We should often make special times for the repetition of the nembutsu [reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name] to stimulate both mind and body in its practice. In may seem enough if one repeats the sacred name over sixty or seventy thousand times a day. But there is a tendency with us, when our eyes or ears become accustomed to anything, gradually to lose interest in it. And with our daily work pressing in on us morning and night, we are in danger of shortening our practice. So in order to keep our spirits active, we would do well to setup certain special times for the practice of the nembutsu. Both of our great teachers, Shan-tao and Genshin, urged this upon us.
–Honen, quoted from “Honen the Buddhist Saint”
Yesterday, my daughter went camping with some of her friends, and since Little Guy is still a small kid and sleeps early, I suddenly found myself with a little bit of free time. It was amazing. I suddenly had a few extra hours all to myself. What should I do? Should I rebuild that brawl deck I made for Magic the Gathering? Should I finish up some of the old NES games that I still haven’t completed? Should I type more in that book I’ve been writing for almost a year and try to finish another chapter?
No, I decided that what I really needed was a well-earned break. A spiritual one no less.
Normally when people think of Buddhism and retreats, they think of this kind of thing. Buddhist magazines are chock full of advertisements promising a peaceful and insightful week at some ranch or monastery.
Why go through all the time, travel and money spent for that kind of retreat, when the peaceful afterglow will only last until you get back to real life anyway?
So instead, I decided to make my own retreat at home. I took inspiration from the quote above from the 12th-century Buddhist master, Honen, and set a few criteria for myself:
- I need to plan it out ahead of time so I don’t change my mind mid-retreat.
- It has to reasonably fit into my normal schedule. For me, this means either late evening or early morning.
- It can’t be my usual routine home ritual though. It has to be something above and beyond.
- On the other hand, the ritual has to fit into schedule (see #2).
- Remember to go easy, and give yourself breaks in between. It’s a retreat, not a marathon.
So, the night before, I wrote out my routine on a notepad:
- Do dishes mindfully – 30 minutes, approximately
- Chanting – 15 minutes
- Break – 5 minutes
- Meditation – 15 minutes
- Break – 5 minutes
- Dharma study – 10 minutes
So with breaks and whatnot, this takes about 90 minutes a night. It’s a stretch in my case but it is doable and covers all the essential things (including getting dishes done).
The first night was great. I did everything I needed and it was satisfying and peaceful. I felt the format and time spent was just right, too.
Then the second night I got a bad cold and ended up sleeping early, sleeping poorly due to congestion and spending the rest of the weekend groggy and feeling miserable.
So, the home retreat was a failure in one sense because I only did it for one night. But in another sense, I felt the process worked well and made for a wholesome and satisfying retreat.
It was a lesson learned and worth trying again when I get over my cold.