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Ross Mackay – Buddhist Retreat

Tibetan Lama Sogyal Rinpoche is leading a 10-day retreat at Tiona Park, from 12 to 22 January … We talk to Ross Mackay from Rigpa Australia – a centre for the study of Tibetan Buddhism and modern meditation. Ross is Sogyal Rinpoche’s most senior student in Australia and former National Director of Rigpa Australia.

Could you please provide some background information about Tibetan Lama Sogyal Rinpoche?

Sogyal Rinpoche is a world-renowned Buddhist teacher and the author of the highly acclaimed The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

Born in Eastern Tibet, Sogyal Rinpoche received a traditional education in Tibet and India, then travelled to England for Western education at Cambridge University. Rinpoche has travelled to many countries, observing the reality of people’s lives and searching how to translate the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism so as to make them relevant to modern men and women of all faiths – by drawing out their universal message, while not losing authenticity, purity and power.

He has been teaching for over 30 years and continues to travel widely in Europe, America, Australia, and Asia, addressing thousands of people on retreats, teaching tours and speaking at major conferences on a wide variety of subjects, including medicine and healing, interfaith dialogue, peace and non-violence, business and leadership and hospice care. He is the founder of Rigpa, an international network of over 130 Buddhist centres and groups in 41 countries around the world, under the patronage of His Holiness Dalai Lama.

Rigpa has been visiting the Great Lakes for retreats since 1989 … Could you please provide some background information about how the retreat started? 

Sogyal Rinpoche first came to Australia in 1985 and returned each summer to teach. His group of students grew, and we looked all along the East Coast of Australia for a suitable venue, when one student who knew this area found Tiona Park. The first retreat in 1989 had approximately 80 participants attend. In 2011, the retreat will have over 500 adults and 100 children.

What draws you back to the Great Lakes annually?

Tiona Park is located on a narrow spit of land with the shore of Wallis Lake on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. The natural beauty of the Myall Lakes provides an ideal setting to hold a meditation retreat. Each year we set up a large marquee overlooking Wallis Lake – with its calm expansiveness that inspires the peaceful state of a meditative mind. The beaches and township make it ideal for people and families to attend a meditation retreat, plus also have some holiday time.

What can participants expect from the 10-day retreat, which is titled ‘The Wisdom of Compassion: Awakening the Mind, Opening the Heart’?

Every morning, Sogyal Rinpoche gives teachings from the Tibetan tradition, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to listen to such a renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher in an informal setting. Participants receive instruction on meditation, and there are presentations by Rinpoche’s senior students. We aim to integrate and stabilise meditation and the teachings in an environment of retreat.

Two main themes of the retreat, and you could say of Buddhism in general, are compassion and wisdom. Meditating in a retreat environment helps us to unlock our natural wisdom and compassion. It helps us to see things more clearly, with less attachment, and allows us to be more compassionate to ourselves and to others.

Could you please tell us about the basic principles behind meditation and the benefits it may have on mental wellbeing?

The great masters say that the first practice of meditation is to allow the mind to settle into a state of ‘calm abiding’, where it will find peace and stability. It can then rest in the state of non-distraction, which is what meditation really is. When the mind is able to settle and be peaceful, our innate wisdom and compassion will naturally arise.

When we first begin to meditate, we often use the breath as the focus of the practice – just mindfully watching the breath. If thoughts or emotions arise, we just note them and then return to watching the breath.

This is actually a great way of training our mind, of being more able to work with our thoughts and emotions. We are less likely to follow negative thoughts and get bogged down in negative or anxious stories.

There are many scientific studies that show, even on brain imaging, that meditation creates a lasting impact on brain function that promotes positive thoughts and compassion for others, decreases anxiety and depression and boosts immunity.

Is attending a retreat a good way of rejuvenating the mind, body and soul?

A retreat is a way of simplifying your life, by removing yourself from your daily routine as you enter into a peaceful meditative environment. Added to that is the study of ancient wisdom teachings, which are based on the understanding of the suffering of this life and the way to overcome that by showing how to fulfill our human potential of limitless compassion and wisdom.

Leaving behind the flurry of our daily lives, meditation is a way of being rather than doing, and it is within this space that rejuvenation of body and mind can take place. Worries, fears and constant busyness will have less hold on us, giving us a wider and deeper perspective of what is important in life.

Buddhism is a philosophy and less a religion. Can you please explain the difference?

Buddhism analyses and understands the nature of our existence and works with that, rather than dependence on a creator. Everything is subject to change, so grasping onto thoughts and phenomena, which constantly change, will bring us suffering. We have the capacity to create the causes and conditions for a positive future, relieving suffering and to bring happiness to our fellow beings and ourselves.

Who can participate in the 10-day retreat?

The retreat is open to anyone – you don’t have to be a Buddhist and you don’t need to have ever meditated before. Many people come to retreat to learn to meditate for the first time. It’s the perfect environment for a beginner. At the same time, Buddhist practitioners who have spent years in retreat, come to hear the teachings and meditate.

Is it appropriate for children to attend?

The children’s program is designed for school age children and teens. The children attend daily Buddhist sessions, which include teachings, meditation and compassion practices and creative and expressive arts.

The children love to debate in the sessions and to investigate and discover answers for themselves, and they really do learn to meditate! Parents love being in an environment that provides an education for their children’s hearts – nurturing inner values such as peace, love, compassion, forgiveness and understanding.

People can find out more about the retreat at an Open Day. Please tell us about this?

We are really looking forward to people from the local area coming to meet us at our Open Day on the afternoon of January 15 and to see what retreat is like. At the Open Day, people can learn about meditation, participate in short guided meditation sessions, go on a tour of an authentic Tibetan Shrine and generally experience a special insight into Tibetan culture right here in Myall Lakes. There will be activities for children and families.

Thanks Ross.