'Well,' a benign voice replied, 'if you really can't do without it, how about a bottle of whisky?'
The advice was that of Dom Placid Meylink, Dutch monk and father superior of this Benedictine monastery in Cockfosters, north London. 'Besides,' he added cheerfully, 'there are lots of good restaurants round here.'
After reading The Good Retreat Guide, such levity came as a relief. Its introduction maps out a typical day in a Benedictine community: '6am, arise. First prayers and reading from scripture, 6.20.' Further prayers, breakfast and an hour's study follow before the day's physical work begins at 9am. There is no mention of 10- year-old malt or a quick vindaloo down at the Spice of India Tandoori.
For those who want them, rigorous spiritual programmes exist. Most of the 200 British and French religious communities listed in the book provide guided retreats for individuals or groups with a high degree of structure and participation. Communal prayers, meditation and group discussions are common and guests may be asked to cook or help with gardening and light domestic duties. Accommodation in private rooms or dormitories typically costs between pounds 15 and pounds 20 per night.
At Buddhist monasteries and nunneries a fair amount of chanting may be required, and there are some (like Zen and Trappist) where total silence is observed. But such requirements pale into insignificance compared with the rigours of the more extreme New Age centres.
Tipi Valley in Dyfed, Wales, sounds like the diffident person's worst nightmare. So-called guests at this North American Indian-style village must cut and gather reeds for the tent floor, collect firewood and cook. There is no telephone or electricity, and getting there involves a gruelling mountain hike.
'There can be much nakedness,' The Good Retreat Guide warns, bringing to mind the worst excesses of Robert Bly. 'The sweat-lodge is a low willow-frame covered in cloth, that works like a pitch-dark sauna. It is incredibly hot and you can only bear it if you keep chanting. When you have had enough, run a short distance to a mountain pool and dive in - the effect is purging, therapeutic and magical.'
Preoccupied above all with where I would keep my contact lenses, I leafed through The Good Retreat Guide in search of something tamer. I wanted peace and quiet, time to reflect, to partake of some spiritual sustenance without being force fed. Above all, it had to be cheap. I booked two days at the Benedictine hermitage, but wanted to take a look at the Buddhist way first.
It was then that I noticed the reference to the Makhayana Centre, a Tibetan Buddhist community near Pocklington in the Yorkshire Wolds. It was near here that I'd spent seven years in a monastic community of a different sort, at the school then known as Pocklington Grammar.
As I boarded the Bridlington bus at York station, I already had a sense of karma. This was the journey I'd undertaken at the beginning of every term, and many weekends in between. Ordering a pint of Bass in the Black Swan, my last licit drink before my purgative retreat, the feeling of re-entering a past life deepened.
Even the walk to Kilnwick Percy Hall felt eerily familiar. Before the Buddhists bought it for a song in 1986, its grounds played host to summer fetes and steam fairs. With its Georgian columns, sweeping gravel driveway and lake, the hall is pure P G Wodehouse. But the opulence vanished with its aristocratic owners long ago, and the austerity measures of the Fifties reduced many of its finer features to rubble.
The majestic ballroom is now a gompa, or meditation room, filled with images of Buddha in his many emanations. The smell of aromatic oils and incense lingers, and the faded classical frescoes around the walls are rudely eclipsed by garish Tibetan friezes. The corridors that once echoed to the sound of string quartets and dancing shoes are silent, littered with the discarded sandals of mindful nuns and monks.
Trevor, who greeted me on arrival, is a lay Buddhist who hasn't taken vows. Wearing jeans, mirror shades and a faded rugby jersey, he led me across a cobbled courtyard to a recently refurbished annexe. 'Relax,' he said, letting me into a room fragrant with fresh fruit and flowers. 'The only thing you have to remember is mealtimes, and the next one's at six o'clock.'
The other thing you have to remember is names. Over a vegetarian meal cooked by Kelsang Chokyi (a Sheffield schoolteacher turned nun), I was introduced to Kelsang Zopa (an Oxford PPE student turned monk) and Gelong Tsultrim Kelsang (whose name means 'Ocean of moral discipline'). They told me about their Tibetan spiritual guide, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and urged me to go to a talk that evening by Gen Thubten, the senior monk and resident teacher, otherwise known as Neil Elliott.
All this was simple. What really threw me was the evening teaching on 'renewal of vows'. When Gen Thubten entered, there was much bowing, prostration and rustling of silk whilst I stood rooted to the spot and smiled a thin smile of embarrassment. In front of me sat rows of shaven-headed monks and nuns in saffron robes, adopting perfect lotus postures as Neil reminded them how to escape worldly suffering and achieve dharma and nirvana. Afterwards I stood up to join them for the pujas, or chanted prayers, and found that my legs had locked in an ungainly quarter-lotus.
Such rigours are not compulsory, however. I spent hours reading under the apple blossom in the tranquil garden, and strolling around the 40 acres of grounds. The centre is keen to promote itself as a base for a relaxing holiday, and boasts in its brochure that the Wolds and Minster Ways offer excellent walking. 'We are within easy reach of Bridlington, Scarborough and other seaside towns and Pocklington itself is worth a visit. For example, it has a famous lily pond . . . with the largest collection of water lilies in Europe.'
Opening the centre to guests is a good way to raise money and spread the Buddhist word, and the facilities are good. Single, double and family rooms or dormitories are available, and guests are looked after at mealtimes by a monk or nun. 'I love it,' said Jean, a transcendental meditator in her sixties from Darlington. 'I like to make myself useful, so I'm embroidering some fabrics for the gompa.' Mark had come from Switzerland to learn about Buddhism, and was staying for three weeks.
The main function of the centre is as a Buddhist college. There is an extensive programme of talks, workshops, evening classes and retreats ranging from a chanted recital of 'Two complete cycles of the 21 meditations of the Stages of the Path' to a seminar on 'Dealing with Anger'. All these activities are open to interested non-Buddhists, though a basic knowledge of the religion helps.
Despite the lofty titles of some of its teachings, the Madhyamaka Centre is a down-to-earth place. I was taught 'Meditation on the Theme of Compassionate Love' by a Yorkshire lad of about 19 who used to be an electrician. 'I got a bit fed up,' he explained, 'so I thought I'd become a monk.' Later he gave me a framed postcard of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom. It was his only copy.
At breakfast, presided over by Kelsang Chokyi, I was asked if I wanted milk with my tea. 'No thanks,' I said urbanely, thinking this the proper way to drink a Tibetan infusion. 'Black tea]' Chokyi exclaimed, shocked. 'Shall I see if there's anything minty in the kitchen?' In Yorkshire, even the Buddhists drink good old PG Tips.
For the really esoteric stuff, you have to go to Cockfosters. In a candlelit room at the Priory of Christ the King, I sat for 25 minutes repeating the Aramaic word for 'Christ' (Mar-a-na-tha) silently to myself. This mantric meditation was taught by Dom John Main, a Benedictine monk who learnt the technique at a Hindu ashram in India. All Benedictines are called Dom - Dom Placid, Dom Anthony, perhaps even the odd Dom Kevin. Fortunately, the man who taught me yoga during my retreat hadn't yet been ordained or I'd have found it hard to keep a straight face; his name was Giovanni.
As well as providing a forum for interfaith gatherings and New Agery, Cockfosters plays an active role in the urban community. Its 10 resident monks visit prisoners, advise borough councils on funding and campaign for better race relations. One is chaplain to Middlesex University, another runs the local youth club.
Life at Cockfosters sounds stressful for the monks, but visitors will find it a sanctuary from the pressures of urban life. The 'hermitage' I stayed in was a self-contained bungalow, with its own chapel and an awesome library. There is also a guest house set in a quiet garden; a French family of six was staying there when I visited. Cockfosters welcomes guests of any denomination, though you will be left to your own devices unless you are part of an organised retreat.
Monastic life is punctuated by a round of prayers - matins, vespers, compline - and visitors can attend these and the twice-daily Divine Office, or Mass. For those wishing to escape the stark white modern chapel and the etherial sound of evensong, Trent Park - a swathe of green belt popular with ramblers - is 10 minutes' walk away. If you feel by now that you've retreated too far, you can always unpack your holdall and reach for that bottle of whisky.
The Good Retreat Guide by Stafford Whiteaker (Rider pounds 9.99); Madhyamaka Buddhist Centre, Kilnwick Percy Hall, Pocklington, Humberside YO4 2UF, tel 0759 304832; Priory of Christ the King, Bramley Road, London N14 4HE, tel 081-440 7769.Reuse content