Usually, when I am not very busy and have time, I will go on retreats for two to three months in a year. But when I am busy I will make it a point to go for at least a month. This is to improve and recharge the practice that I have established back in Tibet. It is my way of continuing the practice on training my mind for an extended period of time and also to improve my meditative experience.
Recently when I expressed that I was planning to go for a retreat, it seemed that some of my students symphatized that I needed the time to be away. Some said that since I deal with people’s pain and suffering on a regular basis, I might want to be free from all those demands for some time. It seems that the general understanding of a retreat is an escape from the daily activities of life and a temporary haven for relief. Like the analogy of pouring cold water over a container of bubbling hot water, to many going on a retreat means a temporary period to be away from the daily stresses of life and a short-term solution to one’s basic problems which is beneficial only for this life.
This is completely different from my understanding and purpose of a retreat. I had amazing opportunities to be under the guidance of great masters and through their kindness, I had the time for long and multiple retreats in Tibet. Gradually, by no choice of my own, as I was forced into exile, first into India and then to the US, the environment and the opportunity to practice became less and more scarce. As life became increasingly busy with various responsibilities, I made my resolve to maintain a discipline and prioritized retreat every year, even if it meant for just a month. The Dharma path teaches and emphasizes on training one’s mind and this is how I view the purpose of going on retreats. Likewise, I make efforts to do my daily practice joyfully, especially in the morning with the aspiration that I may be able to train my mind. At present, I am very fortunate with no serious ailments and feel very well physically and mentally. But I need to train my mind and develop it every single moment.
The Dharma texts mention bringing stepped-up improvements in one’s practice and experience. As “Tayatha Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgathe Bodhi Swaha”, means the five components of individual body are gone, gone, gone all the way to the other shore to enlightenment or liberation. We must ensure that in our practice, we step up each time and improve from one level of spiritual experience to the next, and ultimately attain Buddhahood. Even if I may not be able to attain Buddhahood in this lifetime, it is my aspiration to be at least close to it for the benefit of all sentient beings.
This can be illustrated with medicine to treat an ailment. People take medication after the onset of a sickness. At that point, there is a question as to whether that medication will be effective or not. On the other hand, if we proactively take measures to avoid any ailment with good health practices, then that is the best way to avoid the sickness altogether. For instance, we take Tibetan and Chinese herbs for our general well-being and take them when we have not succumbed to any illness. When the mind is confronted with the three poisons of anger, hatred, and jealousy, and one is mentally tormented, at that time, even though if one tries to medicate oneself with a lot of meditation, it will not be beneficial to the mind at that time. It is too late then. Before an onset of a difficult situation, if we are able to train our minds towards goodness and build on it regularly, then when we are confronted with sickness caused by the three poisons, we will not be affected by it. At that moment, we will be in a natural state of joy and wellness. With the training of the mind, if we are able to withstand or be unaffected by the three poisons, then we don’t need to find an antidote when they arise. As the saying goes, the best cure is to be proactive. So, this is my understanding of retreat.
Generally, there are two aspects of a human being, the physical body, and the mind. The physical body of the human body is adorned with special characteristics unique to itself. The human mind is superior to all other beings. The progress of the human world is a testament to the capacity of the human mind. So when we are adorned with such a wonderful physical body and a mind of a human being, if we are able to use it towards virtuous deeds without wasting any time, then we can justify having this precious human life. If our human existence is restricted only to satisfying our basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter, there is nothing great about it. Such basic needs are even met by animals. Even if we are unable to benefit others like a Bodhisattva, we can at least be in peace with ourselves without harming others. That is a purposeful life. Happiness does not mean satisfying the five senses only. If that were true, why would there be countless unhappy affluent people in this world? Happiness means to be truly in peace and content within oneself.
This is the reason why I go for retreat. During my retreat, I will keep all of you, my students and all sentient beings under this vast sky in my prayers. And aspire that may you receive blessings so that your mind may turn to the Dharma. That may you receive blessings so that your Dharma practice may become the path. That may you receive blessings to purify delusions on the path, so that delusions may arise as wisdom.