23 December, 2009

StoepZen Practice Note: Summer 2009


My teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi is still alive and teaching at the age of 102. Roshi once said, ‘We cannot know the truth of all this through the intellect alone. We have to be willing to open to all of this in every moment – to give ourselves to every person and everything to the point of dissolution. Then the self that has to be negated has already disappeared.’

Turning towards a more spiritual life is not just a way to become an improved version of the person we are. It is more than that altogether - a casting off, a willingness to shed familiar securities, a willingness to embrace the unknown. To give ourselves away moment after moment. This is not so much a reasoned and sensible step as an instinctive response to a world that feels out of balance. As the contradictions in our collective and individual lives make themselves felt (in depleted resources, climate change, conflict and despair), the very suffering that we have been trying to avoid touches us on the shoulder.

So there arises in us a sense that the answers may lie elsewhere, in something more interior, more subtle. As Leonard Cohen (himself a long-term student of Sasaki Roshi) sings, ‘May the lights in the land of plenty shine on the truth someday.’ And we start to turn inward. Not because an authority has told us to or because we want an improved model of an old car but because we have seen for ourselves that the whole transport system is crashing. We begin to take a long, soft, look at ourselves – at who we really are, at how we really fit into the universe around us, at what we really need for a life that is balanced, whole and fulfilled. We begin to pick up books in the ‘spiritual’ shelves of bookstores and notice articles on meditation in popular magazines. We gravitate to the company of people whose conversation is quieter and more considered, people who speak from the heart. And sooner or later we find ourselves on a meditation cushion sitting still, doing nothing. We take on a discipline. We find ourselves a teacher – someone who speaks to the place where we are but who has also a perspective from further along the road – and we travel with him or her for a while.

At times we drink this in like holy water, at other times we wonder what the hell we are doing. But we keep on going because something fundamental has changed. We begin to move – sporadically and in lurches – beyond the world of convention, beyond attachment to opinion, beyond right or wrong, and into something altogether more open. We walk in the dark towards the place where we belong. And it is too late to turn back for that would mean we would have to pretend for the rest of our lives, something we are no longer willing to do. In this way the great ship begins to slowly turn and flow with the current. Our direction becomes clear; not because we have the words for it but because our deepest longings are instinctively assuaged and we sense our true home.

At the farm the workers from the district have gathered for their Christmas church in the Zendo. They hold nothing back when they sing. When they pray they cover their heads with rough hands. And afterwards they open their plastic packets and share the food they brought with them. It doesn’t matter what tradition you belong to. Whenever you give yourself completely to what you are doing, you are already on the Way.

15 December, 2009

StoepZen Newsletter for 2010

Antony and Margie Osler

Dear friends,

Zen means meditation. Meditation means coming home.

For us at Poplar Grove home may be sitting on the stoep. For you it may be feet up on the couch, letting the hot water run down your back after a long day, running your hands through your hair, leaping through the sky.... All the sages of the past, present and future are calling to you – what are they saying? If you feel this in your bones, come and celebrate that with us; if you don’t, come find out for yourself. We’re not going anywhere. The cow yells for her calf, the wind whips sand against the back of my bony legs.

This past year has been very hectic – fascinating, funny and mad. Some of it involved the post-publication activities of Stoep Zen; the launches, the reviews, the second edition. Some of it was retreats and visitors to Poplar Grove – such interesting and wonderful people. Some of it was family stuff – like Emma going off to the UK to work and Sarah’s last year at school before she heads off to Texas as an au pair. Then there is the usual farm stuff – watching the lambs tumble on the veld, hearing the shearers sing hymns in the zendo, rebuilding the corner of the shearing shed that the wool lorry broke. Such a great mix of things every way we face. In the meantime Margie helps schoolchildren from the squatter camp who struggle to hold a pencil and I drive off to the cities to listen to lawyers. From 2010 my legal work will be reduced, leaving more time at home and more time for sharing the place with others.

The building and preparation of rooms is complete for the moment; we could, of course, have more upmarket facilities if our finances allowed it but we have now at least got 8 comfortable rooms for single persons or couples. Most of them have shared ablutions and all are in or around the homestead - by request, we do not have electricity in rooms outside the main house. The present project is a pair of ‘koppiekamers’ – simple hermitages built into the koppie as invisibly as possible, with earth roofs. Of course the maintenance of the homestead is continuous and repairs are a constant feature of our life here.

Many people have asked for their names to be added to the mailing list for visits and retreats and we hope we have captured them all. This newsletter is about our activities at the farm for 2010.


We are setting aside time for our own Zen practice from Wednesday 31st March through to Saturday 1st May 2010. And we want to share it with others. The Practice Period will start and end with a Stoepzen retreat. People can choose to come for one or both retreats, they can come for a period of daily practice between retreats, or for a mixture of retreats and daily practice, or for the whole period – a mix-n-match Practice Period.

The basic daily Practice Period schedule consists of formal meditation (zazen) at sunrise and sunset, a short daily talk, a morning work period on a project around the homestead, and three simple vegetarian meals. The rest of the time can be used in any way you like – for activities such as more meditation, hiking, stoep-sitting, bird-watching, reading, or doing nothing at all. Part of each day will be spent in silence. Anyone wishing to do a solo retreat during this time can do so by arrangement.

At the start and end of the Practice Period are the two Stoepzen retreats:-
  • The first is the Easter retreat from the evening of Wednesday 31 March 2010 through to mid-day on Wednesday 7 April 2010. 
  • The second is the Freedom Day retreat from the evening of Saturday 24 April 2010 through to mid-day on Saturday 1 May 2010. 
The two retreats are both based around public holidays so that people have a chance to take off work and to travel; you are, of course, free to stay for the daily practice on either side of a retreat as well.

The Poplar Grove Stoepzen retreats are each open to a maximum of 10 people. They follow a simplified monastic schedule adapted to the Karoo farm location, they contain both group and individual practice and they are not aligned to any particular school or institution. The retreats are hosted by Margie and Antony together, while the formal aspects will be led by Antony in a way that should be comfortable for both beginners and experienced meditators.

Each retreat is conducted in silence. The daily schedule begins in the zendo (the meditation barn) at sunrise with chanting, sitting and walking meditation; after breakfast there is a talk and continuing meditation together with Zen-style interviews, then a light work period and a short meditation; after lunch there is personal practice time, followed by gentle exercises and meditation; the day closes with supper, then an informal discussion or reading, and it finishes with a bedtime meditation. There are three simple vegetarian meals each day. The thrust of the retreat is not endless zazen but a continuity of attention in everything we do.

Accommodation is provided in six single rooms for individuals or couples and two rooms each containing two single beds. Most rooms have shared ablutions. Bedding is provided but not towels or toiletries - a torch is recommended, as well as walking shoes. People booking for a retreat will be allotted whatever accommodation is available on a first-come-first-served basis but requests will be complied with where possible.

A daily charge of R300,00 per person per day will be levied for the Practice Period and retreats. In traditional Buddhist style, the teaching is offered free. However, the daily charge does not cover the ongoing renovation costs or the cost of equipping the facilities – any contributions towards these expenses will be gratefully received.

A booking form and directions are attached below; please fill in the booking form and send it to Margie (the instructions are on the form). Margie will let you know if we have been able to fit you in.

It would be wonderful to see you and to practise with you at Poplar Grove.


The book has been well-received and is now into its second print, where some of the errors and shortcomings in the first edition have been rectified. It should still be available in most outlets and also through internet book providers. Signed copies are available at Poplar Grove for R150,00 plus postage.


During 2009 a number of groups held retreats or visits at Poplar Grove by arrangement. Some were book clubs and bird clubs, some were personal growth groups, some were groups wanting to hold their own retreat in a formal setting, while some individuals did a solo retreat. Usually, Margie and I host the visitors by providing the farm and meditation facilities plus accommodation and meals - sometimes we also give basic meditation instruction or talks on Zen. This arrangement worked well and persons or groups who want to make such a plan can contact Margie about it.

The Soccer World Cup will be held in South Africa from 11 June to 11 July 2009. If you want to get away from the crowds and off the roads then come and enjoy the brilliant Karoo winter (just bring your long underwear and cap!).

Please note that Marguerite van der Merwe is planning to hold a retreat/workshop on Integral Body Sense at the farm from 9-15 October 2010. Marguerite is an exceptional teacher in her field and, besides the application of the Alexander Technique, the event includes also Tai Chi, meditation, conscious walking, music, poetry and reading. Interested persons can contact Marguerite at margsmerwe@telkomsa.net.


Remember that the self-catering guest cottage is available at various times when retreats are not running. The price for this is presently R250,00 per person per day for guests over 12 years old. This facility has been used over the holiday period for persons and families travelling through the Karoo but it is particularly suitable for those staying longer than one night – people needing a rest from the city, who wish to do a retreat on their own or who need peace and quiet for a particular project.


Antony will be at the Buddhist Retreat Centre near Ixopo for Wesak at the end of May 2010 (which is also the BRC 30th birthday) and will be leading his annual Woman’s Day retreat there in August 2010.


The name of our website is changing from ‘antonyosler.co.za’ to ‘stoepzen.co.za’. The website itself is being updated and improved. This newsletter will be posted on the website, as will our quarterly practice notes about our Zen practice. Margie and Antony’s email details are also changing to fit in with the website - Margie’s is now margie@stoepzen.co.za and Antony’s is antony@stoepzen.co.za. Our other contact details remain the same.

Thank you for all the interest and support during 2009. We really look forward to sharing this quiet space with you and to practising together in 2010.