3-Year Retreat Update to Sponsors and Friends - September 1st, 2012

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September 1, 2012


Dear Friends:


Hi, this is Geshe Michael Roach, with an update on the 3-Year Retreat at Diamond Mountain University.  I’m driving in a bus from the airport to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where we’ll be having a Diamond Cutter Institute talk tonight for a thousand people, then on to several cities in China. 


The last two nights have been programs in Singapore, again with a thousand people each night.  The number of a thousand, or close, has been repeated in recent months in Colombia, Mexico, Russia, Israel, and France.  The wisdom is catching on, with everyday people.


I am travelling with a crew of 12 teachers, many of them trained at Diamond Mountain.  This is how I spend many of my days, with the concrete proof of DM’s success sitting next to me; last night each one of them surrounded by a cluster of Singaporeans, excitedly asking questions about how to find happiness in their lives, with the wisdom we have learned at DM.


And so outside I see the healing of the tragic events at DM earlier this spring; and the healing is also happening inside the 3-year retreat itself.  I have visited DM three times during these difficult months, spending 3 or 4 days each time, meeting personally with the individual retreatants for many hours, as well as sharing teachings and prayers in groups.  In the past, I felt it was best to let the retreatants’ personal lives remain in the silence that they keep; but because of the recent events, I thought it would be good to send you all sort of a snapshot of the people you are supporting, as they continue in this noble effort.  (I’m also including some actual photos here; the retreatant shots are from before retreat, since we think it would distract them to take pictures; but the retreat cabin shots sprinkled throughout, such as the one here, are from about a week ago.)


Driving into DM it looks much the same as before; except that Dennis Moore and Sierra Shafer have been cultivating a flower garden around the temple.  The temple itself has recently been renovated, with new sealant on all the roof, and walls.  The Nectar Lounge—an old army tent converted to a student center—is gone, and the first work on a permanent kitchen and dining facility has started, with siting, cesspool, and electrical work.  A word of thanks here to all the sponsors who have signed on for this project and the renovation, contributing $30,000 in response to our Cafeteria Appeal.


The Kitchen Yurt is being replaced, as we speak, with an interim kitchen facility at Jamyang House.  For the first time, we are able to supply volunteers with two sit-down meals a day.  There is a new work-study program in place for these volunteers, including monthly performance evaluations, required continuing education in the ACI courses, and a tougher behavior policy.  We have lost a few old-timers who chose not to go with this program, and we have gained a great group of new-timers who are working hard, in an atmosphere of tangible joy, harmony, and responsibility.


Walking through the bustling commissary (managed by supercapable Tahiya Knapp, seen here with granddaughter) you will meet participants in our Retreatant Caretaker Program.  This program allows retreatants who would like a break to come out and assist in the caretaking for a month or two, and then return to deep retreat.  They are asked to keep (mostly) to silence, stay on the campus, and continue their practices.


Ven. Lobsang Chukyi (Anne Lindsey) has taken a central role in this program, living and working at Jamyang House for the past few months, and offering ACI classes for the volunteer staff.  Several other retreatants have come out to help her and are now back in deep retreat.  The program was designed by the Retreat Council (a governing group of 5 retreatants elected by the other retreatants), under Retreat Director John Brady (left), in cooperation with DMU Board of Directors.


It is a new era of cordial cooperation as these two bodies administer the retreat, and—as we expected might happen—the retreatants have developed a new, greater respect for the tremendous effort that the caretakers are putting forth.  Interestingly, the cost of requests by retreatants for food and supplies has dropped by over 25 percent since the program began.


Travelling up the road, you can see that Nicole Davis and her husband Brian have completed their comfortable straw-bale home.  Nicole (here on a backhoe), who came to us via university graduate geology field work in Tibet, has become a master of keeping the retreat cabins in good repair, with a great deal of her work going into maintaining the temperamental “green” systems: solar, and composting toilets.  (As you’ll see in the photos, this is a revolutionary, “green” retreat—all the cabins draw their electricity from the sun, and waste is composted and returned to enrich the land, in government-approved systems.)  Rob Ruisinger, DMU Board president, works his usual impossible hours interfacing with the Retreat Director; tracking budgets; and directing supply logistics.


Across from Rob’s residence, Menla House, stay Scott and Orit Vacek (below).  Scott works hard on the retreatant supply effort, and Orit (a registered nurse) is performing great service interfacing between retreatants and their medical and dental caregivers, including trips to clinics in Willcox or Tucson whenever this is required.  Both Orit and Scott are also doing great work with the Diamond Cutter Institute business programs: Orit just finished directing an event for several hundred participants in the Ukraine; and Scott is heading up a major training program for a Russian banking and petroleum corporation with over 30,000 employees.


Which, when I visit, takes us up to the Two Boots Gate (a remnant from cowboy days), where the border of the retreat area begins.  I don’t want to make this little newsletter too long, but I would like to give you a look into the lives of some typical retreatants.


In general I would like all of you to know, all of you supporting this retreat, that the retreatants are working extremely hard, and you can be proud of them.  The difficulties we’ve had earlier this year do not reflect the amazing spiritual progress that almost every retreatant is making, the fruits of their intense efforts.  On the last day of my most recent visit, I and the retreatants and senior caretakers did the Tsechu Ceremony together in the Retreat Temple (the old Nataraj Building), and I could feel a depth of concentration and practice that I have rarely felt outside of the DM 3-Year Retreat.


It made me deeply proud of each of them, and you should be too.  It is one thing to put a man on the moon; but this retreat is itself a cultural and spiritual achievement of the modern world, which I feel is almost unprecedented.


Okay, so personal news.  Several retreatants since the beginning of retreat have requested and received ordination (some want to tell you themselves, later); the one who comes to my mind most strongly is Kat Ehrhorn, who on top of her usual amazing energy now has this noticeable spiritual glow about her.  I feel that this retreat has given her a beautiful new direction for the rest of her life, a kind of peace and stability atop the intensity she has always possessed.


Kat and many other retreatants have planted flower and vegetable gardens, which help defray some of the cost of supplying them with organic produce from Tucson.  Ven. Gyelse (previous page) has revived parts of the orchard in which her cabin is located, and whenever I visit I am inundated with homemade teas, spices, jams, and roses—the best of these last come from the garden of Michael Dunn and Melissa Buschey, who have gone deeper into the traditional Buddhist painting studies which they started, before retreat, with an accomplished Tibetan teacher in New York.


Christine Sperber is collaborating with a number of other retreatants on an illustrated book of the inner body, which many retreatants are exploring through intense yoga practice (can you picture a very buff John Brady?).  During breaks between their deep retreat periods (which now last two months), the retreatants rotate teaching each other yoga classes at the pavilion erected near the old Lama House.


There are also a lot of practice collaborations going on, where groups of retreatants who live in the same “neighborhood” of the retreat valley get together to do their prayers, even in deep retreat.  A number of retreatants have gone into even deeper retreat, foregoing the month-long breaks.


One of these is Karen Becker, our “bionic woman,” pictured above.  Karen is the oldest retreatant (70 years).  Earlier in the retreat, our medical staff—inside the retreat there are one MD, two PA’s (RN’s with additional training to directly assist an MD), and another RN, besides Orit on the outside—determined during regular checkups that her pulse rate had dropped too low.


Karen was taken to the local hospital, where staff recommended a pacemaker, which was put in, and she returned to retreat the same week.  She is now 4 months into a solo retreat which I think might go for a year.

Lama Pelma (left) has been in solo for the better part of a year already, sending out the occasional piece of exquisite meditational painting, or a particularly large zucchini from her garden. 

Will Duncan (right) is doing another solo, exploring the interface between Christian practices and Buddhist.  Before retreat he was trained by a priest to administer the mass to himself, and on a recent tour to Israel, some of the DCI staff visited Jerusalem to purchase him a special chalice.  Will’s partner Ann Curry (left) visits regularly for prayers and keeps him straight; it is a beautiful synergy.



During this same Israel tour, we were able to meet with students and teachers from the more than 20 Asian Classics Institute groups in the country.  These groups are all the work of Dvora Tzvieli, who is in retreat with her husband Arie.  In addition to her regular retreat practices, Dvora is working to translate the 18 advanced courses of the ACI syllabus, and is planning to teach them after she comes out.  These courses will be delivered at a retreat center, similar to DMU, which the Israeli Sangha is building at a real-life oasis in the area of the Arava Desert in the southern part of the country.  Dvora’s Hebrew translation of The Garden, completed during retreat, was also released by the Israeli publisher during this trip.


David Stumpf has been concentrating on the practice of White Tara; he has also been working on a commentary, which will include a section of translation by David of an original text on the version of this practice followed by Lord Atisha, who helped bring Buddhism to Tibet a thousand years ago.  A number of retreatants are studying the scriptural languages: Tibetan, Chinese, and Sanskrit.  Ben Kramer (who with his wife Kendra is having a really beautiful retreat) is leading many of the Tibetan classes.  (Ben & Kendra are seen below, at their wedding prior to the retreat.)


Almost all the retreatants though continue to concentrate on the Vajra Yogini practice, for which they received 7 years of training prior to retreat.  This is one of the 1,000 texts of advanced Buddhism taught by the Buddha himself, and preserved in the Tibetan canon.  (The input of these thousands works has just been completed by our Tibetan refugee computer project, after 25 years of work.)  This particular practice comes down to us through my own teacher, Khen Rinpoche, who was trained in it by Trijang Rinpoche, the teacher of His Holiness the present Dalai Lama.  It emphasizes seeing that the lives of everyone around us teach us the path to enlightenment.  People going particularly deep on this I would say include Ven Chunzom (below), James Connor, and Earle Birney, who is also John Brady’s main assistant on the Retreat Council.  Sponsors might be interested to know that smaller, parallel 3-year retreats led by DMU graduates continue successfully in Canada, California, and Australia.


I hope you’ve all enjoyed this small portrait of the 3-Year Retreat at DMU.  The retreatants are just past the half-way point, and the Retreat Valley has truly become a center of a beautiful spiritual energy, which I think has been woefully overlooked during the recent sad events.  We have a uniquely strong and devoted group of retreatants, and a team of caretakers skillfully administering a huge and successful logistical effort to keep them in retreat.


The retreat is very much still on, and nothing has changed in the commitment of the retreatants and caretakers to see it to the end.  And this retreat is only the beginning.  We have just completed our semiannual 10-day Prescott retreat, with over a hundred participants, and we are looking forward to the transition of DMU after the 3-year retreat to a full-time, public retreat center offering programs from a weekend to a year—a place which all of us can use for our own individual and group retreats.


Just two retreats per year of the size of the Prescott retreats will cover most of the fixed annual expenses of DMU, enabling us to create additional paid and free programs such as the proposed Pampered Weekend Retreats, for single mothers of the poor Hispanic communities of Tucson and Phoenix.


We intend to continue expanding DMU retreat facilities in a Spanish Colonial motif, similar to that of resort facilities in the area, such as the Royal Palms in Phoenix, or Sedona’s Tlaquepaque Center (at right is a photo of the Palms).  Our design and administrative teams have already begun work on this effort, the goal being a highly comfortable, “white sheets and oversized pillows” (but still very inexpensive) air-conditioned, retreat experience—with a paid staff that is highly trained in traditional Tibetan retreat arts and can lead a guest through their own weekend, week, or month-long retreat.  And of course there will still be the neighborhood in the wayback, where Coco and Earle and John live now, for the more dedicated practitioners to do their very long-term retreats.


The core of this retreat center will be the 30 lovely retreat cabins built by the current retreatants with their own hands and funds—and which they have all kindly offered to gift to future generations of retreatants, beginning after this 3-year retreat and a 3-month transition period, during which retreatants will continue to reside in their cabins and begin shaping a life after retreat.


Until then, we have made a commitment to see the retreatants through their noble experiment, and it’s a commitment which we need to keep.  Each retreatant has a Guardian Angel who has taken responsibility to spearhead their fundraising, and all the GA’s have been doing a great job.  Our 3-Year Retreat Fundraising Team is sending out this update both to current sponsors, to ask you to please keep going with your monthly commitments; to all our DMU Alumni; and to other friends whom we think may want to lend a hand.  Please remember especially that when your credit card number is changed for any reason, we need to receive the updated information in order to continue your donations.


And on behalf of all of the DMU community, I would like to thank you one more time, for all the help you have each already given for this extraordinary spiritual undertaking.


With kind regards,


Geshe Michael Roach


PS: This letter is being finished the night after the Malaysia talk; here is a photo…over 1,500 people attended!  This is the promise of Diamond Mountain, changing the entire globe for the better.