Ordinary People, Extra-Ordinary Opportunity

2008 Winter Retreat At Florennes Buddhist Centre “Dharma City”
Every year between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, a group of people come together in Florennes, Belgium to share a 6-day Buddhist retreat with Patrul Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who has lived in Belgium for over 10 years. What exactly happens at such a retreat? What makes people participate? And what’s the point of a retreat anyway?
Like You And Me
The group of participants at the Dharma City Winter Retreat changes every year: there are a number of regulars, and there are always a few newcomers. Every year it is a happy meeting of old and new friends.
These people, both the regulars and the newcomers, are ordinary people like you and me. They don’t “look” Buddhist, they shop for discounts like you and me, have jobs and a family like you and me. They work hard and deserve their Christmas holiday like you and me. Why, then, did these 30+ men and women travel from France, Russia, Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden to spend their well-earned days off in an old farmhouse halfway between Mettet and Florennes studying Buddhism?
Special Time
All Buddhist traditions stress the importance of setting some special time aside now and again, of shifting your focus just for a while from everyday concerns and efforts to what happens inside your mind, and how your mind affects your life and that of others. Such a “special time” is called a retreat.
The word “retreat” may sound as if you are temporarily stepping out of the “real” world and escaping to a little world of your own making. That is certainly not the aim, and people who do a retreat from this motivation are sure to be disappointed. A retreat is basically a matter of rearranging priorities: for a few days, all business and family matters make room for introspection and reflection.
The goal of a retreat is to return to daily life with a healthier, happier and perhaps a bit wiser attitude than before. A retreat is not an escape, it is a chance to “fuel up” for the fast-moving stressful lifes most of us lead. You could say, in fact, that a retreat is a chance to look closer at your everyday life than you usually do when you are in the middle of it!
Our days go by so fast. It is useful once in a while to slow down and really look at what’s going on around us and inside us.
What Happens At A Buddhist Retreat?
The tradition practiced at Dharma City is called Vajrayana, more commonly known as Tibetan Buddhism. In this tradition, there are different types of retreat: some focus on meditation, others on prayer or ritual practice, and so on.
The yearly Winter Retreat at Dharma City is typically a study retreat. The subject is a Buddhist text that is read and discussed line by line. In 2008, we studied from a work by Shantideva, a famous Indian Buddhist scholar from the eighth century.
There is usually a short meditation in the morning before breakfast, group study with the teacher after breakfast, a long lunch break for private study, more group study with the teacher in the afternoon, a light dinner, and a short meditation in the evening. Lights are usually out by 22h.
In various sessions throughout the day, the teacher explains the meaning of the text line by line and answers questions. Most importantly, he indicates how the text can be made relevant to modern-day Western life. At Dharma City, ancient Buddhist texts are not studied because of their literary, historical or cultural value. Their wisdom is analysed and discussed to help ordinary people like you and me become happier, more peaceful and more useful.
The Real Subject: Solving Problems
Whatever the focus of the retreat, whatever the text or practice involved, the real subject of all Buddhist philosophy and practice is always the same: compassion. Every Buddhist teaching, practice, retreat or ritual always has compassion as its essence. Even when you study very deep aspects of Buddhist philosophy, essentially that philosophy is about compassion: how to help yourself and the beings around you in the most appropriate way.
What is compassion, you may wonder? Compassion is more than a feeling of sympathy. It is an active involvement with the world around you. Compassion is the spontaneous wish to help others solve their problems, whatever those problems are. The good news is, compassion is not something we need to create or learn, it is already in our hearts. The human heart is literally filled with compassion, only most of us are so busy looking after ourselves most of the time, we forget that we have this powerful wish deep inside us to help others. Buddhism is a reminder of that compassionate spirit in each of us. Buddhist teachers show us how to put that spirit to the best possible use. At the heart of every Buddhist teaching is the wish to help others and the wisdom to know how.
An Extra-Ordinary Opportunity
Dharma City offers everyone the chance to connect with an authentic teacher of Buddhism. Patrul Rinpoche is a respected master of Dzogchen, a lineage within the Nyingma tradition (one of the four main Tibetan Buddhist traditions). He is also a very modern and funny teacher, used to talking to Westerners and familiar with our fast-paced lives. Most importantly, Patrul Rinpoche knows how to make difficult subjects easy to understand, and how to link simple observations to profound insights that are useful and practical. Buddhist teachings are always worth the effort, but the exceptional kindness of this particular teacher is clearly the reason why people from all over the world invest their precious time, money and energy in this type of retreat.
Dharma City is intended as a meeting place for ordinary people with an extra-ordinary goal: to become happier and more peaceful and to develop the qualities that benefit people around them. That is Patrul Rinpoche’s hope for this Centre and for all who read this article.