Three Year Retreat
Retreat Master Lama Lodro Rinpoche was interviewed by Deborah Price-Janke about the Three Year Retreat he resides over.
Question: Rinpoche, when I talked to some of the people going into Three Year Retreat, I was amazed at their joy--it was as though they had won the lottery. Yet, for most Americans the idea of being sequestered and engaging in rigorous meditation practice for three years is not a very entertaining prospect, so where does their joy come from?
Lama Lodro Rinpoche: Your question requires a two-part answer. The people you met had been students of the Buddha/Dharma for many years. They had listened again and again to the teachings and over time through practice their experience was transformed from an intellectual understanding to a genuine understanding. So they view Three Year Retreat as an opportunity to free themselves from suffering and realize perfect Buddhahood to benefit sentient beings. Faced with such an opportunity they experience great joy. Secondly, although many Americans have heard the same teachings and have even practiced what they've heard, their karmic relationship with Three Year Retreat is not as strong. The people you met had some past-life connection with Three Year Retreat, had followed the lineage, had practiced and so all these habitual tendencies, this familiarity gave them the feeling of coming home rather than going to some tortuous place.
Q: What qualifies a person to enter a Three Year Retreat? Is it just a matter of requesting permission?
LLR: Well, if someone comes and just expresses the wish to participate I probably would not allow it since they do not know the teachings and the lineage, do not know me as a teacher, which could create many obstacles, confusion and misunderstanding. And also if I don't know them, don't understand them, I won't know how to teach them. So the knowledge has to be on both sides. The people presently on retreat have known and studied with me for 12-13 years.
Q: In glancing through Jamgon Kongtrul's retreat manual, it said even if you have just a flash of disrespect or doubt of the teacher, this can create great obstacles for one's retreat.
Q: What did he man by that?
LLR: Well, the teacher is the one delivering, transmitting the teachings of the Buddha. These teachings can bring enlightenment. If one distrusts the teacher, one defiles the teachings. If a doctor gives medicine to cure your illness and you don't listen how to administer this medicine, what to eat and not to eat while taking the medicine, if you ignore his instructions, the medicine meant to cure you could kill you. This is somewhat analogous to the retreatants' relationship with the teacher. The teachings are coming from the Buddha but one is receiving them from a human teacher. Three Year Retreat follows the Vajrayana system and in the Vajrayana the teacher is the one who gives realization. So anything the teacher teaches must be received respectfully with confidence. Without this confidence the teachings are poisoned and one will not be able to accomplish what one wishes to accomplish.
Q: One thing that seems to awe people who hear about Three Year Retreat is the rigorous routine retreatants experience. For example, getting up at 3:00 a.m., and sleeping sitting up. Do people get used to these practices?
LLR: The physical obstacles are not so difficult for people. After one week people have no problem with fewer hours of sleep. After several weeks the pain of sitting cross legged is overcome. The physical obstacles are not the problem; physical problems we can control. Mental problems are more difficult to control. It is very difficult to discipline the mind. No matter how much discipline you have, when a thought comes you have no power to stop it, unless you can employ very powerful effective techniques to cut off those thoughts.
Q: Are these techniques only available to people on Three Year Retreat?
LLR: People outside Three Year Retreat have no time to employ these techniques. First of all you have to tame your mind, make your mind soft and gentle, and then you can utilize more active techniques. Without this taming of the mind the techniques are not useful, and could even bring lots of difficulties. It is not so much that people outside Three Year Retreat cannot learn or be given these techniques it is just they have no time to apply them. They have to make a living, there are lots of distractions, and this type of distracted mind is not good for the profound teachings you learn in Three Year Retreat. Also during Three Year Retreat the teachings are given in sequence, not all at once. When one teaching is complete another is introduced.
Q: What kind of obstacles are faced by people on Three Year Retreat?
LLR: At the beginning they face the obstacles of being away for the first time from the samsaric world. When one is on Three Year Retreat one is really cut off from samsara which at first makes people uneasy and depressed. But actually by experiencing these emotions one learns more, one is taught more, and then gradually one settles down.
Q: So the afflictions are helpful. But how do you use them?
LLR: Outside Three Year Retreat these afflictions make one more afflicted. But in Three Year Retreat the afflictions deepen our understanding of the teachings because one has time to consider the afflictions, watch them carefully.
Q: What is someone on Three Year Retreat is completely overcome by negative emotions? Although they do their best to transform these emotions, they feel compelled to leave Three Year Retreat, to give up. Would you advise them to leave?
LLR: If he or she has karma with Three Year Retreat the situation as you describe may not occur. But even if the karma is there, many obstacles may arise. I will examine that person and say, "Don't worry about it. Just practice. It's okay," and use some skill to comfort them and make them do them. If they have karma with me and I have karma with them they will change their outlook and be cured. If he or she has no karma in the first place, they will never enter Three Year Retreat. For example I have two students who two or three times now have attempted and failed to go into Three Year Retreat. They are close disciples and very devoted, but karma for Three Year Retreat is not there.
Q: What is the aim of the Three Year Retreat?
LLR: I think the aim is to escape from samsaric suffering, to cut off the causes of suffering, the root of suffering, to attain full awakening. When you have rooted out the causes of suffering and attained full awakening naturally, spontaneously benefit comes for sentient beings.
So the aim is two fold:
(1) to free ourselves from the cause of suffering, and achieve full awakening, and
(2) to free all sentient beings from suffering so they have everlasting happiness.
This is the aim generally of Mahayana Buddhism and particularly the teacher should have this attitude. This is what I teach.
Q: Before going on Three Year Retreat people must have completed Ngondro, and yet is it true that they begin these practices again from scratch after they go in?
LLR: For the first seven days they do the Vajrakilya practice to remove the obstacles from the path. Then they go to Ngondro practice--normal preliminary practice: prostration, Vajrasattva mantra, mandala offering, and Guru Yoga for six months. After that, particular to this lineage, they do Milarepa guru yogas practice for a month. After that, Seven Point Mind Training for one month, then Calm Abiding Practice, and Insight Practice, and then they go onto other practices.
Q: All of this is taught in Tibetan, all the texts are in Tibetan?
LLR: It has to be in Tibetan.
Q: So in order to participate in Three Year Retreat you have to have a good reading and writing knowledge of Tibetan?
LLR: It is very helpful if you are ready for it--reading, writing and understanding Tibetan is very helpful.
Q: If you don't have this knowledge....?
LLR: You will miss many things.
Q: Are there still whispered transmissions?
LLR: Although whispered transmissions are now written down those who can receive them must still be chosen. The teacher has to know the student is ready to receive them. So it is not the student's decision. These whispered transmissions are still very secret. Recently, for example, we gave an empowerment to 15-20 people. Certainly if this teaching had been open to the public thousands would have attended but it was limited to a select group of students we knew well who may go into Three Year Retreat in the future.
Q: Recently I spoke to one of your students who had entered Three Year Retreat and what surprised him was how little leisure he had during the day--less than 1/2 hours free time? Why is there so little free time during Three Year Retreat? Why is the practice so intense?
LLR: Because this is the reason they are in the Three Year Retreat. Outside the world is intense and our involvement in that intensity causes suffering and pain. When you realize you only have these three years you want to use every moment of this leisure in the proper way to lead you in the right direction. If you become lazy during the retreat there is no benefit. You might as well be outside. So, in retreat every moment is consumed in positive activity. If you have a lot of free time you have time for confusion and negative activity.
Q: Does someone come around to see if you get up at 3:00a.m.?
LLR: There is a Chostempa who checks to be sure everyone is doing what they are suppose to be doing.
Q: You have led lots of different people in Three Year Retreats. Is there a difference between Americans, Europeans, or Asians?
LLR: Europeans and Americans are the same but students from Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet are slightly different in that they have memorized most of the texts because it is their scripture, what they have grown up with. Most of them retain the rituals very well and it is easy for them. But for Europeans and Americans it is difficult because they have to learn the language and read scriptures and learn the mudras and chanting.
All of these things together make it a bit more complicated than for the Tibetans or Sikkimese. Yet the Westerners have great intelligence and diligence and if they want to learn, they will learn thoroughly and precisely. However Western people are somewhat undisciplined in that they always sit in chairs, drive cars, drive when they could walk. It Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim people walk miles and become used to physical hardships such as no electric light, no heaters, no air conditioners. During my Three Year Retreat we relied on a small candle for light, had no heat and no coolers. But so what. When the weather is hot, it is hot, when it is cold you put on more clothes. Nothing more than that. Also, in Tibetan and in Sikkim I never taught women.
Q: So women usually only have women teachers?
LLR: Usually there are women teachers for women and men teachers for men, and my experience in the East was teaching only monks. However, certainly men can teach women, and women can teach men. And when I began to teach women it was an amazing experience because I was the different qualities men and women have.
Q: How different?
LLR: The women have great faith, devotion and intelligence. They learn more easily than men and teaching women is easier. They are very intelligent, diligent, and open. The men may be intelligent but they don't use their full intelligence at times.
Q: What does that mean, use their full intelligence?
LLR: They don't work as hard--give 100%. They use their intelligence up to a point but don't put extra effort in. This is my experience, at least, with Western men. They also learn more slowly compared to women. The only weakness in women is when they experience emotion one has to counsel them--use many skillful means to remove their emotion. The men, although they don't have as much intelligence and diligence, never give up. This is my experience. The women at a certain point, even if a little problem arises, may say, "okay I can't do this." But when the teacher's advice is available to them they, without exception, will respond, "Oh, yes. Oh, okay. I get it. Thank you," and the problem is overcome. Of course six months later one may face the same situation. Not all men and women fit in these categories I have described. I am speaking of general observations.
Q: Why does the retreat have to be three years? Why not one year or two years?
LLR: If one can live three years, three months, three days, in a positive state with the mind not influenced by negativity, one is then purified enough to realize full enlightenment according to the tantric system. This is a complicated subject to discuss here today. There is a sequence of teachings that have to be completed before your question can fully be answered and understood.
Q: But what about stories where people experience instant enlightenment?
LLR: Oh, I see. These people who realize instant enlightenment have in a past life practiced much longer than three years. They may have lived their whole life in a mountain practicing so in this life they must have to come back to this body to finish and instantly are enlightened. By his/her karma with the past life, other karmic connections with the guru and disciple, his/her familiarity with the teachings--all of these causes create instant enlightenment. So this does not mean that such and such a technique will bring enlightenment in an instant. The technique did not bring enlightenment. He/she was karmically ripened already.
Q: Is Three Year Retreat the only means to enlightenment?
LLR: Well, there are many other ways to enlightenment. Milarepa took twelve years, Buddha took six years. We have three years through the blessings of Milarepa and Buddha. So, yes there are other techniques besides the Three Year Retreat. You can practice outside if you are ready for that. But if you don't go into Three Year Retreat usually your worldly activities do not allow you to practice. In Three Year Retreat you are committed. Everything settles down. You just have to concentrate on practice. If you are outside, today you go on retreat, tomorrow you come out because something happens. But retreat on Three Year Retreat are committed. They can't come out. They are protected by their commitment.
Q: It sounds as though if one is serious about practicing the dharma one should think about going on Three Year Retreat and work toward that goal--that Three Year Retreat is best, the fastest and most useful technique in benefiting beings and reaching enlightenment?
LLR: In Three Year Retreat one completes from beginning to end the whole vision of the lineage, the practice, what the lineage offers. Yet, just because a person doesn't plan to go on to University doesn't mean she shouldn't finish high school. So, similiarly if someone were to say, "If you don't go to Three Year Retreat why bother being Buddhist,"--that's nonsense. Even a little knowledge of the Buddha/Dharma teaches you how to live positively in the world.
Q: Is it possible to come to complete awakening and understanding while living in the world?
LLR: Many Mahasiddhas lived in the world. They were farmers, they were dice players, they grew figs. Through these activities, these pursuits, then became enlightened. The thing to remember is the action does not bring enlightenment. The view brings enlightenment. Playing dice in an ordinay way does not bring enlightenment but the Mahasiddha who gainined enlightenment playing dice had one pointed, unwavering contemplation. When we see him we see a dice player, but we don't see inside, we don't see the yogi. So there are ways to become enlightened through ordinary activity. Some yogis sleep for twelve yeas, wake up and (Rinpoche snaps his fingers) are enlightened.
Q:So is enlightenment a true understanding of the dream like quality of existence?
LLR: Yes, that's the understanding, but you have to stay in that state of mind for twelve years, completely accustomed, completely habituated. Asleep, the state of the yogi's mind, was clear light. Staying for twelve years in a clear light removed ignorance completely and when he came back to reality he became enlightened. But these are examples beyond the reach of ordinary people. Those yogis demonstrated enlightenment in one lifetime through simple actions but that lifetime was a culmination of countless lifetimes of effort toward enlightenment. For those interested in the stories of the Mahasiddhas there is a book entitled, Buddha's Lions, the lives of the eighty-four Siddhas, Dharma publications. There is a saying which says, "A tiger can jump from mountain to mountain but if a dog tries to jump he will fall of the cliff and die." If you are a tiger you can jump; if you are a dog you should find a bridge to walk over. There are some like Milarepa who can practice alone, outside of Three Year Retreat, but most poeple need the protection of the commitment which is the Three Year Retreat.
Q: I remember Kalu Rinpoche speaking at length of the value of going on Three Year Retreat, but he spoke of it very matter of factly like suggesting going to Europe. For many of us it still feels like a hugh undertaking, a huge commitment.
LLR: Yes, if the karma is not there it is a huge commitment, very scary. But if you have this karmic connection Three Year Retreat will seem too short. Many people after completeing Three Year Retreat will do 6 years of retreat, or 9 years of retreat. In Canada there were many people who after completing one Three Year Reteat went on to do more because in their last life they were mature enough, ripened enough, so in this life when the door opened they did not hesitate.
Q: Do you think in the future there will be a Three Year Retreat American style, in English and a little bit easier?
LLR: (Rinpoche laughs) I'm afraid I'm not authorized to make it any easier for Americans.