Since hearing about their recipe book, Quiet Food, many years ago, the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo has been at the back of my mind.
Looking back, it’s come up in my life in various ways over the past few years. From many conversations with friends, to borrowing their second book, The Cake the Buddha Ate, from Bruna Green sometime last year. At some point, I also subscribed to their newsletter, which I read from time to time.
Given how much it’s come up for me, it’s not surprising that I would eventually end up going there, which I did last week with my mom, for four nights over my 34th birthday.
From reading the cookbook and hearing about it for so long, I had some kind of idea of what it would be like, but it was still so much more than than that.
So now that I’m back in Pretoria, listening to the sounds of traffic again, I thought I’d share what I experienced, and some of the reasons I think it would be beneficial for anyone to visit it.
4 Reasons to Visit the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo
1. The location
Unlike a lot of people who grew up in Gauteng, I didn’t spend a lot of time in Natal when it came to school holidays. While some of my friends would have gone to this eastern stretch of South African coast over holiday periods, mine were mostly spent in the Cape, visiting my Dad’s side of the family.
I did go to Umhlanga for matric holiday, and spent some time in and around Durban here and there. But overall, Natal has never been a part of the country that I’ve known that well. Especially when it comes to the interior.
So much so that my mom and I felt quite anxious trying to find the right turnoff off the N3 when we got to Pietermaritzburg. In fact, turning onto the R56 at Market Road felt like venturing into entirely new territory. After driving for more than 5 hours on the highway at this point, I think we also just weren’t prepared for the hilly up and downhills, the taxis, avoiding potholes, and trying to find the next turnoff on a road we’d never driven on before.
But we eventually found the “D” dirt road and the entrance the sign for the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo. And, as we drove up onto the neat concrete-lined roadway, we immediately relaxed. And that feeling only got more and more profound the more we saw and experienced of the place, which is beautifully situation on the rim of the green Ofafa Valley.
2. The food
I knew the food was good from reading the cookbook, but I didn’t know how much I’d enjoy it until our first meal in the dining room. At first glance, it was a really simple spread. Soup, bread and salad. But when we actually sat down to eat it, it felt like a minimal, but very satisfying, feast.
I try my best to avoid gluten and dairy, but I knew that in this place, I didn’t really need to give so much of a shit, as the food is all freshly made and cooked with so much care and wholesomeness. I even ate more than one piece of focaccia every day, and didn’t care. And it felt so good.
The silent breakfasts were a bit of a challenge, especially after we bumped into my best friend Casey’s parents there, and had to endure the awkwardness of wanting to chat but not being able to, and trying to stare at our porridge instead.
We got used to it though, and even started to enjoy it, especially when the centre got a bit busier over the weekend, and it was a relief not to have to make small talk at 7:30 in the morning.
Overall, the food is so delicious that you don’t even mind paying more attention to it. Especially the Sunday vegetable curry, which is served with thick homemade mango chutney. I wish I wish I’d eaten more of it actually. As well as the surprisingly comforting and moreish warm pumpkin cake with cream.
As if the meals weren’t enough, there were also treats like chocolate brownies at teatime every day. Thankfully, we did a lot of activities around the meals so I never felt uncomfortably full or like I’d overindulged, ever.
3. The people
I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, but having practiced yoga for a while now, I’ve definitely dipped in and out of some of the philosophy, but mostly on a superficial level.
So coming to the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo, or BRC, was definitely an eye-opener for me. I think in the past the vibe has been more strict when it comes to monastic practices. But over the years, as it has become more popular, the approach seems more to be more about a general respect for Buddhist philosophy than having to adhere to any austere practices. Like I mentioned, the only thing they enforce is the quiet breakfast time, and overall quiet in the Lodge accommodation.
Other than that, it felt more like an incredibly homey and more upmarket travel experience for me. One with obviously a much larger focus on beneficial practices like chi kung, walking and meditation, instead of drinking at a communal bar.
From when we arrived, we were warmly greeted by Chrisi van Loon, who has run the retreat for years, and has a wonderfully laid-back and real approach to the running of the centre. Someone who feels equally at home wearing a saffron Buddhist robe in the meditation hall and Zara boho-shirts and wedge heels while co-ordinating activities in the kitchen.
The other staff, like Lambro, Colin and Junaq, all feel like an essential part of the space too. All of them bringing their own experience and personalities to quite often, the table, as the dining hall is where we saw them the most.
In particular, my mom and I really enjoyed the silent walk around the property with Lambro and the morning chi kung sessions with Colin. We’ve even spent quite a bit of time trying to memorise the sequence so that we can practice it in our respective gardens at home.
4. The practical approach
On our first night, I took out a book from the BRC library called “Buddhism in a Nutshell”. Even though I didn’t manage to finish it before we left, just the first few chapters gave me more insight into the philosophy that I’d had before.
Actually, just being there, and walking around all of the intentional spaces, like the labyrinth, the Buddha statue, the stupa, the zen garden and the Buddha Boma, all felt like practical applications of this approach.
I don’t think I know everything about it now by any means. However, after listening to a very interesting talk by Adam Suzman on the Friday night about Dzogchen buddhism, doing chi kung, and lying on my back in the dark meditation hall listening to the rustling metal vibrations of a large gong, what really resonated with me was the benefit of being present.
Present to everything, even the things you don’t resonate or agree with, but maybe more with the things you do. Like taking the time to listen to and watch the birds from the terrace outside your room, enjoy the porridge on your plate, or even just take that little bit of time to connect with your breath.
Bringing the approach back home
It’s tough though, because even as soon as we left it was straight back to thinking about other things. Work, goals, money, stress.
But hopefully, just having been exposed to a more mindful way of life will give me some tools to make it all a bit more manageable, something which I think could be valuable for everyone, especially with the frustrations of load shedding, potholes and the ever increasing amount of plastic litter around us.
Have you visited the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo? If you have, what did you experience? Do you have any mindful practices that help you get through the day? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.