Advice for Long Retreat

Advice for Long Retreat

Date Posted:
November 2009

Rinpoche gave the following advice to a longtime student who was doing a long retreat. The student’s letter and Rinpoche’s response are below.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Milarepa Center, Vermont, for a retreat, 2010. Photo: Jim Hagan.

My main obstacle to concentration is still discursiveness. My mind so quickly wanders off onto all manner of things. Intellectually, I can see the self-centeredness, the desire, the anger, the pride, and so on that cause these distractions, and I recognize the faults, but still the mind wanders. I am becoming more and more afraid of my samsara. Still, I remain optimistic that I can attain heart-felt renunciation, subdue my mind, and achieve concentration, and I look forward to resuming the shi-nä meditation.

Rinpoche's Response:

My very dear one,
I am very sorry for the long delay in replying to your letter.

Regarding what you said, it is good to think how His Holiness the Dalai Lama often advises Western people in the teachings: that they shouldn’t expect quick attainments, like within a few years, not to give up, to continue to practice, and then the attainments will come. One needs to plan for many eons, if it takes that long, not give up, but keep continuing the practice. Then, realizations will come if you have patience and perseverance. (I added the last sentence.)

I don’t remember exactly this quote, but the essence is like this. Kadampa Geshe Tulwapa said: If you plan for hundreds of years to continue to meditate on the path then you will have realizations. In the beginning you might think that you will have realizations even in a few years.

I think maybe meditating on the path means collecting merits, practicing purification, then actually meditating on the path (lamrim), as well as one-pointedly requesting the guru, with devotion, looking at the guru as Buddha. Like this, when the ground is made soft and the stones are cleared away, just like removing obstacles, and with soil, water, and seeds, the crops can grow. In the same way, when all the conditions come together, then there is no choice; even if you pray not to be enlightened, still it happens, since it is all from the causes and conditions coming together. Here, the conditions are renunciation, bodhicitta, right view, etc.

As I mentioned in the beginning, try practicing shi-nä for one year, then see whether there are conditions or not, if not, then change the practice. Try for six more months; if nothing happens then you have to change it.

Then, maybe you need to build a very large stupa (I’m joking). Maybe you can build the largest stupa in the world. Maybe the hour the stupa is completed, then enlightenment will happen. I think that is a very easy way to achieve enlightenment. Or maybe you can build a very large banana instead, and inside there could be a temple, with Buddha’s life story and Milarepa’s life story in paintings on the walls, and a place for teachings and Dharma meditation, also a coffee shop, ice-cream shop, a restaurant—you can have everything inside the giant banana.

Anyway, being afraid of samsara is a great sign, that is great renunciation. That pure thought, having fear of samsara, being unattached to samsara, is what brings you to liberation, along with having compassion for sentient beings, the wish to bring sentient beings, who are suffering in samsara and have been suffering since beginningless time, to enlightenment. This is progress in your retreat.

Also, having the hope to achieve enlightenment, having faith in it, is important. In order to have renunciation, you have to get rid of desire, so for that you need to actualize exactly the path. Only then can you totally renounce the cause of desire—the negative imprint. For that you need to achieve all those paths. You can’t expect this to happen within some months or a few years, that you can just stop all the delusions.

If you are finding out more about the self-centered mind, pride, etc, it seems like they are coming up more. This is a very good sign, because normally in our life we are very busy with external things (work, etc.), so we don’t see ourselves, don’t see our delusions, then when we do retreat and we are less busy, then stuff comes out, many things, and you see all your many mistaken minds, negative karma, and that most of our actions have been done out of the self-cherishing thought, and so forth. In order to defeat the enemy, first you have to know who the enemy is and to be able to see the enemy. Then you have to bomb the enemy, you have to completely destroy the enemy. If you already know who the thief is, then you can hit him. Otherwise, if you are not sure, you might hit someone else. If there is a thief in the house, but you think that he is actually a very close friend, you don’t notice that every day this thief, the enemy, is stealing your chance to achieve liberation. Liberation is to be free from delusions. So, we have to destroy the enemy, the delusions. In order to destroy them we have to recognize the delusions.

If you are already enlightened then you won’t see the delusions. If you are a rock, tree, or mountain, then you don’t have delusions. But you are not a rock, tree, or mountain, so you have delusions. From beginningless rebirths up until now, you have been suffering, and didn’t achieve enlightenment, so that means you haven’t achieved liberation from rebirth. If one had achieved liberation, then one would be able to benefit others, and would not have to suffer ever again.

For example, to make a cloth clean you have to wash it. When you are washing it, then all the dirt comes out. That is the process. To do this you use water and soap and then the dirt comes out. When we do retreat we see the dirt, the delusions, the self-cherishing mind, etc. This is the washing that is needed in order to be able to achieve liberation and enlightenment, in order to liberate all sentient beings from the oceans of samsara’s suffering and enlighten them. It is very positive that you are seeing this.

Similarly, in order to be healthy, sometimes we have to go to hospital to have a check up, x-ray, or examination—so many different examinations, examining one’s kaka, pipi, and spit, as you know very well. It seems they don’t examine so much the stuff coming out of one’s ears, anyway I haven’t heard about that. Also, they don’t seem to examine one’s tears, no one examines the tears. Well, I haven’t heard about that. It also seems they don’t examine the snot either.

All of these examinations are to find the sickness. That is the way they discover what the problem is, then from that they decide what medicine to take so that one can be treated, in order to have a long life and to be healthy. If one does not discover the sickness, then it can become very heavy and can cause you to die.

In the beginning when practicing shi-nä, as you know, again and again, you focus on the object, keep redirecting your mind to the object. By doing this you discover a lot of problems, you start to recognize so many distractions, scattering thoughts and sinking thoughts, and you have to bring the mind back again and again. In Tibetan the word is len tuchupa, to continue the concentration, because normally you don’t notice, either you have no time to meditate, so you don’t notice, or there are too many distractions and there is no time to notice things. It is similar to the cloth being dirty but not noticing that until one washes it, and then so much dirt comes out.

So, please make constant prayers, strong prayers. Especially put effort into guru devotion, to have stable and strong guru devotion, and as much as possible to be able to see the guru as Buddha. Then, even though obstacles and difficulties arise, think that you are unbelievably fortunate, think it is a great pleasure, that by this one is discovering and through this one is able to achieve liberation and enlightenment and enlighten all sentient beings, by following Buddha’s advice. Seeing the guru as Buddha, having strong devotion, confessing all one’s past mistakes, this is very important. It is still good to do prostrations by reciting the Thirty-five Buddhas’ names, as well as Vajrasattva at night.

Recently, I heard that some people achieved shi-nä in 20 days. This would seem to be not only from very strong meditation, but strong guru devotion in the past. Anyway, it is good to study the section on shi-nä in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, Geshe Jampa Wangdu’s teachings, the Lamrim Chenmo, and Gen Lamrimpa’s books, any book that has advice on shi-nä.

With much love and prayers,