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FEATURE: A modern home for an ancient culture deep in the Suffolk countryside

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The Vajrasana Buddhist Retreat's spectacular shrine room ANL-160407-114038001
The Vajrasana Buddhist Retreat's spectacular shrine room ANL-160407-114038001

In a quiet, serene and secluded corner of Suffolk, a multi-million pound Buddhist Retreat has been built offering people the opportunity to escape the hustle-bustle and stresses of modern life.

The Vajrasana Retreat in Walsham-le-Willows, managed by the London Buddhist Centre, has finally opened after years of planning and an enormous amount of hard work.

Abhaya Vajra in the Vajrasana Buddhist Retreat's quiet courtyard ANL-160407-114025001
Abhaya Vajra in the Vajrasana Buddhist Retreat's quiet courtyard ANL-160407-114025001

It can accommodate 60 visitors in its basic but comfortable rooms, offering a range of activities including yoga, art, relaxation classes and meditation.

Abhayavajra, an ordained Buddhist who manages the retreat, said Buddhism is a flexible way of thinking, that it can be transposed to suit a variety of cultures.

He said at the retreat they practiced a European style of the religion called Triratna – meaning ‘three jewels.’

“There are many different strands of Buddhism that go back to 2,500 years ago,” he said

Abhaya Vajra with the retreats specular monument representing earth, water, fire and space ANL-160407-114052001
Abhaya Vajra with the retreats specular monument representing earth, water, fire and space ANL-160407-114052001

“The idea is that followers can teach it in their own language, to express it in a way that is relevant to that particular culture.

“But the principles are quite constant.

“Ours is a 20th and 21st century expression of Buddhism - to make it as relevant as possible.

“Wherever Buddhism has gone you get a different looking form of it but they are just different expressions of the same core principles.

“The main principles are about trying to develop love and kindness, support and generosity.

“It is about living life of simplicity and truthfulness, developing mindfulness and a having life that is connected.

“It is living your life as much as you can in ‘love mode’ rather than ‘power mode’ and getting to know yourself through meditation leading to a clearer mind and a wiser mind.”

The retreat has been based at Potash Farm in Walsham-le-Willows since 2001.

It had been a working farm for decades before the owner decided to retire, selling part of the land to the London Buddhist Centre.

Barns were converted into temporary accommodation and the retreat began accepting visitors keen to take a break and relax.

But the old farm buildings were in a bad state and needed a lot of maintenance to keep them going.

“We had 34 beds then,” said Abhayavajra.

“The buildings were getting old so it was becoming obvious we needed a bigger and better place so we were in the position to start this project. Before the place was falling down and there was a lot of upkeep.

“So we started talking about this project first about five years ago, it really took a lot of thinking about.

“Then someone involved in our movement left their home to the London Buddhist Centre in a very expensive part of London.

“That enabled us to have the funds to go ahead with the project.”

Abhayavajra said the planning of the retreat was a painstaking process.

“We must have spent a year choosing the architect but the whole project has taken two years including the planning,” he said.

“We also had various delays down to bats in the barn.

“We couldn’t demolish the buildings due to the bat’s nesting season.

“We got a high flying architectural company who were really interested in the project – it was small by their standards but they were interested in the project as it was quite like anything else they had done.

“From our point of view we have a number of Buddhist centres but this was the only opportunity to design one from scratch.

“In a way that’s great.

“It is fantastic really but a lot of decisions had to be made.

“We had a small group of five who worked with the architect.

“They like collaborative projects and really seemed to enjoy working with us.

“There no pattern to base it on, it was designed from scratch.”

The state-of-the-art retreat includes accommodation in three and four-bed communal rooms, a large outdoor courtyard area, a kitchen, dining area and quiet spaces for meditation.

There are also two solitary retreat rooms where visitors can spend time on their own with interruption.

It is eco-friendly, with carefully designed energy efficient rooms and solar panels to produce electricity.

The retreat features a peaceful, contemplative garden with a special Buddha figure designed by sculptor Chintami.

The sculpture features a more European looking Buddha holding a Vajra – a ‘diamond thunderbolt’ representing truth and reality – which the retreat, and Abhayavajra, get their name.

Nearby there is a huge, white monument pointing into the sky. This was again specially designed for the retreat and represents the elements of earth, water fire and space.

The spire is based on Burmese and Tibetan funeral monuments and includes a space inside for ashes of those who have passed away.

But the main shrine room is the retreat’s centrepiece, a spectacular space cleverly designed to create a powerful yet quiet atmosphere.

A golden Buddha figure sits at the front of the high ceiling room under subtle lighting giving the figure a mysterious glow.

The room has latticed brickwork up high on the walls, in the style of Jali walls in Indian architecture, to keep the room cool and to let soft rays of sunshine to come in. The building’s dark bricks absorb light which, when night draws in, feels like you are sitting in an isolated woodland.

“On our open day we has 220 people in here so it is quite a big space,” said Abhayavajra.

“The light coming through the jali wall is supposed to represent the light coming through trees and being close to nature.

“We have beautiful sunsets in the shrine room where you get a lovely warm, red light coming through.

“But the walls seem to dissolve and disappear at night,

“It becomes a magical space where you feel like you are surrounded by darkness.”

The retreat has been built to fit in with the beautiful Suffolk landscape.

Every corridor and hall in the retreat is open at each end, meaning wherever you are walking you can see lush green countryside.

The site has been carefully designed landscaped to make sure visitors feel linked to the outside world, wherever they are.

“We have continuous views to the outside world so you can be connected to the greenness and the countryside,” said Abhayavajra.

As well as paying guests, the retreat also acts as a respite centre for carers, funded by local authorities in London.

Abhayavajra said three London boroughs put forward carers identified by social services as needing a break.

“These carers usually have no chance of getting away but this doesn’t cost them anything. When they are here we teach them things that may help them in their lives, to cope with the stresses and to help them relax.”

For more information on the Vajrasana Retreat visit www.lbc.org.uk/information/vajrasana-retreat- centre.html