Nagarakshita, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, is reducing her possessions and moving out of a residential community in preparation for a nine-month solitary retreat in Australia. She will be in occasional email contact with two fellow Order members who will advise her as her retreat progresses, but otherwise she will be in total seclusion. Here she talks to Vidyadaka about why she is doing this, what she fears, and what she hopes it will bring to the world.
Vidyadaka: Why not start by saying a little bit about your name?
Nagarakshita: Sure. The name I was given at ordination is Nagarakshita, and that means ‘she who is protected and guarded by serpents or dragons who live deep in the ocean, or lake’. So when my preceptor witnessed my ordination and gave me that name, she explained that she had given it to me to encourage me to go deep into my practice, to really plumb the depths, and to have confidence that I could do that safely because those mythical dragons who live in the deep – which you could also see as your subconscious – will protect me, will guide me. So it’s a very precious name and one that should help me in this next phase of my life.
It certainly should. Do you feel like you’ve gained reliance on that on previous retreats?
Yes certainly, and actually through my Dharma life. I’ve been ordained for just about seven years now, and I have experienced a reaching deeper into myself. I really value being able to go deeply into my practice and explore the myths. I’m delighted that I’ve got such a mythological name. I’m somebody that has a tendency to be very literal so my name just doesn’t allow that at all. You can’t really grasp it, so that is also very precious. I’ve done several solitary retreats, the longest was six weeks, and it’s been very good to know that.
What have you learned from those experiences?
I really, really value the opportunity to go on solitary retreat in a secluded place. One rather amusing incident which I think does illustrate what can happen on a solitary retreat was that I’d been in this very secluded little house in the middle of a field for several days when I noticed that my jacket was not hanging where I’d put it. I went round the house saying, “Who has moved my jacket, who has moved my jacket?!” It really pointed out the kind of habit I can get into: it must be somebody else that’s done this if I can’t find something, or if something goes wrong. But of course there was no one else. So that can happen with something like misplacing one’s jacket, but also with one’s mental states. If for example I’m on solitary retreat and I’m feeling really down or angry or upset, actually there’s no external person who has caused that. It really makes you stand back and take full responsibility for your actions and your own mental states.
You’ve decided to go on a nine-month solitary retreat. That sounds like an extremely long time to be on your own. Why are you doing this?
Well, I have yearned to go on a long solitary for a very long time, probably more than twenty years. Since before I came along to this movement. I had a possibly romantic view that I would go off into a cave in the mountains for three years, three months and three days – which is the traditional Tibetan way of doing things – without thinking about the consequences, and the kind of training that people who take that retreat have. But then last summer it suddenly dawned on me that I’m not getting any younger. I’m nearly 67, and if I don’t do it now, while I’ve got my health and strength, while I don’t have responsibilities as a parent anymore, then when are the conditions going to be right? I can’t be certain I’ll have health and strength in two or three years’ time, not even in six months. So if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it now.
So currently you live in a community, and you’re going to move out. You’ve got to let go of an awful lot in order to be able to do that. What’s that like, is it unnerving? What does that bring up?
It’s very interesting. I mean I shall be very sad to leave my friends because I’m leaving the community completely. I’m shedding an awful lot. I only have a roomful anyway–I’ve downsized from a big house, to a smaller house, and then the smaller house to this one room. And bit by bit I’m whittling it all down. I suppose it’s a kind of spiritual death because I am systematically stripping away all the familiar kinds of things. And I’m making sure at the moment that I visit people who it’s really important to spend time with, like my aunt who is 99, my children and grandchildren, and various friends both within London in the Sangha and further afield. I’m taking them with me in my heart, as it were, by making sure I spend good time with them.
It feels like that’s a really good thing. Just at some point in life to attend to everything – relationships, all your belongings – and make sure that your life is in order so that you can leave well.
Absolutely, I mean earlier this year as I began the process, it really felt as if somebody had said, well you’ve got six months to live. So I’ve been making sure that I put everything in order and that I take leave properly of people, in a very real way. And it’s interesting how very little one needs. All these things; and some of the things, when I pick them up I think Ooh, I’m not quite sure if I want to get rid of that… And then I think, well, if I was actually going to die, I would have to let go of it.
It is real renunciation.
Have you got any concerns? Are you thinking, What an opportunity, or rather, Oh gosh, what have I taken on?!
(Laughs) Both of those plus more. Deep down I am just so happy and delighted that I’m going. I’m longing for it with every fibre of my being. And I am apprehensive, because I have no idea what I will meet. Well I know who I will meet, I will meet myself, and it will just be me, and I can tell you that’s not a pretty sight! Because on solitary you really do come up against yourself and all the irritating habits of the mind.
Someone who has never been on solitary retreat might be thinking: a person going away for a year, how is that going to help the world? What would you say to that?
What helps is that I truly believe the way to help the world is by practising the Dharma as fully as I can, by exploring the Buddha’s teaching with the aim of gaining enlightenment for the sake of all beings. There are many, many people doing wonderful practical things to help individuals in the world and to alleviate suffering. The cause of suffering, according to the Buddha, is our craving and our delusion, so by going off like this I’m hoping that I shall refine, as in a fire, as much of myself as I can and take a few more steps along the path towards that realisation. So I do dedicate to it to the release of suffering of all beings. I recently heard of an Order Member who lives in America who had been hoping to retire and devote more of his life to teaching and practising the Dharma, and unfortunately there was a financial situation that meant he has to go on working for several years. His response has been to put all of himself fully into his work, and more intensively in his practice. And when I read that in Shabda, our Order newsletter, I was so moved and inspired that I’ve been in correspondence with him. And I feel quite strongly, from that correspondence, that I’m doing this on behalf of those people who can’t. Maybe I’ll have something to share and offer when I come back, in which case I will be delighted to do so. Maybe I’ll have just perfumed the world a bit more through practice, I don’t know.
Have you got anything else you’d like to say?
Well I would like to mention something about the place I’m going, which is called Naganaga. In the Buddhist tradition a ‘naga’ is a water snake or a dragon, as in my name. And Naga in the Aboriginal language means a ridge or a hill. Now the ridge above the Vihara where the little hut that I’m going to be staying in sits, that ridge is known by the local tribes as the ridge of the water snake, hence Naganaga. So I feel I’m really going to a place that echoes the mythology of my name and that will continue to be my protection, because I shall need protection. I shall need it on lots of different levels, not least from my own mind.