Solitary Retreat System

Buddha has repeatedly emphasised the need to stay in seclusion, hidden away in a quiet place, with neither disturbing chores nor provocation. If one can let go of everything and focus deeply on one’s practice; renunciation, faith, and other meritorious virtues will then increase with time.

When there is no socialising, all worldly deeds will naturally be reduced; one can then use the cooling dharma rain collected in one’s mind to extinguish one’s fire of wishful thoughts, thus gaining peace and joy with ease.

The retreat centre in Buddha Mandala Monastery in Western Australia has the Path to Buddhahood Practice System, Practice Booklet System, Solitary Retreat System as well as the integrated theory and practice system, it is therefore incredibly exceptional.

If one can stay in this secluded retreat centre to concentrate on one’s practice, one will gain great benefits and joy. It is only through real practice during a retreat that one can get a taste of the wondrous nectar of dharma, and it is only through a retreat that one can check the result of one’s practice.

Objective of Solitary Retreat

To gain practice experiences, to develop realisations on true views and hearings.

Stay in a secluded place to concentrate and delve deeper into one’s practice, if one can stay in seclusion to practice for at least seven days, it would be very remarkable.

Venue of Solitary Retreat

Buddha Mandala Monastery, Chittering, Western Australia (Perth)

Criteria for Solitary Retreat

  • Must have studied The Great Treatise of the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lam Rim Chenmo) or A Guide to the Preliminary Practices of the Great Perfection by Longchen Nyingthig.
  • Must be a student of the Progressive Class (Teachings of the Three Vehicles or Sutras and Sastras of Maitreya) or Research Class.
  • Must be familiar with the requirements of all the practice methods in the respective Practice Booklets.

Retreat Thoughts and Feelings

Wake up at 4.30 am, complete four sessions of practice each day and sleep after 9.45 pm; do this continuously for one week, do not talk, do not use handphone or laptop and do not interact with the outside world.

Nowadays, Buddhist lay disciples can do solitary retreat practice just like sangha members!

After the Sangha Retreat System of three years and six months has been set up, Buddha Mandala Monastery finally launched the Laity Retreat System. At the end of last year (November, 2014), the first batch of three lay disciples completed a one-week solitary retreat under the tutelage of Venerable Fa Shu and Venerable Fa Yun; as a result, all of them had a greater understanding of their own minds.

Venerable Fa Yun is the first nun in Singapore to complete the Sangha Solitary Retreat of three years and three months under the tutelage of Supreme Master Yuan Fan. Following her footsteps, Venerable Chi Ru began her solitary retreat in June last year and she is into her eleventh month of retreat now.

Looking back at history, Singapore was a British colony and in 1819 when the British army was stationed in Singapore, they employed Sri Lankan soldiers and they brought Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka to Singapore. Towards the end of Qing Dynasty, during the Xinhai Revolution, the ordinary people in China could hardly survive and many travelled south to find a living; Mahayana Buddhism thus followed the Chinese coolies to the south. In 1894, it spread into Singapore from Fuzhou of China and the Shuang Lin Temple was built. Between 1819 to 1980, the unpredictable and turbulent living conditions of the Chinese coolie migrants caused those who believe in Buddhism to adopt a general pray-for-peace-and-safety humanistic Buddhism belief.

In 1965, after Singapore gained independence, the newly formed government strongly advocated education-for-all policy to improve the lives of its people, this directly raised the education and knowledge level of Singapore Buddhists. From 1984 to 1989, Religious Knowledge was introduced as a compulsory programme at the upper secondary levels in schools. Every year, there were about 9000 Singapore secondary students who chose to study Buddhism as their religious subject. After completing two years of Buddhist studies, all of them had a basic understanding of the fundamental Buddhist theory.

From 1980 onwards, Singapore Buddhism began to develop rapidly, it shifted from a pray-for-safety humanistic Buddhism to a knowledge-based understand-to-believe Buddhism. From 1980 to 2000, the new generation of Buddhists not only prayed for safety but also wanted to learn Buddhist theory and practice methods; they want to deepen their understanding of the teachings and to use them in their lives to better resolve problems and manage human relationships. Following this trend, Singapore Buddhist organisations made changes to their ways of dharma propagation; monasteries not only provided space for devotees to pray and chant, they also started Buddhist courses, meditation classes and the like where sangha members would teach lay devotees the right Buddhist theories and practice methods. Many educated lay Buddhists also took ordination during this period. The Buddhist theories that were spread then were however based on the understanding of only one sutra or one sastra; and the practice methods taught were only the simple Pure Land recitation of a Buddha name and the Chan sitting meditation that uses breath counting.

Around year 2000, Tibetan Buddhism was introduced into Singapore by the businessmen. During this time, multi racial and cultural Singapore has all three vehicles of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism both have complete theory and practice systems that were preserved for more than a thousand year. Theravada practitioners practise mainly to severe afflictions, liberate from cyclic existence, enter nirvana and attain arhathood. Until today, Theravada sangha members in countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar still practice according to the Southern Buddhism’s complete theory and practice system. For the past century, highly respected and accomplished great masters who attained sainthood continued to appear in these Theravada countries.

As for Tibetan Buddhism, the complete Mahayana theory and practice system of Nalanda monastery in India was spread into Tibet by Guru Padmasambhava. This huge rigorous complete path to Buddhahood system has been passed down for generations in the four major schools in Tibet for more than a thousand year. Using the Gelug school as an example, a learning sangha member studies the five major texts for 16 years, after which, he will go to either the Upper or Lower Tantric College to do at least one year of tantric study, thereafter he will go into solitary retreat to put the theories into practice. The whole theory and practice system requires more than 20 years of learning and practice. Tibetan Buddhist practitioners differ from Theravada Buddhist practitioners in that they practice to mainly generate bodhicitta - to make wishes that they would enable all sentient beings to attain Buddhahood after they had become buddhas themselves, and to tread the Bodhisattvas’ path. For more than a thousand year, practitioners in countries like China, Tibet, Nepal and the like, who practised according to Tibetan Buddhism’s complete theory and practice system and became greatly accomplished were countless.

When Tibetan Buddhism spreads into the Singapore Buddhist communities, the door to the complete set of exoteric and esoteric theory and practice system was being opened. Singapore sangha members and lay devotees began to realise that a Complete Practice would first require a complete theory and practice system to be in place, followed by practitioners practising according to the system. The teachings which the Tibetan Dharma Kings, Rinpoches and the like who came to Singapore to deliver were only individual practice methods, for example, the empowerment of certain deities, they were not the complete practice system. For Singapore Buddhist organisations to breakthrough the one-sutra-one-sastra situation and to establish a complete Buddhist theory and practice system, first of all, it would require the sangha members and lay devotees to understand and practice in-depth the Tibetan Buddhism’s complete theory and practice system.

When Singapore Buddhism has developed to the stage where it has a complete theory and practice system, and there are Venerables and lay devotees to learn and put them into practice, it would be at a more complete and mature stage. Saints and greatly accomplished practitioners will appear only after Singapore Buddhism has matured. The stories of such saints and great practitioners would then be spread among the people, truly enriching the culture and history of Singapore. At the current stage, Singapore Buddhism relies on overseas Venerables to bring in the teachings and the stories circulating among the people are also their deeds and footprints.

At present, according to unofficial statistics, about 70% of Singapore Buddhists are still at the pray-for-safety humanistic belief stage, 25% are into the knowledge-based understand-to-believe stage, and 5% has begun to move into the exploration stage that places equal importance on theory and practice. This implies that if there is no complete and mature systematic learning and training, about 20% of Singapore Buddhists would be attracted to the systems of Theravada Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.

On the overall, for Singapore Buddhism to move to a more complete and mature stage, there is still a long way to go. If a more complete and systematic way for theory learning, doing research and discussion; and for practice and application is missing, Singapore Buddhism will never be able to progress. In terms of theory, what it has is not as huge and precise as others; in terms of academic learning, it is not as deep, broad and professional as compared to others; in terms of systematic research, discussion and practice, it is nowhere near others; thus, it is always in a superficial and shallow state.

In terms of practice, some practitioners thought that to be in a motionless and quiet state of no thought (or having a few thoughts) and maintaining such a state is equivalent to attaining emptiness, this is a wrong view; that is only a meditative state where afflictions are being temporarily subdued and one can achieve it with just samatha practice. Emptiness is a form of wisdom; one needs to know that there is self-attachment behind the afflictions, and after breaking this self-attachment, one can use it to eliminate all the finer afflictions, to attain sainthood and to be liberated from cyclic existence; thereafter one practices the six paramitas’ tens of thousands of deeds, followed by the practice of no-self, the emptiness nature of the three wheels to completely perfect the Bodhi path, to attain Buddhahood. To ascertain emptiness, one needs to explore in-depth the Madhyamaka theory; to avoid entering the wrong path by mistake, one definitely needs the guidance of a true practising wise teacher. To determine the realisation and application of emptiness, is not a one-day-and-one-night matter, one needs to be near a wise teacher for a long period of time to receive his progressive guidance, otherwise, if one unduly adheres to one’s own opinion, one would become a celestial demon.

The Path to Buddhahood Practice System of Supreme Master Yuan Fan of Buddha Mandala Monastery in Chittering, Western Australia uses Chan as the body and Tantra for application. It is made up of the Theory System, Practice System and Retreat System. To apply for solitary retreat, one must be a student of the research class who have studied the common path of the small capacity in Lam Rim Chen Mo, and is already doing the practices of at least Practice Booklet Two. Buddha Mandala Monastery’s exclusive Practice Booklet Series of eight practice booklets are developed by Supreme Master Yuan Fan by combining the distinguishing features of Chan and Tantra and their practice methods. It is an eight-step progressive practice guide that places equal emphasis on theory and practice; this skilful and convenient method is very suitable for modern busy city dweller to practice Buddhism. The establishment of the Laity Solitary Retreat System has completed Buddha Mandala Monastery’s Chan and Tantra Theory and Practice System; one batch after another batch of aspirants to Buddhahood going into solitary retreat, to put the theories into practice, will enable Buddha Mandala Monastery’s Path to Buddhahood Practice System that places equal emphasis on theory and practice to become more mature. The work of Buddha Mandala Monastery will go a long way into the future, to benefit sentient beings for a very long time.

I hope that in the near future, Singapore will be like the Theravada countries and Tibetan Buddhism countries, where highly respected saints and greatly accomplished practitioners with absolutely perfect attainment in both theory and practice would appear, and their great stories will be told.

Toh Su Chiew
Second Batch of Seven-Day Solitary Retreat Participant
Written on May 5, 2015 during the Laity Solitary Retreat