The purpose of a silent retreat

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Part of a series of teachings given during the Manjushri Winter Retreat from December 2008 to March 2009 at Sravasti Abbey.

  • The purpose of silence on retreat
  • Retreat etiquette
  • Daily life on the retreat
  • Counting the mantra

Manjushri Retreat 03A: Q&A (download)

Let’s sit quietly for a few minutes.

Let’s set our motivation. As the time draws closer to retreat, you can almost feel the transition like a sun setting or rising. A shift in energy is occurring. And as we slip into retreat mind, let’s bring with us the motivation that brought us here. Let’s bring with us the tremendous care that every person expressed in the circle yesterday for the suffering of beings, the tremendous aspiration to take advantage of this rare opportunity to practice. And even as our minds and the hall and the house and the land get quieter and quieter, may our connection with our aspiration to benefit others grow and grow. And as we develop our relationship with Manjushri, may our confidence in our capacity to become just like him also grow. Use this study session to deepen that. So let’s recite the homage to Manjushri again, which is on page 10 in the blue book [Pearl of Wisdom, Volume 1]. It would be a nice way to start our study sessions every day.

Homage to Manjushri

Obeisance to my guru and protector, Manjushri,
Who holds to his heart scriptural text symbolic of his seeing all things as they are,
Whose intelligence shines forth like the sun unclouded by the two obscurations,
Who teaches in 60 ways, with the loving compassion of a parent for his only child, all wanderers caught in the prison of samsara, confused in the darkness of their ignorance, overwhelmed by their suffering.
You whose dragon-thunder-like proclamation of Dharma arouses us from the stupor of our afflictions and frees us from the iron chains of our karma;
Who wields the sword of wisdom hewing down suffering wherever its sprouts appear, clearing away the darkness of ignorance;
You, whose princely body is adorned with the one hundred and twelve marks of a Buddha,
Who has completed the stages achieving the highest perfection of a bodhisattva,
Who has been pure from the beginning,
I bow down to you, O Manjushri;
With the brilliance of your wisdom, O compassionate one,
Illuminate the darkness enclosing my mind,
Enlighten my intelligence and wisdom
So that I may gain insight into the Buddha’s words and the texts that explain them.

We’ve talked a little bit about the retreat discipline all along, but now that we’re about to open one door and shut the other one—open our door into retreat and shut the door on our worldly concerns—now’s a good time to reiterate some and to bring some to our attention that we haven’t talked about yet.

One of the things I want to talk about again, briefly, is the silence and how we keep it, remembering that one of the great gifts of silence on retreat is that we don’t have to be anybody. I mean we’re spending a lot of time with Manjushri trying to figure out that we aren’t anybody, and so without the need to talk to each other, then all the stuff we do throughout the day—totally unconsciously—talking about ourselves, or wondering how do we look good, or all the stuff we get caught up in, we can just drop.

In the course of the silence you have the space to do whatever you need to do, to do your practice. So sometimes that may mean being quite friendly and connected with everyone, you know, openhearted. Some people, you know like in some vipassana retreats have downcast eyes the whole time. We don’t do that. At the same time, if you are in a place where you really are internal, there is plenty of space for you to be internal, and nobody’s going to come and tap you on the shoulder and make you laugh. Because we are respecting wherever it is that each of us is, in order to do our practice. That’s part of the great beauty of the silence.

In holding that space for all of us to be able to do whatever we need to do, as we’re deepening our practice and developing our relationship with Manjushri and becoming familiar with the lamrim and most importantly becoming familiar with our own minds, then silence is not just not talking. If we need to communicate with each other, and it’s essential, we can write a note. It’s a really good idea before you pick up the pen though, to ask yourself that question, “Is this essential?” And if you are going to write a note it’s really great if you don’t write it in a public place. You can go to your room or go to some place that’s a little bit out of the way, because even the energy of writing at the dining room table … right, right, everybody’s looking, like “oh argh argh argh” because it brings a ripple into the community, and it is communication. It takes a while to actually become aware of that, but if we hold that boundary quite tightly then we will have the space that we need to practice.

That’s also not to say that we need to put a lid on our joy, that we need to never laugh, that we don’t have a good time. It is simply to say that we do that from a place that’s very internal. If we honor that place in each other then the joy or the expression of that will be quite natural and in the context of the silence. We’ll also see—cause this is certainly my thing, my tendency is to want to crack a joke. Watch it come up. “Why did that come up? Oh how interesting. Look how many times a day I want to crack a joke.” Well let’s investigate that. Rather than do it, let’s investigate what’s behind that. And that’s part of how we get to know ourselves in the course of the retreat. The silence is really precious, and the more consciously we hold it for each other, the deeper our retreat can go. I think it’s helpful to hold it not so much as “I need to suppress myself, and put a clamp on myself,” but more to hold it as “I really care about the people that are sharing this aspiration with me, and I want to honor their retreat. I want to, out of my own love and care for the people I’m with, honor the silence.” So that’s a great motivation to hold it.

As I said before and I’ll say again, if you run into stuff, have questions or whatever, there’s a note box for the retreat manager downstairs on the tea counter. It is going to be very tempting to communicate with the people who are offering service. Let me simply warn you—don’t! Really, don’t, because they are having a hard enough time trying to maintain a retreat mind as they are offering the service that allows us to be here. It is more kind to the people who are helping us be on this retreat to not engage them in our questions. Even though it may look obvious, like, “Oh, I won’t bug this person in silence, but I can talk to the person who’s not keeping silence.” Let me just cut that thought off right now, because they are working really, really hard to stay in retreat mind. Just leave me a note; I’ll deal with it.

Of course if something critical comes up and you’re in terrible pain, you’re so confused, some memory comes up that you need to deal with—I don’t know what—but things do come along. When we’re in our silence things come up in the mind, and if there’s any kind of critical situation, of course, we’ll talk. But check, is it necessary. Just check, is it necessary, and that will help us hold it.

Even taking walks and then thinking you’ll get far enough out in the woods that you can have a conversation where it won’t bug anybody, even if people don’t actually hear it, the energy of talking will come back with you. Believe me, most of us know all the tricks of how we think we can get away with this. And it has an impact. I just want to state them because we’ve all tried them, or we’ve all thought about them at least on past retreats. That’s enough on silence.

An old woman holding a mala reciting mantra.

Mantra is a way to protect our minds from the tendency to want to be flying away. (Photo by Esther Lee)

The other thing that will help tremendously is to keep your mind here. A month isn’t so long, but I think you may find yourself fantasizing how long it would take to walk to Newport or asking yourself where is the nearest place to get a candy bar. Those thoughts come to mind. What’s happening at home? There’s this thing I didn’t quite finish before I left. Is the person who’s going to come visit me the day I get home still coming, all of those things. When they come up, just as though you were meditating on your breath, bring your mind back to retreat, back to Manjushri. The more we can keep our minds here, again, the deeper the retreat will be. And you can use the mantra. You can keep that mantra going all day, all night. We’ll talk about counting them. Only the ones sitting on our cushion count. But mantra is a way to protect our minds from the tendency to want to be flying away. This is especially true at the beginning and then again at the end. That mantra can really help us stay settled and seated.

In the hall, silence is also important. Venerable had a list of things that we should talk about which included sitting still. It’s interesting that was on her list. The first few days our bodies are adjusting, so certainly we need to adjust to accommodate that, but even that tendency to want to fix it, correct, and so forth, begins to have an impact. It’s not like suppression, but check your mind before you move. If your body’s feeling a little restless and uncomfortable, where’s that coming from internally? And for the sake of the people we’re retreating with, we’ll try to keep the materials already open, you know what lamrim you’re doing, your sadhana’s already open [so pages don’t rustle]. After about 20 minutes of this [fidgets], everyone knows it, except usually the person who’s doing it. It’s good to stay aware of that sort of thing, as well.

All of these are just pointers about how to be kind to each other. That’s really the practice, is how to care for one another’s retreat.

As I said, Venerable Chodron had said that we have a mantra commitment of 777,777 recitations. I finally have done the math and I don’t think we can do that in a month. Yeah, that is about 26,000 a day. And, you know, you can do a lot of the short manta. You can do a lot of malas in 10 or 15 or 20 minutes in a session. And so, that’s a bit of a guide as to how much of our session we should put into that visualization/mantra recitation: kind of a lot. At the same time, you might want to set a goal that’s more like a third of that. People have different feelings about the value of counting mantra. I personally find it very, very helpful. I feel like it really keeps me on track as to how to use my session time, and I’m kind of goal oriented. If I’m staying on track with that, then it gives me something to keep moving, keep moving, keep moving. Some people get really obsessive about it and it drives them crazy. You probably know which of those types you are. If you’re the kind of person that needs a goal to keep you going, count them, and if they will make you crazy, then that’s not so important.

One of the things Venerable has taught, which I think is really fantastic, especially with the mantra, is to technically hold the mala here [holds it in front of chest], which for me personally helps because after a while the repetitive motion thing gets difficult, so you can do what you can do, but this is the best way to do it.

Audience: Where is that technicality, just out of curiosity, because I’ve never heard Venerable say that?

Venerable Thubten Chonyi (VTCh): You’ve never heard her say that? Yeah, that’s the way I’ve learned it, always. You hold it at your heart with one hand. But you do what you need to do. That’s the point, for people who have wondered this. If you end up doing it this way or doing it with your other hand, it’s fine. It’s totally fine.

And then Venerable has this technique of getting a little pile of beans or something and maybe a jar lid or something, and when you finish a mala just move a bean over. We’ve got beans. At the end of your session, you just count the beans that have been moved. And that really gives you a great, easy way to take care of counting how many malas. Some people have counters on their malas, if those work for you that’s fine, but it’s just an easy technique to do. However, if you are a bean counter, make sure that you have something soft and that they are not rolling all over the floor, either. Something to corral them with and something that is reasonably silent as you move them; so you can find something.

Audience: Kidney beans or lima beans rather than great northern beans, which roll more.

VTCh: I don’t think the variety of bean really matters, but it’s a way to keep track. If you leave the session early, you cannot come back in the hall. And if you leave the session early and you’re counting mantra, the mantras from that session do not count.There’s a whole series of disqualifying behaviors for counting mantra. It depends on how strictly you want to hold that, but they say that burping, coughing, farting, sneezing—if any of these things happen while you’re doing the mantra recitations, you start over with that particular mala.

Audience: Or getting distracted.

VTCh: Wait, I haven’t gotten there yet. [laughter] Getting distracted is the one that also disqualifies, but if you did that one, who knows, if you were ever doing mantra counting. Getting distracted is the big one.

But all of those things are mostly about keeping us mindful and aware, mindful and alert.

I don’t know that this needs to be said, but I will say it again. We all come to every session. Venerable has been quite emphatic lately, too, about the parameters of that, but if you are really sick in bed, getting up and doing one session a day will keep the continuity of the practice going. Otherwise, unless you’re so sick that you can’t sit up, just be sick in here and do your practice. And that’s another great advantage of being on retreat.

Healthwise, we’ll do our best to keep hygiene in the kitchen. If you are sick don’t go to the kitchen, don’t do your kitchen chore, find Kathleen, give her a note, but do come to the hall.

Audience: If you get a big cold, upper respiratory, get your own towel. Don’t use the community towels in the bathrooms. Get your own towel and put it somewhere—on the hook on the door or something.

Audience: And also wash your hands a lot. Washing your hands a lot helps because you’re touching door knobs and everything.

Audience: Just a comment on colds, it’s actually more effective for everybody to wash their own hands because, I mean, not just if you’re sick, plus it’s impossible, it’s almost impossible to contain viruses. It’s just a good idea to keep your hands washed.

VTCh: And if we get sick on retreat, it is great purification. We do a fantastic rejoicing practice, and realize that this is a ripening karma that could have instead ripened in some god awful rebirth. We have no idea. If that’s what happens we’ll practice with it and rejoice.

Audience: I have a question on counting mantra. Each time we make it around do we do the DHIH, or do we just end with the DHIH 28 times?

VTCh:At the very end of your mantra recitation, that’s when you do the DHIH. That’s the closing. No matter whether you do the general recitation and then add the other wisdoms—however long—you don’t do the 28 DHIH until the very end. Did you have a question about counting mantra?

Audience: How beneficial is it to actually keep track? Is it just so that in my own mind I can see that I’m doing well, or is it helpful with my motivation. Didn’t you say it was optional to count mantra?

VTCh:Yes, it really depends on how your mind works. But the mantra is very, very powerful. So to say I’m not going to do mantra is probably not good—I’m giving an extreme. If you set yourself a goal for the number to do, it will keep you going. It will just keep you going with the mantra. But that really is up to you. I would suggest finding a way to make sure you are doing a fair amount of mantra recitations.

The last thing about coming into the hall is, we said this before, but again, enter quietly with a quiet mind. And when you leave people may still be practicing, so also exit quietly with a quiet mind so that people can continue to do their practice longer than the session if they want to.

Audience: Remind people about not making clicking sounds when counting on the mala.

VTCh:Yes, just be aware of the clicking bead thing. If you have a loud mala, you can actually use your fingers to help separate them. Also be mindful when placing the mala on your puja table.

A few other things: on Sunday when we’re all in retreat, we’re all in retreat. The offering service people will shut down the office, no computers, none of that. We’ll all be on retreat. I’d like to ask the offering service people, and I’ll take this as a poll, but can you guys not get on a computer until after breakfast? That would be really helpful because there’s no way not to have traffic through the office, and if people are already on the computer before breakfast it’s disturbing. Being off that would be really great. Okay, thank you.

One of the things I forgot to mention early on is that we have a training rule that is very helpful with our mindfulness training with eating and drinking, and that is that we don’t eat or drink while we are standing up. If you’re going to have a cup of tea, or you’re going to have a snack, or you’re going to have a meal, just sit down and enjoy it. It takes a little while to get adjusted to that, if we’re used to eating on the run, but it really does help you be much more mindful of the activities that you’re doing. That was just something I noticed that we hadn’t covered.

Here’s the main thing, and that is to really go on vacation with Manjushri. Not in the sense of being lazy and sitting on the beach. But as Venerable Chodron says, the opinion factory is now closed. All the stuff that we do to judge ourselves, all the things we say about I’m so stupid, I don’t know if I can do this right, look at me, I just messed it up again, I just had a terrible session, like, that’s an opinion factory. Shut it. And we do it to each other, too. And you’ll notice when we’re in the silence how easy it is to assess what that person is eating, how much they had eaten, how little they had eaten, how they walk down the hill, why are they walking so fast, what kind of mood are they in, look at the look on that face, how come that person hasn’t looked up, I haven’t seen them smile in days, do you think they’re, like, suicidal, do you think they’re homicidal? (laughter) If nothing else, this will literally show us what samsara is—the mind under the influence of karma and afflictions. That’s the mind we’re taking a vacation from. The practice of Manjushri is allowing us to develop a relationship with our own wisdom and to aspire to a wisdom without all of our opinions about ourselves, all our self-inflicted, cramped-up identities. That’s the vacation we go on. Any stuff we have about good session, bad session, oh I just had a terrible session: there is no terrible session. Every single moment that we are on retreat with the aspiration to deepen our wisdom and deepen our compassion is a moment we are creating causes for our enlightenment—every single moment. There will be sessions that will be more comfortable than others. There will be sessions that are happier than others. There will be half a session that feels really good and then it kind of goes downhill, or we’ll start out with something we’re not so happy about and then by the end, oh, well that wasn’t so bad. The judgment is irrelevant. Give yourself a break. And we’ll give each other a break if we’re giving ourselves a break. That will really help us relax, and in that state of relaxation we will have a happy mind. Keep your mind happy as much as you can; that will make a huge difference in your capacity to practice, too.

Audience: Another thing, too, is don’t bring any books in to the hall to read during session.

Audience: And no writing.

VTCh: Yes, no writing either.

One other thing about balance is food and exercise. We’ll be sitting for hours and hours and hours, so get up and walk. It makes a huge difference, a huge difference. There’s time in the schedule to do it. Go out, look far in the distance. The road has a nice view, expand your mind, look far and wide. Dianne was mentioning that yesterday, how valuable that is. It is really valuable. It’s something good to do. Doing circumambulation around the Buddha in the garden is wonderful for calming the mind or for doing practice that’s not sitting.

People have talked about taking precepts for the whole retreat—some people already have I think—which is great. Make sure your body is well fed, well nourished. That you don’t eat too much because it puts you to sleep, and that you don’t eat too little because it makes you crabby and a little spacey. Just watching those things, taking good care of yourselves, and taking good care of each other, taking really good care of each other.

And finally I just wanted to share a story about the Vajrasattva retreat that has really stayed with me about how we influence each other in the silence, and also how vividly our minds distort things. This was very late in our retreat, like the last half of the third month, and it had been snowing for a while, and we were all kind of waiting for medicine meal or something. One of the people on retreat was looking out the window watching the snow fall, and it was this beautiful silhouette, and somebody picked up a camera from the back, and took a photo. There was another person sitting in the same neighborhood of that person who had the picture taken and she had been really in a bad way. You could tell she’d just been in a bad mood for a few days, and when she heard this click, she turned around, and, just like, didn’t say a word, but the stabbing dagger look at the person who had clicked—you could feel it across the room. Clearly she assumed that her photo had been taken and it wasn’t okay with her. It was just because it hit her at such a tender time, you know. But instantly she had a whole story going, and was just furious. She went out the door, slammed the door and the whole house shook as she went out the door. Then just a few minutes later, she came back in, threw a note down in front of the person who had taken the photo and then stormed out. The person who had taken the photo calmly picked up the note, burst into tears, and ran upstairs. Now, everybody, 12 people on this retreat, everybody is like stirred up. It was unbelievable how that one moment of anger just inflamed the whole group. I don’t know what the note said, I never did find out. And I think it was months later, before that person knew that that photo had not been taken of her. She just never knew, but she had that story so clearly in her head already. And it’s not to condemn her, and it’s not to condemn anybody, it was just such a clear illustration of how we project all over each other and react, and how it affects everybody. That’s just a story. But it is an opportunity for us to see how those things really happen in our minds, to see our habitual responses to those things and through the blessings of Manjushri, to learn, to learn from it.

Finally, at night when you go to bed, lay your head in the lap of Manjushri, feel all that warm, golden light from the Manjushri body just saturate your body and your mind. And then when you wake up in the morning, remember to set the motivation to harm no living being, to help others as much as you can, and to keep the bodhicitta motivation in your mind and heart as much as you possibly can. And right then, before you get out of bed, tune into Manjushri and ask for inspiration and help.

Venerable Semkye was talking to people about how to lead sessions this afternoon, and what came to mind was reminding all that all of our motivations from the morning practice result in bodhicitta—that’s our goal, so that’s what we’re motivating for again and again, and to keep them kind of brief, thorough, but brief enough so that people have a chance to practice.

Audience: Back to notes, which you covered right at the beginning. Notes only to you or notes to each other? The reason I ask this is that I’ve had the experience in retreat of being handed a note, well, my reaction wasn’t as extreme as the person who thought her picture had been taken, but it was sort of, like, I don’t want to read this.

VTCh: I think that’s the rule, the guideline, is we just don’t give each other notes unless it’s essential, period. And then you choose. You don’t have to open the note just because somebody gave it to you. You know, wait to another time, or stick it in your pocket. If somebody gives me a note, I almost never read it right then. Read it later.

It’s really difficult not to write notes. Exactly, that’s attachment to reputation and that’s when it all comes up and you’re like, “I want to make sure I’m doing this right.” So you really have to kind of like ask yourself, “is this note necessary?” And 99 percent of the time it is not.

Watch the impulse. Spend time with that and just let go, let go, let go.

Audience: The transition at the end of the one month, when are we going to talk about that?

VTCh:Oh, in about 30 days. So not only keep your mind on retreat, but keep your mind on today. Karen asked about it, too, maybe you weren’t there. Venerable [Chodron] always does completion and closing. She’s very conscientious about it. So we’ll deal with it when we get there.

But we’re not leaving silence at the end of the 30 days?

No. There will be some formal conclusion of the one-month retreat, and I don’t know what that is. But we’ll find out. We’ll find out in 30 days, 28 probably.

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