All About Retreat


Retreat is important. When interviewing various masters for this article, they all say it. It becomes even clearer whenDzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche defines what retreat really is ; “Ideally what are you retreating from? You are supposed to be retreating from the past and future. That is the ultimate boundary of your retreat. Not your door. Not your geographical area. Ideally you are supposed to be in the hut, and this hut is the present moment. But of course this is not that easy, especially for those who are not used to it.”

Being in the present, this seems to be the underlying theme of all practices, of all retreats, of all meditations. Being here and now. There is no other time anyway; the future hasn’t come yet and the past is gone like a dream from which we have awoken. But how can we find this elusive present? First we need the inspiration to do retreat ourselves.

Chagdud Khandro : “For me, amidst my ordinary activities, retreat beckons me like a distant, celestial realm. I aspire to immerse myself in disciplined practice, to concentrate, to open new dimensions of wisdom. I enter, close the boundaries, and breathe a sigh of relief. Soon however comes the bumptious confrontation with my own bad habits, the day-to-day presentation of my mind’s chatter and unleashed emotions, and worst of all, doubt.”

When we are setting the boundaries, how long should the retreat be and what kind of rules or discipline should be applied?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche : “So what do we do? We try to grab that situation as much as we can, so this is why the masters of the past have skilfully designed so called retreats, like a month retreat, a week retreat, a weekend retreat or even a whole life retreat and also prescribed out of skilful means different kind of situations which yourself can apply. For instance, if you have decided to do a retreat for a week, since it is really a short retreat, you can really make your own rule: ‘I’m not going to visit facebook. I’m not going to talk with the people. I’m not going to eat more than one meal a day. I will get up early in the morning and I will not talk’. All these kind of disciplines we can apply, but what I’m trying to tell you is: all this is a method, it’s a technique that works for a certain time, for certain people in a certain situation.”

If we are planning to do a retreat ourselves, a life long retreat would be a very unusual choice. We still cling tightly to our usual ruts.Ringu Tulku Rinpoche explains how we can integrate shorter periods of retreat in our day to day life: “Short-term retreats, I think are very beneficial things for anybody, and therefore, I always recommended that western people start with short term retreats. I think it is very useful, and very beneficial to do short retreats, for even one day. I know about a Tibetan friend of mine, very old, now almost 100 years old, he used to do a one-day retreat every full moon and new moon, and used to say that it is really, really useful. I also recommended this to some people, and they did it sometimes, and they found it very nice. But because you are always working and you are always very busy and lots of things are happening, maybe you don’t have to necessarily do it on the full moon and new moon, but on the weekend or something like that, when you are a little bit more free. You don’t have to go somewhere, like to a retreat place, a forest or solitude, but even at home, you just go to your room and don’t speak for the whole day, and then just practice. Only one day and one night. That also rejuvenates the energy and is very useful. I prefer this kind of retreat, and I think they are very useful. Of course, when you can spend one or two weeks, or one or two months sometimes, I think it will also be very good.”

Rules or retreats don’t sound like a fun thing to do. But don’t take the rules or the retreat as a burden.
Mindrolling Khandro Rinpoche warns ; “Definitely don’t take retreat as an imprisonment. Some people view it as being very severe to yourself and its almost like now here is a time when your are distancing yourself from every sort of mundane like and dislike. That’s also bringing in too much exaggeration to what a retreat is.”

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche adds ; “Rules are necessary in one way, but rules can also become a bit of a burden. If you do the practice, thinking that it is something that you have to do, because you have promised to do it, or because it was your pledge, then you are not necessarily applying diligence in this case. The core message of Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara on the practice is to really have joy to practice and joy to listen to the teachings. Joy.”

The importance of having joy has been emphasised again and again. In order to have joy, it is sometimes helpful not to be stuck with the label of ‘retreat’.
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche:
 “Whatever we call it, retreat is actually just a good lifestyle. Really it is a good life, a good lifestyle with the chances and time to work with one’s mind and to appreciate working with one’s mind. You should not see it as some kind of burden, but should approach retreat with some kind of joy.”

This joy can also be nourished by realising the kindness of the master, who guides our retreat. In the case of the Dharma Gar retreat, guided by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche since 2008, the practitioners should really be aware of the preciousness of that unique opportunity to practice.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche : “Now to encourage people who are doing this sort of retreat with a greater sense of appreciation we should consider this. You know, we live our lives and time just goes, year by year, time just flies and so also our life just goes with the time. And when such an opportunity and situation such as the Dharma Gar arises, an opportunity that comes from one’s own merit and the blessing and kindness of the teacher coming together, we must realize how precious this is. You know, not having to leave one’s own environment and not having to leave one’s own home, one can actually get the satisfaction of the practice being done and guided by a great master, and the growth that comes with it. Its much more significant than if a lump of gold in the size of your own head dropping into your lap. It’s right to have that kind of appreciation. With that appreciation there should to be a not-do-it-too-tight and not-too-loose approach to the practice and retreat as a lifestyle.”

With this underlying understanding we learn how to appreciate this rare and positive circumstance of ours, which is the quintessence of all the teachings on the precious human life: the ability to practice Dharma.
Mindrolling Khandro Rinpoche :
 “Western students in particular look at retreat as a project. And before they go into retreat, they have pretty much a formulated idea what they want to achieve during that time of the retreat. I think that’s a wrong attitude to go into it, because it lacks a lot of devotion and the sense of how fortunate one is, that one is able to spend time with the practice. So not only in retreat, but in the context of our practice, we have to be able to really appreciate the preciousness of the teachings, the devotion aspect of how grateful we are for the blessings of the guru as well as the opportunity to practice the path of the dharma in our lives and a sense of really valuing the time that we have. We should have the perspective of humility to even try to attempt realizing the practices in our lifetime.
So to be like this is very gentle as well as generating an appreciative but simple attitude to retreat, and this is often lost when we go in it. For example, when people write to me about being in retreat, they ask: do I have the permission to go into retreat? This I find very odd, because you don’t really need permission to spend time with your practice and to value your practices. “

But how to practice?
Ringu Tulku Rinpoche
 emphasises on the importance of really knowing what we are practicing. “One of the main things in the retreat is that you need to really know what to practice, and how to practice. If you don’t know, you need to learn. It doesn’t need to be very complicated or too deep or too profound or very elaborate, you just have to know how to do meditation or any kind of practice you do; you just have to have a clear practical understanding on how to do it, then I think it’s useful.”

And on top of that, the blessing of the lineage is crucial.
Chagdud Khandro puts it in a nutshell ;
 “the blessing is in sitting still with all this instead of running. Relying on the lineage instructions instead of my ad hoc fabrications. Creating, dissolving, resting. Deepening compassion is the most valid measure, but how to measure compassion?” A very important key factor in retreat is our attitude. We should always tune our compassionate motivation, again and again, giving rise to Bodhicitta, the wish to attain enlightenment for all sentient beings. To make that wish firm and our practice meaningful, it is so important to let go of our expectations. Chagud Khadro remembers; “Chagdud Rinpoche said to me, ‘When you meditate, it is like rain on the mountainside. All kinds of plants bloom–medicinal and poisonous. Let go of your expectations.’ ”

What are our expectations?
Mindrolling Khandro Rinpoche :
 “People seem to think that a retreat has to have a result. Of course we all hope for a result, but at the same time when a retreat becomes goal orientated, result orientated, then we allow self frustration or dejection to come after leaving the retreat and all the while that we are in retreat we are like a hungry ghost, looking for experience, looking for something to happen, looking for some extraordinary event or realization to take place. That makes it all very deliberate, full of tension and orientated very much with form and deliberate concepts, so that the pleasure, just the genuine happiness of being quiet in our own self, with our own practice and finally being able to bring some understanding to what we have only literally and intellectually interpreted gets lost. That kind of happiness is not often found. I wouldn’t say its not found at all, because some people of course practice very well, but its not so often found, which I find is very, very unfortunate.”

And Ringu Tulku Rinpoche adds ; “Regarding retreats, western people sometimes come with too much expectation, and without really knowing what the retreat is all about. Then it doesn’t help, but becomes a problem. Retreat is training to practice, and if you can take it like that and use that time to learn how to practice, and to not expect too much result, then it will be very useful. “

Even though we shouldn’t expect anything, retreats do bring about some benefits.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche : “Really to get some realisation it has to come through from the practice, whatever the practice that one is doing. For example if one is doing the ‘four thoughts that turn ones mind towards the Dharma’, there has to be some experience of having one’s mind turned away from the samsara and the causes that actually lead to suffering. And if we are taking refuge or are doing the Bodhicitta practice or Vajrasattva or Guru Yoga, out of each of those practices there is some accomplishment that one can have in one’s mind; one can have relative experiences. One should actually see if one has those or not. If one has such realisations and accomplishments, one should be very grateful and appreciative. And if one doesn’t have them, then one should understand how one can actually still have effects of the practice on the mind. I think it’s very important. The daily practice and also the Dzogrim practice, each has it’s own kind of relative accomplishment. We should also see if that accomplishment is there or not. If the accomplishment is lacking, we should pray for that and for the encouragement to practice. If not, through asking teachers or engaging with other older students, or through reading of how one can do better, we can make progress and have those accomplishments. That is important.

Ultimately there is a real sense of confidence coming from that. How the Dharma manifests in one’s own experiences, that’s very important. And then in the nature itself. If one has confidence in the nature itself, that’s everything, you know?
I think that confidence comes, slowly, slowly comes, but sometimes you really have to see how to generate it or how to just have that confidence, that it is not fake, or that it is not ungrounded in realization or only based on temporary experiences. I think that is very helpful. I would suggest people to get to that point through this ten years period of the practice. I really pray that people will do that. You know in my experience of guiding students, a lot of people make it to that grade. That’s very beautiful and that’s wonderful for a teacher to see. So I hope that this takes place in this Dharma Gar program. “

Mindrolling Khandro Rinpoche : “Intensive practice means that your body, speech and mind is now so ingrained with the practice that it has the power of cutting through. Otherwise, how can we practice in mundane life? In mundane life there are moments of switching on and switching off; now you are a practitioner and now you are a samsaric mundane person. This is very detrimental to the path of progress of understanding Dharma. Now in retreat, you don’t need to have a mundane interpretation and view, versus a much more Dharmic view. You can be completely installed in the essence of the Dharma with body, speech and mind. So, although there is a form and a structure to the practice, I would say, there is much more a uniformity and evenness of day and night, holding the view of the practice all the time, and that’s what retreat is about. So I think that attitude to retreat is definitely something people need to really understand better, and not see it so much as an ambitious project to complete.

Definitely what you realize is how much just touching the surface your practice actually is. The enormity of what it means to be a practitioner strikes you more impactfully when you are in retreat. And you begin to see that everything that you are trying to do in terms of Dharma is just scraping the surface. And you begin to say; “that is not how I should actually be practicing.” Dharma requires a tremendous degree of involvement so that you dive into it completely, immersing yourself completely into it. So I think it’s a very humbling experience, definitely.”

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche : “Any practice you do is much more strong, much more profound in retreat than otherwise, even if you are not doing it so well. People who do retreat that way find that maybe not immediately, but in the long run, retreat becomes something really valuable in their life. They find they can really get something. But sometimes they don’t know immediately what they accomplished.”

As with all Dharma practices, the retreat is to as Drubgyud Tenzin Rinpoche says:“overcome the eight worldly dharmas and accomplish the two kayas”.

Drubgyud Tenzin Rinpocherecalls a conversation he had with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, while walking in a garden in Bhutan: Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said; “Do you see the gate there at the end of the wall? With a lot of studies you can reach that gate. But with just one moment of practice, you will go far, far beyond that gate.”