Nyingma 4-Month Tibetan Buddhist Retreat 2017
From August 30 to December 16, 2017, I was cloistered in a 4-month Tibetan Buddhist retreat at the Nyingma Institute in the Berkeley Hills.
Why did I do this?
Well, I’m a spiritual seeker. I went to an ashram in India just about once a year from 2006 to 2013, for about a month at a time. In 2013 I got sick there. It was a wake-up call and I decided that I would not be doing that anymore, so I started looking into various other spiritual groups similar to the group in India. My search led me to Tibetan Buddhism, where I found that though the teachings weren’t exactly the same as the Hindu teachings from my group in India, they were at least recognizable.
I started taking classes and volunteering at Dharma College in downtown Berkeley. Dharma College is affiliated with Nyingma, and when I went to a two-week summer retreat in July 2017 in their retreat center at Ratna Ling on the Sonoma coast, I met Pema Gelleck, daughter of the Head Lama Tarthang Tulku. Pema is one of the Deans of Nyingma. She noticed that I was attracted to the practices of Tibetan Buddhism and invited me to apply for the 4-month Nyingma retreat.
At first, I was going to commute to the Nyingma Institute. After all, it is right in Berkeley. But then I looked at the retreat schedule and I knew that I would be tempted to either skip the morning practice, or maybe not go to some night classes, and very probably, I would drop out. I knew from experience that the mind would find all kinds of reasons for me to quit, so it wouldn’t have to change. Because I really wanted to do the whole program, I resided there.
The retreat schedule was intense. It was similar to the schedule I followed at the ashram in India. We had morning practice starting at 7 AM in the main meditation room, a brief break for breakfast at 8:15 AM, and then work and classes from around 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM, with short breaks for lunch and dinner. The schedule was designed to keep the mind in check, and it certainly did that. I was so tired that after the last class, I just fell into bed and conked out.
The Nyingma School is the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, tracing its roots back to the eighth century when the king of Tibet invited Pandit Santarakshita and Guru Padmasambhava to Tibet. Buddhism had entered Tibet from China many years before, but the king wanted to establish it by starting a monastery. Both Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava were Tantric Buddhist teachers from northern India, and the king asked them to help him create the first monastery in Tibet. Nyingma traces its roots back to this time. The other schools, the Kagyu, Geluk, and Sakya were established centuries later.
Classes at the Nyingma Institute were taught by the advanced students of Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche. Additionally, advanced classes were taught by Lama Palzang, a traditional lama from Nepal and Tibet, and by his wife, Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche’s daughter Pema. Besides being Dean of Nyingma Institute, Pema is an award winning filmmaker of documentaries (https://thegreattransmission.com/).
This retreat was exactly what I had been yearning for. All of the instructors, the other students, the volunteers, and the support staff really “walked the talk.” When you spend four months living together, studying together and working together, you really get to see how people act and react to everything from trying to get laundry done (there are over twenty people in competition for the washer and dryer) to making the gorgeous main house shine for a weekend workshop. There was nothing at all fake about these people. They were there for the love of learning and living in a spiritual community.
I was in residence at the smaller “new house” building on the campus in the Peacock Room. The name of my room was from a quote by Tarthang Tulku, stating that peacocks grow such beautiful feathers by ingesting poison. Therefore let us take on the three poisons (ignorance, attachment, and aversion) from other people so they can experience less suffering, and we can transform the poisons to beauty. The transformation of raw experiences to spiritual growth is a very Nyingma approach to teaching.
The bed was by the window and the window faced west, so I woke each morning with a panoramic view of the Bay from San Francisco on my left to the Golden Gate Bridge on my right. In fact, I kind of felt like I was an undergraduate again, and I was an undergrad with a cherished “single” dorm room.
Unlike residence hall food, the lunches and dinners were delightful. They served hearty ovo-lacto — we had protein from eggs and milk products –vegetarian meals in the dining hall for lunch and dinner. For breakfast they supplied bread, jam, eggs, and would accommodate most any needs for diet – gluten free and milk-free options were offered. We just gave them a list and they would get it for us. Except for junk food. No junk food there. I used the retreat as a time to stay away from junk food and from sugar. I lost 15 pounds without dieting, because I sure did eat a lot of the yummy lunches and dinners.
We had different categories of classes. There were meditation classes, classes on Tibetan Buddhism, classes on Dream Yoga, and many classes of Tibetan Yoga, or Kum Nye. Tarthang Tulku’s Kum Nye was largely from the Medical Buddhist Tantras. It is based on very slow movements, stillness practices, and massage. This Kum Nye has been described as Inner Massage. It was exquisite, and very good for senior citizens, as it is gentle. You gradually build up strength to do more demanding practices.
They also insisted that you don’t do more than you think you can manage. That is, if you are not on retreat, they say this. On retreat, you are supposed to be cautious, but to push your limits. For example, our teacher had us do what appeared to be a simple Kum Nye practice to open the heart, “Heart Gold Thread”. He first had us hold our arms up until they were spread out at shoulder-height. We stood that way for a time. I asked when I could put my arms down. They were starting to burn. The teacher glanced at a clock and said “another thirteen minutes.”
He then told us that if we start to feel like “Oh, I can’t do this anymore!” to simply roll our arms at the shoulder, and back again. In this manner, I was able to do the practice for the thirteen minutes. I think I rolled my arms at the shoulder many times. After this, when the other teachers had us do this practice for five to ten minutes at at time, it was easy to do.
Our retreat schedule was Monday through Saturday. We could attend any of the classes given on Sunday, but were also encouraged to rest on Sunday. I used Sundays to do laundry, and would make an early-morning stealth visit to my house to grab my mail and ensure that PG&E, the mortgage, and AT&T all got paid on time. I didn’t want to interact with people “out in the world” while I was on retreat. The few times I had to do this were painful. The retreat sensitized me so I felt things more intensely. Unless we had a whole-weekend workshop to attend, I used the rest of the time to study.
I used their library a lot because they have books you can’t find elsewhere, and these were really helpful for my Buddhist vampire series. Their library was in the new house, just one flight of stairs down from my room, so it was very convenient.
I did this retreat totally “unplugged.” Even though you could bring a laptop and use their internet connection, I decided against this. The internet is an amazing place, but for me, it sucked not only my time, but my attention. Even after I turned off my computer, I still felt plugged into it. I did the month-long programs in India unplugged, but this was four months, and the longer I was away from the internet, the quieter my mind grew.
There were four of us in the retreat at the start. We lost two members, one almost at the beginning, and another who stayed for most of the retreat, but couldn’t complete it. That was sad. I wish they could have stayed. I was one of two who made it all the way through. My fellow retreat partner was from Sao Paulo Brazil. She is a Kum Nye teacher, and a freelance journalist in Brazil. We got along famously and she told me if she didn’t need her laptop for her job back home, she might have done the retreat totally unplugged as well.
I found that there was such a beautiful silence in my mind that set in by the second week I was there. It deepened all the way through the retreat. Then when it ended, I had Christmas to deal with, but so little time that I asked my family if we could be very simple this year. They were good with that.
I’m still processing the effects of the retreat. One thing I noticed was that my mind has more space. I can consider painful or sad experiences, and the spaciousness in the mind acts as a buffer, so I can see them more clearly. My experience with the years I went to India is that a lot of the changes stay, though they recede into the background when I have to work on a book, or interact with people.
I highly recommend it.