In this vast and deep ocean of samsara one can occasionally find a life raft which keeps ones head above the water for a while. More rarely there is a chance to board into a ship which is sailing the same seas but it gives you a chance to arise above the water to have a good look at the storm we are continuously in. The first Palpung Wales two month Winter Retreat truly felt like one had boarded into a Retreat Mother Ship sailing in the ocean of samsara, each traveler focused on looking within our own mindscapes rather than just outward.
We had total of 16 people boarding this retreat ship over the two months, from which four retreatants stayed the whole 2 months and the others varying from few days to few weeks. They came from different backgrounds, occupations, with different motivations, expectations or non-expectations, but all willing to take a look and explore their own mind for an extended period of time. The only outer discipline during the retreat was the daily timetable with four sessions, about 2 hours each, which were followed. Some preferred sitting in their cosy meditation box in their own retreat room, some did practice in the shrine. Some people observed silence, some were talking: sharing and supporting each other in their Dharma endeavors. All seemed to fit in the same space as they were.
During the first month the atmosphere felt like things were still taking shape, finding their place and rhythm, but when January started everything had settled and the Dharma pervaded the air: mumbling of the prayers, chanting, bells and drums, prostration pads sweeping the floor, silence and stillness of meditation, resounding deep and longing aspirations for awakening from the depths of the heart could be felt.
We were all on the journey, everyone on their own with own kind of challenges, sharing the sacred space which was held by our precious teacher Lama Rabsang from his own retreat hut. Even though he was not seen at the Centre, his compassionate, kind and ever so patient presence was felt. His message “just relax”, “let it be”, “don’t follow” and “be happy” are permeated in the walls of the Centre and are echoing in the air to which one could tune into when really listening with one’s heart. He also wanted to leave an encouraging and urging message to retreatants before he himself retreated in the the back garden into his hut or a year.
Time flew super fast. When the days followed each other with the same timetable, one easily lost the track of what day of the week it is – it actually didn’t matter. Holidays, weekdays, Christmas, New Year – they are just days we have given some specific meaning and make it special. But on a retreat it became more obvious that actually every day is special. Every day we are alive and have this precious human life with its freedoms and advantages, which give us a chance to practice Dharma, is special. Every day when we have a chance to remember and connect to our true nature – our innate freedom, our innate basic goodness – is special, it is sacred.
Retreating from the outside world gives a chance to look at the world within and this new knowledge, understanding and maybe a bit changed view – at its best – may be carried in one’s heart over to the everyday life when leaving the retreat ship. It is tax free, it doesn’t need to go through the customs, and it is the most precious gift for all, but we just need to remember to take it with us and not to leave it in the ship in our little retreat cabin!
But how was the journey of these two months for the travelers, Palpung Wales retreatants? Below some precious accounts and experiences that they have generously shared.
The Centre’s written information guide helped me prepare for the retreat, though over time discipline and action seemed propelled more from an instinctive knowing than from anything imposed externally. As the daily practice routine unfolded the meditation box helped create a sense of containment and subtle sounds emerging from other rooms created an experience of shared, (though individual) activity, consolidating practice.
My sense of time altered. It both speeded up, (the week passed in a flash), and it slowed down, (each moment lengthened). Outside of formal practice times we were able to speak to one another. It was enjoyable to spend time with my fellow retreatants who came from an international background and were of differing age groups. Working together on practical domestic chores emerged naturally.
The retreat week released something unexpected for me – a quiet confidence and stillness not experienced elsewhere which has generated a deeper devotion to practice.
I thank Lama Rabsang, Pauliina and the volunteers who helped make this event happen. It was a genuine experience of dharma in daily living. May the blessings generated help the Centre flourish and hopefully offer extended centre wide retreats again in the future.
Ruth Hawkins (one week retreat)
It was a wise decision to take 10 days at the beginning of the year to have a retreat at Palpung. I was a little ambivalent beforehand that my practice wasn’t strong enough to sustain 10 days or that I would get bored!
It was wonderful, peaceful, supportive and nourishing. I also had the opportunity to talk to Lama Rabsang regarding my practice which was so helpful.
The Centre feel safe and held by the lineage of wise and helpful teachers and by the presence of the Venerable Lama Rabsang, on retreat in his beautiful hut in the garden and not least by the wonderful care of Pauliina and Marg.
It is very helpful to be in a place where the community of people, however diverse, are all together for the same reason and have respect for each other.
I loved my yellow room with the high ceilings and the snow outside made the time feel very special and precious. It felt like a haven.
The words that I keep coming back to as life gets somewhat busy and my mind more concerned with the practicalities of life are those of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche: “Whatever you do and Wherever you go, remind yourself to Let go and Relax from time to time.
It says it all for me.
Thank you so much to Palpung and to everyone who works so hard to make it a place of retreat and rest so much need for all of us. THANK YOU.
Cathy (10 day retreat)
My retreat in Palpung Changchub Dargyeling in Brynmawr in Wales has been a wonderful, heartbreaking, uplifting and grounding experience all in one.
For starters, it’s great that there is a Dharma Centre that you can retreat too, that is not too far from home and is also in the centre of a town and cultural surroundings that are familiar to the Western mind. I found this helped me settle my mind easier and focus on practice instead of feeling strange in an unfamiliar environment. Lama Rabsang (although in retreat) is the centre of the spiritual energy there and if you are lucky enough to meet him you will see why.
Pauliina and Marg run a very efficient “ship” which gives sound structure to your practice. Also everyone there is of the same mind as you so support if needed us there in different guises.
Personally (although that is just an illusion 🙂 I arrived with great enthusiasm and determination. I was doing prostrations and was determined to do as many as I could and shift as much of my destructive parasitic ego as possible. The first week went very well. The pea soup that envelopes my mind a lot of the time was shaken up and rattled around. I started getting a clearer picture of the stories of my self-betrayal I was telling myself for a long time. I also caught small glimpses of the enormity of just what I was prostrating before. The depth and the sacredness of the Buddhas, the gurus struck through my ego and touched me deeply. This unspeakable beauty though was quickly covered up again by the shadow of the ego. This proved to me both inspiring and infuriating. The end goal, our destination, home soil was right there, I could almost taste it but the sheer stubbornness and startling lack of wisdom of my own ego flatly refused to let go. I almost gave up, I cried with both frustration and reverence at different times. I went for walks and runs in the surrounding hills but I continued my practice.
And so it went for the rest of my stay. I got a clearer and clearer picture of my own neurosis and how it along with my own karma has shaped my life. The clearer benefit of being on retreat is that you are in a safe steady space where you can just let all your stories about yourself be. If you can let them just be there without engaging or running away, they begin to shift, loosen up and lose their apparent solid reality in your life. A broader perspective slowly dawned, and continues to slowly dawn. One of peace and clarity.
My aspiration in the weeks and months to come is that this perspective infuses my mind and inspires my practice and daily life and hopefully draws the two closer and closer. I am grateful to Lama Rabsang and to Marg and to Pauliina for providing this wonderful centre. I am grateful to my fellow retreatants for the company and support. But mostly I am grateful to my own innate Buddha nature, for never giving up on me despite the level of self-betrayal. And so I believe it is with every sentient being. We are all Buddha in our essence. May we all realise that.
Denis Sheehan (3 weeks retreat)
I have done a few retreats now, and I can confidently say the following: they are hard work! I have found that the first 3 days are generally about settling in to the routine, and letting go of the everyday stress. It really does take a full 3 days for me, but once that is done, I feel so much better – clearer, calmer, and more centred.
For those of you reading this that have never done a retreat, I actually highly recommend it, because the density of the schedule is unlike anything else you will experience. You really do get a lot further than just coming to hear a teacher every week. Granted, your bum gets a bit sore the very first time you try to sit still for 8 hours a day, but that’s sort of part of the whole thing – you have to sit with the pain in the backside, literally!
The only real way through the aching bum is to just watch it, notice it, and not react to it. This in itself is a huge training. The first time I managed to do this also helped me to let go of the distracting street noises that inevitably creep into my meditation. I used to find that when the cars went past, or a child howled in mock-outrage at their mum dragging them home, I would get distracted, listening to their wailing, either wishing they would go away, be quiet, or something….but now, although I hear the noises, I allow them to be there, and they don’t take me away from whatever I am meditating on. This for me is a clear sign that the retreat worked.
So, as I mentioned, after 3 days, I find that my stress levels are down, my attention and awareness are up, and I’m starting to really look forward to the next session. Words I honestly thought I would never hear coming from my mouth, but there we are. I *want* to get back to the cushion, because I know that the meditation is bringing results, and I’m making progress.
Also, having done several retreats in the range of 10 days each, I now have a natural ease of sitting still for 10 days. I know I can do it. I gritted my teeth the first time I did it, and just sat, unbelievably determined that a) I wasn’t going to run away, and b) hopefully I wouldn’t fall asleep. I managed both.
This time was a 3 week stint, and I think I wasn’t really prepared for it. I got to my 10 day mark without much difficulty – yes, it still takes effort to sit down, stay sitting, keep my mind on the meditation, and not get up until the hour is done – but I know I can do that, and I just keep doing it.
After the 10 day mark, I noticed my boredom beginning to arise, and my mind returning to the “urgent “ issues of my life. I wasn’t really prepared for this, and I have to be completely honest and say that I didn’t keep to my schedule as carefully as the first 10 days. I put this down to my own trait of not summoning the willpower to just stick with it. This is clearly something I still need to work on!
Anyway, what do I actually meditate on?
The first three days I simply did breathing meditation. Focussing on my breath coming and going, I think it is called shamata. Every time I notice that my mind has wandered, I bring it back to the breath. Again. Again. Again.
After that, I introduced the Medicine Buddha at least once a day to my schedule, as I have previously found I have a strong heart connection to it. The Medicine Buddha is about imagining providing all beings with the “medicine” they actually need (rather than things they want). For me it is quite powerful – I enjoy taking the time to set up the visualization, and really feel the qualities that are inherently supposed to be invoked. I need to feel supremely abundant (in order to make the offerings in my mind) and completely generous too (in order to give those offerings away!), and this opens my heart towards beings of all kinds. A noticeable effect of having done the Medicine Buddha is that I no longer feel antipathy towards my ex, and routinely include her in my wishes for happiness. If that’s not a benefit of doing the practice, then I don’t know what is!
All in all, I can heartily recommend a retreat to just about anyone. If you can handle a 1 hour session on a regular basis, you can handle a small retreat (say, 3 days to start with). It is well worth doing!
Nick Scott (3 weeks retreat)
This was my first long retreat which was undertaken with the intention of completing as much as possible of the prostration practice of Ngondro.
At the start of the retreat I really didn’t realise what an undertaking it was. I rather naively believed I could do it quite easily. How wrong could I be?!
I think that during the first month, I found it quite hard to settle into it, due perhaps to the mad rush trying to tie up loose ends before it started, and then I was uncertain that I would finish it because of work opportunities that I eventually rejected to concentrate on the retreat, as well as some other things going on in my personal life. Perhaps this put a bit more pressure on me to actually get numbers up on the prostrations…
At the start I was quite diligent, completing most of the sessions as I learned how to actually do the practice. There seemed to be a transition from the busy-ness of the period before to settling down for the retreat. Christmas was on the horizon and I was planning to take a few days off to go home, and rest a bit from the physical exertion. Things muddled by quite nicely for a while.
So Christmas came and went. In the days leading up to Christmas I was looking forward to a few days off to recover a little, physically. At this time, my prostrations were mostly mechanical. It was difficult to get any real sense of feeling as I was still trying to sync everything together, but my motivation was quite good. I wasn’t struggling too much, yes there were ups and downs, most likely down to purification but manageable and not overly taxing.
After Christmas it seemed to go downhill, and fast. I had taken two or three days off and really struggled to get back into it. Then after a couple of days I really struggled with thoughts such as “I don’t even know what I’m doing here sometimes” and then it really hit me. I felt as if I was done. Had enough. Didn’t want to do any more. Finito. I did what I often do at those moments, and went for a run to try and evaluate what on earth was going on. After all, only a week previously I had rather enjoyed the prostrations, and felt I was making progress. What on earth had brought about such a shift? I ran up the hill to the south of Brynmawr, overlooking the village. I felt frustrated, and there was a huge amount of resistance to practising. I don’t know whether it was pride, ego, laziness or an unfortunate and lethal combination of the three, but I literally could not do even one more prostration, though I was physically fine. My mind was overflowing with negative emotions. They were all in there that’s for sure, like a load of eels writhing over each other trying to escape from a bucket. I reached the top of the hill, and I could see that my thoughts were all preluded by “I.” “I’m tired!” “I don’t want to do this!” “I should be somewhere else, not wasting my time prostrating in a room in Brynmawr!” But that really made me think who or what I was doing ngondro for. Am I doing it so I can benefit others or another reason? And if so then how much do I want to do it? Just a bit, more cursory than anything else or do I really want to change? How much effort I am willing to put into it? But I learned a lot that day. I learned that how selfish I can be without even realising it.
I came back a little humbler than when I went out. And I set myself a challenge. If I could do 300 more prostrations (an hours worth) then I would continue. If not, I wouldn’t continue, and leave the retreat. I struggled, but I did it. And then I took a shower. And the feeling of resistance slowly shifted, I physically felt it melt away, like steel creaking and cracking as it gets heated to red, and then almost white hot before it yields and melts into a molten pool. But it wasn’t completely over. I found it hard again a few days later, and then finished early.
I started the New year with the intention of bringing iron discipline to the practice. No matter what I would complete the practice. The numbers weren’t so important, just the intention and the time spent doing them. This was the only rule I imposed upon myself.
And so the days passed time, with reassuring regularity. I prostrated in the same place, every day, at the same times. Sometimes easy, sometimes difficult. Once I nearly walked out of the shrine room. Different people came and went, but the practice was always there. It was a bit like a train journey, the discipline giving the rolling momentum, and the views provided by the experience. But slowly mind started to soften. I think there were many more hard days than easy. In fact, all in all there were about 3 sessions in the 2 months that I found easy, that just flowed…
A lot of the time I was lost in counting, daydreaming or distracted by other things. Especially counting, planning how many I needed to do and when to finish the 110, 000. Sometimes I focused on the visualisation. Sometimes on the numbers. Sometimes on the prayer, or generating feeling. All the while, prostrating, up and down.
I had aches and pains often, which at times were quite bad. Most, however I found to be adjusted for by making subtle changes in the mechanics of your body, by being aware of what your body was doing, and how it was aligned. Slight adjustments often got around what I thought may turn into obstacles.
Obstacles. Maras. I think I had every single one of them, and possibly some previously undocumented ones. Some needed to be smashed through using discipline, others needed me to let go of any resistance to them, just become aware of them, and focusing on the practice and they came and went all by themselves. There were others I was probably unaware of even. I did find that increasing the amount of time I spent practicing shinnay meditation at the expense of prostrations helped decrease the minds resistance.
What have I learned from this retreat. Well, the Dharma path is not easy. It’s hard, even for someone like me who is relatively fit, had time and many favourable conditions to practice Dharma, at least the prostration practice, but it is hard. Discipline needs to be nurtured and adhered to. And this retreat was tough. It wasn’t some kind of Spiritual Spa for the Soul, where I was pampered with soft music and relaxing with cucumber over my eyes, listening to happy people and birds in the trees singing all the time. I never had any fundamental awakening where the sky became more blue, and all was nice and soft and happy, and I knew that I was going to be OK forever. No fairy tale ending. None of that. But I questioned why. And I think if I answered that question now, it might go down to the core of why I want to practice Dharma. Which is this: I want to practice Dharma because I want to be a better person. I want to find deep and profound meaning in life. I want to be happy. I want to know the truth. I want to know if my suffering has some purpose. I don`t want to die in confusion as to the reason why I lived. I don’t know for sure exactly what this means right now, not yet anyway. However, from what I’ve seen from the methods, and heard from people who have done them and been through the process, I have faith, and I have confidence. And besides, I have walked to far down the path to turn back now and ignore everything I have experienced and learned. That’s worse than ignorance, it would be like a prisoner who sees a ladder to freedom up against the prison wall but decides to look for another way over, and dies inside prison whist the ladder remains there, in full view and unused. It was hard, painful but rewarding in the sense that it gave some sustenance to life. Contemplating Death, impermanence and suffering repeatedly and at length does bring a new meaning to life, and dispels the blind bravado we sometimes shroud ourselves in, particularly in our youth and whether the bravado stems from ignorance or defiance of Death it matters not. It brings the fragility and preciousness of life ever closer. Death could come to any of us at any moment, indeed there is no guarantee that we will feel our next heartbeat. Deep awareness of that increases our appreciation for each moment and deepens our love for our fellow beings. Perhaps one of Carl Jung’s quietly profound quotes would sum it up in a far more eloquent way than I ever could;
“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”
Phil (2 months retreat)
At the start of my retreat there was a scratching at the door that I thought was Poppy, the Centre’s dog. I went to have a look but it was a very large Garuda doing a strange and elegant dance on long legs, looking a lot like a secretary bird. It had a crown on its head made if bent cane. Then I woke up.
I had planned my usual strict retreat, doing a lot of short practices and some solid sitting that the Lama recommended. The wheels started coming off quite quickly though, nothing was working as it should.
One day in a cave I met a stunningly beautiful girl with long blonde hair. (What’s she doing in a cave for Gods sake?) “I have a map,” she said, holding out a small diagram. ”You can go this way,” she continued, indicating a fork in the passage. But my mind had gone blank and I just stood there. Yes, like an idiot.
Now I tried combinations of practice, brought some in and left others out. It worked nicely for a day or two, then went to hell. This scenario repeated itself with various other strategies I tried.
Up on the hill it was getting very dark and the bog getting deeper. I had gotten lost after taking a “short cut.”(What was he doing on the moors for Gods sake?) Finally I just followed the wind so at least I’d know that I wasn’t going around in circles. I was drenched from top to toe and freezing.
Since the wheels had come off and some other odd bits and pieces as well now, there wasn’t much of a great vehicle anymore. More like a Yamaha or a Hinayana or whatever its called. I had to take stock of the situation or waste a whole two months. I went back over my notes of the Rinpoches teachings. A definite pattern started to emerge from the super-computer upstairs, two braincells were now in motion. One had made a peashooter with his Bic and the other one was munching M& M’s under the lid of his desk. It was a start.
What did Tulku Thondup Rinpoche say to me? “Take it easy.” What did Chime Rinpoche say to me? “Relax.” What did the inimitable Khenpo Gangshar say? “If it makes you happy it is Dharma. If it makes you unhappy it is not Dharma.”
I have had to jettison many practices that although are sacred and that I hold dear, have become my attachments and only cause me to get uptight. I realise my retreats can be tough but overall have to be relaxed and joyful otherwise I’m not interested.
In ASDA I saw the shop assistant with blue hair, my lucky mascot I call the Blue Fairy(What’s she doing in ASDA for Gods sake?) So I knew all was well in the universe again.
Simon (2 months retreat)
Wearing boots of endurance I made my way through the dense
entangled forest. Sometimes I stopped and found a grove of
non resistance, here I could rest from the illusion and taste again the bliss of non-doing.
May I with all beings be lifted from all illusion.
Thank you everyone for giving me this great opportunity.
A grateful retreat participant (2 months retreat)