Shepherd: As we have been rushing to get this website pulled together this summer, I have been more keenly aware of the importance of having a strong practice of reserving some time on a regular basis to intentionally set aside WORK, and to just BE. This led to a discussion between us of the religious practice of observing a Sabbath rest. In my upbringing, I was taught that observing the Sabbath was a thing of the past for Christians, a part of the Old Covenant between God and Israel. I recognized that many different Christians hold very different understandings of the Sabbath. In my adult life, I have begun to recognize the wisdom and health of this practice, but have found it to be very difficult to practice as an individual or even as a family, outside of being a part of a community that observes Sabbath together. Is there anything like this concept among Buddhists?
Sherpa: From my understanding and personal practice of Vajrayana Buddhism, the practice of retreat comes closest to the idea of Sabbath. Retreats are taken as a skillful means in which to mindfully cultivate a deeper understanding of yourself and your relation to ultimate reality. Purposefully taking a break from your work and obligations to bring greater and more intense focus upon your practice brings heightened wisdom, not only to your practice, but to your work and obligations when you return to them.
Shepherd: This is interesting. In my world, a retreat is something planned specifically by a community, and may occur on a regularly repeating basis, but is often scheduled one event at a time. I have also thought of the concept of a spiritual group "retreat" as a relatively modern invention. Do I understand you correctly that there are cyclical times of retreat and that this is a widespread and old practice?
Sherpa: Retreat in Vajrayana Buddhism is an integral part of a serious practitioner. I won't go into too much detail now, however there are individual retreats and group retreats. A retreat is commonly taken up by a person with a strong spiritual calling and can last from 24 hours up to 3 years and beyond. Retreat is a time for deep connection and practice involving Buddhist rituals and philosophies. It is not uncommon, because you are working through confusions and ignorance, that there are times during a retreat which are not so fun. It is a meditation and mindfulness practice, and as we know, those practices are not always a walk in the park, although sometimes it can be a walk through paradise!
Shepherd: So, the word "retreat" has always brought to my mind a hint of failure and fear, but I have understood the concept, even in military terms, to be much broader and deeper than that. There is such a thing in the military as a "strategic retreat" in which there is an advantage to withdrawing for a time and coming at the goal from a different angle or at a different time, or with reinforcements at hand. Is there possibly a connection between these concepts and using the word "retreat" for a time of spiritual refreshing and renewal?
Sherpa: I can see why you made the military connection, but I would say retreat is not a refreshing, but a remembering or an unfolding into awareness of one's true nature and the true nature of Reality. The side benefits, however, can definitely be spiritually refreshing and renewing for the practitioner.
Shepherd: So, the “retreat” can be for renewal or bringing in “reinforcements”, but it can also be for reassessment of the situation. I can see Sabbath providing the same thing. I often feel that the restrictions of Sabbath are a burden, that they get in the way of me getting things done. I take heart in the words of Jesus about the Sabbath "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." when some religious folks were challenging his activities on a Sabbath day. I resist following some rules someone made up, but I also recognize that I am missing out on something important by just ignoring a regular practice of Sabbath rest. After all, it was "made for me."
Sherpa: I, too, don't do things simply on the basis of other human beings making the rules (not sure if that is always a good quality). It is advised in Tibetan Buddhism that one should never practice without thoroughly questioning the practice, or teacher, first. With intellectual inquiry, a person either sees or does not see wisdom behind a ritual or teaching. Practice without inquiry, to me, is just dogma, which sits on shifting sands, never allowing a person to pierce too deeply into the nature of reality. I think that your explanation of Sabbath being made for man is maybe close to what I’m speaking of. If man was made for Sabbath then it would be rule-following, but Sabbath being made for man is about connection to God through inquiry and faith. Pardon me if I misunderstand.
Shepherd: I was thinking something similar to your end thought on Jesus' words, as I was reading your previous thoughts. Many in christendom would disagree and say that we should never question a command. Jesus, Job, Abraham, Moses, David and Peter and the Bereans would certainly all disagree with that concept: Jesus would disagree with those who expect blind obedience. He and Moses and Job etc. etc. argued and debated with God. The name Israel literally means "struggles with God”.
Sherpa: I never knew the name of Israel meant ‘struggles with God’. Thank you for bringing that to light. We shall resume where we left off during our next conversation, for there are endless and wondrous ideas to discover!
Your Wondrous Mind
Conversations between two mindfulness teachers, one Christian the other a practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism.