Retreat Master Lama Lodro Rinpoche was interviewed by
Deborah Price-Janke about the Three Year Retreat he resides
when I talked to some of the people going into Three Year Retreat, I was amazed
at their joy--it was as though they had won the lottery. Yet, for most Americans
the idea of being sequestered and engaging in rigorous meditation practice for
three years is not a very entertaining prospect, so where does their joy come
Lama Lodro Rinpoche: Your question requires a two-part answer. The
people you met had been students of the Buddha/Dharma for many years. They had
listened again and again to the teachings and over time through practice their
experience was transformed from an intellectual understanding to a genuine
understanding. So they view Three Year Retreat as an opportunity to free
themselves from suffering and realize perfect Buddhahood to benefit sentient
beings. Faced with such an opportunity they experience great joy. Secondly,
although many Americans have heard the same teachings and have even practiced
what they've heard, their karmic relationship with Three Year Retreat is not as
strong. The people you met had some past-life connection with Three Year
Retreat, had followed the lineage, had practiced and so all these habitual
tendencies, this familiarity gave them the feeling of coming home rather than
going to some tortuous place.
Q: What qualifies a person to enter a
Three Year Retreat? Is it just a matter of requesting permission?
Well, if someone comes and just expresses the wish to participate I probably
would not allow it since they do not know the teachings and the lineage, do not
know me as a teacher, which could create many obstacles, confusion and
misunderstanding. And also if I don't know them, don't understand them, I won't
know how to teach them. So the knowledge has to be on both sides. The people
presently on retreat have known and studied with me for 12-13 years.
In glancing through Jamgon Kongtrul's retreat manual, it said even if you have
just a flash of disrespect or doubt of the teacher, this can create great
obstacles for one's retreat.
Q: What did he man
LLR: Well, the teacher is the one delivering, transmitting the
teachings of the Buddha. These teachings can bring enlightenment. If one
distrusts the teacher, one defiles the teachings. If a doctor gives medicine to
cure your illness and you don't listen how to administer this medicine, what to
eat and not to eat while taking the medicine, if you ignore his instructions,
the medicine meant to cure you could kill you. This is somewhat analogous to the
retreatants' relationship with the teacher. The teachings are coming from the
Buddha but one is receiving them from a human teacher. Three Year Retreat
follows the Vajrayana system and in the Vajrayana the teacher is the one who
gives realization. So anything the teacher teaches must be received respectfully
with confidence. Without this confidence the teachings are poisoned and one will
not be able to accomplish what one wishes to accomplish.
Q: One thing
that seems to awe people who hear about Three Year Retreat is the rigorous
routine retreatants experience. For example, getting up at 3:00 a.m., and
sleeping sitting up. Do people get used to these practices?
physical obstacles are not so difficult for people. After one week people have
no problem with fewer hours of sleep. After several weeks the pain of sitting
cross legged is overcome. The physical obstacles are not the problem; physical
problems we can control. Mental problems are more difficult to control. It is
very difficult to discipline the mind. No matter how much discipline you have,
when a thought comes you have no power to stop it, unless you can employ very
powerful effective techniques to cut off those thoughts.
Q: Are these
techniques only available to people on Three Year Retreat?
outside Three Year Retreat have no time to employ these techniques. First of all
you have to tame your mind, make your mind soft and gentle, and then you can
utilize more active techniques. Without this taming of the mind the techniques
are not useful, and could even bring lots of difficulties. It is not so much
that people outside Three Year Retreat cannot learn or be given these techniques
it is just they have no time to apply them. They have to make a living, there
are lots of distractions, and this type of distracted mind is not good for the
profound teachings you learn in Three Year Retreat. Also during Three Year
Retreat the teachings are given in sequence, not all at once. When one teaching
is complete another is introduced.
Q: What kind of obstacles are faced
by people on Three Year Retreat?
LLR: At the beginning they face the
obstacles of being away for the first time from the samsaric world. When one is
on Three Year Retreat one is really cut off from samsara which at first makes
people uneasy and depressed. But actually by experiencing these emotions one
learns more, one is taught more, and then gradually one settles down.
So the afflictions are helpful. But how do you use them?
Three Year Retreat these afflictions make one more afflicted. But in Three Year
Retreat the afflictions deepen our understanding of the teachings because one
has time to consider the afflictions, watch them carefully.
Q: What is
someone on Three Year Retreat is completely overcome by negative emotions?
Although they do their best to transform these emotions, they feel compelled to
leave Three Year Retreat, to give up. Would you advise them to leave?
LLR: If he or she has karma with Three Year Retreat the situation as you
describe may not occur. But even if the karma is there, many obstacles may
arise. I will examine that person and say, "Don't worry about it. Just practice.
It's okay," and use some skill to comfort them and make them do them. If they
have karma with me and I have karma with them they will change their outlook and
be cured. If he or she has no karma in the first place, they will never enter
Three Year Retreat. For example I have two students who two or three times now
have attempted and failed to go into Three Year Retreat. They are close
disciples and very devoted, but karma for Three Year Retreat is not there.
Q: What is the aim of the Three Year Retreat?
LLR: I think the
aim is to escape from samsaric suffering, to cut off the causes of suffering,
the root of suffering, to attain full awakening. When you have rooted out the
causes of suffering and attained full awakening naturally, spontaneously benefit
comes for sentient beings. So the aim is two fold: (1) to free ourselves from
the cause of suffering, and achieve full awakening, and (2) to free all sentient
beings from suffering so they have everlasting happiness. This is the aim
generally of Mahayana Buddhism and particularly the teacher should have this
attitude. This is what I teach.
Q: Before going on Three Year Retreat
people must have completed Ngondro, and yet is it true that they begin these
practices again from scratch after they go in?
LLR: For the first seven
days they do the Vajrakilya practice to remove the obstacles from the path. Then
they go to Ngondro practice--normal preliminary practice: prostration,
Vajrasattva mantra, mandala offering, and Guru Yoga for six months. After that,
particular to this lineage, they do Milarepa guru yogas practice for a month.
After that, Seven Point Mind Training for one month, then Calm Abiding Practice,
and Insight Practice, and then they go onto other practices.
Q: All of
this is taught in Tibetan, all the texts are in Tibetan?
LLR: It has to
be in Tibetan.
Q: So in order to participate in Three Year Retreat you
have to have a good reading and writing knowledge of Tibetan?
LLR: It is
very helpful if you are ready for it--reading, writing and understanding Tibetan
is very helpful.
Q: If you don't have this knowledge....?
You will miss many things.
Q: Are there still whispered transmissions?
LLR: Although whispered transmissions are now written down those who can
receive them must still be chosen. The teacher has to know the student is ready
to receive them. So it is not the student's decision. These whispered
transmissions are still very secret. Recently, for example, we gave an
empowerment to 15-20 people. Certainly if this teaching had been open to the
public thousands would have attended but it was limited to a select group of
students we knew well who may go into Three Year Retreat in the future.
Q: Recently I spoke to one of your students who had entered Three Year
Retreat and what surprised him was how little leisure he had during the
day--less than 1/2 hours free time? Why is there so little free time during
Three Year Retreat? Why is the practice so intense?
LLR: Because this is
the reason they are in the Three Year Retreat. Outside the world is intense and
our involvement in that intensity causes suffering and pain. When you realize
you only have these three years you want to use every moment of this leisure in
the proper way to lead you in the right direction. If you become lazy during the
retreat there is no benefit. You might as well be outside. So, in retreat every
moment is consumed in positive activity. If you have a lot of free time you have
time for confusion and negative activity.
Q: Does someone come around to
see if you get up at 3:00a.m.?
LLR: There is a Chostempa who checks to
be sure everyone is doing what they are suppose to be doing.
Q: You have
led lots of different people in Three Year Retreats. Is there a difference
between Americans, Europeans, or Asians?
LLR: Europeans and Americans
are the same but students from Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet are slightly different
in that they have memorized most of the texts because it is their scripture,
what they have grown up with. Most of them retain the rituals very well and it
is easy for them. But for Europeans and Americans it is difficult because they
have to learn the language and read scriptures and learn the mudras and
chanting. All of these things together make it a bit more complicated than for
the Tibetans or Sikkimese. Yet the Westerners have great intelligence and
diligence and if they want to learn, they will learn thoroughly and precisely.
However Western people are somewhat undisciplined in that they always sit in
chairs, drive cars, drive when they could walk. It Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim
people walk miles and become used to physical hardships such as no electric
light, no heaters, no air conditioners. During my Three Year Retreat we relied
on a small candle for light, had no heat and no coolers. But so what. When the
weather is hot, it is hot, when it is cold you put on more clothes. Nothing more
than that. Also, in Tibetan and in Sikkim I never taught women.
women usually only have women teachers?
LLR: Usually there are women
teachers for women and men teachers for men, and my experience in the East was
teaching only monks. However, certainly men can teach women, and women can teach
men. And when I began to teach women it was an amazing experience because I was
the different qualities men and women have.
Q: How different?
LLR: The women have great faith, devotion and intelligence. They learn
more easily than men and teaching women is easier. They are very intelligent,
diligent, and open. The men may be intelligent but they don't use their full
intelligence at times.
Q: What does that mean, use their full
LLR: They don't work as hard--give 100%. They use their
intelligence up to a point but don't put extra effort in. This is my experience,
at least, with Western men. They also learn more slowly compared to women. The
only weakness in women is when they experience emotion one has to counsel
them--use many skillful means to remove their emotion. The men, although they
don't have as much intelligence and diligence, never give up. This is my
experience. The women at a certain point, even if a little problem arises, may
say, "okay I can't do this." But when the teacher's advice is available to them
they, without exception, will respond, "Oh, yes. Oh, okay. I get it. Thank you,"
and the problem is overcome. Of course six months later one may face the same
situation. Not all men and women fit in these categories I have described. I am
speaking of general observations.
Q: Why does the retreat have to be
three years? Why not one year or two years?
LLR: If one can live three
years, three months, three days, in a positive state with the mind not
influenced by negativity, one is then purified enough to realize full
enlightenment according to the tantric system. This is a complicated subject to
discuss here today. There is a sequence of teachings that have to be completed
before your question can fully be answered and understood.
Q: But what
about stories where people experience instant enlightenment?
LLR: Oh, I
see. These people who realize instant enlightenment have in a past life
practiced much longer than three years. They may have lived their whole life in
a mountain practicing so in this life they must have to come back to this body
to finish and instantly are enlightened. By his/her karma with the past life,
other karmic connections with the guru and disciple, his/her familiarity with
the teachings--all of these causes create instant enlightenment. So this does
not mean that such and such a technique will bring enlightenment in an instant.
The technique did not bring enlightenment. He/she was karmically ripened
Q: Is Three Year Retreat the only means to enlightenment?
LLR: Well, there are many other ways to enlightenment. Milarepa took
twelve years, Buddha took six years. We have three years through the blessings
of Milarepa and Buddha. So, yes there are other techniques besides the Three
Year Retreat. You can practice outside if you are ready for that. But if you
don't go into Three Year Retreat usually your worldly activities do not allow
you to practice. In Three Year Retreat you are committed. Everything settles
down. You just have to concentrate on practice. If you are outside, today you go
on retreat, tomorrow you come out because something happens. But retreat on
Three Year Retreat are committed. They can't come out. They are protected by
Q: It sounds as though if one is serious about
practicing the dharma one should think about going on Three Year Retreat and
work toward that goal--that Three Year Retreat is best, the fastest and most
useful technique in benefiting beings and reaching enlightenment?
In Three Year Retreat one completes from beginning to end the whole vision of
the lineage, the practice, what the lineage offers. Yet, just because a person
doesn't plan to go on to University doesn't mean she shouldn't finish high
school. So, similiarly if someone were to say, "If you don't go to Three Year
Retreat why bother being Buddhist,"--that's nonsense. Even a little knowledge of
the Buddha/Dharma teaches you how to live positively in the world.
it possible to come to complete awakening and understanding while living in the
LLR: Many Mahasiddhas lived in the world. They were farmers, they
were dice players, they grew figs. Through these activities, these pursuits,
then became enlightened. The thing to remember is the action does not bring
enlightenment. The view brings enlightenment. Playing dice in an ordinay way
does not bring enlightenement but the Mahasiddha who gainined enlightenment
playing dice had one pointed, unwavering contemplation. When we see him we see a
dice player, but we don't see inside, we don't see the yogi. So there are ways
to become enlightened through ordinary activity. Some yogis sleep for twelve
yeas, wake up and (Rinpoche snaps his fingers) are enlightened.
enligthenment a true understanding of the dream like quality of existence?
LLR: Yes, that's the understanding, but you have to stay in that state
of mind for twelve years, completely accustomed, completely habituated. Asleep,
the state of the yogi's mind, was clear light. Staying for twelve years in a
clear light removed ignorance completely and when he came back to reality he
became enligthened. But these are examples beyond the reach of ordinary people.
Those yogis demonstrated enligthenement in one lifetime through simple actions
but that lifetime was a culmination of countless lifetimes of effort toward
enlightenment. For those interested in the stories of the Mahasiddhas there is a
book entitled, Buddha's Lions, the lives of the eighty-four Siddhas, Dharma
publications. There is a saying which says, "A tiger can jump from mountain to
mountain but if a dog tries to jump he will fall of the cliff and die." If you
are a tiger you can jump; if you are a dog you should find a bridge to walk
over. There are some like Milarepa who can practice alone, outside of Three Year
Retreat, but most poeple need the protection of the commitment which is the
Three Year Retreat.
Q: I remember Kalu Rinpoche speaking at length of
the value of going on Three Year Retreat, but he spoke of it very matter of
factly like suggesting going to Europe. For many of us it still feels like a
hugh undertaking, a huge commitment.
LLR: Yes, if the karma is not there
it is a huge commitment, very scary. But if you have this karmic connection
Three Year Retreat will seem too short. Many people after completeing Three Year
Retreat will do 6 years of retreat, or 9 years of retreat. In Canada there were
many people who after completing one Three Year Reteat went on to do more
because in their last life they were mature enough, ripened enough, so in this
life when the door opened they did not hesitate.
Q: Do you think in the
future there will be a Three Year Retreat American style, in English and a
little bit easier?
LLR: (Rinpoche laughs) I'm afraid I'm not authorized
to make it any easier for Americans.