IN THE KAGYU TRADITION OF BUDDHISM IN TlBET, the three-year retreat provides systematic training in advanced meditation techniques. Selected monks and re­incarnated teachers enter a retreat center and spend ap­proximately three years and three months practicing meditation at least sixteen hours a day. The retreat center is totally isolated from the world, no exits are permitted,

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“For fundamental change to take place, motivation must change.” Our training from Kalu-Rinpoche up to this point had certainly shown that he was familiar with this maxim. He consistently emphasized the general founda­tions: Human existence provides a precious, rare, and fragile opportunity to practice Buddhism. Death may come at any moment. A moral and ethical way of life is necessary in view of the workings of karma. Samsaric or ego-based existence is inherently

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The next requirement was language. Everything would be in Tibetan—the teaching, the texts, the meditation man­uals, the rituals. Everything! Without fluency in Tibetan, it would be like attending a school in a country whose language one didn’t know. Rinpoche made it clear that the language was very important. We would be dealing with ideas and concepts that had no formulation in En­glish.

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The third requirement was money—basically, enough for food and minimal personal expenses for the period of the retreat. Rinpoche said that he would send word when it was time to come to France. After Rinpoche’s departure, we set out to earn what we would need. Some went to work in copper mines in northern British Columbia. I worked as a teaching

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Eventually, we received word to come to France. We ar­rived at Kagyu Ling in June. At that time, Kagyu Ling consisted of a mock chateau, built around the turn of the century, with associated buildings. It was situated on fifteen acres of meadows and woods in rolling hills about halfway between Paris and Lyons. There was a bad drought in the whole region. Water was in short

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A few days later, Rinpoche arrived and we soon found out that, yes, we were going to build our own retreat structures. And while we were doing that, we were also to learn the regular ceremonies, how to prepare shrines, how to play the various musical instruments, and how to lead chanting.

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The last of the empowerments was completed. Out of appreciation, all the retreatants offered a long-life cere­
mony to Rinpoche. In this ceremony, an effigy is offered to all the forces that would generally shorten or threaten the teacher’s life. The winds, the clouds, and the rain­storm that developed during

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The first reaction was one of relief. After the frantic pres­sure of the last few days, we were suddenly free just to sit and practice. However, there were a few things to ad­just to.

Our rooms were approximately ten feet square and contained a shrine, shelves for texts and clothes, and a “meditation box.” Constructed of unfinished pine boards,

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The first meditation session began at four o’clock in the morning and continued till six. Half an hour later, we’d meet in the temple to recite prayers to Tara, a female bodhisattva who embodies the principle of awakened compassion and protection. Then at eight we’d go to the kitchen to fetch our breakfast (which was prepared by our cook/attendant) and eat in our rooms. The second session began at nine and was two and a half

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The first year was occupied with the establishment of a proper foundation for spiritual development. At the be­ginning we spent a full week reflecting on the unique op­portunity human existence affords for realization, another week on death and impermanence, and a week each on dharma and the nature of suffering

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Virtually the entire second year was taken up with yidam practice, or deity meditation. Here I had to assimilate ideas and approaches to the world that have no counter­part in modern Western culture. Identification with a particular symbolic expression of awakened mind day after day gradually leads one to see the world

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The third year was filled with advanced practices such as the Six Teachings of Naropa. These practices dissolve still more subde kinds of clinging, to enable the mind to rest naturally without contrivance, wandering, or reference. Generally, we only had time to become familiar with the meditations

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The three-year retreat is primarily a program of training in meditation. It is virtually a college of contemplative techniques. There is a considerable amount of material, both theoretical and practical, to assimilate. And it is an important step into the contemplative life, a life of retreat and practice. In many ways, it is the essence of monasti - cism—a group of people who are occupied

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When I originally went into the retreat, I had the idea that it would somehow be a solution to all my problems, that at last I would receive the most profound instruc­tions, be able to practice them without distraction, and, if not actually attain awakening, at least make some pretty healthy progress

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Time passes in retreat at an extraordinary pace. Some­times, I felt that the seasons were scenes from a movie; spring changing into summer, then fall, then winter, day by day. The time soon came for us to exit. Since this was the first retreat for Westerners, a large crowd had gath­ered outside the gates. We stepped out straight into the lens of a movie camera and paraded

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After the retreat, each of us had to decide what to do next. Some (including myself) elected to return and do a second three-year retreat, another small step on the path. Some took monastic ordination in order to lead a simple life and concentrate on practice. Others found themselves

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