The word “retreat” means as much as “withdrawing yourself” and, in a narrower sense in this context, withdrawing yourself from everyday life for spiritual or religious self-examination.
Nowadays you can do all kinds of retreats, at home and abroad. Yoga retreats, Christian retreats, Zen retreats, vipassanā retreats and so on.
They are retreats because in relative isolation more emphatic attention is paid to one’s own (spiritual) development, in the personal sphere or in contact with something higher. However, they all differ in the practical interpretation.
If you practice samatha meditation on buddho (the qualities of the Buddha) it is also possible to go on a retreat. Because the word retreat has so many different conotations and some people may have experienced a retreat in a different tradition, we will consider what a retreat in the context of our meditation method entails, both with regard to the group retreat in the Netherlands and the individual retreat in Thailand.
Is Going on a Retreat Really Necessary?
That is personal question and depends on the intention with which you enter the path of meditation. The daily meditation during “normal” life is the basis, and harmonizing that daily meditation with normal everyday life is perhaps the most important condition for steady spiritual growth.
If you practice in this way, you slowly but surely develop your mind, you will build a karmic bond with the teacher and method and you will continue to contribute to the further development of your paramis (specific mental qualities).
However, if you live in the Netherlands, you generally have a limited time per day to meditate because you probably still have to work, have children, take care of the household and so on.
Therefore, if your meditation really has an important place in your life and you are looking for further deepening, you will automatically arrive at retreats. In other words, retreats will naturally and increasingly become part of your meditative process because you will become aware of the limitations that daily life imposes on you.
During a retreat you can fully immerse yourself in your meditation, you do not have to do anything else. For most of us ordinary mortals the intensive and secluded nature of repeated long-term retreats is necessary for the deeper developement of concentration and wisdom.
After a retreat, you notice that the deeper concentration gained slowly but surely fades away again. Yet, in addition to inspiration, there remains a tangible difference in your daily meditations and in your life in general.
Repeated retreats contribute to a slow undulating upward movement, an increase in mental purity and an increase in the power of wholesome mental qualities.
Most people who have gone along with a group retreat want to experience this again, however confrontational and difficult it may have been, because they have experienced how positive the effect of a retreat is.
Who Can Go on a Retreat?
In principle anyone who wants to register for our group retreats in the Netherlands or retreat to Ahba in Northern Thailand is welcome.
It is “in principle” because the group retreat requires that you have mastered the meditation technique, which in practice means that you have practiced the method at home every day for at least a few weeks.
Prior to a group retreat, Herman will also assess whether a group retreat is the right way for you at that time or not.
It is also “in principle” because it is very sensible (but not necessary) that before you go to Ahba’s monastery, you have first gained more experience, for example by going on a group retreat for a week. The retreats we do in Thailand are not tourist retreats. Going to the monastery unprepared and doing your first retreat there is not recommended. The transition is simply too great.
In case of a request for an individual retreat in Thailand, Abha will assess whether an intensive retreat is appropriate for you at that time.
The Group Retreat in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands you have the opportunity to participate in a group retreat of one week twice a year. There are only a limited number of places, so indicating that you are interested well in advance helps.
During the group retreat you have your own bedroom where you also meditate during the day. In the evening a group meditation is offered in the meditation hall. There are communal meals at noon and in the evening.
The idea is that you let go of time as much as possible, that is, that you surrender yourself to the rhythm of the retreat. Herman uses a bell to wake everyone up, mark the beginning and end of a meditation block, and announce the meals. That means you don’t need a clock or alarm clock, so you can fully focus on your meditation.
Experience shows that it is very inspiring and motivating to have people around you who, just like you, are making an enormous effort every day to purify and calm the mind.
The Individual Retreat in Thailand
Those who want to meditate longer, if you have received permission from Ahba, can go on retreat at Ahba’s monastery in Northern Thailand for several weeks or months.
Upon arrival at his monastery, you bow to Ahba and ask him again for permission to meditate there. If everything is in order you will receive shelter and two meals a day.
In Ahba’s monastery your sleeping place is less predictable, but you always have your own room. The meditation takes place in a temple that is mainly used for ceremonies and ordinations of new monks, which in practice means that you can use it undisturbed all day long for weeks.
Ahba’s monastery is a Pali school, so if you are going to meditate you do not participate in existing meditation sessions but you sit down every day whenever you want and as long as you want.
As a rule, there will be no other Westerner on retreat at the same time. The monks who walk around, whether they meditate or not, will disturb you as little as possible because they know how important it is for your meditation not to be disturbed.
This isolation and being thrown back on yourself in a strange environment can be quite intense. Ultimately, the extra peace and seclusion at Ahba’s monastery, however, gives an extra stimulus for further deepening of your meditation.
What does a retreat day look like?
During our group retreats in the Netherlands we meditate four hours in the morning, four in the afternoon and one and a half hours in the evening.
If you go to Ahba you can decide how long you meditate, but usually roughly the same format is used with perhaps a slightly longer evening session.
The other hours are preferably spent mentally reciting “buddho, buddho, buddho”, whether you are sitting or lying or eating or using the toilet. That is very difficult. It is therefore wise to see it as an exercise and not something you should be able to do immediately.
Samatha meditation on buddho has no walking meditation as it is practiced for example in Zen or vipassanā retreats. Ahba indicates that you cannot develop deep concentration with walking meditation, for that you have to sit.
That does not mean that you are not allowed to get up for a short walk and stretch your legs if the pain or mental unrest is too strong, just that walking meditation is not part of the meditation and therefore should not be practiced as such.
In essence, you are working every day and all day to focus as much as possible on buddho. That’s all.
When do you have contact with the teacher?
During a buddho meditation retreat, you will not have fixed contact moments or dialogues with the teacher, and no standard Dhamma teaching will be given.
That does not mean that you are simply left to your own devices. Thanks to the high concentration that the teachers have, they can also monitor your mental process during a retreat without speaking to you and, if necessary, will give you a push in the right direction.
During group retreats, contact with Herman is usually on your own initiative if you feel the need, where necessary Herman will speak to you. People who are going for the first time are more intensively guided.
If you go to Ahba, the contact is very unpredictable. Ahba fully adapts his contact and the content of his teaching to what is most appropriate for your own process and your paramīs at that time.
Sometimes he will speak to you extensively on arrival, sometimes he will wave you away after a few minutes with the message that you know what to do. Sometimes you have to visit him every day and he will speak to you regularly, sometimes you will not see him for weeks and at the end of your retreat you will receive some wisdom for home and the next retreat.
In any case, the contact with Ahba and his presence in the monastery emanates enormous energy and inspiration. No one has ever visited the monastery who has not been hit on a deep layer.
Even if you do not always notice it yourself at that moment, a lot happens at the deeper levels of the mind. Often you receive wisdom that you can only appreciate fully at a later time.
But you need to take the first step to start this process of deep mental development yourself.