What is the role of retreat in Tibetan Buddhism?

monk on tibetan meditation retreat

A monk sits in meditation on retreat at Lapchi Snow Mountain, where tradition holds the great tantric master Milarepa meditated. | piotr sadurski / Alamy Stock Photo

Retreat has been a central aspect of monastic practice since the dawn of the sangha, when the Buddha instituted an annual three-month retreat during the rainy season for all monks and nuns. Retreats can be of any length and are usually entered into by a student under the direction of a teacher who has mastered the techniques that will be practiced. The goal of withdrawing from everyday life is to practice physical and meditative openness and simplicity for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Tibetan Buddhism embraces retreat and has instituted a variety of different approaches to it. Although these not all of these forms are unique to Tibetan Buddhism, they tend to be emphasized more. 

Vajarayana’s tantric practices of yogic discipline require periods of isolation so practitioners can immerse themselves in the sacred and transformative world of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Isolation is also supportive for serious practitioners of meditative insight disciplines like Dzogchen (Great Perfection) and Mahamudra (Great Seal), which are aimed at seeing through the illusions of samsara. Vajrayana practitioners of many traditions, but particularly Dzogchen and Mahamudra practitioners, have been known to undertake long retreats in caves and on mountainsides.

In the 19th century, the Kagyu master Jamgon Kongtrul began the tradition of the three-year retreat for Mahamudra practitioners, who train in the core practices of sutra and tantra for three years, three months, and three days. Kongtrul derived that timeframe from the teachings in the Kalachakra (Wheel of Time) tantra, an important Vajrayana text that defined that as the amount of time required for a practitioner to properly develop their wisdom and karma through undistracted meditation.

Since then, other Tibetan Buddhist traditions have adopted the three-year model, and in modern times completing it has become a requirement for aspiring Buddhist teachers before they can be given the title of Drupay Lama (lama of the retreat). 

Another form of long retreat is the solo “wandering retreat” used by masters such as Milarepa in the 12th century, as well as practitioners in more modern times, among them Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche in the 21st century.


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