Learning the Way of the Bodhisattva: 3-Year Retreats

Between August 2006 and November 2009, 400 people took part in a three-year retreat at the Dharma centre of Lerab Ling in France, under the guidance of Sogyal Rinpoche. Tsoknyi Rinpoche was a regular visitor to Lerab Ling during the retreat, giving teachings on three separate occasions. In this interview, first published in View, the Rigpa Journal (July 2010), Tsoknyi Rinpoche shares his impressions of the retreat, and the changes he noticed in those who took part.

How did the tradition of three-year retreat originate in Tibet? What is the purpose of doing long-term retreat, and what changes should practitioners experience?

Doing a three-year retreat gives you the time to develop a very solid basis for Dharma practice. One year might not be enough, and more than three years is of course very good, but if you can train in one place, under one teacher, and follow the entire programme, then after three years you are ready to go off on your own and practise in the mountains.

Long-term retreats had been going on for a long time in Tibet, but the system of three-year retreat was started in the nineteenth century by Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé, and after that it became quite popular. The calculation of three years, three months and three days is based on the time it takes to transform the karmic wind energy into wisdom wind energy, if you practise for that amount of time.1 But I’m only talking here about the length of time. As for the actual changes that come from doing a three-year retreat, these depend on the individual practitioner.

I was very curious to see what would happen during the three-year retreat at Lerab Ling, because conditions have changed and the Buddhadharma has now travelled to many different countries. The core of Buddha’s message, the teachings themselves, remain the same, but when they adapt to a new culture and environment, they take on a slightly different shape. Since the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, many great masters have established three-year retreats in the West. I am happy about this, but not completely happy, because what you have to bear in mind is that the whole system is so connected with Tibetan culture. For example, there are so many mantra recitations that it can become like a ‘rush hour’ kind of practice.

I was wondering how Sogyal Rinpoche would conduct this three-year retreat for his students, because the way he presents the Buddha’s teachings is always based on research and careful thinking. So every year at Lerab Ling I have been observing things, because one day I would also like to guide my students in a three-year retreat.

The transformation in the retreatants was different each year. In the first year, people were settling; in the second year, they were more grounded; and in the third year, I could see from their eyes, and from the questions they asked, that they were more alive. You could see clearly that many of their ‘human problems’, like restlessness, anxiety and trauma, had been transformed.

I think the most serious problems people have in the West are emotional problems. I usually call these ‘subtle body’ problems. Generally in the West, people have a good intellectual understanding of the Buddha-       dharma, but even though they practise a lot, the ‘subtle body’ problems are still there. It was my hope that this retreat would bring about both an understanding of the Buddhadharma and a transformation of these ‘subtle body’ problems, and I can see that this is what did happen.

Sometimes nuns and monks have gone into three-year retreat, and some of them have come out even worse; their human problems have become even more dramatic. They might have accumulated a lot of merit during the retreat, but it is as if the merit has been invested somewhere else, in a bank account. It is like they forgot how to cash in their investment, so it does not directly help them in this life. Perhaps it will help in some other life, of course.

So I think it is very important that two things go together: first, that there is clarity and an understanding, to some extent, of the nature of mind, in order to clear the misunderstanding or cloudiness in the head; and second, that the ‘feeling’ aspect—depression, feeling wounded by a lack of love, and so on—is transformed. What with competitiveness, restlessness, or the way in which you are brought up when you are young, there are so many small habitual patterns that can stay in your subtle body, and the Dharma can bypass these things. It is not so easy to transform this part, but during the retreat I could see that many people had actually done so.

Of course, in the East we also have emotional problems, but they are not so obvious, because the external conditions do not provoke these things so strongly. The environment is quite plain, and maybe there are different kinds of problems to cope with, but this sensitivity, anxiety and emotional stuff was not such a problem in old Tibet. Although now in Tibet we are getting a lot of all these things.

Some people might think that going into retreat is selfish, because you are cutting yourself off from the world, and that prevents you from helping and bringing benefit to others.

That is one way of looking at it, but if you examine closely, the motivation for doing retreat is not a selfish one. When you first enter into three-year retreat, there are a lot of teachings on bodhichitta. The purpose is to make you healthy, so that you can then go on to try to benefit all sentient beings. So the intention to benefit others is always there deep down, whether you are locked in three-year retreat or not. But you are not ready to help yet, so you need to develop your bodhichitta while you are doing three-year retreat. When you come out of retreat, you are a more healthy human being, and you have a much greater understanding of the Dharma and of your emotions. Then, when you go back out into the world, you become stronger, with this intention you planted at the beginning. Without that, you could be a little bit cut off.

In retreat, you have to cultivate bodhichitta. It is there, but it is not yet fully activated. It’s like you are charging the battery, but you are not using it yet. But you have to charge it in the first place, otherwise there will be nothing to use. At the same time, in three-year retreat you are learning the skill of the bodhisattva’s way of life; because when you help sentient beings, you might encounter a lot of difficulties, and you need to know how to solve these difficulties. When you work for sentient beings, people might agree with you, and they might not. They might appreciate it, or they might not, but the basic principle is there: you keep trying. However, you are not trying to convince all sentient beings, and to recruit them into Buddhism. You can find different ways of helping. You don’t need to say: “I’m teaching you Buddhism.” Someone does not need to become a Buddhist for you to be able to help them.

You can see in someone’s eyes whether they have bodhichitta or not. Their sense of ‘me’ is very simple—they are fearless, dignified and focused. When you have no bodhichitta, you become very complicated in yourself. You think: ‘I want to do this.’ When it becomes all about ‘me’, then I don’t think you can serve sentient beings. So when someone has bodhichitta, in their eyes you see clarity, love, simplicity, and guts. I saw quite a lot of people like that in the retreat. I don’t mean falling in love with Dharma, like a drug; I’m not talking about that kind of love. It’s just a very clear determination, focused and simple. Why is there this simplicity? Because the ego diminishes when you practise. When the ego diminishes, it does not need so many things to make it happy. So it becomes focused—but focused with a good purpose.

We live in a very speedy environment. We are always hurrying around, thinking a lot, doing busy jobs. How important is it to have a special environment in which to do retreat?

At the beginning, you need a good, quiet place for retreat. When you are learning to drive, you cannot drive in a big city like New York straight away. But while you are learning, your intention or motivation is that one day you will be able to drive in the big city. If you don’t have that motivation then you might not learn, and you might not be able to drive in the future. It is exactly the same with bodhichitta. That is the motivation, but while you are learning, you must have a quiet, suitable place for practice. I think Lerab Ling is a terrific place, an excellent environment for retreat.

I’m really amazed that Sogyal Rinpoche put so much time and energy into this three-year retreat. We had a conversation, and he was showing me all the study materials that he has provided, and would like to provide in the future. He is always thinking about his students, and about sentient beings, which is wonderful. I think this three-year retreat went through the same basic curriculum as in Tibet, but Rinpoche’s special strength is how he connects with the western mind. He didn’t change the core method, the Dharma, but the way he is able to link it all together—that shows his skill, his kindness, and his compassion. That is why this three-year retreat was so successful, from my point of view.

Jamgön Kongtrul wrote: “All the wisdom energy which circulates during one hundred years equals three years and three fortnights. When all karmic energy is transformed into wisdom energy, enlightenment is attained. This is the reason why it is said that the state of the Buddha Vajradhara is achieved by meditating for three years and three fortnights.”

1 The tradition originates with the teachings of the Kalachakra Tantra, concerning the cycles of inner wind energy. It is said that generally, in the course of a day, we breathe in and out some 21,600 times. And every thirty-two times there is the arising of what is called the ‘wisdom wind’. This means that in a single day the wisdom wind arises 675 times. If we consider the life expectancy of a human being to be roughly 100 years, then in one lifetime we experience the wisdom wind for a total of three years and three fifteen day periods.