Three Year Retreatby Lama Choying
Years ago, I remember my experience with the Drub Chen ceremony that concluded the previous Three Year Retreat in 1999. Like everyone I was very busy with my responsibilities there, but I cannot help but recall seeing and hearing these newly emerged retreatants. Being a Westerner, I am familiar with all the sensations of encountering other Western minds, but here was something very new to me. Here were a group of people who spoke with quiet authority and answered perplexing Dharma questions with ease. Somehow, during their years of isolation and practice, they had acquired some clarity of mind and confidence that was different from other Westerners. I definitely wanted to be like them and get that same result.
Although it was new to me to observe Westerners possess special qualities, I understood the source: they were under the guidance of the Venerable Lama Lodu Rinpoche, who was not only the full embodiment of confidence and clarity, but was able to pass these qualities to others. Sent to the West to teach Dharma by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa as well His Eminence Kalu Rinpoche in 1974, here was the Tibetan Buddhist religion expressed within a single individual. By the time the previous Three Year Retreat exited, I was enrolled within a Five Year Program and had experienced a taste of his teachings, love, and guidance. As this program progressed, I realized firsthand the difficulty of balancing daily practice commitments with the pulls of my every day, worldly life. In order to open myself further to Rinpoche’s example and teachings, I would have to close myself off more to the world. At some point, some student beseeched Rinpoche to begin another Three Year Retreat and so he revealed he would lead another one in 2005. Hearing this news, I was filled with joy.
Before the retreat started, Rinpoche made it very clear what was expected of us, and we worked ceaselessly to fulfill the needed conditions. From that point forward until the start of the retreat, all worldly things in my life were strictly short-term. Business opportunities, relationships, everything would be sacrificed so that I could start my retreat free of entanglements and obligations. Being attached to all of these things, it was never easy to step away. Several Lineage Lamas assisted Rinpoche with our preparations. His Eminence Thrangu Rinpoche give Chakrasamvara teachings; His Eminance Mingyur Rinpoche gave Red Chenrezig and Vajrayogini initiation, and His Eminence Khenchen Tsultrim Rinpoche gave Madyamika and Basic Path and Fruition Mahamudra teachings on view, meditation and conduct. When Lama Namsay Rinpoche arrived from Canada, he gave teachings for monastic vows and gave vows, and helped Rinpoche close the gate. Rinpoche also interviewed our reliable Retreat Cook, Dondrub, and supported his daily activity for us during the entire duration of the Retreat. In this way, Rinpoche cleared away all obstacles and set the conditions for a successful outcome.
When the gates closed on November 23rd, 2005, I woke up in another world. Many Westerners have a view of a nice, peaceful mountain retreat, a totally serene escape from the cell phone, advertising on television and all the problems of the world. I’m not sure how many people that completed the full rigor of a traditional, isolated Three Year Retreat share this view. When that gate closed, I found out exactly how much I had brought in with me: all the cravings for my every day world, and none of their supports. I felt compressed in all ways: compressed physically with none of the freedom of movement I was accustomed to, compressed in time with an intense regimen going from early morning to late at night, and compressed mentally with very little of the usual stream of sensory input I was accustomed to. I recall clearly how on January 8th, I realized that both Christmas and New Year’s Day had passed by without a thought. Now that I was cut off from my usual Westerner routines, I was completely under the care of my Lama, and I put my faith and trust in his enlightened qualities and extensive experience teaching Three Year Retreat to Westerners.
Rinpoche introduced many practices to us as per the curriculum for the traditional Three Year Retreat, a cornerstone of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage. First, Rinpoche would read the Tibetan commentary for that practice and translate the meaning for us into English. Often, he would expand on the points made within the commentary spontaneously and explain them more deeply and use examples from our own lives, making sure we had a full understanding of the meaning. Then, he would go through the actual practice Sadhana and translate the Tibetan fully for us along with all the associated details, including altar setup, shrine master activities, chanting master activities, page turns and every necessary detail, exactly as they were originally transmitted to him. Furthermore, he fully instructed us in all of the melodies, cymbals, drumming, mudras (sacred gestures), and the exact nature and purpose of every step. Afterwards, he would open the floor to Q&A and make sure we had everything clear, exactly as he presented it. Further along, he would ask us to clarify our ritual steps to ensure we were doing everything correctly and check on our progress. At times, Rinpoche gave us the practice initiations necessary for our advancement. An empowerment is the most important part of Vajrayana Tantric Buddhism, and to obtain this, one must have a qualified teacher. The qualifications are unbroken lineage, undefiled lineage, and a teacher who lives with that practice. In this way, Rinpoche’s presence and support made the Retreat possible.
Westerners who are familiar with Vajrayana retreats know that conditions like this can be considered like a boiling pot, and normal perceptions and common sense are skewed from the intense heat of real mind training practice. Due to our attachment and ego clinging, obstacles would arise for us that would be seemingly insurmountable except for Rinpoche’s skillful means and compassion – without these qualities, getting such a diverse group of Westerners to stay for three days or three weeks would be impossible, much less three years!
As time passed within the Retreat, I felt fortunate to also have the support of my family and Sangha, who sent in constant donations of coffee, flowers for our Shrine, and ganachakra offerings for our frequent Tsok practices. Even when the weather was freezing cold and the sky was pitch dark, their constant good wishes came through our canvas fence like a warm ocean breeze. Another powerful blessing was our Retreat Cook, Döndrub, who cooked twelve meals a week every week for three and a half years. Even when I describe his qualities, people can hardly believe someone could work so hard for so long; we were truly blessed to have the perfect Reatreat Cook to support us.
Eventually, the time came to emerge, and when we emerged we would engage in the long Mahakala Drub.Chen practice before finally leaving into the outside world. On April 7th, suddenly our sacred isolated shrine room was turned into a public meeting hall and crowded with people as Rinpoche gave us parting instructions and advice. When I walked down the hill for the first time in many years, I felt an expansive sense of freedom upon seeing the beautiful vista of brand new trees and hills open up before me. My Three Year Retreat was almost complete.
The Drub.Chen itself was a whirlwind of activity for me and everyone there, but at the end I and every Retreatant thanked Rinpoche publically for his skill and ceaseless activity on our behalf, acknowledging him as a true Bodhisattva on this earth. As one Retreatant said, no other person on Earth could have tamed him to complete this! In conclusion, I can consider that the hardships of the Retreat were just projections of my own negativities and bad habits, the cloudy conditions of my own mind, but the lineage and the practices are a true jewel of the world – and if I or anyone took away any positive quality from this, then it is proof of the strength and purity of the Kagyu lineage and the true qualities of my precious Lama, the Venerable Lama Lodu Rinpoche.