For the fourth time today I pull aside the curtain and enter my retreat cell. Since it is the fourth, and final session of the day it is the longest and the most intense, more deities are called into my space, more offerings are left out, and many more mantras are chanted. I light my incenses. I wrap my ngakpa shawl (ངག་པ་གཟན ngag’pa gzan) around my chest and shoulder. I place rice, barley, sesame seeds, dried meat, and mini M&Ms on the plates with my tormas (གཏོར་མ gtor’ma), my offering cakes. Finally I settle down and begin the ritual.
I’m currently in week ten of what will be a fourteen week long Yamantaka retreat. It’s a foolish thing, but I do it anyways. Tantric retreats are one of the elements of Vajrayana Buddhism that haven’t seemed to translate into the West properly, and yet they’re of the highest importance in the tradition. To really work with a deity, to truly enter their mandala, there are (simplified) four main steps: the wang (དབང་ dbang) or empowerment, the lung (ལུང་ lung – distinct word from རླུང་ rlung) or transmission often called reading, aural, oral, or textual transmission, the tri (I’ve never seen this written in Tibetan or Wylie so not sure on the spelling) or teaching, and finally a retreat which can take many forms. Mostly people only receive the wang, the empowerment, and think that’s it. There are a lot of reasons for it, but a lot of Lamas don’t follow up with the transmission or proper teaching.
If I were to make a poor analogy I would say the empowerment is merely an introduction at a party. “Mae, I would like you to meet Sabesh, Sabesh this is Mae.” The transmission is more like having a conversation, small talk, you’re connecting with them, but it’s still kind of surface level. The teaching is the conversations you have after a few hours, when you really start to learn about each other. The retreat is establishing a relationship with them.
Depending on what class of tantra (as there are four classes of increasing complexity/difficulty) and how strict your teacher is, there are a lot of rituals, even basic ones, that you’re not able to perform without completing a retreat. Even if you’re more relaxed in that regard there are many reasons still to do retreats: establishing a deep connection that is often said to transcend incarnations, to embody the deity, exploring reality, to massively purify your karma (it’s said for instance that once you have completed a tantric retreat your astrological chart is useless for predictions because you’ve changed your karma so much), and many more.
The protocols and rituals for a retreat are very complicated, and wildly different between classes of tantra and what deity the retreat is with. There is no way I could tell you how to do a specific retreat, nor would it be my place. That said, having done several retreats I do have some advice, hints and tricks I’ve picked up over the years that will be helpful to people. (Including myself, as I often forget some of them until I hit the wall) As said, the protocols are complicated and varied, so if you are doing a retreat, check with your lama if my advice is allowed, depending on retreat and strictness it might not be permissible. A lot of this advice may seem basic or obvious, but I assure you a lot of the basic solutions don’t cross people’s minds. Some advice is more about the woo, some advice is more mundane. It might seem common sense, but I know from conversations that a lot of people honestly just don’t think of some of these things, myself included for a few retreats.
I would say first and foremost the best piece of advice I can give is to start a retreat on a Friday evening, or before you have a few days off from work and obligations. This is both for practical reasons, and magickal reasons. Practically you’re adding in a few hours of activity into your schedule that isn’t usually there, so trying to do a session before work, then going to work, coming home to do another session, it’s a lot to adapt to, and can be very hard and might even cause you to have to stop the retreat realizing you bite off more than you could chew. You also don’t know how much time your retreat sessions will take, so it will be hard to know what you can fit in before work, how much earlier you’ll have to wake up, etc. Think of it like any lifestyle change, Monday is not the best day to start going to the gym for a morning swim, after work for weightlifting, and then jogging when you get home, that’s a lot at once. Starting when you have a day or two off gives you some time to ease into it.
On an energetic level retreats are intense, and while most of that intensity builds over the weeks, one thing that’s fairly common is what’s jokingly called “Retreat Illness” or less dignified “Retreat Runs.” Retreats are hugely purifying rituals, and a lot of people, sadly myself included, get very sick the first day or few. Essentially your physical body decides to purify itself, and that means getting rid of everything. To be blunt, a lot of people get diarrhea the first day, it’s just a thing. If you start before a few days off, you can get that out of your system (literally) before you’re back to work.
Some retreats need to be started during specific astrological conditions, so this might not be feasible. It is possible in some cases to do what is essentially a dedication to the retreat on the proper day, to essentially tell whatever Buddha or Bodhisattva that you’re going to work with them soon, and then to perform that deities rituals as normal daily until you can start the retreat. That’s what I did this time, my retreat was technically supposed to start Monday night, so I went to temple and did the first session with my teacher as a dedication, and then “kept the engine running” by performing Yamantaka rituals until Friday.
Have support if needed. Retreats can bring up a lot of unexpected things, strong emotions, forgotten memories, and other things that aren’t always pleasant. Try to have someone in your life you can talk to about this if you need to, and let them know before you start the retreat so you don’t just end up dumping childhood grief at their feet suddenly. Preferably someone with magick experience or very non-judgmental, because there is a level of weird and intense that might not be appropriate to discuss with people.
This piece of advice, probably more than any other I’ll give, is one that you definitely need to talk to your teacher about first. There are two common mental-energetic reactions in retreats, usually more near the beginning. One is a disoriented confused sensation with light drifting sensations, everything is relaxed. (It’s not too different from being slightly drunk or high) The other is a strong stabbing headache. They’re caused by having your energy too “thin” in the case of the disoriented sensation, or by having your energy too “thick” with the headache. When the energy is thin it flows through your system quicker, like your energetic pulse is racing. This can make it hard to focus, but a very simple cure is to have a piece of meat or cheese. Meat in particular is said to slow or thicken up your energy. When your energy is too thick it presses against your system, slowly moving and blocking your flow. This pressure causes stabbing headaches, but a simple fix is a shot of strong alcohol. Alcohol thins out your energy (which is supposedly why they feel similar) allowing your energy to flow properly again without obstruction.
Now this isn’t appropriate with all deities, general guideline would be it’s not acceptable for Peaceful deities or Kriya Tantra retreats, but it is acceptable for Wrathful deities or Annuttarayoga Tantra retreats. Ask your teacher. If it’s acceptable find out if it’s acceptable /during/ a session. Not all teachers allow food or drink in the retreat session, but if they do it makes dealing with these two disruptions easier. If not you can always partake when you’re done to help level out from the session, or before if you know it happens frequently.
Along the same line of “ask your teacher if this is allowed in the session with you” there are a few other staples that can be useful, but often overlooked. Have lip balm with you, if you’re not used to muttering for two hours straight your lips might dry out, it’s uncomfortable and slows you down. Take some in with you and apply as needed. Water, similar reason, muttering for two hours can wear on your voice, have water with you in case you need to refresh your through. Tissue paper, you wouldn’t think of it before hand, but the first time you’re looking around the meditation cell to find the “safest” direction to sneeze you’ll realize having tissue on hand is a good idea. Also take in a thick towel. If you’re not used to sitting on a mediation cushion for two hours your body will not be happy with the retreat. Having a thick towel gives you something you fold and layout as needed as a pillow for under your joints or wherever hurts. Lastly have some form of counter, you can keep track in your head, but for longer sessions it gets harder to remember where you are. Counters aren’t prone to confusion. I prefer barley seeds. If I’m doing a certain amount I take out that many seeds, when I’m done one round of mantras I toss a seed onto the torma plate until I run out. If I’m just reciting until I feel done I just have a pile and I put one aside each time and use that to keep track.
My final piece of advice is pace yourself by syllable, not by mantras (I see people make this mistake often). During a retreat you have to collect certain amounts of different mantras. In my current retreat for instance I have to do 10,000 Manjushri mantras, 10,000 Yamantaka Root mantras, 100,000 Yamantaka Action mantras, 10,000 Yamantaka Essence mantra, and 10,000 Yamantaka Wisdom Shower mantras. That’s 140,000 mantras, and I know several people who pace themselves by mantra. So say they want to finish in four weeks, that’s 140,000 mantras over twenty eight days, that’s five thousand mantras a day. The problem is the mantras are different lengths, one only has seven syllables while another has forty. If you go by mantra count that varies between 35,000 syllables to 200,000 that’s a huge jump in time. You’d notice quickly enough when you’re suddenly taking a lot longer, and you can change it, but the problem is if you paced out your retreat for a specific end date you have already spent a lot of your time doing very little work and will have to really push to catch up. Starting off with a good schedule helps. You don’t have to make it as precise as me, but you’ll see how I figure it out.
Of the mantras I have to recite ten thousand times they have seven syllables, forty syllables, seven syllables, and sixteen syllables. Then the mantra I have to say one hundred thousand times has ten syllables.
70 x 10,000=70,000
10 x 100,000=1,000,000
So I’m saying 1,700,000 syllables. Now let’s assume that’s over 60 days.
1,700,000 / 60 = 28,333
That’s 28,333 syllables a day. Now you just apply that backwards with your mantras. The Manjushri mantra has seven syllables and I have to say it ten thousand times. You count 100 mantras per round on the mala, so that’s 700 syllables. 28,333 syllables divided by 700 (one mala) would be 40.48. Round up, and that becomes 41, on the first day you say 41 Manjushri mantras. 41 the second day. On the third day you only need 18 malas to reach ten thousand, but 18 malas is only 12,600 mantras, you still have 15,733 to make your daily goal. The second mantra has forty syllables, so that’s 4000 syllables per mala. 15,733 divided by 4000 is 3.9, round up to 4. On day three you say 18 malas of Manjushri’s mantra and then 4 malas of the Root mantra. Then the next day all 28,333 go to the Root mantra, so 28,333 / 4000 = 7.1 rounded to eight. So day four is eight malas, and that continues for almost two weeks before shifting into the next mantra.
Yes, that might seem like a lot of needless work. But I have seen people have to stop retreats because by the time they hit the long mantras and realized how much longer it would take to do, they didn’t have the time to actually complete the retreat. A job well begun is half done.
There are dozens of tips and tricks that you’ll learn, this is no way meant as a complete tip guide, just some advice passed on the most common or problematic issues I’ve experienced or discussed with sangha members. As stated several times though, check with your teacher if you’re unsure. I am not your teacher, I don’t set the protocols for your retreat.