05 January, 2011

StoepZen Newsletter and Retreat Programme for 2011

Dear friends,

This past year at Poplar Grove has been busy and interesting. The main project for 2009/2010 was the building of the koppiekamer, a hermitage built into the side of a rocky hill near the house; that is now complete and we have already had a retreatant in residence for a six-week solo retreat. There are now ten comfortable rooms for single persons or couples, so we can accommodate as many people for retreats as we can handle. For short-term guests the cottage has proved to be popular, especially over the holiday seasons when people are on the road – we are, after all, in the middle of the country and in just the right place to stop over and take a breath.

As I write this, our new end-of-year project is under way with much dust, bashing and banging - a new pitched roof in the zendo, an addition that will make the room more spacious and symmetrical while retaining its barn-like atmosphere.

The retreats at Poplar Grove for 2010 were well-attended. We had two StoepZen retreats and a successful Alexander Technique retreat run by Marguerite van der Merwe, as well as some informal weekends where different groups came to spend time in the open air and take part in limited meditation.

On the family front, Margie swam the Midmar Mile, Emma was working at hotels in Oxford and Inverness, while Sarah worked as an au pair in Texas and Chicago. Both daughters will soon be back in South Africa to start their university studies – Emma doing a B.A. in Pietermaritzburg and Sarah doing Chiropractic at the University of Johannesburg.  The farming carries on throughout the year under Margie’s supervision and she will be down-scaling her school activities in order to concentrate more on our guest and retreat facilities. For myself, I am still away from home for about half of each month in legal suit-and-tie while for the rest of the time I am at home on the stoep or leading retreats at Poplar Grove or elsewhere.

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 Poplar Grove for 2011.


StoepZen Retreat: April 2011

The public holidays for Easter, Freedom Day and Workers Day are close together this year and we have decided to hold a continuous retreat from the evening of Friday (Good Friday) 22 April 2011 through to mid-day on 1 May 2011. As before, this is a time we have set aside for our own Zen practice and you are invited to share it with us. It doesn’t matter if you cannot attend for the whole period; we will fit you in if there is space.

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 venue, 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 myself together, while the formal aspects will be led by me in a way that should be comfortable for both beginners and experienced meditators. Persons attending for the whole retreat period will be given priority and you are also welcome to arrive a day earlier or leave a day later if that suits your travel plans – our starting and ending times are arranged to give you time to travel to and from Colesberg at a pace that is unhurried (in fact, the travelling is part of the retreat).

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

Accommodation is provided in ten single rooms for individuals or couples. Most rooms have shared ablutions and only some have electricity. Bedding is provided but not towels or toiletries - a torch is recommended, as well as loose comfortable clothing and walking shoes (croc sandals tend to let in the duiweltjie thorns so they may not be suitable for long walks in the veld). 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.

Zen Art Retreat: June 2011

There will also be a Zen Art retreat at the beginning of winter from the evening of Saturday 11 June 2011 to mid-day on Sunday 19 June 2011. This differs from the standard StoepZen retreat only in that there will be a two-hour creative art period in the afternoon of each day.

The daily art session will be led by the well-known artist, meditator and Zen student JP Meyer. JP is a renowned visual artist of long-standing with a number of successful exhibitions to his name and he will lead his creative sessions in a way that integrates the experience of creativity with the practice of Zen.

For the Zen Art retreat, participants will be asked to bring their own drawing/painting instruments while JP himself will provide the paper and/or board on which to draw or paint. An additional charge of R50 per day will be levied for the materials provided by JP so the total charge per day will be R350. Persons booking for this retreat will be given the contact details of JP so that he can advise them on what art materials to bring and where to get them.

Money Matters and Bookings

A standard daily charge of R300 per person per day will be levied for the retreats (R350 for the Zen Art retreat). 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.

People have been extremely generous with gifts of money and household items this year and we would like to thank them for that here. Generosity is an important aspect of our practice and it makes a great contribution to maintaining and improving the facilities; it is also an expression of appreciation for the work that is done here and it allows people to feel that they are a part of the place.

A booking form and directions are attached below to this newsletter; 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. Last year we had a few instances where people had booked and cancelled at the last minute, too late for those who had been turned away to change their plans and attend; we will therefore be requesting a non-refundable 50% deposit at the time of booking.


During 2010 a number of groups held retreats 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 flexible arrangement worked well and persons or groups who want to make such a plan can contact Margie about it.

Marguerite’s Alexander Technique workshop/retreat has not been included in this newsletter because of scheduling difficulties but, if she is able to lead such a retreat later in the year, we will send out a separate notice for that.


Remember that the self-catering guest cottage is available at various times when retreats are not running. The cottage has two rooms but adjoining extra rooms are available for larger families or groups. The main bedroom of the cottage has an en-suite bath and toilet while there is also an additional shower and toilet for sharing. There is no electricity but there is cell-phone reception at the main house. There are basic cooking and braai facilities at the cottage plus a place to keep things cool. The price for a self-catering guest stay is presently R250,00 per person per day for guests over 12 years old – this includes basic provisions such as milk, eggs, bread, fruit etc. 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.


I will be at the Buddhist Retreat Centre near Ixopo for Wesak at the end of May 2011 and will be leading my annual Woman’s Day retreat there in August 2011. I may also be leading short retreats at Emoyeni in the Magaliesburg in spring and another in the Cape at a time yet to be decided.


As mentioned last year, the book went into a second edition in which corrections were made and reviews inserted. The book is still available through internet book providers. Although it is mostly out of the bookstores (unless ordered on request), both Emoyeni in the Magaliesburg and the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo still stock copies. Signed copies are also available at Poplar Grove for R150,00 plus postage.


The website Stoepzen.co.za is up and running. This newsletter will be posted on the website, as will my occasional notes about our Zen practice under the item ‘Writings’. Margie and my email details are linked to the website - Margie’s is margie@stoepzen.co.za and mine is antony@stoepzen.co.za. The other contact details are on the attached booking form.

Thank you for all the interest and support during 2010. We really look forward to sharing this quiet space with you and to practising together in 2011. I would like to leave you with some words from the American poet Mary Oliver for life in the new year:-

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company, always, with those who say
"Look!" and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

Antony Osler

Poplar grove practice period OR RETREAT
Booking   form

Poplar Grove Farm                                       Tel.    051-7531356
P. O. Box 232                                                Cell.   0828165903
COLESBERG   9795                                     Fax.   0866240446

Banking  details:   A.D. Osler   Standard Bank Cheque Account
                                             Account no.   280336810    Branch code. 050-018

Please make the following  booking :

Date:  From……………………….. …….to …………………………………………

Total number of nights: …………..  @ R.......... per person per night = ………….
to be paid into the above bank account before arrival (confirm with deposit slip)
or to be paid by cheque or cash on arrival.

Name(s): ………………………………………………………………………………..


Accommodation requested (subject to availability):

Single room: ……. Room for a couple: ……….
Twin room sharing: ………


Telephone: …………………………… Cell phone: ……………………………………

Address: …………………………………………………………………………………  

E-mail Address:…………………………………………………………………………..

Any foods you cannot eat: ……………………………………………………………..


I/We expect to arrive at Poplar Grove on: ……………………….. ………...................

Estimated time of arrival: ………………………………………………………………



1. From Colesberg take the N9 towards Noupoort, Middelburg, Port Elizabeth for about 4 km.

2. At the signboard ‘Oorlogspoort’ on the left side of the N9, turn left onto a gravel road and continue for about 24 km – over a railway line, through veld and farms, past a large gate on the left marked ‘Groenfontein’ with a homestead behind it, and past a further group of buildings about 1 km further on the left which is also part of Groenfontein farm.

3. At a cattle grid about 500 metres further on from the second group of Groenfontein buildings there is a signboard for ‘Poplar Grove’ and ‘Nieuwefontein’ on the left side of the road – turn left there and go up the slope about 1 km.

4. At a sign ‘Poplar Grove’ on your right, turn left over the motor gate edged with stone walls and follow the road for about 2 km directly into the Poplar Grove yard.

5. Park somewhere at the house, turn off the engine, and enjoy the silence.

04 January, 2011

‘The World is Perfect’

Our Zen practice is not about sitting on a cushion hour after hour gritting our teeth in order to get some particular experience or enlightenment. That is just exhausting. And futile!

Meditating to get something implies that there is something we lack and that we need to seek something to fill the lack - something we call happiness, fulfilment or enlightenment. This gaining-attitude may help in acquiring knowledge for biology or history but it doesn’t get us far with meditation. And the reason it doesn’t work in meditation is because the sense of lack springs from the point of view of the limited, apparently-separate, self – the very self that our meditation is designed to loosen. Of course it is inevitable that there will be a sense of incompleteness in the incomplete self – how could it be otherwise! So we don’t need to trash that feeling, instead we can use it to motivate our meditation. But, as we proceed, we soon see that the idea of achieving or finding anything in meditation becomes counter-productive; not only is it based on the ‘small self’ but it actually subtly reinforces it – so we find ourselves measuring our practice against a false goal; we compare and judge our practice, we become discouraged or frustrated or falsely encouraged, and the whole thing gets complicated. Our task in meditation is to see what is happening. And, when we see this achievement-pattern happening, we have an opportunity to correct the view that underpins it. It is here that the traditional Zen teaching can help.

Zen starts from a completely different place – from the perspective of the complete self, that which we call the ‘true self’, the truth that is present when the incomplete self disappears. We begin by accepting that there is no need to seek anything - that things are complete as they are, that we are an indivisible part of this whole, and that it is the true nature of things to be like that. This means that in our meditation we are not trying to achieve something that is not already there, we are no longer trying to manipulate the world to suit us, we are no longer attempting to become something that we are not. Instead, we are just letting go of the ‘small self’ and returning to what we most naturally are, to the self that has no name, that which manifests when we surrender totally to the moment. When we sit like this, we sit as a Buddha (a person already complete), not as a person trying to become Buddha. And meditation then becomes an expression of our natural way of being; something that is uncomplicated, light, compassionate and enthusiastic.

In Zen we often read that the world is ‘perfect as it is’. As in all Buddhist teachings, this is not a dogma to be believed or a statement of ‘objective fact’; it is an invitation to find out something for ourselves. So the question arises, ‘If everything is already perfect, why meditate?’ The answer is that we need to do formal meditation because we have not yet found this statement of inherent perfection to be true in our own lives – we have not yet attained it. So we meditate. We take the opportunity to see if the statement is true. We simplify our life, we sit down quietly inside our experience and see what is going on. When we do that, if we persevere at it, we will find that from time to time we simply sink contentedly into our experience. We can sit in the world as if it were an armchair, lacking nothing, needing nothing, experiencing life as sufficient and complete – as ‘perfect.’ In this way the limited self has already gone on holiday. And then we will have attained the statement, ‘The world is perfect as it is.’ That is our meditation.

Of course all things are in flux, so that experience of completeness doesn’t stay with us and we will return to the world of concepts and separation, to the habit of thinking about everything and trying to analyze everything in order to comfort us and suit us. But we will now carry with us the memory of the wholeness that we felt. And that makes all the difference. We act in the conventional world but are not so attached to it; we can let it go and immerse ourselves into the world of completeness. Then our lives can move freely between the two worlds – the conventional realm where the limited self functions, and the realm of totality where the small self disappears into the whole. And the key to this freedom of movement is non-attachment – don’t stick anywhere, don’t cling to either the self or to enlightenment, just open your eyes and see what is before you. Aah – the rain is falling outside the eastern window!