Ven. René Feusi talked to Ven. Robina Courtin at Kopan Monastery in Nepal in 1996 about his two-and-a half year retreat at Osel Ling in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Spain.

An article online at Mandala

Tell us, why you went into retreat, René.

I think at some point when one studies Dharma one wants the experience to be deeper, one wants some taste of it. That’s the main reason I decided to do a longer retreat. And when the idea came about, Lama Zopa Rinpoche said, “That’s a very good idea, but first you do the nine preliminary practices.” I had the opportunity to do a three-year retreat with a Kargyu group of people, but Rinpoche said it’s more beneficial to do the retreat alone. I was 22 years old at the time; I was ready to do a three-year retreat in a group, but I didn’t feel ready to do it alone.

The nine preliminary practices took me seven or eight years, because some are difficult to organize, like the tsa-tsas and the water bowls. I did them in a retreat situation, but in between I would study at Nalanda Monastery in France.

One thing that is very important is to have studied thoroughly before retreat, to be clean-clear about what you are doing; to know what you aim at and what practice you are doing, and to have had all the teachings clear, and to know the antidote to the problems when they arise. So when you are in retreat you don’t need so much help from teachers. You’re completely clear. I found this very helpful. Eventually I was ready to start the actual retreat. I would have preferred to do it in the East, because of the blessing, but it’s more difficult to arrange visa-wise, so I went to Osel Ling in Spain.

You didn’t do a Great Retreat?

I didn’t do that type. In the morning I would do prayers, like Lama Chöpa or Lama Tsong Khapa Guru Yoga. I would change from time to time so that the mind wouldn’t get too bored. And then I would meditate on the lam-rim, the various stages of the path to enlightenment. And in the afternoon I would do the generation stage of the deity.

Every day like this?

Yes, every day like that.

So you didn’t have a commitment?

I didn’t have a commitment to do a certain practice. The idea was to become familiar with the whole path. Eventually my main emphasis was to develop more concentration, because I felt that was the key. If you don’t have some concentration, you don’t get anywhere. If you want to go deeper into something, you have to have concentration.

How did you do that?

First I studied carefully the explanations for developing single-pointed concentration, shamatha. I had the notes from a teaching by Geshe Lama Konchog of Kopan, and the teaching from the book by Gen Lam-rimpa and in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand by Pabongka Rinpoche. I used these three.

Usually I would practice concentration in the context of the sadhana. Each time there’s an absorption of the guru in your heart, I would stop there and meditate on either the clear nature of the mind or on emptiness, taking either of them as the object of concentration. And then again during the actual generation stage of the deity.

How long would your session be?

Well, my session would take the whole afternoon, basically. Because I would just meditate as long as my mind was fresh. Whenever the mind was tired, I would take fifteen or twenty minutes’ break, walking around, and then I would go back to the session, to the point in the sadhana where I had stopped. My sadhana would therefore take the whole afternoon, the whole evening.

Basically, you’d do one session?

Yes, but with breaks.

You just decided to do it that way?

Yes, I just decided like that.

How much of this time were you actually concentrating? And did it grow and grow?

The emphasis was not on the duration of the session of concentration. I was mainly interested in getting the quality of the concentration, by first finding the object of meditation an then staying on it; then having the mindfulness that observes whether excitement or dullness comes about, then applying the antidotes. And finally, when the mind can stay there without ever going away, to settle down, sticking there.

When you first enter into retreat you have lots of distractions because of the memories of what you did before – you know, your experiences with people, with parents, with relatives. During the first six months all these images come up in your session, what you did or what you said, so one of the main things you are doing is letting go of the past.

After six months, since there’s been no more input of information, the mind simply calms down by itself without much effort, simply due to lack of information. So, just naturally you reach a certain mental peace without having done anything for it. But other things arise in the mind. At the beginning, you know the cause of the memory that arises, but as time goes by, it seems that things come from much deeper, and you don’t remember the causes. So you have moods arising, and it’s a bit awkward, because you don’t know the cause. But you know it’s some past experience that comes up, which you purify.

Would you label this experience as a delusion?

Delusion, no, I wouldn’t necessarily say that…well, yes, delusion in the sense that it’s not clarity. But it can be mental dullness, it can be sleepiness, it can be manifesting more as moods, not necessarily desire or attachment or anger. It would be heaviness of mind, for example, or lack of enthusiasm, the mind being a bit low, and you don’t have any reason for it, it just kind of happens. Or restlessness, so you cannot stay sitting; you have to walk. And there doesn’t seem to be a reason for it. Also, you would also have moments of great clarity, great lucidity. What’s sometimes difficult is that you don’t see a direct link of cause and effect between what you’re doing as a practice and these states of mind. They just happen. You just have to let go and accept them. At least it was like that for me; I don’t know how it is for other people.

What does this indicate to you?

Well, for me it indicates that this spiritual practice is a very long journey, not something that you do in a few years or even a few dozens of years. It is something that would take a whole life, thirty, forty years of constant work – many lifetimes, in fact. Sometimes in the West we think that after a few three-year retreats, you become a lama, or you’re almost Buddha! But what we’re working with is beginningless habits – it’s not just the habits of this life. They are deeply ingrained ways of behaving, ways of seeing life, and these concepts can’t be overcome by just a few years of a retreat.

Anyway, it makes you more realistic to think this way, and the mind becomes more relaxed with that attitude, more happy. Because sometimes it can make the mind unhappy to think, Oh, I have to get there quickly, quickly, quickly. But if you feel you have plenty of time, and you do well each moment, you can do the best you can each moment, it gives you some peace. Of course, for people who have done a lot of practice in their previous lives, you cannot say. But for ordinary people, I think it takes time.

Of course, definitely Dharma works if you put it into practice; you do get some experience. That’s the key. One achieves a much deeper knowledge of oneself. You become honest with yourself. No longer do you put things on somebody else. So that knowledge is very interesting. But it’s nothing stable and permanent; don’t think you reach a certain level and it’s never going to degenerate again. You get experience, but this experience depends again on this privileged situation you are in, the retreat situation. Of course, if you cannot keep this situation, the mind degenerates again quite fast.

Could you say what level of the nine states of concentration you got to?

Well, at some point I think I got to the fourth or fifth stage. But again, it’s not something stable. You lose it very quickly if you don’t practice for a while, or depending on the weather, depending on the food you eat. I know how to get back to it but I don’t have it all the time. But even at the fourth or fifth stage, there’s definitely a satisfaction that comes in the mind, a stability of mind, a satisfaction that is not dependent on sensory pleasure, a satisfaction that comes from the stopping of the delusion. As it says in the teachings, what concentration does is prevent the delusions from arising.

So you didn’t experience unbelievable ecstasy of mind and body?

No, not that! I think that comes with the eighth or ninth stages. But once you have reached the fourth or fifth stage, you realize how agitated the mind is normally, even when you think it is quiet. So when the agitation subsides, when the mind really rests, this is very refreshing. It is something you have never had before.

Did it take you the two and a half years to get to this stage?

No, I think it was after six months.

You didn’t progress beyond that in the next two years?


You were doing something wrong?

I think it had something to do with the place. That is my feeling. At a certain point, I became very, very sensitive to the environment: cars and people coming and going would be quite disturbing. And then also the weather: if there’s a strong wind, the concentration doesn’t work. There are many conditions like that that easily influence the meditator.

When your concentration was good, how long could you stay?

I think between half an hour and an hour. The limitation was mainly because of the body, pain in the body – this caused distraction.

For many of us in the West, we feel there’s a big distance between us and single-pointed concentration. We don’t think it’s possible.

I think the main point with concentration is to know very well the method to develop it. It is very important to study well the methods beforehand. Many people can stay for many hours in meditation, they can sit, physically, but actually the mind goes all over the place. During retreat, it was very clear that actually it is much better to do five minutes of good meditation than a half hour of just sitting and the mind going out.

Spacing out.

Exactly, spacing out. It’s very easy to have this dullness in the mind, because the mind naturally falls into half-sleepiness. And actually there’s a well-being there; it’s cozy, so you feel it’s all right, and you stay complacently in that state. But it’s not really clear meditation. The main thing in the beginning is to have the clear instruction on how to do concentration.

As they say in the teachings, the very first important tool is determination. So important, determination: I’m not going to move from this object of meditation. And if the mind goes away, I will bring it back. And if the mind falls asleep, has dullness, then I will wake it up in such a way. Strong determination. This is very precious, because without it there’s no power to keep the mind on the object.

And then the first level is forceful engagement. A lot of effort is needed, actually, for the mind to stay on the on the object, because the mind naturally wants to go away. At the beginning of the session, it’s a lot of struggle: I’m not going to move away. You hold it very tightly – and even sometimes you’re tight with your body, because you don’t want to let go, right?

As this forceful engagement develops, you can stay much longer on the object, and then you loosen up the tightness without losing the object. You reach the point where actually you stay on the object, the mind not going all over the place. So this comes through forceful engagement.

They say usually you should start with very short sessions – three minutes, five minutes, just until you lose the object. Then you relax and you start again. If you do it this way, you make very fast progress. It goes very fast, because each time you lose the object you stop the session, and of course next time you want to make the session longer. So you do your best to stay, because if you lose it, you think,Oh no, I’ve got to start the session again. So like that, you get strong concentration.

One thing that I find very helpful is the sitting position: when I was doing concentration I would sit as much as possible in full lotus. The position makes a huge difference: automatically the mind is clear and more stable. Another thing that I found very helpful is the preliminary prayers. Usually I don’t find it so helpful for my mind to make extensive prayers. But definitely refuge, bodhicitta and guru yoga – these are really the key. Strong prayers to the guru, strong requests, and then to absorb the guru, and from that base, start the concentration practice. Because definitely blessings help to start.

I think devotion is very, very important. For me, I would say the emotion of devotion is that which makes the heart soft and open. The problem we Westerners have, we know all the techniques, we know so much but we don’t get the experience. Why? Because the heart is a piece of stone, is a rock, you know? It is only when the heart is soft and light that the experience can come about. And that’s the function of devotion. When you have devotion, compassion is very easy, understanding the suffering of samsara is very easy – all the rest becomes very easy when your heart is soft and mellow, all the rest follows from that state of mind.

When you see all the highly realized beings in any tradition, whether Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, they all have incredibly strong devotion. The inner experience is incredible devotion. From there, all their experience came. Sometimes one gets too much into the intellectual aspect of how to develop devotion – the important thing is to get it, have the emotion, the reasoning doesn’t matter so much. Just get it, experience it.

For me one precious way of getting it is by realizing my own limitation. How limited the I is, and how much I want to change. Devotion for me is a strong longing to change. It has to come from the heart, to burst up. I want to change. I don’t want to be this limited being anymore, I want these walls to fall down. And from that comes the feeling that there must be something higher, something perfect, something pure, something realized. You think there must be beings who have reached that perfection. Pray to this, to whatever help one can get.

I think the key is from one’s own side to open up towards this aspiration. For me this was the most important part in devotion, this aspiration, this yearning. Because if you just think, Buddha up there, but from your side you have no emotion, you’re just sitting there and you recite the mantra and you visualize the blessing coming, and there’s no yearning from your side, it doesn’t work somehow. From purification, accumulation of merit and devotion, I think all the rest comes quite easily.

I carry this one teaching from Lama Zopa with me [brings it out]. It’s the importance of purifying and accumulating merit, a teaching I had from Lama Zopa. And it’s so true. These practices have a profound psychological meaning. Purification practices are very important, not only because they purify negative karma of the past, but somehow they make your mind clear and you gain some level of self-respect, of being together and being clear.

They can remove the sense of guilt, of feeling inadequate, you know, of feeling that you are not at the right spot, or you’re not doing the right thing. Purification gets rid of that, and makes you feel: All right, although I haven’t done everything right, at least I’ve purified what I could. And then you have a sense of well-being.

I think this is very precious, and sometimes we forget. We just think, Oh, I have done purification practice so many times, what am I still purifying? I don’t remember anything more to purify. But one forgets the positive results of purification.

And then accumulation of merit. I think this improves this positive energy, this positive potential; this well-being increases. You are doing something worthwhile with your life. You have a feeling of well-being, of doing okay, as a result of this practice. The sense of self-respect, of being happy with one’s life, increases. And this gives joy, a joy which comes with being happy with oneself.

The main point is to have this soft heart. And from that, whatever meditation you do, it works. And if you don’t have that, whatever meditation you do, it doesn’t work. It’s as clear as that. We hear it so many times. But now I see really how it works on the mind, that really if that is not there, you don’t catch it. You don’t catch it.

Tell us what you learned about emptiness, what you learned about the object to be refuted, the I.

Well, what is beautiful about retreat is that finally you have plenty of time to read all your notes, to study all the teachings, on emptiness: Jeffrey Hopkins’s Meditation on Emptiness and Emptiness Yoga, Geshe Rabten’s Echoes of Voidness, George Dreyfus’s teachings on emptiness – I really enjoyed that. And you have the time after having read something to sit down and reflect on it, to see how it works. That I found very, very precious, to be able to observe the mind and how the ego would point his nose.

Tell us about that. Tell us about the object to be refuted. How does it feel, what does it look like? Did you recognize it clearly? In terms of the four stages, you were very clear on the first one?

Well, it seems like the other stages are very easy once you’ve got the first; the whole problem is the first one. The rest just follow. One thing that was very helpful was first to find the basis of imputation: to recognize what the body is, how the body’s changing from moment to moment; and what the mind is, what the awareness is, what the thoughts are, what the emotions are, and how they are changing from moment to moment. So first is recognizing the basis of imputation of the I.

Usually I would start with guru yoga, and after absorbing the guru in the heart, I would stay in that space of awareness. At some point in that space of awareness, the I would arise. And it became very clear that the I appears to be inherent, something existing from its own side. It doesn’t appear to be just imputed on this body and mind; it appears as something more than that. The I doesn’t appear to be changing, he appears very concrete there, somehow in control.

Then, while maintaining this sense of I, if you search for it with a corner of the mind, within the five aggregates, within the thoughts, emotions and body, you discover that none of these parts, nor all of them together, can be the I, because they are all changing from moment to moment. There is nothing solid there to support the I. And there is nowhere outside the body-mind where this concrete I can be either.

When you see that clearly, the I has nowhere to hold on to and so it disappears like a soap-bubble being poked. The first experience is of not finding what you expected to be there: it’s like the shock you get when your car or your money-belt are not where they are supposed to be. The shock at finding this absence of I-ness is even stronger; it shakes at the very root of oneself.

There is no I there, it’s merely imputed on the body and mind. There’s no I there anywhere. The I doesn’t exist at all. Usually the experience is that there’s some sense of I, kind of a cloud, a feeling of I somewhere; even if one cannot find it, there’s a sense of I-ness somewhere. But in meditation, you’re completely sure there’s no I at all, it’s a mere name put on something which is not the I, which is the body and mind. What comes to the mind is an absence, a void, then a spaciousness; it is very joyous and very light. Great freedom. You feel, Wow! Finally I can breathe. It’s very spacious, very nice.

When the intensity of the experience decreases, and as you obviously still exist, more so than ever, you check how the I exists. You see that you exist by mere imputation on the aggregates. There is no me anywhere there, but at long as the base (the aggregates) is there it is valid to be called “I”, because the body-mind can perform the function that one expects of an I. And that is all it needs in order to exist.

Then from that basis of emptiness I would start the sadhana. Actually when the emptiness part works well, the whole sadhana is pervaded by it. But if you don’t have it at the beginning, all the visualizations seem to be concrete, mind-made. Also, I found that the sadhana has a definite structure that is actually very intelligent. There’s a logic to it, such that if you do one part well, the next part comes well. Whereas if some part doesn’t come well, the next part also doesn’t come well.

By doing the praises to the lineage gurus you get the inspiration from all these masters, it gives you confidence in the practice; some blessing comes. And then the Vajrasattva practice is to remove the obstacles to actual practice, and if you do this well, the guru yoga comes well. And if you do Guru Yoga well, you get a lot of blessing, and this helps emptiness come easily. And if the emptiness comes easily, then the whole building of the mandala comes well. It was very interesting to observe this process.

Did you memorize your sadhana?

I memorized Lama Chöpa, in English. I usually did it every morning, so it was worth the time to memorize it. It makes it much easier, because you can stop and visualize without having to open your eyes and be involved with the text. Most of the sadhana of the yidam I memorized also, although sometimes I would leave out most of the words and just follow the visualization and say the mantras and the prayers. This is what felt comfortable.

And also what was quite nice was to stop in the sadhana at many points and meditate on the concentration. It was easy at the beginning of the session, when the mind is fresh and you can keep your body in a good position. Then when the mind began to get a little tired, I would just keep on with