Why Three Years?

March 2008

Just before retreat started, a friend asked me why I wanted to do a three-year retreat. I didn’t give her a very good answer, because I hadn’t really thought about how to explain it. Most people don’t ask the question, though it must be in everyone’s mind: how can you give up friends, family, restaurants, hiking, driving, concerts and movies, email, the internet, teaching Latin, cell phones, the New Hampshire seacoast, etc. to sit in a room by yourself for THREE YEARS! A week, or maybe even a month…maybe…but THREE YEARS!

For me, there are five basic reasons.

First, in the spiritual tradition I’ve been part of for the past 27 years, the Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, three-year retreat is hands-down the best way to acquire all the basic tools you need to attain complete enlightenment, a.k.a. awakening, a.k.a. seeing everything the way it really is, with no confusion or errors. That sort of realization also enables you to help other people without accidentally making things worse, which is one of the pitfalls of trying to help others when you are confused yourself. It is what the Buddha discovered 2,600 years ago when he set his mind to end suffering for all beings, no matter what it took.

Second, even if I don’t attain enlightenment this time around—and I admit that may be asking a lot—the Buddhist path has many, many tools to help us develop emotional equanimity and tame our minds so we are not at the mercy of every little thing that happens to us. I’d like to not even bat an eyelash the next time someone starts yelling at me or I realize I forgot to buy the chocolate chips. There are a lot of studies now that suggest meditation makes people not only more focused, but also happier. If you want to explore this option outside retreat, a good place to start is any of Pema Chödron’s books, or my current favorite, The Joy of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

Third, and you can stop reading now if you don’t want to think about this, one of the things Buddhism does best is to help us prepare for that inevitable moment of death we are all going to face whether we think about it or not. We learn in Buddhism that the moment of death and what happens after it are crucially important opportunities, and a lot of our practice is specifically designed to enable us to take advantage of them and help others do the same. That may sound far-fetched in a culture where old age is invisible and corpses wear lipstick; but…what if it’s true? (Look up “Pascal’s wager” for seventeenth-century Christian advice on a similar topic.)

Which brings me to reason number four: Why am I so sure three-year retreat can deliver on these goals? Because I have the example of my teacher, Lama Norlha Rinpoche, and other realized teachers I have met, who have traveled exactly this same path before me. You have only to be in a room with one of them for five minutes, maybe less, to know they are operating on some level of clarity, competence, and compassion that we can’t even imagine. I can’t hope to achieve that in three years or even this lifetime, but I do hope to get the process underway.

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