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


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.

- - -

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.

§   §   §

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.

§  §  §

Websites worth a look:

"Hermitary." This website has a lot more to say about solitude than I ever will. It is not on social media, for reasons we won’t go into.

"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.


  1. Perhaps "solitude" is a better choice of word than "isolation."

    No surprise on my part that there may be much commonality across traditions. The eremitic path is, after all, an embodied lifestyle. Since all us humans have the human body in common, there's bound to be a lot of convergence in experience.

    Many thanks for the link to the quick study on public and private prayer in Christianity. Another gem to add to my treasure trove.

  2. Dear S.P.,

    Actually, that whole site, and not just the part on private prayer, is quite fascinating to explore, on the whole very well thought through, and not afraid of threatening received ideas a little bit here and there. I think solitude or aloneness works well for hitbodedut (in Judaism), but not so well for Tibetan enpa (dben-pa), where the sense of extracting what's essential and eliminating the peripheral is emphasized (and the point of mind isolation is not to be "alone" in your mind, but to be divided off from worldly concerns). I think use 'solitude' when it sounds right for the circumstances as you like. It does sound more solemn and religious, and less like technique. The Eifring book is very much about technique, so it could be criticized for only delivering part of the goods on what meditation is, and this is true even though they allow that even petitionary prayer can be considered part of it (I personally would just call that prayer, and not meditation). They largely leave body (and regulated breath) out of the picture (and they are aware of this... see p. 7 of the introduction). I think it's a good book for all that, and especially admire the brief paper on Sufi dhikr by Jamal Elias. The book forces thinking/reflection, even especially when it seems off or short of the mark, I think.

  3. Here's something helpful, a book called, "Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations," by Reginald A. Ray (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994).

    I think I now know better where people are coming from. And to be frank, how much more clear and understandable is this topic when the body and breath are included in the discussion! The best sections are:

    Chapter 7. The Solitary Saint, the Pratyekabuddha.
    Chapter 11. The Cult of Saints and Buddhist Doctrines of Absence and Presence.

    I may have to concede that readers will find this study short of the mark as well. India is, after all, not Tibet. The time periods surveyed are early in the history of Buddhism. Nonetheless, I am confident that many will appreciate this no end.

    Your thoughts?

  4. You mentioning Ray brings back memories of around 1974, when I took a class taught by him as an undergrad before he left for Naropa. I'd like to say I've read through the entire book, but more honestly I've dipped into it from time to time, and checked for things in the index. I think nowadays a lot of Buddhologists would tend to agree that the original Buddhism was a movement of wandering forest meditators, who probably only got together during the rain season (ironic, isn't it, that they call this a "rainy season retreat" when that was probably the one time during the year when they lived in community). It's been nice chatting, but I'd like to be alone now, take a chance to breathe.

  5. Have been enjoying the cool breathing. Since somebody outside the blogosphere brought it up, I should add that isolation practices, both bodily removal to secluded places and mental isolation from sensory interferences, are evident in the whole Buddhist world going back to the very beginning as far as anyone can see (and may have considerable pre-Buddhist background, of course). On the mind isolation, I can point to Bhikkhu Anâlayo's contribution on dhyâna/jhana meditation inside the companion volume edited by Halvor Eifring entitled "Hindu, Buddhist & Daoist Meditation." This other Eifring volume may be hard to get ahold of without ordering it directly from Norway, although by the time you read this that may have changed already.

    And as someone else pointed out to me, it could be important to stress that it makes no sense at all to read tome after tome of meditation literature if you haven't even wiggled your toes in the actual practice. That means closing and forgetting the books and sitting down to do it. Seems obvious, but anyway.

    I said sitting, but there are those who say standing or walking is the way to go, and why not?

  6. Would just like to draw attention to someone who intelligently compared the Hesychasm of Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) with not-so-early Gelugpa teachers' descriptions of Completion Stage practice. The author does not insist on their 'sameness,' although he does find much in common, but emphasizes certain differences!

    Christopher Emory-Moore, Clear & Uncreated: The Experience of Inner Light in Gelug-pa Tantrism and Byzantine Hesychasm. Buddhist-Christian Studies, vol. 36 (2016), pp. 117-131.

  7. Just wanted to announce that Gavin Kilty received the Shantarakshita Translation Prize in Boulder this year, and he received it for the book that was mentioned in this blog. Congratulations to Gavin! Have a look HERE!

  8. I was just reading a review in Religious Studies Review, vol. 43, no. 4 (Dec. 2017), pp. 357-362. It's a review article entitled "Meditation in and out of Context: Contemporary Perspectives on the Study of Meditation," by Brooke Schedneck. It reviews one of the meditation books by Eifring, although not the one we mentioned, and contrasts it with a book by Kenneth Rose called Yoga, Meditation & Mysticism: Contemplative Universals and Meditative Landmarks. The Rose book is particularly interesting to me right now. He believes he can make out the shared landmarks of a core mystical path that existed prior to the world's great spiritual traditions. And by some chance he comes up with five (that's right, 5!) shared landmarks: 1. Convergence. 2. Coalescence. 3. Simplification. 4. Quiescence. 5. Beatitude. I notice right away that isolation or solitude is not among his five. Perhaps it is hidden under the notion of "simplification"? Suppose I'll just have to get the book and find out.

  9. JSTOR & other such websites often bring me to read articles from journals I'd normally scarcely look at. A case in point, I just read an article in the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, article 9 in vol. 36, Issue 2 (2017), pp. 75-92. The article is by Steve Taylor who is gaining attention in general mysticism studies for his theory of "soft perennialism." It's entitled "The Return of Perennial Perspectives? Why Transpersonal Psychology Should Remain Open to Essentialism." I have my own background of interest in Guenonian "Traditionalist" ideas, and my own reason for finding them inadequate in particular areas. So it's interesting to see how someone sees it as making a partial comeback. Some perennialist/traditionalists, like Schuon and Evola have gained rejection for communal scandal (not just his heavy metaphysical turn) in the case of Schuon and for genuine fascism in the case of Evola. The whole lot of them has been roundly disrespected and rejected in an interesting book by Mark Sedgewick. But even after the famous essay of Stephen Katz that made mysticism into a 100% context-dependent thing constructed out of nothing, there have been a lot of people continuing to accept that there is a background for spiritual growth as part of a more broadly human experience, and it doesn't necessarily need to happen within the context of a religious tradition. The author makes use of his own experiences (in a footnote) to argue for the non-necessity of a religio-cultural context, but I would want to insert the likelihood that after a 'spontaneous' or 'natural' experience of transcendence, practically anybody would be very likely to turn to spiritual traditions for explanation, validation, and most of all the possibility of returning to that fleeting but life-transforming experience. For returning to it, technique becomes all important, and techniques, especially effective ones, are very likely to spread regardless of religio-cultural boundaries. Taylor doesn't award any credit to the explanatory power of diffusionism, but he's talking about the experiences themselves, experiences that may be intensely personal and unshareable, whereas techniques can be and are often shared. Meditation practices, devotional prayer, and the like are techniques for attainment. For Tibetan Buddhists, a discussion of only 'results' in the form of attainments hardly makes any sense without reference to the groundwork (the stuff we have to work with) and the path. And the path is nothing if not 'means,' the technique and method for getting somewhere worthwhile. I look forward to reading more of Taylor's writings, especially his new book called "The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening Experiences." In this particular article, he seems to see neardeath and trauma as the significant triggers of transcendent experiences, and consciously employed techniques get very short shrift. If I've turned against the Traditionalists, it's primarily because my understanding of valid tradition includes qualities of flexibility and creativity that so-called Traditionalists, want to deny. Too much emphasis on tradition can be suffocating to the traditions they apparently promote by constantly telling them how they should be behaving.


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