The Value of Retreat

You all know the purpose of retreat and its value. There are many things that retreat is important for, both for benefiting oneself and other sentient beings, especially those we are close to. The motivation is very important. Your motivation for practice should be loving kindness, compassion, and benefiting others. I realized just how important motivation was through my practice. Education is not enough, but you need to understand the teaching of the Buddha well. My degree in Buddhist studies was very useful to help me understand the importance of meditation practice. Without practice it is difficult to have inner peace. The essence of the essence is within the practice. I realized practice was important, so I went into retreat. Retreat requires external support and inner strength, including good health, so that you can deal with the rigors of practice. I am grateful for the support I got from others and kept them in my prayers while I practiced. We can learn from the history of the past masters. Some were very scholarly and others were great practitioners as well as being scholars. So I learned to follow their path, first through education. Even though my understanding is limited, I recalled how Milarepa worked hard to realize the nature of his mind. I appreciate the teachings I got from my masters. Most of of them are well known. I rejoice how I was able to receive teaching from them. I appreciate the solid practitioners I have had as masters, like Garchen Rinpoche. I appreciate the discussions and questions I had with him. The most important teaching I got from him is that we have to make a strong effort year after year if we want realization. I think he was telling me how he practices. He practiced ten years meditating day and night. The gave me great inspiration. Since then I try my best to study and practice. During recent years I have divided my time between teaching and practice. We learn something intellectually though study, but mostly it stays in our head. It takes practice to bring it into our heart. If we bring it into our heart, we won't forget it. It will remain for the rest of our lives. If we learn loving kindness through meditation, it is very powerful and we can deal with the rest of our emotions easily. Most people in the West are well educated. Now we need to learn from meditation and the heart. When the head and heart come together it is very powerful. We know it takes hard work to study and learn intellectually. It also takes hard work to practice meditation.

Practice has made it easier for me to deal with emotions in a positive way. That is one of the most important reasons to go into retreat. Last year after leaving the United States I went to Bodhgaya and met my parents. I was there almost three weeks, visiting Buddha's stupa and statue. When you look at the statue and meditate before it, it has a great calming power. By visiting the place of enlightenment, you make a connection with it and the Buddha's qualities. I believe the Buddha's teaching very much and I spent as much time as I could meditating in front of it. The energy from the statue transforms your attitude totally. Next year I will visit it again. There were many Westerners and I was surprised how many did prostrations.

After visiting Bodhgaya I visited Lumbini, Buddha's birthplace. I attended the Yamantaka retreat and attended the Monkey Year teachings. Garchen Rinpoche was there leading the retreat. There were maybe eighty to ninety monks and nuns there. It was twelve days of practice, day and night. We did the recitation in shifts and each person got about four or five hours of sleep a night. I never had done that kind of practice before. Some monks were nodding off during practice but many did a very good job of the practice. I was happy that my previous retreat practice prepared me for this long practice. Practicing with others is wonderful. You support each other so much. Meditating by yourself is harder.

After the retreat I attended the Monkey Year's teaching for two weeks and then came back to my family and did retreat in my old room. I asked my younger brothers not to disturb my practice. I told them I would do retreat for a month. They had never seen me do a strict retreat like that before, where I did not speak. It was easy because my mother prepared my food. When I did a retreat in Lapchi I had to bring everything and prepare my own food. I appreciate what she did for me so much. In Lapchi Mountains I was by myself. I learned a lot by practicing with my family about the value of friends, sisters, and brothers. After the retreat my mother told me my younger brother kept asking when the retreat would be over. We cannot escape something in this life until we learn from it. The retreat in my family was a greater challenge than practicing alone in the mountain because of the emotions it invoked. My younger brothers taught me so many things. When one of them went out having fun on his motorcycle, it made my parents worry. I learned to be patient with him. My practice has given me inner strength and understanding. The most important thing is learning to deal with emotions. We think of meditation as bringing peace and calm, but different emotions arise when we practice. We have to learn to deal with them and when we do, they disappear. The result is more understanding of loving kindness and compassion and we better appreciate how important they are. Even if we are not a great practitioner, they are very useful. If you do not deal with afflictive emotions in your retreat, it is almost useless.

When I was in retreat in Lapchi mountains some Western tourists visited and asked me what the other monks and nuns were doing. When I told them that they were meditating, they said, "Oh, they are wasting their lives." Meditation practice is not easy and requires a lot of external support. But internal obstacles, like loneliness and doubts about practice are also difficult. I wondered what I was doing, whether I was wasting my education. Then I gained confidence what I was doing was right. Meditation has its up and down times, when your energy is high and low. You have to control your desire to go outside. But this is a small problem. The bigger problem is your habitual emotions. You realize how strong they are. You might think your food is not good. But if you are hungry whatever you have seems delicious. Then you realize what your habitual desires are and they vanish. I didn't eat until I was hungry and then I appreciated its value. Whatever food you eat is accepted as an offering to the deities.

You appreciate the importance of the environment. One of my brothers lives in the noise and bustle of New York City. You learn to appreciate the calm of the mountains. It's important to have a balance of study and meditation. It is my experience that meditation makes your intellectual understanding clearer. Though practice you see how other sentient beings depend on your practice, especially in these degenerate times. In March I will make a pilgrimage and after that I will go back into retreat again, probably back in the Lapchi mountains. If I can't I'll do retreat in India. After that I'll return to teach. I also want to help my parents as they are getting older. When I go into retreat it's calm and peaceful, but then you come back to your family, you get angry. I'm dividing my time six months practicing in retreat and six months back in society.

Q: Which was easier, practicing with your family or in the mountains?

A: It was easier to practice with my family. There were more distractions, but it was more real. Both taught me a lot. The mountain is helpful if you don't know how to deal with distractions.

Q: The shravakas learn to attain peace, but the bodhisattva tries to develop purified perception so they can deal with beings?

A: That's right. There are a lot of bodhisattvas in your family. My father has seven sons and had to provide for them. My mother had to care for all of them, day and night. Despite this she rarely got angry.

Q: Do you have a retreat master that tells you what to practice?

A: I am practicing by myself because I have the confidence in my practice now.

Q: Do you prepare for retreat by doing meditation?

A: Yes, and by doing shorter retreats too. If you go into retreat without education and previous practice, it's difficult. It took me ten years to prepare to go into retreat.

Q: Do you do different practices in a three year retreat?

A: Yes, some for two months or so.

Q: Could you talk about the proper view for meditation practice?

A: Through education and meditation you get the proper view. The Madhyamika texts teach you the intellectual view and Mahamudra and Dzogchen get you the experiential understanding of the view. It's very useful to have them both together, as the Dalai Lama has.