20 January, 2012


2011 was a good year and a wet one, settling into a rhythm of seasonal retreats as the rains came and went and the road to the farm disappeared under water. We even had snow.  The April Stoep Zen retreat, the June Zen-Art retreat and the Walking the Sacred Way retreats all went off smoothly and will be repeated next year. The New Year retreat was fully booked soon after advertising and it looks set to become an annual feature as well. Meanwhile the guest cottage was occupied throughout the year, especially during the traditional holiday times.

Week-long Zen retreats are held during each season of the year. These are times that Antony and Margie Osler set aside for their own Zen meditation practice and anyone wishing to join them is welcome. Each retreat can take up to ten persons. Enquiries and bookings can be done through Margie at margie@stoepzen.co.za or at 082 816 5903.

27 April-2 May 2012 Stoep Zen retreat
Led by Antony Osler
This is our annual flagship Zen retreat. Stoep Zen retreats follow a simplified traditional monastic style adapted to a karoo farm. The emphasis is on simplicity and on a continuity of open-hearted attention in all daily activities rather than marathon sitting meditations. Each retreat is conducted in silence. The daily schedule is grounded in formal group practice in the zendo (meditation hall), which consists of bowing, chanting, sitting and walking meditation. There are group walks at sunrise and sunset; talks, instruction and individual interviews; manual work; free time and simple vegetarian meals.

16 -23 June 2012 Zen –Art retreat
Led by Antony Osler and JP Meyer
This is essentially a standard Zen winter retreat with a creative element added in the afternoon and evenings. Beginners and professionals are all welcome. The emphasis is on seeing clearly, on unlearning the habits that block our spontaneity and on adding creativity to the meditation practice. The art will be led by JP Meyer, a well-known South African artist, art teacher and a long-term Zen student.   JP can be contacted at jpjourney@gmail.com.

13-19 October 2012 Walking the Sacred Way. A retreat/workshop based in the Alexander Technique. 
Led by Marguerite van der Merwe
This retreat/workshop is about being at home in the natural and balanced functioning of our bodies. It is led by Marguerite who is an experienced teacher in the Alexander Technique and author of the newly-published book ‘The Art of Walking.’ Marguerite can be contacted at margsmerwe@telkomsa.net.

28 December 2012 – 2 January 2013 New Year Retreat. 
Led by Antony Osler
This is a Zen retreat but with more free time. It is for people who would like to escape the tyranny of traditional New Year celebrations and are content to sit quietly in the zendo-in-the-veld, listening to the sky breathing. The New Year is rung in with a gong.

Antony will be leading a Zen retreat at the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo from about 8 to 12 August 2012 and another at Emoyeni in the Magaliesburg from about 21 to 24 September 2012. We were hoping to be able to get to the Cape for a short retreat there in the autumn of 2012 but this has been excluded by our retreat in the USA; maybe next year.

These are not public meditation retreats but are an initiative by Margie and some teachers at the Hantam Community Education Trust to host weekend workshops for local abused and traumatized children. It is an extension of our compassion practice in the zendo and any contributions for this work will be gratefully received - whether in the form of money, clothes, skills, games or equipment.

The cottage and guest facilities are available for individuals and small groups all year round. As the website says, we offer you Nothing! Nothing but a comfortable bed to sleep in, cooking facilities to make food on, a zendo to meditate in, a small library to borrow from, a wide veld to walk in and great night skies. Booking are made through Margie. 

The publishers of Stoep Zen (Jacana), have now issued a third reprint of the book. It can still be ordered through traditional and on-line booksellers, though most of them no longer carry the book on their shelves. Signed copies can also be ordered from Margie for R150 plus R20 postage and Ixopo and Emoyeni retreat centres also stock copies.
Jacana have asked for a sequel to Stoep Zen. I have started working on the book already and it should be ready for publication in 2013. The new book will be similar in format and tone to the previous one, as a further series of meditations on a Zen life in South Africa. I would like to include our Poplar Grove friends in the production of this book and anyone with stories and anecdotes about lives changed by this country and its people, or that give a Zen quirkiness to daily life, is welcome to send them to me at antony@stoepzen.co.za. I will be very grateful. If your contribution can be used, you will be credited in the book as a contributor, even though I cannot pay. Photographs or drawings may also be needed, though details of this are not yet clear – anyone happy to be involved can let me know so that I can contact them later. It will be a wonderful way of giving good stories an airing. And it will also be a novel collective way of creating a book in which we all take part. Everyone that comes to retreats here already participates in many invisible ways in the material of my writing; to make this more deliberate as part of our sangha activity will be wonderful.
Please note that, apart from Stoep Zen, we are also stocking copies of the new Buddhist Retreat Centre cookbook ‘The Cake the Buddha Ate’ and Marguerite Osler’s ‘The Art of Walking’.

The website is being updated through the generous expertise of Sean van Eeden (who can be contacted through us if anyone wants to have similar work done). It is now a bit simpler, less wordy and contains more information. It should be ready by mid-January 2012.

We have once again been the recipients of great generosity – some of money, some of gifts, some of teaching. Thank you very much. Please know that all contributions go towards maintaining and improving the facilities at Poplar Grove, towards helping students who have financial difficulties and towards sponsoring Margie’s Workshops for Abused Children.

Margie and I have been invited to attend a month-long retreat at Furnace Mountain Zen Center in Kentucky USA during February 2012 on a scholarship. We will be practising there with Zen Master Dae Gak who has extended the invitation; he received transmission from the late Korean Zen teacher Dae Soen sa nim, under whom both Margie and I studied before his death. This is a wonderful opportunity to practice in a different environment and before returning home we also hope to make a quick musical tour through the south east United States to the home of Bluegrass, Country, Cajun and Blues. 

Returning visitors to Poplar Grove retreats will notice that the form of the retreats changes slowly over the years. Right now it is becoming noticeably plainer and less entertaining. We used to run a full Japanese monastic form after my years as a Zen monk. When we took Zen Master Su Bong as our teacher we followed his style, which was Korean, then after his death we lost contact with the school of Zen he belonged to and also to the style with it. We were on our own again. Now what? So we went back to the most basic form of practice – sitting quietly doing nothing. As we did that we also began to connect more with the environment in which we did our Zen – the veld, the grove, the stars, the open spaces. Slowly, small rituals of respect found their way back into the zendo and we began to include our surroundings. Now we bow when we enter the zendo, we chant the refuges and the four vows, and we walk in the veld at sunrise and sunset.
Few of us have grown up in a traditionally Buddhist society. We are in a situation where the old forms find themselves in a new world, so spiritual forms are inevitably in a state of flux. This not only the case in Buddhism but also in other traditions – Nigerian Moslems chant in Arabic,  protestant Christians jettison the King James bible and catholic supporters of the Latin mass lock themselves in a Paris cathedral. There is a continuing debate about the form that modern Western or African Buddhism should take; some groups stick to the form inherited from the east, others change it entirely, most are in the midst of some form of compromise and adaptation. As Zen students, we have to approach this question in the same way we approach everything else – without attachment. We respect tradition and are open to change at the same time. If we attach to the old forms we will become stuck; if we attach to modernizing everything we will lose the firmness of our seat. The way forward will only appear from the depth of our practice, when we stop trying to think our way to it. When we allow the thinking mind to quieten then we just do our practice 100%, beyond right and wrong, beyond like and dislike, beyond old and new. It doesn’t matter anymore what particular form we are following and we are free.
And there is another aspect to all this. Although we may sometimes long to slip into an inherited form of practice that is familiar and settled, we have a different kind of opportunity here – one that reflects the life we face in an emerging and uncertain society. We cannot rely on the comfort of the familiar but we are also not numbed by it; this gives us a challenge and an opportunity that Buddhists in the old countries do not have to meet. We have to make our own way. As Zen students we become willing to find the point where we know nothing, the point where we are insecure and open. There is an old Zen koan about a man standing on the top of a hundred-foot pole – how does he step above it? How willing are you to leave your safety net and find out for yourself what the air feels like under your feet? How vulnerable are you willing to be? Whaaaaaah - see you all in the new year!
With love from the blue skies and deep horizons of Poplar Grove.
Antony and Margie Osler