Were you ever curious where to all those people who do three-year retreat or beyond have disappeared to? When I was younger I wondered where all the old yogins, men and women, are in the U.S. What happens to them after they complete three-year retreat, or the equivalent? As I have said before, I used to wonder this, and not being able to find a whole lot of them, I decided to undertake the yogini lifestyle myself—even though I have some pretty serious competency issues as a meditator.
One of the things one gains after meditating for a number of years is awareness of one’s shortcomings. This translates into the universal quality of decades long meditators: humility. Therefore, the main thing good practitioners do is fade into obscurity. I guess that can be viewed as a sign of accomplishment!
They say realization can dawn at any time, inside long-term retreat or outside of it. I consider the typical three-year group retreat a great foundation for practice. In addition, a good facility and lama can provide what Lama Sarah Harding calls, “three years of training for a job that doesn’t exist,” i.e. ritual and music training, and familiarity with the main practices of one’s lineage. Some of my vajra sisters and brothers probably had some kind of awakening in their first or second three-year retreat. For the rest of us who did not, we sure know how to practice properly with the right view, and can continue on from there, inside or outside of a retreat structure if we care to.
We can’t do every practice we ever learn. There isn’t enough time in a day, it isn’t necessary. We find there are some practices we excel at more than others. Or, in my case, there are practices I am less terrible at.
Now, I am acquainted with dozens of people who have completed at least three years in retreat. What happened to them? They got a job and, in many cases, a spouse. Some have kids. They help their Dharma center, if they can.
A married couple I met long ago continued to do a series of three year retreats (in another state where it’s cheaper to live.) They are the exception rather than the rule. I think some of my friends will do a lot of practice after they retire, if they live long enough.
Sometimes these people aren’t visible to the larger Dharma community because they don’t attend a lot of teachings by the lamas that come through town. They have already received those teachings. The ones who like to study dharma may turn up when in-depth teachings occur, such a well-regarded Khenpo teaching for a month on the highest level practices. (I’m thinking Khenpo Namdrol here). But, most can’t take off from work for that length of time. Also, many yogins aren’t necessarily interested in the big theories. They want to get to the main point and focus on practice when they have free time.
So, there isn’t any clubhouse where these people meet.
Consequently, you could be living in the same city as an old yogin and never meet up with him or her. I make prayers from time to time, that I will meet the real incarnate Bodhisattvas and “field-born” Dakas and Dakinis who no doubt are in my area. The ones without big hats.
I was talking with the lama who guides my practice now the other day. He said you can’t tell who has realization until they die. Some great holy lamas, who everyone expects to pass in a sublime way, die without the slightest signs of accomplishment. Some practitioners who no one had faith in—who looked like out of control alcoholics or pugnacious ruffians—manifest profound signs of accomplishment at the end. I asked my lama the obvious question. “Do they know they have realization?”