02 November 2015

Three month meditation retreat

Imagine wandering out of kindergarten into an advanced mathematics class. As a metaphor, this is a fair comparison for many who were with me when we first experienced the teachings of the Tibetan Sogyal Rinpoche in 1985. A good deal went over our heads…

So now, 30 years later, it was an amazing experience to join a retreat where along with a thousand people who have been doing a good deal of study and practice since that time, it was possible to hear the best of Rinpoche’s teachings, only this time having come somewhat better prepared.

So this week, something of that experience and the teachings, but first

              Thought for the day

Know all things to be like this:

A mirage, a cloud castle,

A dream, an apparition,

Without essence, but with qualities that can be seen.

Know all things to be like this:

As the moon in a bright sky

In some clear lake reflected,

Though to that lake the moon has never moved.

Know all things to be like this:

As an echo that derives

From music, sounds, and weeping,

Yet in that echo is no melody.

Know all things to be like this:

As a magician makes illusions

Of horses, oxen, carts and other things,

Nothing is as it appears.


Back in 1985, Sogyal Rinpoche was effectively a Tibetan refugee. Rinpoche (translates roughly as “precious one” – an honourific title a bit like cardinal) had been traditionally trained in Tibet, went to Catholic school in India after fleeing the Chinese invasion, studied at Cambridge, then began to teach in the Western World.

These days, Sogyal Rinpoche is one of the better known Tibetan teachers in the Western World.

His book, the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was first published in 1993, and having now sold around 3.5 million copies in many languages is a true modern day spiritual classic.

So I was fortunate to stumble into his first ever talk in Australia in 1985. And yes, there was a sense I was only capable of grasping a small portion of what was on offer, and yes, there are many paths to the truth, but there was also a clear sense that this man knew so much of what I was seeking on my own spiritual quest. Rinpoche gave the experiential sense that he really did know the truth of what it was to be a human being, and was capable not only of articulating what that meant, but how to realize it.

So move ahead 30 years. Rinpoche is now a world figure with a major retreat centre in the south of France. The European summer is retreat time, and the time when his older students gather.

This year, it felt like the right time for me to go for 3 months. As it turned out, my timing was excellent. Rinpoche has been taking years to teach and prepare his students to receive the best of his teachings. This is a bit like working through any study program. There is a time where you get to where it all leads.

So the retreat had several aspects. July was mostly a time of practice. Meditation, mantras, chanting and other specific practices, followed by what is called a drubchen. This was an 8 day intense group practice based on mantra recitation, chanting and imagery that I found very profound.

Then time for personal practice before in August, the older students gathered for the main teaching session that extended throughout the month.

One thousand people in an authentic, traditionally designed Tibetan temple in the south of France.

All in strict silence. Quite an atmosphere. Quite a precedent – nothing like it ever before I suspect.

Then finally, two weeks in September of intense study.

So here is what Rinpoche has had to say on the possibilities, the obstacles we face, and the need our world finds itself in:

If we were to put our minds to one powerful wisdom method and work with it directly, there is a real possibility we would become enlightened.

Our minds, however, are riddled with confusion and doubt. 

I sometimes think that doubt is an even greater block to human evolution than is desire or attachment. Our society promotes cleverness instead of wisdom, and celebrates the most superficial, harsh, and least useful aspects of our intelligence. 

We have become so falsely “sophisticated” and neurotic that we take doubt itself for truth, and the doubt that is nothing more than ego’s desperate attempt to defend itself from wisdom is deified as the goal and fruit of true knowledge.

This form of mean-spirited doubt is the shabby emperor of samsara (the Buddhist term for what in their understanding is the cycle of conditioned existence, birth and death, which is characterized by suffering and in which one is continually reborn until attaining nirvana, or enlightenment), served by a flock of “experts” who teach us not the open-souled and generous, doubt that Buddha assured us was necessary for testing and proving the worth of the teachings, but a destructive form of doubt that leaves us nothing to believe in, nothing to hope for, and nothing to live by.

So next week, something of my own experiences during this extra – ordinary retreat…

RELATED BLOGS – The meditation retreat series
1. Why Tibetan Buddhism?

2. The View and why it matters

3. Why follow a spiritual teacher?

The Dragon’s Blessing – Guy Allenby. If you are interested in more, the biography goes into it in some detail.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying – Sogyal Rinpoche. The spiritual classic that has sold around 3.5 million copies, inspired and supported many people along their path.

Meditation Retreats and specific cancer residential programs with Ian and Ruth Gawler -

He is coming to Australia again in 2016 and will give Public Talks in Melbourne – Tuesday January 5th and Adelaide January 6th, along with the annual retreat at Myall Lakes.


  1. Hi Ian
    I know you admire Sogyal Rinpoche very much and recommend his teachings regularly. I am just wondering if you have ever addressed the controversy surrounding Sogyal given that submitting to spiritual teachers can make followers very vulnerable and susceptible.
    Neil Hegarty

    1. Submitting to anything or anyone requires discrimination and is only recommended for people who are mentally stable and keen to learn. In earlier days I submitted to my main athletics coach and did exactly as he directed. I submitted to the Dean of my Veterinary Science school and did exactly as he directed. Some would have found either choice imposing and could have claimed they made me vulnerable and susceptible. What do you think??

  2. thanks for an inspiring article. I am a student of Sogyal Rinpoche(I met you in Dzogchen Beara 2010) and have also been on an overcomingms retreat in Dublin Ireland. I love hearing about your experiences on retreat.

  3. Thanks for an inspiring article. I met you on a retreat in Ireland in Dzogchen Beara with Sogyal Rinpoche in 2010. You told me about Prof George Jelinek and I have been on his overcomingms retreat in Dublin 2015(first time in Ireland. As a student of Sogyal Rinpoche, I love hearing about your experiences on retreat...

  4. What an incredible experience Ian. Congratulations on making it happen. I can only imagine the richness of it all.

  5. Use anything that happen as bell of mindfulness,that is meditation..gedeprama|bellofpeace.org