Thursday, 18 February 2010

Gardening and Gilding the Buddha in Bodhicharya Retreat Centre



THE SOWA RIGPA GARDEN

BODHICHARYA RETREAT CENTRE

RUMTEK, SIKKIM

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from Pat Little.

Last autumn I spent three extraordinary weeks at Ringu Tulku’s Bodhicharya Retreat Centre. I went in hope rather than expectation: Rinpoche had graciously accepted my request to do retreat, but had not been particularly encouraging about my other aim, namely to help in the setting up of the Sowa Rigpa garden. Rahima was already doing the necessary research, he assured me, and as for the actual gardening, there were local women employed to do that. As it happened, I arrived at the same time as both Rinpoche and Rahima (back from sorting out her visa in Nepal, after an absence of several weeks).

As we entered the garden down the steep steps that lead from the wood towards the Retreat Centre, it was immediately obvious that there would be much to do: a magnificent blue-flowered weed had spring up everywhere, and taken over the old rice terraces where Rahima, an assortment of gardeners and an ox-plough had made a tentative approach in creating the garden for medicinal plants that was Rinpoche’s dream. The vegetable beds which were part of the project had been colonised in the same way; in short, nature had triumphed, order had blossomed into anarchy.

This was an inauspicious start; I had already learned that none of the medicine plants carefully sourced by Rahima had survived: the ruta seed from Ladakh that had germinated so promisingly had grown well for about six weeks, but had then been struck by a hailstorm, after which some ‘worm’ (= maggot?) had attacked it. Rahima had transplanted some 100 plants, but these had subsequently died. The tikta had simply disappeared during Rahima’s absence: she suspected they were ‘weeded out’. The manu seed from Himachal had not been a success either: the wild seed had not germinated, the cultivated Ayurvedic variety only erratically, and then the monsoon had proved too much for the young plants.

We therefore had to set to and establish a serious plan for taking the garden in hand, restoring what had been done, developing new areas and planning for the future. We were exceptionally fortunate in that Rinpoche came to stay, along with his mother and uncle, just at that time, rather than just coming for the teachings he gave to the retreatants. He made himself available to us in remarkably generous fashion, often coming out into the garden when he saw us, to encourage us and calm our anxieties. When we talked of setbacks, he calmly brushed the notion aside, giving us the impression that what had happened was all part of the overall plan. In short, the inspiration of his energy kept us from total discouragement.

The first thing was to rescue what was possible from the vegetable beds, separating out beans, peas, radishes etc. from their carpet of weeds, and harvesting what was harvestable. Then new beds had to be cleared – this of course had already been done with the ox-plough at a much earlier stage. Nyima, the young man hired as chief gardener, but during Rahima’s absence rather lacking in direction, set to work with us, and soon beds of young cabbages were springing up.

It was obvious, however, that the impoverished soil was badly in need of improvement, so we had recourse to two solutions: we started various compost-heaps for the medium and long term, and then placed an order with Pema for a large quantity of cow-dung for immediate use. This, of course, had to be transported in baskets down the stony track from the road on the backs of local porters, making it an expensive commodity.

Rinpoche, however, has an idea for bypassing this particular difficulty:

we should get a cow (or two). It/they would give milk for the retreatants and visitors, any surplus could be sold to generate modest funds for the Centre, and there would be manure a-plenty. Appropriate time and effort went into discussing how to source such a cow, the best type to get, who would look after it, etc. etc.

No problem seemed insuperable. It was envisaged that Rinpoche’s mother, Ama-la, might be recruited as consultant in the matter: a country-woman born and bred, she had owned and managed large herds of yaks in her younger days, as well as cattle, and a couple of cows would therefore hold no terrors for her. She was already an asset in the garden: on one occasion, seeing us busy at the weeding, she came out to join us, seized a cutter and started to give an energetic demonstration of the right way to cut weeds. And then, with the heavy right-angled fork, she showed us how to dig up the roots, accompanying the demonstration with a commentary in voluble Tibetan! Such energy, such spirit!

Given the previous experience, it was clear that certain plants would do better with some protection. This could be in two stages: the immediate construction of a simple shelter out of bamboo poles and fine plastic netting, and then, more long-term, the erection of a proper poly-tunnel. As I left, the bamboo poles were arriving on site, and we had identified the area where the shelter was to be erected.

The question of overall planning was obviously very important. Spaff, one of the three-year retreatants, who had therefore seen through three seasonal cycles, had done a useful job in identifying hot spots and cold patches, dry and boggy areas, and with this prior knowledge Rahima and I were able to walk the whole site and establish some sort of basic plan for the future garden, including new paths to create leech-free circuits for the retreatants and others, and areas for ornamental plants and aromatics, as well as for fruit and medicinal trees and bushes. The question of a cow-shed was also addressed.

Just before my departure, Pema arrived with a surprise package of 22 young orange trees and guavas. This concentrated the mind as to where to put them, but we located a hot spot where we thought they would be happy, and at the first opportunity Nyima was set to work to prepare the siteThe pattern of retreat practice and gardening which evolved quickly in the first few days proved ideal for me. And the blessings of my stay were multiplied by the arrival of the new Buddha

statue for the shrine-room. The 7-foot statue had been cast in Nepal, had made the journey from Kathmandu by road in three pieces, and had then been transported by around a dozen porters on a sort of bamboo stretcher down the path from the road. It then had to be gilded, and we watched fascinated as the Nepali craftsmen began

to apply the gold leaf with a tooth-brush, heating it first with mercury, which gave it a silver appearance, before treating the whole surface with a blow-lamp, thus dissolving the mercury and leaving the burnished gold.

The finished statue is magnificent in its flowing lines and serenity, and now awaits the completion of the carpenter’s work of creating a plinth for it in the shrine-room. The presence of this splendid artefact was for me a source of energy in the parallel development of the garden. Each day that saw the realisation of another stage of the statue saw also a new stage in the planning and execution of the Sowa Rigpa project. Under the influence of the spirit of the Buddha, we became acutely aware of the garden as a spiritual entity that would speak to us if only we would listen.

My stay was all too short. But seeds have been sown, both literally and figuratively, and others will come to nurture them, strong in the belief that the principles of Sowa Rigpa are the way forward for the planet, and that, because everything is interconnected, small seeds that are sown in Sikkim can become forests whose positive potential can only be guessed at.

Pat Little, 09.1.10

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