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.

southafrica1

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.

A year after the Buddhist Retreat Centre opened, Rob Nairn, a retired lawyer and professor of criminology from Zimbabwe, moved to an abandoned village in the Karoo (in Cape Province, South Africa). He had met the Dalai Lama in India in 1964 and later, while studying in Edinburgh, Akong Rinpoche of Samye Ling. In 1982, Akong Rinpoche visited South Africa and Nairn’s community became officially affiliated with the Karma Kagyu tradition. Over the years, as more people bought derelict houses, the community expanded. But when Nairn decided to go to Samye Ling to do a four-year retreat, activities gradually wound down and the properties were sold off. However, a core group remains and this year Nairn, having completed his retreat, will return from Scotland with Akong Rinpoche.

The focus of Buddhist activity in the Cape is the Dharma Centre at Somerset West, founded by and located in the luxurious home of Heila and Rodney Downey. As with most South Africans, the Downeys’ interest in Buddhism began with retreats at Ixopo. They were inspired to start a sitting group in their home by a visit from Joseph Goldstein in 1984. The following year the Dharma Centre was registered as an ecclesiastical organization. The Downeys started traveling to Roshi Philip Kapleau’s center in Rochester, New York, which lent a Rinzai Zen emphasis to their activities. In September 1989 the Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn came to South Africa and since 1991 the Dharma Centre has become formally affiliated with Seung Sahn’s Kwan Urn Zen School.

Johannesburg, a vast Los Angeles-like sprawl of a city, has a number of embryonic Buddhist groups, but none as yet has succeeded in creating established centers.

Because of the disdain in which South Africa was held during the apartheid years it was virtually impossible for South Africans to obtain travel visas to Asia and to train in Buddhist monasteries. Consequently, the initial interest in the dharma did not develop as it did in Europe and America and its growth was slowed down or arrested. This has resulted in the state of Buddhism in South Africa today being similar to what it was in the West about twenty years ago. Only now, at the dawn of the “New South Africa,” does the situation exhibit the openness and potential both to attract more visiting teachers and to germinate a range of centers representing a wider spectrum of Buddhist schools. If the seeds that have been planted are given the right conditions to grow, the coming years could well see a minor explosion of interest in Buddhism in the country.

A potent symbol of this possibility, attracting considerable attention in the media, is the construction of a huge Buddhist temple complex at a cost of eighty-million Rand (about forty-million U.S. dollars) in the town of Bronkhorstspruit by Taiwanese Buddhists. Although primarily intended to serve the growing population of ethnic Chinese who work in the town, the temple will function as the most visible sign of a Buddhist presence on the Southern African landscape.

southafrica2
Meditation hall and library, Buddhist Retreat Centre, Ixopo. Martine Batchelor.

TEN YEARS AGO Breytenbach described South Africa as: “No Man’s Land. Another world. A world of genteel manners and old-fashioned picnics. And a vicious world. A land of harsh, dream-like beauty. Where you can feel your skin crawling. Ever on that last lip of annihilation.” A description as true today as when it was written. Nobody knows what is going to happen next. And South Africa used to be the one place in the world where the distinction between right and wrong was so clear-cut. The dismantling of apartheid has destroyed one of the few moral certitudes right-thinking people had remaining. Ironically, this has led many former activists to withdraw from a political situation now revealed as intolerably complex.

Releasing Nelson Mandela, lifting pass laws, desegregating buses, and preparing for free elections has not magically transformed the society. When the euphoria subsided, people looked around and saw that everything was much as it was before. The inequalities between white and black were not just the result of a singularly perverse piece of legislation. They are now stubbornly rooted in economic realities that cannot be cast off by a stroke of the president’s pen. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the credibility of Communism, the ANC finds itself with no political alternative to free-market capitalism. The major parties broadly agree that the way ahead entails massive economic development along Western consumerist lines. But improved education, foreign investment, the buildup of business and industry are measures that take time and produce no quick results.

Will the black majority, whose aspirations have been suppressed for so long, put up with this? Understandably, the whites live in fear. People are so jittery that even a firework display can cause them to panic. Even the white liberals who detested the apartheid regime harbor the deep guilt of having benefited from the system. It is easy to protest, but much more difficult to accept a change in one’s standard of living. Everywhere in the affluent white suburbs high walls have been erected, capped with razor wire or electric fencing, with signs on them naming the security company that guards the property’s nervous inhabitants. “What do you call a BMW in Soweto?” runs a current black joke. Answer: “German takeout.”

Dreadful as the conditions are under which millions of blacks live, every day hundreds more pour illegally across borders from surrounding countries to find a better life. Focusing so intensely on the political injustices in South Africa has blinded us to the broader problems that face not only its neighbors (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola) but the African continent as a whole. The two-tier (rich minority/poor majority) economic system in South Africa differs from the two-tier systems of other African countries only in that it has been divided along overt (black/white) racial lines. This convenient dualism has likewise blinded many Europeans and Americans to the tribally based racism among the blacks themselves, a racism now erupting in daily acts of the most horrific violence. Many South Africans regard education as the key to any solution. Depriving blacks of decent schooling was one of the main ways the apartheid regime was able to keep them downtrodden. One consequence of this was the strengthening of tribal identity, one of the few values in which black communities could find a vestige of pride and dignity.

southafrica3
Stupa and KwaZulu (home of the Inkatha Freedom Party) viewed from the Buddhist Retreat Centre, Ixopo. Martine Batchelor.

EVERYONE AGREES that things will get worse before they get better. But this is an exciting country, teeming with possibilities both terrible and wonderful, a country bursting with life, a land of awesome contrasts, where high-tech industry vies with the muti(potions) of sangomas (witch doctors). What role might Buddhism play in all of this? One might hope, for instance, that insight into the transparent, depedently emergent nature of things might dispel perceptions of people as endowed with inherent traits of character. For example, many white liberals we met still regard black people as inherently “lazy”—a view that conveniently reinforces a wide range of other prejudices. By seeing how this apparent “laziness” has arisen out of, among other things, an unwillingness to cooperate with an unjust political system might erode the fixation that it is an inherent (or, as some said, a “genetic”) trait. The Buddhist critique of unchanging essences would help in freeing the minds of whites and blacks alike from the lingering web of suspicion and reification that underpinned the psychology of apartheid.

At present, interest in Buddhism is restricted to the white community and a handful of Indians. Only one black person (a woman teacher from the Transkei) attended any of the courses or lectures we gave in the ten weeks we were there. One hopes that the Buddhist values of non

southafrica4
Stupa at the Buddhist Retreat Centre, Ixopo. Martine Batchelor.

violence, mindfulness, tolerance, understanding, and compassion will seep into society through the practice of the few thousand who have had contact with the dharma and been influenced by it. The notion of “engaged Buddhism” strikes a particularly resonant chord with many South Africans, but as yet no organized movement has emerged to promote it. We encountered only one conscious attempt to translate Buddhist values into social action: a group in Cape Town who have established a women’s ecological-awareness center in Khayalitshe, the sprawling township and shantytown near the city.

If Buddhism is to spread into Africa, it will probably start from these seeds sprouting in South Africa. There is already a Botswana Buddhist Association, in the capital, Gabarone. Its members are in the process of building a stupa and temple and hope to invite a resident monk. A bodhitree was ceremoniously planted on the site last November. We even heard tell of probably the first ever African bhikku, recently ordained and living in a declining Sri Lankan temple in Tanzania.

What the future holds for Buddhism in this primordial and baffling continent is singularly impossible to surmise. Certainly, if the dharma is to penetrate beyond the economically privileged minorities, it will have to acculturate itself to the very distinctive traditions and societies of Africa. For the way in which such things unfold, reflected Breyten Breytenbach after his prison ordeal,

is not just a simple matter of cause and effect; it is an ongoing process without beginning or end: and within this intricate and interdependent network of history and free will and sheer accident which together form a structure we call life, flowing always, flowing forward, the obscure stream penetrating the dark land, creating it by depositing its reflections and gnawing away at its crumbling banks, invaded by emptiness—

Temple
Get Daily Dharma in your email

Start your day with a fresh perspective

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

Liberate this article!

You’ve read all of your free articles for the month. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.