You enter three-year retreat without a lot of the things that constitute your identity out in the world. There are specific reasons, practical or symbolic, for each thing you give up, but the sum effect seems to be to wipe the slate as clean as possible at the outset so you can jump right in to the hard work of deconstructing that elusive yet pervasive sense of “me” that is a magnet for every kind of confusion and suffering.
First, you have to get rid of most of your stuff, or at least store it somewhere. Everything we bring with us has to fit into our room. Mine is one of the bigger ones in the retreat house, about 10 by 11 feet.
The day before retreat began, we got our heads shaved. I loved that. I thought it would be uncomfortable, maybe even painful, and that my head would be cold (it was January); but it was quite a pleasant experience, and so far my head is never cold. Every once in a while, when I make it outside at lunchtime for a thrilling 10-minute walk on the gravel path around the house, I put a hat on; but I almost always take it off, unless the weather is frigid.
Next, we put away our clothing and assume the traditional robes worn by Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns. (We are considered temporarily ordained while in retreat; the vows we take are identical to lay vows, with the addition of celibacy. The vows expire when retreat ends, though we can choose to keep honoring them, and some retreatants opt for lifelong ordination if the opportunity arises.)
I always thought I would love the simplicy of robes—I never felt I really passed Fashion Sense 101. But…robes turned out not to be all that simple! I’m used to them now, or at least used to most of the outfit. The skirt, called a shamtab, is a very wide maroon cotton or wool tube, with no top or bottom. You put it on over your head and have to find a way to make several specifically prescribed folds and get a cloth belt around it before it falls down. The first day was total panic, but by the end of the week I could do it in a minute or less. The sleeveless traditional yellow monastic shirt, while a badge of honor, is a bit of a pain, as it has a button-and-loop system that can be tricky to do up and undo—that’s the kind of thing that can make you late around here, where every second counts. But the biggest challenge is the zen (monastic shawl). It’s a long rectangle of maroon cloth that you have to get just right, under the right shoulder and over the left, with the short right end flung over the left shoulder just so, and the long left end folded several times and draped over the left arm. Fortunately, we don’t have to wear the zen all the time, so far just for formal group activities, such as chanting or teachings in the shrine room.
Somewhere in this process, we also take on a new name that we are known by in retreat. All of us had already received our names when we formally took the vow of refuge to become Buddhists, but most of us just kept it tucked away in a dresser drawer up until now. I got mine from Lama Norlha Rinpoche in 1980: Karma Yeshe Chödrön. Karma means I belong to the Karma Kagyu lineage, whose spiritual leader is the Karmapa, now in his seventeenth incarnation. Yeshe means means Wisdom, the kind you always have whether you have discovered it or not. Chödrön means Lamp of Dharma (Dharma means the truth, the way things are, what the Buddha taught.) We usually go by just one of the three names, though some people have a two-word name; Rinpoche said I will be called Chödrön (the Lamp of Dharma part).
Sometimes two of the names are shortened and combined, typically the first syllable of each of the last two words. I lived in fear that Rinpoche would call me Yechö, to which I think most people would have replied, “Gesundheit!” People who get names that sound really bad in English usually ask Rinpoche for a different version, and I’ve never known him to refuse. One of my fellow retreatants got the very beautiful name Khachap Zangmo. Khachap means “pervading space,” and was the name of the fifteenth Karmapa. But…you have probably figured out why she prefers to be called Zangmo (which means Woman of Excellence), the name Rinpoche selected for her.
So: new name, new clothes, new vows, much less stuff, and no hair.
Oh….and no cell phone!