Nov 6 – I ask Nagendra what he thinks about retreats. The longest ones I’ve done have been a week long. My mind calmed, it became easier to observe what thoughts arose and see their origin, and that helped the meaning of teachings get through the usual distracting clutter.
I hope to do a one month retreat sometime because that’s the traditional next step, but I shall not take the following step, a three year retreat.
The two week-long classes I just took were a form of retreat. We were instructed to consider them so. At one point our teacher said: “People think what it means to be a lama is we give up sex, but it’s so much more than that. We make more than two hundred commitments about what we will and will not do, and after the third empowerment we must have a consort for the next practices.”
Empowerments authorize you to perform certain practices. They are given by teachers when you have attained the results of your current practice. Each of the four empowerments authorizes one to perform a certain class of practices. One is then granted approval for specific practices within that class.
I am at the first level and feel unlikely to get to the second.
The original set of Buddhist practices is known as Nyingma, the Old School. My teachers are in this tradition. Three New Schools came later, one of which split into two, and the latest of which is headed by the Dalai Lama.
An important way the Nyingma tradition is different is its practitioners can live an “ordinary” life with an approach that is different from ordinary.
Both my teachers are married with children. The younger one, who is mid-30s, was told by his chief teacher: “It is time for you to have a wife.” He was quite surprised but did as he was told and is happy that he did. His wife alerts him to negative behaviors that he had not noticed. There was no question of disobeying, anyway. He is unusual in teaching from his own experience, which makes his teachings more accessible.
I’d been thinking the Nyingma ordinary life approach seems the most effective. Our experiences in ordinary life trigger our habitual negative concepts and emotions. That causes us to suffer, which can motivate us to change those habits. If we hadn’t triggered our suffering, we would not have noticed the existence of our negative concept or emotion.
But doesn’t that mean a three year retreat is counter-productive? If I sit by myself in a cave for three years I won’t interact with anyone and trigger any new suffering. “What do you think, Nagendra?”
A long pause, then: “When there is no temptation there is no examination.”
“Is that original? It must be a quote!”
“Oh, it’s original…” He was just articulating his opinion. Pretty amazing.
In any case, it’s what I always thought. But then Nagendra went on to say his more considered opinion. What would happen in long solitude is thoughts would come from one’s past experiences. You might recall a particularly fine meal in a restaurant. You would think about going for such a meal again but it would be impossible.
Or you might think only about your Buddhist practice. In that case you might imagine the results you hope your retreat will bring, or fear that it will not.
The lama who taught the classes I just took mentioned the most powerful teaching he ever received . He asked his teacher what he gained from twelve years of solitary retreat. He replied: “Oh I wasted all that time in hope and fear about the results I might get.”
So I see how I might benefit from a three year retreat — but I still won’t be doing one
After that our conversation degenerated into more examples of what is wrong in Nepal now and the deep rooted origins. Every so often, to vary my response, I would say “Bullshit!”
At last Nagendra said: “I like this concept, bullshit. It gives us the power to ignore what we label that way.”
I was very happy. I had originated the Bullshit Empowerment.