The Importance of Retreat
by Chiwang Tulku Rinpoche
Q: Rinpoche, could you kindly tell us what is meant by retreat?
A: Retreat is a means to attain enlightenment. It provides skillful means to obtain ultimate liberation, however its results mostly depend on how much we exert ourselves in its practice. Basically a Vajrayana retreat entails a development stage, during which we visualise ourselves as the deity and, once we have mastered this, a completion stage follows, through which the visualisation dissolves into emptiness. Through the practice of these two stages, we gradually eliminate all our obscurations and move closer to enlightenment.
There are different kinds of retreat, and these fall into two main categories: recitation practice, or open retreat, and session-wise meditation practice, or closed retreat. In an open retreat, we can leave our meditation cell between sessions and engage in other activities, whilst in a closed retreat, we cannot leave our room, see anyone or be distracted by any other matter.
Ideally, it is preferable to do a closed retreat, but if for one reason or another this proves impossible, then we can do an open retreat and take advantage of every available moment to do our recitations. Some people actually manage to do their recitation practice while they’re at work or while performing their normal activities.
Q: Rinpoche, what kind of obstacles do we meet while we practise retreat?
A: Meditators meet with many kinds of obstacles during retreat. The main ones are drowsiness and agitation. Here drowsiness represents being beset by a foggy mind and continually falling asleep, while agitation means being beleaguered by distracting thoughts. Drowsiness is the worst obstacle for older people like me. If we tend to fall asleep while meditating, there are methods to counter this. We should, for example, reduce our daily intake of meals, wear light clothes, straighten our back, and keep our eyes open while gazing a little bit upwards.
On the other hand, some meditators become so besieged by distractions that they are unable to keep their mind focused during their practice. Even if they try really hard, some practitioners find this very difficult. There is the example of one practitioner whom I know who had so much trouble concentrating that he would punch himself in the head every time he became drowsy, which only served to leave him with a bad headache and several bruises. Thankfully, there are more skillful methods that we can develop to help us steady our mind.
There is a Vajrayogini text called dpa’ bo khrag ‘thung. It is said in the text that obstacles creep into our practice without our knowledge, and that we need to keep a close watch on them so that they don’t take root. A long time ago there was a rich family that lived in Kham. Sadly, the entire family was killed by a group of brigands, with the exception of a young child. The brigands brought the child to the central Tibet with them and abandoned him in Dingri. Because of his good karma, he met with the Dharma and practised meditation. He acquired such powerful meditative skills that he could literally fly from the top of one mountain to another. One day, however, while engaging in meditation on the top of a mountain, he saw a flock of birds swooping down the mountain valley just in front of him. At that moment he thought, “Ah, if these birds were armed, I could finish off all my previous enemies.” This thought got stuck in his mind and gradually gave way to pride and anger. So much so that he returned to Kham and took to robbing and killing.
For seasoned practitioners there are two main methods that help to control the discursive mind during the practice of the development and completion stages. These are known as rnam rtog thog rtzis and snagba gdon ‘ded.
Even while we are keeping the pride of the deity, all kinds of thoughts will keep coming into our mind. Nevertheless, if we can manage to steadily maintain the pride of the deity, all these thoughts will eventually disappear. This is called snangba gdon ‘ded. Here snangba refers to thoughts that are relatively shortlived and not too intense. However when these shortlived thoughts linger and gain intensity in spite of the practitioner’s efforts, this is known as rnam rtog. The way to deal with this is known as rnam rtog thog rtzis, which involves meditating on emptiness. This method helps to keep at bay powerful negative thoughts and, if the practitioner perseveres with it, it will eventually eradicate them altogether.
It is crucial to do away with discursive thoughts right from the beginning. Milarepa said that there are three kinds of ‘phat’ that we can shout. The first ‘phat’ should be shouted when the mind is totally plagued by untamed thoughts and is unable to concentrate. The second ‘phat’ should be used when the mind collapses into drowsiness and sleep. The third ‘phat’ that Milarepa refers to is used to dissolve our mind into emptiness. Since Milarepa is the master of meditation, we can trust that this third ‘phat’ must be very powerful. I don’t have personal experience of this, but I am told that it is very effective. These are the methods to get rid of the main obstacles.
There is a further obstacle that affects modern day practitioners who enter retreat. Many meditators expect to experience meaningful signs as soon as they begin their retreat. It is very unlikely that such signs will appear within a short period of time, and it is unhealthy to entertain hopes and expectations for them to do so. Rather than achieving merits, these expectations can create serious obstacles to our practice.
Likewise, when and if signs do appear, we must be very careful how we handle them. The great Sakyapa Master Sachen Kunga Nyingpo said that if we tell other people of our signs, these will disappear. Also, we shouldn’t over-analyse our experiences or our dreams, as this will only create obstacles. As Mahasiddha Virupa said, we should treat all experiences with impartiality. Whatever experiences arise, we shouldn’t dwell on them for too long.
Nowadays, it’s very easy for retreatants to become distracted with technical gadgets like laptops and phones. Never touch these things while in retreat! During our break, rather than chatting to our friends, we should strive to keep the pride of the deity, do prostrations, offer mandalas and recite the Hundred Syllable mantra. It’s very important to remember this.
I’ve heard that there is a notice displayed at the Phodrang retreat house that discourages practitioners from engaging in mundane conversations involving politics, sectarianism and other such topics. This is very true. Such distractions should be avoided, as they too create obstacles.
Another serious obstacle is one that appears when we have finished a session or a retreat. However much effort we may have invested in our meditation, there is the temptation when it ends to act like an unleashed dog. We must be very careful to take post-meditation practice very seriously. Whenever we hear a voice, we should think of it as the voice of the deity. For a Vajrayogini practitioner, all voices should be heard as the Vajrayogini mantra and all objects perceived by the eyes should be seen as the deity herself. All hopes and doubts experienced by the practitioner should be understood as those of the deity. One should at all moments keep the pride of the deity. If one remembers to do this during critical moments, this will be hugely helpful when we face the frightening experiences that we meet during the intermediate stage after death.
Q: Could you offer advice to those who wish to enter retreat?
A: Firstly, if we wish to practise Tantric meditation, we should first receive an initiation and instructions from a qualified master. To enter retreat without doing so could cause us great harm. As is mentioned in the Dum Sum Rab dhye,
“Like squeezing sand won’t produce butter,
There will be no accomplishment without initiation”.
Then, we should consult the appropriate texts. There are, for example, manuals called Snyen-thabs that are guides to the recitation practice for specific deities such as Hevajra, Vajrayogini, Sarvavid and so on. If we find this beneficial, we should refer directly to the text relating to the deity that we wish to practise.
But whether we refer to texts or not, the lamas always advise us that the most important thing to bear in mind when we undertake a retreat is to have the correct motivation. Shaping our motivation from the very beginning is fundamental, whether we are receiving initiations and teachings, or whether we are embarking on a retreat. It would be very wrong to go into retreat with the intention of gaining wealth, long life, luck or health. And so our motivation when we enter retreat should be to bring all sentient beings to Buddhahood. This is extremely important.
Equally important is remembering the four mindchangers, or the four ways of turning our mind away from Samsara. Bearing these in mind helps us to revitalise our meditation and our entire practice of the Dharma. The four mind-changers are: 1) the difficulties of attaining a human life endowed with all the favourable conditions to practise the Dharma; 2) impermanence and the unpredictability of death; 3) the law of causality and 4) the defects of Samsara. Remaining aware of these four mind-changers is of huge benefit, as it automatically makes us more eager to practise the Dharma, more devoted to our teachers, and more passionate about engaging in virtuous deeds.
Regarding the difficulties of obtaining a human life endowed with all the favourable conditions to practise the Dharma, one would think that this is an easy thing to achieve. There are so many human beings in this world, and if we look at the population of a major Indian city, we can think that their numbers are boundless. But if we compare these to the population of insects and animals that occupy the same space, then their numbers become minimal. In relation to animals and insects, human beings are actually quite rare. For instance, this house where I’m living at the moment has three people in it at the moment. But it has countless insects. And so, human life is relatively rare, and a human life endowed with all eighteen favourable conditions to practise the Dharma is extremely difficult to achieve, and therefore very, very precious.
What is more, not only is human life rare and difficult to obtain, it is also very fragile and can be lost in a single instant. The causes of death are numerous and our defenses against it are few. Death is unpredictable and no one knows when it will strike. It can even happen before we are born. And so, knowing that death can happen at any moment, we should strive with all our might to practise the Dharma while we are alive.
Then there is the law of causality. This simply means that virtuous actions bring happiness and unwholesome actions bring suffering. The law of causality is never wrong, never misleading. As His Holiness the Sakya Trizin so vividly explains, if the mere description of the suffering of the hell realms is so frightening, we can well imagine what its actual experience feels like for those who are caught in those realms.
I have never had such experiences, but older lamas used to tell me how they would wake up in a startle in the middle of the night after having deeply pondered on the unpredictability of death and the difficulty of achieving a precious human life. Some described how they would wake up in sorrow, with their pillows soaked in tears.
Of all the factors that help to bring us to enlightenment, the most important one is unconditional devotion to our teacher. As the teacher is the source of all blessings and accomplishment, having utmost faith and respect toward him or her is indispensable. Quoting from the scriptures,
If the sun of devotion does not arise,
There will be no source of blessing that flows
From the snow mountains of the teachers
Who embody the four bodies of Buddha.
Therefore be relentless in your devotion.
We can’t receive any blessings unless we have unshakable faith in our teachers. Many disciples claim to possess such a strong faith that they actually see the teachers as the real Buddha. But it is quite difficult to gain such strong faith. Deshung Rinpoche says in his commentary on Lama Nyachopa or ‘Gurupanchashika’ that at times, our own demerits and obscurations are so deeply entrenched that we see our own teachers as ordinary persons equal to ourselves. We see that the teachers need to eat and live normal lives; they even get sick just like other human beings; and so we find it difficult to have faith in them. But, when our own demerits and obscurations diminish, we are able to perceive our teachers as more than just human being and we begin to perceive them as Bodhisattvas, or even Buddhas. Actually, it is very difficult to have strong enough faith to see our teacher as a true Buddha. But the more we decrease our demerits and obscurations, the more our faith grows.
Gaining true faith is indeed very difficult. When Dakpo Rinpoche, one of Milarepa’s disciples, first heard his teacher’s name, he was struck with such overpowering faith that he wanted nothing more in this life than to follow him. He received numerous teachings and pith instructions from Milarepa and practiced these during long periods of retreat. One day, Dakpo Rinpoche asked Milarepa, “When may I gather disciples?” Milarepa replied; “There will come a time when you will reach a level of realisation that is far superior to your present one. At that time you will truly perceive me, this old man, as a real Buddha.” Then you will be ready to teach others.
A follower once asked Atisha for a blessing, to which Atisha replied; “Certainly, but you must first become devoted to me.” This reminds us that there can be no blessing without devotion.
And finally, it is very important to dedicate our merits. After each session of meditation, we should recite the Boddhisattva Samantabhadra’s prayer in order to dedicate all the merit accumulated during our meditation session for the purpose of helping every sentient to attain Buddhahood. As mentioned in the prayer thus;
Just as the warrior Mañjuśrī attained omniscience,
And Samantabhadra too,
All these merits I now dedicate
To train and follow in their footsteps.
As all the victorious Buddhas of past, present and future
Praise dedication as supreme,
So now I dedicate all these roots of virtue
For all beings to perfect Good Actions.
If we cannot recite this prayer after each session, then we should at least recite it after our evening session. Dedication forms an integral part of a retreat, and we should always remember to do it.
This is what little advice I have to give to anyone who wishes to practise meditation. It comes not from my own experience, but from what I have heard and read from great teachers. I hope that it may be of some help.