Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Being on Retreat is a State of Mind

We now can turn to Shantideva’s verses.

(8.1) Having generated effort in this way,
I should place my mind in concentration;
For a person whose mind is distracted
Is trapped within the fangs of the delusions.

(8.2) Distractions do not arise for those
Who abide in physical and mental solitude.
Therefore, I should forsake the worldly life
And abandon all disturbing thoughts.

(8.3) Attachment to people, possessions, and reputation
Prevent me from forsaking the worldly life.
To abandon these obstacles,
I should contemplate as follows.

(8.4) Realizing that delusions are thoroughly destroyed
By superior seeing conjoined with tranquil abiding,
I should first strive to attain tranquil abiding
By gladly forsaking attachment to worldly life.

What does it mean to abide in physical and mental solitude?  If this is what we long for, how do we not start to view our family, friends, work, and other responsibilities as “obstacles” to our training in concentration?  What does it mean to abandon the “worldly” life?  How it is possible to train in the way Shantideva explains and still attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life that Geshe-la encourages us to do?

There are two levels at which we can answer these questions:  conventionally and ultimately.  Conventionally speaking, we can say that these instructions on concentration refer to those times when we are able to go on retreat and focus on our practice.  It is very important that we do so.  Retreat is like doing a deep dive into our mind, where we find both terrifying sea monsters but also priceless Dharma jewels.  We should train alternately in retreat and our daily practice.  We go into retreat from time to time to discover new spiritual wonders or take our practice to the next level, and then we train in our daily practice to consolidate and solidity what we discovered during our retreat.  Even physically being on retreat is not enough if mentally we bring our normal world with us in our mind.  We remain distracted and preoccupied with our normal life and are therefore not able to truly and fully mix our mind with our Dharma objects.  We therefore sometimes need both physical and mental solitude, and we need to leave our family, friends, work, and normal concerns completely behind. 

Ultimately, though, we do not need to limit our training in concentration according to Shantideva’s instructions to when we are able to get away on solitary retreat.  There is nothing stopping us from being on retreat right now – with our families, at work, out in the world.  Being on retreat is a state of mind, not an external condition.  We can externally be on retreat, but still mentally in the ordinary samsaric worlds; or we can be in our normal modern lives, but mentally be on retreat.  How can we have physical solitude while out in the world?  By being inside our indestructible drop at our heart with our guru as we go about our day.  The world still churns around us, but we remain with our isolated body (maybe not yet of completion stage, but a similitude of it) inside our heart.  Mentally we can remain in solitude by believing we are on retreat and viewing everything that happens to us during our day as part of our retreat.  We can be certain (or can we?) that we are the only one in our office with this mental view, so in this sense we are in mental solitude on retreat even while at work.  Our work and family are only “worldly” if we relate to them in a worldly way.  If instead, we view everything that happens to us during our day is part of our retreat emanated by Dorje Shugden for our spiritual training, then nothing will be worldly for us, even though conventionally what is happening around us is just another Tuesday in samsara.  

Sometimes we go from one extreme to another.  We either grasp at our normal modern life as inherently “not retreat” and only being on solitary retreat at Tharpaland as being “on retreat.”  Or we go to the other extreme of thinking we can transform our every day into our long retreat by adopting the mind of retreat as we go about our day and then conclude we don’t also need to, from time to time, do conventionally normal retreat.  In truth, we should be on retreat all the time – the only thing that varies is whether we are on retreat in the context of our normal modern life or at a Kadampa retreat center.  We should always be in physical and mental solitude and we should always leave behind worldly life, again regardless of whether we are at Tharpaland or not. 

We can understand the importance of the training we have studied so far in achieving success in concentration. Mindfulness and conscientiousness.  These helps us to become aware of what is going on in our mind and develop an attraction towards and appreciation of virtue and a distaste for non-virtue.  This redirects our mind towards virtue since our mind is naturally drawn to what it considers to be a cause of happiness.  Patient acceptance.   When we are trying to concentrate and we discover that we have lost our object of meditation, we can often enter into a ridiculous dialogue of guilt and discouragement about how we cannot concentrate.  We should just accept what has happened and redirect our mind back towards our object.  How can we accept it? We can study what our mind goes to to show us what we still need to abandon, etc. We can accept it as Dorje Shugden giving us another chance to create the karma of generating our object of meditation, and thus create the tendencies on our mind to do this.

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