Thoughts on Mahamudra Retreats

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by: Richard John

My first experience of a mahamudra retreat was in the first session of the three-year retreat at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, over 30 years ago. It was the classic Kagyu version, using the text by the ninth Karmapa, Pointing Out the Dharmakaya. Following tradition, the retreat began with three months of guru yoga practice. When we got to the actual mahamudra section, (another three months), we were fully primed for this pinnacle of Buddhist dharma practice, eight men and eight women, in our separate shrine rooms, all facing forward and doing shamatha and vipashyana practice.

The obvious question for me was, what exactly made this mahamudra practice? It seemed like a very big deal, but it looked just like any other small dathun. My first insight into that, which sounds amusing now but seemed quite profound at the time, was “Oh, now we are actually going to follow the instructions!” That led to the recognition that we were practicing shamatha and vipashyana with a spirit of continuously roused windhorse, and ultimately to the understanding that mahamudra depends upon certain conditions. To be authentic, the practice of mahamudra must be infused with wakeful energy and devotion.

Ever since completing the three-year retreat, leading mahamudra retreats has been a great inspiration for me. “Leading” these retreats is a relative term, and I regard my role as more facilitator than teacher. Basically my job is to create the appropriate conditions, and as a student of mahamudra myself, I am simply sharing my practice experience with others. One of the main things I learned in the three-year retreat is that I am definitely a beginner on the vajrayana path. (People who ask me what I learned in the three-year retreat often find this answer disappointing!) But I have come to recognize beginner’s mind as powerful in itself, and indispensable for approaching authentic mahamudra practice.

Right after completing the Gampo Abbey retreat, and guided by retreat master Thrangu Rinpoche’s admonition to make these retreats available (and as long in duration as possible), I helped create a “49-Day Mahamudra Retreat.” This took place at Ashoka Bhavan, the separate staff residence at Karme Choling, which over the previous century had incarnations as a hotel and as a brothel. This retreat was the real thing: Eight of us did it, practicing all day long every day for seven weeks, in silence, not leaving the property. (I think it was actually 54 days, but calling it a “49-Day Retreat” communicated that you had to do the whole thing, and in any case it had more cachet). It was also an unsustainable model. Subsequent mahamudra retreats led by senior teachers for a few years were 30 days. Now, 10 days seems to be what most people are able to do. A 10-day retreat basically serves as both an introduction and a refresher, and some practitioners have attended a number of these retreats, as many as seven or eight.

For me, two of the main sources of upadesha, pith instructions, have been Crystal Cave and Flight of the Garuda. The original editions of these books are out of print, but most of their teachings have appeared in more recent publications. The pith instructions of Kagyu and Nyingma masters in these two books have provided tremendous inspiration for many years, and I always use them, and others, in mahamudra retreats now. Many of these instructions technically belong to the trekchö stream of teaching, which can be regarded as the dzokchen equivalent of mahamudra. Many of the accomplished Kagyu and Nyingma lineage holders practiced both, and there are texts that teach trekchö and mahamudra as inseparable.

About the Author: Richard John

A longtime student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, John has for many years taught Shambhala Buddhist programs throughout North America. He completed the first three-year group retreat at Gampo Abbey–where he first encountered these teachings–and leads mahamudra retreats at Dorje Denma Ling, Karme Chöling, SMC and Casa Werma. Richard and his wife Liz live in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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