Elements of the Retreat
Meditation: When we think of a Buddhist retreat we immediately think of meditation. In this retreat there will be meditations and meditative exercises that help us to reflect more deeply upon our life both in itself and in relation to others. These will include nei quan and chih quan, introspective and devotional practices.
Community: Spending ten weeks together should be enough for us to form a small community. We shall therefore learn about community life, work together, and get to know one another . We shall be able to enjoy the possibilities arising from bringing a group of good hearted people together for discussion, for encounter, for refection, for mutual care, love and compassion.
Solitude: A retreat also includes a dimension of solitude, of being alone and returning to a more natural rhythm. Here at Eleusis there is plenty of space.
Ritual: As a Buddhist community we come together most powerfully in our celebration of the Dharma and the presence of the Buddhas, ancestors and great sages in the world, in our rehearsal of the richness that we have received from them. The ritual stage also provides the opportunity for individuals to learn co-operation, harmony and responsibility for the wellbeing of the community.
Sanzen: There will be interviews with the teacher or with a mentor as well as ‘mondo’ sessions in which one to one encounter may lead to a deepening of understanding, and more collective question and answer opportunities.
Dharma Talks: There will be Dharma talks and in this retreat these will focus primarily upon the work by Dogen Zenji entitled Genjo Koan. These lectures will be based on my forthcoming book, so this is a chance to get the message first hand and pre-publication. There will also be Dharma talks with more general themes relating to whatever matters arise from the process of the retreat group. This retreat will, therefore, in a sense, bring together elements from Zen, from Pureland and for the wider Buddhist tradition. However, a concern with sectarian niceties is more likely to lead us astray than to help. It is the experience that counts.
The Goddesses: This is primarily a Buddhist retreat, but in all actual Buddhist countries there is also respect for the deities of the land. Here at Eleusis this takes the form of reverence for the goddesses, especially Eirene, Aphrodite, Artemis and Demeter. This adds a dimension of sacred space and connects our practice to the elements.
Here we live close to nature. We spend a good deal of time outside. You will probably get familiar with seeing the phases of the moon change and gazing at sunsets. There are woods and open spaces.
As this is an autumn retreat. We can anticipate that was the weeks go on the weather will get colder and the physical conditions may get to be more challenging. The autumn can be very beautiful. At the same time, the darkening days can bring out aspects of ourselves that we may struggle with. We shall be living in an old farmhouse with no central heating, rather as people lived in history. Life in such circumstances is less insulated and more immediately real. When cold, cut wood and bring it in for the fire. Our facilities are basic. We have electricity and hot water, but this is not like living in a hotel, or even a modern urban house. In these conditions, we can get very close to one another or we can fall into negativity. It is our choice.
So how is an experience of this kind be transformative? We might think that the particular practices are going to directly effect some change in us, and we would be correct in thinking that, but this may not be the most powerful thing. The most powerful thing in Buddhism is finding refuge.
We find refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. In a retreat community the teacher stands in for Buddha, the Dharma is readily available and the retreat community itself becomes the Sangha. A retreat, therefore is an enactment of refuge.
In order to be willing to find refuge one needs to have a modest view of oneself. If one approaches the experience with some kind of ambition or conceit, or an ax to grind, one will stand in one’s own way. In our Pureland Buddhist way of things here we have the concept of the ‘bombu’ person, which means that we are ordinary, vulnerable, fallible beings. It is precisely for beings such as ourselves that Buddhas come to this world.
Of course, the reality is that we do all each obstruct our own path and understanding in a diversity of ways. This is normal. In a retreat we may find that some of these barriers dissolve. Others may come more clearly into view. This may create points of crisis for us. We might need the support of our friends here to bring us through such times in a positive growthful way. We may also find a greater depth of compassion for one another and for the world around us. Here life becomes more real and in that authenticity we can find something very profound.