After three years of nothing, let's party

by Tim Dick, the Sydney Morning Herald, April 12, 2008

A mischievous monk released 20 people into the mainstream this week

Kyogle, Australia -- FOR three years, three months and three days, they meditated in a wooden temple perched on a lush hilltop in northern NSW. Each day, they rose at 4am to avoid worldly distractions by chanting mantras.

<< For three years, three months and three days, 28 people took part in the first Tibetan-Buddhist retreat of its kind in Australia.
Photo: Paul Harris

From January 2005, their world was limited to the Vajradhara Gonpa centre, comprising a temple, huts and 80 hectares of remote bushland, 20 kilometres north of Kyogle.

The 28 people who took part in Australia's first three-year Tibetan Buddhist retreat were not allowed out - medical emergencies excepted - and only administrative staff could go in.

There was nothing to do but devote themselves to their religion, admire the view and avoid the leeches. No newspapers, no television, no mobiles; no films, shops or friends. They paid about $32,000 each for the privilege.

Family contact was tightly regulated according to individual rules, with a phone call every few months.

Their lives were directed by the centre's spiritual head, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, 47, the filmmaking, novel-writing Bhutanese lama who directed The Cup, an arthouse hit about soccer-mad monks.

The Rinpoche, considered the third incarnation of his line, is profound and mischievous.

"Tibetans are famous for being dirty," he declared this week. "But when I went to Nimbin, it's a little unfair to Tibetans."

On Wednesday, 20 followers finished their 1190 days of seclusion, intended to improve the humility, acceptance and humour they needed to survive three years with the same people in the same place.

Five people didn't make it. Three late-starters have months to go. Pat Armstrong is one of them. A computer programmer from Seattle, she had a cancerous breast removed in January. "I figured I would stay, since I'm here and practising [Buddhism]," she said.

"It's always an advantage to practise, especially when you're going through changes."

Her friends and family had a hard time accepting her decision until she reassured them by telephone that her cancer was under control. After a final round of chemotherapy this month, she will see out the remaining months almost alone.

"It'll be sad to see everyone go, but now I can really get in and practise," she said.

Among those leaving is a Sydney grandmother-of-two, Bridget Gebbie. She's heading for home in Balmain, staying at first with her daughter, also Buddhist, as she readjusts to life outside.

A psychotherapist, she spent her early years seeking the meaning of life. By the mid-1980s, she still had no answer. Her dying mother asked what her life had been for. "That just floored me," she said.

Mrs Gebbie was introduced to Buddhism by a friend. It clicked and led, eventually, to the retreat. She is calmly confident she's found the solution to the riddle of life. When the Herald asked for the answer, she asked: "Were you listening in there?"

She was referring to the closing ceremony, the end of seven days of round-the-clock chanting performed in three-hour shifts before the boundaries were lifted, led by the Rinpoche. He believes the point of life is to avoid distractions and focus the mind.

"The only problem of our lives is this habit of getting distracted all the time," the Rinpoche said, blaming praise, criticism, fame and "so-called happiness". "The only thing that we should really do … is develop mindfulness, the opposite of distraction."

He thinks anyone healthy and without family obligations could do a three-year retreat, but warns that rejoining the world is hard. "This modern world is designed [so that] if you stop being part of this machine for even 10 days, you're already disqualified, you will not get the same job," he said.

"That computer - you need to constantly update yourself, otherwise you don't have a licence to even be a human being."

(Which suggested he knew of Facebook, the website famous for constant declarations of inane thoughts, moods and activities. One Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse is listed, but his profile is not public and the etiquette of journalists "poking" to check for incarnate monks is doubtful.)

There is no reason for it to last three years, three months and three days, other than symbolic tradition. "Nine years is fine, 12 years is fine, 25 years is fine, but there has been a tradition in Tibet especially of three years," the Rinpoche said. "I guess human beings like numbers. It sets some kind of goal."

Although retreatants don't really have a goal. "This is a journey without a goal; that's the biggest goal," he said. "This is very difficult for human beings. When you are asked to come here, to spend all your money and a good chunk of your life to do nothing and gain nothing, it's difficult."

Difficult is one word to describe it, especially for those left behind, like Laura Postell Wilson. She waited in California for Shelley Swindell to finish the retreat, and was among the 250 people who gathered for the final ceremony, during which the couple married.

They met through a dating website; she advertised, he replied because she had mentioned Buddhist teachings. A dying friend inspired him to do the retreat, so he went without her.

"I really wanted to do the retreat," he said after the wedding. "So she just had to wait."

Wilson interrupted: "I think we technically weren't together when he was on retreat." They quickly returned to their wine.

Those who wish to join the next retreat - beginning in January - have to pay between $45,465 and $61,820, depending on the type of accommodation.

The fee includes food, but not travel, insurance, toiletries or textbooks. Scholarships are available for the particularly promising.