Suggestion for Doing Long Retreat:
Live according to the Vinaya
by Ven. Tenzin Chogkyi
From March 2000 to June 2003, I undertook a
3-year, 3-month (and 3-day!) deity retreat, a traditional practice
in Tibetan Buddhism. Five of us engaged in this retreat, although
we lived and practiced individually and only met every few months
for group practice, which we did in verbal silence, although there
was a fair amount of note writing and made-up sign language on these
occasions! Two of the retreatants were ordained, and three were
lay people at the time (including myself).
Near the end of the retreat, we decided to meet
to discuss our experiences, and compile a 3-year retreat manual.
When we were preparing for the retreat, we referred to some journal
and traditional retreat manuals that primarily discussed the rituals
and logistics involved with undertaking such a retreat. However,
we really had no information and no idea what to expect in terms
of the spiritual, emotional, and psychological transformations we
were sure were going to manifest for us and the optimal conditions
to help bring these about. Thus after the retreat, we hoped that
by compiling our thoughts, future long-term meditators would be
able to benefit from our experience.
During the course of these discussions, it became
clear that what we had discovered through trial and error to be
the most conducive to deep meditation and serious contemplation
was in most respects exactly in accordance with the monastic vows.
For example, we found that having a few changes of simple, comfortable
clothing and a simple hairstyle (for those of us who still had hair!)
and dispensing with adornment and even a mirror eliminated the distraction
of focusing on one's appearance. Three heavy meals a day didn't
work -- two light meals were best, eaten early in the day, as eating
a substantial meal in the evening led to a groggy, unclear evening
meditation, as well as sluggish sleep and reluctant rising the next
Listening to music didn't work-the songs would
repeat endlessly in one's head during meditation; and one plaintive
love song by a female vocalist (Sarah McLaughlin was the worst!)
could easily lead to endless obsessive ruminations about old high
school boyfriends (" I wonder where he is now? If I did a search
on Google, could I find him?"). Even though we didn't have
access to TV or movies, we could only imagine the effects would
be similar, if not worse. Of course, strict celibacy was imperative,
and sexual fantasies and daydreams were just frustrating and pointless.
When we did meet, we took great care to make
our interactions harmonious, as any harsh interactions or misunderstandings
led to feelings of either irritation or remorse (or often both)
that would linger and disturb one's meditation for days, even weeks.
We also found that too much "conversation" and note-writing
about mundane, non-spiritual subjects led to restlessness, a marked
dissipation of energy, and even a physical feeling of bloatedness,
similar to the aftermath of overindulging in junk food or sweets!
Idle chatter was also out.
Simplicity of lifestyle, elimination of
distractions, harmony of relationship. Sound familiar? It seemed
to me, in reflecting on what we'd discovered to be conducive for
contemplative practice, that these actions of body, speech, and
mind met the Vinaya-the monastic discipline-and meshed perfectly.
Through trial and error and our attempt to analyze the most effective
conditions for retreat and realization, we had discovered the system
designed by the Buddha more than 2,600 years ago to accomplish exactly
the same thing. About nine months before we began this process of
discussing our retreat experiences, I had decided to get ordained,
and this discovery just strengthened my resolve, as I gained a fresh
appreciation for the perfect container that living in ordination
creates for awakening.