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Buddhadharma : Summer 2011
buddhadharma| 67 |winter 2005 an exact routine doesn’t matter so much. In fact, trying to follow a strict timetable could be a hin- drance. Consider what happened to the legendary Chinese monk hsu yun, better known as empty Cloud. he spent most of his life in solitary retreat and wandering between monasteries, earning a reputation as one of China’s most accomplished Buddhist masters. he died in 1959, purportedly at the age of 120. In his autobiography, hsu yun recounts: One day, after putting a pot of potatoes on the fire to cook, I sat cross-legged waiting until they were done. Suddenly, I entered samadhi. Fu-ch’eng and several other monks liv- ing nearby were puzzled that I hadn’t called on them for some time and decided to pay me a visit to exchange New Year’s greetings. Outside my hut, they saw tiger tracks in the snow, but no human footprints. When they opened my door, they saw I’d entered sama- dhi. One of them struck a stone chime. As I returned to consciousness, they asked me if I had eaten. I said, “Not yet, but the potatoes must be done by now.” As I lifted the cover of the cauldron, I found the potatoes covered by an inch of mold. most of us would be so eager to eat the pota- toes, or at least concerned that they not burn, that we’d be distracted from focusing within or just being content in the moment. This is one of the difficulties you encounter when practicing on your own: you must do your own chores. The advan- tage to attending a well-run group retreat is that your functional needs are taken care of, allowing you to devote yourself to meditation practice. yet this advantage also comes with potential pitfalls. Practicing in a meditation “lab” can make it harder to incorporate mindfulness into everyday life. We’re more likely to try to hold on to insights experienced in protected conditions, turning them into special moments. And of course, once we grasp at any experience, even a valuable one, we get stuck and miss what’s happening right now. most of us have a tendency to turn our insightful moments into a kind of “best of” film, and then use those highlights as a basis for judging whether we’re now having a good retreat. We may even use those peak moments as a way to keep our- selves going during the hard work that a retreat demands. This tendency to hold on to highlights became easier for me to see during my solitary retreat. At the cabin by the lake, the cooking, cleaning, and various chores required an attention to practical details that made it harder, especially initially, to concentrate as well as I might at a retreat at the vipassana center. Longing for a spectacular insight or two, I found this frustrating at first, until I recognized that lighting the propane stove could be just as worthy a moment as time spent sitting. naturally, a superficial reading of almost any Buddhist book tells you this, but as always, it’s one thing to read about it, or even know it in theory, and another to experience it. I saw how I tended to separate “practice” from life. One of the benefits – if it can be called that – of practicing alone is that it tends to create more genuine encounters with discomfort. Of course, discomfort is part of every retreat, but at retreat centers (particularly in Western countries), even if accommodations aren’t cushy, our culture demands a certain minimum level of safety, comfort, and convenience. yet there’s nothing like real-life hard- ship to get your attention and to force you, even- tually, to be more accepting. In Reflections on a Mountain Lake, Tenzin Palmo recounts: I remember once when the spring snow melted and the cave became completely flooded. It was May, and the ground was no longer fro- zen, and it was snowing and snowing, which meant the snow penetrated through the roof because there was no longer any ice to hold it out. It was just dripping down and everything in the cave was soaking wet. I also had a cold or something. I remember feeling extremely unwell. I was thinking, “Yes, they were right in what they told me about living in caves. Who wants to live in this horrible wet?” It was cold and miserable and still snowing. Then suddenly I thought, “Are you still look- ing for happiness in samsara?” This led Ani Palmo to one of her most profound moments of insight and relief: “In my heart, this whole weight of hope and fear just dropped away.” no one is suggesting that we seek out unpleas- ant situations or put ourselves in harm’s way. yet Tenzin Palmo’s experience reminds us that in order to truly face whatever life brings, we may need to expose ourselves to raw, uncharted territory while in an open state of mind. A solitary retreat offers its own middle way between a “protected” retreat at a monastery, which is generally free from worldly responsibilities, and our ordinary lives, which are typically overburdened with them. In that some-of- both environment comes an excellent opportunity to integrate mindfulness into our lives. “Hermits do appear more serene compared to monks and nuns in monasteries. But what stands out is their happiness. They’re without doubt the happiest people I’ve ever met. Simple, happy, and unpretentious.” — Bill Porter