Sunday, May 03, 2015

Isolation, Retreat, Renunciation, Concentration.



The way to Zanabazar's retreat place


I just started reading a new volume that’s part of Halvor Eifring's bigger project to study meditation as a phenomenon in a broad spectrum of religious cultures. The book is entitled Meditation in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One thing I noticed very quickly is that in its opening efforts to define meditation, one aspect foregrounded is “setting aside from other activities in time.” When I read this, given as I often am (and have been) to space-time metaphysical speculations, I wondered why in the world the professor hadn’t included "drawing boundaries in space," or to put it in more quotidian terms, retreat.
Mar Sabas in the Kidron Valley, Judean Desert,
founded 483 CE

In truth retreat hasn’t been regarded as equally important in all times in all the three major Middle Eastern monotheistic traditions. Still, we keep finding it mentioned or even emphasized for its importance here and there, especially in contexts of prayer and contemplation. I believe seclusion would qualify as one of the ‘technical’ aspects of meditation practice that are so much emphasized (over and above the deity-oriented or devotional) in this particular professor’s project, although I have no intention to criticize that general approach here and now. 


Consulting with Googlebooks, I found only about three occurrences each of the terms isolation, seclusion and retreat in the whole book. That doesn’t amount to much, and their mentions are in fact incidental.* My perspective is that isolation (of various kinds and degrees) is essential to some at least of the traditions treated in this book, as well as to the traditional understanding of Tibetan Vajrayāna Buddhism, so I think the near lack of attention to it in this book ought to be underscored and addressed.

(*with the exception of a few pages by Jamal Elias on a person we've mentioned before, a conduit for Indic / Buddhistic ideas into Islam named Simnani, at pp. 191-3)

I’ve been doing an unusually large amount of socializing this year. I have to tell you that because otherwise you might start reading this post as one of those cries for help. This isn’t about the emotional state of being lonely, not at all. It’s about using time alone for a contemplative purpose.

My friend M. asked me recently if I had ever done a lengthy retreat.  I unhesitatingly answered no. Still, I’ve often thought of one three-year period of my life as a kind of retreat, the years I spent as a night janitor in a physical education building at a large university campus. I lived alone in a very small room (the kind they call an efficiency), sleeping on its hardwood floor on top of a few folded blankets during the day. Not only did I have the ‘purification’ thing going on, but I had plenty of time for contemplation in varying degrees of silence in the depths of the night. Sometimes it was such an intense silence I could hear my own thoughts.* 

(*Did you ever go deep into the countryside to sit alone where there is a thick blanket of fresh snow, and huge snow flakes descending straight down from the sky without the least puff of a wind?  If you have, you get my idea of silence. It’s a silence you can hear.  This same audible silence yoga teachers call the unsounded sound.) 

I was also much more intently engaged in Buddhist meditation then than I ever have been before or since. However much the custodial duties, not to mention the very low pay, might be considered the lowest depths of my personal employment history, I see it as the high point of my spiritual life. In fact, thinking back on it, it’s as if I could never regain that high ground, and my life ever since has been one long steady decline, getting more and more enmeshed in sangsaric ordinariness, until the particularly low point you find me today, dodging missiles in the middle of a struggle I had nothing to do with creating.




Meditation isn’t just a time set aside, it’s a space set aside, a space divided off, both bodily and mentally. It’s not for escaping, but for facing, the harder realities of life. For a certain stretch of the way, it isn’t going to ease your heavy load, the exact opposite. Isolation can be dangerous for your health. Isolation can be the best medicine. No contradiction there. Now, where was I? Right, a brief word on renunciation and concentration and we’ll call it a day.

The connection is and ought to remain simple: For what are all those monastic vows? Why all the maddening detail? Because they are supposed to free people up in a lot of particular ways (well, that’s my take at this moment on what so-sor thar-pa means). Even renunciates, especially renunciates, are likely to get hung up on a variety of everyday issues so much so that their way isn’t clear to do the necessary work of contemplation. The general design is to simplify and get things out of the way, become less distracted by eliminating sources of distraction in order to focus... all very necessary for concentrated meditation practice. In important ways renunciation enables contemplation. We simply can’t do the one without the other.



Töwkhön, Zanabazar's retreat place, Mongolia




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PS: A post-it note on isolation in the five stages of completion stage meditation.



In a book by Block that we’ve mentioned in a previous blog,* he has a paragraph I found most remarkable, taken from the words of the famous scholar Moshe Idel, about what they believe is an example of a direct Kabbalistic borrowing from Sufism. The details of it don’t matter for the moment so much as the content of these stages of isolation (or if you prefer, abstraction):
“According to the Hebrew version of al-Ghazali [translated by Abraham ibn Hasdai, c. 1230], the Sufis had a fixed path by which they attained communion with God, which involved several clearly delimited stages:  1. separation from the world; 2. indifference or equanimity; 3. solitude [hitbodedut or khalwa]; 4. repetition of God's name; and 5. communion with God...  The similarity of Abulafia’s approach to this subject to the Sufi system is well known.”
(*He takes it from a book by Moshe Idel I don't have on hand at the moment, Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, so if you do have it check pp. 106-107. Anyway, it was while reading Block’s book that the similarities struck me. And the square bracket insertions of Block are helpful for present purposes.)

Now, let’s put those five things in the Block quote into the form of a list to make it more clear:



  1. isolation from the world.
  2. equanimity (i.e., an indifference to the things and affairs of the world).
  3. solitude.
  4. repetitions of divine name[s].
  5. communion or union with God.*


(*Of course the monotheisms have a strong resistance to the idea of nondual union with the deity. In Judaism, and particularly in Kabbalah and Hassidism, they call the sought-for union devequt, sometimes translated into English as cleaving, related to the word for glue — getting stuck, but in a good way.)


Now let’s compare these five to another list of five used to define the entire course of the completion stage practices of Vajrayāna (or tantric, if we can still use that overworked term) Buddhism. I’ll take the Guhyasamāja  system as the norm, since there is a splendidly detailed commentary about it published just recently in a remarkable translation by Gavin Kilty.  The first of the five stages here has two parts, a and b.


  1. a. body isolation.  b. speech isolation.
  2. mind isolation.
  3. illusory body.
  4. clear light.
  5. union.

Or, if you prefer Tibetan:



  1. a. ལུས་དབེན་ b. ངག་དབེན་ 
  2. སེམས་དབེན་
  3. སྒྱུ་ལུས་
  4. འོད་གསལ་
  5. ཟུང་འཇུག



As Kilty explains in his introduction, the first three (i.e., 1-2) are all about abstracting (or isolating ourselves) from worldly concerns, here equivalent to withdrawing the winds into the central channel (the winds and the mental conceptions are made of identical stuff and when one dissolves so does the other). Speech isolation (1b) in particular involves mantra repetition (corresponding to no. 4 in the Block list, divine name repetition, Islamic dhikr).

It is possible to see the two lists as very nearly identical if we simply identify as a whole 1-2 (meaning 1a, 1b and 2) of the Kilty-derived list with 1-3 of the Block-derived list. Take the mantra or divine name repetition as a relatively free-floating element shared between them, and finally collapse 3-5 in the Kilty into no. 5 of the Block. Without going into academic dissertation mode, that's the simple way I know to express how I see the two lists corresponding impressively one to the other. I’m not sure it will be welcome news in every quarter, but future students of the Sufi/Kabbala isolation practices will have no choice but to take the five stages of completion stage practice in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism into account. And by that I mean not only the Guhyasamāja, but all the  other systems as well. Not to say that the Guhyasamāja system isn’t a crucial one:  If we isolate out the temporal factors, the dates of the sources, and focus on that, I think the Guhyasamāja's five stages idea precedes the Islamic/Judaic.**
(**The root text of the five stages literature, attributed to Nagarjuna etc., was translated by Lochen Rinchenzangpo, who died in 1055 CE.  Of course the Indian text Rinchenzangpo translated is much older than that, at least a century or two, I'd say, and very likely more.  So if it goes back just to al-Ghazali, who died in 1058, there is no question which must have been first.)

Did the one borrow from the other? Perhaps yes and maybe no. It needs quite a lot of study and reflection, and so many things are going on around this in terms of background and context, what may seem like like a small issue threatens to become unmanageably large. I like to think that the life devoted to meditation may in and of itself be the source of these descriptions of five (or six) stages. In other words, the Kilty and Block lists would be two variant descriptions of the same sorts of developments as experienced in two distinct cultures of meditation — of meditation along with yet other psycho-physical isolation practices not normally understood as essential or central to meditation. At the very least we ought to be ready to reflect on the ways this may be so.


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Matthew 6:5-6: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret...."



For more evidence Jesus advocated private prayer, look here.



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Significant readings:

Thomas Block, Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity, Fons Vitae (Louisville 2010); our quote is on p. 149. I mentioned this in an earlier blog entry. If the idea that aspects of modern Judaism derive from Islam comes as a huge surprise to you, by all means read this book.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, “Advice to Three-year Retreatants,” tr. by Adam Pearcey.  Look here.


Paul Fenton, “Solitary Meditation in Jewish and Islamic Mysticism in the Light of a Recent Archeological Discovery,” Medieval Encounters, vol. 1, no. 2 (1995), pp. 271-296.  Highly recommended, particularly remarkable for its inclusion of the archaeological, and not just textual, evidence for dark retreat practices in Safed, with photographs.

Eric Haynie, Karma-chags-med’s Mountain Dharma: Tibetan Advice on Sociologies of Retreat, master’s thesis, Department of Religious Studies, University of Colorado (2013), in 95 pages.  Ri-khrod Mtshams-kyi Zhal-gdams.

Moshe Idel, “Hitbodedut as Concentration in Ecstatic Kabbalah,” contained in: Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, State University of New York Press (Albany 1988), pp. 103-169; contained in: Arthur Green, ed., Jewish Spirituality, from the Bible through the Middle Ages, Crossroad (New York 1987), pp. 405-438. The 1988 publication is preferred because it has many more footnotes.


Tsongkhapa (1357‑1419 CE), A Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages: Teachings on Guhyasamāja Tantra, tr. by Gavin Kilty, The Library of Tibetan Classics series, Wisdom Publications (Somerville 2013); the five stages are simply listed on p. 4, but we should point out these five stages are the theme of the entire 648-page book. This same title by Tsongkhapa was published as Tsong Khapa [i.e. Tsongkhapa] Losang Drakpa (ཙོང་ཁ་པ་བློ་བཟང་གྲགས་པ་), Brilliant Illumination of the Lamp of the Five Stages, tr. by Robert A.F. Thurman, Treasury of the Buddhist Sciences series, American Institute of Buddhist Studies (New York 2010).

Tzvi Langermann, “From Private Devotion to Communal Prayer: New Light on Abraham Maimonides' Synagogue Reforms,” Ginzei Qedem, vol. 1 (2005), pp. 31-49. Linkages indicated here include Judaism's absorption of Sufi retreat (khalwa) practice as well as prostration, and developments in ideas about private vs. communal prayer.

Nawang Tsering, “Ascending the Ladder of Highest Realisation in This Life: Instruction for Retreat,” The Tibet Journal [Dharamsala], vol. 4, no. 1 (Spring 1979), pp. 17-27.


Ngawang Zangpo (Hugh Leslie Thompson), Jamgon Kongtrul's Retreat Manual, Snow Lion (Ithaca 1990).

Robert A. Paul, “Solitude in Buddhism and in Psychoanalysis: The Case of the Great Tibetan Yogi Milarepa,” American Imago, vol. 68, no. 2 (2011), pp. 297-319.  Milarepa is here portrayed by Tibetology's most thoroughgoing Freudian as a victim of childhood trauma, and so the hermit life of isolation and solitude can be explained as a reasonably good therapy choice. We’ll never get over those early childhood conflicts, now, will we?


I’d like to say I've read them, but in case you have the time, I’ll ask you to read these two new books on dark retreat for me and let me know what you think:  Martin Lowenthal, Dawning of Clear Light: A Western Approach to Tibetan Dark Retreat Meditation, and Ross Heaven and Simon Buxton, Darkness Visible: Awakening Spiritual Light through Darkness Meditation.  The second one is not about Tibetan Buddhism, but shamanism-oriented as far as I can see. 


If you are looking for something very readable on what it might be like to experience Tibetan Buddhist-style retreat practices, try Vicki Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow: Tenzin Palmo's Quest for Enlightenment.



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Websites worth a look:


"Hermitary."  This website has a lot more to say about solitude than I ever will.


"Hermits and Anchorites of England."  Webpage for Eddie Jones’ project.

"Amongst White Clouds." I don’t know of a more inspiring as well as informative movie about living the retreat life in a remote place.  





When I went to meditate in mountain-range solitude,  
I briefly encountered realization of mind itself. 


When I practiced without distraction,  
a continual understanding arose. 


Now it doesn’t depend on a state of mind.  
I’m content with resolution in a birthless state. 


I wandered in mountain-range solitude,  
or else performed sealed retreat in a cave.  
If you’re in the midst of an assembly, you’re no yogi.

— Cyrus Stearns, Hermit of Go Cliffs: Timeless Instructions from a Tibetan Mystic, Wisdom (Somerville 2000), p. 105.

 
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