The Buddhist Abbey at Throssel Hole, Carrshield, welcomes visitors on Festival Days to experience their contemplative service, meditation and ‘dharma’ (loosely translated as ‘the teachings’) for themselves. And afterwards to enjoy the fellowship of a lunch with the acolytes and disciples.
After nearly 30 years of living here, I finally made it to a Festival Day last week. It was in the interest of the diary, of course, and yet beyond such a prosaic exercise it was a deeply rewarding, contemplative experience. I’ve chatted with the Rev. Master Leandra Robertshaw, the current Abbot, on a number of occasions (often at Allendale Bakery, or to say hello at the Co-op, as you do), but like another visitor said, it’s taken this time to gather up the courage to see for myself what goes on in the Abbey.
It felt like poetry for the soul, if I’m honest. After a gracious welcome, we all took our shoes off to enter the temple upstairs; although the carpet was lush deep pile, I was glad I’d brought my cuddly pink oversocks. There the protocol was explained (kindly, the invitation extended on the Abbey’s website suggested attendance by 10am for a briefing, before the service started at 10:15). To the sound of a single bell, solitary rings at first, developing into a crescendoing flourish at the end of the call, the monks filed into the temple and prostrated themselves before the altar. Well, before that there was a ceremonial offering of bread, fruit, tea, and the burning of incense. I found out later that the white mop carried by the Celebrant symbolises compassion.
The whole experience was suffused with Japanese tradition and iconography, which rather makes sense, since the founder, the Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, was trained in the Sōtō Zen Buddhist tradition (of Serene Reflection Meditation) in Japan by her teacher, the Venerable Keido Chisan Koho. Last Sunday’s festival celebrated the life, teachings and influence of Jiyu, who founded the abbey at Throssel Hole in 1972. Although Jiyu is no longer living, she also founded a sister abbey on Mount Shasta in northern California in 1970. Jiyu was instrumental in bringing the tradition of Serene Contemplative Meditation to the western world.
The service was most moving, to me, when the congregation filed, dragon-style, weaving back and forth across the temple floor before approaching the altar to offer ceremonial incense, each attendee individually, and then returning to our positions. At this festival service, somewhat uniquely apparently, a Roland keyboard offered an organ accompaniment to the three ‘hymns.’ I’m not quite sure that these sung pieces were ‘hymns’ as they were a sort of cross between hymns and lined psalms. I didn’t know the tunes, of course, but I tried to hum. As the service finished, the monks retired, and the lay-leader helped us in an informal dismissal for a cup of tea.
I chatted with Har-yo, a visitor from the Shasta Abbey, about the relationship between the two monasteries, though he seemed surprised that I’d actually read about the Mt Shasta retreat. In fact, it was in a piece of fiction created by one of my tutors at the Arvon writer’s retreat in Lumb Bank, Yorkshire, this past summer, a novel called Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss. Our tutor had told me that the Zen Buddhist abbey in his novel was, in fact, a real place. The world does seem like a small community, sometimes.
Anyway, after the nice cup of tea, it seemed appropriate to participate in the meditation, which was back in the temple room, on upright chairs with a wedge bolster, hands cupped, thumbs barely touching, on a small cushion, facing the wall. I think the meditation was about half an hour, maybe twenty minutes. I’m afraid my mind was busy with poetic sensibilities, searching for an elusive phrase for my own ‘Seven Meditations,’ but I found the experience very relaxing, anyway, a kind of peaceful co-existence, a harmony with the situation. And then we moved into the Common Room for the ‘dharma,’ a kind of formal but informal teaching session.
The Celebrant chatted about the Rev Master Jiyu’s life and infuence, couching her words around the sentence, which I remember in paraphrase as: When you open your honest heart, the dharma springs together. I’m sure that’s not accurate, but that was the sense I took from the lesson. Something like ‘the teaching arises from an honest heart.’ The Celebrant described something of the week-long process of Jukai, an induction retreat where acolytes devote themselves to the celibate practise of the Buddhist faith.
And then it was time to go, as Carrie was returning to Carrshield from her own contemplation at St. Cuthbert’s, to pick me up. I’d really enjoyed the session, I realised to my surprise, though it felt like a foray to a distant land, a poetic experience for a wandering, wondering soul. Right up my street then, though I’m probably too much a scientist to appreciate the mysticism. Peace, quiet and contemplation now, that’s a tangible thing.