I’ve always liked islands. I used to live on an enchanting little island in the English Channel and loved the rugged beauty of the place. When the Buddha said to ‘be an island onto oneself ‘ he obviously didn’t mean it literally but still … being on an island gives one a feeling of solitude, to close oneself of from the noise of everyday existence and it invites one to be still and look deep within.
But when I received an invitation from a friend to come to the Dharma Treasure retreat center in south Arizona, in the middle of the Sonora desert, I never imagined I would be heading for an amazingly stunning “Sky Island”. No epic cliffs plunging into an endless blue ocean, but impressive steep granite formations rising up out of the desert and testifying of the area’s volcanic past.
Amongst the jaw-dropping rock formations that seem to defy gravity are numerous caves and overhangs that are used by the meditators of the retreat center as small hermitages for solitary retreat.
My friends from Albuquerque drove me to this magnificent place in the Dragoon mountains and we spent a few joyful days on the road together to explore the dazzling red-rock buttes, steep canyon walls and pine forests around Sedona and the impressive saguaro cacti in the Sonora desert. When we arrived at the retreat center we were warmly welcomed by the residents.
As the weeks went by I began to really appreciate the kindness of the place and the people. It is so wonderful to come to a place where there is complete harmony, where people are never too busy to help each other, where there is a lot of joy and compassion and where the Dhamma is the guiding principle. The Buddha said that true spiritual friendship is the whole of the path; when we surround ourselves with loving and positive kalyāṇamittas, well versed in the Dhamma, our spiritual growth gains momentum and this place provides a supreme example of that.
The first weeks I spent some time in the retreat center itself. The weather was cold and there was snow but I could meditate in silence in the delightful Dhamma yurt while slowly getting to know the landscape, explore some of the closest caves and get used to the altitude during day-trips.
On Saturdays I went on piṇḍapāta (almsround) to the neighbors with Ajahn Buddhisaro, who lives a secluded life in the caves in the mountainous terrain. Ajahn Buddhisaro was ordained in Ajahn Chah’s lineage but also spent many years in Thailand with the famous British monk Ajahn Paññāvaḍḍho. I was struck by his kindness, his care and acceptance; he did everything he could to make me feel at home and to supply me with the necessary outfit for spending retreat time in the caves. He has a great depth of knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings and every Saturday night we spent in long and deep Dhamma discussion until deep in the night with all residents who managed to stay awake.
When the weather cleared up we headed out to the caves for solitary retreat. My friend T had so kindly offered to be my attendant for the three weeks ahead. The first cave we stayed in was called Samadhi, four hours walk from the retreat center. It was a beautiful cave, complete with a delightful icy pool in the nearby stream where we could wash. I made friends with the two resident mice who would sit on my lap when meditating and share my evening cheese.
Henrik, manager of Dharma Treasure, a.k.a. “The Norwegian Mountain Goat” felt that I needed some better shoes to meet the challenges of the terrain, so he set up a fundraiser to get me some proper approach shoes, which he personally delivered to me in the mountains.
The second cave we stayed in was in a secluded valley that was aptly called the Deva Loka; the abode of the heavenly beings. It was certainly true to its name as the atmosphere was soft and silent. I particularly enjoyed the sunsets when everything seemed to stop and a golden light suffused the landscape. Here we also met our greatest challenges: a Ringtail cat stole my waterfilter and peed on my toilet paper and it started snowing heavily in the middle of the night, forcing me to retreat to a small cavern amongst the rocks where the snowdrifts couldn’t reach. Despite the low temperatures of -10C at night I felt warm, cosy and happy, also thanks to the good equipment my friends had loaned me.
Meditating in the serenity and solitude of the caves was a powerful experience. Surrounded by the silent beauty of the landscape made it easy to be calm and peaceful; a silent observer of the world outside. At the same time nature’s challenges and the rocks overhead, that seemed to hang suspended in mid-air, gave sufficient material for contemplating impermanence and my own mortality; living close to nature is a very powerful reminder that nothing is certain and that death is always stalking us. We can try to control the world around us to give us the illusion of security, or we can learn to understand the inherent uncertainty of life and find contentment and happiness in our hearts. Focusing on our mortality gives us a sense of urgency to practice the Buddha’s teachings and be aware in every moment, silent, watching, breathlessly watching.
If you wish to support Bhikkhunis to have a retreat in this very special place, please consider donating some needed items. You can do so via the Dharma Treasure Amazon wishlist or via the details on the website. Of course you are also very welcome to visit for a personal retreat or participate in one of the organized retreats.