Back to Buddha Nature
The sixth incarnation of Buddhafield Festival was alive and well in Somerset last July: five days of music and dance, yoga and meditation, drama and debate, held over a few fields in rolling rural England. There were workshops on everything from circular breathing to founding an eco-village, a Crazy Kids area, and rituals galore.
Set up by members of the Western Buddhist Order, Buddhafield festival is a meeting of the environmental, the loosely spiritual and the specifically Buddhist. It's a meeting of like minds and open hearts; an exploration and an invitation to experiment. This year bigger than ever, the mood was mellow and radical, with inhibitions cast off at the gate. Generosity was in the air and campers responded warmly to neighbours - sharing insights, muesli and essential oils.
By contrast with other festivals Buddhafield has a clean, positive flavour - partly due to its 'No Drink and Drugs' policy. I heard one man note, 'Unlike at other festivals, people here have remarkably bright eyes.' Exuberance and fellow-feeling provide a natural high. And one Order member was surprised to find that 'Everyone looks really wholesome, not all strung out. In fact they look beautiful.'
It is billed - in the Indian poet Shantideva's words - as 'a festival of temporary and ultimate delight'. It was certainly a feast for the senses. It was a riot of colour, flamboyant outfits and wacky acts. It was also a blast to the ear: background drumming from many quarters formed the festival's heartbeat. This was amplified by cymbals, trumpets, didgeridoos, bells, singing - all before the bands came on. If none of these chimed with your chi, you could take a 'sound bath', soothed by zithers, rainsticks or whale music.
A heady mix of aromas filled the air: woodsmoke and camping gas mingled with incense and healing moksha; while the sweet scents of lavender and cardamom chai compensated for the odd waft of composting toilets. There were abundant taste sensations with cafés and snack stalls plying wholemeal or wicked fare. It was also a bonanza of touch: hands-on healers plied their trades in shiatsu, Indian head massage, reflexology - not to mention the sensory delights of saunas, hot tubs and hugs in this mega touchy-feely scene.
The central focus was a great spreading sycamore at the top of the sloping field. Enshrined and revered, this tree has seen much spiritual practice over the years; and beneath this a life-sized statue of Prajnaparamita, the Buddha of Wisdom, surveyed the scene. The theme was 'Mythic Journeys to a Sacred Space', and one ceremony involved the participants processing around the 'Buddhafield', reciting verses and chanting the Prajnaparamita mantra. Sagaravajra (who sculpted the figure) and seven others carried it on a bier: a dramatic sight with the bronze statue reflecting the golden evening light.
For Jan, having Prajnaparamita seated at the heart of things made the festival more explicitly Buddhist. 'She's such a beautiful figure, and she seems to fit in here. Perhaps it's her Earth Mother aspect - after all there are plenty of mature, bare-breasted women all around.'
The organising team had created an imaginative elemental space in the Sacred Garden. Buddhist symbols, such as the Wheel, and the Spiral Path, were marked out with willow arches adorned with Indra's webs, sheltering cane vajras and an impressive wicker stupa. A sign invited us to 'Enter the Gap' and make our way along the Path to a beautiful inner sanctum. Other tranquil spaces mushroomed by the main meditation marquee - a tipi boasting a large canvas of Avalokiteshvara hovering above the Buddhafield, a yogi's yurt and Padmasambhava's dome.
There were also shrines to various Buddha figures: we passed along a dark, spooky tunnel to reach the shrine of Amoghasiddhi, the Buddha bestowing fearlessness. Nearby, among the trees, was another naturalistic and imaginative shrine, this time to Green Tara. Most evocative for me was Padmasambhava's lair: encircled by skulls, it was candlelit, crimson and mysterious within, and bulging with Tibetan artefacts.
With so much energy and innovation, the Buddhafield project has become a creative current in the life of the FWBO. It runs a variety of camping retreats as well as the festival and is enabling the Dharma to reach a younger, more 'alternative' audience. According to Lokabandhu, a founder team member, 'The formal Dharma workshops and debates are important but many more people are influenced by osmosis. It puts Buddhist ideas in the melting pot that is society, and we hand out thousands of leaflets. People see our teams exemplifying something - we're committed, trustworthy and we can get things on. Often campaigners realise that to affect change they also have to work on themselves; I met one ardent animal-rights activist who'd become a Buddhist and given up violence when protesting since the last Buddhafield.'
Achieving a genuine dialogue isn't always straightforward, and may occur most effectively through networking or one-to-one communication. Yet it has happened: Buddhafield has clearly made many new allies on the UK festival circuit - some of whose experience was invaluable when security difficulties arose at the gate.
In one sense the festival encourages getting back to nature - by sleeping in tents, eating outdoors and squatting over trenches - but in a deeper sense it's about getting back to our Buddha nature. Or at least aspiring in that direction. According to Paul: 'Buddhafield is about removing the structures of modern life - even things like tables and chairs - in order to tune into ourselves and the earth.'
Despite patchy weather, spontaneity flowed over the long weekend. And there was a collective feeling of anything goes. As Amie noted, 'I felt I'd arrived once I'd stripped off and walked naked across the mud to the sauna.'
Rituals of many shades - often pretty long - were the flavour of the field, from shamanic journeys to the Council for All Beings interconnectedness ritual. Matthew did a marathon six-hour sweat lodge. 'It was highly ritualistic, based around Native American prayers. At times it was moving - we were opened up by the heat, the dark and being naked. I found it a strong experience, connecting with my aspirations, calling to mind those in pain, and giving thanks.'
There were even hand-fasting rituals - a kind of pagan marriage. One couple made their pledges in loin cloths and body paint; then she sang to him and he played the flute to her ... the ceremony was sealed with a passionate kiss.
For many it was a case of hanging out with friends by the chai tent or lying in the grass enjoying the vibes. For those intent on a bender, the late-night place to chill was definitely Vajrayana Banana where many of the key bands played. Although the Buddhist folk band Shanti and the Indian ragas at Aranya accoustic café also got rave reports.
At Buddhafield it can be hard to tell where Buddhism ends and alternative traditions begin. I overheard two seven-year-old boys, with their own take on the festival:
'It's good here you know. It's all about Buddha.'
'Yeh, this is a Buddhafield. But you can still have Jesus.'
'Oh no, I don't think so ... You've got to do this [dabs a muddy fingerprint on his friend's forehead]. That's what makes you a Buddha.'
For some folk the festival was indeed a mythic journey; many appreciated the sacred spaces, and engaged in the atmosphere of enquiry. Others resembled kids let loose in a mind-body-spirit playpen. But for the Buddhafield team it is a serious venture involving much hard graft. Simon, who worked on security, found it 'a really good situation in which to practise. You come up against the best and worst in folk - their generosity and their aggression - and you have to respond to it all.'
As an experience, Buddhafield festival frees up energy, opens Buddhists to a broader approach to their practice, and introduces non-Buddhists to meditation and a whiff of the Buddha's wisdom. It's eco, it's friendly, and its message reaches people who might not be drawn to an urban Dharma centre.