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.

The teacher

I realize a lot of Buddhists, especially in the West, go it alone. I haven’t really tried to do that as a practitioner, so I can’t speak directly to the effectiveness of such an approach. The cliché (or adage) of course is that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. But I think that holds up in any kind of relationship, and it’s really a matter of do we want to learn or not? If so, then we should be ready for a relationship with a teacher of some sort, at any time. Ultimately, the teacher is our own mind, but since most of us do not live in complete solitude and it usually takes a while to be receptive enough to have this be sufficient, we can look to the interactions of our everyday lives, as well to the more intentional relationships with Dhamma teachers. I have been very lucky with all of the teachers I have had on this path, both formal and informal.* and I’d like to talk a little bit here about the different kinds of teachers available to us, about how to find a teacher and, how best to evaluate a teacher so we know we’re benefiting from the relationship.

One of the reasons I’m compelled to write about this is quite a few people in my life have asked if I want to teach meditation, the Dhamma (in a formal way). And I say, without hesitation, that’s not for me to decide. I believe very strongly that a certain level of wisdom is necessary, so that the teacher is capable of guiding students of different levels and of offering the most benefit possible. From that perspective, I certainly have a lot more to learn. What is that “certain level” though? Who knows. Not sure it can be measured in any definitive way. I don’t think it necessarily has to do with jhanas or with stages of enlightenment. It does have to do with understanding things as they truly are however. And it’s mostly those who also have some decent understanding in that regard (other contemplatives) who can really spot it. Therefore, I think some kind of transmission is important when we are talking about formal teachings.

Medicine Buddha - supreme teacher

I attended Milarepa’s Songs of Realization retreat several weeks ago with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Though this was my first time receiving teachings in the Tibetan tradition, I qualified for the retreat because I am an “advanced” practitioner of vipassana, according to Tergar International’s standards. In Mahamudra training, students most have experience with both samatha (Skt: shamatha) and vipassanā (Skt: vipashyanā) before they can be introduced to nature of mind teachings. In order to avoid misinterpretation of these advanced teachings, we aren’t allowed to share them with others who have not had a similar level of training. This concept is foreign to me, but I will certainly respect the tradition and not divulge information that could potentially be harmful to others. On a more elementary level though, Rinpoche offered us some guidelines for evaluating a teacher. Here they are:

1) The teacher should come from an authentic lineage (this is the direct transmission piece)
2) The teacher should have a history of practice (it’s not all intellectual, in the Tibetan tradition this would mean at least one 3-year solitary retreat)
3) The teacher operates within a discipline
4) The teacher demonstrates compassion

I would also add that a sign of a good teacher is that she has more experience than you, and that she also demonstrates a capacity and willingness to learn from the student.

So how do we find a teacher (outside of our daily lives)? Is it true that when we are ready the teacher will find us, or do we need to be more proactive than that? Nowadays, there are so many teachings available to us just by jumping online or by going in a bookstore. It gives us a chance to do an initial exploring and vetting of what’s out there without having to invest ourselves completely. We also aren’t necessarily limited to those teachers in the immediate vicinity of our homes.

When I said I’ve been lucky, I mean that I hardly had to try to find each of the most influential teachers in my life. In college, I signed up for a freshman seminar called “Journeys Toward Spiritual Growth”, after which I became a religion major and never looked back. My professor had been a student of my own grandfather in Divinity School, had been recruited for Christian education at Carleton, and then proceeded to teach himself Chinese, Japanese and Sanskrit and introduced an East Asian religion program. We had very similar backgrounds and similar inclinations. He introduced me to the I Ching, taoism, mysticism, and helped me really dig much deeper in the Buddhist teachings I had started to explore on my own. It was a deeply personal relationship and tremendously inspiring. He was in his last year before retirement. It was quite lucky our paths crossed.

Later, after reacting strongly against a video-taught Goenka style vipassanā retreat and 18 months after finally getting over it and wanting to practice again, I discovered one of my childhood friend’s mother was a meditator and practiced in my home town. She introduced me to my next teacher, who provided precisely the right balance of discipline and compassion needed to encourage me to practice again. Unfortunately I was just moving across the country so it wasn’t until another two years passed that I was able to start working closely with my teacher, who continues to be my main teacher here in the US. We gather in a private home and sit and walk throughout the day, sharing meals — students and teacher together, and having private interviews on a daily basis. There is a lot of relating, even though we observe noble silence. We prepare meals together, work in the garden together, listen to Dhamma talks together, share solitude together.

Finally, when I made the decision to go to Asia to practice, even though I had thought for a long time it would be Japan where I would go, Burma was just the obvious destination – a country that still lives and breathes Buddhism in many ways. I asked my teacher, where (to whom) should I go? And he said, well, you’d probably like U Tejaniya. I looked him up, listened to and read whatever was available online, and had not one iota of hesitation. Immediately it felt right upon arriving in Yangon, totally like making a moon landing but feeling right at home. At one point during the retreat I wondered if I shouldn’t have had more samatha practice before diving so deep into this open awareness stuff – it took me three months of meditating all day, every day to experience samadhi. When I did truly experience samma samadhi, stability of mind, it was with a deep, virtually bullet-proof understanding of what it means to neither want nor resist anything. Even when I did 11 hours of sitting meditation every day at Shelburne Falls in 2004, with clear instruction to do body sweeping, I was practicing open awareness. For me, it’s where the mind naturally goes. In Burma, that there was as much intensity as each yogi wanted, in addition to the opportunity to really apply the practice to daily life (including via talking meditation), was a critical part of the learning process as well. I always end up just where I need to be. Even now, in all this uncertainty, it’s exactly right.

I’ll end with a few questions that may be helpful in evaluating whether or not a teacher is appropriate for us at a given time, in addition to the qualities mentioned by Mingyur Rinpoche.

  1. Do the teacher’s words and actions resonate with you? Are her ethics in line with yours? Do you intuitively feel like there is wisdom there? Can you check back against your own experience?
  2. Does the method being taught make sense to you? Is it natural for the mind? What is the motivation – there shouldn’t be too much greed for a “bliss-out” state, nor should there be too much aversion (e.g., if too structured, too loose, etc.).
  3. Does the teacher provide the proper balance between compassion and discipline?
  4. Does the teacher ask questions as opposed to give answers? Does she encourage you to think for yourself and learn via direct experience?
  5. As you get to know the teacher, does she push your buttons? Does she help identify areas where you maybe have particularly deep conditioning?
  6. Are you learning? Can you directly attribute your growing understanding to the relationship with your teacher?

These may be helpful things to keep in mind. When it comes down to it, though, I think the most important thing is to be open to the variety of teachers that may appear in our lives, at any moment. Also, being able to recognize through direct experience when someone is speaking truth. Don’t just take what someone is saying without some wise and skillful reflection. From my own experience, I would also argue that being able to practice in an intimate setting with one’s teacher over time is an incredible privilege and learning opportunity. If possible, I would really encourage such an approach.

In closing, I hope that if you are looking for a teacher that you can open your eyes to those that are already plainly in front of you, and that the rest will find their way to you soon.

* It’s interesting to note that all my formal teachers have been men, and virtually all those of note in the informal category women. More than anything I believe this reflects cultural attitudes of what and what isn’t an appropriate role by gender. We also receive teachings both directly and indirectly. Although there are far fewer women writing about the Dhamma in English than men, of the five or so teachers that have influenced me the most, at least three of them are women. And how many women have claimed enlightenment or been recognized as an arhant over the years?

And some reading:

“Meeting My Teacher” by Kamala Masters, excerpted from Voices of Insight, edited by Sharon Salzberg

“What are you looking for in a teacher?” by Ken McLeod (see also: “Someone you’ll listen to no matter how crazy you are…”)

“Finding a spiritual teacher” by David Nichtern

“Forum: Selecting a Teacher” with Ponlop Rinpoche, Jack Kornfield, Ajahn Amaro, Yvonne Rand, and Richard Shrobe (Buddhadharma, Spring 2003)

(Edit 8/19/10) “How to Find a Spiritual Teacher” by Mariana Caplan, excerpted from When the Student Is Ready: The Perils and Rewards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher, Sounds True, 2011

Also, articles from the Buddhadharma Spring 2010 Issue on “Going it Alone: Making it work as an unaffiliated Buddhist”

Also, a note: I’ve also been fascinated with several sites online that evaluate gurus and spiritual teachers (many in the nondual traditions). I am not sure entirely what standards they use – especially if the individuals that are presenting the information haven’t necessarily met the teachers themselves in person – but it’s interesting nonetheless. An example here: http://www.globalserve.net/~sarlo/Ratings.htm

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