No Man's Land

A Letter from South AfricaStephen Batchelor

ALAN PATON'S NOVEL Cry the Beloved Country opens with the words, "There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it." But before the road—the N56 from Pietermaritzburg—reaches Ixopo, where the hills are steeper and covered with bush, aloe, and euphorbia, there is a stone wall around a hairpin bend from behind which a gunman emerged and shot dead a local African National Congress (ANC) leader in his car just a few weeks before my wife Martine and I arrived. For Ixopo is in the northeastern province of Natal, on the border of the KwaZulu, the stronghold of the Inkatha Freedom Party of Chief Buthulezi.

Ixopo is also home to the Buddhist Retreat Centre, which had invited us to teach in South Africa for two and a half months this past winter (their summer). The Centre is the only place in the country—probably on the whole African continent—that offers a year-round program of Buddhist meditation courses. Situated on a three-hundred-acre wattle farm in the hills, it is a custom-built facility (meditation hall, lecture hall, library, dining room, office, Zen garden, lodge), simply designed in the local style, which can accommodate up to thirty people. From the pristine white stupa, located on the edge of the property at a site designated by the German-born Tibetan Buddhist writer and artist Lama Govinda, you can peer down over the valleys of the KwaZulu, speckled with quaintly thatched rondavels (dwellings), and on a Friday or Saturday night, listen to the pounding of African drums.

But you also notice how beyond the perimeter fence the lush grass of the retreat center gives way to eroded hillsides scarred with lines of red soil. A Zulu family's capital is still measured by the number of cattle they own. And since the land is limited, and since the people are poor, and since they have little education, the pasture suffers from overgrazing and erosion. The Retreat Centre's perimeter fence marks more than the line between properties; it marks the border between white and black South Africa.

Buddhism first came to South Africa in the early part of the century when a number of poor Tamil families (who had come from India as indentured laborers in the sugar-cane farms) converted to Buddhism. Their conversion was part of a South Indian Buddhist revival movement, inspired by a certain Pandit Iyodhi Dass, whose son Rajaram arrived in South Africa in 1914. The attraction of Buddhism lay in its denial of the caste system and its greater compatibility with a Western lifestyle. Although a number of families converted, the movement eventually fizzled out. Today only a handful of Indian Buddhists remain. They still observe Wesak (the yearly celebration of the Buddha's enlightenment), but due to their small numbers and an absence of any other meaningful activity, they intend to disband their only surviving organization: the Natal Buddhist Society.

During the sixties an interest in Buddhism began developing among the white population. A Dutch-born engineer and his wife, Louis and Molly van Loon, traveled extensively through Asia and made contact with several Buddhist organizations. In 1969 the English-born Tibetan Buddhist nun Sister Khechog Palmo (Freda Bedi), a close disciple of the late Karmapa, visited South Africa. Three years later, at the invitation of the van Loons, came Lama Govinda and Li Gotami, Louis van Loon began teaching Buddhism at Durban University in 1974 and at the University of Cape Town in 1977. Around the same time he and Molly were working to transform the property at Ixopo into a retreat center.

While white South Africans were hearing their first talks on Buddhism in the comfort of air-conditioned lecture halls, the leading Afrikaans poet, Breyten Breytenbach, was languishing in a cell at Pretoria Maximum Security Prison. "With the first shivers of the very early morning," he recalls in The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, "even before the call for waking up sounded, I used to get out of bed and try to position myself in that one spot of the cell where the warder could not see me directly and then for half an hour sit in zazen." Breytenbach had been sentenced on November 23, 1975, to nine years imprisonment for political offenses committed during an undercover visit to South Africa from his home-in-exile in Paris. While in France he had become a student of Taisen Deshimaru, the Japanese Soto Zen teacher. His stay in prison resulted in an essay entitled "Pi K'uan" ("Wall Gazing") or "Zen in the Way of Being a Prisoner." After his release in 1982 he returned to Paris, where he still lives today.

Whether there is a connection with Breytenbach or not, I do not know, but the first Buddhist center to open in South Africa was the Dojo Marisan Nariji near Johannesburg, founded in 1979 by Taicho Kyogen, a nun who was also a student of Deshimaru. The Buddhist Retreat Centre opened the following year and since then has become the primary focus of Buddhist activities in Southern Africa. In addition to the courses run by Louis van Loon, the center has hosted a number of teachers from abroad. The center is nondenominational and works to encourage the practice of all forms of Buddhism.

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