Category Archives: Year One 2008

One Year

December 2008

This is the final month of our first year of three-year retreat. On January 5, 2009, year two begins.

Lama Norlha Rinpoche used to say that during the first year of retreat, everyone always thinks they made a big mistake, but for the last two years, they never want to leave. He also says the first year can seem a little slow, but the second year is really fast, and the third year speeds by before you know it. I imagine that third year will be a bit like an Amtrak through train whizzing by the Metro-North platform in New Hamburg. I’ve seen six previous retreats begin and end, and I know that no matter what you’re doing, three years are gone in a flash, like a dream. One is gone already!

Continue reading

28 Years

November 2008

I took refuge with Lama Norlha Rinpoche on October 29, 1980.

I had met him just a few days earlier, when I attended a meditation session at his center in New York City with my friend Carolyn. I never expected to be a Tibetan Buddhist; I was more attracted to the economy of Zen practice. But in a year or so of meditating at Zen centers in NYC, I had somehow not yet connected directly with a teacher.

I went to Lama Norlha’s center just to see what it was like. After an evening of chanting, a short teaching, and a brief interview, I had no idea what this strange practice was about, but I knew for sure that I had found my teacher.

Continue reading

Walnuts of Mindfulness

Three-year retreat, year one, month 12

Our mindfulness of impermanence at Nigu Ling is heightened at this time of year by two venerable black walnut trees overlooking our tiny fenced yard. From midsummer through early fall, there is a continual rain of walnuts onto the gravel walking path that encircles the house. Each walnut, fully encased, is about the size, weight and color of a tennis ball but without the bounce, and they pick up quite a bit of speed in their plunge from the tiptop branches of these lofty trees.

Continue reading

September 2008, 4:00 a.m.

Ha, ha, it’s not really 4:00 a.m. as I write this. I just wanted to echo the title of the first post I wrote, a year ago this month. Normally at 4:00 a.m., we are starting our first meditation session (tun) of the day. Each morning between 4:00 and 5:35, we must complete 100 each of the preliminary practices: prostrations, Dorje Sempa (Vajrasattva), the mandala offering, and Guru Yoga, now that we have finished the intensive accumulation of 111,111 of each of those practices. The other three meditation sessions of the day are devoted mostly to our current main practice.

Continue reading

Same Old Raccoon

August 2008

Lama Norlha Rinpoche, when he teaches meditation, sometimes illustrates his instructions with a classic example: If we become accustomed to sitting in meditation with a spaced-out, blank mind, it is said that we are sowing seeds for rebirth as a hibernating animal. The raccoon, says Rinpoche (via his ace translator, Lama Jamdron), disappears into its den in the late fall, and when it re-emerges in the spring: same old raccoon!

Continue reading

Raccoon Story

August 2008

For the past few weeks, we’ve been entertained almost every day by a family of raccoons: a mother and five cubs.

The cubs are SO cute! They climb the chicken wire enclosure where the guinea hens used to live, engage in wrestling matches, and wreak general, adorable havoc on the property, as mom looks on to make sure they stay safe. Early one morning one of the cubs picked a green tomato (our only food crop, aside from a few herbs), and one of the retreatants, who happened to be outdoors just before the 6:00 a.m. chanting, hissed at it to discourage further destruction. It hissed back nonchalantly, and carried on.

Continue reading

Down the Rabbit Hole

July 2008

Just a few days into three-year retreat, almost seven months ago, I was helping a fellow retreatant polish some shrine bowls. It was during the lunch break, the only time talking is allowed, and we discovered that we had both come up with the same metaphor to describe our experience so far: down the rabbit hole!

Continue reading

The Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa

May 2008

In its thirty years of existence, PTC Monastery has hosted many great Lamas, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche (under whose guidance PTC was founded), Chamgon Tai Situ Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, and many others. Just to read their names confers blessing!

Continue reading

Efficiency Expert

February 2008

As Buddhists, we are encouraged to spend a lot of time contemplating the impermanence of all phenomena and, in particular, the inevitability of our own death. We realize that if we are going to reach enlightenment, we had better get started right now! There is not a moment to waste. Our opportunity might end before this paragraph is over—by death, disability, or a life-changing phone call—and if we don’t attain mental freedom in this lifetime…we will have to do the whole thing over again, all the confusion and suffering, lifetime after lifetime, sort of a cosmic version of the movie Groundhog Day.

In retreat, I am learning how to harness this quickly passing time and make it work for my benefit as long as it lasts. I won’t be able to transpose this lesson entirely into my post-retreat life (assuming I live that long), but I think I am learning a few valuable tricks. Mostly they have to do with habitual patterns I wasn’t even aware of.

Retreat is an exact inversion of my previous agenda. I would plan for everything else in my life, and maybe even program in a daily slot for some meditation, but in general, Dharma practice was reserved for whatever free time I had left at the end of the day…unless I wanted to watch a dvd…or read the New York Times online…or chat with a friend on the phone, or attend a really important meeting, etc,. pretty much ad infinitum. In short, not much time for Dharma practice at all!

In retreat, it is all about Dharma practice. We have four meditation sessions a day, beginning at 4:00 a.m. and ending at 8:30 p.m., for a total of more than 8 hours of solitary practice in our rooms, plus additional practice to finish up each session after it officially ends, totalling over an hour; plus 4 hours of group chanting practices—in short, 13 hours of scheduled practice daily: that’s five more hours than a full-time job. Everything else has to be fit into the spaces between practice sessions—that includes eating, sleeping, exercise, showers, laundry, brushing your teeth, getting dressed or undressed, cleaning your room, communal chores, dealing with pieces of paper, writing letters, studying, reading, getting out for some fresh air, etc.

At first it seemed completely impossible—on most days we have less than two hours of unscheduled time, most of it in increments of 15 minutes or less, in which we have to fit all of the above activities and anything else we might need to take care of.  And most breaks are usually just enough time to visit the bathroom, get a cup of tea, adjust clothing, and take care of any preparation that’s needed for the next session. (There’s an additional hour and a half of “free” time after lunch, but it is usually taken up by work or classes. There’s also an hour after the 8:30 p.m. gong—but it includes a half hour of follow-up practice, and anyway I am toast by then and just go to bed as soon as possible.)

If it sounds grim: it’s NOT! It’s quite wonderful to wake up every morning and live the same day over again, a day devoted almost entirely to the very thing I thought I most wanted to do and considered the most important before, but never found time for. Every day is Groundhog Day in retreat … with the potential to get it right every day, and still do it all over again the next.

An additional benefit: I have become an efficiency expert. I plan in minutes and seconds; I know precisely how long most things I have to do take, when pared of most of the thoughts, daydreams and spacing out that fill up so much time in our ordinary lives. I shower in five minutes flat, get dressed in about a minute, eat in ten, wash my dishes in one. If I find myself in the basement with my toothbrush in my hand and my tea cup empty one minute before I’m due formally dressed in the shrine room (2 floors up) to begin the 6:00am chanting session…no sweat! I fill my cup from the perpetual hot water pot, dash up the stairs, put my toothbrush away, put on my zen (monastic shawl) with all the folds properly in place (or, occasionally, not), grab my mala (prayer beads), turn off my light, and make it upstairs just before the shrinekeeper sounds the first, wrathful blast of the conch.

An interesting and previously unsuspected thing about time: when your mind is really focused, time becomes spacious. Five minutes to spare now seems generous and relaxed; a minute or 30 seconds is enough time for any number of things, without rushing. It turns out, there is plenty of time for Dharma practice (13 hours a day!) if inessential activities are eliminated and others reduced to the minimum time actually needed to do them.

Of course, I have a much simpler life now than I did outside retreat: no shopping, errands, medical appointments, family and social obligations, or income to produce, and most meals are prepared for us. Those things do take up a lot of time, so it wouldn’t be possible to spend 13 hours in formal practice in my ordinary life. But I hope I will find a lot more time when I go back to it than I did before. One less movie is two more hours of meaningful time; 5 minutes less in the shower adds up to over 30 hours in a year. And what do I really get from browsing the political commentary in the New York Times, besides more spinning thoughts?

The more time we have for meditation and Dharma study, the quicker we will start to deactivate the habitual patterns of thought and perception that keep us confused and in pain. The Vajrayana path says complete mental freedom can be attained in this very lifetime, if we play our cards right.

So… enlightenment…or a long, hot shower?