation of Buddhist lifestyles within Buddhafield. Many of the people that the Buddhafield team meet have initially been drawn to the friendship and exciting ideas that the festivals generate, as well as to the music and drug culture that abound there. However, eventually they find that ‘festival’ is not sustainable as a way of life. For a while, they may try to make it so, travelling between the hundreds of spring and summer gatherings, but few retain such an interest for long. Those who do — the committed, seasoned travellers — often have to spend the less hospitable UK months living and working in the city, leading a thoroughly mundane and un-ecological existence. There surely must be a better approach for those seeking an alternative way of life. The Buddhafield team know from experience that a harmonious way of life can emerge through collective practice of Buddhist principles. They want to explore new, alternative contexts for this.

For this exploration, the connections Buddhafield make on the festival circuit are proving valuable. For example the Rainbow People, a ‘tribal’ group, have some decades of experience of living in natural surroundings all the year round, in dwellings such as tepees, yurts, and straw bale houses. Some Buddhafield team members are training in permaculture, ecological principles that can be applied particularly to gardening and crop growing. They hope this may eventually become a right livelihood business. Sooner or later, the team wants to purchase a large tract of land as a permanent site. They have amassed some funds, but when the time comes, they will probably try to raise more from sympathetic friends. I wish them luck.

I am very much enjoying being Buddhafield’s president. Most FWBO Centres have a president — an experienced Order member from outside that Centre, whose function is to help it to stay in touch with the fundamental ideals of the FWBO and with the rest of the Movement. It is something I have been doing since they asked me about a year ago, and of course, I’m still learning the job. I suppose that whatever I have to offer to Buddhafield Order members, mitras and Friends comes from my longstanding connection with Bhante, the members of the Preceptors’ College / Council, and the FWBO as a whole.

Presidents have a duty to visit the Centres they ‘take on’ and participate in their activities. For me of course, that means plenty of camping and meditation out there amongst the elements. Luckily, not only am I committed to meditation, but I also greatly enjoy being in the open air. Being president of Buddhafield also suits me for another reason. I have recently ‘gone forth’ from having a fixed home, in order to experience something of the unattached independence of the wanderers in the Buddha’s time. Participating in Buddhafield fits in very well with this aspect of my life. So far, I have spent only a few weeks on Buddhafield retreats and festivals, but now that I have become a wanderer without a permanent base of my own, I expect to be free to spend much more time with Buddhafield. On Sangharakshita’s advice, I have recently been thinking of spending three months per year with each of the three centres of which I am president, that is, Buddhafield, West London and Vajraloka.

Being a president involves little or no formal responsibility, though I feel it to be a responsible position. There is no salary, though usually travel and living expenses are met. I am not an officer of any of the FWBO charities that administer each centre. My job is simply to keep in good communication with everyone involved, especially with the key Order members. It is something I may well be doing for the rest of my life.

These days, Buddhafield functions much like any FWBO centre, with its own mitras, both men and women. For quite a number of people, Buddhafield is their main connection with the FWBO. I have already got to know many of these men and women just by staying around and talking, doing some teaching on festivals and retreats, and occasionally working in the café. I am looking forward to extending and deepening my range of connections. I hope that everyone connected with Buddhafield feels able to talk with me about anything on their mind — whether it’s about their personal life, something happening around the Centre that they’re not happy about, or some point of Dharma. As president, I feel that’s part of what I am there for.

I keep up my connection with the core team of Order members, especially with the Chairman. For much of the time I do this on the phone and by email. (Yes, even Buddhafield is on email! See for example www.buddhafield.com, where all the coming year’s activities are listed.) However, these are no substitute for actually being wherever Buddhafield happens to be. So over the coming year I hope to spend more time with the core team and involve myself in their retreats over the summer. Maybe I’ll see you there?

Find out more about camping retreats in the South-West, East Anglia (via the Colchester Buddhist Centre), the north of England and the annual Buddhafield festival in North Devon.

Originally published in Madhyamavani: Issue 4 Spring 2001 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2001).