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What it means to do retreat

What it means to do retreat, Page 1

Part of a series of Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talks given during the Green Tara Winter Retreat from December 2009 to March 2010.

  • What it means to do retreat
  • How to approach the sadhana
  • How to keep the practice fresh during retreat and avoid getting bored
  • Instruction on doing the parts of the sadhana and doing the visualization

Green Tara Retreat: What is retreat and instruction (download)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4


Let’s generate our motivation. To be free of cyclic existence. To generate the bodhicitta—a motivation of altruism seeking to become a buddha for the benefit of all living beings. Then, based on that motivation, to realize the nature of reality so that we can cleanse our mind of all afflictions and attain full enlightenment. Let’s have that as our long-term goal of what we’re doing.

What is the meaning of being in retreat?

I wanted to talk a little bit this afternoon about doing retreat and what it means. So, of course, I am talking more specifically to people who are doing retreat here at the Abbey, who have a more limited environment. But certainly a lot of what I’m going to say will apply to people who are doing the retreat from afar as well, especially when I start talking about the sadhana and so on.

First of all, we have to understand what the meaning of retreat is. Sometimes we think retreat means that you go lock yourself up in some faraway place, “I’m retreating from the world. So, I’m going to go sit up in a cave and do my meditation practice.” That’s not necessarily retreat. Now, what do you think of that? “Wait a minute, wait a minute, I want to be in a nice solitary place, not have any hassles—that’s retreat.” No, not necessarily.

What are we retreating from? We are retreating from the afflictions, we’re retreating from the cause of dukkha. That’s what we are separating ourselves from. The retreat is not just a physical retreat, not just isolating and separating ourselves out from society or from all sorts of business. If our mind is very busy, then we are not on retreat at all. What we’re retreating from are the afflictions and the karma (the negative actions we do physically, verbally, and mentally). That’s what we’re retreating from. We’re not escaping from work and family, and this and that and the other thing, and the email. We’re really trying to change our mind, so that our mind retreats from negativity.

That’s something very important to understand at the beginning; otherwise we’re going to get really prickly about the environment and little bit of noise or a little bit of this or that, “I am on retreat, how come this person is disturbing me?” If you are on retreat, then you’ve got to make that mind itself not be an angry mind. You see that the mind that is saying, “I am mad at so-and-so for doing this and that.” Or, “I don’t like the food.” Or, “I don’t like this, I want this, I want that.” Those thoughts are not on retreat. But we tend to get really wrapped up in those thoughts and think they are very real. So the real retreat is from disturbing emotions, these kinds of complaining thoughts, negative thoughts, physical, verbal actions, harmful actions. That is the meaning of retreat. That is really important to understand.

Actually, we are trying to be on retreat, aren’t we? We’re going to try real hard during this next period of time to be on retreat. Sometimes we’ll be on retreat and sometimes we’ll be in la-la land. But the idea is (when our mind is going to la-la land, when our mind is off in its own creations) to realize these are only thoughts. This is not reality. I need to come back to retreat. So retreat is a virtuous mind, virtuous physical and verbal actions. That is quite important to remember.

Retreat schedule and caring for ourselves and others

In general, we have the schedule here of six sessions, one of which is a study session. Keep to the schedule. Some days you will not feel like coming to the meditation hall. Come anyway! Some days your mind going to go, “I just want to stay in bed. I need a break. I’ve been working so hard, haven’t I, Tara? I’m exhausted from all this meditation I’m doing. I need to sleep today.” As Lama Yeshe would say, “Check up, dear.” If you’re sick, that’s one thing. But the mind will make up all sorts of things. This is why the schedule and the group support are so helpful; it helps us really stay on what we’re doing and not let the mind go here and there. Like I said yesterday, the question, “What do I feel like doing?” Toss that question out. Don’t even think about, “What do I feel like doing?” You just do it. If you’re sick, you can’t do it, rest. If your mind is really acting up and you’re having some difficulties controlling your mind, come see me. But try. We all came here to do the retreat, so we have to keep our mind in the right place so that we’ll do it. That’s the purpose of the schedule and the group support.

Please arrive on time for the sessions. This is a way of showing our compassion for the other people that are doing the retreat. If we arrive late and we make a lot of noise coming in late then we disturb other people. If other people make a lot of noise coming in, don’t let your mind be disturbed. They must have some reason for what they are doing. Don’t try and think what it is, come back to your meditation practice. From your side, try and be where you need to be when you need to be there, because this is a part of compassionate behavior in the retreat.

Make sure that your keep your body healthy: eat enough, drink enough, and get enough exercise. Take walks in the woods in the snow. We have some exercise equipment, please feel free to use it. We need to keep our bodies healthy. Do yoga or qi gong or walking meditation or whatever you need to do, but really move your body. And especially if you’re feeling a little bit like your mind is cluttered or restless, go out and chop wood. Go out in the forest and limb the branches. Do something physical. If you do something physical and you get your body involved, your mind calms down. It’s important during the retreat to get exercise. Don’t just stay in the house, do something.

Different people are doing different chores. See them as an opportunity to offer service. They are not something you have to do that’s taking you away from the retreat and your meditation. They are a way to practice compassion and to offer service to the group and accumulate merit. Change the way you look at things like that. Whether you’re cleaning the bathroom or cleaning the dishes, there are all these thought training practices. Especially when you are cleaning, think that you’re cleaning sentient beings’ mindstreams of defilement and the like. Practice thinking like that when you’re doing the different chores.

How to use the study session during retreat

For your study time, it’s very good to have an idea of what you are going to study (whether it is a specific topic or a specific book), and stay with that. Sometimes there’s temptation like, “Oh, I want to study this,” and then tomorrow, “Oh, I want to read about that,” and the day after, “I want to do this.” And so you jump from book to book, looking for something, or from some of your notes to others. Fix on one thing that you really want to go into, and go into it. When you feel like you’ve understood (gone into it enough), it’s time to move to another topic. But don’t just bounce around. The reason for the study is that when you do some reading in the break time, it gives you some ideas for what to meditate on in the session time.

If you’re reading about refuge, when you’re doing the refuge prayer, you have a better idea of what you should be thinking. If you are reading about bodhicitta, when you do the bodhicitta prayer, you can remember all of that. There are so many of the lamrim topics that fit right into the sadhana—the text of the practice that you’re doing. Take those and put them in. You might need to think about it, how do I put it in? If you’re meditating on the four noble truths, where does that belong in the sadhana? Well, the first two noble truths, dukkha (or suffering) and its causes, are going be part of what’s going to impel us to generate renunciation. And then the last two noble truths are the Dharma refuge. So if we contemplate the four noble truths, it helps us when we’re taking refuge. It helps us know where we’re going in our practice and why we are going there. It’s something that is a prelude for generating bodhicitta. All these kinds of things you can integrate into the sadhana, and stop at the different points of the sadhana and think more clearly about these different topics.

Working with the sadhana—making it work

Then it comes to the whole thing of doing the sadhana. Some people see the sadhana as a recipe book. I take it out, and I start on page one, and I read that. “Got that.” Then I read the four immeasurables. “Okay, got them.” Then, the actual practice. “Read each thing, yes, got that visualization.” They go through it like this, with that kind of attitude—and then they wonder why they don’t have any feeling from the practice. That’s because you’re looking at the sadhana as a task you have to do. It’s like, here’s this thing and I’ve got to get through it. But don’t see the sadhana like that. See the sadhana as something that is going to guide you in your meditation, so that it helps keep you on track.

There are the different contemplations in the sadhana, the different visualizations. As you go through it, you will think about different things, meditate on different things. It’s guiding your mind in a particular way. See it as something that helps guide your mind to the kind of goal you want to achieve. Don’t see it as something that you have to get through. It’s like, “Oh my goodness, I’m spending the whole beginning part meditating on refuge and the bell is going to ring any minute, and I haven’t done the rest of it. Oh my goodness, the first day and I am a failure already. I haven’t even gotten through this whole thing! But I have to get through the whole thing, so that gives me one minute for refuge, two minutes for the four immeasurables. Better cut the visualization time down to two minutes, so that I can get through the rest of it.” Don’t drive yourself crazy, please! Don’t do that. It’s just a guide that’s going to help you develop your mind.

Each meditation session is going to be different. Sometimes, you will want to go very quickly through the sadhana and spend a lot of time on lamrim. Other times, you may just want stay with refuge and bodhicitta at the beginning, and go very quickly through the rest of it. You can alter how much time you spend on what part of it. Don’t feel like every session has to be an exact rerun of the previous one, because you are just going to get bored and fed up that way. You’ve got to make it very interesting for yourself.

Working with afflictions

Some people have said to me, “I have so many things coming up in my mind that it makes it hard to get through the practice. I have anger coming up at this moment, and attachment coming up at that moment. Do I stop and kind of straighten out each moment of anger and each moment of attachment before I go on to the next paragraph in the sadhana?” We would never even start! Sometimes we start with some breathing meditation to calm the mind, and some people think, “Well, my mind is not perfectly calm. What should I do? I mean, do I have to start this thing anyway? I’ve got to get my mind totally, perfectly, 100 percent calm and then I’ll take refuge.” No! Each of these things, like I said, are a guide. Each of the passages in it, are a guide to help steer our mind.

It doesn’t mean you have to do every single thing in it perfectly to the last detail before you go onto the next part—because we do this sometimes. We start with it: “Okay, in the space above, on a luminous jewel throne … luminous jewel throne … okay. I got the jewel throne, but it’s not very luminous. How do I make it luminous? Okay, it’s getting a little bit brighter there. What’s on top of that? Oh, a lotus and a moon seat. Oh, I just lost the throne. I better go back and get the throne. Okay, the throne is kind of coming. I don’t know if jewels are rubies or sapphires, though, maybe some lapis lazuli. What kind of jewels are in this throne? Maybe it’s a combination and a few diamonds. I’ve got it. Oh, then what’s on top, I forgot already? Oh, the lotus and the moon seat. Okay, the lotus. Now what color of lotus? There are blue and pink and white. Is it a big lotus, a small lotus? And a moon seat, what does a moon seat look like? Oh, yes, she said it was a flat moon. But the moon is not flat. If Tara sat on a flat cushion, her behind is going to hurt. It’s got to be a round cushion. Okay, I got that. And what is on top of that? Okay, my root guru. Oh, my God! I don’t even know who my root guru is, how am I going to do this practice?”

You see if you try to do the practice like that and get every single thing exactly perfectly, you’re not going to get anywhere. Just read it. Get some idea. Tara is not sitting on a basketball court. She is sitting on a throne. You get some general idea. And, your root guru, you just figure that out somehow. Just take His Holiness if you have any doubts about it. But your root guru is in the form of Tara, so you don’t think of His Holiness but with Tara’s body or Tara with His Holiness’s face. It’s the essence, the nature of the two are the same.

Do you see what I mean about not squeezing yourself, thinking you have to get every single thing down perfectly before you go on to the next passage? Don’t do the sadhana like that. Really, don’t—because you won’t even make it to the root guru. You just get some idea of it, and like I said, some sessions you may spend more time with visualizations, other sessions you may just do the visualization very quickly, it just pops in, and you don’t need to go over all the details. You just think like you walk in a room and you see the people. When you walk in a room, it’s not like Venerable Semkye appears first, and then Alanda appears, and then Dallas appears. It’s like there’s a group of people. You just see them all. So similarly, sometimes the visualization just pops in like that. It doesn’t have to be crystal clear. When you walk in a room you’re not noticing that somebody is wearing a gray sweatshirt. You’re just noticing there are a lot of people. So sometimes you just get a basic general idea when you do it, and other times you spend more time on it. In other words, you have to do the sadhana with some flexibility.

Now, what happens if you’re in the middle of meditating on four immeasurables (on page one). “How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings had happiness and its causes.” And you go, “All sentient beings … Oh, well, I don’t really know about this all sentient being thing. There’s got to be a finite some number of sentient beings. Why do they say `infinite’? That just doesn’t make sense, because if it’s infinite sentient beings, you can add on one more. It’s got to be a finite number. These kinds of inconsistencies appear all the time in the teachings. I don’t really know if I believe in what the Buddha said.” And your mind goes out on doubt, for one little thing. Infinite sentient beings means countless. We can’t stop counting. There is a finite number, but you can’t ever get to the end of it, because there are so many (whatever it is). Don’t get into a whole bout of doubt about this one word and then start doubting everything, every teaching, you’ve ever heard. And even if, you know, what I just said doesn’t make sense. “Oh, she said it’s a finite number, but they say, infinite, but there are so many you can’t count them. But, if it’s finite I should be able to count them. What she’s saying isn’t making sense.”

Is that really what you want to be thinking about when you die? I don’t think so. So, if your mind starts to spin out on some silly doubt kind of question like that, just bring it back where it belongs. Like when saying, “May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes,” in your mind you think, “But, I don’t know, this guy cheated me. I don’t want him to have happiness and its causes. I want him to go to hell. Oh, that’s anger in my mind. Now, what do I do? I’ve got my puja table covered with things, but not with Working with Anger [a text]. I’d better think of an antidote for anger. Oh yes, it’s my karma. It’s my karma that he treated me so badly. Well, it’s his karma. He’s going to get it back too! Oh, that’s anger again. I better do something with my anger.”

If you’re having a really strong case of anger, then stop and do a meditation on fortitude. Do a meditation on love and compassion so that you can calm your mind down. Subdue that affliction a little bit, and then go on to the next thing. If it’s just a little bit of anger and you notice you’re distracted, then just bring your mind back and that’s good enough—because we’re going to have ten million distractions. If you stop and apply an antidote that takes 15 minutes to each distraction, that’s not going to work. Try and bring your mind back. If it stays back, good enough. If your mind is just like full blown anger, then clearly you have to stop and do something with that because your mind is not going to go on to anything else. It’s too angry to do that. You’ve got to stop at that point, and switch your object of meditation, and do a meditation on fortitude, patience, and compassion.

You’re the one who has to make the sadhana work for you. Make the sadhana flow in a natural way. Please don’t think you have to be a perfectionist with it. If an affliction comes up, practice Dharma means to transform the mind, so you have to bring your mind back to where it is, to the sadhana.

We’re the ones who really need to make the practice so it works with us. And it’s going to be different every session. We have to learn to be a doctor to our own mind and to work with those things and to play with the sadhana. Don’t see it as this concrete thing that you have to squeeze your mind into.

Play with it, especially when you’re thinking of Tara. Tara is full of love and compassion. Really try and get a feeling for being in the presence of somebody who accepts you unconditionally the way you are. That can sometimes be tough, “How can I sit here and Tara is looking at me, unconditionally accepting me. She must be a fool if she unconditionally accepts me, because I am full of rotten garbage. I don’t accept myself. How can she accept me?” Well, that’s the difference between a sentient being and a buddha; that a buddha can accept others. We sentient beings really give ourselves a hard time, and we give others a hard time. Just try and relax into it. Let Tara accept you. Try and feel what that feels like inside your own heart, for somebody to look at you with complete acceptance and kindness. So play with that kind of thing.

Proper meditation methods

Then the question comes, “Well, do I have to do the sadhana every session?” It’s good if you can. If this is going to be Tara retreat for you, then it’s good if you do the sadhana every session. Like I said, how you do it can be very, very different from one session to the next—extremely different. You can spend a long time on one part and a short time on everything else. That’s fine.

Now, if you really feel that the Tara sadhana isn’t working for you, and you want to do another kind of meditation, then let me know and we’ll figure out what kind of meditation you want to do. Make sure that you have a good background in the instructions on how to do that meditation. Some of you may be interested in mindfulness practice. But you have to know how to do mindfulness meditation correctly. What is mindfulness of the body? What is mindfulness of the feelings, mindfulness of mind, mindfulness of phenomena? You have to know how to do it. It’s not just sitting there. That’s important.

If for some reason it doesn’t work for you, we can alter things a little bit. Still we need to be careful not to make up our own kinds of meditation. Within this we can play a lot. But we just don’t want to make up our own meditation, where we really don’t know what we’re doing. “I am going to meditate on emptiness, so let’s get all those thoughts out of my mind. Well, I got all the thoughts out of my mind, and now I am getting a little bit drowsy and falling asleep. But, there are no thoughts.” That’s not where you want to get to in your practice. Getting a mind that has absolutely no thoughts in it but it doesn’t have a very clear object and your mind is kind of lethargic—that is not where you want to go to in your practice. It might feel very good but there are a lot of warnings in the teachings about getting into that kind of state. That’s why I think it’s really important that we have instructions for whatever kind of meditation we’re doing.

Sometimes you can do it fast, sometimes you can do it slow. You can emphasize one thing, you can emphasize another thing. If you find that the breathing meditation helps you a lot, do a lot of breathing at the beginning. But also, make sure you know how to do the breathing meditation correctly. There are different ways of doing it. Make sure that you understand which way you are doing it, so that you know what you are doing.


Somebody was asking about dreams. When you do retreat, sometimes your dreams get pretty wild. That’s very natural. Whenever you’re doing some kind of purification activities, stuff will come out in your dreams. A dream is only a dream. If it’s a bad dream, so what? If it’s a good dream, that’s nice. Don’t latch onto your dreams as if they inherently exist. Actually a dream is the analogy for non-inherent existence. If we latch onto the analogy as meaning the opposite from what it’s suppose to mean, then we’re definitely not going to understand illusion-like reality in our daily life. If you have a bad dream, take refuge, wake up. If you’re doing something naughty in your dream, just say, “I confess that, I don’t want to do that. Gee, I wonder how that thought came into my mind?” You might kind of understand something about yourself if you look at your dreams. But don’t get real worried about it. Just have some regret. You didn’t do the action because this is only a dream. There is no object there. Similarly, if you dream that you’re flying in the sky and Tara appeared to you and said, “You are the one.” Say, “It’s very nice, I dreamed of Tara. That’s kind of auspicious. But the real purpose of my meditation is to become Tara. Not to just dream about her, but to transform my mind into her compassion and wisdom. So I still go back and do my practice. I have work to do.”

Don’t grab onto things. We tend to grab onto everything. Then we give it all sorts of meanings that it may or may not have, “Oh, I dreamed of green grass. Oh, that must mean that I’m going to be born in Tara’s Pure Land. Oh, this is so exciting.” Or, “I dreamed of green grass. Oh no, it means I am going to be born as a cow. This is distressing.” Who knows why in the world you dreamed of green grass? Don’t let the mind proliferate.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.