What is a retreat?

Retreats are precious opportunities for members of the sangha to come together and share practice. In the Wild Flower Sangha, that practice is radical: The universe is our zendo, the earth is the altar, all beings are buddhas and hungry ghosts and they all belong to our sangha, the dharma is everywhere we turn, our practice is to include whatever arises wherever we are. In the midst of our busy secular lives in this crazy modern world, including it all is a daunting challenge. Chogyam Trungpa likened it to trying to meditate in the middle of a busy freeway at rush hour. Which is why retreats are essential, giving us a brief respite from all that madness of our worldly lives.
We have the great good fortune to have teachers and fellow practitioners who are willing to make those retreats available for us, sometimes in our own city, sometimes not far away. Such a situation is extremely rare. As the evening chant notes, “Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost…” Do we truly appreciate how lucky we are? Do we seize every opportunity to join in the retreats that are offered? Do we offer to help make those retreats happen, for ourselves and for others?

What does it mean to organize a retreat?

The practice of the retreat organizers is to organize the retreat. Finding and visiting a retreat center, answering emails, transporting zafus, buying carrots or incense, taking care of the registrations, and setting up the zendo and altar are equally important tasks, all part of the practice. We couldn’t do the retreat without any of them. There are no small and no big tasks.

Who organizes retreats?

Everyone! But it’s no easy job. Which is why in my experience, it is essential to delegate duties and work as a team. Each person has a limited amount to do, which lightens everyone’s load. Everyone can contribute something according to his/her skills, situation, ability, etc.: One person communicates and coordinates with the retreat center, another answers email and receives registration and payment, another does food shopping, another organizes transport of zafus and other equipment, another takes care of picking me up and getting me to the retreat, etc. Of course, someone has to oversee it all. That person could, and perhaps should, be me. I’m happy to do it if that’s what works best.
In Portugal, what might be called a North-South or an us-them dichotomy has taken shape in the sangha. This attitude misses the basic reality: We are all in this together, one sangha. As the sutra says so beautifully, “In ordinary life there are wise men and fools, but on the Way there is no Northern or Southern patriarch.” I understand that this is an issue with deep social and cultural roots in Portugal, which is all the more reason to look into and transcend it.
Organizational tasks can be divided up no matter where people live. Obviously it makes sense for people nearest the center to visit the place and coordinate with the owners and for those who have a car and live near where zafus are stored to transport them, for example. But other tasks don’t depend on geography; anyone can keep track of registrations and answer questions by email, regardless of location. Even the shopping can be divided up if someone is coordinating it from the standard list we have developed.

Why do we help organize?

Indeed, it’s a thankless activity. And yet, we are doing the work of bodhisattvas; we can delight in doing it for the others, not just for ourselves. Myself, I know no greater joy than doing whatever I can to help others join us on this (Zen) way into the most intimate heart of life. That’s why for years I helped organize retreats and maintain the daily practice center where I lived with my teacher. That’s why I created the Wild Flower Sangha, first in France and then in Portugal, and that’s why I continue to go to Portugal. That’s my practice, whatever it takes. And I must constantly let go of my ideas about what that “whatever” is.
While it is nice (for our ego) to be recognized for our work and practice, that’s not why we do it. While it is nice to think only of myself and my own practice, commit to nothing and let other people do all the work, that’s not what the practice (or life) is about. If we do let ourselves become ensnared in these (ego) traps, it is almost guaranteed that we’ll end up tired, angry, frustrated, disappointed, discouraged, defensive, in conflict… We’ll lose sight of the point, and probably end up either 1.) working alone, doing everything by our self and resenting it, feeling righteous or victimized and then blaming the others for not helping, or 2.) not helping, doing nothing except for my self, then finding myself blamed by those whom I let down and not understanding why, feeling righteous or victimized. We’re caught in this viscous circle that revolves endlessly around “me.” We call it samsara.

What about the money?

We try to set the retreat price according to a 50-50 rule: half of the fee goes for food and lodging, half goes for the teaching and supporting the practice. We rarely meet that goal, however, with a larger portion of the fee usually spent on food and lodging. To keep the total price low for participants, we look for moderately priced centers and shop carefully for food. We’re always looking to see what is “the right amount.’’ In so doing, it’s important to keep in perspective the value of the teachings and practice relative to the food and lodging: Why should participants pay more for one than for the other? Of course the rules of the marketplace are ruthless and unforgiving, as we all know in these hard economic times: The airlines don’t let me fly for free or even at a reduced price (unfortunately!), the centers aren’t reducing their prices for lodging, and neither are the supermarkets, etc. We have to play by those rules, which are part of our situation in the modern world, and find the “best’’ center and prepare the “best’’ food at the “best’’ price.
In the Zen tradition as I was taught it, there is a flat price charged for a retreat. Everyone pays the same price, no matter who they are or where they sleep, eat, wash, sit, work. This notion arises from the Buddha’s intention for his disciples, which reflected his experience of the true nature of all beings: They were each to be no one special, all truly people of no rank, and they were to dress with and eat only what was given to them. We make an exception, however, accepting that if participants want something “special’’ – a single room if that possibility exists, or sheets and towel, for example – they must pay for it themselves.

What is a “good” retreat and what is a “bad” retreat?

There are no good retreats or bad retreats. Each retreat is different: different place, time, date, length, people, air, water, food, floor, weather, heartbeat, breath, emotion, thought… In life and on retreat, our practice is to sit where we are, with whatever arises, to not be limited by how we want things to be or how we think things should be, to make do with what we have and appreciate our life just as it is at this very moment. Insects, crowded conditions, beautiful countryside, highway traffic, rain, sun, cats, dogs, snoring, laughter, pain, joy – we include it all in our practice, moment to moment.
In daily life as in retreat life, no matter where we are and what arises, true freedom lies in improvising in response to and in accord with the circumstances. If we don’t, we do nothing but imprison ourselves with expectations of how we want or think things should be.

And even so, can we change how we do things?

Yes we can! In fact, if we don’t, we will certainly have problems, because everything is changing all the time. Every retreat is a learning experience, as is every moment. What does a particular retreat teach us about what works best for finding a center, setting arrival and departure times, arranging cooking and shopping, setting up before and cleaning after? What does it tell us about what is the “right” space, equipment, time and place to sit, sleep and feed 30 people or 10 people? What can we learn about working together? Can we individually and as a group seize this occasion to deepen our practice, and look into ourselves and our actions?