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The rarity of retreat

The rarity of retreat

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

  • Appreciating the opportunity to do retreat
  • The rarity of having the time and access to a conducive physical environment
  • Maintaining awareness of the kindness of those who support the retreat
  • Working with expectations
  • Dropping “Dharma daydreams”

The rarity of retreat (download)

I would imagine that people are getting excited about beginning retreat soon. I know I’m looking forward to it.

There are a few things to keep in mind before we begin retreat, and one is to have a very strong awareness of the rarity of this opportunity. Whether you’re doing one month or three months of retreat, to have the time and opportunity in your life to do this is not so easy. Yes? If we look around, we may have many friends that say, “Wow, it would be so nice to do a month of retreat! But I can’t! Because my family wants me there. And I can’t take time off from work. And I’ve got to take care of relatives who are sick. And my cats miss me. And there are all sorts of important things going on at work. And, you know, this, that, and the other thing.” And so really having the opportunity to take this much time off of your running-around-doing-different-things kind of life is really rare.

And it’s a very precious time because you don’t know if or when it will happen again. Lots of things can easily come up that prevent retreat. Every time even we have a short course here, for like a weekend, you can’t imagine the number of people who cancel at the last minute because all of a sudden something’s come up. So to really hold in your mind that it’s a rare opportunity. Because it’s rare to have a precious human life. And within that precious human life, rare to want to do retreat. And rare to have the opportunity to do retreat.

I have many Dharma friends, and they want to do retreat, but they have real difficulty finding a good place to do it. Because they can find some place, but they hear the traffic from the road. Or it’s difficult to get supplies, nobody’s coming there. Or they have to manage the property on their own. Some friends I had doing long retreat, they were out in the woods. Whenever the water system went out, even in the winter, they had to go out and fix the water system. They got new groceries, I think it was, once a month. It might have been once every two months. I can’t remember exactly. So they would just cook stuff and freeze it and eat the same thing…. You know, they had seven menus and they just, every Monday ate the same thing because it was cooked beforehand and frozen beforehand, with very little fresh vegetables and fruits.

So to have this beautiful place, and then to have the Abbey’s team of supporters. You will be amazed at these people. They will come every week to make a food offering—rain, shine, snow, sleet, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s like you hear they’re coming and it’s heavy snowfall, and you want to say, “Please stay at home, it’s dangerous.” They come anyway. And so to really appreciate the people supporting us.

And Zopa very kindly has volunteered to come and cook for a month, and a number of people are helping her. But she just got done with a year of retreat, so she knows how valuable retreat is, and she knows what it takes to be a person who is part of a support system. Because to have a good retreat it can’t be just any Joe Blow who comes in to cook for you. Because Joe Blow may want to listen to the latest rock music in the kitchen. And may want to go down on his bike to Newport to hang out every afternoon. And it really disturbs the energy of the place. But that’s not happening here.

So to really think of your own personal situation, and what you had to do in the past to create the karma to have this opportunity. And also the group situation that we have, and how rare it is as well.

Another thing to remember in retreat is not to have all sorts of great expectations. We all say, “Well, I don’t have any expectations.” But in the back of our mind is, “Well, maybe I’ll have a vision of Manjushri …. Maybe I’ll realize emptiness …. Maybe I’ll gain samadhi and go into the first jhana …. Maybe I’ll be overwhelmed by faith and start crying …. Maybe ….” [laughter] We have all sorts of …. “I don’t have any expectations!” But in the back of our mind there are lots of kinds of things hanging out. Yes? So, as much as you can, get rid of those. And if you can’t get rid of them at least laugh at the rest of them that are there. Okay? And just do the retreat. Just one day at a time do what is in front of you, do the sadhana. Don’t spend your whole retreat planning the rest of your Dharma practice. Like, “after this retreat, then I’m going to go here and there to study this and that. And then next year I’m going to come back for the three-month retreat (but I wonder what it is), and then I’m going to study this and that. And I’ve always wanted to meet this teacher and go here and do that and ….” You know? You spend your entire retreat planning all the Dharma activities you’re going to do after that. And you think it’s virtuous because you’re planning Dharma activities. And of course you’re going to go open a shelter for the homeless. As soon as you get out you’re going to find a solution to Youth Emergency Service’s financial problems. You’re going to become a social worker and to work for “Y.E.S.” afterwards. And then of course understand the Madhyamaka philosophy within the next year. Learn Tibetan. Learn Chinese. Translate the texts into Swahili for the benefit of the people who live there. And you’re going to do all of this, if not during retreat, then as soon as retreat ends. And you’re going to become the great Dharma hero that everybody praises as being so compassionate.

Good. [laughter]

You know, you’re going to go open another branch of the Abbey a month after retreat. Not one branch of the Abbey, another five branches. And … you know?

So just cool it with your Dharma daydreams. Okay? Do the practice that’s in front of you. Stay focused on what you need to stay focused on.

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.

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