Love, peace and tranquillity in a world beyond Christmas

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The Independent Online
For a totally different Christmas - with no turkey, no alcohol, no carols and, finally, non-being - why not try a Buddhist retreat this year? The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, one of the largest Buddhist groups in the country, is organising a week-long retreat in a boarding school in Oxfordshire, for people who want to get away from the traditional celebrations and find themselves instead.

Retreating from the world at Christmas is surprisingly easy. There are 16 Christian centres that stay open over the period for people who need a more religious Christmas than is available outside. The Buddhist retreat is centred more around the new year. The 70 participants will spend their days in meditation and chores, leading up to a final ceremony on New Year's Eve, when they will be encouraged to write on slips of paper the habits and sadnesses which they want to leave behind. These will be burned, and desirable virtues prayed for.

One leader of the retreat is Paramabandhu, a psychiatrist at a London hospital who has taken a Sanskrit name in accordance with the practice of the Western Buddhist Order. "This time of year does particularly lend itself to introspection," he says. "A retreat is a very good space to do that in, and to think about the year that is coming."

Most participants will not be Buddhists but will be taught Buddhist precepts. The retreat's purpose, says Paramabandhu, is to cultivate "awareness and friendliness".

The retreaters will rise to a meditation at 7.30am, followed by a vegetarian breakfast, a work period, more meditation, perhaps a walk, more meditation, and then supper. After that, there will a talk on spiritual matters, and a final ceremony to close the day.

Christian retreats are a very different matter. Sister Pippa, the retreat mistress at the retreat house in Chester, says that a large number of those who come to her are repeat customers. Her Christmas retreats, which last from Christmas Eve to the day after Boxing Day, are booked up by September most years. They cater for single people, but there is a strong sense of community.

"Normally when people come on retreat, they come to be quiet and to pray, but at Christmas it is really for people and we do all the usual things: we sing carols, and have a turkey and mince pies and everything else. Just like an alternative family

tThe National Retreat Association publishes The Vision, a directory of more than 200 Christian retreat houses,available from 0171-357-7736 at pounds 4.30; the FWBO is at the London Buddhist Centre, 51 Roman Road, London E2 0HU. Telephone: 0181-981 1225.

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