What is retreat?

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Part of a series of teachings and short talks given during the Manjushri and Yamantaka Winter Retreat in 2015.

  • Retreat is not withdrawing from the world, but withdrawing from ignorance, anger, and attachment
  • The mind trying to create the perfect external environment is very much together with the afflictions
  • Use everything that happens or comes up as an opportunity to see how your mind works
  • Watching the turkeys or the kitties as Dharma teachings

What is retreat? (download)

01-13-15 What is Retreat? - BBCorner

During these BBCorner talks these few days I’m just trying to give you some more guidance about retreat and starting retreat. And hopefully the people who will be doing the retreat from afar can benefit from this, too.

We usually think of retreat as getting away from everything. It’s like, okay, just done with it all. I want to be quiet.

Actually, my teacher Zopa Rinpoche describes retreat as not withdrawing from the world (like we often think it is) but withdrawing from ignorance, anger, and attachment. So it’s a retreat from the afflicted state of mind. So it’s very important to keep that in our mind when we’re doing retreat. That it isn’t like “Well, I’ve got to have everything in this perfect condition so I can be totally quiet, and have these obnoxious sentient beings leave me alone so I can do retreat.” [squeezes eyes shut] [laughter]

That mind is very much together with the afflictions, isn’t it? That mind is not on retreat from the afflictions. That mind is parading down the street with the afflictions saying “I want this, I need that, the world should do what I say. How come nobody else is cooperating? Me, I, my, mine!” That mind’s not in retreat.

Your retreat is, when things come up during the retreat, that you actually retreat from your afflictions. Which means you have to learn the antidotes to the afflictions. You have to learn how to work with your own mind. That—coming and just saying, “I want to change the external conditions,” that’s not necessarily what’s going to help you. That’s like the dog in the monastery who has fleas, and he’s on one side of the courtyard scratching, scratching, scratching, the fleas are driving him buggy, and he gets up and walks to the other side of the courtyard thinking that there won’t be any fleas there.

That’s what we do: “I want to change my meditation seat. I want this. I want that.” [shakes head] No. The problem is not your meditation seat. The problem is the mind. Okay? This is why the meditation manuals say that you have to do the retreat on one seat. You can’t change seats when you’re counting the mantra. Because otherwise our dissatisfied mind, you know …. We do one week at home and one week in Cancun and one week here and one week there, and we’d be switching our seat all the time. So it’s just a thing of you set down your seat and that’s where it is.

And whoever your neighbor is, that’s your neighbor. You might have a neighbor who breathes really loudly. [demonstrates loud breathing] Even though we’ve told everybody, “Don’t do deep breathing.” But remember sometimes people have asthma, they have breathing problems. Just be happy your neighbor’s breathing. Don’t worry about how loud they’re breathing.

You may have a neighbor who clicks their mala. “Click, click, click click.” Silence. “Click click click.” [laughter] So it’s not even a regular click. You know? And you’re going, “Don’t they say the mantra at a regular pace? Why are they clicking their mala? They’re doing it because they want to annoy me. I know it! They’re jealous of my samadhi.” Right? You have fantastic samadhi if you’re listening to the clicks of your neighbor’s mala. That shows how good your concentration is.

Again, take it like this: “Well, maybe in a previous lifetime, when I did retreat, not only did I click my mala, but maybe I—(what do you do when you put the accelerator down on the gas pedal, you know?)—I revved up engines outside a retreat, or someplace. Or I talked incessantly outside a place where somebody was doing retreat. So now this is just all ripening back at me and a few little click-clicks is not going to really be end of the day.

So instead, use all these things that happen as an opportunity to see how your own mind works. How you hear a click or a breath, and it’s only a click or a breath, and then watch how your mind makes it into a national catastrophe. And watch how your mind says, “They’re doing it deliberately, they’re inconsiderate.” Then, you know, “She told me I couldn’t even go and complain about it. She told me I had to look at my own mind and practice with it. [big sigh] Why did I come to this place to do retreat anyway? I want my money back!” Well, the problem is you didn’t pay any money. You gave dana to support everybody else doing retreat. You did not pay any money. You’re supporting other people’s doing retreat, and they’re supporting your doing retreat. So we’re all in this together. So just watch how your mind works. Somebody else sniffles and all of a sudden you’re ready to go bang them on the head.

We had somebody a few retreats ago with a nylon jacket. [laughter] You know, the kind that make a lot of noise. And he would come into the meditation hall kind of the last person, as a rush, and sit down so he’d start off in silence. And then he’d get too hot and he’d have to take his jacket off. And you hear [zip zip zip] And then [crinkle crinkle crinkle] as he’s taking it off.

And just be aware of how your mind gets so totally ego-sensitive that this tiniest thing can set it off in a huff and puff. Okay? I think you should play this BBC every few days, yes? [laughter]

The first retreat that we did here at the Abbey (you were on it, Zopa) and remember people were writing to inmates during that retreat, and we got a letter from one inmate and he said, “I’m in a dorm with 300 other people, on the top bunk, with everybody screaming and playing music, and talking, and watching TV, and snoring, all around me. 300 people in the dorm. The bare light bulb (no shade) is two feet in front of my head. And I’m doing my meditation session.”

That letter stopped the complaining. [laughter] Because you look and you see, wow, if somebody in prison can have the discipline to do a session in those kinds of conditions, and then write and tell you how much they’re benefiting from the practice, then certainly us spoiled people can manage to do retreat.

All of these things that come up are part of your retreat. They’re not separate from retreat. And you use the retreat space to really watch your mind. Because not a whole lot changes during retreat. It’s kind of going to be this weather, more or less, throughout the whole thing. We might get a little bit of sun, we might get a little bit of snow. But it’s not going to be beach weather. So it’s basically going to be the same. The people are the same. The food is basically the same, alternations on a theme. But you’ll watch and see from day to day your mind and your mood will fluctuate like this [up and down, up and down]. And one day you’ll be so up, and the next day you’ll be so down. And one day you’ll love everybody in the group, and the next day you’ll hate them all. [to someone in audience] Right? She’s done long retreat. [listens to audience] Hour by hour, not even day by day. [laughter]

This is part of your retreat experience, to see how the mind works. And especially to see how your interpretation of the event creates your experience of it. So how you interpret that clicking sound. How you interpret the sound of the jacket. That will determine how you feel. You can say, “I’m so happy that I’m doing retreat with somebody else and he’s coming in the hall.” Jacket or no jacket. “I’m so glad the person next to me is saying mantra. I’m so glad they’re breathing! I’m so glad I’m breathing.”

Or you can take everything as a personal affront to yourself. Or everything as data to show why you should go running down the hill before the next session. Problem is, you go down the hill and where are you going to get to? The bottom of the hill. And then where are you going to go from there? It’s about ten miles into Newport? Pack a lunch. It’s going to take you a while to walk the ten miles in the snow. Don’t go bother our neighbors. They may throw something at you. [laughter] No I hope they don’t. I don’t think they will. But they’ll say, “Those Buddhist people, what are they doing?”

So just watch how your mind is so moody. And it’s not just at the retreat that your mind is moody. It’s like, this is how the mind always is, and this is the first time you’re actually seeing it for what it is. And then when you notice that, how your mind works, then you can begin to understand why you get unhappy. And why your relationships with other people are not the way you would like them. And you begin to understand what you need to change in your own mind so that you can be happy, so that you can have the kind of relationships you want. So that you can progress along the path. So everything is part of the retreat.

Even the turkeys. Watch the turkeys. They will give you incredible Dharma teachings. We don’t have so many turkeys this year. But you know, watch the turkeys, how they can’t stand to be alone. And they cluck and cluck and cluck to be with the others. But how they prevent themselves from being with the others. It’s fascinating to watch them. We’ll have the fence here with a big opening where we took off the gate. And one turkey will be outside and one turkey will be inside. The inside turkey will run around and run around trying to find a way out. There’s an open space right in front of him. He’ll walk along the fence until he comes almost to the open space, and then turn back and walk the other way. It’s fascinating. You understand why they have the expression “bird brain.” Because it’s really difficult for them to figure out how to go be with their other friends. And you watch them get so upset, and the opening is right there. It’s like, the door to liberation is right there, and we spend our time running around in circles being flustered and quacking in our own language. But the door is right there.

So just watch the turkeys, and see what you can learn from them. Watch the kitties. Perfect Dharma environment. I mean, they don’t even have to offer service. They don’t have to do the dishes or wash their own bowls or anything. They have a 100 percent free time. Can they practice the Dharma? No. So think about what it would be like to be born an Abbey kitty. Can you practice? What’s that like? Make the meditation on the lower realms alive for you.

Use everything as part of your retreat. And remember that you’re trying to retreat from ignorance, anger, attachment, arrogance, jealousy, laziness, and all the other afflictive mental states. And remember that everybody else here is doing the same thing, and that we all have all 84,000 afflictions. You’re not special. I’m sorry. You’re not the person who has 84,001. More than everybody else. And you’re not the person who has 83,999, who’s better than everybody else. Okay? We all have 84,000, and we’re all working with the same things. And so to really extend our compassion and our empathy and our kindness towards ourselves and towards each other.

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