31 December 2021 – 7 January 2022
There is something in the title that Dónal chose for this retreat that only became clear as it progressed: we are to return to silence as our natural state. This silence has been obscured: we have been diverted from it by the noise and bustle of the world and, more fundamentally, by an error of perspective. But it is possible to find it again. This perception formed a kind of ground bass to the seven days we spent together meditating on the theme.
We were deeply grateful to Dónal for engaging once again with a retreat through Zoom, due to the pandemic still raging throughout the world. The pros and cons of using Zoom are finely balanced. On the negative side, there are the technical hitches that inevitably beset all those participating, including Dónal himself; there is the distancing effect of working through the screen rather than face-to-face and the impossibility of engaging with other participants in a meaningful way; and there is the fact that participants are still having to deal with the intrusive every day, still having to keep the ship afloat in terms of family and professional commitments. The real test of the retreat is therefore how adequately one maintains mindfulness in the storm when one is not ‘on the cushion’, literally or figuratively.
On the other hand, there is the undoubted plus of having participants gathered together from many parts of the world – in this case uniting Ireland with the UK and mainland Europe, but also Southern Africa, in centres where Dónal has been in the habit over the years of conducting physical retreats. The result was that there were over ninety retreatants present in virtual form for some sessions, coming from many different spiritual traditions or none at all.
The daily schedule was similar to that to which we have become accustomed: early morning silent meditation, then a teaching session followed by another meditation session. In the afternoon there were three more meditation sessions, sometimes with a teaching element, or Question and Answer, with the final session of the day given over to silent loving-kindness meditation. The breadth of possibilities this afforded was chosen deliberately by Dónal, reluctant to impose specifically Buddhist forms on the retreat, given the varied backgrounds of the participants. So no Chenrezig, for instance.
This breadth, in fact, reflects Dónal’s own background as he outlined his own spiritual journey from his initial discovery, as a young man still feeling his way, of Krishnamurti’s teachings, with which he still engages, to Tibetan Buddhism and long retreats in Samye Ling, leading to the discovery of many ‘sublime teachers’ such as Ringu Tulku Rinpoche and Thrangu Rinpoche being prominent and with whom he follows with loving attention. But concurrently, he spent several years as Resident Buddhist Scholar at the Krishnamurti Centre in Varanasi, India, refining his knowledge of that teacher’s work and influence.
His itinerary is charted in the study he published in 2017, (The Main of Light: Common Ground and Dividing Lines in the Teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti and Buddhism ) in which the two main aspects of his spiritual path illuminate each other with a rare intensity.
On the first morning of this Zoom retreat, Dónal outlined the principles that should guide our meditation. We should bear in mind the traditional approach of the lamas, who emphasised listening with the correct motivation: the noble bodhisattva motivation, at its most basic, reposing on the wish that all beings be happy and free from suffering. This was crucial, he said, whether we felt that the teacher was talking sense or nonsense: we listen with this motivation, and analyse afterwards. The traditional approach includes study, retreat and meditation on the words of great Dharma figures of the past and the present. This is the way of complexity.
There is also, however, the direct path of the yogis, Mahamudra and Dzogchen. In this approach, there is no need for intensive study of texts and teachings: the study involved is that of the mind itself. Simple, but not easy, Dónal emphasised. Outlining the approach, he went through the various stages involved:
The body should be firm like a mountain
The mind like space
The breath free like the wind.
Rest naturally, without altering
Don’t follow thoughts about the past or the future
Don’t invite thoughts
Trust, don’t doubt the mind’s capacity for spontaneous wisdom
This should be done, at the beginning at least, for very short periods: using the breath as support, counting up to three breaths, resting / not resting, but with total attention. This sounds easy enough, but the meditator needs to discover for him- or herself what this means.
In subsequent teaching sessions, Dónal turned his attention to the sufferings endured by all beings in the world. What is their cause? The Dharma identifies some of these; craving is one basic one, defined here as the movement of the mind in the dualistic situation in which we find ourselves. The solution to the problem is always somewhere else, ‘out there’, in the future. But this is just self-delusion, the condition of conflict and sorrow in the world, both personal and on a global scale.
This craving in its turn is based on ignorance, ignorance of the way the world works and how our minds function. In a fascinating teaching, Dónal compared the interpretation of the self in Western and Buddhist traditions. Using the Western developmental model of the child, he demonstrated that in this way of thinking, an individual has to develop a firm sense of self to be whole and to function adequately. According to the American psychotherapist Jack Engler , [See interview with Jack Engler] the self is the organising principle of the psyche, and a lack of a sense of self leads to mental illness. ‘You have to be somebody before you can be nobody’, as Dónal put it.
In Buddhism, on the contrary, it is craving that creates the self, and that leads therefore to many problems of the mind. For Buddhism, the self is not solid, it is a process rather than an entity, and its construction can be defined as a verb rather than a noun. Dónal evoked the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus at this point, for whom all is flow. You never step twice into the same river. This apprehension leads to a great openness, an optimistic perspective that we are capable of change, that we are not stuck in a rigid state from which we cannot escape. The Buddha’s teachings are thus not just about suffering, but rather about the solution to suffering.
To understand this, we need to understand the nature of craving, based as it is on a fundamental split, between me and the object craved for, a dualism so fundamental that we seldom question it. And yet it is fundamentally flawed, an error to be corrected, as Thrangu Rinpoche has ably demonstrated. It is only a step to seeing thought itself as the main problem. This somewhat revolutionary idea is put forward by figures such as Krishnamurti, an inspirational but controversial figure, and the physicist David Bohm, as against our usual perception of thought being one of the glories of the human mind. Dónal ably summarised the problems created by thought:
Thought fragments, divides what is undivided. Take the Irish Border, for example, that border is created by the human mind, but has no real existence, in spite of its potential over the decades to create human misery.
According to Krishnamurthi, thought is always in the past and, being bound by the past, cannot meet the present.
(Related to this point): thought thinks it is free and independent, but in fact it operates in the past, in memory, resembling a computer programme.
Thought operates through labelling, shortcuts that have no validity in fact: we say “I’m Irish”, “she’s Russian”, but these statements are meaningless, mere labels created by humans.
The mind regards the images it creates as objective reality, but they are in fact mere projections of thought. We try to fix these images, of ourselves and others, but in the end, our world is created by thought.
On the other hand, true wisdom, prajna (knowing deeply, deep perception), realises that what comes up in our minds – its very confusion – is the material of meditation, and beyond rational thought. We should not look on thought as a problem, however: it has a limited function, creating chaos only when it tries to go beyond this. Thought thinks it knows, whereas knowing in the deepest sense belongs to a different realm altogether, accessible only through vipassana, insight. The true nature of thought is dharmakaya, the ultimate truth of things, emptiness. But this is not in fact how we experience things, and the meditator needs to start not with ‘non-duality’, but with ‘me and my thoughts’.
These perceptions help to elucidate another topic to which Dónal gave his attention and which causes problems to Westerners: the ‘accumulation of merit’, as presented in the Diamond Sutra. There is the tendency in the West to interpret this process as a balance-sheet mentality (and therefore to reject it uncomprehendingly), whereas the accumulation of merit does not belong to the realm of cause and effect, operating in a realm that is beyond these. It nevertheless enriches our body-mind in the field of time and becoming. A positive thought or action always leaves its mark, and a compassionate act creates something for the person performing the act, however small or insignificant. In the same way, offerings to the Buddha and to sublime beings create karmic connections with these beings by opening us up to what they represent.
Reflections of this kind brought out in the course of the retreat, and under Dónal’s expert and compassionate guidance, the significance of the title, ‘Returning to Silence’. By paying attention to what is happening, while it is happening, we learn bit by bit to still the chatter of our minds and listen – truly listen – to the sacred silence that is already there within us, that is not dependent on the outer environment, not just an absence of sound.
It is impossible in a limited review to do justice to the richness and depth of the material presented during this short retreat. But we are deeply grateful to Dónal for sharing his wisdom and experience, and giving us the confidence to believe in our natural access to the silence within.
Saint-Geniès de Malgoires, France
Thank you to Pat Little for submitting an engrossing account of Dónal’s retreat. (Ed)