The goal of the Retreat Foundation is to encourage and fund solitary retreat.
(With luck, we will incorporate as a non-profit 501c3 OR tie our wagon to another organization with similar goals sometime this year, 2019. Stay tuned! I'm beginning to understand the ins and outs of non-profits, fundraising, boards, and the rest of the minutia. In the meantime, send support, suggestions, rants, money, encouragement, and advice to: Retreat Foundation / Frammis, Box 6164, Minneapolis, MN 55406 USA)
Goals of the Foundation
The Impetus for the Foundation
The Reasoning Behind Doing Retreat
The Problem in the West
The Solution to The Problem in the West
Finding Retreat Centers
Finding Suitable Candidates: Advanced and Beginning
Not My Job
Practicalities: Psychological and Logistical
Selling This: Networking and Promotion
To Sum it All Up
There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
What can establish dharma in the West forever? I’ll make it simple: One Western person must attain full enlightenment in the same way as Marpa, Milarepa, or Guru Rinpoche. If one Westerner—man or woman, doesn’t matter—attains that level of realization, then pure dharma will be established in Western culture, Western language, and environment and so forth. Until that time, dharma can be taught in the West, it can be practiced in the West, and it can be recited in Western languages. But it is not yet one hundred percent complete.-Tai Situpa Rinpoche
The Retreat Foundation’s goal is to finance solitary retreat for qualifying North American practitioners in the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages. The intent is simple: to remove the obstacle of money from qualified practitioners who wish to do retreat and are qualified to do so.
The thought of death is a good dancing partner.
-Søren Kierkegaard Philosophical Fragments
In the late 90s, having done some solitary retreat, I found myself acting frequently as a sounding board for those who lamented their inability to finance their own retreats. Coincidentally, I had just come into a small amount of money and decided to anonymously approach a local sangha in my area with the offer of financial support. I ended up financing 12 retreats of varying lengths. The inception, implementation, and result was immensely satisfying. Many of the practitioners I supported found their retreats to be the beginning of a life more oriented towards study and meditation. Others found that, when given the opportunity to go into retreat, their obstacle was actually not financial in nature. In a way, this was also a helpful revelation.
Teachers such as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche placed a premium on solitary retreat practice. Chögyam Trungpa, for example, mandated (by way of Tenga Rinpoche) that the recitation requirement for the Chakrasamvara practice be carried out in a sealed retreat that typically took a total of 3-5 months.
These teachers did not seem to hold back in the transmission of dharma to their western students, nor in their exhortation that students enter into secluded retreat on a regular basis.
After completing a long retreat in the mid-90s I understood a little more clearly the value of solitary practice. In the weeks that one spends in retreat one finds that the clutter and volume of sensory and mental consciousness slows down. Just by seeing the same sights every day over six weeks in retreat (cabin, snow, chipmunk, sky, wood stove) one’s sensory input is attenuated. Eventually, one’s mental consciousness begins to relax and become more transparent.
Because wisdom that arises from itself is difficult to understand and does not fit into one’s mind, it is indicated through the convention of consciousness. This is important.
-Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Karmê Chöling 2002
In this contained and protected environment one might be able to mount an investigation of extremely nuanced aspects of mind. One might be able to feel the subtle current of the alaya, or base consciousness. The practitioner might be able to feel the underlying texture of heretofore assumed and unseen duality. The practitioner may even find him or herself in a position where the difference between consciousness and wisdom can be considered. With training, one can rest gently and confidently in these subtle aspects of mind. In the intense loneliness of long-term solitude profound experiences of devotion, sympathy, and compassion can arise and stabilize.
It is difficult to even consider this possibility if the practitioner believes that a phone or doorbell might ring. It is an extremely precious and rare situation.
…attentiveness without an object is prayer in its supreme form.
“Practitioners go from yidam to yidam like a series of divorces, and it’s really something to apologize for.”
-Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, personal interview
In some ways, a mild degradation of this precious tradition is appearing in the presentation and execution of these teachings in the west. Many practitioners who have received advanced teachings and empowerments from realized teachers have seen their practice become rote or nonexistent. Part of this may be due to a lack of proximity to a qualified teacher and academic training in basic Buddhist tenets, and part of it may be due to the natural human tendency to make any initially-brilliant inspiration mechanical in its implementation. I do not believe this is a problem just in the west; I have seen the same situation in Tibet, Nepal, Indonesia, and anywhere religion becomes naturally ossified by the routines of daily life.
In participating in meditation retreats I have met many young (and old) practitioners who have made the determination to keep their practice a fresh and living expression of their tradition. These people have applied themselves assiduously to study and practice and have an intuitive and acquired understanding of emptiness, devotion, bodhichitta, and nonduality. These practitioners are often unable to do the kind of deep, sustained retreat they need in order to bring their potential to fruition. This is the situation I would like to address.
The fourth and highest level of tantra, anuttara yoga tantra or the tantra of unsurpassable yoga, is designed and appropriate for individuals who have very strong mental afflictions, such as aggression, passion, pride, jealousy and ignorance, and who are at the same time extremely diligent, very courageous, and have a great deal of natural insight or intelligence. There are particular techniques used for dealing with these various mental states.
-Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Densal Magazine
One way for practitioners to bring to fruition the teachings they’ve been given is to simply follow their teachers’ instructions in retreat. The Retreat Foundation’s goal is to make this possible by finding well-managed retreat facilities, qualified students, and then bring the two together. Putting suitable students into retreat can go a long way towards planting and bringing to fruition the wisdom traditions of vajrayana in the west.
For now, funds would only cover cabin retreats at established retreat centers such as Dorje Khyung Dzong or Sea-to-Sky Retreat Centre. Retreats are best undertaken within established boundaries with a retreat master available. In the future, if things go well, it’s possible that transportation, food, or even pilgrimage could be supported by the foundation.
The retreat center aspect is fairly simple. I’ve done many months of solitary retreat at Dorje Khyung Dzong, Karmê Chöling, Shambhala Mountain Center, and other well-run retreat centers. I know the retreat masters at these centers, and know they would enjoy the prospect of stocking their cabins with enthusiastic practitioners as well as developing an ongoing relationship with a foundation with a similar outlook to theirs'.
To deliver oneself up, to hand oneself over, entrust oneself completely to the silence of a wide landscape of woods and hills, or sea, or desert; to sit still while the sun comes up over that land and fills its silences with light. To pray and work in the morning and to labor and rest in the afternoon, and to sit still again in meditation in the evening when night falls upon that land and when the silence fills itself with darkness and with stars. This is a true and special vocation. There are few who are willing to belong completely to such silence, to let it soak into their bones, to breathe nothing but silence, to feed on silence, and to turn the very substance of their life into a living and vigilant silence.
-Thomas Merton Vocation to Silence
The process of finding the right candidates for retreat is more difficult to describe. The most foolproof method would be to work with experienced teachers who have been training their students for years and have a good feeling for who might benefit from extended retreat. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche would be just such a teacher, as would Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Reggie Ray, Tsok-nyi Rinpoche and Mingyur Rinpoche.
One kind of qualified practitioner might be one who, for example, knows basic buddhadarma, who has completed traditional ngondro and yidam recitations, who can parse shentong from rangtong, and who has the basic confidence and sanity to weather the vagaries of retreat. If there is also quality of warmth and genuine interest in others’ welfare, one might have found a student who can eventually mature into an accomplished teacher. Perhaps this is a candidate who would benefit greatly from six to eight months of retreat meditating on the text “Pointing Out the Dharmakaya,” the Six Dharmas of Naropa, or the inner key instruction series of Dzogchen.
On the beginner’s side, the container of “dathun” (a one-month intensive group training in shamatha meditation) is accessible and powerful for beginning students. It is not too outrageous to say that one month of shamatha practice in a nurturing environment such as Karmê Chöling has the potential to turn one’s mind irrevocably to the dharma.
The types of people who seriously consider doing retreat are often the same types of people who do not put a premium on the accumulation of wealth. Given the seductive qualities of the world, it is important to nurture and bring to fruition the longing for intensive practice before practitioners lose themselves in life's complexities.
We could say that some people are tantric by nature. They are inspired in their lives; they realize that some reality is taking place in the true sense, and they feel that the experience of energy is relevant to them…they have a personal interest in the world: the visual world, the auditory world, the world of the senses altogether. They are interested in how things work and how things are perceived. That sense of enormous interest, that interest in perception, is tantric by nature…they could be regarded as tantric fetuses, or potential members of the tantric family.
-Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche Journey Without Goal
My job is to assume the responsibilities of talent scout, recruiter, facilitator, office manager, cheerleader, promoter, accountant, web designer, blog manager, banker, de-briefer, newsletter editor, fundraiser, and logistical manager.
I believe only in Dhamma. For me, Hinduism and Buddhism are both madness.
-S. N. Goenka
It is not my job to teach people how or what to do in retreat. I just want to get them there. If I need to, I have been given permission to teach shamatha, tonglen, Kagyu ngondro, Vajrayogini and Chakrasamvara Sadhana, and the practicalities of the Six Dharmas of Naropa.
The foundation's orientation is toward solitary retreat. There are already mechanisms in place for funding three-year retreats or attendance at dharma programs.
Do not train yourself in many qualities when desiring to attain enlightenment. Train yourself in one quality. What is it? It is compassion. The person with great compassion will possess all the enlightened qualities as in the palm of his hand.
Retreatants would be asked to practice according to their teachers’ instructions. That’s all. After the conclusion of their retreat it would be useful to get a brief summation of their experience, either from their own writing, or through some sort of debriefing. These accounts of retreat could help in fundraising, maintaining an online presence, or (eventually) forming the basis for a book on retreat.
One can only hope that the process of retreat would create compassionate, erudite teachers (and perhaps buddhas) but obviously that cannot be part of the evaluation process (“How many buddhas have you created?”) Instead, this is a process of planting seeds that might not come to fruition for generations.
With luck, a process will be set in motion to produce teachers who can maintain the essential transmission of wisdom based on their command of esoteric and exoteric dharma teachings. These teachers will be able to teach grounded in their accumulation of knowledge and wisdom attained in retreat. They will be able teach from experience and memory, like a good car mechanic or baker.
When I found myself with some unexpected money in the mid-90sI sent out anonymous letters to all the members of our local Shambhala sangha. I posed as a “Mr. Tharpa” and offered to cover the expenses for anyone who wanted to sit a “dathun” (a 28-day shamatha program) at Karmê Chöling in Vermont or Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. I asked only that people send me a letter from the dathun. The responses to my mailing were quite varied; some expressed outrage that I would not fund program expenses or individual retreats. One person wanted to take a month off of work and “meditate while watching the NBA finals.” I ended up sending 7 people to full dathuns and 5 to half-dathuns. Of the 12, 10 wrote short letters or postcards to me from retreat. Most of them affirmed it as a life-changing experience. I was also prepared to hear that it was a complete waste of time.
From this process I have become somewhat familiar with peoples’ expectations for retreat. I am also familiar with the follow-up; one person assumed that I was rich and could lend them money for the down payment on a house, which would be, in her words, a “house of meditation and dharma.”
I enjoy networking and maintaining relationships when it comes to something I believe in.
While I was not always the best person for the job, I believed very much in the Naropa Institute’s Study Abroad program, and was posted repeatedly to hold down positions for their programs in Nepal and Bali. The administration in Boulder trusted me as a detail-oriented hard worker and reliable teacher. In return, I helped the Naropa Institute develop relationships with officials in various embassies, with adjunct music and dharma faculty, and with travel agencies on both sides of the world. I enoyed this sort of work. I liked presenting accounting spreadsheets to the leaders of these programs, explaining what we could or could not do with the funds we had at different points in the programs.
I am guessing that a similar situation would happen in this endeavor. I anticipate developing close, ongoing relationships with donors, retreatants, retreat centers, and even, perhaps, the press.
I had hoped to fund this myself with money I would inherit. That would simplify everything: I could simply resurrect Mr. Tharpa’s mysterious presence and dole out money like a contemporary version of the 60s series “The Millionaire.” I ran this idea past my (then) very healthy parents sometime around the 2004 holiday season and they laughed, asking, “Well, how much do you think you’re going to get?” I took a guess, and they laughed again.
I declare that it is in this fathom-long carcass, with its perceptions and thoughts, that there is the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world.
-Anguttara Nikaya 4:45
Life is uncertain, basic sanity and wisdom is needed in this world, and humanity needs teachers who embody it in view, meditation, and conduct. The gradual polarization and hardening of views in the world needs to be balanced with genuine clarity. I have no doubt that wisdom arises in the crucible of retreat. This endeavor is a practical way to bring the hard work of retreat to fruition as embodied wisdom that can affect the lives of thousands.
Perhaps we will produce a buddha in our lifetime, or perhaps we will only be planting seeds that will bear fruit hundreds of years in the future. At the very least we will change peoples' lives, create a sangha of retreatants, and continue a lineage of clarity in the world.
Here is the sacred Jumna and here the River Ganges,
Here are Prayaga and Benares, here are Sun and Moon.
I have visited in my wanderings shrines and other places of pilgrimage,
But I have not seen another shrine blissful like my own body.
Send suggestions, rants, money, encouragement and support to:
Minneapolis, MN 55406 USA