Three Year Retreat

The following article is from the Winter, 1997 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.


An Interview with


On April 18,1996 the gates closed for a Tibetan Buddhist three-year, three-month, three-day retreat in Mendocino County, California. This retreat sponsored by Kagyu Droden Kunchab is being led by Venerable Lama Lodu Rinpoche. The following interview took place in August, 1996. The interviewer is Deborah Price Janke.

Question: Rinpoche, when I talked to some of the people going into three-year retreat I was amazed at their joyit was as though they had won the lottery. Yet, for most Americans the idea of being sequestered and engaging in rigorous meditation practice for three years is not a very entertaining prospect, so where does their joy come from?

Lama Lodu Rinpoche: The people you met had been students of the Buddha/ Dharma for many years. They had listened again and again to the teachings and over time through practice their experience was transformed from an intellectual understanding to a genuine understanding. So they view three-year retreat as an opportunity to free themselves from suffering and realize perfect Buddhahood to benefit sentient beings. Although many Americans have heard the same teachings and have even practiced what they've heard, their karmic relationship with three-year retreat is not as strong as the people you met. The retreatants had some past-life connection with three-year retreat, had followed the lineage, and had practiced. This familiarity gave them the feeling of coming home rather than of being imprisoned in the retreat.

Q: Could you please tell us the nature of this particular three-year retreat you started in Mendocino County.

LLR: Actually, all three-year retreats are essentially the same but each school has unique traditions, unique ways to transmit and practice. Our Mendocino retreat follows the tradition of the Shangpa/Kagyu lineagethe lineage holder being His Holiness Kalu Rinpoche. So we are following in his foot steps.

Q: What is the Shangpa/Kagyu lineage?

LLR: Shang is a region not far from Lhasa. The founder of this lineage practiced in that area. He built a big monastery there and gathered many accomplished students. So the lineage Shangpa/Kagyu comes from Shangpa, the region, and Kagyu which means oral tradition.

Q: Who was the founder of the Shangpa/Kagyu lineage?

LLR: The founder of the Shangpa/ Kagyu lineage was the Tibetan great master Khungpo Naljor. Although he had 150 teachers, his root guru, his principal guru was Niguma, Wisdom Dakini, who received teachings directly from Vajradhara/Dorje Chang. Another female guru of Khungpo Naljor was Sukkasiddhi-who also fully transformed the ripening Karmic body to Wisdom body and was a great accomplished Mahasiddha. He also received teachings from the great Mahasiddhas, Rahula Gupta, and Maitrepa. Those four were his root gurus. Among them, however, Niguma, was the most important guru for him, for his realization. He lived in India for 50 years studying, learning, practicing. After 50 years he returned to Tibet to spread the Dharma. At that point he was 100 years old, and had almost 100,000 students who had accomplished true enlightenment.

For seven generations from Niguma to Sangye Tonpa these Shangpa/Kagyu teachings were a whispered transmission passed from one teacher to one perfect disciple. At the end of seven generations Sangye Tonpa's disciple, Tsultrim Gompo, compiled the teachings into a text which is now available throughout the world. Whoever is connected karmically can receive them. And of course Tsultrim Gompo was an incarnation of Khungpo Naljor himself.

Q: What qualifies a person to enter three-year retreat? Is it just a matter of requesting permission?

LLR: Well, if someone comes and just expresses the wish to participate I probably would not allow it since they do not know the teachings and the lineage, do not know me as a teacher, which could create many obstacles as well as confusion and misunderstanding. And also if I don't know them, don't understand them, I won't know how to teach them. So the knowledge has to be on both sides. The people presently on retreat have known and.studied with me for 12-13 years.

Q: In glancing through Jamgon Kongtrul's retreat manual, it said even if you have just a flash of disrespect or doubt of the teacher, this can create great obstacles for one's retreat.

LLR: Definitely.

Q: Wimt did he mean by that?

LLR: Well, the teacher is the one delivering, transmitting the teachings of the Buddha. These teachings can bring enlightenment. If one distrusts the teacher, one defiles the teachings. If a doctor gives medicine to cure your illness and you don't listen how to administer this medicine, what to eat and not to eat while taking the medicine, if you ignore his instructions, the medicine meant to cure you could kill you. This is analogous to the retreatant's relationship with the teacher. The teachings are coming from the Buddha but one is receiving them from a human teacher. Three-year retreats follow the Vajrayana system and in the Vajrayana the teacher is the Buddha, the one who gives realization. So anything the teacher teaches must be received respectfully with confidence. Without this confidence the teachings are poisoned and one will not be able to accomplish what one wishes to accomplish.

Q: One thing that seems to awe people who hear about three-year retreats is the rigorous routine retreatants experi.ence. For example, getting up at 3:00 a.m., and sleeping sitting up. Do people get used to these practices?

LLR: The physical obstacles are not so difficult for people. After one week people have no problem with fewer hours of sleep. After several weeks the pain of sitting cross legged is overcome. The physical obstacles are not the problem; physical problems we can control. Mental problems are more difficult to control. It is very difficult to discipline the mind. No matter how much discipline you have, when a thought comes you have no power to stop it, unless you can employ very powerful effective techniques to cut off those thoughts.

Q: Are these techniques only available to people on three-year retreat?

LLR: People outside three-year retreat have no time to employ these techniques. First of all you have to tame your mind, make your mind soft and gentle, and then you can utilize more active techniques. Without this taming of the mind the techniques are not useful, and could even bring lots of difficulties. It is not so much that people outside three-year retreats cannot learn or be given these techniques it is just they have no time to apply them. They have to make a living, there are lots of distractions, and this type of distracted mind is not good for the profound teachings you learn in three-year retreat. Also during three-year retreats the teachings are given in sequence, not all at once. When one teaching is complete an-other is introduced.

Q: What kind of obstacles are faced by people on three-year retreat?

LLR: At the beginning they face the obstacles of being away for the first time from the samsaric world. When one is on three-year retreat one is really cut off from samsara which at first makes people uneasy, and depressed. But actually by experiencing these emotions one learns more, one is taught more, and then gradually one settles down.

Q: So the afflictions are helpful. But how do you use them?

LLR: Outside three-year retreat these afflictions make one more afflicted. But in three-year retreat the afflictions deepen our understanding of the teachings because one has time to consider the afflictions, watch them carefully.

Q: Before going on three-year retreat people must have coynpleted Ngondro, and yet is it. true that they begin these practices again from scratch after they go in?

LLR: For the first seven days they do the Vajrakilya practice to remove the obstacles from the path. Then they go to Ngondro practice-normal preliminary practice: prostration, Vajrasattva mantra, Mandala offering, and Guru Yoga for six months. After that, particular to this lineage, they do Milarepa guru yoga practice for a month. After that, Seven Point Mind Training for one month, then Calm Abiding practice, and Insight practice, and then they go to the Four Deities practice, and so on.

Q: All of this is taught in Tibetan, all the texts are in Tibetan?

LLR: It has to be Tibetan. There are no translations.

Q: So in order to participate in three-year retreat you have to have a good reading and writing knowledge of Tibetan?

LLR: It is very helpful if you are ready for itreading, writing and understanding Tibetan is very helpful.

Q: Are there still whispered transmissions?

LLR: Although whispered transmissions are now written down those who can receive them must still be chosen. The teacher has to know the student is ready to receive them. So it is not the student's decision. These whispered transmissions are still veiy secret. Recently, for example, we gave an empowerment to 15-20 people. Certainly if this teaching had been open to the public thousands would have attended but it was limited to a select group of students we knew well who may go into three-year retreat in the future.

Q: Are you speaking of the Five Golden Dharmas?

LLR: Yes.

Q: What is the significance of these Five Golden Dharmas to the three-year retreat?

LLR: The Five Golden Dharmas are the main body of the Shangpa/Kagyu lineage transmission. They express the Shangpa/Kagyu practice in five different categories which together create the image of a tree. So the root of the Shangpa/Kagyu practice is the Six Yogas of Niguma: 1. heat yoga, 2. illusory yoga, 3. dream yoga, 4. clear-light yoga, 5. Bardo, and 6. Powa. The trunk of the tree is Mahamudra. This Mahamudra practice is called Chag-chen Ghauma, the Mahamudra of Amulet.

Q: Why is it called Mahamudra of Arnulet?

LLR: During Khungpo Naljor's time the Indian people were very concerned that their scriptures were being stolen and smuggled out of India into Tibet. They were very possessive and jealously guarded them. Knowing this Khungpo Naljor wro^e the Mahamudra teachings on a leaf of the Bodhi tree and put it in his blessing box, his amulet, which he carried past the border guards into Tibet. This is why we call it the Mahamudra of Amulet (blessing box).

The branches are referred to as carrying the three into the path. The three being: carrying the guru as path, carrying the deities as path, carrying the afflictions as path. The flowers of the tree are red and white ones who enjoy space (Red and White Dakinis). The fruit of the tree is the result being the attainment of deathlessness and birthlessness. In my time with Kalu Rinpoche one received the Five Golden Dharmas in sequence; first one, then the others. But when Bokar Rinpoche came to our retreat and in July 1996, I asked him to give them all at once. These empowerments require learned assistants, and it would have been very difficult for me alone to give them without this skilled help. Since Bokar Rinpoche was traveling with several Lamas, they were able to assist him with these very complicated empowerments.

Q: Why are they called the Five Golden Dharmas? Why Golden?

LLR: Khungpo Naljor brought gold from Tibet which he offered to his teacher. So now it is traditional for students receiving these empowerments to give a small piece of gold. But when we received these teachings from Kalu Rinpoche we did not even have food to eat, much less gold, so Rinpoche gave us a piece of gold to give back to him as a symbol. This is what happened when I received the Five Golden Dharmas. Western students are more fortunate and most of them are able to make a small offering of goldthis is not necessary, but symbolically by giving the same offering as Khungpo Naljor they will gain the same realization.

Q: The Five Golden Dharmas came directly from Niguma?

LLR: Yes, directly from Niguma.

Q: Recently I spoke to one of your students who had entered three-year retreat and what surprised him was how little leisure he had during the day-less than 1 hour free time? Why is there so little free time during three-year retreat? Why is the practice so intense?

LLR: Because this is the reason they are in three-year retreat. When you realize you only have these three years you want to use every moment of this leisure in the proper way to lead you in the right direction. If you become lazy during the retreat there is no benefit. You might as well be outside. So, in retreat every moment is consumed in positive activity.

Q: Does someone come around to see if you gel up at 3:00 a.m. ?

LLR: Actually, that's my responsibility! Not all the time, but once in awhile I check up on everyone.

Q: You have led lots of different people in three-year retreats. Is there a difference between Ameri,cans, Europeans, or Asians?

LLR: Europeans and Americans are the same but students from Bhutan, Sikkirn and Tibet are slightly different in that they have memorized most of the texts because it is their scripture, what they have grown up with.

Most of them retain the rituals very well and it is easy for them. But for Europeans and Americans it is difficult because they have to leam the language and read scriptures and learn the Mudras and chanting. All of these things together make it a bit more complicated than for the Tibetans or Sikkimese. Yet the Westerners have great intelligence and diligence and if they want to learn, they will learn thoroughly and precisely. However Western people are somewhat undisciplined in that they always sit in chairs, drive cars, drive when they could walk. In Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim people walk miles and become used to physical hardships such as no electric light, no heaters, no air conditioners. During my three-year retreat we relied on a small candle for light, had no heat and no refrigeration. But, so what. When the weather is hot, it is hot, when it is cold you put on more clothes. Nothing more than that. Here people cannot live like that. They like electricity for heat and light, refrigeration and so on.

Q: It does sound as though if one is serious about practicing the Dharma one should think about going on three-year retreat and work toward that goal-that three-year retreat is the best, the fastest and most useful technique in benefiting beings and reaching enlightenment?

LLR: In three-year retreat one completes from beginning to end the whole vision of the lineage, the practice, what the lineage offers. Yet, just because a person doesn't plan to go on to University doesn't mean she shouldn't finish high school. So, similarly if someone were to say, If you don't go to three-year retreat why bother being Buddhist,that's nonsense. Even a little knowledge of the Buddha/Dharma teaches you how to live positively in the world.

Q: Is it possible to come to complete awakening and understanding while living in the world?

LLR: Many Mahasiddhas lived in the world. They were farmers, they were dice players, they grew figs. Through these activities, these pursuits, they became enlightened. The thing to remember is the action does not bring enlightenment. The view brings enlightenment. Playing dice in an ordinary way does not bring enlightenment but the Mahasiddha who gained enlightenment playing dice had one pointed, unwavering contemplation. When we see him we see a dice player; but we don't see inside, we don't see the yogi. So there are ways to become enlightened through ordinary activity. Some yogis sleep for twelve years, wake up and (Rinpoche snaps his fingers) are enlightened.

There is a saying which says, A tiger can jump from mountain to mountain but if a dog tries to jump he will fall off the cliff and die. If you are a tiger you can jump; if you are a dog you should find a bridge to walk over. There are some like Milarepa who can practice alone, outside of three-year retreat, but most people need the protection of the commitment which is the three-year retreat.

Q: I remember Kalu Rinpoche speaking at length of the value of going on three-year retreat. For many of us it still feels like a huge undertaking, a huge commitment.


The thing to remember is the action does not I bring enlightenment. The view brings enlightenment.

LLR: Yes, if the karrha is not there it is a huge commitment, very scary. But if you have this karmic connection three-year retreat will seem too short. Many people after completing three-year retreat will do six-year retreat, nine years of retreat. In Canada there were many people who after completing one three-year retreat went on to do more because in their last life they were mature enough, ripened enough, so in this life when the door opened they did not hesitate.

Q: Do you think in the future there will be a three-year retreat American style, in English and a little bit easier?

LLR: (Rinpoche laughs) I'm afraid I'm not authorized to make it any easier for Americans. A great Tantric master came to teach an American audience comprised of people interested in Tantric Buddhism. He was scheduled to teach early in the day but he was not on time. The audience became quite angry, I paid for these teachingsso where is the teacher. This is unfairthis shows no compassion, why should we have to wait. Yet all along the teacher was examining the. audience to see if they had sufficient patience and devotion to receive these very rare and profound teachings. Finally he appeared and said to those assembled, I am sorry, I hoped to offer you these basic tantric teachings which came from Milarepa who sacrificed and labored to receive them. Yet you could not wait patiently even 2 hours. Clearly you are not fortunate enough to receive them. So, I am sorry but I am leaving now.

We have many students who want teachings, but unfortunate karma prevents them from gaining them.

Q: That seems sad.

LLR: It is sad, but what can we do? It is karma. If you are sad it doesn't help. Better just enjoy whatever happens.

DPJ: Thank you very much.

LLR: You are welcome.

Lama Lodu Rinpoche is the Spiritual Director of Kagyu Droden Kunchab, a center of the study and practice of Vajrayana Buddhism located near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco: 1892 Fell Street, 415-752-5454. Lama Lodu Rinpoche is the author of Quintessence of the Animate and the Inanimate, Bardo Teachings, Attaining Enlightenment, and the translator of Garden of All Joy, a manual for the practice of Chod written by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodo Taye, available through Snow Lion Publications. ä_æ

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