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Godwin in South Africa

by Mervyn Croft
(co-founder, trustee and resident teacher, Emoyeni Retreat Centre, South Africa)

Godwin first visited South Africa in April 1984 at the invitation of Molly and Louis van Loon, the founders of the Buddhist Retreat Centre (BRC) which is situated near the small town of Ixopo, about 140 km from Durban. I remember the first talk that Godwin gave at the van Loon's home in Durban, the day after his arrival. Godwin was very relaxed and laid back, and during his evening talk would sometimes pause for what seemed like a long minute or two, eyes closed and a gentle smile on his face, and just as we were wondering whether he had nodded off, he would pick up from his last point and continue the talk.

Godwin led several meditation retreats at the retreat centre and made an immediate impression. June Atkinson, the administrator, wrote in the May 1984 newsletter "This quiet, unassuming teacher reflects a deep, inner calm - an uncommon mien in these troubled days. Quite clearly he lives just as he teaches, and it is obvious that he has reached a state of mind largely free from habituated reactions." South Africa was under the control of the Apartheid government at this time which meant that there was a climate of fear and unrest underlying the surface of everyday life. Godwin returned to South Africa the following year, this time for three months. He led a series of Vipassana retreats at the BRC in July and August before travelling around South Africa giving talks in the main cities and leading weekend meditation retreats at Buddhist centres. All his retreats were fully booked and word spread quickly about the depth of his teaching.

One of the most lasting impacts that Godwin had was the gentle and playful approach that he brought to meditation practice. When he said "We already have enough suffering in our lives, we don't need to make meditation into another form of suffering," he tapped into the driven, achievement approach so many westerners brought to meditation. He encouraged us to relax and be gentle with our effort - to find joy in our practice even if our minds were all over the place. I remember his story about teaching a group of young monks in Sri Lanka to meditate. When he asked them what they found most difficult at the monastery they replied "meditation". When asked what they enjoyed the most they said "playing with the dog". Godwin then suggested to them "Why can't you make meditation more like playing with the dog?" It was such a relief to many of us to hear this gentle approach to the Dhamma.

The war in Sri Lanka intensified in the mid-1980s and as a result the meditation centre at Nilambe often had very few retreatants. This meant that Godwin had more time to travel to Europe and South Africa to teach and we were able to host Godwin for longer, 5 month periods in South Africa. From December 1987 to April 1988 and again December 1990 to April 1991 he taught extensively at the BRC and centres around the country, including a month-long retreat in March 1991. We came to appreciate his kindness, sensitivity and depth of meditation experience. His gentle approach to looking at the mind, his emphasis on developing awareness outside the meditation hall and his encouragement to meet with and heal the wounds in our mind, gave us a wonderful opportunity to deepen our practice. I remember him saying "If your mind is all over the place when you are meditating, don't blame the meditation. Rather look at the way you live your life. Your meditation is just reflecting this."

As a teacher Godwin continued to grow, both in the structure of his Dhamma talks and the skill with which he facilitated the discussions. It somehow felt easy for retreatants to contribute to the discussion sessions and Godwin would often deflect questions for others to respond to instead of always adopting the role of "teacher" who knew the answers. He would always say "I am not a Guru. We are all spiritual friends searching on this path together." Of course it was natural for many people to project the "guru image" but he never bought into these projections, with a quiet smile they would slide past him. This approach to being a Dhamma teacher also meant that he was not personally caught up in expending psychological energy during the intensive retreats to ensure that the retreat was a "success" - it almost seemed to me that should the retreat fall apart (which it never did) that he would not be devastated by it being a "failure".

I would watch Godwin leading a 10-day Vipassana retreat on his own, giving two private interviews to each of the thirty-odd retreatants during the retreat, and in addition regularly seeing one or two of the retreatants who were grappling with deep psychological issues! All this, and once the retreat was over was he wiped out? Not a bit, after a day's rest he would be ready to receive visitors or to accept an invitation for a private visit. In later years once I began to teach meditation retreats I would look to this approach of Godwin's as a wonderful guide to leading a retreat - that I did not need to feel personally invested in the retreat being a success. That it was OK if sometimes I felt inadequate or a "fool". He also encouraged me to be authentic to my own experience and not to try to play the role of "teacher".

Once it became safe to travel to Sri Lanka again the Meditation Centre at Nilambe began to attract many retreatants and Godwin could no longer be so generous with his time to teach internationally. We established a 3-year cycle with him and his last three visits to South Africa were December 1993 to January 1994, December 1996 to February 1997 and December 1999 to early February 2000. In addition to teaching at the Buddhist Retreat Centre and at a number of venues around the country, Godwin also led retreats in Botswana and Zimbabwe when time permitted. Godwin came to be respected by all the Buddhist traditions in South Africa and he regularly led retreats at both Zen and Tibetan centres. He began to place more and more emphasis on the practice of Loving-kindness to awaken the heart and to heal wounded relationships - the way we related to ourselves and the way we related to others. He would end each day of the retreat with a short meditation on Loving-kindness. This practice together with his encouragement to develop our mindfulness outside the meditation hall, in the activities of everyday life became essential aspects of his teaching.

Godwin continued to develop as a teacher and, noticing how many people were not well grounded in their bodies, he began to introduce "body work" into the daily program on his retreats. Martin Zullig from Switzerland and Susan Harmer from Singapore both came to South Africa with Godwin to assist with leading yoga or movement periods on retreats. Another addition came in 1996 when he introduced chanting with Susan leading the chants. So we now found ourselves including body, speech and mind in the daily program which added to the breadth and quality of the retreats. Godwin had a very open and warm attitude to other Dhamma teachers whatever tradition they came from, and would freely include aspects of these traditions in his talks. When he taught with other teachers at the BRC we would see Godwin's delightful sense of humour bubble out.

In 1999 I left the BRC and travelled to Sri Lanka to do a 3-month retreat at Nilambe, and was able to experience being on retreat with Godwin at his own centre, and to meet with the staff who ran the centre. Godwin was extremely warm and caring during my stay there, and had arranged for me to have my own room and provided gentle guidance over the three months. Every so often the cook would arrive at my room with a gift from Godwin, some bananas or a couple of delicious mangoes which subtly added to the feeling of being cared for. I was astonished at how available he made himself to receiving people - it seemed that he gave so much of himself. Too much I felt sometimes when I observed how many came to see him, especially on the holiday weekends. Much of his teaching came without words. I remember once when a taxi had been ordered to take a group of people including Godwin to Kandy after breakfast one day. The taxi did not arrive and the group was standing grumbling and complaining about the unreliability of taxi drivers, when Godwin strolled past, umbrella under his arm, to walk the 2 km to the main road and said simply "Anyone coming?" All the grumbling stopped ... .

After I had been at Nilambe for a few weeks Godwin "volunteered" me to lead some of the evening discussions when he was away from the centre. Though very intimidated by this at first I felt his support and confidence that I could fill that sometimes very challenging role. This encouragement in turn gave me the confidence on my return to South Africa to found the Emoyeni Retreat Centre in the Magaliesberg Mountains 100 km from Johannesburg, together with some Dhamma friends. Watching Godwin over the years I would often observe him encouraging others to take tentative steps into teaching the Dhamma.

At that time I was going through a stage of being critical of the arrogance displayed by many monks. They seemed to me to take their revered status in Buddhist cultures for granted, and I felt that by living a life isolated from the busy world they tended to avoid or suppress issues that were triggered in normal lives. These unresolved problems were often revealed when a monk disrobed and had to make his way in the world like everyone else. Surely it was better to practice as a lay person and learn from problems that everyday life posed, like relationships and practical financial difficulties. I asked Godwin what he thought about all of this. He said to me "Do you think that it is possible for a monk to become enlightened?" Of course I had to say "Yes". Then he asked "Do you think it is possible for a lay person to become enlightened?" Again I had to say "Yes". Then he finished me off with "So what is your problem?"

I returned to South Africa at the end of August 1999 and when Godwin arrived in South Africa in December I was shocked by how much his health had deteriorated in just 3 months. He looked just a shell of himself. He was well cared for at the BRC and at the centres where he taught. In Johannesburg just before he left South Africa we arranged for Rob Nairn, a well known Buddhist teacher in South Africa, to share the teaching duties on the retreat with Godwin so as to lighten his load. They had a great time teaching together and sparked off many laughs by pulling each others legs. I can remember waving goodbye to Godwin at Johannesburg airport as he left to return to Sri Lanka - he was in good spirits and I had not the slightest thought that he would be dead in just six weeks time.

Godwin had a profound impact on the Dhamma in South Africa. Over the fifteen years a great many people benefitted from his teaching, but at a deeper level it was his example and his presence that left a lasting mark on so many hearts. He was an example of how to live the teaching in everyday life. In bringing his gentle way of meditation to our country he made the practice of Dhamma a practice of joy and aliveness rather than a grim struggle towards enlightenment. His teaching lives on in the hearts of all those who had the privilege of meeting him. The Emoyeni Retreat Centre was founded in October 2000 and the new meditation hall that was built in 2004 is named the Godwin Samararatne Meditation Hall.

Mervyn Croft
Emoyeni Retreat Centre,
South Africa