Sometimes the world is overwhelming and you just need a retreat. When people usually think of a retreat, usually we imagine spending thousands of dollars, staying at some exotic location, drinking organic tea, while learning at the feet of a high-priced guru.
In reality, most of us can’t do that. I would even question how useful that is in the long-run. The experience might change you, but wait a few weeks (or even a few days) and you’ll be back to your old situation.
Instead, a retreat, especially in a Buddhist context is more about withdrawing from the world here and now. The 12th century Japanese-Buddhist monk, and chief disciple of Honen, named Benchō (弁長, 1162 – 1238) once said:
People maintain that the best place for a life of retirement is the Kokawa Temple or Mount Koya. But as for me, there is nothing to compare with the bed from which I rise every morning.
Such a tradition goes back even as far as the time of the Buddha himself. When the monsoon rains came, crops were young and easily trampled by wandering bhikkhu (monks) begging for alms. The Buddha, conscious of how this might impact farmers, ordered his monks to stay indoors for the duration of the monsoon, focus on intensive training, and avoid bothering the lay community.
Thus, this “Rains Retreat” has been a part of the Buddhist tradition since. The idea has carried onto cultures that don’t have monsoonal seasons (Korea and Japan), in the form of intensive retreats, usually in early summer and early winter. Not only do monks and nuns participate, but in fact lay tradition usually has something to coincide with it, similar to the Christian tradition of Lent.
Thus, the idea of retreat in Buddhism is not a vacation. It’s about making a conscious effort to withdraw from the world, even partially, where you are now, and take your practice above and beyond the usual for a sustained period of time. It’s about fostering mental training and self-discipline in a conductive environment. This can mean something simple like turning off your phone for as little as a few hours a day, limiting meat consumption, chanting a bit more than usual, etc.
Based on limited experience, I found it best to plan ahead what the home retreat will look like and be realistic. For example, I am a working parent with two kids, so there are big limitations to what I can do. Pick a reasonable schedule, a reasonable duration, and try to decide ahead of time what the retreat will look like, rather than deciding on the fly (as I sometimes did). “Don’t move the goalpost,” in other words.
Even as a busy parent, there are things still under my control: how I spend my spare time, how I treat others, what I choose to eat, etc. The Five Hindrances affect us all regardless of who we are, but we can also counteract them one way or another.
Thus if doing a retreat, it’s important to stretch yourself a bit beyond your comfort zone. Otherwise, nothing is gained from it. The Buddha in explaining this to a monk named Sona, used the analogy of lute strings:
“In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the [five] faculties [to that], and there pick up your theme.”AN 6.55, the Sona Sutta, translated by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu
As I am writing this in the deep of Summer, what the Japanese calendar used to call taisho (大暑, “great heat”), I’ve decided to take my own semi-retreat for the rest of August. I wanted to observe the summer abstinence, but almost entirely missed this, and after hectic work schedule in July, I felt like taking some time off and refocusing on things that matter most. So, I’ll be trying the abstinence again, but with a few modifications. I’ll talk more about it after I get back.
In the meantime, I have some posts that will be published throughout August that I hope you’ll enjoy. Until September, thanks and happy summer!