This new year I had the privilege of spending six days at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Northumberland in the north of England. I have always wanted to visit the monastery at this time of year and this was the year I found time in the diary to make it happen.
In my home country of Scotland new year is a big celebration but it is a time of year that I only partially enjoy. The new year celebration, called Hogmanay in Scotland, is often welcomed in with a lot of alcohol. As a Buddhist I don't want to drink lots of alcohol and there is something about this which sits uneasily with me. I also find the weather quite difficult in the depth of winter with there not being much light or warmth in northern Scotland at this time of year. Therefore the idea of getting away from it all at new year has always appealed to me. So I booked in for a six day retreat that the monks organise each year. In total there were about 20 of us taking part. Mostly people from all over the UK but also folks from Ireland. On top of the 20 lay people attending there were about 25 resident monks also taking part.
The first thing that always strikes me about the monastery is just how peacful it is. I'm convinced that somehow the peaceful lives of the monks creates an energy that seems to flow out of the monastery buildings and brings peace to the surrounding area. The monastery grounds are fairly extensive and it feels so special to be there and experience the quality and depth of the peace that exists there. I arrived early on the first day and enjoyed spending some time in the grounds before the retreat began.
Our days began early, rising at 5.45am and meditation beginning at 6.15am. The day is split between periods of meditation, meals, working meditation and a few moments of free time, where you can read, go for a walk or just rest.
On New Year's Eve there was a special ceremony to bring in 2024. Normally lights out in the monastery is at 10.00pm, but on this occasion the ceremony did not begin until 10.00pm. It felt strange being up so late in the presence of the monks. The altar was beautifully decorated and there was a photo of the monateries founder Reverend Jiyu Kennet placed on the altar. We chanted several scriptures with the monks, then we formed a procession that wound its way round the meditation hall. The procession eventually wound its way past the altar. Everyone was asked to stop and light a candle and then place it on the altar as an offering to the new year. It was a very moving ceremony to take part in. The ceremony was finished just after 11.00pm and the monks headed off to their living quarters. Lay guests were welcome to stay up until midnight if we wished but most of us didn't make it. The 5.45am starts don't lend themselves to late nights!!
After my six days I felt refreshed and ready to begin the new year. I suppose this might seem like a strange way to spend new year but it left me feeling invigorated and grateful for the life I have and what is to come. A monastic community might seem distant and irrelevant but every time I visit this special place I feel an honest and wholesome approach to life that leaves me feeling more positive than anything else I have ever experienced. If I could hear myself explaining what I did at the monastery I am sure it would not sound peaceful or even enjoyable. Rising early, working in the kitchen, cleaing the toilets, going to bed at 10.00pm and only a couple of hours each day of free time. But somehow it works and combined it becomes an unexpected transformative experience. Perhaps it's worth giving it a try!
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