Friday, 8 February 2013

Ordinary Lives - An Autumn Retreat in Sikkim


From 3rd November to 1st December 2012 a group of us had the good fortune to make a retreat at Ringu Tulku’s Bodhicharya Meditation Centre, up on the mountain-side facing Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. There were a fourteen of us, mostly Irish, but with a sprinkling of British, the majority meeting up in Gantok at Rinpoche’s home, the Pomra Hotel, run by his ever-welcoming brother Pema and Pema’s wife Momo, who provided a night’s rest and reassurance for the travel-weary and jet-lagged bunch that we were. Pema has been deeply involved in the BMC since its first major use in 2006 for the long-term three-year retreat that finished in early 2010, and his serene and efficacious contribution to the whole project is inestimable.

Early on the morning of Saturday 3rd the group, complete with luggage and provisions for the first part of the stay, duly pile into two vehicles and set off for the twenty-odd kilometres down to the bottom of the steep hillside on which Gangtok is built, and up the other side, bumping over the potholes, slowing down on the patches of road whose surface had disappeared altogether through either monsoon rains or the serious earthquake that had badly damaged parts of Sikkim and surrounding territory in 2011.As we approach yet another bend in the road the vehicles slow down and stop: this is as far as they will go, as the last part of the journey has to be done on foot. This was a deliberate part of Rinpoche’s planning, isolating the retreat centre from the outside world. 
In practice, it meant that every piece of building material was carried on the backs of local porters in the great labour of constructing the magnificent building, in local Tibetan style, which we discover as the path brings us through the final stand of trees, at this point decorated with a profusion of prayer-flags, and out into the open. 
The Centre, built under Rinpoche’s instructions and through his inspiration for long- and short-term retreats for both groups and individuals, stands in a few acres of what used to be terraced rice-paddy, and has a liberating view of the high mountains above Gangtok. We’re going to get to know these mountains well in the next month, their changing moods as the sun moves around them and the winds bring cloud in and scatter it again. 
The idea to hold a retreat in this auspicious place was a long time brewing, inevitably. Ringu Tulku not only gave his authorisation for the retreat to take place and his blessing for its conduct, but gave us to hope that he would be in residence, at least in Gangok from where he would be accessible, for some of the time. Our much-loved Dónal Creedon, whom most of us knew from retreats he has conducted in Ireland and Britain and elsewhere in Europe and Africa, agreed to lead it. Annie and Eimear set to work on the laborious job of the practicalities of what seemed set to become a major logistics operation, facilitated by the use of the Bodhicharya website, ably managed by the unflappable Paul.
That first evening, the overall programme and timetable were defined by Dónal, as we sat expectantly in the small shrine-room, wondering how it was all going to work out. There, Dónal was quite clear: the outcome of the retreat would be related to our level of practice, and in that respect we should ‘think big’. We were to be centred, focused, but at the same time the spirit of the retreat should be freedom. The time would be divided between guided meditation, walking meditation outdoors when weather permitted, individual practice in the afternoons, and an evening Chenrezi / Metta session as night fell. Letting us in gently, Dónal proposed that the morning until lunchtime should be spent in silence, verbal communication being reserved for the rest of the day. This worked out well, favouring the interior nature of the retreat. The background inspiration to the retreat would be Mahamudra, focusing on a text by the 17th-century Nyingmapa master Tsele Natsok Rangdrol, The Lamp of Mahamudra, a wonderful text containing a distillation of ‘the View’ which would inform all our activities for the next month. Rinpoche had agreed in principle to give teachings on the text, which would be a tremendous bonus. 
As anyone who has been in retreat with Dónal will know, his style is to let the meditation itself be the guide, and not to let words take over: words can never be a substitute for the experience. But in the next few days, he opens us to the idea of meditation as being a way – the way? – of cutting through the root of samsara, illusion, meditation as a way of being in the world. There are two approaches, he tells us: one where effort is required, typified in sitting, prostrations etc., and another which is effortless, which is simply getting away from the busy mind, opening out to what is. Both are present in Mahamudra, and both lead to the natural state, beyond dualism and intrinsic to our being. Natural, yes, but because of the overwhelming accumulation of obscurations over innumerable lives, necessitating practice and patience in its realisation. With practice, we learn to remain in the present, not blocking the thinking process, but when thoughts arise, letting them go, not prolonging them. The effect on disturbing emotions is clear: like waves in the ocean, they inevitably arise, but are dissipated before they can sow karmic seeds for the future. 

At a later stage, when the mind is calm, Dónal will teach us Vipassana practices: how to look at the mind itself; becoming aware of the nature of mind; working towards observing the mind that observes, the central paradox at the heart of this kind of meditation. 
We relax, focused, into the routine, reveling in the exceptional setting to our meditations, the views over the Himalayas that cradle our minds and senses during the daylight hours through a period of exceptionally sunny weather. We hear birds – largely unrecognised and unrecognisable – in the forest surrounding the Centre. We watch the dawn is it creeps up gradually over the mountains, and then suddenly explodes in a burst of light. There are bits of news filtering in from the outside world, but the atmosphere and the concentration are good. 

We are therefore well prepared for the eagerly-awaited arrival of Ringu Tulku, smiling and seemingly relaxed as ever. He goes straight into the text, right to the point, making immediately clear the fundamental nature of the text as it treats of the natural essence of things, beyond definition, beyond being and not-being, emptiness itself. But along with the apparent austerity of emptiness, Rinpoche teaches the great freedom that the View brings, first and foremost a freedom from ignorance. The View is not something that comes to us from the outside, rather the realisation of our fundamental nature that has been there all the time, and it is in this sense that ignorance is dispelled. If I understand the nature of things, then I’m a Buddha; if I don’t, then I’m a sentient being. 

At a later stage in his analysis of this radical text, Rinpoche emphasises that even our perception of change and impermanence is based on an error: things do not in fact change, because to change, a thing must exist independently, whereas it is interdependence that underlies the nature of things. Even to talk about a ‘thing’ is therefore erroneous; concepts do not lead to realisation, however useful they are in the early stages. Rinpoche reminds us of Tilopa’s assertion that ‘Thoughts don’t bind you; it’s grasping that binds you’. In other words, don’t hold on to them: they will pass. When we talk about ‘impermanence’ in our daily perception, the ageing-process etc., this is a kind of ‘gross’ impermanence. The more radical question is ‘When am I not changing?’, since the thinker who asks the question has already changed, and therefore does not ‘exist’ in any independent form.  

In parallel with Dónal, and based on the text, Rinpoche draws us from Shamata, the basic calming of the mind, to Insight, Vipashyana, where the nature of mind is examined, emphasizing at the same time that one is not necessarily a ‘higher’ meditation than the other; that, like everything, they are co-dependent, just a different perspective. As the text says: ‘shamata and vipashyana themselves have no existence other than as an indivisible unity.’  In the same way, the mind is not a ‘thing’, and every statement you can make about it is fabricated by that same mind. The same is true of the ego, that ultimate expression of the grasping mind. Liberation is realising this. 

The first few teachings with Rinpoche are punctuated by his return to Gangtok: he is much in demand, and there are many people needing to see him. But at last he is able to come and stay for a few days – partly by bringing some of these people with him! Notably Zoren, a Bosnian who is doing a translation – into English – of one of Rinpoche’s publications, and who has some previous connection with the BMC, and his wife, Jampa. Also, to our delight, some members of his family, including his irrepressible mother, Ama-la, now in her eighties. We have a further visit in the form of a friend of Rinpoche’s from Ireland, Brian Kennedy, with his wife and daughter, who are going to be in Gangtok, rather unexpectedly, for a few days. And we celebrate a couple of birthdays, those of David and Bernard, with Rinpoche joining in enthusiastically. 

Rumtek Monastery, 
It seemed obvious that, given that we were so close to Rumtek monastery, the seat of the Karmapa (prevented however for essentially political reasons from residing there), we should pay a visit, and this we did, seeing round not only the part of the monastery normally open to visitors, but also the Karmapa’s private apartments, a rare privilege. 

We also went down towards Gangtok, for a brief audience with Dodrup Chen, a high lama in the Nyingma tradition, to receive from him a blessing. As he had been unwell, it was only on the second visit that we were successful in seeing him, but the audience was correspondingly brief. 
During the teachings, there are other, ancillary activities going on. Some people are doing yoga, others tai chi, and a start is made on a new translation of the Yogas of Kalu Rinpoche. Retreatants are taking advantage of the freedom of the situation to deepen their regular practice. It is indeed exhilarating to be able to work uninterrupted and unconstrained by everyday concerns and the outside world. But what is the future of the BMC? It’s a question that, for the moment, even Rinpoche is unable to answer. As a long-term retreat centre for Westerners, it cannot operate at present, given all the constraints on permits imposed by officialdom. A retreat centre for Indian nationals, monks or nuns or indeed lay practioners, seems a possibility, more viable than drawing it into the area of ‘spiritual tourism’, given its difficulty of access. On the other hand, regional developments indicate some possibility of an entrance closer to a new road system. We shall see.
In the meantime, sincere gratitude is due to Ringu Tulku Rinpoche for allowing the retreat to take place, and for sharing so freely his wisdom and compassion; to Dónal for his expert direction, at once so gentle and so demanding, and to Annie and Eimear for bringing the whole thing together for what was, by common consent, an exceptional experience.

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.

 Pat Little.  February 2013

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