What is a retreat? and other questions

//What is a retreat? and other questions

What is a retreat? and other questions

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?

By | 2017-04-04T06:58:15+01:00 avril 14th, 2013|La pratique Zen|9 Comments

About the Author:

Enseignante Zen et poète, Sensei Amy “Tu es cela” Hollowell est née et a grandi à Minneapolis, aux Etats-Unis. Arrivée en France en 1981 pour étudier la littérature et l’histoire, elle y est restée, s’installant à Paris, où elle élève ses deux enfants et gagne sa vie en tant que journaliste. The Zen teacher and poet Amy “Tu es cela” Hollowell Sensei was born and raised in Minneapolis, but came to France in 1981 to study literature and history and has lived in Paris ever since, raising her two children and making a living as a journalist.


  1. uhren fake 23 juillet 2013 at 3 h 41 min - Reply
  2. Rita 15 mai 2013 at 0 h 09 min - Reply

    As "alguem" said previously (see comment nr 5), this post was also very appealing to me. And I also read it many times until now.
    I could not "waste" the opportunity to share my opinion, and grow with this too. Somehow, it hit me.
    During the different readings, several ideas arise to my mind. Yes, Amy is right. But how can we include some of the things that truly bother us. If I don’t sleep at night, I might sleep on top of zafu… and that might be my zazen too.
    Or if I don’t have at least (please!) my black/green tea, I will carry a headache all day… and that too might be my practice.

    Isn’t it true that we are always trying to repeat the good experiences? And isn’t it why we keep going to retreats too? Maybe we want to grow "faster" or "better" while inside this kind of protective "bubble".
    Its true for me too that retreats are no good or bad, they are single and unique moments as all moments. Unfortunately or not, I did just a few retreats. (Now it seems I’m longing for new ones all the time, like as they could turn the "rest" lighter. And in a way, they seem to.)
    At these few retreats, all seemed quite good to me. Fitting what I "expected", nothing weird or strange, although I had no idea what was a retreat or if others would be equal. In fact, they all seemed quite similar. Same place(s), same people – to whom I’ve smiled before –, and "same" practice.
    During the very early first steps of zazen, everything for me seemed in a "bubble" – in a kind of controlled and protected environment —, in favor of that idea of "growing better" or nothing to interrupt the so called process… the way. To avoid distractions, we had silence and everything was/is structured into some rules, which helped(helps) to practice.
    So, following these earlier steps, the retreats came in a very similar format. But, in fact there’s is no format.

    Sometimes, like in the "bubble", we can grant silence. Yet we also will have noises. And, sometimes the noise is louder than silence… But, how loud can we accept the noise?

    Quoting Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, in the article "Are we really meditating?" – shared by Nuno Peixinho at our zazen in Coimbra –, she says this:
    "When eating, we ingest, process, and eliminate food.
    But how do we digest our experience? It’s not so clear."

    To me its not so clear yet.
    How do I value all experience?

    Ps — Amy, I found your e-mail "what is a retreat? and other questions" considered spam by fool google. And that might have happen to other gmail accounts…

  3. wild primula 30 avril 2013 at 23 h 55 min - Reply

    overloaded with work – otherwhise i would heave been there after all.
    but practicing every day – so – and – with you after all.

  4. HJ 23 avril 2013 at 9 h 00 min - Reply

    Again, taking everything that life just bring us. Like Sensei said sometimes: Life is my practice. Practice is my life.

  5. alguem 20 avril 2013 at 17 h 56 min - Reply

    Amy’s posts or talks are always interesting /thought-provoking, but this one was especially appealing to me. I was a bit surprised by its length, but it was the subject, this down-to-earth topic and straightforward tone that interested me. I’ve read this post several times, and each time had different reactions, new thoughts coming to my mind, new/conflicting emotions.
    I was not in this retreat (although I’ve been in other retreats before). Thank you.

  6. ceu 18 avril 2013 at 20 h 45 min - Reply

    Olá! Je veut seulement dire merci a João, a Nuno, a Amy, a Cláudia….et a tous les futures organizateurs des retreats …. keep doing retreats ….. toujours que possible je serais disponible pour faires des choses comme des achats aux le transports de zafus…… beijos

  7. Tiago 16 avril 2013 at 22 h 44 min - Reply

    A deep bow of gratitude to the ten thousand retreat organizers, in the ten thousand directions, where ever they are, were and will be! Humbly, gashô.

  8. Tomas 15 avril 2013 at 20 h 50 min - Reply

    I am deeply grateful for these retreats, for teacher and teachings, for these practitioners, for all these beautiful moments, including all, including everything, being no-nothinig, being everything, letting life take the driver’s seat, moment by moment, breath by breatch. Thank you all for sharing this beautiful practice

  9. (*) 15 avril 2013 at 11 h 33 min - Reply

    wild sangha!
    and yet, in silence, we share and give and receive…

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