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De-Tong Ling Retreat Centre: Down Under, a Meditator’s Paradise
By Dani Guo, retreat manager at De-Tong Ling
The name De-Tong Ling, “Place of Bliss and Emptiness” in Tibetan, encapsulates the ethos of this Shangri-La-like FPMT center. Situated on 1,300 acres of pristine, natural Australian bush on the western end of Kangaroo Island in South Australia, De-Tong Ling was established in 1988. At that time, the land was offered to Lama Zopa Rinpoche by two of his devoted students, Kimball Cuddihy and Greg Leith. Khensur Losang Thubten Rinpoche, ex-abbot of Sera Je Monastery in India, performed the first Dharma activity on the land, a fire puja, and made the prophecy that “many great meditators will come here.” It is the kind of paradise sought after by serious meditators thirsting to actualize the teachings of the Buddha.
Serious—but not austere. There is nothing austere about the solitary, self-contained retreat houses at De-Tong Ling. They may be simple in style—constructed from rammed earth or mud bricks, powered by solar energy, and supplied by rain water—but they are quite comfortable. Each has its own meditation room and is perfect for the yogi or yogini who is intent on tasting the transcendental wisdom of the fully awakened mind for the benefit of all sentient beings. De-Tong Ling offers a unique and supportive environment for deep meditation to be practiced and perfected.
Before we get too excited, or perhaps too serious, and quit our jobs, call the babysitter, and leave our daily responsibilities behind to embark on a grand journey to a place of bliss and emptiness, we must first pause and think. What is the motivation, really? And are the means skillful?
Most of us have had teachings on the three principal aspects of the path—renunciation, bodhichitta, and the wisdom of shunyata—but very few of us have actualized them, and this is why we continue to have afflictions, old habits, and problems. One of the obstacles is that we hold these teachings in our heads rather than our hearts. The Dharma, when realized within the heart, is transformative. That transformation allows us to experience life differently, more freely and peacefully, even joyfully in the face of adversity. Without realizations, this is all theory.
To move beyond theory, we must practice method and wisdom. Geshe Lhundub Sopa explains, “Because we must share our world with others there are the meditations on love, compassion, and the bodhichitta, the enlightened attitude of wishing for enlightenment in order to be of greatest benefit to others. This introduces the six perfections, or the means of accomplishing enlightenment—generosity, discipline, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. The first five of these must act as supportive methods in order for the sixth, wisdom, to become stable.”1
Wisdom is what cuts our root delusions, but without meditation, wisdom is not possible. We may go about our lives fully committed to practicing the first four perfections, but without engaging in meditation and wisdom, our actions are still rooted in ignorance and thus cannot be of true benefit to others. This is why retreat is so precious. Retreat frees the mind from distractions, the temptations of old habits, and the bombardment of external stimuli to allow the mind to experience stillness and its corollary—wisdom.
This all sounds fantastic, but to walk towards it is another matter. Stillness of the mind is a challenging state to achieve because it is not our habit. It is as foreign as venturing out into deep space; slightly terrifying to say the least. For most of us, we live in concepts and to move into experience requires great courage and determination. Solitary retreats are not for the fainthearted. Yet the fruits are life-changing, as exemplified by the peace, joy, and clarity in the minds of all great masters who have undertaken them. With their inspiration, we venture into the depths of space to experience what they experience for ourselves.
It is important to understand the meaning of retreat before we jump into one. Lama Zopa Rinpoche in his Heart Advice for Retreat explains that the “very least meaning of retreat is to retreat away from non-virtue, the cause of suffering.”2 It means to keep body, speech, and mind focused on the ten virtuous actions and untainted by the eight worldly concerns. Rinpoche says, “The eight worldly dharmas don’t allow your retreat to become Dharma. They don’t allow your actions of meditating, and reciting mantras, or your activities of eating, waking, sitting, sleeping, and so on to become Dharma.”3 This point is critical. With the right motivation, we can then approach retreat and meditation meaningfully.
It is also important to understand what meditation is. It is not a holy activity whereby we sit in physical stillness and engage in spiritual ego-clinging. It is something much more profound. As Lama Yeshe explains, “Simply examining your life from the time you were born up till now—looking at the kind of trip you’ve been on and what sort of psychological impulses have been propelling you—is meditation.”4
Meditation is not an exclusive activity for the spiritually gifted. It is a tool available to everyone who seeks to understand reality and to create less suffering for themselves and others. To do this, the right conditions are needed. These include an environment that supports this kind of examination. In the busyness of a world propelled by habits that are actively hindering this, it is very challenging for the ordinary person to effectively meditate to the point where their mind is still enough to actualize wisdom. It is skillful to remove ourselves and find a more conducive space. For this, De-Tong Ling is perfect.
A place like De-Tong Ling is rare in our present day of fast-paced development and modernization. Located in a peaceful, natural setting with breathtaking views of the ocean, land, and sky, this center is Tibet down under. Akin to Tibet, it is geographically isolated with few human inhabitants: only about fifty people reside on the north-western end of Kangaroo Island where the center is located. The land has a rough beauty. At one with the elements, body and mind feel ever-impermanent and alive in this environment.
With the relatively low height of the surrounding Australian bush, the vastness of the sky is omnipresent. Simply being there, the mind experiences spaciousness and the heart opens up. A meditator can go days, months, or years without seeing a human face. Worldly distractions are few and thus the ego-mind, stripped of its defense mechanisms, has no choice but to confront itself and see its true nature. Mahasiddha Saraha’s “recognize mind wherever you are” takes on a deeper meaning.
The center presently operates five self-contained solitary retreat houses. Retreat support includes food delivery once every two weeks, firewood during the winter months, and written communication with a support person when needed. Each house is located in seclusion, not visible to the others, so it is truly a place where a person can experience perfect solitude.
With hopes of expanding center services, the construction of a group retreat facility is underway. The new facility will accommodate up to forty people and enable the center to hold group retreats of varying lengths more capably. Historically, the focus has been on solitary retreats, with two small annual group retreats concentrating on shamatha and lamrim. The group retreat facility is the dawning of a new chapter. The center hopes to extend its services to offer the gifts of this precious environment to those who benefit more from group energy. There is also the hope to develop a broader spiritual program to accommodate the more diverse needs and interests of both local and international meditators.
The construction of the group retreat facility commenced in January 2016 after many years of planning, thanks to the generous donation of an anonymous benefactor. The project is still in progress. The center is seeking volunteers in 2017 to help with the build, and welcomes anyone willing to offer a pair of hands. It is an exciting time. On a mundane level, there appears to be a motley crew of people getting muddy and moving earth around a lot. But on a supramundane level, what is unfolding is the real life manifestation of Dharma—loving-kindness, community, dedication, devotion, purification, joyous effort, wisdom, selflessness, and unity. It is worth rejoicing—both in the benefits for countless sentient beings in the future, and in the selfless acts of kindness of those taking part in construction now.
Ven. Thubten Dondrub, resident teacher at Buddha House in Adelaide, has noted that simply being at De-Tong Ling is a retreat in itself with various benefits. The powerful effects of this environment, offering a place of refuge for deep introspection and peace, are available to everyone who comes, whether for a few hours, a few weeks, or a few years.
There is something undeniably special about De-Tong Ling Retreat Centre that must be experienced by being physically present. Once mainly for solitary retreatants, the center is now opening up to groups. Whether you are a solitary meditator, group meditator, volunteer, or visitor, De-Tong Ling Retreat Centre is a place of profound realizations awaiting your discovery. It is simply a matter of accepting the invitation and experiencing it for yourself. Paradise is within reach.
For additional information, visit De-Tong Ling Retreat Centre: detongling.org.
1. “Method, Wisdom and the Three Paths,” Geshe Lhundub Sopa, accessed August 10, 2016, http://www.lamayeshe.com/article/method-wisdom-and-three-paths
2. Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Pabongkha Dechen Nyingpo, Heart Advice for Retreat (Taos: Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition Education Department), 11.
4. Lama Yeshe, The Peaceful Stillness of the Silent Mind (Boston: Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, 2004), 80.
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