The annual retreat of Bodhicharya Ireland was held, as has become habitual, in this well-situated and welcoming house belonging to the Holy Ghost Congregation, near Navan in Co. Meath. Seventeen
The silence began as we retired for the night, and continued until midday the following day; a fruitful silence, however, which, while stilling the chatter, allowed the present moment to become full and vibrant. With such an approach, everyday activities such as eating become practices in themselves. Not that the ‘chatter’ could be any less rewarding, and the exchanges over meals and during rest periods allowed us to get to know each other better and were, for the new members of the group, an essential way to feel included.
Walking in the woodland park that surrounds the lake, one of the joys of ‘An Tobar’, partook also of this dual function: sometimes it was a venue for the walking meditation which formed an optional part of every meditation session, sometimes an occasion for personal exchange. The wildlife – birds, small animals – was a source of delight, featuring in the literary productions which were a notable by-product of this retreat.
The introductory session on the first evening went straight to the point, as Dónal presented the journey of enquiry into our own minds that was the purpose of our coming together. Particularly in the Mahamudra and Dzogchen, he told us, the central issue is the nature of the self; if we understand the nature of mind, we cut through the ignorance that is our samsaric condition. The goal is the realisation of the natural state, unfabricated, and the flowering of our natural goodness, which is the true meaning of being human. It is not a question of achieving a state that is fundamentally different from what we are, but rather realising what is there already. Such a state is true liberation, and depends only on our minds, on the way we interpret our experiences, which we normally interpret as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
At this point Dónal also explained briefly the purpose of the ‘Dialogue’ sessions which would take place every evening. Essentially, these were to be an exploration of questions that concern us – in this case, given the overall theme of the retreat, we would explore firstly the question of ‘hurt’ – without pre-judgement or reference to previous knowledge or to outside authority. This approach is not separate from meditation, in fact: in Dialogue, I just look, without preconceptions regarding the object of my looking; in insight meditation, I proceed without previous knowledge of what I’m contemplating. It’s the same uncontrived movement from complexity to simplicity.
The following day, Dónal established the routine that was to become our daily journey for the following six days: at 6.45am, an hour’s personal meditation before breakfast, then the rest of the day split into sessions, each of one-and-a-half hour’s duration, where one half-hour was usually dedicated to walking meditation. During the first session, Dónal went through the basics: the importance of posture – without letting this become an obsession, simply acknowledging the intimate association of mind and body – and then the essentials of meditation which he defined as something ultimately very simple:
Don’t follow thought of the past
Don’t invite thoughts about the future
Just rest with the present.
He emphasised that it is not a question of suppressing thoughts, rather of not following them. We must be aware of thoughts when they arise, but then rest naturally with them. To aid focussing the attention, the meditator can either concentrate on the whole body, resting naturally with whatever comes up, or on the breath, not seeking to change it in any way
That is the first (‘shiné’) stage of meditation, but ‘first’ only in the sense that until your mind is quiet, you can have no hope of seeing it truly as it is. There is then a second stage, ‘lhaktong’, or ‘insight’, where the meditator examines the thoughts or phenomena that have arisen. What does it mean to ‘rest the mind’? During this stage, it is important not to try and draw conclusions, or define the thoughts. You must just look at your experience, without altering it. And look at the resting mind, framing the question ‘What is this mind? How is it? What is happening to it?’ If the mind is confused, don’t judge, just note that fact.
In this approach to meditation, the Mahamudra, thought is thus not something to be banished, and the arising of thoughts is not to be looked on as failure. Rather, thoughts are to be harnessed as part of the process of looking at the mind. You work with what is there. Lest there were a danger of our thinking becoming solidified, however, Dónal gave us a teaching one afternoon on the Heart Sutra, the ‘Essence of Transcendent Knowledge’, in which Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezi), speaking for the Buddha, gives Shariputra a teaching on emptiness and the interdependence of all phenomena.
In the course of the week, during the meditation sessions as well as outside of them, we endeavoured to put into practice these precepts and principles, realising that ultimately each person was on his or her own, and that the Path was a matter of experience, not the following of codified rules of practice. Interestingly, however, the set routine for each day helped rather than hindered this openness of approach.
After the meditation sessions, tea, and then Dialogue. Discussion of this kind, without reference to outside authority, previous personal experience or anecdote, without looking for a remedy to what would normally be looked on as a problem, or even a conclusion to the discussion, is more difficult than you might think; the mundane mind’s need for clarity of purpose, a road-map and the sense of having arrived (or not) at the destination is sometimes overwhelming. But these were useful exchanges, if only that they demonstrated the multifarious ways in which the mind works, and the numerous subterfuges it adopts to try and dig itself unsuccessfully out of a hole.
Then, after supper, Chenrezi or Metta practice, both devoted to the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion, in which the bringing to mind of known individuals going through particularly acute suffering, and thence to the whole universe of beings, prevented the moment from becoming inward-looking.
On the last evening, after Chenrezi, we sat round informally for a sing-song, which included the reading and reciting of texts, either published or springing immediately from the week’s experiences together. It was apparent that the atmosphere had been conducive to creative effort, the fruits of which were always relevant and enjoyable, sometimes humorous, sometimes more sober and reflective. A fitting end to the retreat.
For a truly inspirational week, we would like to thank the Holy Ghost Congregation for their welcome; Annie, Eimear and Eddie for the efficiency of their organisation of all practical details; the alchemist-in-the-kitchen Colette whose ability to turn disparate ingredients into delicious and sustaining meals never ceased to amaze; and most of all Dónal for sharing his wisdom with us with such generosity of spirit, for his constant encouragement, and for guiding us patiently on the Path.
May all beings have happiness.