Between 2007 and 2013 I spent two and a half years in solitary retreats practising the meditation instructions I had received from my teachers. By a strange and beautiful process of synchronicity I was always able to find powerful places to practice; places that despite being on a very limited budget I could afford to do retreat. Traditionally it is somewhat embarrassing to talk about these things, however in the hope that it may be inspiring to other practitioners who also would like to undertake such retreats, I have decided to talk a little about each of these places in a series of short articles. This is the fifth article about Karma Dechen Choling.
I grew up in Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh border and have long thought of it as a thin place, a place where the sheet between this world and the next is more easily broken. Almost one hundred years ago, Alfred Watkins felt a ‘flood of ancestral memory’ that led to his book The Old Straight Track and the coining of the term ley-line. More recently, on the first of April 1977, Richard Booth, having bought Hay Castle, proclaimed himself King and his horse Prime Minister; thus unleashing the flow of action that has led the town since to become famous as a book empire with a world renowned literature festival.
Over the last sixty years, as Tibetan Buddhism began to spread across the globe, it was drawn many times to Hay-on-Wye. Most notably the fifteenth Karmapa performed the famous Black Crown ceremony in a small Welsh farmhouse nearby. One of the local practitioners told me the Karmapa declared the Welsh Black Mountains to be one of his nine black things that he had found again since leaving Tibet. In my late teens, beginning to discover the buddhadharma for the first time, I began to meet the various eccentric practitioners that settled in the surrounding hills, and to learn their intersecting stories. Perhaps one day we should record these oral histories, they are quite unusual and are a small part of the much greater narrative of how the buddhadharma came to the West.
One of these practitioners is Daphne Tucker, a wonderful Turkish lady who came to Hay with the intention to set up a retreat centre for Bokar Rinpoche. Her story is much too precious and unusual for me to narrate here, I share just one comic detail: when she met the estate agent and mentioned she was a Buddhist, the lady exclaimed: ‘Oh yes, there were a whole load of Dalai Lamas here yesterday walking down the street!’ When Daphne bought the New Inn nearby, Bokar Rinpoche had already given her the name to use for her retreat centre: Karma Dechen Choling.
I did my first solitary retreat at Karma Dechen Choling in 2007. It was a couple of months before I went to the Hermitage of the Awakened Heart, and I stayed here for a week in silence. I sat for periods that were two long and spent much of my time reading favourite Tibetan liturgical pieces, such as Calling the Lama from Afar, out loud. I took sometimes joyful, sometimes melancholic, walks in the garden at night. It is a beautiful garden built in sloping sections with many rare and exceptional plants cultivated by a previous owner and it’s here that a well loved picture of Mingyur Rinpoche was taken during one of his two trips to Hay-on-Wye in 2003.
A year or so after this first retreat I again approached Daphne and asked if I could do retreat at New Inn, this time for six months. I explained that I had no money and asked if she would let me stay for free. She generously accepted and my exceptionally kind mum agreed to bring me food every two weeks, that I could cook for myself in one of the self contained retreatant's cottages.
During the retreat I worked through the Kagyu ngondro for the first time, beginning with the practice of making 100,000 prostrations. Quite quickly, perhaps only two or three weeks in, my zealousness left me with a pulled muscle in my chest. There was no way I could continue with the prostration practice for at least a month or so while I recovered. Consulting with Daphne, herself a practitioner with many years deep experience, I moved on to the Vajrasattva practice before returning to the prostrations when my body was once more able to.
Quite some time has passed since being at Karma Dechen Choling and it’s funny how slow the memories are to come to mind. A friend called Wayland led weekly chi gong sessions at New Inn and I often joined, happy to see other people and give my exhausted body the chance to exercise in a different way. It was an eclectic group who came each week and, aside from Daphne and my Mum, Wayland’s classes were the main link I had to the outside world.
I went for long walks sometimes when I needed a break, especially in the adjacent woods and sometimes for many hours. One day there were helicopters overhead; a man had held a garage up at gunpoint and was said to be hiding in the woods. I steered clear for a while.
There were chickens at Karma Dechen Choling, many rare breeds and ducks too. And there was one type of bird that I remember in particular that had an exceptionally short concentration span when flustered. Sometimes it would get caught in a loop behind a bit of fence that it couldn’t cross. For hours the bird would run up and down the fence in a blind panic, checking to see if it could get across at one point then running back in jerky motion to another point, just a couple meters or so away, to see if it could cross there, before once more running to the original point. I found it very stressful every time I discovered it in this unfortunate state and it often left me reflecting on samsara. There were also two very beautiful Siamese cats at Karma Dechen Choling. One day I was devastated to find one of the cats lifeless, laid on a newspaper on the front porch. He had been hit by a car. I sat with the limp body on my lap practising tonglen as best I could.
Looking back I have an uneasy feeling about the end of my time there. I was upset when Daphne called me out for not putting my dishes away once, and began to feel uncomfortable that I was asking too much in staying there for free, or irritated that my practice was being taken for granted. The intense situation of solitary retreat and ngondro made these things, so trivial with hindsight, quite sharp and painful at the time and it still colours my memory slightly.
Daphne is one of the most extraordinary and devoted practitioners I know. While herself living in semi retreat, the many buildings there were in constant flux. I would find her, 7 o’clock in the morning, drill in hand, a new wall or corner added to one of the sheds. Or I would discover rooms crammed with beautiful and unusual items bought from her visits to the local antiques fair, such as the 8 foot long snake skin she hung in arcs across the front room ceiling.
In the years since the New Inn has gone from strength to strength. A few weeks ago my sister Jesse made a film for Daphne advertising the many miraculous spaces that one can now stay in there. It was seeing this film that nudged me to finish this report and to continue with the Places that harboured me articles.
The most amazing addition to Karma Dechen Choling is the stupa. Shortly after my stay, Daphne began the project, and working with Lama Shenpen, they decided to build twin stupas in Wales: one at The Hermitage of the Awakened Heart and another at Karma Dechen Choling.
To undertake to build a stupa is a phenomenal amount of work and it was amazing to see how detailed this process can be. The Tibetans take the culture that has built up around stupas over the past thousand years or more incredibly seriously. The positioning has to be perfect, the symbolism exact, and the accompanying rituals and ceremonies done properly. Weapons are buried beneath, architects were consulted, builders enlisted, funds raised, mantras rolled, concrete poured. And as the final stage a congregation of monks and a Lama travelled all the way from Nepal to consecrate the twin stupas. They are truly glorious and I would advise anyone interested to make the special effort to visit either of them as pilgrimage, the merit will be powerful and immediate.