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Buddhadharma : Winter 2005
winter 2005| 64 |buddhadharma suited for a solitary retreat, practicing on your own does offer something valuable. Less than a year after sitting her first weekend meditation retreat, Ambrosia spent the better part of two years, more or less on her own, in a brick room affectionately called the Cave in the basement of Ims. “Looking back now, I’m not sure how I did it,” she says. But it’s clear that those two years were invaluable in helping her to deepen her understanding and practice of the dharma. six months after leaving her basement cave, she was encouraged to teach introductory meditation classes. During the first seven years of his practice in India, Joseph Goldstein lived in a supportive group setting where he received some direction from his teacher, Anagarika sri munindra. But munindra would sometimes go away for months at a time, leaving Goldstein to practice on his own. When Goldstein returned to America, he emerged as one of the foremost Western-born Buddhist teachers in the United states. A few years ago, he helped found the Forest Refuge at Ims to give others the oppor- tunity to undertake intensive, long-term practice in a supportive environment, under the guidance of a teacher. The Forest Refuge offers prepared meals, general practice guidelines, and twice-weekly teacher contact, but basically allows one to do an independent retreat in a tranquil setting. Looking for further evidence of the benefits of solitary retreats, I considered the five teachers I interviewed for this article. All had spent consider- able time in solitary retreats, and as a group they struck me as an unusually relaxed and present bunch. Tenzin Palmo, who has spent more time in solitary retreat than almost anybody anywhere, was particularly delightful. After I hung up the phone with her, a grin still on my face, I said to my wife, “she seems light as a feather.” Unconsciously I had assumed that someone who had spent twelve years alone in a cave must be somewhat of a mis- anthrope and I assumed her seriousness as a prac- titioner meant that she’d be serious. Later I looked at the photos of Ani Palmo in her book of teach- ings, Reflections on a Mountain Lake, and noticed that in most of the pictures she’s beaming with a large, infectious smile. Wondering if I was reading too much into such a tiny, subjective sampling, I e-mailed Bill Porter, author of Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, and asked him if the meditators he’d met, who had spent years practicing in seclu- sion, seemed more peaceful than the monks and nuns he had encountered elsewhere. During the years it took him to write Road to Heaven, Porter ferreted out and met with more than a hundred spiritual hermits (no small feat, given that Chinese recluses tend to hang out in inaccessible and often restricted places). Prior to that he had spent three years in a Taiwanese Buddhist monastery. “They do appear more serene compared to monks and nuns in monasteries,” he replied. “But what stands out is their happiness. They’re without doubt the happiest people I’ve ever met. simple, happy, and unpretentious.” Jane Dobisz is a teacher at the Cambridge Zen Center and author of The Wisdom of Solitude, an account of her one hundred-day solitary retreat in an isolated cabin during a new england winter. “I don’t think it matters that much whether one does a group or solitary retreat,” says Dobisz, “as long as one does retreats.” Over the years, Dobisz has done all kinds of retreats – group and solitary, short, medium, long, and very long. “I can’t imag- ine having any real breakthroughs without doing retreats,” she says. Buddhist scholar and teacher Reginald Ray agrees. In Secret of the Vajra World, he writes, “Retreat practice is critical because it provides the most direct and effective way to attain personal realization of the teachings that one has received. A month of retreat can bring about a maturation of practice and understanding that might take years of daily meditation while living an ordinary life.” Odds are, what accounts for the unusual hap- piness of long-term solo retreatants is that they’ve simply spent so much time in intensive practice. “It’s not magic,” says Dobisz. “If you really give yourself over to the practice, your thinking settles down so much that you click in to the way things are.” As anyone who has done a retreat of any length knows, this doesn’t happen right away. John milton is a longtime practitioner who leads wilderness spiritual retreats and is author of Sky Above, Earth Below: Spiritual Practice in Nature. “It’s the first few days of a retreat,” says milton, “when people face their busy mind and swirling emotions without distractions, that are often the most difficult.” The essence of a retreat is heightened mindful- ness. “When the mind is scattered or distracted,” explains Goldstein, “and we’re struggling to keep bringing it back, it’s very difficult to develop pen- etrating insight. During a long retreat, there comes the deepening power of concentration and atten- tiveness that is necessary for seeing the nature of the mind and the body more deeply, and for open- ing to different levels of insight and understanding. A longer retreat provides the space for people to cultivate this greater focus, which allows us to see more clearly both the obvious and subtle places of attachment. “The Buddha was very straightforward in his teaching: liberation happens through noncling- ing. This is a radical and uncompromising state- ment. But to me it’s also very inspiring – we know what’s necessary. The first step is using the power (top)coreyn.m.Kohn;(Bottom)liBByviGeon