Why is retreat important? In order for our spirituality, pure morality, wisdom, single-pointed concentration and insight into reality to grow, we need time and space. The normal twentieth-century environment does not give us this. It induces either distraction or sluggishness, and retreat can take us beyond both. As human beings, we have the potential for unlimited growth, for limitless compassion and wisdom, bodhicitta and the six perfections. So retreat is very important in expediting this.
Furthermore, Dharma experiences come only when you put yourself into a Dharma situation. If you don’t immerse your body, speech and mind in Dharma, the Dharma can’t really be of use to you. So retreat is very important in promoting your development.
The first stage of your spiritual growth occurs during your first retreat. The second stage happens in your second retreat; the third stage in your third…and so on. Spiritual growth is not an intellectual thing. It has to be organic. It is beyond the intellectual; it has to become your own experience.
Let’s say you’re practicing a sadhana. If you’re just doing it at home without retreat or penetrative insight, you’re never going to become the sadhana. You’ll certainly never become the deity if you just do it that way.
You can see, even in European history, that Jesus and other great spiritual leaders went into solitary retreat. Christian, Muslim, Indian, Tibetan; all the great mahasiddhas went into isolation for certain periods and gained their high accomplishments through practicing intensively like that. So the history of human experience also shows that Dharma realizations come only through concentrated, twenty-four-hour-a-day practice.
Venerable Thubten Chodron responds to letters of residents in Myanmar who are trying to find appropriate ways to react to Muslim hostility, and she mentions that intention plays a critical role in reacting. She mentions that simply protesting from a stance of anger is adversarial and doesn’t help in communication
A month ago, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche posted a long public statement regarding the controversy surrounding Sogyal Rinpoche. While it also addresses what he thought went wrong, he also mentions the difficulties that many western practitioners have with learning from Tibetans who teach from within the context of Tibetan culture. An interesting excerpt:
It’s ironic that today’s Western students are so eager to emulate the Tibetan way of doing things—habits which, by and large, really aren’t worth cherishing. Two millennia before the European Renaissance brought a new culture of inquiry and investigation into the modern world, the Buddha had already pointed out and emphasized the vital part analysis plays in the discovery of the nature of reality. More than two millennia before the downfall of authoritarianism in the West, the Buddha taught, “You are your own master. No one else is your master.” Neither of these pieces of advice has ever been taken seriously in Tibet. Not taking such teachings seriously is a very bad habit and certainly nothing to be proud of.
Tibetan lamas often use tantric rituals as part of local public events, which means that Vajrayana initiations take place alongside flag hoisting and ribbon cutting. This use of tantra was unheard of among the Tibetans’ Buddhist predecessors in India, where not even a trace of sacred Vajrayana transmission or ritual could be seen before, during or after its discrete performance. Tibetan lamas also openly boast about their gurus, as if they are unveiling a commemorative plaque. But I would be extremely surprised to learn that Naropa put any effort at all into building up his CV, or that he ever announced publicly that his tantric guru was Tilopa.
It might be possible to give Vajrayana initiations and teachings openly and publicly in places where the initiates are completely devoted, largely illiterate and have no academic training or custom of analysis. But it’s difficult to find that kind of person in a world that’s full to overflowing with smart-arses. So nowadays, when Tibetan lamas apply their habit of openly giving Vajrayana teachings to non-Tibetans—particularly Westerners—but forget that they are presenting these disciplines to people who read The New York Times, are groomed in critical thinking, trained to cherish analysis and contemplation, and applauded for rebelling against convention, isn’t it inevitable that things fall apart?
In stark contrast to the characteristics that mark out modern Western Dharma students, the majority of Tibetan disciples were culturally obliged to receive initiations and teachings as part of their traditional life. Very few Tibetans approached the Vajrayana with any thought of applying the proper, recommended analysis, and instead relied on blind devotion. To this day, many of us Tibetan lamas, not just Sogyal Rinpoche, stick closely to our traditional habits and therefore devote very little time to giving students the appropriate warnings and laying the necessary foundations prior to giving initiations and teachings.
During a talk that Venerable Thubten Chodron gave during the “Exploring Monastic Life” program, she talks about the effect that one’s environment has on one’s practice. She also talks about how the development of Buddhism has been affected by culture
Tara Choying Lhamo spent 12 years doing retreat in Milarepa’s caves in Lapchi, and doing 20 years in retreat total. Originally from Austria, she gives a talk about what led her to her spiritual path and her experiences while being in retreat.
A new documentary is being produced about Kangyur Rinpoche, a highly influential teacher, who was the previous incarnation of Mingyur Rinpoche. There is currently a documentary being produced about his life story and his contact with western students in the 1970s.
An early trailer of the film:
Patrul Rinpoche gives a talk about how communication happens between students and teachers
An older documentary about the process of finding and recognizing the 17th Karmapa
In this interesting transcript of a talk given by Lama Yeshe, he explains what Dharma can mean to different individuals. In essence, Dharma becomes a way to work with the mind and understand it’s true nature. He mentions:
When we say “Dharma,” Dharma is our consciousness, part of our mind. Dharma book is not Dharma. Dharma teacher is not necessarily Dharma. Dharma philosophy is not Dharma. Dharma doctrine is not Dharma. Dharma is the action of part of our wisdom energy which has the power to eliminate one thing in particular, the concepts of delusion. In other words, it becomes the antidote or solution to particular delusions and dissatisfaction. Then it is worthwhile; that is the reason the Dharma is worthwhile. That’s the reason that we say Dharma is holy, Dharma is worthwhile. Otherwise if you understand wrongly, Dharma is not worthwhile, Dharma becomes a problem. You know—we already talked before how Dharma becomes a problem. So developing comprehension of the relative mind or relative consciousness is the source of developing comprehension of the absolute character of the mind.