“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.
“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.