Thursday, August 29, 2013

Nothing Better than Long Term Retreat


Today I would like to start talking about the benefits of a retreat centered lifestyle for serious Buddhist practitioners.  First, I will address the ways that people have attained realization in recent history.

Among the favorite reading materials of yogis and yoginis of the Nyingma tradition are the biographies of the great, realized, lamas of Tibet.   We read them in order to model ourselves after them.  I have a particular interest in the 20th century adepts, because they are closer in time to my life, and a few are still alive.  Many of their students are alive.

There is one catch.  These are often reincarnate masters who have a lot of past life accomplishment to draw on.  It is sometimes hard for me to know, as an ordinary person, how to model myself after someone who had tremendous accomplishment in childhood, or even infancy.  I believe the stories, because I have personally met lamas like that.  I don’t understand Buddhists who are super skeptical, but that is a whole ‘nother topic.

As I was starting to write this, I looked back through a bunch short bios on these 20th century people in the same tradition as me who had the experience of realization .  There were a few things I noticed.  Some reincarnate lamas gained realization while merely receiving teachings on the great Dzogchen texts, such as the Yeshe Lama, or during a one-on-one experience with their lama of being introduced to the nature of their mind via a variety of formal and informal means.  As an example of informal means, one 20th century lama gained realization exactly how Naropa did; he was beat up by his lama with a shoe!   This was one of the early Pema Norbus, the one who lived from 1887 to 1932.

I also noticed that most of these great lamas spent seven or more years studying, and also serving, their lamas.  Some gained realization in that kind of intensive work-study-practice environment.  Something must have rubbed off!  This is one way to gain realization.

I also noticed that those 20th century teachers who did not 'wake up' in this kind of lifestyle (and some who did) went on to do intensive retreat practice.  The biographies were sometimes short on specifics about how long and under what conditions they undertook retreat, but generally they spent between 3 and 22 years in secluded retreat.

These great figures did a lot of deity approach and accomplishment practices (nyen drups) “of the three roots.”  In our Nyingma tradition, that means they did practices of the Lama category (Guru Rinpoche, Vajrasattva, or Longchenpa usually), the yidam category  (such as Vajrakilaya, Manjushri, or Yamantaka), and the dakini category (Yeshe Tsogyal, Tara, etc.)   Some lamas really did a lot of these retreats, which take a specific period of time (such as one, three, or six months) or the repetition of a certain number of mantras.  Lamas like Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, and my own less-famous lama, Tharchin Rinpoche, did complete nyendrups on dozens of deities. 

For practitioners of that caliber, there are many wonderful things that happen in those retreats, such as phurbas levitating, beams of light emanating from ritual objects, or a tea offering catching fire.  For people of my caliber, we are lucky to have a good dream. Sometimes nothing positive seems to happen.

Quite a few of these lamas also did retreat on the core practices of the Great Perfection itself for several years.  Not too many of these Nyingma biographies mention a lot of tsalung practice, but there were certainly famous lamas, such as Shakya Shri, who were greatly accomplished in that arena.

It is assumed that every serious practitioner, had miserable experiences in retreat as well.  Jamgon Kongtrul, for example, very franly discusses his illnesses and difficult experiences in retreat in his autobiography.  The point of having supervision by an experienced lama when one is doing long term retreat is to avoid getting carried away by positive experiences, or freaked out by negative experiences.  Also, one needs instruction about how to potentially turn experiences into realization.

For me, while I am not a very good meditator (or perhaps because of it) there is delight at the thought of undertaking a new practice, or a new approach to practice in the next retreat.  Some people want to travel to new places, and they have their adventure that way.  I have always been enchanted by the cave dwelling yogini really applying herself sincerely to the practices, and just seeing what happens.  I have endless curiosity about that.  Where will this take me? 

It may sound cheesy, but I do take the Bodhisattva intention very seriously.  There is belief there inside me in the power of enlightened yogis and yoginis to benefit the world.  Something opens, and one’s wisdom and compassion completely blossom, and one becomes a beacon for the world, and one’s prayers have real power.  I’ve seen that this has happened others, and I am committed (as many, many, other simple people who have taken the Bodhisattva vow are) to follow my practice through to that point.  It may not happen for me in this life, but there is always an opportunity in the bardo, or beyond.

Shortly after Lama Tharchin Rinpoche’s passing, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche spoke to us twice.  He talked about the unlikelihood of having the opportunity to do long term retreat in the present era, and suggested we just simply generate aspirational Bodhichitta as our main practice.  Khyentse Rinpoche is so brilliant.  There, at Pema Osel Ling, in a sangha where 40 people have completed three year retreat over the years, a handful have finished two or more retreats (not me!), and others are in still retreat, he gives a long talk about how it is probably impossible to do so.  Interesting.

Then, he uttered just a few words, a sentence fragment; “If you can, of course, there is nothing better.” 

Well, there is the upshot.  If you can, of course, there is nothing better.  Honestly, a lot of us really can.  We have the mental stability, the faith, a trusting relationship with our lamas, a stable practice, and what?  A divorce?  There are certainly plenty of those.  Retirement?  Plenty of those.  There is even a charity or two that does fund people in a well run, traditional, three-year retreat.

If you can, there is nothing better.

edited for grammar and typos 8-10-13 10:30 PDT


palbar said...

Good stuff! I really want to help rethink how we could create contemplative communities. Palbar

Yudron Wangmo said...

Right you are, Palbar! That's why I went back in to retreat instead of writing about the virtues of going in to retreat. See you at the Land of Lotus Light at Thanksgiving.
--Love, A little mouse from a tent in the woods.