Retreat: Shaking Off the Dust

Just as a bird strewn with dirt

sheds that clingy dust with a shake;

so too, an energetic, mindful mendicant

sheds that clingy dust with a shake.

Viveka Sutta SN 9.1

I’ve spent over three years living happily at the Monastery at the End of the World with my dear teacher, Bhante Sujato, supported by many wonderful communities whose kindness and generosity have allowed my monastic life to flourish. I am very grateful for everything that I have experienced here. But now it is time to move on, spread my spiritual wings and shake off some dust.

In a few days, I will be heading off to Thailand to undertake the annual three month Rains Retreat. This is an important part of monastic life, when we stay in one place and curtail our usual activities to focus on our meditation practice. This is a rare and precious opportunity to deepen our understanding of the Dhamma and inch towards the goal of Nibbana.  

Many people never have the opportunity to undertake a long retreat. For most folks, it can be challenging enough just to find time for a short meditation session once a week, let alone to take an extended period of time away from work, relationships or family. It might seem that there are many impossibly large barriers to taking some retreat time. Some of these barriers are very real, including precarious or low income, child rearing responsibilities and distance to retreat centres. However, other things—such as work load, social obligations or entertainment—are actually more or less surmountable but become big barriers in our minds preventing us from going on retreat. So in some ways, it is only a matter of priorities. The opportunity is actually always there, but we might not feel able to meet it. Going on retreat is essentially a practice of renunciation, the voluntary giving up of things and letting go of attachments.  This is the example set for us by the Buddha when he abandoned the household life, family and all, and instead pursued the spiritual path.

Compared to lay people, monastics have some advantage, in that they live a life that prioritises renunciation and have already given up the usual worldly life of work, relationships and pleasures. However, there are times when getting away for an extended retreat can be challenging for monastics, too. We might have taken on duties and projects, teaching roles, or caring for lay communities all of which can take up time and energy, and require ongoing maintenance. If we aren’t careful, even these wholesome activities can become a bit like the burdens and hooks of the worldly life that we renounced when we took ordination. We might neglect our duty to our meditation practice or forget the sense of urgency we require to propel us out of Saṃsara.    

It can be hard to leave behind our community of friends and all our Dhamma activities but to do so from time to time is very useful because it helps us overcome our attachment to the world and reduce our sense of self identity. Taking an extended retreat is not just an essential part of our meditation practice but also serves as a powerful example to others of renunciation; it’s possible to let these things go… After all, we will have to let everything go eventually, so now is our opportunity to focus on cultivating the profound Dhamma that truly can be seen within us.

So every year at this time, we finish up what needs to be done, put aside our usual activities, and turn away from the world. Each time we do this, we strengthen our renunciation muscles and deepen our meditation practice. However, as many folks who have been on a retreat will know all too well, even when we step away from the world, thoughts of work, friends and relationships might come into our mind and disturb our peace.

In the Viveka Sutta, we meet a monk who had retired to the forests in Kosala for solitary retreat but was being troubled by thoughts of worldly life. Seeing this, a local deity–motivated by compassion–delivers the monk a rousing sermon in order to shake him out of his heedlessness and inspire a sense of urgency. The deity uses the simile of dust to represent the stuff of the world that clings to us, instructing us to shake off worldly attachments in the same way a bird shakes off dust from its wings:

“You entered the woods desiring seclusion,
yet your mind strays to outward things.
As a person, you should dispel the desire for people.
Then you’ll be happy, free of greed.

Mindful, give up discontent;
let us remind you of the way of the good.
The dusty abyss is so hard to cross;
don’t let sensual dust drag you down.

Just as a bird strewn with dirt
sheds that clingy dust with a shake;
so too, an energetic, mindful mendicant
sheds that clingy dust with a shake.”

Viveka Sutta SN 9.1

I’ll be offline and uncontactable for the duration of the Rains Retreat, from mid July until mid October. Wishing you all the very very best!

Read the full Viveka Sutta on SuttaCentral

Image by  Bernard DUPONT / Flickr / CC by-SA 2.0

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