People sometimes comment on how I never write anything personal on my blog. Well, it all feels personal to me. I suppose this post feels more so somehow though, like I’m opening myself a lot. It’s hard to write about something as personal as a retreat without doing so, even if it doesn’t feel like much is happening at the time.
We went to the Outer Rushen retreat, with Keith Dowman as a teacher. It was held near a small village in Hungary, somewhere in the Bakony mountains. It’s not so remote, but as remote as it gets in Hungary.
I have spent a long time editing the bits and pieces of my diary that I wrote during the retreat into something like a blog entry, but somehow it doesn’t read well. This is an attempt at starting again. I’m not even sure I should bother writing about the retreat as it doesn’t seem so immediately of interest to other people as the political stuff and travel tales, but my blog will feel incomplete to me if I miss it out. So here goes…
Each morning begins with a group meditation session in the one big room, which I will refer to as the Shrine Room. Keith sits at the front on a stool behind a little table with a bell and a vajra. He’s facing us. Everyone stands when he comes in until he is seated, then we sit, everyone cross-legged or kneeling on their little cushions.
Silence for some minutes, then Keith says “the 9 breaths”. It’s hard to explain why this is funny for me, but anyway, I don’t laugh. This is our cue. Everyone slowly raises one hand and places their middle finger over one nostril, exhaling loudly in unison. Three times, then swap nostrils. Then both nostrils uncovered. Some people are more emphatic about this than others.
Now it’s time for the meditations. Guru Yoga, then the red and blue Hung visualisations, followed by the red and blue vajras. What’s a Vajra? What’s a Hung? They are symbols. I have a sheet with a Hung in front of me, red on one side, blue on the other. What does it mean? Couldn’t tell you. Apparently it’s very complicated and hard to explain. The final meditation isn’t a visualisation, but Purification of Thought: “If a thought is arising, look at the place of the arising; if it’s abiding, look at the nature of the thought; if the thought is dissolving, look at the place of it’s dissolution.” My thoughts are all over the place. I’m thinking about thinking about thinking about the thought about thinking about a though. I’m confused.
After a little pep talk from Keith we are each to our own again. Traditionally this retreat is to be practised in complete solitude, for three months. This is a Westernised version, calling for “relative solitude” for ten days. There are twenty of us and we are each to have our tents at least 100m apart. There’s a lot of space up here: woods, meadows, etc. There are also a lot of loggers and hunters. We are warned not to put our tents up within view of a hunting tower, lest we get shot at.
It rains relentlessly for the first three days. The main part of the practice is suspended, as Keith says it’s not supposed to be an endurance test. We are just milling about, meditating in the morning and again late afternoon. I am having a lot of doubts. I think about leaving several times. This retreat is a lot of money. Is it a waste of time for me?
I put my tent up before we were given the proper instruction for the practice. After some days it becomes evident I am not in a good position. When the rain eventually stops I can hear people chatting and laughing back at the house where the kitchen is. Quite a few people haven’t started the practice yet because of the rain and have been sleeping in a dorm in the house with a woodburner and sitting around chatting and eating all day. It’s more like a very expensive social camping event than a deep retreat and seems like odd behaviour for people who’ve spent so much money to come here – many for the third or fourth time. My tent can also be seen from one of the paths. I think again about leaving, but am persuaded by Pete and a woman named B_ to continue. I decide to move somewhere further away, also to go into silence for three days, fast during the daytime and be in as much solitude as possible. If that doesn’t work, nothing will.
I take some vegetables from the kitchen and move all of my stuff to a deeper darker forest half an hour’s amble from the house. I pass two hunting towers on the way, fortunately they are unoccupied.
I open a circle around my new space. This is a Buddhist retreat, but I practiced Witchcraft for years, and these rituals feel more comfortable. The movements, gestures and words come back to me like an old friend. Down in the woods outside my grove I see a man. It’s Keith, looking like father Christmas in his red jumper and white beard. What’s he doing here? He wanders off and reappears a little closer some minutes later. I continue what I’m doing, very aware of his presence. He stands and watches me for a long time. I’m walking around my circle, doing various things. The third time I turn my back, he’s gone.
I’m back at the house gathering some last supplies. Some of the guys are having tics pincered out of them by ‘Uncle Joe’, the funny little Hungarian man from the kitchen. The forests are teaming with them and one quick roll on the ground leaves you covered in about 30, making for a long and unhappy time in the bathroom with a pair of tweezers. Keith comes by. I’d like to talk with him about seeing him in the forest, but I’m nervous. Why I should feel nervous I don’t know. I’m not in my element here and it has a strange effect on me. Finally I go over to sit with him where he’s talking to some of the other men. He seems nervous too somehow. He asks if it was me he saw earlier. Apparently he was looking for his friend who looks after him. She’s put her tent out that way somewhere too. Maybe he thought I was her, from a distance we both have long hair. Suddenly I see him just as an old man and not a teacher at all. I’m not sure what to make of this. It’s funny, but this almost sounds blasphemous. I’m thinking of the way some of the others speak to him. One man in particular, with utter devotion and adulation, calls him “Maszter” and is constantly at his beck and call. “Master, would you like something to eat?” “Master, is there something I can get you?” I realise this is a traditional way to interact with your teacher, but my modern Western mind finds it difficult. I wonder if Keith finds it difficult too, or if he likes it, or just thinks it’s normal?
The main part of the practice, the Outer Rushen, is basically to act out suffering, like an induced madness. This can be done formally or informally. I began with the formal method, working through each of the realms on the Wheel of Life (a Buddhist concept which was previously unfamiliar to me) in turn. Visualise, then vocalise, then physically act out each realm. Now I decide to try the informal method, just acting out whatever impulse comes. I’m trying, trying, trying. The new space feels better and I can move into the practice a little more, but it’s still stunted and stuttering. I find myself jumping around for a few minutes then just sitting down, bored, staring into space. Keith says the intellect doesn’t like this game, it’s harder than it sounds. Maybe. I can’t get past this feeling like a waste of time. I’ve been sleeping a lot, mostly out of boredom. I am extremely untired. I long for my book, which I left back in the van. The purpose of this practice? To separate Samsara from Nirvana – I think just so we can recognize them as the same thing when we put them back together again at the end. Confused? Me too.
I do venture down from my grove on a couple of occasions, to have Pete remove tics from me and if I’m honest, out of boredom. When my three days are up I take a long walk down to the van and return smiling and brandishing my book. I have made it through, now I can read.
On the last day is a feast, a “Ganapuja“. It involves meat and wine. I am drinking wine these days, but I haven’t had meat for four years. I’ve been warned it’s coming and asked if I’ll eat some. It seems unlikely. I can’t think of a particularly good reason for doing so and unless Keith tells me one I’m sticking to the bean burgers Pete and I are cooking.
Before the Ganapuja we have a field trip to an old Soviet nuclear bunker. It’s a spooky place where a number of massive nuclear warheads were stashed, waiting to strike out at Milan or London. There is a satellite tower to climb, up a rickety metal ladder and an underground shelter. It’s like another kind of Rushen, in a way.
The Ganapuja is followed by drinking, wine and music round a fire. The ‘music’ is a digeridoo and several tubs and things that people drum on. One is a proper drum. I don’t eat the meat, but Pete does and so do all but one of the other vegetarians. While I’m handing round the cake we baked Keith asks if I ate the meat. I tell him no. He says he thinks I should. I tell him I don’t really feel like eating meat right now thanks. He says I should do it to show my commitment to “the Dzogchen way of life”. Well, I don’t have a commitment to the Dzogchen way of life, and I’m not going to eat meat just because somebody tells me to.
Why did I come on this retreat? After going to some seminars of James Low, another Western Dzogchen teacher, in Berlin and having a very profound “falling into place” experience, I felt drawn to this type of practice. Pete emailed me the details and I just thought, yeah, why not. I didn’t know the price until much later, by which time I had already made up my mind to come. Unfortunately, this retreat has put me off Dzogchen, Buddhism and retreats in general for now. Maybe I just wasn’t ready for it, maybe this practice isn’t for me at all. Maybe, maybe, maybe…