Retreat, Daily Life, and a Whole Life Path

by Gregory Kramer


In Buddhism we ask – What is the path? What about turning the question around and asking; What is not the path?

Spending time on retreat is an extraordinary experience which contributes powerfully to the totality of life. Immersive practice creates the opportunity to cultivate qualities of the mind, such as awareness and wisdom, which truly penetrate our being.  Therefore retreats are an important and helpful part of our practice. But the time spent on retreat only represents a tiny proportion of the entirety of life. In reality, every moment is a moment of building or un-building the prison of our existence. Our intimate relationships, the way we eat, our lifestyle choices are all part of that process. So the path must have equal strength, equal pervasiveness.

When we bring the seed teachings of the Dharma into the totality of our lives it has a strong influence, like a magnet. Everything is included We don’t have to sit with our legs crossed or go on retreat to learn about and experience the Dharma. In fact, when we are away from daily life we are outside some of the situations with the most power for effacement. Wearing away ignorance, recognizing wakefulness, is the work here.

If we are going to take the penetrating wisdom teachings of the Buddha into the totality of our lives, then we have to allow ourselves to be fully challenged by these teachings in every aspect of life. We cannot just pick and choose. It is not sufficient to separate out suffering, for example, and fail to acknowledge that this suffering is directly connected with the hungers that drive it. Can we become alert to the hunger for pleasure, social and sensual, without judgment or reserve? Or the hunger for escape, for invisibility? Can we welcome into our lives the Buddha’s suggestion to contemplate contentment or death? Identification and grasping? Can we do so at the kitchen table, in the bedroom, at the office? We are called to look at the whole picture as much of the time as practicable. In taking on wisdom teachings, nothing is left out.

The Dharma opens the door to a morality practice that will inform how we relate to other human beings through Right speech and Action. As long as the mind is contorted and  confused by lying and rough speech, intoxicants, unwise sexual behaviour, killing or stealing, the  prison walls are not only intact they are growing stronger. We cannot separate how we treat the mind with intoxicants and how we treat others. In the our time we’re called to include in Right Speech the emails, videos and photos we share.

Or consider Right View. In the Buddha’s dispensation, Right View is not just a description of the mind that sees things as they are, but it is a call to a life path of ongoing practice. It is not just an arrived at state; Right View is also a practice and it needs sustained cultivation and attention; it is not just something we pick up when we are on retreat for a week. Life is an inquiry. Mindfulness and concentration, supported by Right Effort, are the supports for this inquiry as much in our mundane lives as on pristine retreat.

In daily life, considering Right View affects how we relate and talk to our friends and family. When we are discussing important matters, if we are informed by the seed wisdom of the Dharma then we are practicing Right View.  But if we are informed by delusion we are practicing wrong, unwise view.  Right View understands the nature of grasping and pain, the emptying of the self and freeing of the mind, and that our actions have effects. What we read, talk about, think about, are all connected with the practice of Right View. Study, contemplation, observation and discussion weave this practice into the fabric of our lives, investing it with wholesome aliveness and laying the seeds for discernment.

Are we giving enough attention to the development to Right Living, Right Livelihood?

A monastic has an entire set of rules, a whole structure and lifestyle to support how to live wisely, for effacement. But outside of monastic life what have we got? Sometimes it seems there are no boundaries; we can do what we want (if money and time are sufficient and if no one catches you!). When we talk about Right Living it relates to the resources we use, what we consume and produce.  How we live needs to be fully a part of our practice and it demands deep and continual inquiry. We need to maintain the sense of a totality of the Dharma and be informed by the seed wisdom.

Where is this sense of wholeness and ubiquity of the path going to come from? How are we going to remember the mindfulness? How are we going to remember the qualities that we have been touched by retreat? Where is the energy to live this life of relinquishment coming from? It is a serious question because most of our culture goes against what we are learning: acquisition rather than relinquishment; excitement rather than peace; selfishness rather than love and compassion.  We find our culture’s push in many casual byways, such as when we turn on the TV or surf the internet. We are confronted by a barrage of messages which foster desire and agitation. How do we clean and orientate the mind in the context of the society in which we live?

Unfortunately there is no fixed answer; every life has its particulars and every person has to find their own path. But finding one’s path does not happen without commitment and the giving over of the heart.