I was down at Mindrolling Lotus Garden from the evening of Saturday, February 16 until the morning of Sunday, February 24 doing a program that was all so-called ‘simple’ sitting meditation day after day for at least 7 hours a day. Khandro Rinpoche has been saying for years how much she admires the model Chogyum Trungpa Rinpoche set up which is still done in the Shambhala centers of a month-long version of such sitting known as Dhatun, and she has made it clear she would like to see something similar happening at Lotus Garden.
Given all the talk of Empowerments and very, very in-depth study associated with Lotus Garden, it might seem this is going in the opposite direction. That would be very mistaken. A mistake many Westerners seem to make is to think that somehow, the more basic styles of sitting meditation are no longer needed once one starts practicing the Vajrayana. Every teacher I know says the opposite is true. One needs a stable mind that can stay one-pointedly focused in order for the visualization practices associated with the Vajrayana to ‘work.’ While those practices themselves do contain an element of calm-abiding, also known as shamatha, for various reasons Western minds seem to need much more in order to let mind settle.
Speculation on why we goofy Westerners as a whole generally need a lot of shamatha is a topic for another day. For myself, I will say that for various reasons, I have been feeling like my mind has been in need of some ‘remedial calm-abiding.’ So, when this program was announced, I jumped at it. I have gotten some feedback in the last few months that my ethics has been increasingly being overridden by the little voice of Andy Kaufman saying “say this because it’s funny,” which is often at odds with everything my teachers have said.
I was also pleasantly surprised that my wife Melissa said she wanted to go for a couple days as well when I told her this thing was happening and that I wanted to go. She was originally going to go for just Sunday and some of Monday, but she ended up staying half-way through Tuesday before she had to go back home for work. It seemed she enjoyed the experience.
Also, as will be apparently from some of the photos, we took our Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever Daisy with us as well. The Mindrolling lineage has a lot of stories about close connections with dogs in recent times, and this has applied to Lotus Garden as well. Khandro Rinpoche has allowed for well-behaved dogs to be brought on to the land during programs if they are kept down in the dorms during the program itself and kept in the owner’s room during meals. Daisy had one of the residents and her dog of similar temperament to keep Daisy company, so it worked out well.
So, the main program itself – sitting. LOTS of sitting. Starting with the basic Shambhala-style shamatha instruction*, and then with other methods introduced to try out as the week went on. In between sessions of sitting were sessions of walking meditation (exactly as learned by Trungpa Rinpoche from his friend Suzuki Roshi in the Zen tradition), which provides 1) some movement to shake out the limbs (especially the legs, which do get sore from all that sitting cross-legged) and 2) a chance to take some of the mindfulness/awareness of the breath and apply it to movement, so it can start to be made applicable to being ‘in the world.’
This went on from 7 AM until about 9 PM, with 2 hour breaks for meals and to rest. Most of the meals were in silence, to allow for a minimum of distraction. Some may ask: “Isn’t this boring?” To some extent, yes. That is part of the point. Buddha Shakyamuni discovered that by doing the exact opposite of what often seems ‘natural,’ one uncovers an understanding of the underlying nature of reality that eventually leads to what the old texts call “the happiness that is free from sorrow” (aka Buddhahood). Most beings always seek out constant entertainment, constant business. This preoccupation does not allow one to even ask the question “is this trip really necessary?” So, the first step is to step away from such action and let the mind calm down. Doing so for several hours several days in a row gets interesting. For myself, I’ve found in the past (and again this time) that the mind goes through several levels of strategies to NOT be quieted. Boredom is one of them. However, nobody ever really “died of boredom.” After a while, the mind does actually start to settle. A settled mind is a more stable mind. People always say “think before you act.” A settled mind allows one to actually do so.
Melissa stayed until mid-day Tuesday, when she had to go back home for work (taking Daisy with her). I stayed on and kept going. It turns out that my shamatha practice has fallen off in its stability quite a bit from my 2009 solitary in-home retreat. I REALLY needed this practice time.
This program was led by Lopön Helen Berliner, known as the editor of several dharma books including Khandro Rinpoche’s “The Precious Life” and Ani Pema Chodron’s recent commentary of Shantideva called “No Time to Lose” and as an author in her own write of “Enlightened By Design,” and Lopön Rita Gross, a scholar best known for her book “Buddhism After Patriarchy.”
On the Saturday evening after the last full day of sitting, there was some celebration of the end of the program which coincided with one of the participant’s birthday. There is sometimes a misconception that serious Buddhist practitioners should always be very somber, staid beings, which really isn’t true at all. Trungpa Rinpoche had parties at the end of some of his programs in the 1970’s that are almost legendary in their wildness (which, being the 1970’s in North America at the tail end of hippie culture and in the middle of disco culture, was appropriate to the time and place). The more ‘Studio 54’-ish elements are fortunately long gone from Shambhala, but that sense of joyfulness Trungpa Rinpoche was trying to cultivate among his sangha seems to have survived and been transmitted on in sanghas made up largely of his old students in senior roles (such as Lotus Garden). In addition, Khandro Rinpoche has encouraged her students to be able to ‘let their hair down’ while keeping the view and not doing anything that could harm other beings. This is a long-winded explanation that fun is, in fact, allowed at Lotus Garden after hard practice. In addition to the sooooooooooo good dark chocolate-raspberry chocolate birthday cake some of the residents of Lotus Garden made, Lopön Rita showed some slides of a pilgrimage of Buddhist sites in Northern India and Nepal she went on the previous month at the conclusion of a conference of Buddhist women. In addition to having a wealth of commentary on what we were seeing, she is also a very evocative photographer.
The following Sunday morning we had one finally session of opening chants and aspirations and sitting, Lopön Helen and Lopön Rita made some closing comments and everybody there at the end walked out into an amazing bit of fog. And then one by one everybody said goodbyes and went home.