What is the purpose of retreat?

What is the purpose of retreat?

In a Buddhist context, there are really two kinds of retreat: study and practice. Most retreats in the West are some combination of the two, since most of us are not living in either a monastic or a dharma household situation.  The second of these is how many non-monastic lamas in the Nyingma lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism, who have families after years of training,will teach.

Traditionally, one would be getting teachings on an on-going basis where they lived, and “retreat” would mean a time when they would go off by themselves to practice according to the instructions of their teacher until some realization occurred.

However, since the majority of the sangha in the Americas and Europe are lay practitioners, study has to be concentrated into retreat situations also. As Khandro Rinpoche has said many times, it’s not an idea situation for transmitting the dharma, but it’s what we are stuck with given our lives.

As people who have been reading this know, I did 5 1/2 weeks of personal retreat time in 2008, sitting with the teachings for minimum 6 hours a day (and usually much longer) while I was waiting for a new job to start. In 2009, while I was waiting for my security clearance to make it’s way through the system so I could start my current job, I did a similar stretch of practice.  Working with one’s mind in this way is allowing the teachings to sink into the core of my being. As a famous chant of the Kagyu lineage starts, “Grant your blessings so that my mind may be one with the Dharma”.

Lotus Garden prayer flagsThis allowed me to tame my mind enough so it could be focused on the teachings (via shamatha – calm abiding meditation), and then:

  1. go over parts of the teachings enough (through vipasyana, which leads to the creation of prajna – transcendental wisdom) so that my worldview and my conduct actually reflect that part of the teachings, versus my usual samsaric habits, which haven’t really served me so well up til now, and will most likely not lead to a positive long-term result in the future; and
  2.  do other practices which will lead to a similar transformative effect.

What I am supposed to be doing starting August 8th is going to a retreat that is mostly teachings-oriented lead by Her Eminence Mindrolling Jestun Khandro Rinpoche (along her younger sister Jetsun-la, a great translator with FAB-ulous clothing tastes, and many nuns from her retreat center/nunnery in India Samtense).

This is the continuation of several streams of teachings that Rinpoche has been teaching on an ongoing basis every year (now going on 11 years). Every year, she teaches a certain set of teachings in several different sections for groups of practitioners with different levels of practice and study.

Being on a land retreat center like Lotus Garden, where a majority of practitioners stay on the land (either in dorm spaces or in tents) instead of leaving at the end of a day of teachings to go back their usual homes (as happened at Khandro Rinpoche annual retreats when they happened in Baltimore up until 2003), allows teaching of another kind to take place.

With everybody living in close quarters, people tend to run up against each other all the time. Especially since many of us have known each other for a long time (in my case, almost a decade), we get to know each others quirks, and see how we relate to them.

People in these situations tend to come up to the point of sometimes getting sick at other’s little eccentricities, sometimes falling totally in love with fellow practitioners after they get to know them deeper and deeper, and sometimes come up against their own neurosis along the lines of “I wish I had something different to eat”; “I don’t want to do this job during work periods, I want to do his/her job instead”, “I MUST ask this question of Rinpoche (which usually turns out to not be nearly so important as it seemed)”, “why does it seem everybody in this dorm snores like a chainsaw?”, “I wish we had private showers”, etc. blah blah blah.shrine-room-flowers, Lotus Garden

I myself have had all these happen personally. (FYI, Falling for female friends over the years has been my worst personal worst fault as long as I can remember – it has made things extremely awkward at times, but in most cases we’ve been able to deal with that and get beyond it. The emotions never seem to quite go away, but we have been blessed with many skillful methods to work with them instead of repressing (which leads to all kinds of guilt and neurosis – trust me, I know it:)) or acting out (which usually tends to lead to words and actions people later regret.) Before I met with the Dharma, there is no way that there would be any kind of happy resolution to these situations beyond “and now, here’s the part where I disappear and put a lot of substances into my body to try to convince myself I don’t care.” That last method really doesn’t have much to it that I would recommend. I would go so far as to say that it is a really, really crappy way to attempt to carry on.

The “working through it” part is where “the rubber hits the road”, so to speak. When these little situations come up, it throws us into situations where we have to work with our minds, as instructed by Rinpoche and other teachers.

The great thing about it happening in a place like Lotus Garden is that in your normal life, you don’t have:

  1. the inspiration and the strange modification to the atmosphere of a place that having one’s Teacher present creates; and
  2.  one’s MI (Meditation Instructor) and/or other senior students one trusts to talk to about when things get weird, to keep people going in the direction of basic sanity, versus the usual samsaric “bbbbbllllaggghhhhh!”

In these somewhat controlled conditions, one can change their habitual patterns of dealing with situations. I’ve found that if one has done so in a retreat environment, then it becomes much easier to do it again in the “real world”.

These little adverse circumstances are, in many ways, just as important as teachers as one’s human teachers.

As for the streams of teachings being given, I wil personally attending part of the “entering the Vajrayana” section and most of the “Dzogchen” section of the Retreat this year. Dzogchen – aka Dzogpa Chenpo, which translates as “The Great Perfection” – is the pinnacle of the teachings of the Nyigma lineage, which is the oldest lineage of Himalayan Buddhism, aka Tantric Buddhism, aka Tibetan Buddhism, aka the Vajrayana (“Diamond-like Vehicle”).

It encompasses a series of very powerful practices that, if practiced correctly under the guidance of a qualified master, can get pretty much anyone with the mental faculties, opportunity, and inclination enlightened.

If one is just trying to do the methods (for example, the widely talked about “Fire of Tummo/ Kundalini” practice) from a book or without proper guidance, however, one can end up at best wasting their time or at worse drive themselves stark raving mad.

This path has been compared to a supersonic jet – If one gets on with the properly trained pilot and crew, one can fly to the city of enlightenment much faster than anyone else. However, if one does not have a properly trained crew in the cockpit, for example if it is like you trying to fly from a manual, then there is a great risk of a spectacular crash and burn before reaching your destination.

The tantras* that contain the Dzogchen methods are pretty wild. This tradition forces one to see the nature of their own mind in many unique ways.

At the actual Retreat itself, the daily schedule is usually as follows:

schedule of the last day6 AM (or so) – personal practice session

7:30 AM- everyone – Opening prayers, aspirations and practices to orient out minds properly for the day

8:30 AM- breakfast

9:30 AM- work period

10:30 AM – first teaching session with Rinpoche

12:30-1 PM- lunch

2 PM – 2nd teaching session with Rinpoche

5 PM- everyone – afternoon “Protectors’ practice (which I’ll cover later on)

6PM – dinner

7:30 PM -either 3rd teaching session with Rinpoche or a review/ Qamp;A session with some of the Senior students (people who have been practicing this stuff correctly for 20-30 years)

9:30 PM-personal session

10:30 PM- bed

It is a pretty intense schedule, which is has to be to pack in everything Rinpoche is teaching. It must be remembered, she is trying to give us the lifeblood of her lineage’s teachings of view, conduct and meditation in their entirety year by year. Transmitting the Dharma in an authentic way to Westerners is quite a challenge. Fortunately, teachers like Khandro Rinpoche (and also Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche, Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, to name a few I have been around myself) are up to the challenge.

The real question mark is, Are WE up to it?

Stay tuned.

Also, it must be mentioned that we aren’t ALL just study study practice. We study hard, and practice hard, but we also play hard.

Khandro Rinpoche knows how to have fun too, and likes to remind us western students to not take ourselves too seriously.

In years past, ways of blowing off steam have included:

  • a talent (-less? :)) show, featuring some of the -ahem- senior students doing a very involved parody of “Iron Chef” based around the mystery ingredient of tsampa (a nearly flavorless roasted barley powder that is the staple of the Tibetan diet), and some young residents of Lotus Garden blasting their ways through a Poison cover (I am not sure how they could sing with their toungues so firmly in their cheeks :));
  •  setting off nearly commercial grade fireworks;lama roar dives in
  • an occasional movie night, featuring films that haven’t hit America yet, like the original of “the Grudge”;
  •  water balloon fights, with a large portion of the sangha jumping fully clothed in the pool the previous owner of the land had installed (see photo to the right –  lama cannonball!!!);
  • handing out ice cream to everyone in the shrine room;
  •  golf kart racing; and
  • other silly stuff.

No alcohol is involved, and nothing even remotely sexy occurs. But it’s not as solemn an occasion as some might imagine a Buddhist retreat would be.

Well, that’s about it for this time. Hopefully, it “helped confusion dawn as wisdom”, rather than more confusion. 🙂



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Filed under black swan, Dharma teachings

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