The Importance of Retreat

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
Madrid, Spain (Archive #026)

In Madrid, Spain, on 16 January 1983, Lama Yeshe spoke to the directors and staff of O Sel Ling Retreat Centre. Edited from the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive by Nicholas Ribush. You can also see the video of this interview on the LYWA YouTube channel.

Lama Yeshe with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and entourage arriving at O Sel Ling Retreat Center, Spain, in September, 1982.
The retreat center

A retreat center should be situated in a very nice, isolated, tranquil location and any buildings constructed there should be in harmony with the surroundings and the intent. In this way, the environment will support the meditation and spiritual growth of anybody doing retreat there. In other words, it’s important that the retreat center be peaceful, simple and clean so that it is conducive to mental integration and satisfaction.

The current situation [at O Sel Ling Retreat Centre, Spain, in 1983] is that we have a couple of rooms and basic facilities but we need much more than that to allow group and individual retreats. In Europe alone there are thousands of students who want to retreat but have nowhere to go. At the present time, O Sel Ling is the only [FPMT] place suitable for retreat. Therefore, it’s really important that, slowly, slowly, we build it up so that in the future more people can go there; also, it should be set up so that those who want to will be able to do long retreats—three years, five years, ten years, or even twenty or thirty.

The importance of retreat

Why is retreat important? In order for our spirituality, pure morality, wisdom, single-pointed concentration and insight into reality to grow, we need time and space. The normal twentieth-century environment does not give us this. It induces either distraction or sluggishness, and retreat can take us beyond both. As human beings, we have the potential for unlimited growth, for limitless compassion and wisdom, bodhicitta and the six perfections. So retreat is very important in expediting this.

Furthermore, Dharma experiences come only when you put yourself into a Dharma situation. If you don’t immerse your body, speech and mind in Dharma, the Dharma can’t really be of use to you. So retreat is very important in promoting your development.

The first stage of your spiritual growth occurs during your first retreat. The second stage happens in your second retreat; the third stage in your third…and so on. Spiritual growth is not an intellectual thing. It has to be organic. It is beyond the intellectual; it has to become your own experience.

Let’s say you’re practicing a sadhana. If you’re just doing it at home without retreat or penetrative insight, you’re never going to become the sadhana. You’ll certainly never become the deity if you just do it that way.

You can see, even in European history, that Jesus and other great spiritual leaders went into solitary retreat. Christian, Muslim, Indian, Tibetan; all the great mahasiddhas went into isolation for certain periods and gained their high accomplishments through practicing intensively like that. So the history of human experience also shows that Dharma realizations come only through concentrated, twenty-four-hour-a-day practice.

And when you are in that situation, you can conduct research into your experiences, just like scientists investigate phenomena in their laboratories. You can analyze your dreams, your sleep and whatever else come up, and you can supplement your research by reading—as long as what you read is related to your meditation and your sadhana. When you’re in retreat you should not read newspapers or worldly books.

Successful retreat demands discipline. The fundamental discipline is living ethically in pure morality. On that basis you need to follow a strict schedule and avoid all outside activity. You should not meet with other people or talk nonsense. Best, of course, is to maintain silence for the duration of your retreat and not meet people at all.

By going into retreat, maintaining ethical discipline, keeping yourself together and developing wisdom, love and compassion, you are benefiting not only yourself but the whole society, all of mankind, all of humanity. Of course, most people don’t understand the reality of human existence, but in fact, by going into retreat you really do benefit all.

For example, Shakyamuni Buddha came and went more than two thousand five hundred years ago but we are still experiencing the incredible benefit of this one person’s method and wisdom, aren’t we? So one person’s retreat really can bring great benefit to all.

My experience is that many of my students want to retreat but, as I said, have nowhere to go. So this proves that we need more and better retreat facilities. Also, as I always say, each of my students should do a retreat every year, be it long or short. Retreat once a year. It transports you from the level you’re at to another realm. I’m not joking. I always tell everybody to retreat.

Some people listen to me and do at least a short retreat every year. In that way they maintain their spiritual development, even if they don’t shift from one level to another. And in the future, more and more people are going to want to do retreat, so we really do have to pay attention to this. That’s why we need more facilities.

I am very happy with O Sel Ling. It is so beautiful, pure and isolated and, especially, it was blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he visited last year. He was also very happy with the center and felt that it has great potential and, even without being asked, offered the name O Sel Ling, Place of Clear Light. This itself is a huge blessing; through it, people who retreat here will discover the clear light nature of their own mind.

Working for a retreat center

Of course, a retreat center benefits not only the people who meditate there but also those who work to support it. Building a retreat facility is like doing a preliminary practice of purification. Look what Milarepa had to do. He had to build a nine-story tower, then tear it down and replace every stone exactly where he’d found it, and then do it all over again, several times. Well, that’s a bit much for us. We’re not going to tear down what we build. And people are going to retreat in our buildings over and over again. So since we’re not building samsaric apartments or worldly dwellings, you can consider building retreat houses to be preliminary practice. One brick equals one prostration—if you lay 100,000 bricks I’ll count that as your having done 100,000 prostrations! And if you don’t lay bricks, I’m going to give you the job of doing 100,000 prostrations instead!

Think of the lasting benefits. What we build will last well beyond our generation. Even after we’re dead, even after our very bones have disappeared from this earth, many people are going to utilize the facilities we built through dedication. To make sure that this happens, the retreat center’s legal papers should state that it may be used only by people who want to grow spiritually, who want peace and happiness, who do not want to harm any living being. That is extremely worthwhile. We should enshrine those conditions. Then, after we’re dead and can no longer teach people verbally, we can still help them progress toward enlightenment through having set those conditions of use. In that way we can continue bringing about positive change in society and the environment even though we’re not still here. So, working for a retreat center is very worthwhile.

Of course, that’s what you’ve all been doing since the beginnings of Nagarjuna Institute in Ibiza back in 1977—continuously, François, Paco and the rest of you have been putting your energy into developing the Dharma in this way. In my heart, I will never forget you. Even after I’m dead I will try to remember you and be thankful for your kindness. Actually, I think we’re making karmic business to be together, so I’m very happy. I will always dedicate and pray for the success of our retreat project in being of great benefit to others. That’s all I wish.

Also, the attitude that the workers should have toward a person doing retreat is not that “We’re out here slaving away carrying bricks, ripping our hands to shreds, and he’s in there kicking back having a good time spacing out.” No, we should definitely not be putting out that kind of negative vibration. We should consider that he is working hard too; working for us. It’s like when we send a man to the moon. There’s only one man in the rocket but how many have to work to make it happen? But as great a scientific accomplishment as sending a rocket to the moon might be, a far greater accomplishment is creating a rocket out of universal love, compassion and wisdom within our own mind.

However, more important than an action itself is the motivation behind it. So, those who are working and giving with bodhicitta are acting as Shakyamuni Buddha, Lama Je Tsongkhapa and Milarepa did; they are giving as Shakyamuni Buddha, Lama Je Tsongkhapa and Milarepa did. It is important that workers and retreaters feel the unity of being an integral part of the one mandala. From the people who clean the place, maintain the environment and water the flowers up to those who are meditating in retreat, they are all members of the same big family, a single unit working to reinforce each other’s practice, one circle of shared energy.

And not everybody can contribute hands-on physical energy. Some will help by donating material energy such as money or equipment; things like that. They are also part of our family.

Of course, from the Mahayana point of view, everybody is family. Shopkeepers are part of the family because they sell us the equipment we need. If they didn’t, we couldn’t do what we have to do. Cows are family because they provide us with the milk we need for our tea. So cows, chickens, all universal beings, even snakes, are family. If the snakes are not there, there’s something missing; our mandala is incomplete. Anyway, as the lamrim teaches us, since all our pleasure and success comes from other sentient beings, of course, the success of our retreat center is also due to the kindness of all mother sentient beings.

The world needs retreat facilities

People today are so destructive and full of aggression; they always harm and try to take advantage of others. They are so dangerous. They destroy the environment and pollute the natural beauty of the planet for their children and for the generations to come. They seem to have no ethics. They will destroy anything to get money or material. You can see; this is the situation. You can’t even talk about pure ethics any more. Society has no space to consider vows, not killing and so forth. Talk about morality and they’ll threaten to beat you up: “What are you talking about?” In this atmosphere, people who maintain ethics feel schizophrenic; they think they’re doing something wrong.

In such a critical situation, in such an impure world, we create a retreat center. With purity, insight and order, we can help heal the wounded world. The world needs powerful medicine to cure its ills. By giving people an opportunity to retreat we offer the world a solution for its people’s dissatisfaction.

So that’s about all I have to say on this right now. I’m very happy that the retreat center is working out and that people are reacting positively to it, but after the blessing of His Holiness’s visit, I never doubted that things would turn out like this. I hope you didn’t have any doubts either.

So, we are really successful and I hope that at some point I will be able to do a long retreat here. I like this place a lot; it’s very healthy. For me, it’s like being in the Himalayas—it’s very pure and extremely beautiful.

Another thing is that you should aim to make the place as self-sufficient as possible. Then you won’t have to keep asking for donations. Of course, donations are necessary at the beginning, but relying on charity alone is not a good long-term strategy.

I hope the entire European spiritual community, even people the whole world over, will use this facility, even though they might be following paths and using methods different from ours. As long as their goal is freedom from ignorance and the dualistic mind, our aims are in harmony. So we should pray and dedicate that people from everywhere will use O Sel Ling Retreat Centre for their spiritual growth and that our work to bring this about is successful. Thank you so much.