For some time, many long-time American students of Tsoknyi Rinpoche had wanted to ask him a set of questions regarding formal retreat. In December 2000, just after the birth of his second daughter, Lhabu, in Bangkok, the opportunity presented itself and Rinpoche kindly answered the following questions. This interview, with permission by Rinpoche, was lightly edited in May 2017, by the Pundarika staff.
Question: As a Buddhist practitioner, what is the importance of spending time in retreat?
Tsoknyi Rinpoche: Generally, I think the main reason to learn about Buddhist practice, which includes how to recognize one’s own basic nature, is to be enlightened. In order to do that three things are important: to hear the Dharma, which in Tibetan is turbha, second is to contemplate what you have learned and lastly, is to practice what has been learned.
Retreat is very important in Buddhist practice because once you know what you are doing, more or less, you need to work with that knowledge. You should not leave your understanding at the intellectual level, you have to put it into practice. Once you have a map, some basic understanding of what to do when you practice, you need to set aside time. Also, it is important to know that in the beginning you cannot expect to practice in a busy area like a town or city. Normally, active places distract us and engage our habitual patterns.
So, I don’t think it would be such a good idea to do retreat in this kind of place. You have to remove yourself and remember to not expect instant results. This has happened, but is very rare.
First, you learn from a good teacher and then you develop and deepen that learning and understanding in retreat practice. Without doubt, the experience of retreat is of great value.
Q: Do you feel that your students can make real progress on the path without doing significant retreat practice?
Rinpoche: Basically, there are two types of students. One is exceptional and rare. They hear the teachings and without too much effort realize the essential meaning. For example, practitioners who have accumulated merit over many past lifetimes, studied with special masters and made virtuous aspirations, can have this kind of ripening karma.
However, for the vast majority of students, maybe up to 99%, it’s difficult to progress in practice without retreat. If you really want to progress on the path, you have to do retreat. We have to put effort into our practice because we have a long history of grasping onto hope and fear and creating karmic debts. So, it is very important to create periods of time to focus exclusively on practice and break these old habits. If we only meditate for short periods of time, progress can be a little bit difficult.
Q: Would you give an example of someone who has, in the past, shown great capacity and capability to put the teachings directly into practice with a limited amount of retreat?
Rinpoche: First of all, you have to have strong devotion and trust in your teacher and a sharp intelligence. Then maybe it’s possible to be someone like Indrabuti, Vairocana or Paro Mipham Gompo, who was 80-years old when he met Vairocana. Vairocana gave him the pointing out instructions and at that moment he was liberated. Historically, there have also been many accomplished Drukpa Kagyu masters such as Milarepa. But really, these have been rare occasions.
Q: Milarepa has always seemed the ultimate practitioner because he gained liberation within his own lifetime.
Rinpoche: Yes, and he put a lot of effort and time into practice. It’s not like one instant he was ordinary, then suddenly liberated. That is possible, but I don’t recommend my students to fantasize on that.
Q: You mean to fantasize about going to a cave for the rest of one’s life?
Rinpoche: No. Not to fantasize about instant liberation. I don’t want to give this idea to my students because I think it is much better for them to practice retreat.
Q: How much time should a beginning student spend in retreat? Is someone who has taken one, two or three of your seminars ready for retreat?
Rinpoche: It’s very difficult to know what is best for each student and I don’t think I can really say to someone that after two or three months they will be liberated. I cannot say to someone that if you do three months of retreat every year that in exactly 16 years you will be liberated or enlightened. That kind of certainty is difficult to give because it is not like getting a degree or certificate. If it were like that, then I could just measure the time. But for dharma practice, it’s hard to say. You have to check your motivation and check how you are doing the practice. You can honestly ask yourself: “Is my practice based on compassion or not? How much blessing am I receiving?” To progress, you have to have to keep in mind these key points.
Q: So, is it really a one-to-one situation, where a student would come to you and ask you what would be best?
Rinpoche: It is very hard to know. I just generally recommend that more is better. I will not tell someone to do retreat every year for one month or a one-year retreat and then tell that person that they will be realized. I cannot say that. But definitely, the more the better. You have to look at your motivation, your intention to practice in the first place.
Let’s say you are beginning to practice Buddhism and you come to one of my teachings. Why? What is your motivation? Is your motivation just to be healthy and use dharma only as a form of therapy? You may have the hope that when you have emotional problems and then you practice that they will be reduced. And there are times you don’t practice and are doing something else. Other times you may be sick or your ego is not healthy. So, if your motivation is to be a calm and good person, I don’t think a lot of time in retreat is necessary. Whenever your emotions arise, you take the dharma antidote of a little meditation. If this is the only purpose of practice, I don’t think you need so much time. Maybe every day, one hour is enough or a week or one-month retreat each year. This is okay, because you are using the practice as a way to cool yourself down. This is Buddhist practice as a kind of supplement, a medicine. This is okay. I’m happy if my students practice like that. It is helpful.
The real point of Buddhist practice is to eliminate the karmic debts in your mind and continue this effort life after life. You need to get rid of these poisons. If you want to get rid of all of these poisons in one lifetime so that they no longer continue into the future, then I think you need to put in a lot of effort. This is why I especially hope a place like Crestone, Colorado, can serve both of these purposes. I would like to see it as both a place for those who use Buddhist practice for working with their emotions, who want to be calm and healthy and I would like to see Crestone as a place for those aiming for final freedom, complete liberation and enlightenment. To do that, you need to put in a lot of effort. You have to sit and meditate.
So, in short, there are these two motivations. One is that any time you have some kind of problem, something emotional, some sickness, some unhappiness, or your mind becomes uptight and you feel loneliness, then you do some practice. You do guru yoga, you do meditation and then you feel better, you’re okay. If this alone is your aim, then I don’t think there’s any need for a lot of effort. Once a day, every day, you do one hour of practice. And, time to time, whenever you get some emotion, just sit and meditate. Then every month, for one or two or three days, you do a happy retreat; not really hard work. You see, with this style of motivation, you’re not digging out the root of suffering. You’re just punishing the suffering.
However, if you really want to dig out the root of suffering in this life, I think you need to practice in retreat for at least three years. More is always better. In the Tibetan tradition, three years is the custom, but this really depends on how you’re doing while you’re in the retreat. In the West, I see many people coming to Buddhism out of a true motivation. But, when you are practicing, following my path, I think that after a while, you have to change your motivation. The beginners’ kind of motivation, using practice as medicine is okay in the beginning. But it is not okay to leave it there. If you stay with that beginner’s motivation, then I think your dharma practice has some spiritual materialism in it.
Q: Almost like taking an aspirin for a headache.
Rinpoche: Yes. Which is okay. I’m not unhappy about this. If Tibetan Buddhism or really any path can help you reduce your current suffering, then why not use it? However, true dharma has the potential to rid you of all of the causes or seeds of suffering.
Q: Would you suggest, in that case, that it would be good for a student to ask: “What kind of student am I? What is my motivation to practice?”
Rinpoche: Sure. Checking yourself is very good.
Q: Or to ask oneself, “Am I a student who just wants to take care of the day-to-day problems or am I looking to cut samsara at the root”?
Rinpoche: That’s what’s most important, to cut samsara at the root. If you really want to do that then you need to accumulate merit, spend time sitting and receive blessings through devotion. Then, I think, you can do something. This kind of effort can really take you somewhere.
Also, compassion is very important. You have to be hard on yourself because if you don’t cut the root of your suffering it can make problems for you and cause problems for others. For example, if your first priority is to be in retreat but at the same time you want to help another person out of compassion, it will never work out. Why? Because, who knows, you may not achieve the rare opportunity of having a precious human body again. Next time, you might not be so lucky. For example, when you look at the ocean and you see how many different kinds of beings live there it is difficult to say what might happen. Next time, you might be born as one of them. This is okay, but then who will give you teachings? How will you know how to recognize your true nature? Who will have the true knowledge and experience to help you correct your mistakes and confusions in practice?
Q: With that in mind, how much time should a more advanced student spend in retreat?
Rinpoche: As much as possible so that the root of samsara is cut. A new student might spend at least a month just to stay in balance. And if they could do a one-hour meditation every day that would be good. This would help to keep the neurotic habits cooled down. However, this is not going to the root.
Q: For the beginner, would you say an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening would be useful?
Rinpoche: Yes, whichever is best. This should be one solid hour. Then throughout your daily life take time to have short glimpses five minutes, two minutes or one minute. But this way of practicing will not cut the root. It will make your life more even and tranquil, an okay life so that you won’t go crazy.
Q: Are there circumstances when retreat is not recommended or would be harmful to a student’s progress on the path?
Rinpoche: I don’t recommend someone going into retreat who does not understand the teachings at all, just going into a cabin and locking yourself inside. This kind of retreat can go very wrong. It is punishing yourself without any insight, without any understanding of what you are doing. You just sit and think, “Oh, solo retreat, solitude is so good.” But, what really happens is that you just go to the mountain cabin, sit there and daydream. That’s all.
Or you become worse. This is because when you are by yourself with nothing else to do, you are not engaged with external objects. During retreat the object is your thinking mind. You’re not occupied with television, telephone calls, computers or really anything. So without these things anything in your mind may come up as an object. Lots of thinking, anger and sadness will come to your awareness. Without knowing how to connect and learn to be with all this, it’s like a large computer program with many files opening that you may not want to open or know how to liberate once opened. You don’t know what the right method is.
No, going to retreat in the beginning, even for someone who understands the teachings, is like opening up your mental files. Your mind is opening, taking in so much. The place is very quiet, relaxed. Then, after a while, all of the emotions and thoughts come up. For someone who knows what they are doing, they know how to liberate these files. Using skillful means, you take charge of your mind. Finally, you are emotionally freed. You know how to let them be and not be controlled by them. You have an intelligent, choosing mind and this mind is in charge. If you have this kind of mind, then I think dharma is starting to work for you. You won’t go crazy due to outer circumstances.
Another way a student might have problems is to go on a long retreat before they are ready. If you start with a three-month retreat everything negative might come up. For someone who has not done retreat before starting with just one or two weeks is best. This way you can gradually test yourself, see how you do. Really, you should always check yourself. For example, let’s say that last year, you did a six-month retreat. But this year, you have become an angrier person. You’re more selfish, no compassion, no loving-kindness, no insight or understanding. In this case, I don’t think you should go so quickly back into retreat. I think it is better that you check with a qualified teacher. Maybe your practice is not right, or your understanding is not so good.
On the other hand, when you come out of retreat and see that you’re happier, more bliss, more compassion, more caring and more trust then all these are signs that genuine practice is happening. The practice is really benefitting you. You have more clarity and awareness, more respect for karma and the causes of karma. And everything, more or less, comes to you without much effort. To me, that means you are doing well.
Q: There are some people who feel that when they are in retreat and things start going wrong, such as getting angry more often, a lot of nhamtak, a lot of confusion and emotion comes up, that you should just press on and push through.
Rinpoche: I don’t think so. Pressing is not so good. But what you can do is learn how to let it go and do some prayer. One way you can do this is that when you are very angry, for example, you can use the anger. You take all the anger of samsara onto yourself and you connect fully with that energy. When you are suffering with sickness or sadness, you can do bodhicitta. You pray, “May I take all the sufferings of other people onto myself.” You can use all this emotional energy and you can definitely bring it into your practice. You can remember that any emotion that comes up offers a very good chance to practice.
Usually, on retreat, the problems with emotions will often come up after the first or second month. After that, if you can fully connect to the emotion with a spacious, kind and non-judging mind, it should become better. Slowly, slowly, its gets better. If you do a one-week retreat it is similar. At first, for one or two days there may be some turbulence. But this is only because you have opened your mental file. You are giving your mind the chance to come out. So, of course, it will come out.
So, I don’t think it is a good idea to suppress or push yourself. When you do a long retreat in the beginning obstacles may arise and it’s most important to know how to let these go. You do this by knowing how to liberate thoughts and emotions, the liberation path of Buddhism. Of course, in the beginning, this may seem very difficult. A lot of emotions come up. A lot of thoughts come. And this is because you have opened your mental file. So now, all these things come up because you’re not occupied with external objects.
In retreat, you’re looking in rather than looking out. When you’re not in retreat you’re looking outside and engage in a lot of external activities and problems. But in retreat, your mind’s attention is looking in, so whatever you have in your files, whatever you have stored in your database, starts to come up. At this point, it may feel that you have more anger, more attachment because now it’s coming into awareness.
When this starts to happen, what you should do is see how you can just let it go. And sometimes this can be very painful due to past memories or other habitual patterns. Now you have the chance to practice bodhicitta. I suggest that when you have a lot of pain from anger or past thoughts you say to yourself: “This is my chance to draw the anger of all sentient beings into me, drawing away all their suffering to benefit them.” In retreat, you may have a lot of chances to practice like that. But this won’t last so long. After a few weeks or working with this method, using bodhicitta, it should become better and better.
I have given many teachings on how to do this, how to be with and let emotions go. All of this concerns the third essential point of Garab Dorje (Three Words That Strike the Vital Point), which is to gain confidence in liberation. This has to do with knowing how to liberate emotions when they come up. I think my students should know this by now, how to let go, how to liberate anger and other emotions. I’ve taught many times about the three kinds of liberation: liberation by occurrence, liberation by self and liberation with no harm or benefit.
So this means that there is no need to suppress, apply antidotes, push away, run away, or indulge emotional difficulties. This is because seeing the mind as an object is different than when you are seeing an external object. Mind itself and all thoughts and emotions are not substantial. Since they are not substantial, you cannot block, push them, and so on.
Of course, you can practice blocking emotions. If you practice very good shamata, then you are occupied with the present moment and the present moment becomes the object. This lets your mindfulness concentrate on the present moment. This way, you leave no room for emotions to arise. Using this method, your mental file is closed and your mind remains focused on one point, which is the present moment. So in this way, you might be able to block or suppress emotions. But I really don’t think that using this method is such a good idea because you are blocking both positive and negative experiences from arising. It is always better to be fully open and non-judging with anything that occurs in your mind, positive or negative. Then you truly learn how to be a kind friend to your emotions. You become the master of your mind.
If you choose to practice with some emotional pattern or thought, you should use the right method. Repetitive thoughts and emotions come into your mind, such as anger, and you may know intellectually, “Oh, this is not so good.” But the practical problem is that you don’t know how to liberate it. So if you use this method, saying to yourself,“Oh, this thought is of no use,” you can see that you can just let it go. This method is also very good if you feel the need to increase your love, compassion and devotion. Just work with your emotions and thoughts this way more and more. This is what I think is very important to learn while you are in retreat. And, as a practitioner, it is something you should use whether you are in retreat or not.
Q: If a student is doing a long retreat, three or six months or more, should he or she only do mind nature practice alone or combine it together with development stage practice?
Rinpoche: I recommend to my students that mind nature practice should be combined with a short sadhana practice. Many times I suggest that they use the development stage yidam practice of Dorje Sempa (Vajrasatva). I think we always need the support of enlightened beings. We need their influence. Of course, the very important final teaching of Buddhism, and Buddha always mentioned this, is that you have to be your own guide. In the beginning though, we need blessings, beneficial influence and favorable circumstances. So we need someone like Dorje Sempa, Vajrasatva, to help us progress on the path because we have so many defilements and past habits that only lead to more karmic debt. Right now, we don’t have the complete ability to easily remove these difficulties so we need some external support to help us at first. Because of this it is important to do a yidam practice such as Vajrasatva. Then, after that, mind nature practice.
To combine your yidam practice with mind nature practice, I always recommend that you start with refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha with a sincere sense of motivation. The homage to the Three Roots should always arise within bodhicitta or compassion. Then you go on to visualizing the yidam in front of you. Surrounding the heart center of Dorje Sempa, or whomever the yidam is you choose, visualize the yidam’s mantra. Continue with the mantra recitation for an amount of time that works for you, one mala or more. After that, visualize that the form of Dorje Sempa, the embodiment of compassion and emptiness, or whoever your yidam is, and let it dissolve into your inner Dorje Sempa.
At this point, you rest in mind nature. You rest in mind nature until you become distracted. If at times your mind nature practice is a little difficult, then practice shamata with or without support. But whether you are using the teachings of Mahamudra, Dzogchen or Madhyamika for your nature of mind practice you use your yidam practice to start. Then at the end of your mind nature practice finish the rest of the sadhana, remembering to seal it with aspirations and dedicating the benefit you have gained to all other beings.
Q: Rinpoche how did you become interested in Crestone, Colorado, as a location for a retreat center?
Rinpoche: I’ve told this story many times, but it is good for people to hear it. When I was young I had the intention that when I had more training that I would help sentient beings. I didn’t have a definite idea in my mind where or how this intention might manifest. I left that open. However, I didn’t lose my motivation. When you take the bodhisattva vow, the sense of compassion to help all sentient beings stays with you. But though it was in my mind back then, I just didn’t have the capacity to help sentient beings. Of course, I also had to practice a lot.
Because I left it like that, I never had a definite plan, saying, “Oh, I will help Tibetan people” or “I will help western people.” I didn’t have this kind of idea. I just stayed open. I thought to myself: “I want to help but right now I need to study and practice and one day I will help.” So when I finished my studies at Tashi Jong, I came here to Nepal. Then, somehow, through karmic connections here and there, I began to teach.
I want to say that when I was young I never had the idea that when I was a certain age I would begin teaching. I never had that idea. So through karmic connections I began to teach some westerners, first in Bodh Gaya, then here in Nepal, Argentina, Malaysia, and then in the United States. As I continued it became clear that I had a very strong karmic connection with the United States. I’ve been teaching there almost every year now. Yet all this happened so easily through karmic connections without too much effort.
After a while, many different people began to say that I should build a dharma centers and I said, “No, I’m not going to do that. If something happens, then it happens. I’m not going to put too much extra effort.” I thought maybe I would do something, but mostly I felt that just the teaching was benefitting a lot of people. But I didn’t think very much about building a place and having an organization to support it. My thinking was more like the nomad style of teaching going from place to place. I like that style very much.
But at the same time, I never blocked out that something might happen. I left it to causes and conditions whether something would happen or not. So without any definite plan, people naturally came together. So I am very happy that land was purchased in Crestone, Colorado. It’s a funny thing. There have been times when I put a lot of effort into some project and nothing happened. Then there were other times where I didn’t have to put in much effort and something did happen. The Crestone land is one of those. I put in very little effort and something wonderful happened with the help of a few students. It’s really very good and will serve a lot of purposes in the future. So I am very happy about this.
Q: Have you had any indications or ideas about what the future holds for the Crestone land?
Rinpoche: As I said before, I would very much like the Crestone land to develop into one of the more important places retreatants can go to do serious practice. This would be a place where students can do long-term or lifetime retreat.
Q: Rinpoche, what are your feelings that so many other teachers of Tibetan Buddhism have established retreat centers in Crestone?
Rinpoche: Well, I know that His Holiness the 16th Karmapa made a prediction about this land and I heard from one of my dharma friends, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, that His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse also had a very strong vision that dharma would happen in Crestone. That’s why Kongtrul Rinpoche is living in Crestone. Because of this, I feel there is a lot of good dharma potential for the future. And, I am very happy there are so many different spiritual traditions there living together with no problems, no contradictions. I really like this and hope this will always remain. There is such a variety of traditions there and they are peaceful and harmonious. Each is respectful of the other with no one bothering one another and no politics. In other places there have been so many problems. But this has not happened in Crestone and I pray it will continue.
Q: What are your personal plans for Crestone? How much time do you think you will spend there each year?
Rinpoche: As time is passing in my life I think in general of doing more and more retreat, that this is healthy for both my students as well as for myself. Of course, I have retreat responsibilities in Tibet so sometimes this is very difficult to accomplish. In addition, I have many projects and responsibilities in Nepal. But after these I plan to spend my time in the United States. I also have many students in Latin and South America and Malaysia. In fact, a meditation center is nearly complete in Malaysia, so I think I will be spending time there as well. Fortunately, Malaysia is very close to Nepal so it is easy to get to.
I really like Crestone because it is more like Tibet. You have this longing feeling with its rocks and clouds, the mountains are very high, there’s a sense of sadness and a feeling of natural energy from the earth. It’s a little bit difficult to live there, not so easy. It’s not like staying by the ocean. Living by the ocean is mild, very comfortable but it does not give you a sense of sadness that can support renunciation. Living by the ocean usually means joy, happiness, an easy life which is very good for your body. But for enlightenment practice, it’s kind of a distraction. We call it “blissful distraction.”
Crestone, however, is dry and a little tough to live there, but not that hard in general, because the United States is not very hard compared to many places in the world. But you need some physical strength to survive there and that gives you a kind of renunciation mind. Loneliness. Sadness. These experiences are very important to open your heart and to open the spiritual path. Crestone naturally draws that kind of energy. When I see the clouds moving on the high mountains, the rocky hillsides, the trees, they remind me of Tibet. Maybe because of that—I’m not sure—it’s easy for me to be in a spiritual mood. So I hope to spend a lot of time in Crestone. And with good fortune, I will make a small house there.
Q: Rinpoche, do you anticipate putting students into three-year or life-long retreat at some point?
Rinpoche: I think so. More and more. I’m thinking that one day having students doing this kind of retreat will come naturally. I just pray for it to happen. I’m not really pushing it right now. I think circumstances should push me.
Q: Our last question is how should the ngöndro or preliminary practices be combined with the retreat?
Rinpoche: In Tibetan Buddhist practice, there are two meanings for ngöndro. There is the traditional four times 100,000 practice and the lojong or the Seven Points of Mind Training, which is also a kind of ngöndro. Both are quite important to be able to accomplish the whole path. Earlier I mentioned that there are two kinds of practitioners, one who wishes to be a peaceful, a spiritual person and the one who wishes to dig out the root of samsara. If you are looking to make real progress towards enlightenment, the four times 100,000 ngöndro and the lojong are very important. Doing this kind of complete practice helps chop up all your laziness. Laziness is the biggest problem for older practitioners. They are not distracted by emotional problems as much as beginners and they have learned how to let them go. But they create another subtle problem of pride. They say “I know.” If they don’t take care of that it can become very difficult.
With newer practitioners, because the emotions are constantly creating more suffering, they are more diligent in their practice. After someone has had some experience, knows a few things, then it’s very easy to become proud. So it is very important to do ngöndro, lojong practice, and the generation of compassion and bodhicitta. If a Dzogchen practitioner practices like this, I don’t have to worry about that person. If a student doesn’t practice lojong and bodhicitta and only practices a dry kind of Dzogchen, this is not so good. Dzogchen needs to be juicy. But without an understanding of emptiness, Dzogchen is still dry and liberation difficult to achieve.
Q: Rinpoche, do you have any other thoughts you would like to add to this interview about retreat?
Rinpoche: Yes, I pray that people will do more and more serious practice. Not in a selfish way, but practice for the benefit of all sentient beings. When I teach motivation, I teach two aspects: eliminate all the emotional poisons and help all sentient beings. So I hope more and more people will become serious practitioners and together we can create an enlightened society in Crestone.
Q: Thank you, Rinpoche.
Rinpoche: Thank you.
The opportunity to ask these questions of Tsoknyi Rinpoche is gratefully acknowledged by the itinerant practitioner, Orgyen Phuntsok Tashi. Any errors that may appear in the transcription are his own and arise from his own misunderstanding.
May whatever benefit that arises from the publication of this interview with Rinpoche be immediately dedicated and applied to the welfare of all beings through the ten directions and four times.
©Pundarika Foundation 2017