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Thoughts on retreat spaces
April 7th, 2015

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Thoughts on retreat spaces

   It would seem most Buddhist "retreats" take place away from the busy world… Country side, trees, flowers, birds, vegetable garden… temporary suspension of many entanglements: no mobile phone, no internet, no TV, no news, no job, no family…
   In terms of practicalities, this might look like a reasonable idea: start practising new tools in a protected and simple environment, before trying to apply it in harder contexts. It's a lot easier to learn meditation when stimulations are controlled not  to overwhelm, than to learn meditation in the midst of an upsetting crisis.

   Of course, one might also mention the Ganaka-moggallana sutta (MN 107) to support the importance of remoteness: « (…)
   As soon as [the monk] is possessed of mindfulness and clear consciousness, the Tathāgata disciplines him further, saying: "Come you, monk, choose a remote lodging in a forest, at the root of a tree, on a mountain slope, in a glen, a hill cave, a cemetery, a woodland grove, in the open, or on a heap of straw."
   On returning from alms-gathering after the meal, the monk sits down cross-legged, holding the back erect, having made mindfulness rise up in front of him (…)
   However, doing so would mean conveniently ignoring the "as soon as", a condition which seriously questions the appropriateness of what follows for the beginner or even for the advanced practitioner!

   Of all the traditions still alive, the "forest" branch of Theravāda might be the most 'tuned' into living in seclusion. Although monasteries exist, they still tend to stay remote from villages and very little engaged in the wider community life…
   Monasteries may be safe places, relatively speaking, but even reasonably recent Thai forest monks wrote about the fears encountered while actually  living in the forest. They argued that living in the forest keeps one alert because of the fear and of the challenges from the environment. So it is doubtful that retreats should  be 'peaceful', 'protected', 'safe' spaces…
   The isolation of the forest was to create, by the absence of safety net, an increase in mindfulness. At the same time, there wasn't much to do: there was no shield to yield, no lever to act upon… so one had to relinquish the illusion of control and to face fears directly (lack of control, "the unknown") rather than to give in to busying oneself.
   This is coherent with understanding "leaving home" neither in terms of social status (monastic vs. lay), nor in terms of location (away vs. home), but in terms of dropping the known  and facing the unknown  (

   The "naturalness" of the forest is a 'modern' re-interpretation by Westerners. Inheriting views from Romanticism opposing "society" and "nature", the re-interpretation identifies our dukkha  with "consumerist city life", and nirvāṇa with a more "natural" lifestyle.
   The forest is no longer perceived as a dangerous place with fearsome animals and other beings, and alertness is therefore no longer its main purpose: the forest becomes a place to actively seek out solitude, not only as an aid to calm-abiding (rather than insights) but also to be rid of "rotten society" in general. Instead of the forest embodying aversions, it becomes a refuge from aversions!
   "Mindfulness" becomes a feel-good "natural remedy" to preserve the ego from what it dislikes from the very world it creates and perpetuates (rather than "right effort" and hard work threatening the very same ego!).

   Most Buddhist "retreats" take place away from the busy world… Hills, small paths rather than busy roads, supportive community of like-minded people… valley sounds and mountain colours…
   In terms of practicalities, again, this might look like a reasonable idea: start practising new tools in a protected and simple environment, before trying to apply it in harder contexts.
   But if it is seen as a safe space, it might however be unclear whether the jump from calm and supportive environment, to busy and challenging environment, is manageable on one's own without a map… It might also be unclear whether there are neither-safe-nor-unsafe spaces where to transition, spaces with steps small enough to confidently climb and shallow rivers to cross, or whether you have to figure it out yourself how to apply what you learnt on retreat into your specific reality "back home".

   Since "leaving home" should be understood as leaving the known, can we still "leave home" while going "back home” after a retreat?

   I'd argue we can; it is very much based on an attitude in front of the said "known", on a way to look at life without  blinding ourselves by preconceptions, prejudices, previous experiences, habits.
   It is an attitude, a way to look at phenomena with a "beginner's mind", with a "not-knowing mind", and to keep looking for how things change and evolve, for what needs to be done now (even if everything was 'fine' yesterday), for what calls for a new response.
   It is the realisation that "going back" (home, or to anywhere / anyone / anything else) is a delusion. We never really go back, things have changed, we have changed, "enriched" by experiences or "hurt" by disappointments, impacting and impacted by engagements with the context.

   One way to work on this transition from the secluded retreat to the "marketplace" (to re-use a name from the Ten Ox Herding Pictures) might be to first enquire into how "home" is defined.
   For many practitioners nowadays, the definition would include "in a city", "cars passing by", "noise", "pollution"… so I'm considering opening a retreat centre in the very centre of a town, with the explicit goal to help people transition their practice from seemingly friendly natural spaces to seemingly hostile cities.
   For those who define "home" as a remote isolated place, the centre might provide an unsettling experience, the new "forest of old" with little respite from dangerous and fast-moving monsters.
   For those who define "home" as an urban crowded place, the centre would help work on the application of Buddhism in their everyday life (and it would also help realise that there's "city life" and "city life": the context doesn't define it all, dependent origination and engagement cause a difference! Is it possible to connect with the 'unknown' of city life, to sustain a wholesome 'potential' arising from this 'unknown'?).

   Would such a centre respond to a need ("how do I apply these nice-sounding Buddhist ideas into my day-to-day life?"),  constructively complementing other approaches, other established centres? Would it bring something useful, not merely creating "more of the same"?
    Due to budgetary constraints, this could only accommodate small groups; but this might be a plus though, by ensuring an intensity similar to the old forest (nowhere to hide), and by supporting that enough attention is given to the specific circumstances of each retreatant.

   Any thought you would kindly share to support my enquiry?

#Buddhism   #retreat   #questionoftheday  
Ganaka-moggallana sutta (MN 107):
Photo © David Monniaux