Subhadramati (above) was on the team for the first women’s three month ordination retreat which took place this spring at Akashavana. Here is her description of life on retreat.
Out on the terrace a couple of women are sewing a new blue robe, cut from a discarded bed-sheet. Another is making a patchwork square to be part of a ‘communal’ blanket for a new grandchild whose birth is expected while we are here. Three more are cheerfully perspiring as they wheelbarrow away loads of rubble in anticipation of a ‘Zen Garden, outside the shrine room. Another prunes the wild-rose bushes whose delicate pink and white petals have just come into bloom. Someone else is trampling her laundry in the outdoor washtubs before carrying off the rinse-water to the vegetable garden – ingeniously constructed to be goat-proof by Ratnadharini. A few will be following logging trails and goat-paths in the mountains, perhaps a more experienced walker leading the way for others. Maybe they will bring back a fossil – the perfect spiral of a seashell, or the delicate dome of a sea urchin cast in stone. Yet others are simply sitting, sipping tea, gazing at the sheer white vertical of the cliff, crowned with pine trees and graced by the flights of vultures.
And all of this in silence.
In a while three of us will prepare a simple feast from local ingredients: aubergines, field mushrooms, white beans, olive oil. Then we will all file along the mountain path to the shrine-room: past the Milarepa rupa who sits happily on a rock surrounded by flower offerings; past the carpet of blue starry flowers in the shade of the Spanish oak trees; past the white-cherry tree whose fruits ripen by the day; past the terrace wall whose crumbling stones have split to reveal troves of glistening white quartz. And sometimes when we reach the shrine-room we pause for a moment in hushed delight to watch the wild goats frolic on the grassy bank, amidst the scents of sage, lavender, rosemary and thyme.
Throughout this time the theme of renunciation has been strong, sparked off by Vijayasri’s inspiration by Milarepa. Many of us have cropped our hair but I would not say that this has made us look less beautiful! In fact, when I look around what I see is radiance!
There are 21 of us here (and a team of three at the support community, an hours walk away, who keep us supplied with food and other essentials). Fourteen women are here to be ordained, two Order members, recently ordained are taking the opportunity of a longer retreat, and five of us are on the team. And what a talented bunch of women! We have nurses, a doctor, a vet, wielders of chainsaws and pickaxes, excellent cooks and bakers of bread, songsters, calligraphers, gardeners. But it’s not just that these women are talented. From literally the first moment of arrival, there has been a willingness to co-operate and share to a remarkable degree. No one has drawn a line around herself with ‘this is my duty and no further will I go’; instead everyone seems overflowing with helpfulness and willingness. And perhaps none more so than the team itself. So Ratnadharini moves gracefully between being the overall leader of the retreat and preparing for the private and public ordinations, to gleefully beholding the healthy young lettuces she has carefully nurtured from seed. Padmasuri is as willing and able to concoct lunch from yesterday’s leftovers, as to devise and lead a splendid and celebratory Wesak festival. Vijayasri can one-day transport us to another realm with a richly imaginative ritual, and then fix the squeaking doors with candlewax. Dhammadassin faithfully leads the early-morning meditation, then just as faithfully walks down to the spring to collect our daily drinking water.
I hope others will be able to tell you of the splendour of the dark-blue and indigo irises, the sensuousness of the rain-soaked, deep-pink peonies and the exuberance of the scarlet poppies.
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