Still, retreats aren’t right for every
yogi. It’s a good idea
to speak to a teacher about it, because there are some
practitioners who should be encouraged to do a retreat
and others who should not
At what point is it appropriate to consider doing a
three-year retreat or very long-term isolated
meditation? How can we be of greatest benefit to
sentient beings? Is it by participating in everyday
family and community life or by practicing as a hermit
Zenkei balanche Hartman:
I have no direct personal experience of long solo dharma
retreats, as the Japanese Zen tradition in which I have
trained puts great emphasis on training in close
interaction within a group. I have spent many years
practising in a residential sangha.
I do, however, have two friends whom I deeply respect
who have trained in other traditions in which solo
retreats are highly valued and they have shared with me
some of their experience. First, they chose to do a solo
retreat (months, but not years) because their teachers
recommended it. Second, they planned ahead with their
teachers a daily schedule of meditation, meals, work,
study, and devotional activities (prostrations,
chanting, etc.) which they followed meticulously. Both
are now mature and respected dharma teachers and they
both continue to do solo retreats.
As you suggest, motivation is a paramount consideration.
I hope you continue to make choices in your life guided
by your question, “How can we be of greatest benefit to
sentient beings?” Each of us has different karmic
tendencies and conditioning and circumstances, so there
is no “one size fits all” answer to your question of
whether participating in everyday family and community
life or practising as a hermit yogi is of greater
benefit. Also, one might find that the most appropriate
response to this or similar questions may change at
different times in one’s life. That is why it is helpful
to make significant decisions in consultation with a
teacher whom you respect and who knows you. If you have
already made a commitment to family life, the whole
family should be included in such a decision.
I am confident that if our vow is to live our life so as
to benefit all beings, we will find a way to cultivate
the wisdom and compassion necessary to do so wherever we
may be practicing. And I think the three treasures of
Buddha, dhamma and sangha are invaluable supports in
fulfilling our vow.
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: There is no question about the
benefits of going into a three-year or long-term
retreat. This has been traditionally done in many
schools of Tibetan Buddhism, where there was much
support from family, community, and the culture to do
so. This support is necessary in addition to one’s own
preparation and knowledge.
In the West, while I have seen longer retreats benefit
students, I have also seen times when this was not so,
where someone entered a retreat driven by enthusiasm and
excitement, which of course does not last even a few
months. Perhaps one learns techniques and rituals, but
the true purpose of the retreat - to ripen one’s own
mind - is not realized.
When you have been in the dharma long enough to know the
ups and downs of your practice, and you have the full
support of your teacher and your community, you may be
ready to consider such a venture. A retreat can minimize
the distractions of daily life, make our confusion more
obvious, and afford the opportunity to connect directly
with one’s natural mind. The recognition of one’s
natural mind is wisdom, and it is only through wisdom
that one is truly free of the poison of ignorance, the
root of all suffering, and able to be a true guide for
others. A longer retreat can provide the opportunity to
mature one’s familiarity with the natural mind.
The question of benefiting others, however, is not
simply one of being a hermit versus being in the world.
I know of a young man who did retreat after retreat. All
the while he was having big problems with his mother.
His mother would complain, “You have done so many
retreats. Haven’t you done enough? I’m getting old.
Maybe it is time to help me?” This young man saw his
mother as an obstacle to his practice. At one point
after a disagreement he went to the mountains with a
lama where he sat on his cushion in a beautiful
crossed-legged posture, cultivating compassion by
saying, “I generate a mind of compassion for all
sentient beings, all who have been my mother.” Yet how
ironic that he could not stand to be with the only
mother he has for even one hour!
While this example may sound exaggerated, it illuminates
the split between the lofty ideals expressed in our
dharma practice and the reality of the life we are
actually living. This split is not uncommon. The real
question becomes: Are we willing to recognize this split
as it manifests, to recognize it as a manifestation of
our own moving mind, and to bring it directly into our
practice? Or are we using our practice to reject our
challenges and to provide the temporary relief of
I lived a strict monastic life for fifteen years. I’m
living a family life now. As a husband, father, and
teacher, I do not live an isolated lifestyle. When I am
with my family, it is my practice. When I am reaching,
it is my practice. When you are willing to see all that
occurs as your teacher, you have a constant mirror in
those around you and your practice can progress rapidly.
If you are able to make the connection between the
challenges of your life and the openness of your
practice, whether you go into retreat or live in the
world, you will be of benefit to others and your dharma
practice will be fruitful.
Narayan Liebenson Grady: I have an enormous love for
retreats of any length, so I am answering from the
perspective of this joy in the contemplative life. My
first encounter with Buddhism was in meeting a friend
who had just returned from a three-month retreat. I was
so happy to find out that this was possible, even for
Still, retreats aren’t right for every yogi. It’s a good
idea to speak to a teacher about it, because there are
some practitioners who should be encouraged to do a
retreat and others who should not. As for timing, a good
time to go on a long retreat is when you don’t have many
responsibilities. Few of us are able to sit three-year
retreats in the midst of family life. Shorter retreats
ranging from three months to a weekend are more the norm
in the insight meditation tradition.
As for your question about what brings the greatest
benefit to others, it depends on how you are in your
everyday life and how you practice as a hermit yogi. In
family, work, and community life, are you dedicated to
openheartedness? Are you committed to being mindful and
aware in the midst of your life? If you are sitting a
retreat, are you sitting a self-retreat or a not-self
retreat? By this I mean, is your intent to try to get
something, or is it to learn more about letting go?
What’s key is whether you’re living your life with
awareness and nongrasping - regardless of whether you’re
alone on retreat or with others in community.
Although Buddhist communities generally stress the value
of retreats, if you are not able to do retreats -
perhaps because of physical or emotional vulnerabilities
or because of responsibilities to others - it’s
essential not to view this as a problem, and to embrace
your life as it is. Attending to what is happening right
now is the key to transformation. I’d like to stress
this point because I come in contact with so many yogis
who suffer from self-doubt because they are no longer
able to sit retreats due to chronic illness. There are
many ways to attain the kind of understanding that
liberates the heart; it is not confined to any
particular form, such as a retreat.
Beginning practitioners sometimes ask he if it’s selfish
to go on retreat. This strikes me as curious given that
daily life activities such as watching television,
playing video games, and spending hours on Facebook are
not normally questioned. As with all things, it’s
important to examine your motivation. Ask yourself why
you want to do a retreat.
- Summer 2010