An Inner Peace Retreat session in Kechara Forest Retreat, Malaysia.
Engaging in retreat is a method of distancing ourselves from all things in life that deepen our attachments and delusions. It is a precious chance for us to focus on improving our spiritual development, realising impermanence and developing wisdom and compassion. To achieve these realisations and engage in one’s yidam (Personal meditational deity) practice should be any Buddhist’s immediate goal.
Originating from the time of the Buddha, when devotees were recommended to engage in intensive meditations during the three-month rainy season, retreats have evolved into different modes of practices yet remain an important method for practitioners to attain spiritual advancements in all Buddhist traditions.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, engaging in retreats can be achieved through three stages of practice. The first is for the practitioner to train in meditation four times a day (Wylie: thon bzhii rnal ach’or); the second is the practice of engaging in short retreats which span 1 -2 weeks (Wylie: las rung); and the third, which is reserved for seasoned practitioners, is the Great Retreat that typically lasts for 3 – 4 years (Wylie: bsnyan chen).
It is said that 3 years, 3 months and 3 days is the minimum retreat duration needed for one’s karmic energy to transform into wisdom energy, thus allowing a handful of accomplished practitioners to gain Enlightenment in this short time frame. Many Tibetan Buddhists have the aspiration to engage in a Great Retreat at least once in their lifetime. However, how does one prepare oneself prior to engaging in retreats to harvest the full benefits of this practice?
In this article, we’ll observe some precious and practical advice given by H.E. the 25th Tsem Rinpoche about preparations to observe before entering retreat.
1) Preliminaries are Important
If you think you don’t have enough time to engage in the preliminary practices and decide to jump directly to the higher or more intense practices, think again.
Engaging in the preliminaries is an important step to develop a solid grounding before engaging in any higher practices. What are these preliminaries for? They are the practices we engage in to purify the causes of our afflictions. So, engaging in 100,000 offerings of butterlamps, prostrations, purification practices such as the 35 Confessional Buddhas, etc., is essential to place these negative states under control which otherwise would erupt at the most important juncture while in retreat.
It is wonderful to have an innate feeling or urgency for deeper Dharma practice, but don’t rush into it unprepared. If you build a house carefully, with great care and a solid foundation, the house can last for centuries. But if you build a house without a solid plan, then you will only hurt yourself when the house collapses. In this way, the preliminaries are the solid foundation for engaging in deeper meditations.
2) Be Realistic, Ditch the Expectations
Are you stressed at work? Is your relationship taking a sour turn? Does everything in life seem to be going downhill? Perhaps you think this is the perfect time for a solitary retreat to gain some peace. Well, think again.
Samsara is one big monstrous trap. Everything and everyone that annoys us in our current situation is just going to manifest in another situation during our retreat. There is no way around it because we are not being realistic. Instead, we are projecting our expectations and that is the cause of our unhappiness and suffering.
When we bring these projections with us into retreat, we may have the impression that the retreat will fix our negative emotions and bring us peace. But the reality is that there are 101 things that can go wrong during retreat. And the inner peace we thought we would achieve can’t be found just by being in the mountains because we never made the effort to develop it. So what happens when we fail to distinguish the difference between reality and expectations? We become disheartened and give up on our practice prematurely.
3) Subdue Your Mind, Say Goodbye to Tantrums
“I’ll train my mind only when I engage in retreat.”
Think again. It is not good enough if we control ourselves 10 minutes a day during meditation sessions, but transform into a monster for the next 23 hours and 50 minutes. Training our minds should be a 24/7 practice. Real Buddhist practice is about bettering ourselves internally, not just superficially. How many times a day do we snub, scold, get angry and throw tantrums when we don’t get things our way? We should think about this seriously and deal with it urgently.
Don’t cherry pick what you want to develop or subdue. You can’t say you want to develop the paramita of Patience, but ignore the paramita of Generosity. It does not work that way. Why? Because all change comes from within, and it comes first from a complete understanding of the conditions that give rise to suffering and dissatisfaction. So, developing ourselves in one virtue is good, but we should never neglect eliminating the other poisons from our mind. Because one day, what we fail to eliminate will overpower us and cause everything we’ve achieved so far to go backwards.
If we are serious about being a Buddhist, and have the aspiration to engage in the Great Retreat before the end of this life, we need to work on ourselves internally, immediately. We may think that our tantrums are triggered by the people around us, and so we would be okay in retreat because we are all by ourselves. But if we think carefully, how many people out there throw a tantrum at themselves, making them unhappy and depressed? So, we should work on whatever bothers us now, until it doesn’t bother us anymore. Then only will we see advancement in our spiritual development and be ready for long retreats.
4) Discipline Your Mind
Before we begin a retreat, one of the most important things we need to ask ourselves is, “How disciplined are we?”
Do you practice daily without fail, or only when it’s convenient? Are you upholding your commitments to your teacher, or do you do it as and when you like? Do you allow your projections of other people to upset, anger and derail you from your practice even for that very moment? If the answer is “Yes”, then you are not ready for retreats. Why? Because retreats require a practitioner to have strong discipline, and if you do not possess it, then you might not have the discipline to complete the retreat and all the effort put in would have been wasted.
Instead, if you’re serious about entering retreat, then at this very moment, challenge yourself to develop the Three Principal Paths (renunciation, Bodhicitta and Emptiness). Every time we choose to develop these three points over our conventional attitudes and reactions, that act of internal battle creates discipline in our mind. It is only when we have this mental discipline that we are then ready to receive the higher practices and engage in retreats.
So, how do you know if you have achieved this? When you are more tolerant, more forgiving and less angry; when you can accept the negative actions from others and yet do not create a projection that results in your negative reaction. When you have achieved this, then you know your mind has been stabilised by Renunciation. What have you renounced? Your projections. From here, you then have some experience on the beginnings of Bodhicitta and Emptiness. Therefore, it is important to have some experience and a deep understanding of the Three Principal Paths before engaging in retreat.
Even with just an intellectual understanding of the Three Principal Paths, it is still possible to engage in long retreats that can give us good results. However, without a firm understanding of these three points, we may complete all the rituals and meditations but gain little results. Why? Because there is no change internally and that will cause our mind to fluctuate. In cases such as these, our retreats are considered to be contaminated, as it deviates from the true purpose of retreats. This does not mean that we are bad people, but when we do not see the truth and deception of the sufferings that samsara has to offer, the danger of not having this solid grounding is that we will give up the path to Enlightenment.
This is just some essential advice that we should all take to heart especially if we wish to engage in a real retreat. We are easily distracted, so to have the opportunity to remove ourselves physically to a place where we cannot be distracted by our normal samsaric activities is truly a blessing especially when we have the opportunity to get closer with our meditational deity, our yidam.
I wish you all success in your spiritual path. May you find true freedom within your mind.
David is a longtime student of H.E. the 25th Tsem Rinpoche and a lay Buddhist pastor of Kechara. Initially a reluctant writer, he now finds himself writing passionately on topics about Buddhism and has published four books including his autobiography, ‘There’s No Way But Up’ and ‘Conversations in Love’. Read more of his writings on his blog davidlai.me and tsemrinpoche.com/author/