Apprentice retreat

The Aro tradition offers weekend retreats that are open to the public, and longer ones for Aro apprentices only. Public retreats feature talks, extensive question-and-answer sessions, instruction in meditation techniques, and some time for meditation practice.

Apprentices generally attend two apprentice-only retreats per year. These are the most intensive occasions for the Lamas’ teaching, and the most important gatherings of the sangha (community). If you are interested in Aro apprenticeship, it may be helpful to learn what our retreats are like.

I will show lots of photographs; a picture is worth many words.

Apprentice retreats usually last about five days. Here is the typical daily schedule:

The final evening of the retreat is Celebration, and the next morning tsok.

This is the format used by my Lamas, Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen. The retreats of the other Aro Lamas may be a little different.

Morning practice

Morning practice: yogic song with tantric instruments

The day starts with two hours of formal practice. This is mainly silent sitting meditation. Every twenty minutes or so, we sing a yogic song.

For some, two hours of sitting meditation might seem impossibly difficult. If you are used to sitting sessions of thirty minutes at home, the leap to two hours might seem out of the question. It is easier with the support of a group, however. Many apprentices sit in chairs, which is easier on the knees than sitting on the floor. And the yogic singing breaks the monotony of silent meditation.

For some, two hours of sitting meditation might seem pathetically easy. If you are used to intensive meditation retreats, which might have twelve hours of silent sitting a day, two hours might seem to be kid stuff. In the Aro tradition, we also do intensive meditation retreats—but they are done solo. Because meditation can be done solo, group retreats are mainly devoted to activities that require a group.

The photograph above shows apprentices playing Tibetan instruments to accompany one of the songs. (Pictures of people meditating are rather dull!)

The striped shawls we wear are symbolic, but also practical. Apprentice retreats are usually held in late Autumn and early Spring, and it is cold early in the morning.

Morning teaching

Students enjoying a joke during morning teaching

Between breakfast and lunch, the lamas teach. Sometimes they prepare a specific topic and discuss it in depth. (That is also what they do at public retreats.) Ideally, instead, they would like apprentice retreat teaching to be driven mainly by our questions. That is the way teachers can be most useful to close students. Unfortunately, we apprentices generally fail to ask enough questions.

So the teaching period usually begins with an out-loud reading of the current draft of whatever book or essay the Lamas are writing. We interrupt to ask questions about that—and those questions often lead into extended discussions and detailed teaching on other topics. Besides prompting questions, this format gives the Lamas feedback on their writing. In many cases, transcripts of these question-and-answer sessions are incorporated directly into their books.

Meals and social time

Dinner at an Aro apprentice retreat

Much of the retreat day is dedicated to meals, or is not formally scheduled. This is not “time off”—it is actually when it is most important for us to be “on.” It gives room for informal teaching, informal transmission, and the practice of sangha. These are more important than anything on the formal schedule.

The practice of sangha

“Sangha” means “Buddhist community.” In our case, it is the community of Aro apprentices.

Although a sangha is a “community,” it is not a social group in the usual sense. A sangha is an artificial community, bound by a commitment to practice, rather than the usual considerations of friendship, practical cooperation, and power dynamics.

Sangha is primarily a practice. The practice of sangha is to be kind and open within a somewhat random group. Ideally, as Buddhists, we aspire to be entirely kind and open to everyone and everything, everywhere. Ideally, as Tantrikas, we aspire to see all beings as perfect Buddhas. Naturally, we frequently fail—but not always. Our sangha is the best place to make a particular effort.

Inevitably, many of our fellow apprentices we would not have chosen as friends. Many, we may have little in common with­—apart from our commitment. Some, we might even dislike—if we were not committed otherwise. Sometimes, we might be tempted to treat the sangha as an ordinary social group. We might be tempted to form cliques within the sangha. We might be tempted to find friends and enemies and engage in power politics. The practice of sangha is to catch ourselves in the act, and to drop it.

We can practice sangha any time we interact with each other; but it is particularly important on apprentice retreats. That is when the interactions are most intense. It is also the time when the shared commitment to dropping our interpersonal baggage gives rise to magic. The conviviality at apprentice retreats can be extraordinary. It is not that retreats are a continuous party, but that we often find ourselves hugely enjoying the company of people we might cut ourselves off from otherwise.

Tantric crafts

The most frequent afternoon activity is Tantric craftwork.

Tantric practices often involve physical equipment. Musical instruments are perhaps the most important. Appreciation of the wondrous visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, and fragrant qualities of the world is also central to Tantra. Tantric ritual objects are designed to please all the senses. Although it is possible to buy many of these objects, in the Aro tradition we prefer to make our own.

Craftwork is a religious practice for us; it has a devotional quality. Making your own ritual tools invests them with a depth of meaning that is not found in an object bought in a store. Also, frankly, we make nicer things than you can buy. Craftwork is a channel for artistic expression, which is inherent in Tantra.

On apprentice retreats, craftwork is a communal activity. We enjoy each others’ company while creating chöd drums, stringing the beads of sambhogakaya ornaments, or painting a thangka. The Aro sangha has accumulated a wealth of practical knowledge of craft techniques, which we enjoy sharing. The arrangement of completed practice items during retreats is an offering of beauty to everyone in attendance.

Chod drums in various stages of construction

Chöd drums in various stages of construction

Stringing beads for sambhogakaya ornaments

Stringing beads for sambhogakaya ornaments

Painting a thangka

Painting a thangka

Crafting a large ceramic phurba

Crafting a large ceramic phurba

Namkha weaving

Weaving namkha

Physical exercises

Naljorpa Bar-che teaching Gesar yoga

During some afternoons, there are sessions for learning and practicing various types of physical exercise. These exercises come from the Aro gTér and other terma systems. They are designed to complement and support sitting meditation.

Aro sKu-mNyé is a series of 111 exercises that are part of Dzogchen long-dé. Long-dé is concerned with the experience of the “subtle” or “energetic” body. sKu-mNyé produces strange sensations in which one may find rigpa—non-dual awareness.

Gésar training is a system of physical and meditative exercises connected with Ling Gésar, the Tibetan enlightened warrior hero king. It involves movements similar to those of other martial arts, and can be practiced with weapons such as swords.

Horse riding is strongly encouraged by the Aro Lamas. It is valuable as a general practice of bodily awareness, and plays a role particularly within Gésar training. Apprentice retreats incorporate riding when feasible.

The Aro gTér includes several systems of dance. Phurba dance and vulture dance are particularly practiced on retreats.

Special projects

The afternoons of some retreats are dedicated to special projects. Some are large craft projects that need many people working for many days. Others are particular rituals that are not held regularly.

Constructing the Aro colossal phurba

This picture shows apprentices building a colossal phurba at Forchenstein, Austria, in 2003. A phurba is a ritual dagger, used to slay metaphorical demons, such as unkindness and narrow-mindedness. The picture shows the raising of the steel blades. The handle was then welded on above.

Typically phurbas are about five inches long. As far as we know, ours at Forchenstein is the largest in the world. This is only incidentally a point of humorous pride. It is mainly an expression of the tantric method of intensification: taking things as far as they can possibly go, and then some.

Working on an applique thangka

Thangkas are Tibetan religious paintings. Typically they are about two feet square. Much larger ones are sometimes also made—more than a hundred feet across in some cases. These may be made from fabric appliqué rather than painted. We have made a series of appliqué thangkas, about six by eight feet, as large as our retreat spaces fit.

Building a retreat hut, Aro Khalding Tsang

This shows the construction of a retreat hut at Aro Khalding Tsang in Wales.

Painting a room at Aro Ga'dzong

Similarly, this image shows students painting a room during the renovation of Aro Ga’dzong, our retreat center in Italy.

Newly ordained with tormas

On some retreats, long-time students are ordained. A ceremony, a full day long, marks this transition. As one of many steps, students to be ordained construct tormas, elaborate ritual cakes, which are eaten by the sangha. Some of these have already been nibbled on.

Fire puja

This is a fire puja. Fire pujas have several functions in Tantric Buddhism. In one, clothes previously worn by the newly ordained are burned to symbolize the end of an old identity.

Empowerment

Aro empowerment

Most evenings there is an “empowerment” ceremony. (I have used a picture of a daytime ceremony—the colors are better.)

An empowerment—wang in Tibetan—is a transmission of enlightened mind from the lamas to students. It is one of the two most ancient and important ritual forms in Tantra. (The other is tsok, described below.) An empowerment is a formal introduction to a yidam. “Yidam” is often translated as “deity,” which is somewhat inaccurate. A better translation might be “style of enlightenment.” Becoming a yidam is one of the main practices of Buddhist Tantra. In an empowerment, the lama becomes a yidam, in order to introduce the yidam to students. This empowers the students to become the yidam in turn.

After the empowerment, we practice the yidam together. The instruction is to practice for about ten minutes longer than you want to. Apprentices quietly leave, individually, as they finish. Typically we go about an hour or two; in rare cases, a few people have continued the practice through the whole night.

Informal teaching and informal transmission

In addition to formal teaching, and the formal transmission of enlightened mind in empowerment, retreats involve informal teaching and informal transmission. Ultimately these are more important.

Informal teaching and transmission may occur at any time during the retreat: over lunch, during craft period, or on the way to the shower.

Informal teaching can be obvious or non-obvious. Obvious informal teaching occurs when the lama explicitly discusses Buddhism in an informal context. Non-obvious teaching involves no explicit mention of Buddhism. The way this works is subtle and difficult to understand. A great deal is learned simply by hanging out with the lama. Much of this cannot be expressed in words. It is not information; it concerns a way of being.

Informal transmission occurs when something the lama says or does, with no overt Buddhist content, sparks a moment of non-dual insight in the student. Empowerment is a Tantric form; informal transmission is characteristic of Dzogchen. Dzogchen is always more direct, and more subtle, than Tantra.

Informal teaching and informal transmission are easy to miss. They require that students be attentive to the possibility of receiving them, at all times. This involves the same open, alert awareness as formal meditation practice.

Openness to informal teaching and transmission develops the ability to find Buddhist inspiration and understanding in non-obvious places. Ultimately, the Dzogchen practitioner experiences everything as teaching Buddhism all the time.

Momos

Making momos

At apprentice retreats, we have regular Western food, except on the last evening. That afternoon, we make momos, a favorite Tibetan food. Momos are dumplings, similar to Chinese dim sum. It takes half the sangha about three hours to make them.

Tsok and Celebration

Plates set out for tsok feast

Plates set out for tsok feast

Tsok and Celebration are superficially very different, but essentially the same. Both are joyful rituals of generosity, appreciation, and sharing.

As I mentioned earlier, tsok is one of the two oldest and most central Tantric rituals. It includes singing, dancing, a feast, and the reading of a liturgy (ritual text). The Aro lineage celebrates tsok in a quite traditional way. I’ve written a full page about it elsewhere.

Celebration is a non-traditional practice that expresses the same themes in a Western style. Outwardly, its form could be said crudely to be a “talent show.” Celebrants give offerings of the performing arts: music, poetry, drama, and dance. When not performing, celebrants offer their respectful attention and appreciation.

Celebration might appear to a non-Buddhist observer to be a purely secular party. However, it is a serious “practice of view.” As in tsok, the essence of the practice is to see all those present as fully enlightened Buddhas, and to comport ourselves as Buddhas to the best of our ability. This requires impeccable precision of attention. Because it involves finding transmission in a non-obvious context, Celebration is a training for informal transmission.

Celebration

Formal evening dress is preferred for Celebration. Crisp attire is an offering of dignity to the assembly, and reflects crisp attention.

Cowboy Celebration

In Montana, Celebration is held cowboy-style.