For those seeking sanctuary in a Buddhist monastery, Tibet’s a long way to go. Far closer are the hills around Carrshield in the North Pennines – home to a group of monks who have given up their previous lives, including their names, in the search for inner peace
WHAT motivates a woman to leave her family and start a new life, miles away from home, in a remote corner of Northumberland? As a psychologist with the NHS in Norwich, a wife and mother, it looked as if Sally Robertshaw had it all. But something was missing, something deep and fundamental.
Now Sally is known to everyone, including her children and grandchildren, as the Rev. Leandra. And her home is Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, a converted farmhouse in the wild, North Pennines, where she is vice-abbot.
Her head is shaven and she wears a simple, brown, small kesa (robe) with a purple raksu (a kind of tabard) around her neck. “It took a while for my children to get used to my new name. But now I’m Granny Leandra or the Rev. Leandra. No-one calls me Sally anymore.”
Rev. Leandra was in her 40s when she began to question her life. “I had been a psychologist for more than 20 years and I was beginning to wonder if I was doing anyone any good. I felt like I was constantly sticking band-aids on wounds that weren’t healing. Now I know that there are wounds you can’t fix. It’s about acceptance.”
Leaving was not an easy time for the Rev. Leandra. “My daughter in particular found it very hard when I moved here in 1996. She thought I didn’t love her anymore, but that was never the case. I love my children dearly and they are hugely important to me. But my calling was very strong. I felt I had been given this gift and I had to unwrap it, to explore it. I couldn’t ignore it.”
The Rev. Leandra still maintains a relationship with her family. She has been to Zambia to visit her son and his family and her two oldest granddaughters, Olivia and Alexandra, have been to visit her.
“I do miss my family, but my life is here now,” she said. “When you become a Buddhist you realise that it’s not about loving a limited number of people, it’s about loving all beings.”
It’s no coincidence that Leandra was the name chosen by the abbot at her ordination in 1998. “Leandra means lioness. I was born in South Africa so there’s a connection there, but it’s not as simple as that. I had to be quite fierce at times and I do regret that now.”
Regrets, doubts, worries, hopes and fears are all part of the human experience and Buddhists aren’t immune. “Of course we feel all those things but meditation helps us put them in perspective,” said the Rev. Leandra.
“I meditate to find the truth, the point of being a human being. It is a search for inner contentment, for acceptance. It helps you to deal with whatever comes your way and it gives you the humility to recognise you could be wrong. Sitting still, in silence, can be difficult for some people at first. But with practice meditation can become a habit, like brushing your teeth. And it teaches you something new about yourself, every, single day. You never stop learning. It is that still, small voice of calm.”
Love, acceptance, generosity, forgiveness, compassion and tolerance are all central to the Buddhist philosophy which urges people to live simply and respect others. The 23 monks at Throssel Hole are members of the order of Buddhist Contemplatives which is part of the Serene Reflection Meditation Soto Zen tradition.
The order grew from the teachings of the Rev. Jiyu Kennett, a musician from England who founded the Shasta Abbey in California in 1970 and Throssel Hole two years later.
Meditation is a key element of the Buddhist life alongside silent reflection and the search for inner peace. Scientific studies have shown that when the body is relaxed and free from tension and the mind is not grasping at thoughts, remarkable psychological and physiological transformations can take place as a person’s respiration, heart rate, blood pressure and metabolic rate slows down.
“Meditation gives you clarity of mind,” said the Rev. Roland, a former musician. “It helps you to see what your priorities are and points you in the right direction in your life. My life as a musician was very one-sided. I was consumed by music. I needed to find a better balance – to feel more complete. Soon after I came here I knew this was a place where I could spend the rest of my life.”
Not everyone is so certain and some monks have been known to leave the abbey and return to their “old life” in the lay community, marry, have children, a career. “Sometimes they keep in touch, but we may never hear from others again,” said the Rev. Leandra.
And sometimes they come back, to be welcomed with open arms. The Rev. Kyosei was a member of the community at Throssel Hole back in the 1970s when monks did not have to be celibate and many were married. She left, to bring up her family, but she always knew she would come back some day. Now the Rev. Kyosei works in the project room sewing, mending and darning when once she made her own children’s clothes.
Head cook at the abbey, the Rev. Lambert, was working with people with learning difficulties for Lewisham Social Services when he received his calling 14 years ago. “I’ve worked in warehouses and offices,” he said. “But I had never worked in a kitchen until I came here.”
“Meditation gives you clarity of mind. It helps you to see what your priorities are and points you in the right direction in your life.”
Learning new skills is essential at Throssel Hole where everyone works to maintain the smooth running of life at the abbey. Many of the monks, past and present, bring their own skills to the community and there have been doctors, teachers, lawyers, social workers and acupuncturists living in their midst. But the challenge is to embrace a new skill. And whether it’s gardening, sewing, cooking, cleaning, plastering or building, the monks are willing to pitch in with whatever is needed – sometimes with spectacular results.
The majestic ceremonial hall was built by the monks and is a focal point for visitors. Decorated on a Chinese theme, the room is alight with vibrant, rainbow colours. Delicate, gold Bodhi trees, an ancient Buddhist symbol, are painted on cupboard doors and four guardian kings, standing a foot high and resplendent in their warrior uniforms, keep a close watch in each corner, ensuring that people feel safe to let go.
A heavenly canopy, decorated in bright blues, reds and golds, draws the eye with its breathtaking patterns and, overseeing it all, is a gold Buddha, sitting serenely with offerings of water and fruit, an eternal flame burning close by. This is where visitors bunk down for the night, a curtain dividing the male and female quarters. It’s also where they learn to meditate.
People come to Throssel Hole from all over the world with a calendar of events arranged throughout the year which are put on the abbey’s website. Rev. Roland had never worked on a computer until he came to Throssel Hole. Now he’s one of the resident IT experts, a self-taught troubleshooter.
Computers are a vital part of life in this remote community where maintaining links with the outside world is important – not least because of the weekly Tesco delivery.
The Rev. Roland helped to create the website which plays a huge part in raising awareness, attracting visitors from all corners of the globe. It is their often generous donations that help maintain the abbey and its residents.
For many, a weekend retreat may be a vital to relieve stress and help them get over a difficult patch. For some, struggling with depression and mental health issues, the experience may be a first step on the road to recovery. And for others, the visits can be life changing.
The Rev. Elinore was one such visitor. “I came on retreat, and found I didn’t want to leave,” she said. An anthropology student at Edinburgh University, the Rev. Elinore spent six months in Tibet and Nepal as part of her studies. “I was deeply affected by the people there, their generosity of spirit, their warmth and love,” she said. “Then I found Throssel Hole. I came here lots of times on retreat before I decided that this is where I wanted to live my life. I love wild places and there is a real sense of the wilderness here. In many ways it reminds me of Tibet.”
While the community is remote, in a wild, windswept corner of the North Pennines, the monks recognise how important it is to maintain contact with the outside world. “We watch television on a Sunday night,” said the Rev. Leandra. “The abbot chooses what we watch and if he’s not here, the senior monks can take turns.
“We also have our weekly Hexham Courant and the internet and we can sometimes catch up with the news on Monday night.”
Extra access to the television was permitted during the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but that was unprecedented with viewing usually restricted during the week.
Rules, rotas, regulations and routine are the corner stone of life at Throssel Hole. Monks must live simply. They must not work for money; they must be vegetarian; they must be celibate; they must abstain from drugs or alcohol which “cloud the mind”; they must not speak against others and they must keep their heads shaven as a sign of the renunciation of worldly things.
Many of the monks have lived alongside each other at Throssel Hole for years, but that doesn’t mean they know each other inside out.
“The abbot best describes it as living intimately but not socially,” said the Rev. Elinore. The monks strive to let go of the ‘self’. “The self isn’t the problem, it’s the attachments that the self clings to, the demands of the selfish self,” said Rev. Lambert.
“The self can drive you to act in ways that can cause harm. Sometimes people get involved in trying to help others without understanding that they are motivated by a need for other people to love them. And this can do more harm than good. People often come here looking for answers but they have to find their answers within, with faith.”
While the monks are focused on their daily meditations and silent reflections, it is inevitable that glimpses of their old lives do occasionally resurface. The Rev. Leandra was a keen runner with a passion for athletics in her old life, so catching a glimpse of Usain Bolt winning the 100m at the Olympics was an unexpected pleasure. “It just happened to be on one Sunday night,” she said. “I’m glad I saw it.”
The abbey is closed twice a year, for two weeks at a time, in May and at Christmas when the monks put up decorations, dress their tree and buy presents – usually just for the abbot – but small tokens are often passed between friends.
“We have a big meal, vegetarian of course, and celebrate the festive season, just like everyone else,” said the Rev. Leandra. “It is a special time.”