BG 116: The Traditional 3-Year Retreat: Intensive Training for a Nonexistent Job

Episode Description:

Lama Sarah Harding, Tibetan translator and student of the late Kalu Rinpoche, joins us to discuss the experience of doing a traditional 3-year retreat in the Tibetan tradition. She was part of a small group of people, who in the mid 70’s did the first 3-year retreat held for Westerners.

Listen in to find out more about the practices one does during the traditional retreat, what the biggest challenges can be, and what the benefits are (especially when compared with shorter periods of practice).

This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, Western Buddhism: Megatrends & Scandals.

Episode Links:


Ryan: Hello Buddhist Geeks. We have a very special guest today, someone who we’ve been trying to get on the show, and we finally convinced or coerced her enough to do it. Lama Sarah Harding. Vince and I have both taken courses with her, so, she’s a teacher for us. And the good news is that we’re going to do this in Tibetan. [laughter] So, you may not get much out of it, but it’ll be fun.

Vince: Good news for you two! [laughter]

Ryan: So, Lama Sarah Harding has been doing the dharma for a long time. Your primary teacher is Kalu Rinpoche…

Sarah: Right.

Ryan: …but you’ve worked with a lot of teachers, especially through oral translation and translating books, yes?

Sarah: That’s right.

Ryan: Are there any teachers in particular that…

Sarah: After Kalu Rinpoche? That I’ve worked with?

Ryan: …stand out? Yeah.

Sarah: I guess, yeah, like Kampo Soltun, Thrangu Rinpoche, recently Aganten, not recently, it’s already like 15 years translating for Aganten Gotu in Bhutan, and, oh, there’s lots.

Ryan: Yeah.

Sarah: I don’t even want…you know, I’m sure…

Ryan: Right…you’re going to leave a whole bunch of people out.

Sarah: It’s better to not say anything. [laughter]

Ryan: Sure. And you’re still doing oral translation, yeah?

Sarah: Not so much. I pretty much tried to officially retire from that.

Ryan: It’s a big need, right, in the community? There’s not that many people out there who can…

Sarah: It is. But I feel like it’s sort of a young person’s job. Not as rewarding as it used to be and also extremely difficult, actually. Kind of a brain-burn, you know, that I’m not…in like my situation, where I was translating for various people, not just one, then they all have different accents and they all talk about different things and different terms, and it’s hard to keep up.

Ryan: Right

Sarah: Itinerant translation.

Ryan: Yeah, what I gathered is that you really had to spend a lot of time with the teacher…

Sarah: Yeah, and then you have to go and stay in all these crummy dharma centers in the basement with, you know, the laundry or something. [laughter] It’s just not…you know, you’re away from home…

Ryan: That sounds delightful, I don’t know what’s the problem? The laundry’s probably warm, right? [laughter]

Sarah: It smells like, I don’t know, what’s that stuff they put in…? Fabric softener!

Ryan: Right. You probably smelled like that permanently for like, ten years, right?

Sarah: Yeah. [laughter]

Ryan: That’s good…at least you smell nice. [laughter] But you are still doing literary translation…

Sarah: Yeah, and that was the other reason. You know, I have three jobs, actually. I have the job teaching at Naropa, and then I have the written translation, and then there was the oral translation, and it was like, one too many jobs.

Ryan: Right. So, some of your books that you’ve translated, or texts, I just want to mention, and it sounds like you have a whole bunch you’ve translated over time, but there’s a few standouts: Creation and Completion; Machik’s Complete Explanation; Treasury of Knowledge: Esoteric Instructions. And that one’s part of a big series of…will you say a little bit about that?

Sarah: The Treasury of Knowledge by Jamgon Kongtrul? It’s one of his five treasures, Jamgon Kongtrul, you know, 19th century great teacher, and master, and brilliant genius. And that was actually the series that Kalu Rinpoche, when he started our translation group, that was his request, and so we all started with Kalu Rinpoche in India and other teachers who he invited and started working on it, and it’s taken very long, much longer than anyone expected. Rinpoche had been very…he really wanted it to finish before he died, but that of course didn’t happen. And so it’s been about 15 years, I think, that it’s been. But there’s six, seven volumes out now, will be a total of about ten. So it’s getting close.

Ryan: Cool.

Sarah: It’s a must have for any Buddhist Geek. [laughter]

Ryan: Right.

Vince: There you go.

Ryan: Totally. I have a few myself. And, as we mentioned, you teach at Naropa? And how long have you been teaching at Naropa?

Sarah: That’s right. Oh, gosh, since 1992.

Ryan: 1992? Nice.

Sarah: Long.

Ryan: And you’ve done some Tibetan language, and you’ve done…

Sarah: Yeah, I have almost every subject you can think of…

Ryan: You’ve taught there…

Sarah: Yeah, including, you know, beyond Buddhism, like all religions, stuff I didn’t know anything about. So that was always fun. [laughter]

Ryan: Good. Cool. One major topic we wanted to talk with you about is, you did one or two three-year retreats?

Sarah: [breathless] Just only one.

Ryan: You’re like…[lowers voice] We already have some insight! [laughter] [lowers voice again] Only One.

Sarah: Only one!

Ryan: No more…

Sarah: Only one thousand days and nights. [laughter]

Ryan: Okay! Well this is something that a lot of people have asked questions about and we haven’t got to sit down to talk with anybody who’s done it. Especially a Westerner.

Sarah: Very few are left to tell of it. [laughter]

Ryan: This is going to be good, then! Good! Well, we have some questions, you know, about the actual doing that kind of retreat, practicalities of it.

Sarah: Yeah.

Ryan: And we can kind of just jump around, too, and anything that pops up in your head, just feel free to go to town on it.

Sarah: Unfortunately I’m known for that, yeah.

Ryan: [laughs] That’s what we love about you.

Sarah: [laughs] Okay.

Ryan: So, first off, I mean, is this happening as much as it used to? I don’t even know how many people have done it in the past, if it was something people did a lot more when the Tibetan teachers first came over and then had people do it?

Sarah: Yeah.

Ryan: I know it’s still happening, but how much?

Sarah: Well, I did the very first one in the West, it was started in 1976, so that time there was seven of us – I mean, it was like, in the world. And then, that one finished in 1980, and then after that there was suddenly about four or five of them, and then it seems to almost actually increase exponentially. And I think there’s a lot, and some that I’ve heard of have had like, a *lot* of students, like in the hundreds. So…

Ryan: Wow!

Sarah: And then there’s all these new versions of it.

Ryan: Yeah, this is partly what I want to talk about, too, you have new versions, right?

Sarah: So, they’re called three-year retreats, but they aren’t three years, they’re three months.

Ryan: Well, let’s talk about when you did the three-year retreat, it was probably more in line with the traditional…

Sarah: Yeah, it was very traditional, and in fact it was based on Jamgun Kongtrul’s retreat that he established in Papung in Kham in Tibet. And then Kalu Rinpoche was the retreat master there, so Kalu Rinpoche just, you know, did what he always did, which was those three-year retreats.

Ryan: Right. Wow.

Sarah: He modified it just a little, you know, for us…

Ryan: Just a little bit…

Sarah: …’cause we were such wimps.

Ryan: [laughs] Right. So, what’s the general main thrust of doing a three-year retreat? What’s the the purpose, like, why even go on one of those?

Sarah: Oh, wow. Gosh, I don’t know, I should’ve asked. [laughter]

Ryan: “What the hell am I doing here in this little box?”

Vince: I bet you wondered! [laughs]

Sarah: “It has a purpose? Darn…”

Ryan: “How are we gonna do yoga?” [laughter]

Sarah: I knew there was something I forgot…. Yeah. Well…oh boy…

Ryan: At least, let’s start with what the main intention would be if it was in a traditional Tibetan model, like when you did it.

Sarah: That’s a good question, yeah. Well, the traditional model, which is something we didn’t know or figure out for quite a ways, maybe some people maybe never do, but really it’s part of the education of a teacher or a lama in Tibet where they would be hopefully doing both, you know, shedra and drupdra, which would mean they would be studying, and that’s a monastic college, and then also practicing in a retreat situation. So, that’s a full education and you know, it basically produces lamas who can then go and be in the village monasteries or whatever, too.

Ryan: Right.

Sarah: And that’s something that obviously, as one friend of mine put it who also did the retreat, you know, an intensive training for a nonexistent job when it comes to Westerners… [laughter]

Ryan: Right…

Sarah: Kind of reminds you of Naropa… [more laughter]

Vince: Sure, sure…

Sarah: I shouldn’t really say that…but…

Ryan: I know this [laughs]

Sarah: Yeah, you guys know. [laughs] But even more so…

Ryan: Yeah.

Sarah: …because there’s a lot of ritual, you know, and also, big discovery, big insight is that Vajrayana is mainly ritual also. There’s a lot of that, and I mean if you really, to really do it, if you look at like the esoteric instructions on doing it, then, you know, it gives you an opportunity to really get teachings and instructions and practice that you couldn’t really get anywhere else. And these kind of instructions are actually not given except in a retreat situation, most of them.

So, it’s an opportunity to do that and to immediately put them into practice, and to put them into practice without any interruption. So that if you were going to really try and experience what it was like to do these practices intensively, that this would be the opportunity. And in that, it was like a really great opportunity. I mean, I’ve never stopped feeling gratitude that I had that chance.

Vince: I remember you saying, in one of the classes that we took, that you started off with the preliminary practices?

Sarah: Yeah, we did those first. Again. I mean, everyone had already done them, at least once.

Ryan: Okay.

Sarah: Or sometimes twice. Or more. But then we had to do them again within the retreat.

Vince: Gotcha. And then what other kinds of practices did you do after that?

Sarah: Well, there were a lot of what, to use a phrase from one of my books, creation phase practices, you know, visualization of deity practices, of a number of them major practices within, for our retreat, for within the Shangpa lineage and the Kagyu lineage and the Nyingma lineage, so we had all three. And then we’d do completion phase practices such as the six dharmas, you know, like tumo, and stuff like that

Vince: Yeah, like the Naropa, six yogas of Naropa.

Sarah: Yeah, six dharmas of Naropa. We did 3 six dharmas: Naropas, Negumas and Sukhacitis.

Ryan: So you guys were like, sampling the different sixes.

Sarah: Yeah!

Vince: That’s cool.

Sarah: Yeah, see, and that’s one of the actual things that, what I was saying, you know, what we didn’t realize at first is that you do sample a whole lot so that, in the Tibetan tradition you can’t teach anything unless you’ve practiced it. So they try and get you to practice a lot of them and some people would rather have done more practice on one, you know, to go deeper.

Ryan: Right.

Sarah: But that’s what Rinpoche had in mind.

Vince: How long would you be doing each of these practices?

Sarah: It varied. I think we didn’t do any one practice for more than six months. So…but more often it was one month on each. The preliminaries took four months.

Ryan: I remember you said you did like, two months of Samatha and it was usually only one month but you guys needed a little extra? [laughter]

Sarah: Yeah, we wanted extra, we said “We need more!”

Vince: Extra helping, right?

Sarah: Yeah, exactly. And he did give us that.

Ryan: And you said that people would do the preliminary practices before the retreat? Were there other sort of prerequisites?

Sarah: Yeah well, there were three prerequisites at that time, I don’t know how it is now. One was yeah, to do the preliminary practices. The second was to be fluent in Tibetan, because all the instruction was in Tibetan and all the texts and practices were in Tibetan. And then the third was to have enough money. Those three.

Ryan: Wow. So, how fluent were people when they went in? ‘Cause that’s what I would wonder.

Sarah: Pretty fluent. Yeah, certainly enough to understand the teachings.

Ryan: Okay. And Rinpoche would teach totally in Tibetan and….

Sarah: Yeah. Well, Rinpoche would teach totally in Tibetan, obviously, but he didn’t stay there for the whole three years, we had our own retreat master.

Ryan: Oh, okay.

Sarah: And he only also knew only Tibetan.

Ryan: So, for you, I know there’s probably many challenging things, what was the most challenging for you?

Sarah: Gosh, the most challenging, well, I mean, the challenges went in phases. [laughs] You know, the first challenge was, you know, your legs hurting, and then the second challenge was how cold it was in France without heat. And then the third, you know, they went on…not lying down was a challenge, not getting out of the box…. And then, a real big….

Vince: What box are you talking about? Just for people that don’t know, yeah. [laughs]

Sarah: The box? The box that we live in, you know.

Ryan: There’s a little…

Sarah: Yeah, you’re in a meditation box. And that’s where you sleep.

Vince: A “literal” box?

Sarah: Yeah, literally, a box.

Ryan: Do you still sleep in a box?

Sarah: No. Some people do, though. Our meditation retreat master, for instance, has always, never, been out of his box, all these years. But, yeah, that was hard, ’cause you’re used to lying down to sleep and we didn’t lay down. But I think, you know, one thing that’s really challenging, and I’m sure that everyone agrees even though it’s really not said too much, is your fellow retreatants. Very challenging. [laughs]

Ryan: So, did you have a lot of interaction?

Sarah: Well, we did…yeah. Not a lot of interaction, but enough when you’re in a retreat situation. [laughter]

Ryan: Enough to annoy the hell out of you? [laughter]

Sarah: Yeah, we did two meditation sessions together a day. Which is a ritual practice. You know, like puja. And then we went and got our meals in the same place, although we went and ate them in our own rooms. And then we had to, yeah, kind of coordinate things, when they happened. We saw plenty of each other.

Ryan: Right.

Vince: What was, I’m wondering, the last challenge, was it related to coming out of the retreat and entering the world?

Sarah: Oh, yeah, definitely.

Vince: What was that like?

Sarah: I mean, that’s a *way* bigger challenge than going into retreat. By far.

Ryan: Yeah, how was that for you?

Sarah: That was, …wow…. Well, at first it was incredibly wonderful. Like at the very first, you know. I always thought it was like having your eyes peeled or something, everything was so new and fresh and amazing. And nothing was…nothing bothered you. Everything was just part of this amazing display that was infinitely interesting. But then, then like, it hits, after a while. We used to have a group, it was almost like a support group. But some of us got together and we all kind of figured it was about ten years of recovery before you even knew that you had to recover. So…[laughs]

Ryan: Wow…

Vince: Wow.

Sarah: So I would say re-entry is very difficult and there’s a lot of issues about it. And there’s no help. Nobody kind of tells you…

Ryan: There’s no post-recovery…

Sarah: Yeah, there’s no…I mean there’s, for one thing, different than traditional retreats, where they would go back into a, you know, a context…

Vince: Right, and they’d start teaching, presumably…

Sarah: And maybe they’d start teaching in a monastery that was a lot like their monastery. And you know, they’d be back into the scene. And in the West, you’re just basically dropped off on the street corner, [laughs] you know…

Ryan: Wow.

Sarah: And yeah, it’s confusing. “What did I just do? And what do I do with it?”

Vince: Right. And how does it fit in with the rest of my life?

Sarah: Yeah! Have you ever tried to put it on a job application or something? “Three-year retreat…” [laughter] You know, or, I mean, you really can’t relate to anybody. Well, maybe like all extreme experiences, like being in a battlefield or something – you can’t really tell what it was like. Like, you can’t…nobody gets it. So it’s very isolating in a way.

Ryan: I would think a lot of people would imagine that it would just be nothing but roses after coming back. It’s like “Oh, I did three years of really good practice that’s good for me,” and then you come out of it and you’re supposed to be like “Oh, everything’s great” But actually, it can be quite the opposite.

Sarah: Yeah…I mean, if I had felt like “Oh, I did three years of really good practice,” it might have been different. [laughter] I don’t really know anybody who feels that.

Ryan: Yeah?

Sarah: Because you know, three years sitting with yourself, you really can’t fake it anymore. And, you know, it’s very humbling. It’s *extremely* humbling. Like I think if someone comes out thinking they’re all really special, they didn’t do it right.

Ryan: Yeah, right, right. Does everyone have, “success” would be like a weird word to use with it, I know this, but I’m saying like does anyone break down in it? In, like, unhealthy ways?

Sarah: Oh, sure. Yeah, of course. Yeah.

Ryan: Why do you think that is? I mean, is it just the nature doing that? Or is there some sort of predisposition to coming into the retreat that, like, makes it more doable to do that long of a retreat? Or what?

Sarah: You mean like, it attracts all the crazies? [laughs]

Ryan: No…that’d be a good question, but…

Sarah: Like *all* dharma centers? [laughs]

Ryan: No, I mean, what makes the difference? Why does one person go in and at least survive the whole experience, and one person not?

Sarah: Right. I think that, well, of course there’s training and readiness. And that’s an important factor. But yeah, I think people bring in whatever their state of their psyche and they come in, and then they are put in a pressure cooker. Because it’s not relaxing, it’s very rigorous. Contemplative rigor, right? And so if there’s anything there, it’s exacerbated. If there’s no opportunity to work it out. And what it’s not, at least in most of the retreats, or at least certainly in ours, it’s not any space for working things out in a therapeutic way. So if you haven’t done that previously, and if there’s a lot to work out, then it can be a very bad result. Sure.

Ryan: And I’m guessing there’s not really, since you did it in such a traditional way, there wouldn’t be really a knowledge from the teachers about the way the Western psyche might work. [laughter]

Sarah: For us it was an especially hard one, because there was no, kind of, of common ground, for our teachers.

Vince: You guys were kind of like the guinea pigs. [laughter]

Sarah: Yeah, we were! And in fact…it was interesting ’cause in France, where we did it, nobody had signed up until we came out. And, like, they were all waiting to see what we would be like before anyone signed up for the next one, yeah. There were a whole ton of people there…

Ryan: Watching you! [laughs]

Sarah: Yeah. Watching us come out.

Vince: Interesting.

Sarah: And Rinpoche had us teach. We all had to give a teaching, you know, so it was kind of like our first, dunno, was like a symbolic thing that he had us each teach. But then people signed up, so I guess we somehow got by with it. Got away with it. [laughter]

Ryan: So, in the West it seems that small retreats are pretty popular. You know, like month-long retreats.

Sarah: Yeah.

Ryan: Is there advantage, or difference, for – I’m assuming there is…

Sarah: Oh, yeah, certainly.

Ryan: …between, say if you do the same amount of months over a lifetime, versus a three-year retreat, like, what’s the, what are the advantages?

Sarah: I think it’s, personally, well…. I mean, I can’t compare, ’cause I haven’t done, like, what would that be, 36 months separately…

Ryan: Right, right, yeah.

Sarah: …of retreat in my life? And there’s a lot of different retreats now that have various components where it all adds up to the same practices. But it seems to me it would be totally different. And I feel like they’re missing out a little on some of the advantages of a long retreat like this because you really do let go after a while. I mean, very few people can really manage to keep connections in the world for that long, and so most everyone kind of arranges to cut off connections.

And you really stop…after a while, you just run out of fuel to distract you. You really do. You can’t remember what you used to think about, and waste all that time thinking about. You know? You just…and so, that’s a great opportunity.

And then, it’s such a help, unless you have, like, incredible contemplative rigor, you know, which I doubt I would’ve ever had on my own, doing a month. A month is nothing. I was distracted for the whole last month of the three-year retreat, thinking of getting out. So…

Ryan: Right.

Sarah: But there’s other advantages to short ones, in they’re different. It’s just a different thing.

Ryan: Right. That makes sense. The last, at least, the last question I have – I don’t know if you have more, Vince – the differences. You said that a lot of them are changing now what the three-year retreat is. What are differences or how is it evolving or changing in the West?

Sarah: Well, there’s, you know, for instance there’s ones that are like they do at Gampo Abbey where, well, first they tried to do six months in, six months out, and then it got to be a year in and a year out, and I’ve kind of lost track of how they’re doing it now. And that was trying to accommodate the fact that most people are laypeople that are doing it and have jobs and families or whatever. But, you know, I think it’s quite…I think that would be much more difficult, much more difficult, you know, then you have to get it back together, you have to go through the re-entry trauma many more times. Then you have to arrange everything again to go back in, and you lose the continuity of it.

But that’s one way of doing it. It might allow you to keep your job or something, although I don’t know too many people who can leave for six months every couple of years, what kind of job that is. But that was an attempt at that. And then there’s various versions of that. All kinds, now. I keep hearing new ones almost, you know, almost every week or something. You know, it’s put out over a ten-year period, and you would finish all the same practices….

And I think they’re all good experiments. You know, everyone’s trying to, it’s such a radical thing to take the whole three years, three months off your life. But on the other hand, um, you know, it’s been an age-old realization that, you know, you have to give up something for spiritual practice. If you’re not willing to do that, it may not be as fruitful, I don’t know. I’m for it all.

Ryan: And are people still having to be very fluent in Tibetan to do it?

Sarah: Well, in my tradition, in Kalu Rinpoche’s tradition, just before he died, Bokar Rinpoche, he’s the successor of Kalu Rinpoche, agreed through various dreams and all kinds of things that it could be done in English. So, it’s in the process of the practices all being translated.

Ryan: Wow.

Sarah: But other groups, such as the, you know, Shambhala Buddhists, they do it all in English.


Sarah Harding