What happens when you withdraw from the world and concentrate on spiritual practice?
Q. I heard you were in meditation retreat for six years. What is the purpose of Buddhist retreat and what was it like?
A. A retreat is like an extended Sabbath, a holy time dedicated to spirit and reflection. In the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, a Sabbath was built into each week to provide a regularly scheduled time for people to let go of work and ordinary concerns and turn their hearts and minds toward spiritual matters. Many Buddhist cultures do the same: in southeast Asia, for example, the days of the full moon, half moon, and new moon are traditionally reserved for visiting a temple, meditating, making offerings, and observing the precepts.
I went on my first retreat, a weekend of sitting and walking meditation with Philip Kapleau Roshi, while I was a college freshman at the University of Buffalo in 1968. (I had heard about Kapleau and Zen meditation in some Gestalt workshops I attended that year.) But after the weekend was over, I found it impossible to keep meditating. There was too much going on in our dorm room, not to mention in the streets during those tumultuous years. Moreover, I wasn’t ready to commit to the self-discipline required for daily meditation, or to sign on to the health-minded, simple-living practices the Buddhist path seemed to require.
It wasn’t until I travelled in Asia three years later and went on my first vipassana meditation course in India with the master S. N. Goenka that I was able to continue meditating every morning–and have every day ever since. At the outset, the silent, ten-day retreat was tough going. So many things were different, unfamiliar, austere. The retreat was held in an old Jain monastery in the remote desert of Rajasthan, at the foot of the holy Mount Abu, where the shrill cries of wild peacocks in the surrounding desert pierced the night. Our day began at 4 a.m. and was broken into 12 one-hour meditation periods. There was no meal after noon–a Theravadin custom based on the Buddhist monastic code that mirrors the practice of the Buddha and his disciples. Every evening, Goenka would give a dharma talk.
There were no flush toilets, hot water, media intrusions, no news from the outside world. Sleeping on the floor on a mat, dealing with mosquitoes and other insects, and just managing to sit still and concentrate on breath-awareness in meditation throughout the entire day, interrupted by occasional chanting and private interviews with the teacher, was extremely challenging and painful.
But after about five or six extremely hot days of trying too hard and feeling caught in a hopeless struggle to sit still and let go into present-moment awareness, something mysteriously clicked into place. I began to enjoy a sense of peace, relaxation, centeredness, and outright bliss. My mind felt as sharply focused as a laser beam, and my attention seemed incandescent–in a way I had never experienced before. When I later told my teacher that, he laughed and said, “Beginner’s luck! Don’t get too excited, just keep meditating.”
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a tradition for monks and nuns to make a three-year, three-month, three-day “Great Retreat” once in a lifetime. It is also part of the training for lamas. I went on a Great Retreat twice at the Dzogchen monastery/hermitage of my teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, where I lived from 1980 to 1989. It was one of the best periods of my life. The group of dharma students retreating there, most of whom were Westerners, did nothing but meditate, pray, chant, study, and practice Tibetan yoga and “noble silence,” which includes periods with no eye-contact, no reading, no writing. The beauty of “noble silence” is that it greatly deepens one’s sense of solitude and facility for contemplation in the midst of a monastic community.
We lived under the direct guidance of Khyentse Rinpoche and his colleague, the beloved teacher Dudjom Rinpoche. We lived by a precisely maintained daily schedule, seven days a week, beginning at 4 a.m. with the sounding of gongs, and ending at ten p.m., when we retired to our cells.
The typical day was broken into two- or three-hour periods, during which I, along with the other students, meditated and practiced alone in our five-by-nine foot cells, with only a bed and an altar for furniture, and a trunk for clothes and storage. Some years we did without a bed, and sat up all night doing Tibetan dream yoga and clear light practice in a meditation seat historically known in Tibet as “the Box.” Other phases included intensive Tibetan tantric yoga practice, with daily, predawn, two-hour sittings outside in the garden, even in winter, dressed only in shorts. These exercises awaken the energy body, develop inner heat (so-called “mystic incandescence”), and purify karma.
There was also a short work period every day after the lunch hour, during which some of us gardened, cleaned, and did household chores in the cloister, while others worked on translations, and copied scriptures and study materials. My job was as attendant to the khenpo (abbot), and later as one of the chant-leaders and translators. All the students were ordained as monks or nuns for that three-year period, during which we took vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience to our teachers, shaved our heads, and wore maroon and yellow Tibetan Buddhist monastic robes.
We had no weekends, days off, or vacations. But we did celebrate Buddhist holidays, visits by grand lamas, initiations and empowerments, and auspicious full moon days, with various and extensive rituals, tantric feasts, round-the-clock chanting, and elaborate offering ceremonies–all of which we monks were enlisted to prepare.
As severe as all the regulation and structure may sound, retreats are set up this way for a reason, and offer a huge boon to the practitioner: life becomes much simpler when pared down to the most basic routines, such as waking up to a gong, living according to a schedule marked by bells throughout the day, and wearing the same clothes and hairdo year in and year out–not to mention remaining entirely cloistered and focused solely on one’s spiritual life.
While such retreats are logistically difficult for most people to manage, there are many opportunities at Buddhist centers today to enter deeply into the same practices I learned while on retreat. American practice centers offer an abundance of weekend, week-long, and ten-day meditation retreats. Even one day “retreats” are available. I myself lead two dozen each year, through my Dzogchen Center. And I continue to spend at least two or three weeks every year in personal meditation retreat. The seclusion helps me reconnect more deeply with myself, my prayer life, and spiritual practice, and keeps me in touch with my teachers and lineage. And just as important, it integrates my spirituality into the path of everyday life throughout the rest of the year.