Today was the final day of the Gyalwa Gyamtso Drupcho at the men’s three-year retreat at Kagyü Thubten Chöling Monastery and tomorrow we will be heading back to Tennessee. People often ask about my trips to KTC, and some are unaware that I have another role outside of the MOCD community, so I thought it might be interesting to write a bit about my experiences in the men’s three-year retreat.
There are currently six men in retreat and they have now entered the final year of their journey. Generally there is a retreat graduate who decides to participate in the next retreat and becomes a “caretaker” in some respect. I filled this role during my second retreat, but the current retreatants are all first timers, and I agreed to come up to New York as much as possible to help with whatever might be needed.
I have a small cabin affixed to the back of the retreat building with its own sink, heater, and a comfortable bed and a nice shrine, and I try to do as much practice as I can when I am not with the retreatants.
At this point, they pretty well know what it is all about, but in the beginning of retreat the new life can be challenging. All the little household details from learning the peculiarities of the circuit breaker box to how to take out the trash are piled on top of the myriad details of the daily Tibetan Buddhist group rituals and complexities whatever practices they are doing in their rooms, to say nothing of the pressures and puzzles of becoming acquainted with the chaos of one’s mind—living in a box, inside of a small room, inside of a fence, for three years, three fortnights, and then some.
And then of course there is everybody else! So much of the work of retreat is learning to live with others in the midst of intense physical, emotional, and conceptual energy.
Though the practices can be very complex and the environment demanding, there are few places or people I find such fulfillment in helping. The earnestness of the retreatants and the enormous potential for transformation and growth make me feel that whatever small contribution I can add will have great effect. It has always been immediately and joyfully rewarding to be able to help people who are sincerely taking advantage of such a profound opportunity. The esoteric nature of the practices themselves also gives me an opportunity to teach and learn more about what is most intimate to my own practice, the aspects of which I otherwise don’t have an opportunity to share publicly.
This last visit was for the concluding rituals for a three-month practice of Gyalwa Gyamtso.
At the end of major practices, such as the mandala of Gyalwa Gyamtso, there is typically a two-week or several day drupcho, or accomplishment ritual that is done as a group. This often includes a one, three, or five-day fire ceremony, or jinsek. Drupcho time is very demanding and chanting can run for up to ten hours a day.
Gyalwa Gyamtso is a form of Chenrezig that has a very unique lineage originating from Guru Rinpoche in both kama (oral transmission) and terma (revealed treasure tradition) that came together in the figure of Rechungpa, the student of Milarepa. It is a very challenging but beautiful practice that was said to be the main practice of Karma Chagme Rinpoche, and also Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé, according to the words of his attendant in the conclusion of his autobiography.
I imagine I will be returning a few more times in the next year, particularly to take part in the Shangpa Kagyu segment of the retreat. This is a very special lineage that was revived by Lodrö Thayé and Khyentse Rinpoche and later disseminated by Kalu Rinpoche. I am sure there will be more to say about that in the future.