July 21, 2011

How important are meditation retreats?

Sam Mowe

A couple of days ago, my co-worker Monty McKeever wrote a post on our blog about Buddhism and money. As you might have guessed, it got some attention: Tricycle Community members left impassioned comments and it got picked up by various Buddhist bloggers.

One comment is particularly interesting. Joshua Eaton—who, in addition to holding an MDiv in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University, has an awesome avatar and is my Twitter pal—contributed the following:

I would say two things. First, while it is amazing that there are so many free or low-cost online Buddhist resources, being a Buddhist is about more than just receiving teachings, isn't it? People also want community (Sanskrit, "sangha"), face-to-face human interaction. Second, retreats cost more than just their registration fees. Not everyone can afford to take a week off of work (not to mention caring for children or ailing relatives), fly or drive sometimes long distances to a retreat center, etc.

In other words, it's possible that the problem lies not with the cost of retreats but with over-emphasis on the retreat model altogether. Retreat is wonderful, there's no reason that Buddhism should be limited to practicing on one's own in between the occasional retreat or sesshin.

Interesting. On the one hand, I know what Eaton is saying: it's hard to find the time to go on a lengthy retreat and we don't want to feel like it's impossible to deepen our practice if we can't go on retreat. On the other hand, I do feel like the times that my practice has deepened most substantially is when I've been on retreat.

On his blog "Notes From A Burning House," Algernon D'Ammassa writes that he was also struck by Eaton's comment. While he agrees that people stuggle to find time for retreats, he thinks it would be a mistake to write off retreats. 

Unfortunately, the commenter [Eaton] is led to question the importance of retreats: "It's possible that the problem lies not with the cost of retreats but with over-emphasis on the retreat model altogether." Note we are now embracing the language of capitalist enterprise: the retreat is spoken of as a product, part of a business model.

To be fair, in his comment Eaton goes on to say retreat is wonderful and that he's grateful for the teachings and retreats that he has been able to attend.

I've asked Eaton to say more about the "retreat model," and hopefully he will soon. In the meantime, I'd like to know what people think. Do we overemphasize teachings and retreats and undervalue sangha? Is there a problem with the "retreat model"? Is it possible to have a full-fledged, substantive Buddhist practice without taking long chunks of time off for retreats?

Image: from the Flickr photostream of gihin

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methomas's picture

Usually designed to render a holistic improvement of people’s personality, a spiritual retreat comprises of Yoga and meditation, among many other things. It is surely one of the best ways to gain mental peace.

Keith McLachlan's picture

I agree with Amano, "The Retreats offered on Tricycle fulfill my need for a retreat at this time."

For various reasons, some of us have to practice without sanghas and retreats.

Further some participants on retreats may think that practice at home is not as valuable as practice on retreats.

amano1940's picture

The Retreats offered on Tricycle fulfill my need for a retreat at this time.

shayknight's picture

My feacher is a father, a business man and a Zen priest. He and his wife are not affluent but he has found time to do six sesshins a year, plus half day mini-sesshins. He has said that the thing he most appreciates about his Zen practice is that he has not passed on as much baggage to his daughter as his parents passed on to him. The second priest at our temple raised two children and managed to do her meditation practice walking on the University of Washington campus between classes when her children were young. For myself and my husband, we have had to struggle to attend even one sesshin a year and try to do as many mini-sesshins (one day retreats) as possible but we have never been able to do one per month. When we retired we did our own two month zazen retreat and finished with summer sesshin. While our regular daily meditation practice and the two month personal at home meditation retreat keep us on track, I realized this time that I need the koan practice and the deeper support of sangha to really begin to shed my restrictive skin of self. Our temple charges only enough to keep the place running and feed us all on retreat. We all believe the dharma is for everyone and should be affordable.

dpoarch1's picture

I am one of those householders who struggles to find time for Buddhist thoughts in between a grueling job, helping raise a toddler, getting estimates to paint my house, getting quotes to clean my crawl space, watering the garden, and caring for aging parents. This IS my practice. My general impression since I started watching Tricicle's posts is that there is an awful lot of self analysis. It puzzles me. My idea of Buddhism is living a good life. I do that every day. I don't feel a need for retreats. I am happy for those who do, and can participate in them. What's to talk about? My vote is for less talking about ourselves and more doing the work of leading a good life. We all take different paths. I could be a monk, I choose to be a householder and family member. To each their own. End of story. :)

icykalimu's picture

retreat is important. if you work everyday and meditate everyday, your mind is thinking about work and difficult to concentrate.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I practice Buddhism alone--on retreat, if you will--most of the time. I live in a small town in the Deep (and deeply conservative) South There is no formally "Buddhist" sangha near me and I don't have the funds to attend faraway group "Buddhist" retreats. There are a few other isolated Buddhists among my acquaintance but we do not practice together and our paths do not cross very much.

However, I participate 4-5 times a week in a very healthy Al-Anon group that functions as both family and sangha for me. The vocabulary is different but the growth process is much the same.

I guess what I am suggesting is that those of us who feel blocked in our formal practice of Buddhism. in addition to asking more fortunate Buddhists to assist us with ideas and money, can also revisit again and again how to practice our Buddhist principles in the settings of our lives that are ready to hand.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Hi Sam. This post is related to the one you wrote on Lumbini as a pilgrimage destination. In both cases, it is the desire is to reunite with something deeply important, or sacred, from which people feel alienated. In most major religions, believers make a journey to a sacred place or take part in a retreat as an act of devotion, seeking to unite with something precious that has been lost.
Buddhism identifies that from which people are alienated as the innate life condition of Buddhahood. A person’s true self as opposed to his or her deluded self. But unlike most other major belief systems, this re-connection with one’s Buddha nature is not tied to any particular holy place, nor does it require retreating or escaping from samsara (the reality of life vicissitudes).
What stands in the way as we seek to the diamond of Buddhahood within is doubt and fear. Doubt that we really are buddhas, and fear of acknowledging that real happiness does not come from money, appearance, ego, material possessions, etc.

Sam Mowe's picture

Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Dominic. I wasn't thinking of retreat as an act of devotion, although I can see how it could be seen in that light. I was talking more about what retreat does for one's meditation practice. If you're a meditating Buddhist—if you believe that meditation is the primary means to gaining/discovering Buddhist wisdom—how important are retreats for strengthening your meditation practice?

Dominic Gomez's picture

The spirit of the sangha is encouraging one another in the practice of Buddhism. And that encouragement from fellow members may occur on a retreat, at a weekly or monthly gathering in town, and even in a chance encounter between two individuals at a supermarket.

mcfogel's picture

@DocGrose: My point was that a retreat is BOTH a product -- I'm not sure what else you would call an exchange of money for a service -- AND a valuable experience. To speak fully about the importance, challenge, and over-all meaning of retreats means to embrace the entire experience, and for many of us the sacrifice of time and money is just as challenging as anything that happens on the cushion.

@alexcthompson: Thank you.

mcfogel's picture

I think Algernon is using a lazy accusation to dismiss Eaton. Eaton is honestly assessing the real-life costs of retreat -- costs which involve the very real donation of money and time -- which is, essentially, a product offered by a meditation center. It's an exchange of a good for a service. And there's nothing wrong with that.

No one is doubting the spiritual value of retreat. But I will say the point in the Dharma Talk when the teacher inevitably references the value of a long retreat is the point which I am most uncomfortable -- not only because of my natural aversion to organized religious activities (this is the moment to me that feels the most like proselytization), but also because there is an air of naivete about what people can and afford to commit to their practice.

It's a fascinating topic, because I'm not sure there's any question that so closely illuminates the central tension of western Buddhism -- mostly westernized "householders" trying to practice the religious philosophy of committed monastics.

nogate's picture

Fairness to everybody, please. I did not make any "accusations" against or regarding Mr. Eaton. I merely pointed out the shift in language mode. The article includes a link to what I *actually* wrote, and I am pleased to be held accountable to what I actually wrote.

I agree with Mr. Eaton's assessment of the costs. I argued that those costs are worth it, and go into that in some detail. I am missing what McFogel feels I "accused" Mr. Eaton of doing.

I suggest, with respect, that perhaps -- and of course I do not know this since I have not been in the room with him or her -- but perhaps the teachers to whom McFogel makes reference are not being "naive" about the burden of retreats, but encouraging students to rethink how large a burden it is, and assess its value from the vantage of experience.

But if the teachers are worth their salt, the point is never to make anyone feel ashamed of themselves, that they are not "committed" enough or not "really" practicing.

Thanks for reading and taking the intent of the words into consideration.

nogate's picture
Sam Mowe's picture

I'm with Alex: +1000. Thanks for the well-said, thoughtful response. Hopefully some more people will weigh in about us "'householders' trying to practice the religious philosophy of committed monastics."

alexcthompson's picture


DocGrose's picture

Retreats are not a product. They are a valuable experience - and the value in the experience is precisely the retreat from the rest of the world to allow deepening of practice. Of course practice can be deepened without retreats, but the demands of life, work and family pull one out of practice. Everyday can be Retreat if we practice diligently and as if it matters. But even in the depth of extreme single-minded devotion, no matter how far one goes in the midst of daily life, retreat allows one to go further. If its not the time for retreat - if family or work demand attention - then not paying the appropriate attention would be antithetical to practice. To be at a retreat is a blessing to be enjoyed. Nothing else. To be at work or home with family is the same blessing - just different.