We stood in the summer rain with Rinpoche in the muddy parking lot of Vajradhara Gonpa, all 300 of us. It was January 6, 2005, the day of closing the boundary to start the retreat, way out in the semitropical rainforest hills of northeastern New South Wales, Australia.
Rinpoche chanted auspicious prayers, invoked the boundary guardians, threw rice. And then he commanded: “All of you who are not retreatants, go down the hill now! Get outside of the boundaries now!” He too stepped outside the boundaries. Twenty-eight of us were left, standing there under our umbrellas, and we watched and waved as Rinpoche and everyone else drove down the slick, rutted road. Then, looking at each other nervously, we turned and headed back up the hill to our solitary retreat rooms. There was no longer any escape, or entertainment, or excuse. But there was a practice session to start, the first one of the retreat, the first one of 1,180 consecutive days. We soon got into our routine: first practice session at 4 AM, second session at 8:30, third session at 2 PM, fourth session at 7 PM. And we soon began to experience how difficult Dharma practice is, and how right Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye was when he wrote,
My outer appearance is that of an authentic dharma practitioner,
But inside, my mind is not mixed with the dharma.
Like a poisonous snake, the klesas are concealed within me.
When I encounter bad circumstances, my hidden faults… are revealed…
To be honest, the hardest part of retreat life was interacting with the other retreatants. Rinpoche told us that we all must practice Lojong mind training, the essence of which, he told us, is taking the side of the loser. Oh, that is hard, that is really hard. We secretly thought we were pretty good at Dharma practice before we got to the retreat, but in short order we discovered otherwise.
Steve Cline, the resident retreat master, told us before the retreat that we would never, ever regret our decision to go to the retreat. That is most definitely true. With great gratitude, we bow down to our fellow retreatants, for helping us face head-on our egos. And with devotion to Rinpoche, we pray that we might do another three-year retreat in this lifetime.