Reginald A. Ray studied Buddhism as a divinity student at the University of Chicago, and in 1968, when he read Chögyam Trungpa’s Born in Tibet, he realized Buddha-dharma could be more than an intellectual pursuit. He met Trungpa Rinpoche two years later, and offered to drop out of divinity school and move to his Vermont retreat center. Trungpa said no, instructing Ray to finish his degree, to which the young man grudgingly agreed. Since then, Dr. Reggie Ray has become a respected scholar of Buddhism as well as a senior teacher in Trungpa’s lineage. He teaches Buddhism at Colorado University and Naropa University, and leads meditation retreats at Shambhala Mountain Center, in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. He has published several scholarly books including two authoritative volumes on the history, context, and practices of Tibetan Buddhism titled Indestructible Truth andSecret of the Vajra World. He spends at least three months of every year in solitary retreat. Isolated retreat is a crucial component of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and Reggie Ray may be the most vocal advocate for its utility in the modern Western context. Tricycle contributor Ted Rose spoke to Ray just before the teacher headed into isolated retreat in a wood cabin above Shambhala Mountain Center.
When I mention my own experience of going into isolated retreat for ten days, most of my friends get a little suspicious. They think of another Ted who spent time in a cabin alone: Ted Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber. Why do people often have such a negative impression of isolated retreat? We are a very extroverted society. Even though within the Western tradition the practice of seclusion and retreat are very much a part of our own spiritual culture—the contemplative practices of Roman Catholicism, for example—most people are not aware that they are part of our heritage.
I think the other reason is that not only has the typical Western person spent little or no time alone, but many of us have an underlying fear of solitude. Possibly driving some of the misunderstanding of retreat is a deep-seated fear of being alone without distraction, without entertainment, without “work,” without other people around to constantly confirm our sense of self. We live in a culture driven by consumerism. Many of us feel, perhaps without realizing it, that unless we are “producing” in some sort of external, materialistic way, our legitimacy as a human being is somehow in question. We don’t really see where retreat fits in.
What are the essential qualities of an isolated retreat? Is it possible to do without any meditation experience? Many people who arrive at Naropa or up here at Shambhala Mountain Center have already had some experience of solitude. Without any real knowledge of retreat practice or even meditation, they’ve gone off into the woods or mountains in search of solitude. One of the things they often discover when they get into those situations is that they’ve brought their whole world with them. Their anxiety, their disturbing emotions, their mental speed, their mental preoccupations are just as present in solitude as they are in ordinary life. In fact, they may be even more prevalent. The problem is that they don’t know what to do with their mind.
Retreat combines solitude and the practice of meditation, where you begin to actually explore your own mind. What you find is that, through intensive meditation in retreat, you begin to attend to your mind in a direct and unmediated way: Your mind begins to slow down, your sense perceptions open up, you find yourself increasingly present to your life, and you begin to experience solitude in a deep and genuine way.
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