What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

Posts: 559 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Forum: Practical Dharma

Could retreats be structured in ways that are more conducive to developing and furthering our practice? How did the Buddha teach people to practice? Are we following those guidelines? How do we learn and develop a skill? What helps? What hinders?

As a starting point, I have been thinking about retreats I have been on and the relationship between Dharma talks and practice in those situations. My experience is limited so maybe it doesn't really represent the 'norm'.

In the west, Dharma talks tend to be soft, gentle, humorous. Discussion of practice is often at an introductory level and the word jhana has seemingly been removed from the vocabulary. Practice is rigid with many rules and very structured. When to sit, walk, eat, etc. all day long. No talking, no eye contact, no unnecessary gestures. Practice is in groups with a single teacher.

I am not an expert on the Suttas but I get the sense they want to convey:
-Why we need to practice
-How to practice
-The result of practice
There is much of what you could call 'fire and brimstone' - discussion of hell realms, endless cycles of rebirth, suffering, etc. There is also detailed discussion of the practice beginning to end and the fruit of that practice. What I see as guides to practice – though they outline many different types of practices – encourage one toward self directed practice in a quiet secluded place or in fearsome places – cemeteries, forests (as in 'big wild animals'), etc. Practitioners are encouraged to seek advice from knowledgeable peers and engage in discussion of the Dharma when not practicing.

(cont)
Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

Posts: 559 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
In general, it seems to me, that Western Buddhism tends toward rigid enforced practice and tries to sweeten it with Dharma talks while the Buddha focused on using Dharma talks to explain the practice and create a sense of urgency, interest, and persistence such that students would be self motivated to practice on their own. Two very different approaches. From the Suttas I get the sense that practice communities looked much more like what Ivan Illich called 'learning webs' while modern retreat centers seem more like grade schools.

Though it may seem I am off on a rant against modern retreat practices (and in a way I am) I am much more interested in exploring new ideas (and old ones) and exploring what 'Retreat 2.0' might look like. Am I wrong? Have we simply adapted to meet modern conditions? Another way of looking at this is to ask ourselves: How do I best learn and develop a new skill? What kind of setting might best facilitate that goal?

“In fact, learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being "with it," yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.” - from 'Deschooling Society' by Ivan Illich
Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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Good stuff!

Do you have any thoughts on how more retreats are incorporating physical training?

On short retreats, it's a non-issue, but I wonder what makes sense from a health _and_ progress perspective? To what extent are the yoga/chikung classes helping or hurting -- and what would be ideal?

I just don't have enough experience to answer that question myself, but I'm thinking more and more about longer retreats and to what extent "working out" needs to be considered.
Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

Posts: 559 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Maybe not but you probably have experience in learning things on your own that you are interested in. What qualities did you bring to that task that helped you? (interest? enthusiasm? persistence?). How did you seek information or skills training? What kept you interested? What kept you going? What about motivation? Did you have any others that acted as mentors or fellow learners that you could share information with?

Physical training, yoga, tai chi, etc. could play a valuable role but part of what may be seen as current trends in retreat practices may be an attempt to patch-up unskillful practices that shouldn't have been there in the first place – so I think it can be helpful to just start from scratch as a way of exploring those 'root' qualities that need to be there from the start.
Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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I believe this is an extremely important topic. I wish that everyone with any experience in retreat-time and different settings give their perspective on this subject, and that we can start a conversation laid out in the introductory post. Please join.
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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I think there are a couple of things to tease apart here. First you have western Insight Centers like IMS and Spirit Rock. The approach there seems to be gentle, psychologically nurturing, non dogmatic and a bit more eclectic. They are somewhat fluid and dynamic in how they teach technique and in what techniques they teach. Unfortunately the results are generally slow and unfocused for most. I suspect they aim to hit a wide audience and hope those yogi's with more dedication will find their way. but they seem prefer helping beginning yogis over more advanced ones. I asked one teacher why Jhana is not discussed or generally taught and the response was Jhana was hard and striving for Jhana could become a real problem for a yogi.

There are also Monastic Centers like Bhavana Society and Tathagata (the only 2 I have been to). Tathagata is classic Mahasi style and is also quite structured on sitting and walking times. Teachers vary but U Pandita, the Mahasi lineage holder, is much like the way Chelek portrayed the Buddha. He's quite intense about heroic effort and frequently uses a line Mahasi used that basically one should practice as if you have a spear in your side and until you hit stream entry you are in dire peril.

His talks are long and intense intense designed to kick you in your ass until you practice harder. (I haven't sat with him but this is in his writings and was relayed to me by several IMS teachers who have studied with him). The Mahasi guys don't talk much about Jhana because they want no distraction from doing insight until at minimum you hit stream entry. I'm not sure how much they talk about it with advanced practitioners.
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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Bhavana is interesting as it is Sri Lanka style. They are a bit more open about attainments, both Insight and Concentration. However the insight tends to be a mix and match of different styles. On several retreats I've been there has been instruction in basic Anapanasati, Mahasi Noting and Body Sweeping. They don't seem to center on a single technique and emphasize haste or heroic effort.

Also, they do not have any retreats longer than 2 weeks other than for monastics and lay residents. In addition, they have more flexibility in schedule. Their extended practice periods can be divided into sitting, standing and walking as the Yogi sees fit. So here there is a bit more flexibility and openness but not as much rigor and effort.

Overall as a beginning yogi, I do appreciate a fixed schedule. I still need the subtle peer pressure of scheduled sits. However this is lessening. I suspect after a bit more retreat time, I won't need that so much.
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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Author: Ant_808

Hi everyone,

I practised in a centre in Sri Lanka for 6 weeks. This one place have a system where you are assigned a monk or nun and you go each morning to report your progress and if nessecary receive new instructions. I think that is great bc it means they consider your individual potienal and stage of development on a daily basis .You can go and visit anytime with questions or whatever. The schedule is very basic and you are responsoble for your own practise (no one will keep an eye on you to make sure your practising). Noble silence was not strictly adhered to but respected outside of the living quaters. Most of the time i was the only non Sri Lankain and was treated to the best of Sri lainkain genrousity. The instructions were contemplation 32 parts of the body, metta, annapannsati, then they guide you through Jhana (soft) then start practising Vipassana.

I came out of that retreat pretty skinny, Im sure its not such a good thing but when your comtemplating 32 parts of the body the whole time you really do loose that attachment to the physical body (temporaliy). Ideally I would have liked to take a small amount of protien supplements at tea time in the afternoon.

I found the relaxed atmosphere good but next time will be more determined to practised harder as I was overcome by slough and topor on more than one occasion emoticon.
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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I am relatively new to insight meditation and have never been on retreat, but if I could design one, here are some basic elements I'd like to see:

Do away with religious trappings, dogma, sectism, etc. - keep things on a generic, scientific/experiential level. Just provide the theory and reasoning behind what I am being asked to do and give me the opportunity to practice.
Begin with an individualized intake interview with an experienced guide who can make an accurate assessment of where I am now in the process.
Have the guide sit down with me and together we develop a plan for the duration of the retreat setting realistic goals, expectations and outcomes.
Have accessable guides available to answer questions, provide feedback, encouragement and advice in a straight forward, honest manner - don't sugar coat things, don't hold back information in an effort to "protect me".
Provide regular opportunities to meet with guides and other participants in guided discussions where we could share experiences and exchange ideas.
Conduct an exit interview to provide an assessment of progress and a plan going forward.
Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

Posts: 559 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Most of my experience has been in the style of IMS/Spirit Rock and I share Lees views as to what their motivation might be. I suspect that the reason it reminds me of a public school may be that they wanted a format that was familiar to a large number of people. Or it may simply be that this format was adopted because 'that's how people learn'. This is how people are 'schooled' – it is not how people 'learn'. I want to follow this idea up in another post because I think it is a key element of The Mushroom Factor.

Lee wrote: “...U Pandita, .. is much like the way Chelek portrayed the Buddha. He's quite intense about heroic effort ..”. It would be interesting to know how westerners react to this. Western Buddhist (WB?) teachers seem to avoid this topic almost totally. Can we drop this aspect of the teaching and still call it Buddhism?

I find Anthony's experience very encouraging. People being treated like adults!

If you haven't read about 'The Mushroom Factor' in Daniels book- take a look at Chapters 14, 15, 16, and 35: 'More on the Mushroom Factor'.

Speaking of mushrooms, recently I have become interested in growing mushrooms (the edible ones)[contact, interest]. First I did some reading, bought a kit and then tried growing some cultures on petri dishes [found resources, investigation]. I then experimented with more detailed techniques. At first I had a number of failures which was discouraging [hindrances, obstacles] but I was able to go on the web and find several communities of fellow cultivators which were happy to share knowledge and exchange ideas [mentoring, community, exchange of information]. I became convinced that I could figure it out [confidence] and started working on improving my skill level [effort]. I am still very much an amateur but I feel quite comfortable with the various aspects of the process.

(cont)
Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

Posts: 559 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
A brief side trip:
Once you set up a public school setting don't be surprised if your 'students' - start behaving like 'good students'. What is a 'good student'? According to John Taylor Gatto (in his criticism of current methods of public education):
“School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. ..schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help yours to develop an inner life so they'll never be bored. Urge them to take on serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology - stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone - they seek constant companionship through TV, the computer, cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired - quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can ..... After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I've concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius because we haven't yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves. ”

Do we give up our own natural curiosity and desire for learning and turn this over to a 'credentialed, lineaged' teacher from a 'well respected institute' simply because we have been relentlessly trained to do just that?
If so, what can we do about it? My sense is we can solve the problem simply by creating healthy retreat environments along the line of what n8sense is talking about and just doing this will naturally trigger peoples innate desire to learn.
Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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Great stuff n8sense!

Something you kind of touch on is the individual nature of really immersing oneself in the work. I don't know if this is just a personal quirk or a common desire, but I wish for a situation that isn't as seemingly group-driven (shared meditation hall, shared eating space, shared story-based dharma talks). I would prefer smaller isolated meditation space, short but individual talks with teachers, and maybe no dharma talks since I feel like I really hit a groove most early evenings.

The isolated meditation space would address my earlier concern about exercise. I also am leaning toward thinking that formal exercise sessions would be a distraction to the momentum of practice. But I would like the opportunity to stretch, do yoga, or callistetics without distracting others.
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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(this post is quite long so if you like, skip to paragraph 3 which begins with the line, 'THE GIST..')

chuck,

i have experience being part of a form of alternative education, free schooling (sometimes called democratic schooling), from which i've learnt how design structures (like the common schools of today) can 'make things more difficult than they need to be'. these are schools in which self-determination is given importance, and which generally end up operating along the lines of the principles you praised, such as self-motivation, seeking advice for oneself in the right places, illich's 'learning webs', etc. in practice, one of the chief differences between free schools and traditional schools is that the coercive element found in the latter isnt present in the former. however, this tends to make things fall apart when too many of the people there aren't really interested in being there, or haven't become accustomed to not being coerced (it can take a while), so they just end up doing nothing or being confused, or even worse, engaging in destructive activity. another difference often found is that in free schools, staff tends to be more passionate about being there than staff at traditional schools, which is generally a good thing. however, this also means they're more likely to be busy-bodies who don't realise that giving kids individual guidance in unsolicited ways can defeat the purpose even more than the standard, mass schooling approach of not giving them enough attention, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. regardless, im very much for non-coerced learning, provided that it takes place in a resource-rich environment, the participants are able to regulate themselves (thereby obviating coercion), and they are free from having to spend too much time dealing with things like bullying, hypocrisy, and confused moral authorities, all of which can be distracting/disturbing.
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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the above dichotomy doesn't translate to meditation retreats perfectly but it does well enough to be put as follows: ideally, people can follow meditation instructions regardless of the setting in which they are given, but in practice, many people who are given more freedom than they know what to do with flounder, and many people who have to deal with unfamiliar sets of restrictions become resentful, or even worse, fascinated with those rules, and the result is they dont practice well either. on retreats where teachers are more free to teach as they please, they are free to make case-to-case decisions, but they are also more free to impose irrelevant beliefs and pet preferences on the retreat, which can be downright ignorant and damaging to student interests. whereas on retreats where teachers play taped instructions and talks, responding to questions with answers straight from the handbook, destructive tendencies are marginalised, but this also has the unfortunate impact of restricting their ability to respond from the breadth of their own knowledge, limiting opportunities to learn from new situations, and as a result, causing students to miss out on good insight.*

THE GIST: all this said, i am actually in favour of the common retreat format being strict and regulated. part of why i wrote the above, about how cool free schools are, is so i can explain that my preference for strict retreats isn't because i don't know how cool the alternatives can be, it *is* because i know some of those alternatives and know how they work, which is to say that i know they have to be internalised individually to be meaningful, otherwise they don't work and there's no point. strict retreats keep people who haven't managed to internalise the factors necessary to do their own thing from spoiling it for others. i speak from firsthand experience when i say it sucks when those restrictions can get in the way of us figuring it out, but also, oh well.
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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i'm gonna go into mythological territory here, but the story has a point: there's a sutta somewhere in which the buddha tells ananda (the buddha's cousin, student, friend, and personal assistant) about the teachings of the previous buddhas of this aeon, and about how, while each buddha's teachings were fundamentally the same, their styles were different and the levels of impact they had varied. the teachings that lasted longest after the death of each buddha were the ones that were systematically expounded; the teachings that disappeared more quickly after their deaths were the ones that were un-systematically expounded. this sutta refers to style of teaching, not style of retreat, but i want to draw the comparison anyway.


*(actually, believe it or not, i've seen at least one teacher who, while teaching in a very tightly regulated tradition, still clearly managed to impose his own unhelpful values on retreatants. i say 'at least one' because i think this may be more common than i've seen, as i suspect restrictive traditions have the effect of censoring the more mild-mannered dissidents while allowing insidious power-mongers, both teachers and students, who co-opt the tradition's unchallenged legitimacy to advance their own agendas, to thrive.)
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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Hi Betawave,

You may already know this, but what you are describing is somewhat like what is offered at the long-term Forest Refuge facility. Though facilities there are shared, people are on their own schedule, there is only 1 dharma talk each week (and that is optional) and 2 short personal interviews with the resident teachers. If the group retreats offered at IMS & Spirit Rock could be likened to grade school, I would liken the environment at the Forest Refuge to graduate work.

Also, Spirit Rock is currently in the process of creating exactly the environment you are describing. They are planning on putting up several individual kuti's for long-term practitioners, and I suspect this will be even more isolated than the FR, though will still probably have community support.

Anyway, all of what I'm describing, I would call retreat 2.0, but perhaps an intermediary between 1.0 and 2.0. ;)
Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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Thanks Vince. Those are great opportunities and I'm working on developing a retreat resume for that kind of practice.

It's interesting that many of the comments, including mine, have flavors of "I like format X but I understand why centers use format Y". Is there any hope for creating format X?
Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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Tarin,
You bring up some really good points. A difference in this situation may be that people (adults?) are choosing to be there (retreat) and looking for help with their practice. I don't think these retreat centers are trying to manipulate people in the way that compulsory education was designed to do – but rather that by choosing a similar model they may be taking otherwise functional adults and turning them back into children.

An aspect of how I think this shows up in western style retreats is how teacher interviews often dissolve into trivial banter and content stuff (as Daniel talks about). I don't think that opening up the structure necessarily entails allowing chaos. More like creating a setting that allows a group of people who are interested in pursuing a certain line of study to support and collaborate with each other.

“[Teachers are] more likely to be busy-bodies who don't realise that giving kids individual guidance in unsolicited ways can defeat the purpose“

Yes. On the more extreme end of this I suspect that in every repressed student there is an oppressive teacher just itching for an opportunity 'to teach'. I have met mine at times and it can be embarrassing. I think that underneath this behavior is a natural curiosity and desire to share and learn. If the retreat is structured as a community of learners then it may be that if someone jumps into the 'I am the Grand Poobah' role then others will simply leave them to play out that role with those that want to play being their 'disciple' - and they can all reflect on that later as they wish.
Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

Posts: 559 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
I think there are a number of good suttas that could help in developing a format. I remember one that speaks of a large number of monks gathered – learning and practicing in small groups according to their level of experience. There is another sutta where Buddha comes upon a group of monks that are arguing about politics or women or whatever and he tells them they are blowing it – they tell him to leave them alone - so he takes off and goes to the forest to spend time with some monks that are doing it right. Then he comes up with a great sutta on skillful versus unskillful practice.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu said that dhamma in the US was like the game of telephone: “Things get passed from one generation to the next until they are garbled beyond recognition.” So the question is: what does 'systematically expounded' mean for us here and now?
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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this runs the risk of confusing two separate issues (level of difficulty vs. inner motivation/coercion) but...

yes, you make a good point, as there is a difference, but one that i would de-emphasise given the following: though retreatants are choosing to be there, and looking for help with their practice, the difficulty of being of one mind about practising makes retreat inherently more difficult than school - retreatants are working against the odds to a whole 'nother level than school students, requiring that they steel their resolve and make a level of commitment that, while it would probably be useful for school, is still wholly unnecessary there. i would say the majority of functional adults are not, by default, equipped with the level of self-discipline that bounding into the unknown (yet often-times uncompelling) territory of retreat would require in order for them to make full use of the time they have on it. i am curious, as i would guess you are as well - is there any kind of retreat setting that will awaken this inner urgency more efficiently than a rigid and compulsory retreat? and once awakened, will people be able to subvert the energy normally allotted toward their slothful habits and enslave it to the will to practice, without needing further compulsion? even if so, and while this may depend on the individual, i think a relentless, unthinking timetable could be simply make things easier once sufficient self-motivation is already present.

--


your comment about the grand poobah/disciple roles is the way i've observed that sort of think happen in free schools, where, not compelled by anything other than a minimal social pressure to participate in a game just because it's present, the uninterested are free to leave to do something else.

agree on 'underneath this behaviour..'. i find it funny how its the self-same drives motivating everything, even seemingly contradictory things.
Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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This discussion has really helped me in exploring this issue. It is reassuring to know there are centers out there teaching 'the real stuff'. Seems they tend to be monastic based and I suppose that is not surprising.

There are many people who want to develop a good practice and manage to put together the money and time to make a commitment to a 10 day retreat. They aren't expecting enlightenment – just to advance their practice. The majority will return and still not have a sense of how to move beyond 'watching the breadth' hoping for some awakening after maybe lifetimes of practice. I see this all the time.

Whenever a group of people come together there is a certain dynamic that takes place – we are not just a group of individuals. We can try to suppress that dynamic or we can try to leverage it. Western Buddhism – recognizing the need for seclusion - attempts to create an artificial sense of it (with rigid rules of conduct) within this group setting and I think ends up undermining the very factors of awakening that they know very well are so important to this path while at the same time failing to make use of this group energy dynamic.

It seems to me that these group retreats could better serve practitioners by making use of this group experience rather than trying to suppress it. We have many examples here in the west of group training/workshops where people interested in a particular subject come together to network, learn, exchange ideas, and develop new skills. These practices benefit from and in fact leverage the group dynamics present whenever people come together. People could leave such a workshop far better prepared and encouraged – given a sense of confidence, motivation, interest, contacts, skills, etc. - to take home and use in their personal practice. Perhaps, with new found motivation and confidence, they might then seek out the centers mentioned above, for deeper practice.
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: What could 'Retreat 2.0' look like?

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I think that this so far has been a wonderful debate. I have been on a bunch of retreats, at IMS, Gaia House, MBMC in Malaysia, Bhavana Society in WVa, and the Thai Monastery with Western teachers in Bodh Gaia, and I would say that they each have their strengths and weaknesses. I suspect that it is very much a question of audience, and given the wide variation out there, I suspect that most people can find something that fits with what they are looking for. However, I haven't seen anything like the style of the original days of the Buddha in those first golden 20 years or so, when the monks were of high quality, there was a lot of openness, there were many enlightened teachers in the group and very skilled practitioners, they did sit around with to discuss and teach each other and then went off to practice what they had learned, and returned to the groups when they had questions. That is beyond anything I have seen East or West, and I long for its return.

I have only lead one retreat and it had only one practitioner, so I have very limited experience on the other end, and I think there would have been benefit from there being more people around, particularly a few others who also had strong meditation skills and some different perspectives so that there would have been that amazing group energy that can develop from that. What a joy it would be to try to re-create those original conditions or the Western lay equivalent. Too bad that most of the great practitioners I know are scattered far and wide and don't formally teach much if at all. Clearly the non-system has failed to incorporate a lot of talent, and our nomadic, scattered culture leads to people living far apart and moving around a lot. It would be interesting to try to get a gathering of strong, dedicated practitioners together who were interested in something beyond dharma grade-school and doing the graduate work mentioned above in the original and glorious style.

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