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.

The environment is solitude, but the essential ingredient is meditation practice—what you actually do with your mind when you are alone. Simply being in solitude is not good enough.

You mentioned the use of retreat practice in Roman Catholicism. Does that feature the same combination of solitude and meditation practice? Or is the structured meditation in retreat the unique offering from Buddhism? Both Buddhism and Roman Catholicism employ structured “form” practices and the formless practices of working with awareness itself. Father Thomas Keating, who runs the Benedictine monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, teaches what he calls centering prayer. My understanding is that this is very much a mindfulness discipline, bringing the mind to a point and training it to be present, then allowing the inner wisdom to gradually unfold from that. If you look at the other contemplative orders in Roman Catholicism, I think you’ll see quite similar practices.

Perhaps an important difference between Buddhism and Christianity is that, within the Christian tradition, there is usually a subject you are contemplating, whereas in Buddhism, especially with the formless practices, you are really opening the mind in and of itself; you are not contemplating a particular subject or figure. Ultimately, we are looking to simply open the mind and lay bare its depths. In Christianity you find that as well, so it’s not an absolute difference but a difference in emphasis.

In the Buddhist universe, it seems like Tibetan Buddhism is the greatest champion of isolated retreat. Is that accurate? In the Western presentation of Buddhism, you do tend to find that the Tibetan tradition is advocating solitary retreat more than the other traditions. But in Asia, within both Zen and Theravada, you have a history of solitary retreat being very important.

For example, today, in all of the Theravada countries, in addition to the classical and conventional monasticism, there is a forest tradition. Within the forest tradition, monks live in isolation in the jungle, where they devote themselves to meditation all day and all night long.

In the Zen tradition, if you look back at the beginnings you find that the original Ch’an tradition was, to a large extent, a retreat tradition. These were people who also lived in the jungles and forests and practiced meditation in isolation. It was only later in the history of Ch’an that a more settled monastic tradition began to take precedence.

In the Japanese tradition, Dogen, who lived from 1200 to 1253, studied Buddhism in Japan, and he wasn’t very happy with what he found. It didn’t seem like the true dharma. He went to China and studied with a Ch’an master. When he came back to Japan, he established retreat centers in the countryside. Nowadays Zen is more associated with practice in the zendo and the community, but historically solitary retreat has been very important.

We’ve reached a point where people can see the value of practicing in a group but have a harder time seeing the value of being up in a cabin alone. There is something uniquely powerful about meditating in a group—discovering community and a depth of discipline that people may not have individually. In a group retreat, the container is provided, a framework of discipline surrounds you, and you are actually able to engage a level of sustained practice that you might otherwise be incapable of. You begin to see a lot of your habitual patterns relating to others and you begin to discover new ways of relating to other people. You learn to be with other people in silence. That is a huge discovery for people. So there are unique benefits from sitting together, especially for people in the early stage of practice.

But something happens on solitary retreat that cannot happen in a group situation and certainly doesn’t happen during individual practice at home. We see for ourselves that within each human being is the Buddha-nature. What is the Buddha-nature? It is a mind that is open and completely unencumbered. It is empty. And it gives birth to warmth and compassion for other people. As a doctrine, this can be clearly explained, but it’s another thing—and very shocking—to discover this within oneself. What solitary retreat practice provides that I don’t think is possible in any other way is freedom from the distraction and the reinforcement and confusion of interpersonal relationships, so over a period of time your mind is able to open up to a much greater depth than would otherwise be possible.

We talk about living in the moment, but it’s just a concept for most people. In retreat you actually learn how to do it. In fact, it occurs naturally.

What is the benefit of that kind of discovery? The full benefit is not really realized in retreat itself. The whole point of retreat is to develop your mind and your state of being so that when you’re living your ordinary life you are more present to yourself and to your life and to other people.

You can look at retreat as a practice to develop compassion for other people. When you know how to relax into that deeper sense of yourself, you can be there for people in a way that you never could before, in a way that is not driven by your ambition and habitual patterns but rather where you see what other people really need. You see their experience from their side. You are actually able to get outside of yourself. Far from being an antisocial practice, retreat practice frees you to love people in a uniquely powerful way.

Most of us would love to be kind to others, to be compassionate, and yet we are so tied up with our own hope and fear, our own emotions and our own preconceptions, that we just can’t do it; not really. Through retreat practice, we learn the pathway to the person we most long to be.

Let’s step back a moment. What was your first retreat like? And how has your personal experience of retreat changed over the years? Well, my initial exposure to the concept came when I first met Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1970. He had just come to the retreat center Tail of the Tiger [in northern Vermont], which is now called Karmê Chöling. He was talking about retreat practice. I saw that he was already sending people—people who had little meditation experience—into retreat, so I asked him, “Should I do a retreat?” And he said, “Absolutely.” And I said, “Well, I’ve never done one before. I was thinking about doing a month.” And he said, “That’s great. You can do it. No problem.” Even though I had never meditated in my life. So he had enormous confidence in retreat practice. He presented it as the heart of our dharma: “This is who we are. We of the Kagyu lineage are practitioners and we do retreats. It’s the point of our whole life.”

So I planned a retreat. I did it in 1972 at Karmê Chöling. I didn’t know what to expect. I had visions of peace and solitude and quiet and tranquillity. During the first week I discovered that I had the most agitated, chaotic, neurotic mind that I could have possibly imagined. My mind was insane. After one week, I couldn’t take it anymore sitting in that little cabin hour after hour. I said, “I’m sorry, I just cannot do this.” I made myself stay till the end of the week, and then I left. Actually, I left in the middle of the night, running down the hill in the dead of winter in my bedroom slippers and pajamas. I had to get out of there. That was my first experience.

When I got out, though, I noticed my mind worked better. It was clearer, my sense perceptions were more steady, and I experienced a kind of openness to other people that I had never experienced before. And I realized that although the experience of my first retreat had been torture, the benefit was completely undeniable. So I planned my next retreat, which didn’t happen for a year. But I actually did a whole month in a tent on a mountaintop in New Hampshire.

Pretty much every year since then I’ve done retreat. This summer it’s going to be about three months, and I’d like to eventually edge my way up to six months a year. As I get older—I’m 62 now—my stamina is becoming more of an issue, so I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to go up on the mountain. There’s a wonderful Kagyu saying: “When we are young, we don’t realize the importance of dharma practice; when we are middle-aged, we think we are too busy to do it; and when we are old, it’s too late.” Now that I am finally, really realizing the tremendous, incalculable benefit of retreat, I am approaching a time when I won’t be able to do it physically. This realization is not a little heartbreaking.

Do you find that your experience of retreat has changed over the years? Truthfully, the first many years that I did retreat were spent working with a mind that was virtually without cessation, really very speedy, very tied up with thinking about things. I started to see that maybe ninety percent of the time in retreat my mind is in a very neurotic mode. And then there’s this other thing, this depth of experience that seems to come out of nowhere. From the very beginning, I could tell that’s where it was all heading, but I also realized it takes a very steady practice in order to cultivate that.

You can’t just meditate for a few days and expect to live in the Buddha-nature. It takes a lifetime of practice to develop. But I’ve discovered that if you do the practice, the results manifest themselves. Now that’s huge. This is not wishful thinking. Real, undeniable, and lasting transformation is what’s at stake. That’s what I try to communicate to my students. Number one: it takes work. Number two: it gets you to a place in your own life where maybe you really want to be more than anywhere else. So it’s definitely worth doing.

Hut Upon the Peak
The elegant taste
of the renouncer of this world
clearly is supreme
it seems a boat launches forth
on a sea whose waves are stilled

It seems a boat launches forth
on a sea whose waves are stilled
in the morning calm
no trace remains across the sky
of last night’s clouds

In the morning calm
no trace remains across the sky
of last night’s clouds
peaks ring the distance on all sides
pure with the snow that covers all

Peaks ring the distance on all sides
pure with the snow that covers all
the leaves are fallen
but at the hut upon the peak
there is more to live for

The leaves are fallen
but at the hut upon the peak
there is more to live for
the voice of the wind in pines
makes the solitude familiar

From A Hundred Stanzas by Three Poets at Minase, in Japanese Linked Poetry byEarl Miner, © 1979 by Princeton University Press.

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