There’s an amazing level of generosity that makes a place like Santi possible. It’s very touching to freely receive so much support for practice. I'll start with the basics. Santi is set on a beautiful, climactically dramatic piece of bushland adjoining the Morton National Park, which was donated by a woman called Elizabeth Gorsky, who has since become a nun at Dhammasara Nuns Monastery in Perth. Accommodation is mostly in individual huts or 'kutis' - in my case, an Aussie yurt-with-verandah, surrounded by wattle plants in full-bloom when I first arrived. And although you can't eat after midday, the food is bountiful, delicious and often prepared and donated by visiting Sri Lankan, Vietnamese or Thai supporters (I developed the ability to consume quite astonishing amounts of food during the morning hours :).
On top of this, during the 'rains', we were nurtured by a steady and stimulating stream of teachings from the Abbot, Bhante Sujato, including weekly dhamma talks, sutta classes and personal interviews. And most importantly, by the friendships that develop from living together and sharing the various struggles that communal practice throws up. “Do not say that admirable friendship is half of the holy life, Ananda; it is the whole of the holy life.”
There are benefits that flow from just being in an environment like this. I’ve come out feeling much clearer and more relaxed about a lot of things. Without even consciously addressing it, a lot of emotional baggage I’d been carrying seemed to grow wings and fly away. Sequestering myself away for this time has also sharpened my appreciation of the people and places I’ve come back to. And I’ve brought back with me a stronger sense of the value of retreating – and an understanding of how to do it even in the midst of social life.
Other retreats I’ve done have all been highly structured – the challenge of learning how to retreat never even came up. The rains retreat was different, although it began in a familiar manner. First there was a (mostly) silent ten-day meditation retreat led by the Abbot of the monastery. For me this was immediately followed by two weeks of personal retreat when I was left entirely to my own devices in the seclusion of my yurt. My meals brought to a pre-arranged drop-off point, so that I didn’t have any social contact with other people during this time.
These experiences were interesting and challenging in certain ways, but they didn’t raise any particular questions in my mind about what it is to retreat or how to go about it. The container of silence meant that being on retreat was a given – a gift that I accepted with gratitude, like a thick blanket that I could wrap around myself during the cold winter of Bundanoon. I settled down inside this protective covering, overcame the nervousness I’d arrived with, and had some good meditation sessions, particularly in a lovely little cave I discovered in the national park adjoining the monastery. I also went for long walks in the bush and had some entrancing encounters with echidnas and other wild creatures.
When my personal retreat came to an end, being the social animal I am, I felt quite eager to rejoin the little world of the monastery and engage more fully with the community. This brought me into a fairly unstructured social space – apart from the teachings and meals, there were no timetabled group activities, which meant a lot of people had a lot of time on their hands. After a few weeks of quite intense and continuous social interaction, I felt exhausted and overwhelmed: I needed a retreat from the retreat! So I went to Sydney for a few days (a bit weird to “retreat” to a major metropolis, but it worked).
When I came back, it was with a different attitude. I realized that without cutting off from the life of the community, I needed to pick up that blanket of silence again and wrap myself in it more regularly. I needed to learn how to make retreating into a gentle daily habit, rather than an abrupt, total, and occasional withdrawal from everyday life. This didn’t just mean maintaining a daily meditation practice. It also meant becoming more sensitive to when it felt right to retreat from the group and go my own way, “at ease like wombat in the bush,” to adapt a phrase of the Buddha’s.
I’d definitely recommend the practice of walkin’ like a wombat, both in the metaphorical and literal senses - there are lots of wonderful things to be discovered once you get off the main trails and follow some of those little tunnel-like paths that lead off in the bush… And I must admit that I did know something about this practice before doing the rains retreat – it’s what got me to Santi in the first place.