The Benefit of Retreat
The Emanated Scripture of Manjushri includes twenty-three pieces of advice from Shabkar (1781–1851), teacher both of the Mind-Training and the Dzogchen traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. In this work, Shabkar shares what he believes to be the essentials of spiritual practice. In this particular section, Shabkar illuminates the importance of retreat and how it can increase our awareness.
My disciple Wongpo, a local chief, one who is rich with the jewels of the aryas, asked me to tell him the benefit of dwelling in lonely mountainous retreats. He went on:
Recollection of impermanence and the drawbacks of samsara,
Coupled with the understanding that all beings have been my parents,
Has led me to strongly desire to become Buddha—for the benefit of both all others and myself.
To this effect, I have relied upon a qualified guru and received and contemplated his vast and profound teachings.
Now to cut the fetters of this life and live up to the reputation of a hermit!
Youthful white clouds gather around the mountain’s peak, while silvery mist gathers at its waist.
A mother deer and her fawn dance joyfully upon the grassy meadows that lie beautified with flowers, at the foot.
Bees busily buzz their songs, and birds happily dive and soar.
In joyous places such as these, pleasure groves of isolated mountain solitude, awareness is clear.
You can live alone like the rishis of old,
Meditate on the profound and vast teachings,
And actualize the twofold benefit of self and other in this very life.
Perfect guru, most precious, pray grant those of us who seek to
emulate you, your praises of isolated places such as these.
Bless us that we might follow your example and dwell in
mountainous retreats, practice well, and awaken in exact accord with the Dharma.
I replied, “The compounded, mundane phenomena of samsara appear as if a drama, or the celestial cities of gandharvas. Reflecting on their changing, impermanent, and momentary nature causes a great sadness. In particular, the three cyclic worlds are, in and of themselves, the nature of suffering; you’ll not find a needle tip’s worth of enduring happiness there. Recognizing this will cause revulsion and renunciation to naturally arise within you in such a way that you’ll never forget them.
“This, in turn, will inspire you to seek out and roam in isolated hills, valleys, and forests with a resolve that would remain unmoved should you be offered even the pleasure grove of a sovereign monarch covered in a latticework of the finest jewels, or enticed with promises of beautiful houses, high thrones, the finest silken clothes to wear, and the best teas and finest wines with which to pass the time.
“Having partaken of the teachings, the desires and rejections of the eight worldly concerns are enough to make you sick to your stomach.
“Completely reject any notion or clinging to the idea of anything as real, and wishes for the pleasures of samsara will not arise—not even for a moment.
“Just as when, for example, a man is caught in the midday sun, he will inevitably be tormented and parched. He will desperately seek water to quench his thirst, and once found, he will drink his fill.
“Similarly, having thought long and hard about birth, death, and the faults of samsara, mental anguish consumes the contemplative. It leads him to desperately seek a qualified guru. Having found one, he will immediately quench his torment with the continual study and contemplation of the vast and profound nectar of the oral instructions. Satisfied, he will strive hard to achieve complete and perfect buddhahood for the sake of all pitiful, parent sentient beings.
“To this effect, a contemplative will seek out mountains whose peaks are ornamented in youthful white clouds, where the sun rises early in the morning and sets long into the evening—providing a long day full of light. He will seek out a place of nature, of unspoiled beauty, where clear water cascades down falls of white rock, offering cool refreshment, and groves full of lovely sounds, where foliage and trees, beautified with flowers and laden with fruit, are swayed by cool, scented breezes. If seen from afar, they seem to move in great swaying motions, waving their branches as if calling practitioners to them.
“While pursuing meditative absorption in such places, it is said to be important to keep the body completely still. Periodically the hermit should arrange his seat outside, covering the ground with piles of fresh and old tree leaves, in an environment filled with scented wildflowers. These youthful blooms of such extreme beauty cannot help but bring a smile; they are the cloud banks of offerings that delight meditators.
“Bees intoxicated on pollen nectar bumble around in these flowers. Happily buzzing about, they provide a pleasant melody.
“The sun naturally illuminates the forest ground where beautiful green shoots and grasses can clearly be seen gleaming like lapis and turquoise. Many herbivorous animals can also be seen, eating shoots and playing in joyful abandon, while overhead, birds of varying sizes fly about and sing their pleasant songs. Such a place is divine indeed, as if a pleasure grove of the heavens had been transported here to earth.
“To take as few as seven steps toward such a pleasant, isolated retreat, one is said to amass great merit. The Sutra of Dawa Dronme states:
Having gone forth from the householder’s life, what conduct should be adopted? Give up your obsession with food, drinks, perfumes, clothes, scented flowers and their garlands, and trying to please those in powerful positions. Bring the decaying nature of everything composite to mind and set your sights on buddhahood. Motivated thus, to take just seven steps toward a hermitage will being about extraordinary merit.
Likewise, another sutra states:
Thinking of retreat and taking seven steps in the direction of a hermitage will cause great merit and propel you to the level of a seventh-ground bodhisattva.
“When young, we spent time listening to and pondering the sublime Dharma. Now that we are a little older, it’s time to consider retreats in rocky meadows, in dense groves surrounded by thorny bushes, where the branches of flowery trees such as the tamarisk make an interwoven lattice within which birds make their nests. At the feet of such trees, shy animals such as rabbits and deer can rest and sleep without any cause for concern.
Bees intoxicated on pollen nectar bumble around in these flowers. Happily buzzing about, they provide a pleasant melody.
“In winter, face south, as the sun’s rays are stronger there, and in summer try to stay cool; awareness is vivid at these times. “Make sure that you have an easy supply of firewood, water, and other necessities. In these lonely and delightful places, it can be very comfortable to live in a little wooden hut. Reflect how the sages of the past had the fortune to dwell alone and you’ll be very happy. The Sutra of Individual Liberation says:
After having received much instruction, to then spend your years living purely in forest retreats is comfort indeed.
Another sutra reads:
Whosoever dwells in forest retreats will know true joy, as a virtuous life such as this is extremely pleasant.
“Taking care of family and friends, subduing enemies, commerce, farming, and so on, is all very distracting. As is a position in the local town or monastic administration, despite the merit you may make.
“Such distraction isn’t a problem if you dwell in a place such as this—the navel of the world, the self-arisen crystal stupa of the great and snowy Mount Kailash, a great mountain whose peak is hidden in white clouds that gently scatter flower-shaped snowflakes. It has the appearance of an open, white parasol. Its sides and slopes are filled with potent medicinal herbs, sweet-smelling incenses, myriad flowers, antelopes, and various kinds of birds such as the divine mountain birds, white grouse, and so on, which continually fly about. Devout pilgrims make their devotions, circumambulations, offerings, prostrations, and so forth, at the foot of the mountain, where you find all the necessities for a successful pilgrimage. It is an extraordinary place of solitude. In places such as these even sleep is very meaningful! Chengawa Lodro Gyaltsen once said:
With extensive merit gathered from distracting circumstance, to so much as even sleep in such isolation will bring great joy! The ocean of suffering and the ocean of bliss—don’t get carried away by the wrong one, O child of the Sakyas.
Je Kalden Gyatso said:
A single act of virtue accomplished in isolated retreat is worth a hundred done with distraction. Having gone into retreat, exert yourself in virtue!
“Should an ordinary person retire to such a place of isolation—where trees are in bloom and laden with fruit, with falls, streams, and grassy meadows with sweet-smelling flowers, where the environment provides sweet foods and potent herbs, where wild animals and birds frolic and play together and sing sweetly to one another without the slightest fear, where there are mountains and valleys blessed by the sublime masters of the past, where awareness is naturally clear—and, inspired by the biographies of the masters of the past, sacrifice having good food, clothing, and pleasant conversation, and have the fortune to sit in a little meditation cabin and earnestly apply himself to practice the instructions received from his master, he will awaken in this very life, in this very body. A sutra reads:
In the past those who would achieve nirvana retreated to isolated hermitages and there found enlightenment.
The omniscient Longchen Rabjam wrote:
It is said that the qualities of the buddhas and accomplished ones of the past came from their seclusion. Therefore, I seek mountain retreats.
“Sublime ones have ever practiced only in dense forests such as these, very far from the busyness of the city. Animals wander freely in these beautiful and inspiring places, and, after winters thaw, pure water cascades and flows in abundance, flowers bloom, and various types of bird gather to sing their beautiful songs as they bath and drink in clear, cool pools. Medicinal herbs and fruit of all kinds grow in abundance, each with its own color, taste, and smell; grass is very green and soft, and plenty of trees will offer shade. Aspire and make prayers to go forth from the time-consuming affairs of your life and have the fortune to practice alone here. Shantideva said:
When shall I come to dwell in forests?
Among the deer, birds, and trees that say nothing unpleasant and are a delight to be with.
The Thoughts of Seven Girls reads:
May I come to experience the joy of spending my days in the cool shade of a tree, sitting on a mat of soft fresh grass.
The victorious Kalsang Gyatso said:
People like us should make a heartfelt determination, and pray to be free from the fetters of desire, aspiring to the contemplation and meditation of Dharma in pleasant solitary groves.
Panchen Lobsang Chogyi Gyaltsen said:
Just as wild geese strain their eyes, anticipating finding wish-fulfilling pools beautified with garlands of lotuses,
Similarly, we should long for the pleasures of solitude from the very depths of our hearts.
Jetsun Kalden Gyatso said:
To aspire and pray to adopt the solitary conduct of a rishi is far better than staying with a few good friends in a pleasant, extremely solitary, mountain retreat.
Jetsun Sakya Rinchen said:
Sit amid the flowers in forested meadows; peace of mind is found in such wooded dwellings. A great and joyful bliss is won through practicing single-pointed meditation here—the likes of which isn’t experienced even in the pleasure groves of the heavens. Dwelling in lonely wilds without tiredness or fatigue, give up all thoughts of quarreling, aggression, stupidity, attachments, and any other mistaken ideas that bring you misery. Decide that you’ll stay alone.
A single act of virtue accomplished in isolated retreat is worth a hundred done with distraction. Having gone into retreat, exert yourself in virtue!
“As followers of these past masters, we should hurry to these heavenly mountains whose peaks stretch to the heavens. Brilliant white clouds, like parasols and banners, beautify their shoulders, fog and mist of a silver shade fall around and enwrap their bodies like a curtain, and at their feet are divine green meadows, lush, beautiful, and filled with flowers. The grazing animals of nomads wander throughout the surrounding hills, and herds of wild deer, antelope, and other lovely wild animals freely roam. The tops of the leafy trees are filled with cuckoos, nightingales, and other beautiful birds, all chirping away pleasantly to one another. In the springtime, the younger birds will try to attract a mate and draw her out of her hiding in the deep forest dwelling with enchanting love songs, while bees happily intoxicated on flower nectar buzz around as they gather pollen. Cool waters fall, gurgling down the mountainside, sounding like the joy of a celestial maiden. If hot, go to the sides of the mountain and indulge in the pleasantly cooling waves of the divine fan, cool air that rises and brings sensations of great bliss.
“It has been said time and time again: retire to lonely places of abundance such as these and practice the sublime Dharma. The Moon Lamp Sutra reads:
Give up the delights of towns and villages, and always rely upon
the solitude of the forest. Remain alone, like a rhinoceros, and
before too long you will win the supreme meditation.
Stay far away from places that disturb your mind, and remain in
places conducive to virtue. Until stability is won, remain alone
in the woodlands; places of distraction are harmful to practice.
The Precious Lord wrote:
Swarms of bees fly about the myriad flowers that carpet the meadows,
their pleasant buzzing is heard from afar. Live as a vagabond;
rely upon and awaken in sublime retreats such as these.
How wonderful! Those with faith who desire buddhahood,
having perfectly entered the highest, greatest secret should enter into
retreat by themselves and seize the dharmakaya citadel.
Gyalse Togme wrote:
When unfavorable places are given up, destructive emotions naturally fade.
Without distraction, positive action increases and, as awareness becomes clearer,
confidence in the Dharma grows. It is a bodhisattva’s practice to rely on solitude.
Child, if you are able to endure the hardships of solitary ascetic
practice and live like the sages of old, my work will have been worthwhile.
“Looking at the biographies of the masters of the past, we should strive to emulate them, live in accord with their vajra words, and cut the entanglements that completely ensnare us in the worldly affairs of this life. Live in the mountain solitudes that the sublime masters of the past have praised so highly, wear tattered clothes, eat the worst food, and, above all, practice day and night the vast and profound instructions received from your guru.
Having thought about birth, death, and the sufferings of samsara, seek out a qualified guru.
Serve at his feet and receive his instruction—both vast and profound.
Then, motivated by a wish to awaken, to become Buddha for the sake of all beings,
seek out mountain solitude.
Leave for the tall mountains whose peaks are clad in white cloud,
A place of nature where clean drinking water cascades down rocky falls,
Becoming gentle streams that seem to chatter as they gurgle freely along,
And where foliage and trees, beautified with flowers and laden with fruit,
Move in great swaying motions, when roused by cool, scented breezes.
Waving their arms, they call, ‘Come and practice meditation here!’
Retire to lonely places of abundance and practice the sublime Dharma.
It is said that when meditating, should you wish to sit very still, go to a still place.
Here the hermit lays out his cushion, covering the ground with leaves
and twigs, and arranges offerings of fresh, scented flowers to fill the environment.
Bees intoxicated with pollen and nectar bob and dive about, buzzing
their little tunes,
Beautiful animals frolic and rest upon the soft green grass,
While birds dip and dive among the branches of the trees, singing their pleasant songs.
Such pleasing and isolated groves, rich and abundant, are like heaven
To take seven steps toward one is to accrue great merit,
To stay in one will bring happiness, well-being, and renown,
And to stay and practice there will bring buddhahood.
Fortunate disciples of my heart, let us live in accordance with the
masters of the past,
Disentangle and detach ourselves from worldly concerns,
And retreat to pleasing places where awareness becomes clearer.
Let’s take just the bare necessities and leave everything else behind,
And spend our days and nights exerting ourselves in the practice of
the vast and profound instructions we have received!”
Shabkar (1781–1851) was a renowned practitioner and teacher both of the Mind-Training and the Dzogchen traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. He was a free spirit who chose to live as a hermit or wandering pilgrim without home or possessions, far from the organized life of religious establishments. Learn more.
Sean Price became a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in 1994 and has since studied at various monastic institutes in India and Nepal; he has resided at Shechen Monastery, Nepal, since 1999. He has translated numerous Mahamudra and Dzogchen texts and has worked at the Tsadra Foundation as Director of Tibetan Publications since 2009. Learn more.