What is the importance of long-term retreat practice?

“It may be obvious that planes fly and boats don’t sink, but who is to say whether a person is enlightened or not?”–Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche

As a follow-up to my previous post, I wanted to explore a related topic re retreat practice, which emerged in the comments and is also currently being discussed within the context of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association.

First, I’d like to bring your attention to a post written earlier this year by a Western monk in the Tibetan tradition, Konchog Norbu: “Western Monasticism – Important?  Useless? or Both?” which I would have referred to in the first post had I read it earlier. Also, I should have included reference to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s piece “The Challenge of the Future: How Will the Monastic Sangha Fare in North America?”. If you’re interested in the relevance of monasticism in this particular cultural context, I definitely recommend reading both articles.

I also wanted to give air to a dialogue between Kyogen Carlson and James Ford and additional commentary from Dosho Port on the proposed six-month training requirement for Soto Zen priests. In the dialogue with Kyogen Carlson, James Ford explains why he does not support the requirement. Ford is a Unitarian Universalist minister (as well as a Zen teacher) and, in response to Kyogen’s question regarding the importance of his own seminary training, Ford argues:

“While it requires time and effort and considerable cost, the seminary experience also leads, generally, to a job. To require people to go to that time and effort and considerable cost without a job at the end can be irresponsible. This is the problem I see with the six-month requirement. It asks people to set aside other, equally important obligations in a way that for many who would be perfect for the path of service, is simply not possible. And it therefore skews who is going to be in that ordination pool in ways that seem dubious to me.”

Dosho Port, on the other hand, is supportive of the ango (residential retreat) requirements, saying that from his own practice experience:

“‘Awakening’ in lay life is much like dry insight in Vipassana – what’s seen is the same but the deep settled mind allows insight to penetrate more thoroughly. Ango provides guidance, also, in how to live that awakening.”

However, he follows by saying that a practitioner with this experience is “Not … necessarily a good minister.” He suggests we may want to consider different tracks, and that perhaps chaplaincy pertains more to an engaged Buddhist practice that would require doing psychotherapy along with ministerial training, for example. He does find intensive retreat practice to be really important and I would infer that he would generally consider it an important qualification for a teacher.

To tie this all together, I wanted to highlight some of the comments from my own article earlier this week.

Marguerite asks:

“Constructs such as senior student, senior teacher, prerequisites for long retreats, simply do not make sense to me. Who is to know how awakened a person is? Does the amount of hours spent on a cushion automatically translate into more wisdom?”#

And Nathan offers his experience:

“I have done little retreat work in recent years, even though I have moved towards the center of the ‘senior student’ group in my sangha. It’s very clear to me that some, including my teacher to some extent I think, wonder about my commitment to practice because I’m not an active retreat participant. I say this as someone who did do retreats in the past, but now has been experimenting with other ways to apply/engage Buddha’s teachings. There’s a not so subtle privileging of meditation retreats as THE highest form of practice, when I’d argue it’s one form of practice that clearly has great benefit for a lot of people.”#

In the initial post, I tried to make clear that I believe that monasticism, and similarly long-term practice as a layperson, should be an option for those who want to practice in that way, regardless of financial means. I do not necessarily consider it a higher form of practice; I can only say that from my own experience, much as Dosho Port argues, long-term retreat practice (in my case, 3 months or more) allows for the development of wisdom quite different from that which can emerge in one’s daily life. It could be dry if it remained confined to that context, if it were not brought into relationship, but I think that rarely is the case (save a few cave-residing hermits). On the other hand, it seems that we have people arguing that an engaged Buddhist practice is the highest form, because that is really living out the Bodhisattva vow. All I can say to this is, we have to do our own work first. Not to say there is some magic amount of work we have to put in and only then can we work for the liberation of other beings, but there’s probably an initial amount of understanding that’s necessary, just as in a more conventional context — a teacher has to go through training before he or she can be really effective.

However, training in and of itself does not make a teacher of course. Mind training and the development of wisdom is not the same as gaining book knowledge or training for a marathon or yoga teacher training for that matter. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says this in Rebel Buddha:

“At this point in time, there is a growing number of contemporary Westerners and Asians who are going through a thorough and rigorous training similar to that which our elder Asian teachers went through. And they’re getting similar results. This means that some are becoming wise, skillful, and compassionate teachers in their own right. They’re beginning to carry the lineage in an authentic manner, and such teachers should be treated with the same respect as the accomplished teachers who preceded them. They should be trusted equally. Others will go through the training and yet be mediocre or poor teachers, just as there are PhD’s who land jobs and get by on their credentials but never produce a single brilliant student because they can’t teach what they know. It’s the same on the spiritual journey.”

Residential practice and renunciation has always been a critical part of this tradition so I can’t really imagine a Buddhism in the West composed solely of householders, or practitioners that never do intensive retreat practice. That could lead to a real bifurcation, with either a strict kind of secularism (where meditation as an isolated event – as in, not as a way of life – is practiced) or a close cousin to the non-practicing, faith-filled Christianity we have so often here, but instead with Buddhist imagery.

At the same time, I don’t judge a practitioner or teacher based on his or her retreat experience, even though I know how important it has been to me. Fundamentally, how does this person live the practice? That’s the question to ask, and I believe the most important criterion. Indeed there are quite a few highly regarded teachers who are generally classified in the nondual and Advaita traditions claiming that it is only when we stop meditating that the awakened mind can actually be realized. How do you reconcile this view? I suppose it comes down to whether or not one inclines toward belief in a gradual or sudden enlightenment, and how one defines and approaches the concept of awakening to begin with.

But as the opening quote suggests, then echoed by Marguerite, how could we ever truly know (in the conventional sense of the word) who has experienced or even what enlightenment is? Isn’t that why the Buddha described nibbanā in terms of what it was not?

I know of two “emerging” American teachers who particularly incline toward retreat practice: Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel (who spent 6 years in retreat, while her son was age 9-15) and Andrea Fella, who has spent much of the past 15 years on retreat. Also, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche will be engaging in a second three-year retreat beginning May 2011. Do you know of other teachers, either monastics or regular long-term retreat goers, perhaps those to whom Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is referring? Do you think this is an important qualification for a teacher?

For reflections on the subject of the spiritual teacher, and links to other resources, please see my previous post here.

For more thoughts on the subject of non-meditation and nondual perspectives, check out some of the quotes, etc. at it’s all dhamma.

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10 Comments

  1. “Residential practice and renunciation has always been a critical part of this tradition so I can’t really imagine a Buddhism in the West composed solely of householders, or practitioners that never do intensive retreat practice. That could lead to a real bifurcation, with either a strict kind of secularism (where meditation as an isolated event – as in, not as a way of life – is practiced) or a close cousin to the non-practicing, faith-filled Christianity we have so often here, but instead with Buddhist imagery.”

    One thing I think is important to consider is the lack of records on lay practitioners historically. Most of what we have been handed down has been recorded by monastics about monastics. Occasionally a figure like Layman P’ang shows up, but it’s a rarity. And I think this is especially important to women in our practice today because we really don’t know a lot about the Buddhist women of our past, monastic or lay. I have three or four books on my shelf written about historical Buddhist women, and the authors’ research was often years in the making, and yet they only have stories about maybe 20 or 30 wise Buddhist women. So, I’m kind of convinced that we don’t have a really well rounded view of the different ways people have practiced and potentially awakened throughout Buddhist history.

    Saying that, I also believe that it would be a great loss to not have a monastic wing of practice in the West. It needs to be part of the big picture. Even though I, personally, might be a lay practitioner’s lay practitioner right now, I know that all of us benefit from having the monastic counterpart around.

    Reply
    • Thanks for adding this comment Nathan. It is important to remember that so many people and practitioners (female and lay especially) have been excluded from history and how that skews our perspective.

      Reply
  2. Thank you Katherine for offering yet another intelligent an constructive forum on a big Dharma topic!

    My earlier comment referred to this:

    “Verily, monks, whosoever practices these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner for seven years, then one of these two fruits may be expected by him: highest knowledge (arahantship) here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.

    O monks, let alone seven years. Should any person practice these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner for six years… five years… four years… three years… two years… one year, then one of these two fruits may be expected by him: highest knowledge here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.

    O monks, let alone a year. Should any person practice these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner for seven months… six months… five months… four months… three months… two months… a month… half a month, then one of these two fruits may be expected by him: highest knowledge here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.

    O monks, let alone half a month. Should any person practice these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner for a week, then one of these two fruits may be expected by him: highest knowledge here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.

    Because of this it was said: “This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely the four foundations of mindfulness.””

    ~ Satipatthana Sutta: The Foundations of Mindfulness ~

    I do believe that people have different speeds at which they awaken. It is also my feeling that retreats have been time tested :) as the best way for the mind to settle and achieve great clarity regarding the nature of things. It is one of my greatest desires right now to do a long retreat. For now, two weeks next month will do. But I would love to do a six month retreat some time!

    People have different temperaments. Some are more into action, others are more contemplative. Fortunately there is room for both, and the world does need both!

    In the end, it comes down to finding our own way towards long lasting happiness.

    With metta,

    marguerite

    Reply
    • I do hope you’ll have the opportunity M and am glad that you will be doing your desert retreat so soon. I know you’ve been doing a lot of exploring of concentration methods of late, but it you find yourself moving in the other direction at all, check out Darryl Bailey who considers Ruth, Aj Sumedho and J. Krishnamurti among his teachers.

      Reply
  3. Hope you don’t mind me throwing my two cents worth in here, but you have started an interesting discussion. I do feel a bit like I have just walked into the middle it, because I don’t know where some of these assumptions come from: “people arguing that an engaged Buddhist practice is the highest form” Who says that? “Not have a monastic wing of practice in the West.” Same question. Who is suggesting this? “Constructs such as senior student, senior teacher, prerequisites for long retreats, simply do not make sense to me. Who is to know how awakened a person is?” Who says these are in any sense judging whether someone is awakened or not? Can’t they simply be designations that are applied to people fulfilling different roles?

    I think Buddhism is a big tent. Room enough for people to practice engaged Buddhism, retreat practice, monastic and lay practice and so on. Why are we always compelled to put everything on a either/or basis, which is what I am picking up.

    “a strict kind of secularism (where meditation as an isolated event.” I don’t see this. As someone who practiced in a rather secular group for many years, I can tell you meditation, or practice, was not isolated. It was front and center. To maintain an intense regular practice amidst the busyness and turmoil of daily life in society requires strict discipline and determination. It is a real challenge, every bit as challenging as intensive retreat practice, just different. And I think as many people as possible should have the experience of retreat.

    I don’t want to make this overly long, but I keep getting the impression that many people look down their noses at a more secular lay-oriented approach and that to me is just wrong. And just as wrong to dismiss retreat experience. You said it: Fundamentally, how does this person live the practice? Ultimately does it matter what form one assumes as one does this? As long as you are living the practice, isn’t that what counts? Who is to say that any one way reaps greater benefits that any other way?

    True renunciation is in the mind, not in appearance or form.

    One thing I think we have to do is get it out of our heads that the Buddha and the Bhikkhus were monastics. They weren’t. They may have been celibate and had long retreats during the rainy season, but otherwise they were always in the midst of everyday society interacting with common people. Monastic Buddhism has its place and function, but a Buddhism that not involved in society – and I mean involved in the sense of participating in daily life as opposed to being isolated from it – is a Buddhism that I feel is far away from the Buddha’s original vision.

    Reply
    • No, no, thank you so much for engaging and for all your valuable points. I think I unwittingly walked right into the polarization phenomenon myself in attempting to create something to discuss. This is where the anxiety around this particular mode of expression makes me feel like it’s really not Right Speech. There were a lot of assumptions, which may just be things I’m reading between the lines, or self-judgment on both sides of the argument. I believe that I am living a balanced life – engaged when in the world, contemplative when on retreat, but neither exclusive to the other. It’s a daily life practice and it’s about relationship just as much as awakening. Vimala Thakar is always the model I turn back to here. Ultimately, you are very correct – there’s room for all kinds of practitioners, and in different seasons. And fundamentally, while I do think there’s some value in considering these issues, it’s very easy for it to just become a meaningless polemic. Ultimately things will develop just as they are meant to…

      Reply
      • I think you are absolutely right, things will develop just as they are meant to, and Western Buddhism will develop organically and naturally over time.Not entirely by itself, though. While I don’t think we need to be in such a hurry to push things along, at the same time, mature and civil discussions such as this are rarely meaningless. Just because someone questions where some of these assumptions come from, does not mean that they are not out there, in between the lines, or that they should not be brought up. So it’s not my intention to dampen the discussion, merely to pose some questions and as I said throw my two cents in, although my opinion is probably worth half that at best.

        Reply
  4. Well, I have lived in a small Buddhist monastery for 24 years. It is absolutely American and follows no traditional Asian doctrines. I can say that a person can walk
    off the street and be as complete a practitioner of Buddhism as a life timer of retreat. We all have different conditioning, genes, astrological influences, and
    surroundings. Someone once said “Take care of your own rice bowl.” I personally hope that as many people that can, leave the current American society and form
    small collectives to survive the existing and future depression. I also hope they form with the prime Buddhist principles to guide them.

    Reply
  5. anonymous

     /  October 10, 2010

    “Do you think this is an important qualification for a teacher?”
    I wonder if you have read the story of the great Zen master Bankei? He was on retreat for 10 years and nothing changed in his life. One day he discovered his own Unborn Buddha mind at the age of 26. From that time on he taught only that. He told others all the retreat and practices are basically meaningless. They are all just “Zen devices”. Retreat or no retreat makes no difference. The only people qualified to teach the Dharma are those who have experienced it directly, and then they do not teach. Those who know, do….those who do not know, teach.

    Reply
  1. Solitude and the mirror of relationship « on the precipice

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