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Oct 24
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Transformative Journeys at Dathun

The Shambhala Times would like to thank the community for its wonderful response to our request for personal tales about their experience of dathun, a month-long group meditation retreat. Below is a wonderful sampling of what we received…

From Michael Mallett:

Trying to explain dathun to anyone who has never been is much like my own experience of dathun itself: challenging, exhausting, brilliant, boring and very full—all rolled together.

On the whole, it was a day-to-day encounter with change. A changing schedule, changing physical conditions, and my own changing moods. And yet, there was a rhythm to life at dathun: the morning wake up at 5:45, the walk before the sunrise through the beautiful meadow with the Great Stupa on one side and the horse corral on the other, drinking that first cup of coffee with sangha mates watching the sun crest the peak and pour its warmth upon us, the sound of the conch calling us to 7:00 sitting. Every day started this way, although by turns it grew dark and wet, cold and windy, or warm and even sultry at times as days progressed.

The first session of the day included either the “Dathun Walk,” a group meditative walk along the surrounding trails or lujong, a Tibetan inspired set of stretches designed to bring mind and body into synchronicity. oryoki breakfast followed with chopsticks maneuvering to pick up scrambled eggs or even yogurt. After a break, it was back to the shrine tent for meditation practice for the most of the day punctuated by oryoki meals and work period. After dinner and the evening chants, we had a study session or dharma talk by our resident spiritual friend, Acharya Gaylon Ferguson, to inspire our adherence to silence and peaceful abiding until sleep called and curfew came.

That describes the outer form. The inner form was also an experience of constant change.

Week One was adventurous. There were new people to consider, keeping the silence of the container, placing the mind on the breathing body only to be distracted by spurious thoughts and fantasies and then return the mind to the breathing body, again and again.

Week Two brought inner friction, manifesting in struggle. Struggle with thoughts, struggle with the manifestations of others, struggle with silence. Ultimately, it was struggle with the practice—hot boredom as it is known in Shambhala. This continued until wisdom dawned and it was apparent that this was all projection on my part. And I finally relaxed into being wherever I was at any point in the day.

Week Three commenced with great boredom. Bored with my thoughts, bored with my distractions, bored with my reactions to how my fellows manifested. This was cool boredom: refreshing and even liberating in its spaciousness and all inclusiveness. A new technique was introduced at this point, following the outbreath into open space, returning to the posture and waiting peacefully for the next outbreath. I felt the groundedness of posture and openness of space. I felt in balance, pivotal for meditation in action.

Week Four was relaxed until midweek, when thoughts of return to “normal life” began to arise. Not troubling as much as intriguing—how to carry forward what I experienced these four weeks?
The vast teachings on the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” thoroughly explained and exemplified by Acharya Ferguson, had richly inhabited my experience and now had become a part of my mindstream. Relations with sangha mates—in teamwork service of oryoki or washing dishes every other day or struggling together silently on the cushion or with a set of chopsticks and bowl of beans—now and forever linked us in this sacred experience together, held in the embrace of silence.

I awaken at home in the middle of the night, feel my breathing body and peacefully abide. I sit in the morning and feel the sun on my shoulder and smell the scent of hot coffee. I recollect sitting in the shrine tent or walking along the beautiful trail that surrounds the valley that is Shambhala Mountain Center. And I feel a smile arise upon my lips and a warm feeling of gratitude.

From Margo Shean:

After becoming disenchanted with my life on auto pilot, I decided to go to Karme Choling to do dathun with Acharya Rockwell. I arrived a bit nervous, not knowing what to expect, and feeling self conscious. I also had the conviction and determination to look at my mind and heart, unconvinced by the speed and materialism of our modern society.

Each week had its own flavor, and each day a fresh yet completely familiar and redundant scenario—of boredom, make-believe love affairs, and oryoki. I went from laughter to tears, to both at the same time. And through it all I had a love affair with myself. I fell in love with who I am, and was genuinely touched by my experience of the world.

Finding the words to describe the most powerful, difficult, transformative experience in my life is hard. Less than five months after dathun, I began living and working at Karme Choling and am now a Shambhala sadhaka, which may help to express the deep impact dathun had on my life. It was without a doubt, the most potent event of my life.

From Angela Johnston:

My first dathun was the winter of 2001-2 with Reggie Ray. In 1998 my life underwent a huge change. Basically the ground fell away and in an attempt to find it again, I pursued an interest in meditation by reading books and attempting to follow the instructions. A move landed me in British Columbia in close proximity to the Shambhala Center in Nelson and—like a child who has been shown a treasure chest of jewels at the top of a very long flight of stairs—my curiosity, delight and enthusiasm drove me to attend as many open houses and workshops as I could.

For the two years prior to dathun, I had an almost daily one-hour practice of meditation. There was nothing spectacular about it. I was simply attempting to follow the instructions with my mind wandering and then bring it back, again and again and again. I was trying to find some equanimity, some peace in my life. I believe it was helping in that I was beginning to not react so much, especially within close family relationships. Instead I had the patience to gently deal with some difficult situations.

In 2001, through no great struggle on my part, I had time and money available to register for a dathun at Shambhala Mountain Center. The whole process of getting to the dathun was so simple—as if I was simply sliding into it.

The first week was okay, even though my body was a bit sore. During the second week, my breath became shallow, my mind crying “I can’t do this” and my body twitching. I felt like: “I absolutely just gotta run screaming out of this room.” Instead, I left by lifting my gaze and looking out the window. When I talked to my meditation instructor, she told me I was having a panic attack. Just having a label on the experience calmed me. By the end of the second week, I was able to stay with the flight response and just burst into tears. Then calm deep breathing followed. Would I have been able to do that at home? I don’t know. But I do know it would have taken longer to resolve. The third week was mostly crying and the beginning of an odd neck twitch. Why was I crying? I don’t know and that’s okay. It went away too.

By the end of dathun, I felt exhausted and flayed. And okay with it all. But what I didn’t expect was the difficulty I would have practicing once I got home. My home practice has never been as easy as it was before dathun. Now I have to work harder to get to the cushion and stay there. Initially just sitting on a meditation cushion would set off a mini-panic. With the help of my meditation instructor, I began just sitting and lighting a candle. Gradually I could increase the time I practiced at home.

What I have definitely determined over the years since dathun is that group practice, be it one hour or one month, always gives a boost to my home practice.

From Rochelle Weithorn:

In the 1970s you had to do a dathun to be accepted to seminary. I don’t recall having a great love for sitting when I went to Karme Choling the summer of 1979 to attend the August dathun. The goal was to get to seminary to be with my guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche for three months.

I went to Karme Choling with my eight year old daughter. The program started on August 1 and Nicole turned eight on August 3. Somehow I managed to bake a box cake, set out long tables by the barn and have a lunch/birthday party for the children—much to the chagrin of my meditation instructor, who was also head of the dathun.

Even with this rocky beginning, the dathun began to take hold on all of us. Through the heat, long hours, distractions of every sort, the practice began to change us. It was truly the best thing I had done up to that point, and it has always stayed with me. It was the best preparation for what lay ahead.

Now I see dathun as the ultimate luxury. Imagine being able to sit for one month. An incredible opportunity.

From Kathy Southard:

In 2002, I attended an open house at the Boston Shambhala Meditation Center out of curiosity. At the time, I had thought of myself as a Buddhist. Because of the books I’d read, I felt aligned with Buddhist philosophy. But I had never found a community of practitioners or practiced meditation at all. It was pretty new to me and at that point it hadn’t really crossed my mind that it might be helpful to practice meditation or find other people on a Buddhist path. Actually I was hesitant because I didn’t want to be inducted into anything that might be considered, er well, cult-like or new-agey.

Nonetheless, I went along to an open house one evening that spring to learn more about Buddhism, and I recall my mind opening with deep curiosity when someone mentioned the word “dathun,” referring to a month of intense meditation practice. I immediately wanted to take up that challenge, but also thought it might be a bit much.

Just a few weeks after the first time I’d entered the doors of the Boston Shambhala Meditation Center, I found myself back there at a one-day meditation workshop, where we were given further meditation instruction and many hours to practice. We also had the chance to watch a video with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. That was May and then in June, I flew to Colorado to sit half of a dathun at the Shambhala Mountain Center. I thought that a good place to start.

To say that dathun was a transforming experience is a bit of an understatement.

Over those two weeks, I went from being unaware of the wildness of my “monkey mind” to experiencing glimpses of a real sense of peace and what is called basic goodness. That experience brought me firmly onto this path. Even though I had no idea that I had been searching for something my entire life, there at Shambhala Mountain Center I had found it.

I took formal refuge during that retreat, becoming a Buddhist officially, which no one asked me to do. In fact, I was discouraged from taking refuge, because I was so new to the path. Yet when time for the refuge ceremony came, I felt strongly about doing it and was allowed to.

During the two weeks of practice, I saw that my thoughts were habitual thought patterns. They went round and round. If I didn’t buy into my constant storyline, I could just stay with the feelings and then let go, allowing myself to simply be. My mind got much clearer and stable. At first, I was frustrated with how hard it is to tame the mind. But once I accepted this, I started to feel quite friendly to myself. I had the experience of falling in love with this mind of mine, which I had not paid much attention to before.

After 27 years of being alive, it felt like the first time I was seeing myself. I had a sense of really looking at the mind for the first time—the mind that had been creating my reality and leading me around rather blindly for my whole life.

I also remember thinking that everyone else there was more experienced and advanced than me. That everyone knew what they were doing, except for me! I felt like the one person who didn’t know anything.

Later into the retreat, I remember becoming quite amused that this was my mind—my thoughts, my complaints, irritation—and knowing, too, at the same time, these thoughts were not me. Knowing that there was something more that I was experiencing beyond words. I found myself laughing and giggling at just about anything at points. I suppose it was a deep sense of awakening.

I recall feeling the world was perfect and that everything that happened in my life to bring me there was perfect. All the suffering, pain and frustrations in my life were perfect since everything brought me to that point in my life.

Today, I wish I could keep that view. As transforming this experience was, in a sense, nothing really happened. I simply tasted my own mind and learned to just be with what is. Yet that was transforming and ultimately healing for me. Since this first experience of dathun, I have attended another partial dathun, then another full dathun, and later went to live at a retreat center for a year. I’ve gone on to completing a number of other programs and retreats.

But my first sense of awakening at that dathun was one of the most profound for me. With love and deep appreciation to this path…

From Debbie McGee:

At my dathun, at Dorje Denma Ling in February of 2006, I learned how to drum for the Heart Sutra, how to eat and serve oryoki, how to lead morning chants, the principles behind ikebana flower-arranging, and what exactly is meant by kitchen practice. I also learned that I have a great affinity for industrial dishwashers.

Besides all these useful skills, I had a month of excellent teachings from Acharya Moh Hardin on “being friendly to oneself and merciful to others,” and I finally sat for long enough that I could be present in the room most of the time. Also, and this has benefited me ever since, I learned I am capable of getting up early in the morning and practicing.

From Michael Schaefer:

It was in the summer of 1984, and the dathun took place in a remote rural part of Austria. I had done my first program in 1980 and taken refuge in the fall of 1983. So here I was, quite familiar already with the Trungpa approach to sitting practice.

But this really changed my life, because it penetrated far deeper. The main thing that I discovered was how real it was. Unconsciously, I hadn’t thought that the practice of meditation could really work for me. But suddenly I clicked into the certainty that I could do it too, because I settled down and discovered my own experience of the material we studied.

One sentence rang especially deep: “Without hinayana, we cannot uncover our basic sanity at all.” That rang so deep and so true. I’d never known before that something could be so real. So suddenly I caught the fever. From laziness, depression, and the agony of being tormented by my constant chatter, suddenly something shifted. And I became more relaxed and curious. Suddenly I was open and watched curiously what was happening in my mind, and I began to notice and to explore.

Everything clicked further with Trungpa’s talks about the Four Foundations. That was so helpful. It reflected my agony and showed a way out: “You have already survived. You can relax.” It has continued to ring with me years and years after.

Another thing was even more powerful. Somehow, a love affair developed with a girl there. Now that was really dangerous terrain, because I was suffering from borderline depression, which wasn’t clear to me at that time. So at some point I became completely paranoid about the whole thing. As this was near the end of the dathun, I was already cooked and softened up.

I’ll never forget the night when the two of us had a walk, and I agonized in sudden isolation and paranoia. Somehow, she saw it and made a remark which burst the dam. I cried heavily from deep down; all that bottled-up pain was admitted. In the midst of that, she said: “Do you think Rinpoche is joking?” Again, there was the insight that deep down, somehow I had doubted that practice was serious and real.

In the end, I came out with a deep, satisfying contact with a soothing silence within me, a quality of being content with just being which I’d never known before. I began to love myself then. Many years later, I further worked on my depression through psychotherapy, which was only possible because I had this training in mindfulness and awareness. I can certainly say that this has saved my life.

Read more from our series on Dathun: Experiencing Retreat.
Join online talks about the dathun experience at Shambhala Online.

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1 response to “ Transformative Journeys at Dathun ”
  1. Thom Smith
    Oct 24, 2011

    Sitting a Dathun

    It has been many years since I sat a dathun, sometime around 1984. I worked up to sitting a month by weekend and week long sitting programs. So along with my hour a day practice most physical aches and pains, connected with sitting posture, were behind me when I got to Karme Choling. My first eye opener was driving on a country road, rounding a bend and seeing a large barn and the meditation hall/farm house/dormitory dressed in Tibetan colors with a sign alight for all the universe to witness. Chogyam Trungpa hid nothing; I was immediately up-lifted by his courage and his confidence.
    A dathun is many things to many people, but some things are shared like the giggles, which washed over the people one afternoon like waves on a beach coming and going both in a regular and an irregular pattern – pure joy shared and cherished by all.

    Thom Smith

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