By Kate Miller
When we think of the traditional Tibetan Buddhist three year retreat, we naturally bring to mind courageous individuals practicing intensively and relentlessly day in and day out. But just as the visible mass of an iceberg is supported by an even greater mass invisible below the surface, so are long term retreatants dependent on an extensive team of supporters who are equally committed to this long-term journey.
The 16 retreatants in Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s second three year retreat at Vajradhara Gonpa in Australia are now in their final year. Participants in the current retreat include five men and eleven women, ranging in age from their early thirties to late sixties and they’ve come from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Hong Kong, as well as Australia.
Traditionally not much is said about the retreatants and what they are doing while their retreat is still in progress, but this is a very appropriate time to say a little about what it takes to support such a program.
Rinpoche’s three year retreat program in Australia is supported by three full-time core staff members appointed by Rinpoche and some 25 part-time volunteers who have committed themselves in their various capacities to serving the retreat – many of them through both of the three year retreats that have been held at Vajradhara Gonpa. The part-time volunteers provide their support all in the midst of their own busy lives with family, work and other commitments, including their own meditation practices. Beyond these regular helpers are many others in the broader community that also extend themselves in support of the retreat.
A Sprawling Three Year Retreat Campus
Joe Shields, Nishkam Pomeroy and Dave McCarthey raising prayer flags
Vajradhara Gonpa as a retreat venue encompasses a sprawling complex of buildings over many acres of grounds, all requiring continuous upkeep. Due to its remote location, the Gonpa is on solar power backed up by diesel generator. Water is pumped from a natural spring, and stoves, refrigerators and hot water heaters are fuelled by propane gas. Rinpoche appointed Jerry Epps to the role of full-time Facility Caretaker with responsibility for the routine daily support of the physical facilities. Jerry, a member of the nearby Gesar Community affiliated with the Gonpa, has over twenty years of experience at Vajradhara Gonpa and his extensive knowledge of the property has proven invaluable in the smooth day to day operation of the retreat.
Andrew giving Indigenous Gallibal Welcome to Country
Jerry is assisted by Joe Shields, Nishkam Pomeroy and Dave McCarthey who spend a day each week ensuring that longer term tasks such as maintenance of grounds, fire roads and minor repairs to buildings receive their due care. They are further supported by Simon Thomas and Andrew Johnson, and in the wider community, by members of the Northern Rivers Regional Rural Fire Service. Joe says, “Events such as three year retreats are such a rare occurrence. The merit generated from such practice (seen and unseen) benefit countless beings for infinite lifetimes. It is an unquestioned privilege and honour to be part of the retreatants’ journey and responding to the needs of our sangha brothers and sisters.”
Fire and Rain!
The rugged Australian sub-tropical bush of northern New South Wales, where Vajradhara Gonpa is located, is subject to periodic bush fires in summer and the possibility of floods during the wet months of the year. The facility team is therefore critical in maintaining a safe container for the retreatants in a manner that is non-intrusive and harmonious with their program of practice.
Jerry Epps (right) & Rural Fire Service volunteers
How real are these threats? Locals say that on average a major bush fire will come through about every seven years. We had one that surrounded the Gonpa property in 2004 just before our first three year retreat and then again during the first year of this current retreat. Thankfully it didn’t require evacuation of retreatants. However Jerry, as our staff fire warden, and our maintenance crew were on hand to fight the fire for over a week. At that time Joe Shields, one of the original founders of Vajradhara Gonpa some 30 years ago, was on site day and night. Vajradhara Gonpa is important as a forward fire fighting base for protection of the nearby Border Ranges National Forest and the fire was monitored and fought under the guidance of the very experienced Rural Fire Service which is comprised mostly of volunteers from the local community. As emergency workers all of these workers have blanket permission to enter our otherwise strict retreat boundary.
The only road to town gets flooded
Earlier this year Dave McCarthey liaised with a crew of Rural Fire Service volunteers which undertook fire prevention activities in preparation for this current season to deal with what Nishkam refers to as our ‘radical areas’. To ensure continued efficacy in fire fighting Jerry and Joe have put their knowledge to paper and completely mapped our property to identify regions of significant risk and prioritise annual preparations for the bush fire season. Even though the likelihood of fire is low this season we need to be prepared not only to comply with our stringent OH&S regulations, but also to ensure that our retreatants can feel at ease in their retreat!
Low bushfire threat sometimes means we can look forward to short term flooding. This last year in particular saw massive flooding in much of the State of Queensland and its capital city Brisbane, just north of the retreat. While Vajradhara Gonpa itself does not flood – it’s located on a mountain shoulder, the retreat can be temporarily isolated due to swollen streams preventing access. During such periods volunteers work extra hard to ensure all necessary support, often in unscheduled hours – all the more challenging when phone lines go down since our remote location is a mobile phone dead zone.
Is There a Doctor in the House?
While the purpose of three year retreat is not to improve or restore one’s health, retreatants must receive timely medical support that will ensure that they are able to carry on with their practice. This can be a sensitive area as the intensive, relentless practice of retreat can provoke all manner of health issues as part of a process of purification. It takes much patience and skill to appropriately respond to retreatants who may develop complex physical manifestations relating to their health. Our health team must be sensitive to strike the right balance of encouragement and reassurance that this can be part of the “normal” retreat process while also being vigilant not to miss those health issues that require intervention.
Julie St. Aubyn, with a background in herbalism, homeopathy and health services administration, is the retreat’s Health Care Coordinator. Julie’s reassuring capacity for equanimity and practicality in varied health circumstances has supported practitioners through both retreats.
Julie St Aubyn & Dr Oscar
Julie oversees a team of licensed health care professionals that have permission to periodically enter the retreat boundary thereby minimizing occasions that might require retreatants to cross out of the boundary. Julie says, “Being a support for the retreat is a fantastic experience. There is something truly wonderful about driving up the hill and entering the sacred space of the retreat. I try to slow down and be mindful in my thoughts and actions as I know that I will be interacting with people who are living outside of the everyday world. The retreatants make me feel very welcome. It’s like visiting with really joyful friends. Their feedback is so positive that I feel like what I do really makes a difference in their lives. Watching the retreat participants as they go through this unique program is amazing. I gain insight into the process of the retreat without having to do one myself!!!”
Lead physicians Oscar Serralach and Jacquie Boustany of the Nimbin Medical Clinic are complemented by Libbie Nelson (physiotherapy, acupuncture & yoga therapy), Michele Alberth (acupuncture & Chinese herbs), Chime Leschly (naturopathy), and visiting pathology nurses. These medical practitioners enter the retreat every three months or so to provide care. Dr. Oscar, heading the health team, while also tending to a young family and busy medical practice, says that for him, “coming into the retreat and working with the retreatants is an absolute joy which also nourishes him.” Oscar takes a multidisciplinary team approach, having a keen interest in holistic medicine as an adjunct to traditional medicine.
Libbie Nelson teaching yoga therapy
Libbie Nelson, is another volunteer who has served on both retreats. Her stabilising and gentle way of being, combined with her lifetime of expertise in her field of health care has been sustaining for staff as well as retreatants over the years. Libbie says, “My experiences have only been positive – even when the retreatants felt low, which was often the case if they needed me to see them, their strength has been a source of delight and inspiration. The exquisite pleasure of being there is greater than the sum of the parts constituted. To sit on the veranda of the Gonpa while waiting for the acupuncture needles to do their bit, I feel I am truly blessed to be able to be there and I recognise that this is a very special experience for us all. It has enabled us all to grow.”
On those rare occasions when it is truly necessary for retreatants to visit external health appointments, Northern Rivers Community Transport volunteer dispatchers and drivers often provide transportation to those participants that are within their age and health criteria.
What’s to Eat?
Ensuring a range of quality food for retreat, especially in a remote location while adhering to a budget prepared years in advance requires tremendous logistical planning. Regina Zenz, the retreat’s Catering Coordinator, has primary responsibility for the two month bulk shop of dry stores, and ensures that retreatants have nutritious food which addresses the changing health needs that can arise for long term meditators. Regina is a great nurturer of others with a reliable and practical nature which has held her in good stead during her support of both retreats – all while managing to juggle responsibilities of family and full time work. Regina says, “I’ve always regarded it as a precious lineage blessing and an immense privilege to be able to work helping to fulfil Rinpoches’ vision and to support such dedicated practitioners through this mundane activity of ‘shopping’. A bit of shopping is nothing compared to what the retreatants are doing, but it’s good to know it’s making their retreat possible! Hey! – what more could a shop-aholic’s heart desire?!”
Kate Miller and Regina Zenz in the supermarket
The Retreat Administrator is appointed by Rinpoche as the person responsible for coordinating all volunteer efforts as well as the 24/7 day-in, day-out operation of the retreat. This position has been shared in turn by Kate Miller, Charlotte Davis and Ani Gosha Gray (Charlotte and Ani Gosha, themselves three year retreat graduates).
The appointed role of Retreat Master is responsible for presenting the detailed curriculum of the retreat and coaching retreatants through the course of the program.This position has been shared by Steve Cline and Jangchub Haubner, both graduates of the Chanteloube three year retreats in the Dordogne (France).
About once a year Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche visits the retreat to give individual interviews, empowerments and instructions. This year Rinpoche spent about a month with the retreatants while doing his own retreat. Other times, Rinpoche’s visit has been scarcely more than a day!
From time to time the retreatants have also been fortunate in having instruction and advice from visiting lineage holders and guest teachers such as His Holiness Sakya Trizin, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Khyentse Jigme Rinpoche, Khenpo Sonam Tashi, Lama Rigzin Samdrup, Ven. Tenzin Dorje, and Tara Frances (MacLachlan) of the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre. Visiting teachers are in turn often supported by individuals such as Jakob Leschly (translator), Ela Pedma (cook & shrine implements) and Jittima (Ou) Promindr (cook & seamstress).
So Many Others
Eva Thomas, Gael Wallace and Judy Arpana have loyally provided general assistance and emergency support through both of the two retreats. Eva says, “Being a support person for a long retreat makes one appreciate the preciousness of the practice, I’m always so grateful to all the people doing the hard work day-in and day-out and having some contact with them is a constant reminder – the atmosphere rubs off a bit.” Tara Thomas and Dawn Johnson have helped out as general shoppers in addition to the individual personal shoppers that assist each retreatant with personal needs.
Steve Cline turns his hand to sword sun moon ornaments for flag poles
Major support is also provided by members of the Board of Directors of Siddhartha’s Intent Australia such as Paula Yacoub-Raymond (Vajradhara Gonpa Facility Coordinator), Hugo Croci (Treasurer & Budgetary Management), Nikki Keefe (Health Consultant) and Christina Peebles (OH&S Officer).
Cangioli Che, Florence Koh, Su-yin Lee and Marco Noailles of the Khyentse Foundation have facilitated need-based scholarship support for qualified retreatants.
It is not possible to do justice to the contribution of all these people with a few words. All-in-all it is the respect and regard for the work of supporting the retreatants as they go through their journey of intense practice which motivates volunteers to serve Rinpoche and the dharma in this way. What sustains them is the knowledge that their service is dedicated to providing a special opportunity for others to practice deeply, so rare in our times.
The current three year retreat will conclude in May 2012. In April 2009 Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche formally announced that the current retreat will be the final three year retreat at Vajradhara Gonpa. At present Rinpoche has not indicated any plans for future three year retreats at other locations, either in Australia or overseas. Any future three year retreat program will be announced through the Siddhartha’s Intent website. In the mean time, those interested in engaging some of the contemplative practices typically included in three year retreat may wish to look to the Dharma Gar programs currently being administered in Germany and the United States, and soon to be available for Asia and Australia. Dharma Gar is designed for those who wish to combine a commitment to disciplined contemplative practice with worldly commitments such as career and family.
Main entrance to the Gonpa Photo Janine Schulz