A Week in a Buddhist Monastery
I recently spent a week at a place that means a lot to me, Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Northumberland UK. In this post I will discuss why I visit this monastery and ask the
question do monasteries have something to offer to the modern world and to modern people. Two chapters of my novel, The Buddhist CEO, are set at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey so if you have read the book I hope the photos I share in this post are of interest to you. This photo from the top of the monastery grounds is where Hamish sits when he arrives at Throssel in chapter 7, for the Segaki retreat.
Why visit a monastery and what do you even do at a Buddhist monastery and why on earth would you want go there? I first visited Throssel in 2002 and have been visiting regularly ever since. I usually mange to visit two or
three times a year. Throughout my time working as a CEO I visited this place and felt it helped me cope with the stress of the job. As does the main character in my novel. Lets ask first what actually happens at the monastery when you visit.
I would say there are two types of visit. One type of visit is where you attend an organized retreat. The other type is when you stay outwith an organized retreat and just fit in with the monks daily schedule.
On my visit last week I just fitted in with the monks daily schedule so I will explain what happens during this time. An organized retreat does not differ that greatly but the day has slightly more meditation and a bit less working meditation.
Everyone rises at 5.45am and we begin meditation at 6.15. The monastery is still and quiet at this time. You are encouraged to be silent and if there are others in the wash rooms you politely and quietly work around each other before making your way to meditation at 6.15.
The day begins with two periods of meditation and a short morning service. After the first periods of meditation and morning service you get a small job to do before breakfast is served at 8.40. Throughout the rest of the day there is a period of meditation in the morning, one more in the afternoon and another two periods of meditation in the evening. These meditations are broken up with periods of working meditation. You are given a job to do. I was cleaning toilets first thing in the morning and during other work periods I was helping in the kitchen, chopping vegetables. Often you are working along side one of the monks. There are two periods of free time where you can rest or go for a walk in the grounds. There is always tea and a biscuit at 4.00pm and a monk joins the lay people at this time and you can ask questions. The day begins at 5.45 most days and lights out are always at 10.00pm.
When you hear the daily routine described it might sound harsh. Rising early, given manual jobs to do, lots of working in the kitchen and not that much free time. It doesn't sound like a holiday? So why go there in the first place? I will try to explain.
There is a sincerity about the place that I have never experienced anywhere else. Monks and other lay people, work and meditate together in a supportive and peaceful manner. There is no negativity just gentle encouragement. Everything is done mainly in silence. This is such a contrast to my normal experience of daily life, which is busy with the distractions of work, mobile phones, television and news. At the monastery life is stripped back, no phone signal, TV or access to the news. I find that this leads to a stilling of my mind. The world drops away for a few days at least.
This might sound scary to some people. If there is no access to worldly things like phones and television what is left. For me this is the interesting bit. A lot seems to be left.
Spending time in prolonged silence. Focusing only on the job you are given or on meditation. Being in a supportive atmosphere where there are no hidden agendas, which is often the case in the modern workplace. What does this reveal?
In Zen Buddhism we often talk about the Buddha Nature. A state of being that is in everyone and is characterized by feeling at ease or at peace with ourselves, a sense of humbleness, joy and happiness. Buddhist teachings point to this being what is revealed if we still our minds and live with minimal distractions.
When at Throssel I feel this strongly. My mind quickly settles down and there is less chatter going on in my head. I take time to just sit and enjoy the moment. I wonder is this truly how human beings could feel as is suggested in Buddhist scriptures and teachings?
A theme explored in my novel is the value of monastic communities. Often they are dismissed and their value is overlooked. I find there is something amazing about this monastic community at Throssel and I am sure other communities offer something similar.
There is something reassuring to know the monks are out there. I can turn to them at any time. I can go and visit them almost anytime during the year. They will welcome me with a warm heart, provide me with a bed to sleep in and three simple meals a day. They will not even make a set cost for my stay, instead asking me to make a donation according to my means. They don't even ask if I have paid when I leave. I find this incredible in this modern competitive world of ours.
It is maybe not for everyone but when I have felt the need for peace and reflection I have turned to this monastic community. What I have found is that monks offer a lot to this modern world. They offer a chance to step of the wheel for a while and to experience life at a different pace even for a short while. I have always found my stays there worthwhile and would encourage anyone to think about a stay at a monastery sometime. Like me you might be surprised at what you find.
If you enjoyed this blog post please consider buying your own copy of my novel The Buddhist CEO, which has two chapters set at Throssel Hole. You can purchase a copy using the shop tab at the top of the page. If you would like more information on Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey click this link to visit their website https://throssel.org.uk/