April 17, 2011
It’s so nice to see everybody. You know . . . you guys all fell off the map for THREE YEARS! Nice to see you’re back.
From the little we’ve heard, it sounds like the world started falling apart the minute we were sealed into retreat. More than one person wrote me that we picked a good three years to miss.
It may seem ironic that we would choose to remove ourselves from the mainstream of the world for 3 years in order to learn to be more aware of it and to serve it more effectively. But that’s the basic idea of three-year retreat as I understand it—to take a break from the constant input and hubbub and stimulus-response so you can quiet down and begin to see more minutely and more realistically what is actually going on underneath all that: the vast vistas of mind normally obscured by the trivia of daily life. And at the same time to keep in mind that our primary goal in developing this awareness is to be of service to all other beings, to put them first.
On that note, and also to acknowledge that long-term cloistered retreat is a tradition that is not unique to Buddhism, I want to share an observation, slightly paraphrased, by the Christian monk Thomas Merton. He wrote, back in the 1960s, “This is an age that, by its very nature as a time of crisis…calls for the special searching and questioning which are the work of the monk [and nun and retreatant] in his [and her] meditation and prayer. For the monk searches not only his own heart: he plunges deep into the heart of that world of which he remains a part even though he seems to have “left” it. In reality, the monk abandons the world only in order to listen more intently to the deepest and most neglected voices that proceed from its inner depth.” [Contemplative Prayer 23]
A related point was once made by Lama Tashi Namgyal, an American Lama in Seattle. He completed two three-year retreats, including the second retreat here at Kagyu Thubten Chöling more than two decades ago. Lama Tashi wrote, “Even the least effort in meditation has a positive impact on the world.” So, we haven’t really been apart from the world, we’ve just been working undercover for a few years.
I’d like to share some lines from one of the aspiration prayers we recite daily in retreat, and that are also chanted weekly here in this room every Saturday. This is from a recently published translation of The Aspiration to Excellent Conduct:
“May all the beings there are in ten directions be free of illness and be happy always. May all the aims in Dharma of all beings be in harmony; may their hopes be fulfilled…I’ll act to fully quell [all] suffering…and bring all beings to joy. I’ll act to benefit all beings throughout the reaches of the realms and the directions…As far as to the ends of the blue sky, as far as to the ends of sentient beings, until the end of karma and afflictions, thus far are the ends of my aspirations.” [Kagyu Monlam Book]
We may not quite live up to that right away…or ever; but spending three years cultivating that frame of mind has to be a good thing. This is day one of our continuing effort to put into practice what we have had the great good fortune to train in for the last three years.
Of course, it wasn’t just good fortune—it had to meet the right conditions in order to come about. Those conditions were made possible by the hard work and generosity of a lot of other people.
Thanks first of all to Lama Norlha Rinpoche, a very great meditation master and teacher who is much better known in other parts of the world than in his own neighborhood, where he has always kept a very humble profile. He has put his entire life into making this three-year retreat program available to anyone willing and able to commit to it. He personally taught us every practice we did in retreat, and he has made many of these same practices available outside retreat through the Dharma Path program. He has been my role model for over thirty years now, and I’ve never found him less than 100% genuine, 100% compassionate, and 100% dedicated to the benefit of others. We are so lucky he has believed in our potential enough to adopt this as his home for more than three decades so far.
Update, 2017: There were some revelations this year about Lama Norlha Rinpoche’s conduct over many years that created a deep cognitive dissonance in light of my own personal experience with him over nearly 40 years, which is reflected in the remarks above. Though for me it doesn’t nullify the genuine benefit I and many others have received from him, the conduct itself is distressing and clearly caused harm not only to individuals but also to the KTC sangha and trust in the lineage. The commentaries on verse 6 of Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva shed some light on the guru-student relationship and how to identify an authentic teacher, and the two posts on verse 6 include advice from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Mingyur Rinpoche and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on how to respond to misconduct by a teacher. Now back to retreat graduation:
Thanks also to our fabulous caretaking team at Nigu Ling women’s retreat: Lama Yeshe Palmo, Lama Jamdron and Lama Wangmo. Lama Yeshe Palmo completed two retreats and has been a caretaker for three. She helped guide us through our practices and took care of our every need. Lama Jamdron completed the second retreat at KTC and has helped guide the five subsequent ones to date. She is always on call as Rinpoche’s translator and secretary, yet always found time to answer questions or provide encouragement. Lama Wangmo completed the retreat before ours. Besides cooking for us and helping with our training, she has been an inspiring example and is also possibly the word’s most supportive listener.
To the KTC support staff—monastics and lay community—who keep things running day to day, a big job even when we don’t have 200 guests: thank you. Without their ongoing efforts the retreats could not exist.
To all our benefactors and supporters, whether your contribution was financial support or food or clothing or other material supplies, or just well wishes throughout our three years: thank you all.
To our families and friends, who accepted our decision to just disappear for three years and who supported us however they were able, and many of whom have traveled long distances to be with us today: thank you.
I would also like to take a moment to thank my co-retreatants, Tsomo/Joan, Dechen/Stephanie, Zangmo/Melissa, and Samten/Bryn: I think we worked together amazingly well as a community, especially considering that among the five of us, we span five decades and at least five personality styles.
Last but not least, I would like to express my gratitude to our predecessors in three-year retreat at KTC, the pioneers who paved every step of the way for us and through whose efforts the facilities and retreat materials have vastly evolved over the past 30 years.
In fact, it is my recollection that just before the fifth retreat began in 1999, Lama Norlha Rinpoche observed that the first retreat, which began in 1982, had only 20% of the materials they really needed to succeed in the retreat practices. Which is not to say they didn’t accomplish that, they just had a lot of gaps to bridge through their own hard work. Thanks to them, the second retreat had 40%, then the third retreat 60%, the fourth retreat 80%, and the fifth retreat finally had 100% of the materials they needed, each generation of retreatants having built upon what they inherited from the last.
By my calculations, that means we in retreat number seven had 140% of what we needed. So if there is any shortfall in our results, it can’t be attributed to lack of resources.
I hope we have also contributed in some small ways to benefit future retreats. I will just close by congratulating everyone who is planning to enter the eighth retreat later this year. I wish you the best of luck on your journey; from where I’m standing, it’s really worth it.