Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Smritiratna's letter from the Forest: Insight retreats in Scotland

Smritiratna is an Order Member who has for some years now been a resident teacher at the FWBO’s Dhanakosa Retreat Centre in Scotland. Between retreats, he lives in the woods as a hermit, and has written FWBO News a ‘Letter from the Forest’.

In it he describes his coming three-month retreat at Guhyaloka in Spain and his hopes for the ‘Stilling and Seeing Through’ insight retreats he will be leading on his return. If you would like to know more about these retreats, you could either read his long and detailed article (click here) or a shorter one by a retreatant (click here) or else try the websites of Dhanakosa or Vajraloka.

“Dear All,

“I am writing this at the window of the forest cabin where I spend much of my time these days, a mile from Dhanakosa Retreat Centre in Scotland. Looking up, a profusion of green leaves meets my gaze, thousands of grasses and ferns, spruces and larches, oaks and willows, birches and rowans, lichens and mosses. This rich variety arises in response to the rains that come so often here. Without the rains there would be only rock and sand as far as the eye could see. But the rains give life to the earth and green things flourish.

“This puts me in mind of the first teaching of the Buddha, the one celebrated by Dharma Day at the full moon of the Indian month Asalha (June/July). I believe the torrential rains of the Indian monsoon commence around mid-June. So this first outpouring of the Dharma teaching of the Buddha was accompanied by ‘the soft thunder of the rain on leaves’. It came to be known as the Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana Sutta, (the ‘Dhamma-wheel-set-rolling’). The new Buddha has sought out the five ascetics who had shunned him before. Now deeply moved by his appearance and the quality of his presence among them, the five open their hearts once more and their teacher expounds the Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path. Transcendental Insight arises first in Kondanna. The Truth is out, the Dharma Wheel set rolling, and, eight-spoked like the Eightfold Path, it has rolled down the centuries, rolled through the lives of generations of the Buddha’s disciples and is rolling still.

"Two years ago I spent the Autumn at Guhyaloka, Spain, on the Vihara retreat for Dharmacharis. We were in silence for ten weeks. As the basis of my daily practice, I chose this first Sutta of the Buddha, together with his second. Following the Eightfold Path as my system of practises, I cultivated vision and devotion, made efforts to maintain good moods, practised mindfulness and a range of meditations in accord with Bhante Sangharakshita’s system. Day and night I returned to the theme of impermanence, a pile of animal bones on my shrine, laid out like a skeleton at the feet of the Buddhas. Every day I sat before them in meditations – letting go the aggregates as best I could, and opening my heart to the Buddhas and All.

"This system proved effective so the following year, when I introduced insight meditations on the ‘Stilling and Seeing Through’ retreats at Dhanakosa, they were framed within the Noble Eightfold Path. Practised as a spiral path, you wheel around it over and over. Each new glimpse of the Vision sends a new ripple through devotion, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, meditation, stirring new insights into the Vision that in turn send a new wave though the eight spokes or limbs of the Dharma life.

"By the time you read this I’ll be at Guhyaloka for another three month retreat. During the life of the Buddha, many of his disciples were forest renunciates for whom the annual Rains Retreat was regarded as an essential part of their practise. For nine months they’d wander from place to place, living the Dharma life in the open air, sharing the Dharma with the people. But for the three months of the monsoon rains, when the roads and paths were impassable, they would camp together in communities, dwelling in caves or temporary huts. These were the annual Rains Retreats. Inspired by their example, I plan to do a three month retreat every year from now on. This year at Guhyaloka seven Dharmacharis will attend for the whole three months while another nine will attend for one or two months.

"I’ll return by December, in time to lead another Stilling and Seeing Through retreat, and then another at Vajraloka Retreat Centre, Wales. These retreats assume prior knowledge of the mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana, also a basic understanding of the Dharma and of the Sevenfold Puja. For the first few days we’ll be settling and softening, in mindfulness and metta. Then we’ll contemplate the natural elements and spend a day on ‘transience and true refuge’ before returning to ‘visionary devotion’ at the end. If you would like to know more about these retreats, you could either read my long and detailed article (click here) or Joe’s short one (click here) or else try the websites of Dhanakosa or Vajraloka.

"Bye for now!

"Yours truly,Smritiratna.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Going on retreat - for three years!

VessantaraVessantara was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order in 1974, and is well-known as the author of ‘Meeting the Buddhas’ as well as a number of other books. He’s led a long and active life in the Order, travelling and speaking widely – see for instance his talks on Free Buddhist Audio for a sample…

But later this month, he’s off – on a three-year retreat! Most people involved in the FWBO have done at least some retreats – often planned using our website – but not many have done one lasting three whole years – and it could be longer. Not surprisingly he’s been asked many questions about it – and here are some of his answers.

FWBO News wishes him, and his partner Vijayamala, all good wishes as they embark on this major undertaking.

Vessantara says -

"I'm planning to do a long retreat, starting at the end of June. Here are answers to some of the questions I've often been asked about it:

Where are you going to do your retreat?

"In southern-central France in the Auvergne. It's about 2,000 feet (700 metres) up in the Massif Central. From near where we're staying you can see the range of mountains that includes the Puy de Dome. You can also see the golden roof of the temple of the Karma Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist centre founded by the late Gendun Rinpoche.

Why aren't you doing it at an FWBO place like Guhyaloka or Sudarshanaloka?

"I would be very happy to do so, except for one factor: I really want regular access to someone experienced who can guide my retreat. I have done quite a bit of solitary retreat over the years, as well as living at Vajraloka and Guhyaloka. Whilst they've been very useful, I've come to the conclusion that I would make much better progress with regular access to someone to help me sharpen up my practice, point out my blind spots and bad habits, and generally help me to 'steer to the deep'. So when Lama Lhundrup offered to help Order members who wanted to do long meditation retreat, I decided to take him up on his offer.

Who's Lama Lhundrup?

"He's a German-born senior disciple of Gendun Rinpoche, whom several Order members have got to know through meetings connected with the European Buddhist Union. Last year Subhuti and Dhammarati invited him to give a seminar on Gampopa's Jewel Ornament of Liberation at Madhyamaloka, where I met him. Lama Lhundrup's main work is guiding people in long retreats, so we talked a lot to him about meditation and retreat. Those discussions stirred up the aspiration to do a long retreat that I have felt for many years, but the conditions have never been right.

Why are you doing the retreat with Vijayamala?

"I'd originally thought of doing a long solitary retreat. When I talked to Vijayamala she was okay with that, but said it was something that she would also very much like to do. Lama Lhundrup's experience is that westerners can become too isolated and self-absorbed in solitary retreat, so all their long retreats are in groups. He himself did a three-year retreat with his wife. Then they both took monastic ordination and did further retreats in single-sex groups. (He has done nine years of retreat altogether.) That experience of practising with his wife, which he felt was very effective, means that he is open to helping couples, provided they are mature enough, to practise together.

When will you start your long retreat?

"We'll leave the UK at the end of June, and spend a couple of weeks or so getting settled in. Then we'll find an auspicious date to start. (The 18th of July is Full Moon.)

How long are you planning to do?

"Lama Lhundrup says that in the time-limited three-year group retreats that he guides, people often spend a year getting into it, a year deeply immersed, and then a year anticipating the end of the retreat. So he advised me to leave the finishing date of the retreat open. In that way it becomes just how you are living your life. So I'm telling people that I'm planning to do 'at least three years'.

How will you spend your time?

"On the trial retreat I got up at 5am and did ten or eleven hours' meditation a day in four sessions, as well as a small amount of Dharma study. I also did Hatha Yoga and went running every second day. I imagine my programme for the long retreat will be similar to that for most of the time.

What practices will you be doing?

"I'll carry on with the same practices that I do now. I'll focus mainly on visualization, as well as some formless meditation. On the trial retreat I concentrated on Vajrasattva practice, which felt like a good preparation for a long retreat. I did getting on for 40, 000 mantras. When I lived at Vajraloka in 1980 I did the whole Vajrasattva foundation yoga with 100, 000 mantras. It felt very different this time, less concerned with purifying specific negative karmas, more just with tendencies towards unskilfulness. As the weeks went by I relaxed more and more, and the light-nectar felt less of a purification and more just a blessing.

Will you leave the retreat at all?

"Apart from going for walks or runs in the local area, I don't plan to leave the place at all. As my parents both died in the early 1990s, I'm in the fortunate position of not having any dependents. I have two brothers, but if anything happened to them there are others who can look after them. If one of them died I wouldn't come back for the funeral. I would stay in retreat and dedicate practice for their benefit. I'm most likely to have to go out to see a dentist, as I'm a bit long in the tooth these days and I don't expect they will happily last three years without giving me any trouble.

Are you excited?

"No, I don't feel excited, just deeply contented at the prospect of being able to devote myself to the Dharma undistractedly.

What do you hope to get from it?

"I don't like that question very much. I don't like to anticipate what will happen, and I'm not doing the retreat in order to gain anything. I hope to strengthen the foundations of my practice, to come closer to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and to become more of a resource for other people. Years ago I gave a short talk on 'Solitary Retreat' at Padmaloka as part of a symposium chaired by Bhante. At the end he got up and said "That was a very good talk by Vessantara. There was only one thing that he didn't say, and that is that one goes away on retreat in order to come back." That was a very strong teaching for me. I had given a talk about retreat without setting it in the whole context of the Bodhisattva ideal. These days, thankfully, I am rather more in touch with the Bodhisattva spirit. So I hope that from the retreat I will gain experience of meditation and long retreats that I can come back and share with other interested Order members.

Will you be receiving letters?

"No, sorry. On a retreat as intensive as this correspondence and news of the outside world very easily become a distraction. Lhundrup particularly counselled me against keeping in contact with people for whom I fulfilled a particular role - such as private preceptor or kalyana mitra. In a way the whole purpose of the retreat is to let go of being 'someone', having a particular identity. Correspondence with people in relation to whom I have a particular position can easily interfere with that process.

"Of course I shall be thinking of people I've ordained, and all those to whom I'm KM as well as all my friends in the FWBO. (I currently make a practice of calling to mind in meditation all the men I've ordained and reciting mantras for them.) I won't be reading Shabda, or Sanghajala, or FWBO News,but Maitrivajri has kindly agreed to let me and Vijayamala know if Order members are seriously ill or die, so we can dedicate some practice to them. I will also write to Shabda from time to time, to let people know how I'm getting on.

"My experience of doing solitary retreats is that I feel very close to people - strongly linked to them on a mental level. So I shall be thinking of Bhante and all of you, will be wishing you all well with your lives and Dharma practice. Although there will be nothing obvious to show for it, I shall still be deeply involved in the life of the FWBO".

Vessantara's website is at

Labels: ,