Reflections on Retreats and
by Karl Eikrem
From time to time I like attend retreats and events held by other spiritual traditions than that of my own. I find it healthy and beneficial to compare my own practice with that of other schools, as it gives me an understanding of the differences and similarities between different forms of practice. Besides it is always nice to connect with other serious practitioners.
Last year I attended two 4-day retreats taught by well-known Western teachers from traditional Tibetan Dzogchen lineages. Although I did enjoy the retreats, there were several points that struck me as problematic about the way they were conducted. In this text I will elaborate on these issues.
Before I get into it I want to make it clear that this text does not represent an attack on anyone's dharma practice, on any particular sangha or tradition etc. Rather the purpose is to highlight some problematic areas of the culture of spiritual training as was reflected in these particular retreats.
It could be argued that two Dzogchen retreats hardly represent the present culture of Tibetan Buddhism, which is true. Nevertheless, the problems highlighted in this text I have found to be common to many of the orthodox Tibetan Buddhist events and teachings I have participated in. Thus, it is my sincere belief that highlighting them can be of benefit to many dharma practitioners.
Lack of Practice Time
The first thing that struck me about these retreats was the lack of actual practice time. To me, the whole purpose of retreats seem to be to take time off from daily obligations in order to practice the dharma intensively. Through increased practice in a conducive environment, retreats can offer us yogins an actual taste of what the dharma is all about. This again leads to increased clarity, motivation and confidence channelled directly into our daily practice.
Despite this, at both of the retreats I attended there was hardly any practice time at all. Instead participants were given long talks about the dharma and the importance of practicing it(!). At one of the retreats I estimated that for every 3 hour session 20-30 minutes was spent practicing, 30 minutes was spent drinking tea and going to the toilet, and the remaining 2 hours was spent listening to talks given by the teacher.
The other retreat did have about two 60 minute sessions dedicated entirely for practice, but these sessions were poorly instructed. In fact, the teacher did not attend himself, and as a result the sessions were somewhat unattended by the retreatants as well.
Whereas I am used to retreats where people, including the teacher, show up on time and take the practice seriously, here participants seemed to walk in out as they wished, not really certain what to do with the time. It seemed to me that the reason for this was not due to laziness etc. on the part of the practitioners, but because the retreat culture itself deemed the practice sessions subordinate to the lectures.
It is widely acknowledged that Dzogchen teachings represents the pinnacle of Buddhist teachings. Nevertheless, my experience from a Theravadin retreat some years ago, was that it was vastly superior in terms of experiential insight compared to the Dzogchen retreats. So while the Dzogchen view may essentially represent a higher realisation than that of the Theravadin traditions, due to the lack of practice time this was not at all reflected in these retreats.
Lack of Guidance
The second thing that struck me at these retreats was the lack of actual involvement of the teachers towards the practice of the students. When time eventually did come to practice, the sessions would usually be preceded by a short and often very general introduction of the technique. Then when the bell rang for practice to begin, the teachers would retreat into their own practice for the duration of the session. In other words, during the meditation there was no guidance or supervision whatsoever.
As an apprentice teacher in my own tradition, I would be scolded by my teacher if I showed such little commitment and sense of responsibility towards students during sessions. Glancing around the meditation halls from time to time, I could tell that people were not really practicing what had been taught. Some were dosing off, most were just sitting in a murky state of mind, and yet the teachers did nothing at all to clear things up. Being so occupied with their own practice, I would be surprised if they were even aware of what was going on in the room.
I cannot think of any other are of human endeavour where those in charge are openly allowed to show such negligence. If a medical professor at the university would show the same lack of responsibility for their students, I find it likely that something would be done about it. Yet, my own experience shows me that when it comes to dharma, a lack of standards has become the standard. This brings me to the next observation.
Lack of Clarity and Relevance
Throughout the retreats the teachers seldom mentioned anything concrete about the spiritual path. Yes, they talked about the human condition, emptiness and bodhicitta and so on, but in response to a question regarding initial awakening from identification with the subject-I, or "me-ness" presented by one student, for example, the teacher at one of the retreats told the student that he did not need to bother his mind with such things.
As anyone with first-hand insight into the path of realising the true nature of mind will be able to attest to, the relative spiritual path passes through several more or less concrete stages. Shakyamuni Buddha himself taught about these stages, and so did many other masters of old. Yet modern teachers, except for a few shimmers of light here and there, seem to avoid the whole subject. And in avoiding it, the practices specific to each stage are also left out. As a result the dharma becomes vague and irrelevant to people's particular life situations.
After the teacher had given his answer to the student, I asked him directly if he knew of any methods that would lead to initial awakening. He said that he would get to that in the next session. As I have never come across any orthodox Dzogchen teachings on this, I eagerly waited to receive these teachings, but what was presented to us was a meditation on love.
Now, there is nothing wrong with meditating on love. In fact I consider it an essential practice. Nevertheless, meditation on love or the awakened heart is not intended to bring about the first permanent insight, that of initial awakening. Thus, presenting it as such was just another example of what happens when teachers do not understand the underlying principles of dharma in relation to the mechanics of existential confusion.
When taught by someone with comprehensive experiential knowledge of cyclic existence and the antidote to it, the dharma becomes very concrete and clear. Then when we practice it, we can see results quickly. When taught by someone who, despite perhaps having broad intellectual knowledge, lacks the experiential insight, the dharma becomes abstract, irrelevant and vague. Practiced vaguely, we can not expect to see much result of our efforts. In this way it is easy to see the importance of a clear and pragmatic approach to spiritual training.
It should be noted that since I am focusing on the problematic areas here, I might come across as overly negative. This is not my intention. The basis for writing this text is the fact that the dharma is the most important aspect of human existence, and thus I feel it is only right that it should be treated as such.
I believe it should be a minimum requirement that practitioners are given the teachings in a manner that leads to actual experiential insight. First and foremost, this means that practice has to take the centre stage over long intellectual lectures.
Furthermore, spiritual teachers need to take their jobs seriously and teach from a space of actual experience and a genuine care for their student's progression on the path. Approached in such a manner, the inherent clarity and concrete nature of the teachings is allowed to shine forth. Only then can the dharma blossom in our culture.
May all beings be free,
-Karl Eikrem, Assistant Teacher
Open Heart Sangha, www.en.openheart.fi