Secrets of The Three-Year Retreat—Revealed!

November 2009

Dear friends,

Our venerable Retreat Master at KTC Monastery, Lama Norlha Rinpoche, completed two three-year retreats before escaping from occupied Tibet at the age of 20 and has subsequently led many such retreats in India, New York, and Tibet over nearly 50 years, most of them begun under the guidance of his own Lama, the late renowned meditation master Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche. From his vast experience, he assures us that the secrets of three-year retreat are to practice diligently without allowing yourself to become distracted, to keep a joyful mind and look upon everyone with love and compassion in all circumstances, and always to remember the impermanence of your situation so you don’t waste any time. There may be more, but I don’t remember them offhand.

I will take questions now.

Q. What do you really do in there?

A. Practice, practice, practice. And when we’re not practicing, we look at the mind.

Q. Why do you need three years of seclusion to do something that frankly sounds so simple?

A. I don’t. I am just too lazy to do it on my own. Of course, it helps that we have immense amounts of time to practice without distractions, are trained in very profound meditation methods generally not available outside the retreat setting, and are guided at every step of the way by a realized teacher and other very accomplished retreat graduates. Many people do not have these advantages in their own homes.

Q. It’s all very well to talk about love and compassion, but what’s it really like to be enclosed in a small house with the same tiny group of women day in and day out with no other company and no escape for years on end?

A. I see where you’re going with this question, but I’m afraid I will have to disappoint you. For the most part, it’s surprisingly uneventful. We are encouraged to look at our own minds and try not to pay attention to each other except in practical matters, so even though strange things might possibly happen from time to time, we mostly don’t notice them and as a result we all get along very well. The Buddha taught that there are no such things as “friends” and “enemies,” and in retreat you get to experience this first-hand on a daily basis. We learn that it doesn’t pay to compartmentalize other people too much, better to try to maintain a friendly equanimity toward everyone, give them lots of space for human error, and hope they will do the same for you.

Of course, we might have learned a few things the hard way, and no doubt there is a bit more of that ahead in year three, but that is one of the most ingenious features of the traditional three-year group retreat format—you spend all day immersed in techniques to develop wisdom and compassion, and are given every possible opportunity to fail to practice them in real life. All in all, in my opinion, this group is doing quite well and I feel fortunate to be part of it.

Q. Have you become like the Borg?

A. If you mean are we all plugged into one central “mind” and no longer distinguishable from one another, no, that does not seem to be the case. Apparently we get to keep our personalities and individual autonomy even as we travel the path toward nondual perception. The realized Lamas from Tibet and India are testaments to this, as are the biographies of past masters such as Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa, Rechungpa, and the Eighty-Four Mahasiddhas.

If, on the other hand, you mean do we wear eyepieces that make us look like machines, that is not it, either. At least not so far.

Q. Have you kept your sense of humor, then?

A. Not to my knowledge. I believe I let go of that in year one.

Q. What do you eat?

A. A great many more parsnips than I expected. In fact, were I ever to write an autobiography, I would call it Taking Parsnips on the Path.

Q. Do you eat anything else?

A. We are actually very well nourished on a wide variety of foods lovingly prepared by our caretakers. Benefactors also sometimes send in food as donations toward our retreat, or as sponsorship offerings during some of our special practices.

Q. Could you say more about the parsnips?

A. Not really. However, thanks to parsnips, I am learning to appreciate that resistance is not only futile, it is entirely counterproductive. Intellectually I have come to understand that parsnips are self-liberating and efforts to solve them from the outside only reinforce their parsnipitiness. Then, the next thing you know, they are a town in New Jersey.

I hope to gradually internalize this understanding through my meditation practice and one day attain the state of ro nyam (one taste). So in the end, I am grateful to parsnips, but it is not always an easy path. Anyway, the parsnips are more than made up for by the okra and brussels sprouts.

Q. Back to parsnips, are they a typical facet of the traditional three-year retreat program? Is this something prospective retreatants need to prepare for?

A. I don’t know whether the parsnips are by accident or by design; they do not in fact seem to be mentioned in Jamgon Kongtrul’s classic Retreat Manual. Nor can I say whether participants in another three-year retreat program would encounter them in similar quantities, or even at all. But I am quite sure that if it’s not parsnips, it will be something else, whether you plan to do retreat or not. It would be good to prepare for that.

Q. Thank you for your time and unusual forthrightness about life in the three-year retreat.

A. Till next time, best wishes,

Yeshe Chödron, aka Linda

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