If you find yourselves in a conducive environment to practice meditation and do a short retreat, then please do so, because that is the best thing we can do.
Before I touch on the raised topic, the retreat format, please allow me to share with you my thoughts pertaining to our behaviour in today’s world. In addition to reciting mantras and prayers, it is high time for us to examine our mind and how it is behaving in times of crisis. Friends, we are experiencing the global pandemic COVID-19. Yes, it is terrible. But please pay close attention to what is actually happening. We have the contagion, and then we have the fear. At this point, the pandemic of fear is what is of concern. I see and hear fearful outbursts here and there. In fact, it is everywhere if we pay attention to the news outlets. People are extremely agitated, over-stocking food and emptying shelves in grocery stores. A news agency reports the first trial of a newly developed vaccine in a human being: immediately our minds run toward the other extreme – hope. Like a pendulum of a clock, we are swinging back and forth between fear and hope. ‘Social distancing’ is helpful to ‘flatten the curve.’ But unfortunately there is no advisory body, recommending ways for us to stay calm, kind, and clear. We are expected to take care of our minds, the very source of all experiences, including the fearful and the hopeful ones. In his writing, Hegel, a German philosopher, explores the idea of finding positive things in mundane, and even depressive times. I am not invoking here a Hegelian philosophy per se, but I truly believe that whether we are Easterners or Westerners, we all have cognizance – mind’s ability to understand itself – and therefore we are capable of seeing everything clearly, provided we are not shaken up – in Buddhist terms, clouded by our mind’s afflictions – by adverse circumstances.
This is not an unusual situation. Mankind has seen sickness of this scale and much larger in the past, and most likely we will, in the future. I am sorry to say, but our world is not perfect. We are not perfect. What has happened in the past? We may have forgotten. COVID-19 therefore may appear to be dramatically big and catastrophic. And for profit driven reasons, the news agencies sensationalize the outbreak events, fanning the ‘burning’ fear and hope. With the hidden agenda of gaining more leverage, some leaders cleverly use phrases, such as we are at war, so that they are given executive powers from groups of people who would otherwise be uncooperative. When we look closely, much of the fear that we are experiencing is created due to these reasons. By not discerning them, they supplement the hope and fear, the afflictions, that are present within us, and so, very quickly, agitation ‘hijacks’ our otherwise brilliant and dynamic mind. We have met people who say, I do not watch TV. It is because, once agitated, they usually do not know how they got there, and they do not bother to retrospectively trace the line back to the source through various other intersecting lines. Why would they? They are already disturbed. They go with the emotional reaction. When we examine words of the teachers who say, mind is like wind, one of their implicative points is that we are impressionable. We are mechanically tuned in with what we are receiving through our sensory faculties. When WE are disturbed by what we see, we also may very well say I don’t want to watch that. Now the real question is, how many “TVs” are we going to turn off? Haven’t we been doing that for our entire life? For how long are we going to do it? Better yet, is it the right approach?
These questions are at the core of Buddhist practices, beginning with the four noble truths to Prajñāpāramitā. These are core principles that we turned to when we took our refuge vows. These are at the core of Bodhicitta commitments. So, friends, it is time for us to reflect on the words of Karmapa who recently said:
The core sickness is, in my opinion, both a mind filled with anxiety about the disease, and a tendency to wrongly think that we should never become sick or die.
To be true practitioners, we MUST pay attention to ourselves, to our minds. Shamarpa says:
While the basic nature of our mind is clear and limitless, our present mind is restless because agitation is a mental habit. Therefore, meditation is the natural antidote.
Therefore if you find yourselves in a conducive environment to practice meditation and do a short retreat, then please do so, because that is the best thing we can do. From Śākyamuni to the teachers currently living, all of their efforts point to one thing: they show us a way to truly relax, to free our mind from afflictions, and to know our mind from all the confusions.
Let us endeavor to find out how on earth we become unnecessarily agitated. There is no need to be fearful and anxious. What we are witnessing in the world today epitomizes the teachings of the four great seals. That said, we must comply with the relative truth, which in this context suggests maintaining social distancing and following other guidelines of the WHO. Let us help ourselves and others by doing the right thing – staying at home. And since we already are home, we may very well use this precious time to practice meditation. Coming back to the topic, let us begin with the preparation of the retreat. The following recommendations are based on the typical guidelines and norms of a Tibetan Buddhist retreat.
Preparing the meditation area
Before you start into your retreat, prepare and arrange the shrine and meditation area according to your knowledge and preference: cleaning, dusting, and renewing of support objects and offerings, such as statues, framed pictures, mandala and offering bowls, are appropriate, if needed. Put away any clutter or unnecessary objects and neatly arrange your area of meditation. Perhaps embellish it with new offerings, such as flowers and khata. The general idea is that you set up the area in such a way that outwardly exhibits how much, inwardly, you love and honour the Three Jewels. Also, by doing so, you evoke freshness of mind and interest in practicing.
Define retreat space: your ‘boundary’
Set your retreat boundaries. During the outbreak of COVID-19, this may be the very limits of your home. But you may like to go for a walk as your physical activity. Perhaps you must do your daily visit to your grandma, or something completely different. Let us give a symbol for that – ‘HOME+.’ The ‘+’ can be and has to be defined at the beginning to include within your ‘boundary.’ It could be a different thing to different people, but it must be defined ahead of time and it cannot represent too many things. Those are the rules of the game and you will see, they are there to help you make this work.
Define time frame: from X day until X day
It is also important to have a defined time frame. Although, as I write this in March 2020, it is considerate to minimize physical contacts and self-isolate for a yet indefinite amount of time, you should absolutely have a defined time frame for a retreat at home. This could be the classic 14 days of self-isolation after a contact when there is the possibility that you might be infected, or it could be just a week at a time. While in self-isolation, if you are also going to work at home, you could use the weekend or whatever days you might get off for a retreat. If you are home for a longer time period, you can always add more days or even weeks to the retreat, but it is important to define the time frame ahead of time and consecutively to define for how long you want to prolong it, and then to maintain the retreat in accordance with the defined schedule.
Define contents: What is/are practices you will do in a day?
Think ahead and structure actively the contents of the retreat. Last year I completed the first in the series of shiné teachings. I will here recommend to continue training the mind with this practice. Though it is a simple practice, we should not underestimate the value and significance of shiné. Shamar Rinpoche writes:
You should concentrate on practicing Shiné a great deal.
Please continue developing mental stability with shiné practice. In addition, optionally, one can add shorter practices at the end of the sessions, namely, 21 Tārā Praises, sang, Mahākāla, Samantabhadra, Calling Lama from Afar, and/or Chenrezig Sādhanā. Note that they are optional, so they should not take up more than one third of the session’s time. Suppose, if Chenrezig is the main practice of the retreat, in which case, shiné can be an optional practice, but then shiné should not consume a major amount of the dedicated time.
Define your daily schedule
On the following page you will find a schedule for a retreat format similar to the format of the Düntsam retreats that I lead. It is not a standardized format, but I would recommend it as a starting point. If interested, one may add one earlier morning session for Mahāyāna sojong, if and when you are interested in taking the vow. Do take stretch breaks during the session. When needed, go to the kitchen to get your water refill. But let those not be excessive. Pay attention to if and when that happens. Generally actively intend to do practice and nothing else until the end. Just about when you are going to start the session, you will remember all the forgotten things of your life. This is typical mental behaviour. Trust me! You will be fine forgetting those things for another hour.
The day before the retreat
On the day before your retreat, settle down: wind down all activities, slow down your “pace.” Take time to revisit your motivation for the retreat. Cultivate the bodhicitta mind. Read and listen, reference books and audio, if you like. Write down your motivation and aspirations on paper in bullet points.
After waking up: Manjushri mantra recitation (x100)
Begin each and every session with three prostrations to the shrine and with developing the idea that your lama is there with you for that session, and at the end dedicate. One may supplement the dedications with particular thoughts and wishes thatspecifically pertain to the sickness and deaths of sentient beings.
6:00 am – 7:10 am: optional session
7:40 am – 9:00 am: 1st session
9:30 am – 11:00 am: 2nd session
2:30 pm – 4:00 pm: 3rd session
4:45 pm – 5:45 pm: 4th session
8:00 pm – 9:00 pm: 5th session
Following, in any order, before sleeping:
three prostrations to your shrine, or by the bedside, toward the wall
Vajrasattva 100-syllables mantra (x3)
Amitābha mantra (x100)
Dewachen aspiration (i.e. Emaho!)
A footnote for people who don’t have the conditions right away
The above schedule is a suggestion which works really well if you can actually get a week or two off. If however, you are neither forced into quarantine nor in a position where you don’t have responsibilities to attend to, you could still use the occasion of our slowed down social life and choose to include several of these practices into your daily routine, possibly expanding with more elements, a week at a time. In some cases you might not have the conditions for a full-fledged retreat right away, but maybe a good routine to frame your day will ease your way into a full-fledged retreat on the weekend. Or it might be possible for you to find someone to stand in for you for a day or two at a time, which you could then dedicate to practice. In these cases, too, it is important to set realistic goals and then stick to the plan.
Having both space and time aspects clearly defined ahead of time will be helpful for preventing arbitrarily breaking the schedule or the retreat boundary, so it is a vital point in setting up your retreat.
You should be realistic about it, too, though. And not only are you allowed to be creative with the schedule, but in fact I recommend for you to do just that. You all have different situations. Some have to be in self-quarantine, some are just in voluntary isolation for a longer amount of time. Some are alone, some live with family or partners. Some work at home now and have more time at their hands, but aren’t free all day. Some don’t have anybody that is dependent on their direct physical help, others might have more people who depend on them and who they need to make themselves available to. So you have to make a plan that is realistic for you to go through with. Then these two aspects, having very clear intentions in the beginning and setting realistic aims, will help you all the way through.
This being said, there might still be the case of grave and entirely unexpected circumstances which
might make it necessary for you to stop the retreat prematurely. If you should have contracted the
virus, and you would realize this in the middle of your retreat, you would of course have to rest and
treat the symptoms as best as you can. Or you might be called to help family, friends or neighbors
in need. Then, if this is actually some kind of emergency and it really can’t be delayed or delegated,
you can make an exception. But please think twice before sacrificing your retreat for trifles.
Food, supplies and contact to the world outside
In order to avoid having to go beyond your retreat boundaries, it is recommended that you plan and arrange for food and other supplies ahead of time. If you need to maintain contact with the outside world, set a time at which you take calls and check emails, make that part of your individual schedule. You can set up your voicemail in such a way that people know exactly when you are taking calls. When it is not the communication time, put away your cell phone and other devices that might otherwise intervene or distract.
When the time has come and you have managed to set aside time for a retreat, planned for it, prepared for it, that, combined with the proper motivation, is already very auspicious and I am sure you will use this precious circumstance well.
Last day of the retreat
The sense of gratitude is an important element for the continued development of the mind. It is therefore important to spend some time recalling and expressing gratitude to those people who helped you thus far. On the last day, I recommend allocating a session remembering the value and significance of the teachers in your life. Beginning from Śākyamuni Buddha, until the presently living teachers, recall all figures and inwardly express heartfelt gratitude. Optionally, you can offer/recite mandala (i.e., Sashi pöchu...) and recite the long life prayers. In cases where long life prayers are unavailable, you can simply think of dedicating the merits for the long and healthy life of the teachers.
I sincerely hope that this little effort of mine helps you to devise a format for your retreat in your own way. Please note, staying alone is not a retreat. Being alone is not a retreat. To do a meditation retreat, you need to:
prepare (the appropriate mindset at the beginning, the bodhicitta),
maintain (active engagement with the contents of the retreat during the session, non-distraction), and
culminate (sublime dedication at the end)
...and start all over again, in the next session.
Repeat, the next day. Through this way, slowly but surely, you will succeed to make noticeable imprints on your mind and behaviour. Every hour you spend in this way will be virtuous.
The sole medicine for the suffering of all beings, And the source of all happiness. May the Buddhadharma be upheld, honoured and remain, For a very long time.
⏤ Śāntideva, India, 8th century
Based on the offered format and guideline, if you successfully complete a retreat during this pandemic or otherwise, it would be nice if you would tell me a little bit about it when we meet, whenever that will be. Thank you for reading this.