Faith: Quiet revolution as Buddhism offers retreat from the fray

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The Independent Online
By this stage in the proceedings, many people may be wishing they could retreat from Christmas. One solution is to become a Buddhist, the religion that Britons appear to be buying in bulk, writes Clare Garner.

The Sisters of Jesus the Good Shepherd have been bought out by their Buddhist brothers. The old Anglican nunnery in Denbury, near Totnes, Devon, is no more. It has been renamed Gaia House and hosts around 25 Buddhist retreats a year, including one this week for "Christmas refugees".

This is a poignant symbol of the way Buddhism is quietly transplanting mainstream religion in this country. Retreat centres are starting to burst at the seams and private individuals are deciding to fast, not feast, this Christmas.

The celebrity endorsements, the enormous popularity of the Dalai Lama and the big screen treatment of Buddhism - Seven Years in Tibet this year and Martin Scorsese's Kundun early next - has consolidated Buddhism's reputation as the most fashionable option on the spiritual market.

Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs - A Contemporary Guide To Awakening, published in Britain earlier this month, regards the "trendification" of Buddhism as a mixed blessing. "There is a danger that Buddhism will become reduced to a set of efficacious techniques," he said. "In the West, we are particularly liable to treat it as a spiritual technology, which is a gross simplification. Buddhism is a fairly complicated phenomenon."

Mr Batchelor, a Buddhist for the past 25 years, is leading the New Year retreat at Gaia House. It is held from this Saturday to 1 January - the "nowhere week" between Christmas and New Year - and has 60 people signed up.

Mr Batchelor will himself be enjoying a traditional French Christmas - "very indulgent and good fun" - before launching himself into asceticism, but other Buddhists, such as Mary-Jayne Rust, 41, a Jungian analyst, and her management consultant partner, Adrian Henriques, 44, plan to do a sponsored fast from Christmas Eve to Christmas night in aid of a school in Ladakh.

"I'm tired of the old routine," said Ms Rust. "I've got to the point when I feel there has to be a different way of doing this. Recently I've felt more and more strongly that there's an environmental crisis. The more uncertain our future becomes the more it seems to me people in the West get addicted to consuming material things. Something has has got to stop somewhere. To fast at Christmas is a way of making a statement."

Among other retreats on offer this year is one hosted by the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order at Sibford in Oxfordshire. It lasts from 23 December for 10 days and there the focus is on teaching and practising meditation.

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