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Small acts — Buddhist Retreat Centre founder Louis van Loon was driven by compassion

Small acts — Buddhist Retreat Centre founder Louis van Loon was driven by compassion
A portrait of Louis van Loon doing what he loved best. (Photo: Supplied) I Peaceful scenes of the Buddhist Retreat Centre, which overlooks the bucolic Ufafa Valley, outside Ixopo. (Photo: Heather Moore)

His Buddhist Retreat Centre outside Ixopo in KwaZulu-Natal is widely regarded as one of the best in the world. It was at first focused on Zen teachings, but soon expanded its offerings. 

The way I recall it, Louis van Loon found himself in Tibet sometime in the late 1960s among a group of senior monks who appeared mostly concerned with rescuing a fly from a cup of yak butter tea. Something about that compassionate act — however ill-advised — struck a chord in him. This was one of many things that led to his lifelong interest in Buddhism and ultimately resulted in his establishment of the Buddhist Retreat Centre.

Van Loon passed away on 26 March “as he had always lived: at peace, calm, present”, said his wife of 37 years, Chrisi.

He was born in the Netherlands in 1935 and came to South Africa in 1955, where he would pursue a career as an architect, civil engineer and teacher.

Buddhist Retreat Centre

Peaceful scenes of the Buddhist Retreat Centre, which overlooks the bucolic Ufafa Valley, outside Ixopo. (Photo: Heather Moore)

In 1969, he bought the land that would become the centre, perched on the rim of the Ufafa Valley just outside Ixopo, KwaZulu-Natal. He set about designing and building a collection of low-slung buildings stitched along a gently sloping hilltop. Van Loon was very much involved in the process, once making the 140km journey from Durban by front-end loader.

The centre would hold its first retreat in 1980. The teaching and practice then was mainly Zen-focused, but this would expand to include instruction and education in all schools of Buddhism and eventually become much more wide-ranging in its offerings.

Buddhist Retreat Centre

A view from the Buddhist Retreat Centre. (Photo: Heather Moore)

Community-based NGO Woza Moya was established at the centre in 2000, providing early childhood development and home-based care, among many other services, to about 8,000 people in the surrounding area.

The property is home to some of the few remaining breeding sites of the highly endangered blue swallow, as well as about 160 other bird species.

Buddhist Retreat Centre

A Buddha statue on the grounds of the Buddhist Retreat Centre. (Photo: Heather Moore)

It was declared a natural heritage site by former president Nelson Mandela under the auspices of the then Department of Environmental Affairs and is widely regarded as one of the best facilities of its kind in the world. Chrisi has been running the centre for the past few years.

When Van Loon told the above story — in the wonderful polished tones of his speaking voice and his light Dutch accent — I was taking part in his “Introduction to Buddhism” course, one of several he taught at the centre. It was the second of many visits I was to make over the next 30 years.

It clearly resonated in the young, impressionable me, and possibly in many other participants, all of us eager but nervous, wound up in our fears and hopes about what the weekend held. I fancy many of us have made that journey again.

Buddhist Retreat Centre

Guests attending the Buddhist Retreat Centre, established by Louis van Loon. (Photo: Heather Moore)

Now that Van Loon has passed away and we find ourselves examining our personal losses, claiming some of the sadness and tragedy as our own, perhaps we could leave those small, separate selves behind, at least briefly, and retrace our steps, returning to the root of it all.

Perhaps we will see here the tiny act of compassion that so struck Van Loon — and continues to flower in all of us. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • isiThulele Mageba says:

    What a wonderful tribute to Louis, an amazing man who made such a contribution to society through the Buddhist Retreat Centre. Memories of time at the retreat centre in the early 1980’s enable Louis to live on in my mind, as they do for many of us.

  • Jon G says:

    A beautiful tribute and a meaningful life lived, have very fond memories of the Buddhist retreat.

  • mike dickman says:

    That’s sad. He was a good feller. I had the good fortune of meeting lama Govinda at his place many many years ago. He will be missed.

  • Ingrid Coventry says:

    So many memories of this wonderful place of solitude, reflection and beauty. I never met Louis van Loon, but his legacy sure lives on. Thank you for the well-written article, and the reminder to be compassionate. In this hard-edged and fast-paced world, it’s too easy to forget.

  • One of life’s genuinely beautiful people, I met Louis while working at BRC for a while. His charismatic nature and warm heart endeared him to all who crossed his path. He will be always remembered in a special corner of my heart.

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