Between 2007 and 2013 I spent much of my time in solitary retreats practicing the meditation instructions I had received from my teachers. By a strange and beautiful process of synchronicity I was always able to find powerful places to practice, places that despite being on a very limited budget I could afford to do retreat. Traditionally it is somewhat embarrassing to talk about one’s retreat experience and I have refrained until now, however in the hope that it may be inspiring to other practitioners who also would like to undertake such retreats, I have decided to talk a little about each of these places in turn, in a series of short articles. This is the first article about the Hermitage of the Awakened Heart.
I remember seeing a black and white picture of Lama Shenpen in a Buddhist magazine that was being thrown away at the Brighton Buddhist Centre. Actually there was a whole article about Lama. I remember finding it very peculiar to read about this strange looking women who taught the highest mahamudra teachings from her living room in Wales. I grew up on the Welsh border so it felt surprisingly close to home and I discovered this at a time when I was full of youthful excitement for the dharma, and hungry to make connections with Buddhist teachers. When I was 18 I had had a short private audience with Mingyur Rinpoche in which, in response to my question of how I might find a teacher, he had said, via his impatient translator Chödrak, that there were many good teachers in the UK that I could study with. Naively and secretly hoping that he would ask me to become his student I remember receiving this news as a blow. However, in the long run it has proved extremely potent, and not least because perhaps indirectly it helped me to find Lama.
I visited Lama Shenpen shortly after reading about her. It was the summer holidays and I had not found the exact address of the Hermitage where she lived but knew that it was near Criccieth, North Wales. When I reached Criccieth by the long slow coastal train it was already getting dark and I stumbled around the small Welsh town trying to find the Hermitage on the high street. I couldn’t and slept that night under a tree in a field by the sea front. The next morning I continued to stumble around asking locals if they knew of the Hermitage. Many shook their heads at me but eventually I found someone who could at least point me in the right direction and I began what would be a four or five mile walk up into the hills above the town. Stopping at a farm that sold eggs I got further directions and felt a great sense of relief when I eventually found the wooden sign at the end of a rough looking driveway that read Hermitage of the Awakened Heart.
I did not get far into the Hermitage on that first visit. A lady, flustered, came rushing out to stop me. She was visibly shocked at the apparition of a skinny young man with long dirty hair on the driveway and she was curt in my memory: it transpired that Lama was unwell and that since they could not just let any stranger into the Hermitage I should write a letter that she would give to Lama stating the reason for my visit, and return the next day to see if she would grant me an audience. For that reason I spent a second night beneath the tree in the field by the shore. Years later Lama would joke that this ordeal was a little like the old Zen stories where the teacher would make the student stay outside of the monastery walls until there were certain of the student’s integrity.
I returned again a month or so later for a week long meditation retreat where I met many of Lama’s students for the first time. However it was not until a year and a half later, having finished my studies at Brighton Art College, that I would return to undertake the first of my longer solitary retreats.
In those early days the Hermitage was, in my eyes, pretty rough; fairly ugly welsh cottages that had been previously modified in a utilitarian way to make them suitable for large groups. Lama was, I think, coming to the end of her own three year retreat under the guidance of her teacher Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche and she had certainly written and said that, in the style of old Tibetan masters who would often move location at the drop of a hat to demonstrate non-attachment to their poor students who had to follow, her community should be prepared to do the same.
On that third visit I arrived late at night, again without warning, and stayed for three months in one of the dilapidated caravans parked at the back behind the cottages. I will forever be grateful that Lama did not just throw me out on the spot. Instead – I had no money – she not only supported me financially to stay there but patiently gave me teaching, meeting with me, often for a half hour or so, two or three times a week. In the daytimes I would do my practice, sitting and walking for nine or ten hours each day in the tiny shrine room that could fit only a handful of people and had a large awkward table positioned in it down the right hand side. Each day after lunch I would spend a couple of hours doing chores, mostly gardening, which I remember feeling fairly useless at.
The practice was hard. At night the heavy autumn winds would keep me awake as they blew over the caravan. However, despite the fact there were only one or two other students living there at that time and I was mostly in silence anyway, I was not lonely. In the evenings we would practice together, finishing by joyously singing the songs of Milarepa and other great yogis. On Lama’s suggestion for study material I would read mostly the life stories of great Buddhist practitioners for inspiration and I remember her being quite angry when I told her I had been looking at a book by the ninth Karmapa about mahamudra, saying that it would only confuse me. This incidentally was very good advice. Nevertheless she did not hold back in her teaching and my good fortune often brings tears to my eyes. I returned two years later to undertake another period of retreat again supported by Lama.
Now a mere ten years later the Hermitage is glorious and a testament to the tremendous devotion and hard work of Lama’s close students. There is, to my knowledge, one of the only two fully consecrated stupas in Wales and a beautiful large shrine room with a brooding Guru Rinpoche statue brought back from Nepal as the centre piece.
In May this year it is Lama Shenpen’s 70th birthday and at the sangha celebration I am very proud to be able to formally take the bodhisattva vows with her. My sister and my girlfriend are also coming and it makes me even more proud that my sister will also be taking refuge.
You can find out more about Lama Shenpen and the Hermitage of the Awakened Heart here.
Llew Watkins is a writer and artist based in Limehouse, East London.