meditation retreats

Meditation rescued me from misanthropy

The atheist is an embattled soul. If we think of those proud to proselytise their atheism today – Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins – we find that they are above all polemicists, wearily prolonging a juvenile rebellion. Popes and fundamentalists are their sustenance. And vice versa.Without the quarrel, both parties might be obliged to move on.

My own atheist period lasted the time it took to escape an evangelical family. My father, an Anglican clergyman, had become involved in the charismatic movement. There were exorcisms and a delirium of tongues and prophesies. In the event, it was such a relief to escape into the world of cold reason that the loss of eternal life seemed a small price to pay. For three decades, I have avoided all futile discussion of the existence of God and the place of man in the universe. The only religious ceremonies I attend are weddings and funerals. Last year, when, over the coffin of a friend’s son, the priest announced that the boy was gazing down on us from paradise, it was evident that not a single mourner could take comfort from these ill-chosen words. The old formulas no longer suit.

But life is long and so much of it lies outside the highly verbal environment in which atheists and believers assert their divisive identities. There is also the silence when walking through fields in twilight, or sitting beside a sleeping child; there is the dismay as ageing parents decline; the mad pleasures of physical intimacy; sickness, déjà vu, dreams. Comes the moment when you are no longer afraid to turn and look at all that lies beyond the metalled rails of career and consumerism. In summer 2008, I amazed myself by signing up for a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat with the ageing American teacher John Coleman.

I went for health reasons. So I told myself. For some years, an inexplicable condition had walled me up in chronic stomach pains and urinary embarrassments. The medical profession prospected operations to bladder, prostate and intestines, prescribed powerful medications and batteries of intrusive tests. Which turned up nothing. Eventually, and very gradually, I found relief in breathing exercises and shiatsu. It was the shiatsu practitioner who pointed out that the breathing exercises were in fact a form of meditation. Not a word I cared for. “You should go to a Vipassana retreat,” he said. When I objected that this smacked of Buddhism, he laughed. “Just go for the physical benefits.”

I looked it up on the internet: “Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation. It is a universal remedy for universal problems.” “Universal” and “remedy”, I thought, were words that, when put together, could only epitomise wishful thinking. Purification, on the other hand, was a concept I couldn’t begin to understand and hence a goal I could hardly desire. As for seeing things as they are, I knew that this meditation was done with the eyes closed.

The retreat was in a monastery-turned-conference centre. After registration, one had an hour to chat before taking a vow of silence. The 70-strong group was a mixed bag: men and women, young and old, New Age and no, posh and rough. As we drank tea together, I found this person was credulous, another sceptical, this boy yearning for mystical experience, that man frightened of losing his mind. When a girl expressed doubts about her ability to sit cross-legged for 12 hours a day, a haggard man in his forties remarked that “the position” was not the problem. It seemed there was a problem, but it was not “the position”.

What then? Not money. These retreats cost nothing. At most, one pays modestly for food and board. In return, you are expected to rise at 4am for a 4.30am start, to accept simple vegetarian food and only two meals a day, to keep silent throughout – in short, to live a monkish life. And to learn this meditation method.

For the first three and a half days, you are instructed to do nothing but sit cross-legged and focus on the breath as it crosses the upper lip entering and leaving the nose. When the sitting position is painful, you are to observe it without thinking of it as your pain; when wayward thoughts disturb your concentration, you are to take note but not attribute them to yourself.

By the evening of day two, I had had enough. Feet, ankles, knees, thighs and hips were weld­ed together in a scorching pyre from which my curved trunk rose like the torso of some broken martyr. Round this carnage, thoughts flitted and circled like bats in smoke.

It would be impossible to convey how many thoughts arose, or how systematically they blocked all my attempts to focus on my breathing. Had my mobile phone not been removed on arrival, I would have called my shiatsu man and told him what I thought about the “physical benefits”.

Yet I didn’t leave. I was as much enthralled as appalled. Sitting still, in silence, I found that an astonishing exposure to my thought pro­cesses was going on. How interminably words dragged one away from the here and now of sensation! How tiresomely self-regarding and self-dramatising the thoughts they formed were. In compensation, there was a growing sense of community with those sitting quietly around me hour after hour, some in deep trouble, as I was, fidgeting and sighing and rearranging their mats and cushions, others seraphically still, beautifully erect and fresh. I wanted to be like them.

On the afternoon of day four, Vipassana proper begins. Having learned to focus and free itself from words, the mind detaches from the breath to move slowly through the body from head to toe and back, exploring every sensation, every absence of sensation.

I had just discovered that when one did manage to fuse mind and flesh in the touch of the breath on the lip, the sense of well-being was immediate, the muscles relaxed, the sitting position became not only possible, but pleasant. Moving away from this to explore the body was like stepping from a cool balcony into a burning house. I would never have imagined that the body could provide so much essentially meaningless pain. Nor that I would have been willing to put up with it.

Coleman became important now. His son­orous voice clicked in and out of the silence to guide us round our bodies with a calm and deeply reassuring charisma. “Let go,” he commanded when we arrived at a point of tension. “Just let go.” Towards day seven, I began to get, very fleetingly, a sense of the whole body flowing together in a state of serene, liquid energy. I had stopped waiting for each hour to end.

But the real surprise of the retreat came with the last meditation before the silence was ended – the “metta bhavana”, or meditation of loving kindness. Outside the meditation hall, moving around the grounds, I had noticed as the days went by that the natural world was intensely present to me in a way that was unusual and moving. The absence of input was allowing for a simple sense of pleasure in being here.

When the old man began the metta bhavana, I found an unexpected generosity welling up in me. There is no point in denying it: Tim Parks is a misanthropist, interminably critical of his fellow man. Yet here I was, feeling something suspiciously like love, or St Paul’s charity. It rose from depths I knew nothing of. And to tap in to it, I hadn’t had to surrender my reason to any belief structure. Just by putting the chatter aside and reinhabiting my body, I had experienced a big shift of feeling. My shiatsu man, I realised now, must have known all along, being a holist, that one can’t just take the physical benefits without undergoing a change of heart.

When the atheists take religion to task for its absurd beliefs or for the damage it has done, we have no choice but to agree. They could hardly have an easier target. Yet the intimations that lie behind religions remain and are not going to go away because someone has written a book denying God. They are part of our reality. How we respond to those feelings, individually and collectively, will very largely define the kind of community we become. One can only hope that they do not crystallise in divisive creeds.

“Teach Us To Sit Still” by Tim Parks is published by Harvill Secker (£12.99)

[Tim Parks, New Statesman]
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That misery called meditation

Robert Wright, the New York Times online columnist and author of The Evolution of God, is pretty much what you’d call a cynic. That’s why I was surprised when he spoke with such reverence of the period he spent meditating at a silent Buddhist retreat. “When I came out, I was quite different,” he told me. “It was one of the best things I’d ever done.”

What could bring such joy to a cynic? The way to find out was to go to Barre, Mass., home of the Insight Meditation Society, where Wright went on his pilgrimage many years ago. Founded in the 1970s by a group of Westerners who had spent time as Buddhist monks in Southeast Asia, it occupies a former Catholic novitiate next to a forest in the middle of nowhere. For nearly 40 years, it has been offering, well, silence.

I went for what was technically called a retreat. More specifically, it was seven days of silent meditation on the quality of infinite and unconditional loving-kindness. (Metta in Buddhist parlance.) There were rules: No speech, no hurting any being (including insects), no sexual misconduct, and no stealing. We would eat simple meals, sit in a meditation hall, or walk slowly back and forth with the mind focused on loving-kindness. In theory, it sounded pretty nice.

I was, it turned out, wrong. By Day 1, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. After my initial curiosity wore through, I began (in the parlance) to “notice” something: I was miserable. Sitting silently on a cushion for hours at a time turns out to be intensely boring. Worse, it was also physically painful. You could sit cross-legged, kneel, or even sit on a chair, but it didn’t really matter, because after a while, the same nauseating pain would creep into my right shoulder and scream into my ears. I was bored, aching, and because of the whole silent thing, lacked anyone to complain to. Wright be damned, I’d come to the wrong place.

My fellow meditators (referred to as “yogis”) actually made things worse. They hardly resembled beacons of love and joy. Instead, they walked around slowly, dragging their feet, faces blank. I began to feel that I was surrounded by zombies; I half-expected to see arms drop off. Sitting at dinner, surrounded by drooping humans, hunched over their plates, I imagined that I was at a banquet for the chronically depressed. I began to feel a physical, sinking dread at being around so much obvious misery. To think I could have been lying on a beach; instead I was trapped in a morgue.

In short, I quickly figured out that it had been a mistake to come here, and I still had about 140 hours of unrelenting boredom ahead of me. Think about it: A week of pure vacation is a valuable thing to waste sitting on a cushion. I kept imagining the myriad other ways I could have spent it. Back to Japan? To Alaska, into the wild? Scuba diving? Rock climbing? Anything and anywhere but here.

So my meditation practice became one long battle with regret. It went something like this: The teacher told us to imagine a place that made us feel happy and peaceful. I pictured a mountain. Fine. Then I pictured myself hiking that mountain. Then I said, What I am doing here instead of there? Angrily, I switched to the ocean. Peaceful. Then I thought of fish in the ocean. The fish became sushi and I became hungry. There was a piece of shiny fish sitting on rice, quivering slightly. I opened my eyes; and the sushi disappeared. I saw instead a room full of zombies trying to imagine what happiness felt like.

These thoughts, the teacher later explained, were something called a “hindrance.” The fact that I wanted to do something other than sit in the meditation hall was a desire, and desire leads to suffering. (This is the first lesson in Buddhism.) At the time, it seemed clearer to me that sitting in that hall, bored stiff and with burning shoulders was the very essence of “suffering.” Desire, meanwhile, seemed to have a lot to say for itself: It took you places, like, say, the local bar. Give me sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, I thought. I’d have settled for a sitcom at that point; something, anything. But there was still no one to complain to but myself, so I complained away, and I felt bad about that as I slowly lost the ability to move my neck from side to side.

If I’d had my own car, that might have been it, but I didn’t leave Barre—though I did spot at least one person dragging their luggage to the parking lot, never to return. The days passed, and after a while, something began to change. The regret subsided, and I found myself beginning to find it more bearable, even mildly enjoyable. The teachers encouraged us to be easy on ourselves, and I took the hint. If Phase 1 was regret-filled misery, in what you might call Phase 2, I retooled the experience to amuse myself; to turn the retreat into my own personal playground.

It began when we were instructed once again to conjure up a person or place that brought forth feelings of joy and love. Suddenly, I was a child, and I saw my mother as a young woman, eyes full of love, holding my hand and leading me through the park across from our home. My chest ached with the memory, and hot tears of joy came to my eyes. I refocused and felt on my hands the rough bark of my favorite childhood climbing tree, joined with the smell of summer. I summoned my best friends from second grade, Peter and Eddie, and together we ran off looking for adventure. I zoomed forward a few years and found myself with fists full of grass, climbing the side of a Swiss waterfall with my brother and best friends, my heart bursting with deepest joy.

In Phase 2, I had somehow grabbed control of the DVD player of life, and I skipped to the best scenes, the greatest moments of uncomplicated joy. I kissed my first girlfriend all over again on the porch at midnight. I flew to Mongolia, landed on a galloping horse, and thundered across the plains. I watched myself, at the age of 26, a young clerk at the Supreme Court, clutching in my hand a secret memo with a crucial fifth vote. With hours to kill and the remote control in my head, I went on adventures in memory that brought forth an outpouring of the love and kindness that we’d come to meditate on.

Back in reality, I also began to realize that despite the strict meditation schedule, no one could actually tell me what to do. If I decided to ditch the meditation hall and go off into the adjoining forest, no one was going to stop me. And so, with a stick serving as a sword, I ventured deep into the woods in search of ancient treasures, heading a troupe of heroes and wizards on a quest for the stone of wisdom. As a British commando, I spied on an enemy fortress, gathering intelligence. I became a wandering samurai, shouting challenges in Japanese and chopping the arms off my opponents (trees). After a while, I had to face it: I was having a ball, deep in a second childhood as vivid as the first.

Back at the seminary, meanwhile, my fellow zombies began to serve as a source of amusement. I laughed (silently) at their goofy posture and serious bearing. Knowing nothing about them, I made up nicknames and personalities: A man who snored his way through most of the sittings was Sleepy; the woman with a well-developed musculature was Hard Body. More naughtily, I began to imagine that my colleagues were arranging secret trysts, breaking the rules banning “sexual misconduct.” There was, I decided, a secret form of meditative sex going on, negotiated and conducted in total silence. I found unlimited amusement in that oldest of speculations: trying to guess who was secretly sleeping with whom.

All this made for great fun, but a touch of guilt, as well. It occurred to me that I wasn’t quite following the program. I wasn’t meditating nearly as much as the schedule called for, and at some level I did want to see what all the fuss was about. My daydreams, as vivid as they were, were, in Buddhist terminology, also hindrances, forms of “thinking,” and not what we were supposed to be doing, namely “being” or “abiding.” The teachers had warned us that the mind would do everything it could to avoid pain or discomfort, and it seemed pretty clear that was exactly what was going on. Yes, I had defeated boredom by the force of my imagination. But I sure hadn’t transcended it. Was there more?

It all came to a head in a meeting with Michele McDonald, the head teacher, a woman whose arrival in a room seemed to send invisible shock waves in every direction. She looked at me for a few moments, and then she asked how I was doing. The sound of my voice seemed strange, but I heard myself explaining that, after a rough start, I was feeling a lot of love and having a good time. I referred to an early talk where she warned us about trying to shut the door on pain, and I thought I should address that. I said that while I’d tried to find some pain, I had more or less given up on that and decided to just have fun, and so—

“Sit longer!” she commanded.

I was taken aback.

“Think about it for a second” she said. “What makes you get up? Sit! Don’t move, and you’ll see.”

It is hard to ignore a direct command that comes from a Buddhist master. So began what you might call Phase 3: I went to the meditation hall and sat. Really sat, I mean, without moving, not even to scratch an itch or stretch an ankle. By this time, I’d actually learned to sit in something like a loose, highly undignified interpretation of the lotus position, and there I remained for close to three hours, by far the longest I had ever sat in one place without moving a muscle.

And the master was right—something did happen. As predicted, the pain came. But I didn’t move. Into the second hour, the pain was sometimes excruciating: I could have sworn that live coals were being held to my ankles. But at some level I had decided to sit, and that was it. Yes, I was aching, but it was bearable, and even, in a weird way, sort of lovable. For somewhere within it I was beginning to feel a surrender that was deeply and profoundly relaxing.

After that session, I changed my approach and began to surrender further, relinquishing control bit by bit. I gave up trying to do anything special or different than anyone else. Basically, I became one more zombie. When the teachers said, “Sit,” I sat, and when it was time to walk, I walked. Somehow it didn’t feel boring any more. It was almost as if I’d forgotten what boring was.

At about the same time, a few other strange things began to happen. Once, while eating, my eyes became fixated on a patch of moss, and without warning, time stopped for who knows how long. At other times, colors seemed to be wrong, as if I was wearing tinted glasses. At one point I realized that I had forgotten my own name, the way you might forget the capital of Serbia. And I had begun to find even the smallest thing fascinating. Watching an ant crossing a rock was, for me, like Avatar in 3-D.

And just like that, it ended. Suddenly, we could speak again. I met Sleepy and Hard Body, who had real names and personalities completely different than the ones I had imagined. I hitched a ride back to New York City, where everything looked quite alien. Coming home, I noticed for the first time the sound of the floorboards creaking beneath my feet.

If New York was the same, I was still far from normal, at least for a while. Real life seemed like a big joke—it was far too dramatic, exaggerated, and, above all, comic to be real. A fat man argued with a short man, pointing wildly. Along came a group of girls, dressed for the evening, giggling and texting. And all these people talking to their dogs! Surely I was sitting in a giant theater, and these were paid actors, albeit exceptionally well-cast for their roles.

But over the next few days, those effects slowly wore off. (I did write a lot of kind and loving e-mails, knowing I might not see things so clearly later on.) I began to eat meat again, got on airplanes, and rediscovered what it felt to be rushed. I can’t really say whether the week of silence had a lasting effect, though I’d like to hope it did.

Looking back, it’s pretty clear to me that I’m not destined to reach enlightenment or to be a Buddhist yogi—not in this life, anyway. The retreat helped me realize that I’m full of desire, of longings for raw experience, and unbelievably controlling of how my life is lived. I also know that a taste for adventure is, at some level, why I went to the retreat in the first place; in that sense, the whole thing was corrupted from the start. But I can report that Robert Wright did know what he was talking about. It sounds simple, but one week of silence may give you a hint, maybe more reliably than almost anything else, of who you are.

[Tim Wu, Slate]
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Take a journey of noble silence

Buddha taught Vipassana for free to all who cared to practise it 2,500 years ago. Today, the Alberta Vipassana Foundation is teaching this technique for free to all who are determined to give it a try, to see for themselves how it works and to weigh the benefits.

Vipassana in Pali means “insight” to see things as they really are and it has been described by S.N. Goenka as “an art of living.” It is a way of self-transformation through self-observation and self-reflection. Its unique quality is non-sectarian, non-religious and it must be taught entirely for free.

The first 10-day course scheduled in 2010 was held at Camp Kasota in Sylvan Lake, from April 26 to May 7. The course was taught by Goenka on audio and videodiscs. An assistant teacher was there to help students, by offering guidance and answering questions in the practice.

The camp is in a secluded natural environment on the bank of Sylvan Lake. Men and women were segregated and told to respect their boundary areas. Every four students were housed in a heated cabin with built-in bunk beds, quite enough space to sleep in.

In the official opening of the camp, we took vows to abide by the code of disciplines — to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, intoxicants and speaking falsely throughout the entire course. We had to observe Noble Silence — to abstain completely from communication with others, except teachers, whether vocally or physically by glances and gestures.

Food was vegetarian, but pretty decent in varieties and variations, with international flavours and including a dessert. All meals were served buffet style. There was no dinner, but a tea break at 5 p.m. The donations from previous students, who have completed a 10 day-course, funded the program. In fact, volunteers from that group managed the program and performed daily chores, such as cleaning bathrooms, washing dishes, mopping floors, cooking and preparing meals.

The course program was a rigorous 10 continuous days of intensive meditation training. Each day began at 4:30 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m. Every day was heavily scheduled, with three compulsory one-hour sessions and a two-hour discourse session.

On the evening we arrived, the practice of Anapana meditation was taught. It entails observing the natural breath coming in and out of the nostrils without regulating or changing the breath.

The following two days, we continued to observe our normal breathing as we learned to let our minds become calm, sharp and sensitive.

On Day 3, everyone had to work on normal breathing while paying close attention to any sensations in the small area between the nostrils and the upper lip.

Day 4 was Vipassana day, spent simply observing sensations throughout the body from the top of the head to the tips of the toes — the whole body. The goal was to understand the impermanent nature of these sensations while developing equanimity by learning not to react to them.

From Day 5 to Day 9, we were not allowed to open our eyes, arms or legs in all three, one-hour group meditation sessions. This was called The Sitting of Strong Determination. We continued to observe sensations, piercingly and penetratingly sweeping through each and every part of the whole body.

On Day 10, we learned loving kindness meditation to develop our noble qualities and share them with all beings. Noble silence was lifted after morning group sitting.

In essence, our cravings and aversions come from the experience of body sensations. Sensations arise when a sense object comes in contact with sense doors. People do not crave chocolate, but the decadent taste sensation that arises from eating it.

The teaching is to feel the sensation and yet not to relish it; to remain equanimous and detached from it. By mastering this, we come out of old habits that create bondages and misery for ourselves. It is a practice of letting go.

Thirty students ranging in age from 20 to 60-plus completed the 10-day course in May. It was inspiring yet encouraging that a good half of the students were young people. They felt that the course was challenging yet rewarding, too.

It was indeed a simple mental exercise that keeps the mind and body healthy and happy. In a troubled world, it’s important to observe our sensations with equanimity, and with an understanding of their impermanent nature, so we can at least alleviate our insatiable appetite for material abundance.

For course schedules for 2010 in Alberta from Alberta Vipassana Foundation, go to

[Edmonton Journal]
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Get enlightened on Germany’s meditation trail

In harmony with the rushing Ammer River, Norbert Parucha, our guide, recites Lao Tse. Poised on a rocky ledge overlooking the water, he stands craggy-faced and as solid as an ancient tree. He might be part of the mountain’s landscape but for the soothing melody of his speech and the rugged hiking boots on his feet.

Here, along the Ammergau Alps Meditation Trail, he calls us to contemplation. We stand, above the rapids, embraced by a belt of wine-bottle green pine trees and a smattering of moss-covered boulders. His words flow out into the brisk air and down to the water. It’s our job to catch them like summertime fireflies in a jar — and apply them to our musings.

We’ve followed Parucha to the fourth official stop, one of 15 along the newly marked 52-mile Ammergau Alps Meditation Trail. Conceived by Parucha in collaboration with a team from Ammergau Tourism, this undulating path is carved into a well-trodden holiday region south of Munich in the foothills of the Alps. It leads hikers of every level through the gentle hills, Alpine moors, lush valleys and flowery meadows of Bavaria.

The metaphor for this new course might be the labyrinth — or the road as a symbol for our lives. The Meditation Trail takes advantage of the spiritually significant sites in the area, from Celtic mounds to mountain chapels to monasteries and reflective lakes.

“It’s not a highway,” croons Perucha as we take off hiking at warp speed from the Baroque, UNESCO-listed Wies Church, where the trail begins. Because we’re more determined to set records than meld into the music of nature, Parucha speaks again. “Plod along. Stop, smell, look, listen.”

Parucha’s role is to ensure we unravel internally, that we allow the majesty of mountains, the chirping of birds, the scent of pine needles to lull us to a self-awareness too easily misplaced in the city. At each stop along this route that can take five or more days to finish, we mull poetry and mystical words at sacred man-made and natural sites.

A proponent of self-healing and the life-affirming aspects of spiritual walking, Perucha, 56, a therapist, was once as enmeshed in the frenzy of the external world as the rest of us. But the untimely death of his wife sent him reeling. Searching for answers, he went to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, perhaps the best-known pilgrim’s path. As he healed, he changed careers, studied therapy and holistic medicine and commenced to take groups of seekers to wander the Santiago Compostela Trail and the lesser known, and linking, Path of Jacob.

Soon learning that his patients gained relief from rhythmic, philosophy-supported treks through nature, Parucha took the next step, linking a variety of sights in the Ammergau and offering (in conjunction with the region’s office of tourism) contemplative tours.

And, that’s why we’ve come, my teenage daughter and I, to walk with Perucha. He’s a tranquil master. And his region, the Ammergau, speaks for itself.

At Lake Soier, we ponder the glassy lake, noting how it mirrors the sky. Here, Parucha presents the words and philosophies of Lama Govinda, a European-born Tibetan Buddhist, instrumental in bringing Buddhism to the West. “The world is merely a mirror of what is in our own being,” quotes Perucha. After we do some breathing exercises and concentrate on visualizations, we ramble on — but not before Perucha points out how close the German word for lake (see) is to the word for soul (seele). With that in mind, we circle the lake in walking meditation.

Another day, we hear the words of Chief Seattle over the hilltop ruins of Dottenbichl, a Celtic and (later) Roman archeological site. Some places along the trek call for the musings of Christian mystics, others for the wisdom of poets. We pass fat cows with bell necklaces, geese that chase us, picnicking couples ensconced in a meadow and boys hauling a canoe to the rapids. In front of one pub, we see a crowd of men dressed in lederhosen and feathered hats. We eat hearty Bavarian food: pork, dumplings, grainy breads and mache lettuce salads — washing it all down with immense beers. In some places, we smell the peaty mud of the centuries-old bogs as we wander; in others, we catch a whiff of a wood fire.

Although many stops celebrate only nature, others consider human-made passion. Station 9, for example, is the tiny village of Oberammergau, famous for its centuries-old Passion Play tradition. We tour the theater, learn about the vow made by villagers to God nearly 400 years ago and study iconography carved from wood in the town’s museum. A subsequent stop takes us to Ettal. Here we visit with Benedictine monks at the famous Gothic-styled, medieval abbey.

The expedition ends at King Ludwig II’s Linderhof Palace, a fantasy creation designed as a poetic retreat and homage to myth, especially that of the Grail theme. “What are your visions and your dreams?” Parucha asks us. “How are you living them?”

A guide isn’t necessary to hike this route — the trails are well marked and even the meditations are displayed at each station — but having someone lead us to consciousness has been exalting. We end our adventure with sharpened minds, recharged spirits and stronger bodies. Admittedly, we don’t find answers to all the big questions — but that just means we’ll have to return to trek again.

If you go …

Getting there: Before you leave, buy a Eurail Pass ( which allows on-and-off privileges on most trains. Fly into Munich and take the train to any of the towns in the Ammergau Region, just about an hour’s ride. Or, rent a car.

The hike: Hiking packages for the trail come in seven- or four-night packages and include all meals (picnics for lunch), mid-priced hotel stays (including one night atop Hornle mountain in a rustic hut), a pilgrim guide, transfers, meditation and more. The packages are 850 Euros (per person, double occupancy) or 540 euros, respectively.

Do consider some of the Ammergau regions other offerings, including spa packages that feature the region’s famous moor bark baths.

[Becca Hensley, Statesman]
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Reconnecting with silence

Morning coffee

Being fresh off a retreat this past weekend, Sunada shares what it’s like to be in silence, and why it’s a good thing. Even if we don’t go on retreats, she thinks there are many reasons why it’s important to bring more silence into our lives.

A lot of the time we chatter just to fill the air. Not that talking is a bad thing. But sometimes we talk just because we’re uncomfortable with silence. We think of silence as the absence of something. It feels, well… empty. Not normal. But silence can be very rich, if only we give it a chance to speak to us.

Silence can be very rich, if only we give it a chance to speak to us.

This past weekend, I was on a retreat where we spent several hours each day in silence. So the experience is still fresh in my mind.

Early on in a retreat, there’s always a bit of awkwardness since you’re thrown together with people you don’t know. We wonder what to say, how to start a conversation, how to make a good impression. All that inner fretting.

When we learn how to be in silence with others, we find a deeper, more essential way of connecting with another human being.

But when we’re in silence, all that becomes moot. In silence, a lot of that pomp and posturing drops away. We don’t have to grope for something to say. We can simply be with each other, smile and make friendly eye contact. Perhaps offer a helping hand. Nothing more is needed.

And how often do we really do that with another person, on retreat or otherwise? I mean consciously offer our presence without pretense or an agenda? When we learn how to be in silence with others, we find a deeper, more essential way of connecting with another human being. In that unobstructed space, we don’t need words. Actually, words can pull us away from that basic ground of real communication.

Eating with others in silence can be a lovely shared experience… We’re all holding each other with kind awareness, and everything flows smoothly.

On this retreat, we ate breakfasts together in silence. And how often do we engage all our senses when we eat? Do we stop and take in the wonderful smell of a fresh pot of coffee? Hear the mechanical ka-chunk when the toast pops up? See the colors and textures of our breakfast cereal? Feel the creaminess and the chilly temperature of the milk in our mouth? Taste the bursting tang of the raisins when we bite down on them? How often do we slow down and really savor our food?

And eating with others in silence can be a lovely shared experience. What do you think happens if I want the butter at the far end of the table? When we’re all sitting with kind awareness of each other’s presence, it’s not a problem. If I’m holding a piece of toast, and looking toward the butter, somebody always notices and does the right thing. If necessary, there might be a series of taps on a neighbor’s arm and gestures and points. But the butter comes to me. Every time. No words are needed. We’re all holding each other with kind awareness, and everything flows smoothly.

This is all about mindfulness, really. Of ourselves, each other, and our surroundings. It’s also a deep respectfulness – gratitude even – of everything we encounter. Of our food, each other’s presence, everything.

When we stop talking, we get much closer to our experience and begin to glimpse what’s REALLY happening around us. I don’t think we realize how much talking can take us away from life itself. When we spend all our time thinking and talking, we start believing that’s all there is. But what happens is we end up thinking and talking ABOUT our lives, not actually living it. Skimming the surface.

I know most of us have busy lives, full of noisy hustle and bustle. Thinking and talking are obviously necessary for getting around, getting along, and even surviving in this world. But that’s all the more reason why I think it’s so important to reconnect with silence once in a while. Silence helps me drop down into the ground of something much more real. And it creates spaciousness and clarity in my mind so I can go back to that hustly-bustly world feeling fully present and alive, with all of me intact. I can’t imagine life without it.

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Get meditative with Korean Air

Maybe it’s because air travel has become so stressful: Korean Air is now offering meditation, chanting and a Buddhist temple sleepover as part of a new “Templestay” tour.

Korean Air and Hanjin Travel have teamed up to offer travelers a peek – the tour lasts 24 hours – into the traditional culture of Korean Buddhism and let them relax and rediscover their “true selves” amid peaceful surroundings.

Visitors will get tours of five Korean temples, live the strict life of a Buddhist monk — wakeup time is 4 a.m. sharp –- and take part in a formal monastic meal (no talking or wasting of food allowed) and ancient tea-sipping ceremony. There is also time allotted for making beads and lanterns, doing community work, and taking walks in the forest.

Tours start at around $175, excluding airfare.

[via New York Times]
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Get thee to a nunnery, ashram, abbey, meditation center, or temple

Amid economic struggles, interest in spiritual travel is growing. While the accommodations may be barebones, more people are visiting monasteries, meditation centers, retreat houses, and other spiritual sites.

It’s estimated that 300 million travelers worldwide take some sort of religious-oriented trip each year, spending about $18 billion. According to the Travel Industry Association, one in four U.S. travelers has expressed interest in taking a faith-based trip, a number that is expected to continue to grow.

I confess to being one of those spiritual travel junkies. I’ve gotten up at 3 a.m. to chant in Buddhist monasteries, lingered over morning coffee with nuns in Iowa, walked part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, splashed myself with holy water in Lourdes, prayed at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert, and gathered holy dirt from the floor in Chimayo, New Mexico.

I believe there are several reasons why this form of tourism is growing:

• Spiritual tourism is relatively inexpensive. Sure, you’re going to drop a lot of cash on a trip to Delphi in Greece or Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But virtually every American lives within driving distance of a spiritual retreat of some sort, whether it’s a Roman Catholic abbey, a Buddhist meditation center, or a conference center offering holistic programs.

Most religious communities welcome visitors — in fact, Benedictine monks believe that to host a visitor is to welcome Christ himself. Some ask only for a freewill donation, and others will allow you to work in exchange for room and board. Fees, when charged, are generally modest.

At a time when many people can’t afford a conventional vacation, a weekend spiritual retreat may still be within reach.

• Holy sites are often found in beautiful places. Many retreat centers are situated in lovely corners of the world, from St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colo., to the island of Iona off the coast of Scotland. Rather than spending a vacation fighting the crowds in a major city, you can recharge your batteries by staying in a rural hideaway where the silence is punctuated only by the gentle chiming of bells.

• Spiritual sites are multiplying. Sites like Mecca, Mount Sinai in Egypt, and Bodh Gaya in India still draw legions of pilgrims, but so do a growing number of more unconventional holy sites. St. Paul’s Chapel across from the World Trade Center site in New York is one, along with Martin Luther King Jr.’s tomb in Atlanta.

Or travelers may create their own spiritual trip by journeying to the Italian village where their grandparents lived, or by visiting a childhood home.

• Spiritual sites appeal to baby boomers. Time’s winged chariot is drawing uncomfortably close to many of us. Pretending like you’re 20 again on a Caribbean beach is one way of dealing with this disconcerting fact-of-life, but so is spending a week in silent meditation.

An added bonus is that many retreat centers offer spiritual direction as well as hospitality. Think of it as counseling for the soul.


It’s not surprising that Americans — who have some of the highest levels of religious belief in the world — want to take their faith on vacation with them. But spiritual travel is actually the world’s oldest form of tourism. Most religions recognize the value of pilgrimage, from Muslims traveling to Mecca and Jews to Jerusalem to Buddhists journeying to the sites associated with Gautama Buddha.

Such trips differ, I think, from ordinary travels. In an era in which it’s easy to step onto a plane and be deposited nearly anywhere in the world, a spiritual pilgrimage is a reminder of the power of journeys taken slowly and deliberately.

The object of such a trip is usually not just rest and relaxation — though that may happen — but rather inner growth. It often begins with questions: Who am I? What is my purpose in life? What do I need to hear? And here’s where I’m going to let you in on a secret: A pilgrimage can be made to any destination, as long as the trip is undertaken mindfully and with a seeker’s heart.

I think many of us have a yearning for the mystical, even if we can’t quite define what that might be. In these peaceful places removed from the bustle of ordinary life, amid the flicker of candles and aroma of incense, something deep within our souls can be awakened. The older I get, the more such holy sites appeal to me.

As I think back to my most vivid travel experiences, I remember the silvery sound of nuns singing in a church in Santiago de Compostela, a tea ceremony with Buddhist monks in South Korea, and a weekend spent in a tiny hermitage in the woods in Iowa. When I return home from such places, I have more than memories and photographs: inside, there lingers a feeling of tranquility and renewal.

When the Oglala Sioux visionary Black Elk was ready to go on pilgrimage, even the animals spoke to him. “It is time! It is time!” crows cried as they flew past him, bringing a message that could not be ignored. Perhaps it is time for you to leave on pilgrimage, too?

• Saint Leo Abbey near Tampa. This Roman Catholic Benedictine abbey welcomes pilgrims of all faiths to a landscape of woodlands and lakefront. ; 352-588-8624.

• Ocmulgee National Monument, Macon, Ga. Temple mounds and a reconstructed ceremonial earth lodge are highlights of this ancient Native American holy site.; 478-752-8257.

• Hope Springs near Peebles, Ohio. Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Hope Springs offers peace, environmental, social justice, and community-building programs. ; 937-587-2605.

• Abbey of Gethsemani, Trappist, Ky. People who treasure the writings of Thomas Merton find inspiration in this monastery in rural Kentucky where he lived from 1941 until his death in 1968. ; 502-549-3117.

• Bear Butte, Sturgis, S.D. Covered in prayer flags, this small mountain just east of the Black Hills is both a state park and a holy site for tribes that include the Lakota and Cheyenne.; 605-347-5240.

• Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, N.M. Set amid the spectacular desert landscape made famous by Georgia O’Keeffe, the Presbyterian-affiliated Ghost Ranch offers a variety of programs and classes. ; 800-821-5145.

• Shasta Abbey Buddhist Monastery, Mt. Shasta, Calif. This Zen monastery near the Oregon border conducts a year-round schedule of retreats, Buddhist ceremonial festivals, and Dharma Talks. ; 530-926-4208.

• Breitenbush Hot Springs near Detroit, Ore. Hot springs set amid a temperate rain forest await visitors to this non-denominational center.; 503-854-3320.

• Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City. The most visited shrine in North America honors the Virgin of Guadalupe, who appeared to Juan Diego in 1531. or the Mexico Tourism Board at 800)-44-MEXICO.

• Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Europe’s most famous pilgrimage route leads to the church in northwest Spain where the remains of the apostle St. James are said to lie. This year marks a Holy Year for the route, a designation that will bring an even larger influx of people hiking this storied road. or the Spanish Tourism Board at 305-358-1992.

Lori Erickson is the author of The Joy of Pilgrimage and blogs about spirituality and travel at The Holy Rover (

[via Miami Herald]
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Meditation with monks

A bell tolls at first light. The old timber “nightingale” floors chirp under stockinged feet, there’s a whisper of saffron and black robes, a rumour of conversation and the monks enter the temple. Mist drifts around the eaves like incense and there’s a chill in the mountain air, yet behind the sliding paper screens it’s warm and dark. Low, golden lanterns illuminate an ornate altar, around which the monks sit perfectly still.

There are four monks, ageless, heads shaven. The head priest, seated in the middle facing the altar, lights a stick of incense. The monk to his left begins chanting softly, then the others. The words, incomprehensible to me, have a soothing monotony. The baritone sutras rise and fall, sinuous as breath, regular as heartbeat. My thoughts are lassoed by the rich ringing of a bell, the occasional collision of cymbals, but otherwise wander free no matter how I try to still them.

“Just focus on the breath,” the chief priest, Ryusho Soeda, had suggested during meditation last night, though of more immediate concern is the acute discomfort of sitting in the customary seiza position – kneeling and seated on one’s feet – for more than a few minutes. “Relax,” he reassures later, “we have practised all our lives.”

At the end of the ceremony I step outside. Before the temple is an urn holding a perfect lotus flower and a stone garden raked precisely into a swirling Sanskrit symbol. There is no trace of what I imagine to be a levitating gardener – his footsteps cannot be seen here or in the smaller pebble garden outsidemy room, framed by crepe myrtle and maple bearing the blush of autumn, which I gaze upon until the call to breakfast.

Rengejoin is one of 117 temples and more than 2000 shrines, pagodas, stupas and religious landmarks at Koyasan, a sacred mountain 1000 metres above the plains of Osaka to the north. At the beginning of time, gods descended to live in the Kii mountain range, spanning Koyasan and two other peaks that are now World Heritage listed. Its dense forests became the spiritual heartland of Shinto, the indigenous Japanese worship of nature, and Buddhism, after it came from China.

In 816, after years of study in China, a Japanese monk named Kukai climbed the holy mountain of Mount Koya and created the first temple of the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism among its eight peaks, said to resemble a lotus. As he travelled he became known in noble circles as a great thinker and calligrapher and among commoners, with whom he worked and taught, as a man of action. Kukai was regarded as a saint by the time he fell ill at the age of 62, when his followers believe he passed into a state of eternal meditation rather than death. Along with his body, the spirit of Kobo-Daishi, as he became known, is believed to reside at the end of a forest path in Koyasan.

On my way to his resting place I walk through the town, past young robed men shod in dazzling white socks and the wooden thongs called geta. The town has the usual services – general stores, a couple of cafes, a barber (it can’t do so well, in a town where most men have shaved heads) – but the local haberdashery sells monks’ working gear, the produce shops sell bunches of umbrella pine for home altars and there are mandala paintings and prayer beads, Buddhas and religious knick-knacks sold everywhere.

Just outside town and along a two-and-a-half-kilometre path beneath centuries-old cedars is the extraordinary cemetery, Okunoin. Once Kobo-Daishi was interred here, everyone wanted to be buried close by. It’s thought half a million graves are here, the little carved stones of ordinary people beside the grand mausoleums of shoguns and emperors – all jumbled together and shrouded in moss and glowing in dappled sunlight. Mist hangs high in the cedars and all sound is muffled but the silence doesn’t feel deathly. It is called the “forest therapy walk” by locals and the effect of entering this city of spirits is powerful and calming, regardless of one’s spiritual inclination.

I pause at the third bridge. On one side is an audience of stupas ankle-deep in the gentle flow of the Tamagawa River, offered in memory of miscarried and aborted babies and people who have drowned. On the other is a line of Jizo statues (a powerful Buddhist protector) being doused with ladles of water – worshippers write the names of their dead loved ones on strips of wood, present them to the Jizo, splash water and pray for their souls. In the river beside them three women dressed in white robes are fully immersed, praying and chanting. And beyond the bridge is the mausoleum of Kobo-Daishi, surrounded by three peaks and a cluster of halls, one of them aglow with hundreds of oil lamps and flanked by two stone lanterns said to have been kept alight for 900 years.

Beyond the cemetery is a network of walks through misty forests of cedar and hinoki. I walk through a landscape as mysterious as Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films, quiet and wild, and in a country of extreme hygiene and order I understand why these mountains are sacred. Pilgrims still approach Mount Koya by the seven main paths, including the Choishimichi, or stone marker path, forged by Kukai and marked by 180 stone pagodas.

There are 52 temples in Koyasan that welcome travellers and a handful are well geared for Western visitors. I stay in two shukubo, or temple lodgings: Muryokoin, with simple rooms and a pond full of koi as large as puppies; and Rengejoin, a larger temple with rooms as well appointed as any ryokan. Both shukubo have exquisite gardens and a similar daily routine: monks and guests attend prayers at 6am in the temple, followed by breakfast at 7am, evening meditation at 5.30pm, followed by dinner at 6.30pm, bathing until 10.30pm. If there are late-night bars in town, I don’t find them.

Dinner on the tatami mats in my room at Muryokoin comes on three trays, each as perfectly composed as haiku poetry, and accompanied by a visit from Hidenori Iwawaki, who seems pleased when I address him as Masterchef.

Shojin ryori, a cuisine developed over more than 1000 years in Japanese Buddhist temples, is based on a religious commandment prohibiting the butchering of animals and is intended to encourage spiritual focus. There are no meat, fish or animal products used and no garlic, onions or strong flavourings. What I imagine might taste bland is quite the opposite. The subtle flavours and textures are a triumph of invention and refinement, based on balancing five colours, five flavours and five cooking methods.

Masterchef urges me to start with konnyaku “sashimi”, little wedges of intensely coloured green, red and white jelly made from a starchy vegetable known as devil’s tongue; its complicated preparation alone might employ a kitchen of monks. In a bowl of thick plum-flavoured miso is a square of goma dofu, a Koya specialty of ground roasted sesame seeds and arrowroot tofu, topped with a tiny autumn leaf carved from carrot as a nod to the season. A neat tangle of soypoached matsutake mushroom, which grows only under red pine trees in autumn, sits beside a plate bearing a roasted chestnut, two wedges of koya dofu, another mountain specialty of freezedried tofu, and a tiny pickled ginger root.

There’s something pickled, something raw, slightly sweet and a hint of sourness, the crunch of lotus root beside the creaminess of eggplant, both tempura-fried, and delicate dipping sauces and stocks with each dish. The tastes and textures are so engrossing that eating becomes another form of meditation.

After dinner one night at Rengejoin, served on cushions in a large room framed by fusuma (very old sliding doors painted with scenes of mountain beauty) we’re joined by Kiyomi Soeda, the head monk’s 89-year-old mother and diminutive matriarch of the 700-year-old temple. In precise English, with barely an accent, she tells of growing up on the mountain, learning English as a child in far-away Tokyo and returning to Koyasan as a young woman when English was regarded as the “enemy” language. At the end of World War II, suddenly her skill as a translator for the villagers and American troops was vital. She describes the post-war poverty – “we counted every grain of rice” – her marriage to a priest and their struggle to save Rengejoin from ruin. Faith is a great healer.

Next morning, after prayers and a perfectly composed breakfast, I ask head priest Soeda-san the difference between Zen Buddhism, well known in the West, at least superficially, and the lesser known Shingon Buddhism, which originated here on Mount Koya. “They are different paths to the top of the same mountain,” he explains over a cup of hojicha, roasted green tea. They are difficult concepts to explain in a second language but he is unflappable – “Zen”, I might have said before I knew better. Zen would deny desire, he says, but Shingon recognises it exists and “seeks to transform it”.

Evening meditation in the temple lasts exactly 40 minutes, the time it takes to burn a stick of incense – “long enough to gain some spiritual tranquillity”, Soeda-san says. An old stereotype has an exhausted Japanese salaryman returning home to his wife with only three words: Meshi! Furo! Neru! (meal, bath, bed), the words symbolic of an empty marriage. For me, the routine is deeply therapeutic: morning meditation, breakfast, walking, reading, evening meditation, meshi (three trays of shojin ryori), furo (a long, hot soak in a big wooden bath) and neru, a long, dreamless sleep. My own modest nirvana.

Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of the Japan National Tourism Organisation and Singapore Airlines.


Getting there Singapore Airlines flies to Osaka for about $1150, with an aircraft change in Singapore. Jetstar flies from Melbourne for $854 and from Sydney for $716, both with an aircraft change at the Gold Coast. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.) From Kansai Airport, take a 40-minute train to Nankai Namba Station in Osaka, then a train bound for Gokurakubashi, which takes about 75 minutes, then a 10-minute cablecar ride to Koyasan.

Staying there Shukubo, or temple lodgings, usually have simple tatami-mat rooms and futons with shared toilets and a traditional communal bathhouse (separate genders). Breakfast and dinner are usually included in the tariff. Rate for each person at Muryokoin from ¥9500 ($116); book by phone via Koyasan Shukubo Temple Lodging Cooperative, +81 736 56 2616, see Rooms at the more upmarket Rengejoin cost from ¥9500 a person twin share, from ¥11,550 for a single. Phone the temple on +81 736 56 2233.

– Rent bicycles and English-language audio guides at the Koyasan tourist information centre, where you can also buy a ticket covering admission to six of the major temples and museums. See

Sydney Morning Herald

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The Way of Mindfulness: A winter meditation immersion retreat

Our good friends at the Triratna Buddhist Community’s San Francisco center are holding a winter meditation retreat. The annual winter meditation immersion retreat is held in silence, simplicity and spaciousness among the magical redwoods and madrones of the Santa Cruz mountains.

The program offers sustained periods of sitting and walking meditation, periods of instruction and guidance and the experience of living with a like-minded community of those curious to go deeper into meditation practice. Participants range from beginners just introduced to meditation to seasoned practitioners. Those introduced to meditation through an introductory course or drop-in class are welcome to join the retreat.

The four presences of mindfulness, body, feelings, mind and dhammas (the nature of experience) will be part of this year’s teaching and practice exploration, using two classic and comprehensive mindfulness teachings from the Buddha: the Anapanasati (Mindfulness with Breathing) and Satipatthana discourses.

How to Register
Registration deadline with full payment or $100 deposit: Sun, Dec 7

The retreat starts at 7pm on Monday, December 21, and ends at 12pm on Wednesday, December 30. A simple dinner will be served between 6 & 6:30pm on the first night of the retreat.

Sliding scale: $550-$450, plus optional donation for teachers and the cook. Paying the higher end of the sliding scale helps others come on retreat at a lower rate.

The venue is about a 2 hour drive from San Francisco. After you register and pay the deposit you will receive information about location, carpools, what to bring, etc. by email. To register online, visit our website.

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In the Arizona desert, Buddhists will embark on a three-year silent retreat

LA Times: Deep in a remote desert valley, where rattlesnakes lurk in the scrub, Stéphane Dreyfus and several dozen other Buddhists are preparing to undergo a mind-altering journey:

Three years, three months and three days of silence.

There will be no word from the outside world in the Great Retreat, only the deafening quiet of rock and cactus, with seemingly endless time to ponder the emptiness of life.

Dreyfus and his fellow adherents hope to find enlightenment in the silence, a gift they plan to share when they emerge from their long seclusion.

They know that outsiders might dismiss them as eccentrics on a strange utopian trip, but their resumes suggest otherwise. Among them are an airline pilot, a dermatologist, a retired biochemist and a former television editor.

They’re jettisoning the trappings of their middle-class lives to carry on a Buddhist tradition that traces its lineage through the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. For many in the group, that means leaving behind six-figure incomes, young children or aging parents for the solitude of cramped retreat cabins made of adobe, wood — even hay bales.

Prolonged silence, they explain, is the only way to reach the deep level of inner awareness required to bring true happiness to the world.

“If I can get to the position of being perfectly free of suffering and develop high levels of mental clarity that cause enlightenment, I can show others how to get there perfectly, quickly,” said Dreyfus, 32, who left a job as an assistant editor on the prime-time show “The Bachelor” to teach yoga and prepare for his undertaking.

Read the rest of this story…

Dreyfus, a Berkeley native, will be joined by his fiancee, Jessica Kung, a Yale graduate and also a yoga teacher.

When they start the retreat late next year in this corner of southeastern Arizona, they will be newlyweds, sharing a 500-square-foot cabin, communicating only through gestures and facial expressions, and refraining from physical intimacy. Such pleasure, they both say, would dissipate prana — inner energy — distracting from the important karmic work at hand.

“I feel a desire to have some serious PhD-like study in yoga [and] meditation,” said Kung, 27. “There is nothing better to do with my youth.”

Such talk provokes bewilderment, skepticism and even anger from the family members of many of those who will join the retreat.

Hubert Dreyfus, a professor of existential philosophy at UC Berkeley, worries that his son Stéphane is wasting his talent for writing and filmmaking to pursue ideas he sees as irrational.

The elder Dreyfus conceded his son is happier than ever. Still, he can’t understand why anyone would leave loved ones behind to disappear into the desert — in this case, for 1,190 days. “I’m just torn,” said Dreyfus, 79. “I want grandchildren.”

Enlightenment isn’t cheap.

Each retreat participant will need $60,000 to $75,000 to build a cabin and pay for three years of food and supplies (the menu will probably include such staples as lentils, rice, beans, potatoes and other fresh vegetables).

Some already have set aside the money. A few are searching for sponsors at yoga and meditation seminars, or relying on the generosity of others on the retreat.

“I’m waiting for a miracle,” Ben Kramer, a 33-year-old Floridian, said recently as he practiced yoga poses with his girlfriend inside an adobe temple not far from the retreat site.

Those on retreat will cook for themselves in cabins equipped with kitchens and bathrooms. Power will be supplied by solar panels or propane tanks, and members will probably have air horns to summon help if something goes wrong.

Volunteer caretakers, fellow Buddhists who live nearby, will help by growing or shopping for food and dropping it off twice a week. David Stumpf, a retired plant biochemist from the University of Arizona who is planning to join the retreat, is in charge of installing a water supply system in the valley.

Stumpf has nearly finished building the 600-square-foot cabin he and his wife, Susan, will share on a small patch of earth surrounded by paddle cactus and ocotillo plants, whose red blooms shoot from the ground like Fourth of July fireworks.

Surveying the rolling landscape and cloud-streaked sky one recent day, the 56-year-old proclaimed the setting ideal for deep meditation. “This place is stunning at sunrise,” he said. “The lighting on the hillside is just magical.”

To reach “retreat valley,” drive 107 miles east from Tucson on Interstate 10 through empty stretches of desert to the small town of Bowie, then head south on a narrow asphalt road. From there, a rutted dirt roadway leads to Diamond Mountain University, a nonprofit Buddhist campus where footpaths connect an adobe temple, a tented student lounge and round Mongolian-style yurts.

Another short road from the university to retreat valley is even more primitive, coursing through brush-covered hillsides once home to a cattle ranch.

In the heart of the valley is a single yurt within sight of several cabins under construction. This is the home of Geshe Michael Roach and Lama Christie McNally, the university’s founders.

Roach and McNally were born in Los Angeles, two decades apart. Both grew up as Episcopalians.

An altar boy in his youth, Roach, 56, thought he might become a minister. Then he traveled to India while studying religion, Sanskrit and Russian at Princeton University. He was driven by a question he believed Christianity did not address: If God existed, why did people suffer and die?

It was a poignant query; Roach’s mother and father had died of cancer about the time he was finishing high school, and his brother had committed suicide — all within a year of one another.

Buddhism offered him answers: Life and death had no intrinsic meaning. Instead, reality depended on perception. Through meditation, yoga and other practices, negative thoughts could be replaced with positive ones, allowing karmic seeds planted in the heart to ripen into happiness.

The idea of karma was key: How people acted in the past determined what they experienced in the present. Roach spent two decades studying at monasteries in India and the United States. He was ordained a monk in his early 30s and later earned a Geshe degree, the equivalent of a doctorate of divinity, one of the first Westerners to do so.

McNally, 36, who studied philosophy and literature at New York University and then traveled to Tibet and Nepal, met Roach at one of his teachings in New York in the late 1990s. They have been spiritual — though celibate — partners for a decade, they say, an arrangement that has provoked criticism from some Tibetan Buddhists and scholars, who point out that monks are barred from relationships with women.

In 2006, the office of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, cited Roach’s “unconventional behavior” in rebuffing his effort to teach in Dharamsala, India, seat of the Tibetan government in exile.

“The older lamas are disapproving,” said Robert Thurman, a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, who considers Roach a friend. “People have their fingers crossed that he will turn around and eventually do the conventional thing.”

Roach and McNally respond that their stream of Buddhism encourages such partnerships, and that other Buddhist teachers have done the same, if privately. The difference, they say, is that they publicly acknowledge theirs.

The two devote themselves to disseminating Buddhist teachings. They have written several books on meditation and yoga, and have preserved ancient manuscripts in an extensive online database.

In 2000, they led four other Buddhists in three years of seclusion on a ranch not far from retreat valley. Each day, they rose at 3:30 a.m. for the first of four extended meditation sessions, which were often conducted in 120-degree heat. Several times, they emerged briefly from their yurts — and Roach from his silence — so that he could share insights. The members wore blindfolds to help them maintain their solitary states.

“We believe that everybody is in pain right now, because they have all these negative thoughts running in their heads all the time,” Roach said recently. “If you can figure out how to stop your own pain, then you can teach other people how to stop theirs.”

The retreat participants were so isolated that they did not learn about the Sept. 11 attacks until they came out of seclusion nearly 21 months later. “We still haven’t seen the footage,” Roach said.

The project was not without mishap. One member was bitten by a rattlesnake and had to be taken by ambulance to a Tucson hospital. The same woman left briefly to care for her dying father after she received a letter informing her of his failing health. Her departure was disruptive to the others, they say. But she returned to finish the retreat, and went on to complete another.

Roach and McNally say they believe the first Great Retreat produced a concrete result: the birth of their university in the dusty flats just below the valley’s gates.

Now, hundreds of students converge on Diamond Mountain throughout the year, supporting the university with donations and taking classes in such subjects as the nature of omniscience and the purification of negative karma. Classes are free, but luxuries are scarce. Student housing consists of yurts, pup tents or mobile homes stationed in the dirt parking lot. Wasps dart overhead and the heat is ever present.

Despite the harsh conditions, Bill McMichael of Chicago jumps at every opportunity to visit Diamond Mountain, sometimes bringing along his daughter and son, ages 7 and 9.

The 42-year-old American Airlines pilot said he intends to quit his job flying DC-9s to enter the three-year retreat. He also will take a lengthy leave from his children, who will live with his former wife. Friends will bring the kids to retreat valley two or three times a year, but McMichael will not be allowed to speak to them, communicating only through gestures or notes.

“Leaving the kids is the most difficult part,” he said.

McMichael has tried to explain the retreat in terms the youngsters can understand, telling them that he is going to become an angel and reach heaven, and that he will show them how to become angels too. He sees a rare opportunity to bequeath them ancient wisdom.

“I can give them something that death can’t take away,” he said.

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