The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Solitary Retreat: Advice from the Rimé Masters of Tibet

by Holly Gayley
November 8, 2017
Wed, 11/08/2017 - 13:08 -- Holly Gayley

I pay homage to the benevolent root guru.

Generally, as the basis for practicing the sublime Dharma, there are two approaches: that of the householder and that of the renunciate. According to the first, the method for leaders as well as subordinates and ordinary people is to maintain their own household without contravening the path of Dharma. This is done by relying on the five foundations of comportment and the seven foundations of merit-making based on material goods. Although there are numerous such methods for attaining provisions for this world and the next, now is not the occasion to elaborate.

The second is the method for renunciates. Whether you are a novice or a fully ordained monastic, first and foremost exert yourself in studying: taking in worthy counsel and guarding it with great diligence. Even though there are general topics of knowledge—such as grammar, poetry, and astrology—in this short life during degenerate times, to be distracted by minutiae of this sort is akin to birds pecking at tiny bits of grain while a pile of feed slips away and is lost.

What is the essential point to grasp—solely and unmistakably—on the complete path to enlightenment? You need to obtain the unbroken blessings of the Dharma transmission traced to our teacher, the Buddha. It is not sufficient to read books alone. Rely on a master and thoroughly clarify your doubts regarding the instructions.

Then, without casting about and chasing after outwardly oriented knowledge, you should one-pointedly hold steady to practice and take to heart what you’ve learned. Don’t waste your life on misdeeds like appeasing corrupt associates and saving face amid turmoil. Don’t waste your life on the triad of enmity, contention, and spite. Don’t waste your life on commerce and agriculture, plans and projects, nor on the round of endless gossip.

Doing all that, the opportunity for even one day of genuine practice won’t arise! So remove yourself from such clamor and remain in solitude. Even so, if when residing in solitary retreat you spend your time in carefree distraction, idle at leisure, doing whatever comes to mind, you’re no different from a herder reclining on a mountain slope. For that reason you must constantly train yourself in the four thoughts that turn the mind. If you’re distracted even for a moment, wavering between a Dharmic view and non-Dharmic thoughts, spur yourself to regain a sense of urgency. Without prior training, you’ll only generate a fickle hair-tip of renunciation—which at times arises even though you’re not meditating, and at times doesn’t arise even when meditating. For renunciation to be reliable and arise when needed, contemplate the four thoughts that turn the mind according to explanations from oral discourses and the textual tradition.

Each morning, forge the intention: “Today, instead of performing ordinary activities in this hermitage, I will sustain only my spiritual practice.” If you have Dharmic thoughts within a practice session but negative states of mind arise in the break between sessions, you’ll make no progress and gradually grow insensitive. Instead consistently cultivate mindfulness, examining yourself at all times and never forgetting the continuity of your spiritual practice.

In that way, maintain tremendous exertion. With excessive effort, however, you may get fed up and not want to stay in retreat. For this reason you should know how to engender diligence like a lute string that remains tight but relaxed. Occasionally listening to or reading the life stories of various past masters will enhance your diligence. For inspiration, read the life stories of the founding fathers of the Kagyü lineage such as Jetsun Milarepa, the lineage masters of Shijé and Nyungné, and the heart-essence lineage of Dzokchen, the Great Perfection.

Vowing to emulate the masters, each evening assess whether your spiritual practice improved or deteriorated on that day. Enumerate your faults to yourself if your practice seems to be deteriorating and ardently forge the intention: “Tomorrow won’t go this way.” If your practice is improving, reflect that this has occurred on the basis of solitary retreat, and eventually you’ll take delight in solitude. Recall the kindness of the three Jewels and seal the day with pure aspiration.

If you assume the appearance of a recluse and adept, you may become tainted by arrogance. Holding others in contempt and belittling them, you may hope for people to admire you and show off whatever good qualities you’ve developed. Even if no realization arises, you may still wish to teach the Dharma. Not achieving meditative heat, you may exhibit inappropriate and crass behavior. Far from accomplishing the Dharma, this is the cause of demon possession. For this reason, hide your yogic conduct like a treasure underground or like a fire beneath a pit of ashes.

Generally, by turning the mind toward the Dharma, Dharma does progress along the path. Relying on the kindness of the lamas and three Jewels, it’s vital to always make an effort to offer supplications and rouse devotion, to purify obstacles to realization through confession and the four powers, and to cultivate favorable conditions through the many methods of accumulation.

By grasping the pith of the pragmatic instructions, and by engaging whole-heartedly in practice in solitary retreat, gradually corrupted views will diminish, and the pure, uncorrupted view will grow stronger and stronger. That is called “taming the mind.” Apart from taming the mind, there is no other point to such instructions. According to the eminent master Nāgārjuna:

What more to say to one free from fear?
The point of beneficial instructions is this:
Tame your mind! The Bhagavan stated:
“The mind is the root of Dharma.” 

Once the root of Dharma is firmly planted through going for refuge and contemplating the four thoughts that turn the mind, you should train by holding the twofold bodhicitta—the heart of the general path of Mahāyāna—as the main point of practice. There’s no point in me writing something brief and makeshift here about the method to do so; you should already know in detail from the Way of the Bodhisattva, the Great Chariot: A Treatise on the Great Perfection, and Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation.

Specifically, if you engage in yogic practices of the uncommon method to meditate on ultimate bodhicitta—namely, the Great Seal and the Great Perfection—you must hold the foundational empowerment and tantric vow of samaya. Then put into practice the discourses of past masters—scholars and adepts—and the elixir of speech of an experienced lama regarding the introduction to these: the divisions into view, meditation, and action; the removal of hindrances and enhancement of practice; and so forth. By doing so, before long the qualities of the paths and stages will quickly blossom like a sprout in summer.

According to the request made in a letter and accompanied by a present, sent om a descendant of the Yilhung Lharu family with sublime qualities and mag- nanimous character named Karma Ngedön Chökyi Gyatso, I hope this personal advice will also benefit a few others who strive to acquire it. Although I myself, Jikmé Tenpai Nyima, have no experience practicing the Dharma, this is written as mere drops om the stream of speech of those sublime accomplished masters who brought the Dharma into experience, such as the bodhisattva Śāntideva.

May it be supremely virtuous! Virtue! Virtue! Bhavantu śubha!

Translation from the Third Dodrupchen, Jikmé Tenpai Nyima, excerpted from A Gathering of Brilliant Moons by Holly Gayley.

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