Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche: Advice to Three-Year Retreatants

Tashi Paljor, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (c. 1910 – 28 September 1991) was a Vajrayana master, scholar, poet, teacher, and recognized by Buddhists as one of the greatest realized masters. Head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism from 1988 to 1991, he is also considered an eminent proponent of the Rime tradition.

Advice to Three-Year Retreatants by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Homage to the guru!

This is addressed to those staying in three-year retreat in France.

Those of you who live in Europe and other modern countries have all the amenities and luxuries this life affords, but until recently you had never even heard of the practice of Dharma. In recent times, it so happened that the teachings declined in Tibet, and many lamas of senior and junior rank from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism arrived in India. Now, when their various teachings are being revived and the allotted time for the Buddhadharma to remain has not yet passed, a number of great masters went to visit and settle in other countries, with the result that many people throughout the modern world now have the intention to practise Dharma.

The students of my teacher, Kangyur Rinpoche, in particular have come to regard me as their own root teacher and have a sincere desire to practise Dharma throughout their entire lives. Through the inspiration and assistance of Tsetrul Pema Wangyal Rinpoche, they have established a retreat centre at Chanteloube. The real purpose behind this centre is that those who remain there in retreat establish themselves firmly on the path to liberation. If they do so, they will fulfil the enlightened vision of Kangyur Rinpoche, serve their own teachers, and make the very best use of the many profound teachings they have received.

With this in mind, all who commit themselves to remain in retreat should ensure that faith, renunciation, compassion and looking into the nature of mind lie at the very heart of their practice.


Faith’ means complete trust in, and reliance upon, the Three Jewels in general, and our own teacher in particular, as well as in the Dharma we are practising. If we practise for a long time, after a while we might think, “I still haven’t gained any signs of progress! The teacher can’t have given me the most profound instructions. It would be better for me to do the main practice, rather than the preliminaries, because it’s more profound!” Or if we are doing the main practice we might think, “I think it would be better for me to set aside this simple generation stage practice and do some dzogrim instead.” Or even, “Dzogchen would be more profound than these completion stage practices like tummo.”

You might think that once you have received the Dzogchen teachings you will have all kinds of profound lofty experiences, even after just a few days. If you have such high expectations, then when things don’t work out that way, you will begin to doubt the instructions and relax your diligence. Or, if you do develop the slightest hint of renunciation or gain some minor experience or realization, you will only develop pride and think, “The Kagyü, Sakya and Gelug schools have nothing to compare with these Nyingma teachings!” You must avoid developing wrong views such as this and arrogantly supposing that you have gained some special experience or realization. No matter who you are, the ordinary mind is always prone to change and transformation, so you should try never to get carried away.

Even if you were to practise day and night with unflagging diligence for a full twelve years and still fail to have even one good dream, you must never lose heart. Recognizing that this is due simply to the strength of your own obscurations, you must be confident that neither your teachers nor the teachings will ever let you down.

On the other hand, even if you were to make such swift progress that in just a single day you reached the level at which there is nothing further in saṃsāra to be abandoned nor anything further in nirvāṇa to be gained, you should feel no pride, because to do so would only be to invite the demon of obstacles. That is why Jetsün Milarepa said:

When you are approaching the end of the Dharma,
Continue ceaselessly, without any highs or lows,
And without hopes for signs of swift attainment,
Ensure your practice endures as long as you do!

This is marvellous advice.


Renunciation’ means that while in the retreat centre, every single time you recite the Seven Line Prayer or complete a single mālā of maṇi mantras, you must dedicate it towards the attainment of buddhahood for yourself and all other sentient beings. While in retreat, you should not waste even a single moment in idleness or frivolity, and you must avoid any form of insincerity or duplicity, such as pretending—for as long as you are in other people’s view—to practise perfectly.

Do all that you can to bring your own stubborn mind under control and to develop your faith, diligence and renunciation. Never think that the Dharma you are practising is for your benefit alone. To recite even a single maṇi mantra is of inconceivable benefit, so dedicate it for the sake of all who live.

Again and again, develop compassion for all sentient beings in general, and particularly for those who dislike you. It might be difficult at first, but you will never attain enlightenment as long as you continue to feel ill-will towards your enemies. Those who are now your enemies were in former lives your parents, and there is nothing fixed about the status of an enemy or friend. To feel hostility towards enemies and affection towards your friends is nothing but a deluded form of perception. If you train your mind to recognize everything as insubstantial like a dream, hostility towards enemies will lose its meaning entirely. This is crucially important, because ordinarily our lives are driven by the yearning to acquire food and clothing, possessions, partners, status and acclaim. We put a great deal of thought into devising the cleverest, most efficient ways to obtain them, and we think, “So-and-so has this much money, my friends have this much, so I need more.” Or: “In the past, I stayed in this kind of house, in this part of town, but now I shall move to a better place.” We must put a stop to all such thinking.

With ordinary work, the more you do the more suffering you create for the future. But now that you have found a human existence, met an authentic teacher, and received the Dharma teachings, your situation is even better and more fortunate than that of Indra, king of the gods. If you now put the teachings into practice with steadfast determination, you are sure to find happiness in all your future lives. So be content with only the most basic food and clothing. Let me put it simply: do all that you can to renounce and minimize the ordinary affairs and activities of saṃsāra.

No one should stay in the retreat centre without taking the vows of refuge. Even if you are a layperson, for the three years that you are in retreat you must avoid sexual relations, and, while in retreat, it is enormously significant and beneficial to wear the robes of a monk or nun. The Buddha himself said it is permissible for anyone who has taken the vows of refuge to wear the monastic robes.


Generally speaking, you have been practising the teachings of the Mahayana ever since you first entered the door of the Dharma, and this is really nothing other than compassion. Without genuine compassion there is simply no possibility of reaching buddhahood.

In their delusion, all the beings of saṃsāra cherish only their own selfish interests and neglect others’ welfare. At the moment, no matter how well off we may be in terms of food, clothing or material possessions, and no matter how much happiness we may experience, we can never be satisfied. At the same time, if we give away even just a tiny fraction of what we own, it feels as if we are losing something enormous. We must let go of such attitudes, and, instead of caring for ourselves alone, learn to cherish others. Previously we neglected others, but now we must neglect our own selfish goals. Whenever we perform any virtuous deed with body, speech or mind, we must first remember that we are doing so as a means to bring about the enlightenment of all.

In Dharma practice, the most important thing is motivation. If it is motivated by the wish to benefit all beings, then even a single prostration or a single recitation of the hundred-syllable mantra will yield inexhaustible merit—merit that will remain until we have reached enlightenment and there are no beings left in saṃsāra. Whereas if we do not have this motivation of universal benevolence, even a hundred thousand prostrations, or a hundred thousand recitations of the hundred-syllable mantra, will bear fruit only once before the merit is exhausted, and a single burst of anger will be enough to destroy our entire stock of virtue. It is crucial to understand this. If we consider that our practice is for the sake of all others, then because sentient beings are infinitely vast in number, our own merit will be equally vast.

No one is entirely free from suffering, so consider all the major and minor sufferings that befall others, and imagine them happening to you instead. How would you feel? Surely you would do all that you could to find a way to avoid the pain. So reflect continually on all the sufferings that other beings undergo and develop the compassionate wish that they may be free from pain. Once you have true compassion, you will naturally feel the wish to benefit others. Our teacher, the Buddha, while still a bodhisattva, had such vast and overwhelming compassion that he made five hundred prayers of aspiration for our benefit, and, as his followers, we too must make compassion the very core of our practice.

The immeasurable benefits of generating true compassion are described in detail in The Words of My Perfect Teacher and the Bodhicaryāvatāra, so please study them.

Looking into the Nature of Mind

To look into the nature of the mind we must understand how all its ordinary thoughts about anything and everything imaginable are just empty and insubstantial. Until now, we have been the slave of what we call ‘mind’, forced to wander helplessly through saṃsāric existence. Now we must reverse the situation, and take control of our own mind. It will be easy to do this if we have some real understanding of how the mind is empty, but just entertaining some vague notion of mind’s emptiness, by thinking, “Well, this is what the masters say,” or “This is what it says in the texts,” will not help us to recognize the insubstantiality of our own deluded perception.

Turn your attention within then, and allow your mind to relax. You will notice not just one thought or idea, but many. For example, if you think of your mother, that is one thought, but then it in turn evokes all kinds of other thoughts, such as memories of the kindness she showed you. If she is still alive, you might think about going to visit her, and if not, you might feel sad. These are thoughts of attachment. If you think about your enemies, reflecting on the ways they have hurt you in the past, how they are sure to do so again in the future, and how you must find some way to be rid of them, these are thoughts of aversion. You might wonder where this attachment and aversion come from. In fact, they come from the deluded belief in the existence of what we call ‘I’.

Where is such an ‘I’ to be found? Is it in the body or the mind? If you really look into the body, examining each of its parts—flesh, blood, bones and skin—you cannot find anything at all called ‘body’, so how could this be the location of the ‘I’? The mind, on the other hand, is insubstantial, so how could the ‘I’ abide within it? In fact, the ‘I’ is merely a concept or a thought. There is no location within a thought, and nothing could remain there, but still the power of one thought, such as the thought of our mother, causes us to think another thought, about her kindness to us, and that in turn inspires the thought of wishing to see her.

If we look into this process in more detail, we can see that while we are thinking about our mother’s kindness, the initial thought of our mother is no longer there—it has already gone. And the thought that we must visit her has not yet occurred—it is still in the future. As soon as we look into it, the present thought of our mother’s kindness is no longer there; it has already turned into the future thought of wanting to visit her. This means that the thoughts of the past, present and future cannot exist at the same time, and we only use these terms for the sake of communication. The past is gone, like a person who has died, and the future (or ‘that which is yet to come’) does not exist at all. In fact, there is no such thing as a ‘present thought’ existing somehow independently of past and future. Before we thought of our mother that ‘present thought’ was still in the future. Then, as we thought of her, it was present. Finally, as we brought to mind her kindness, it was already in the past.

For one thought to pass through these three phases of time is a sign of its impermanence, and whatever is impermanent is empty. It is because a thing is empty that it can change over the course of the past, present and future.

Consider the surface of a mirror: because it is empty [and not fixed in a particular way], reflections can appear within it. When a person’s likeness appears in a mirror, the reflection resembles the real person, but the person’s face has neither entered the mirror nor been transferred to its surface. The image of the face appears because of certain causes and conditions, including the clarity of the mirror and the presence of the person’s face before it. The reflection of the face and the face itself are not the same. The reflection is inanimate, and when the reflection disappears the real face does not. A face can be burned if it is touched by fire, but you cannot burn a reflection. Nevertheless, the reflection and the face are not completely different either, because the reflection can not appear in the absence of the person’s face, and if the person adopts a particular expression, such as a smile or a look of anger, the reflection also appears that way.

For these reasons, thoughts and reflections appear to be real only when we fail to examine them or look into them in any detail. If we do pause to consider them, we find that although they appear, they do not really exist. And this is true not just of these phenomena. It applies to all the appearances of our deluded saṃsāric experience: they seem real enough as long as we do not examine them too deeply, but when we do, we find that they are not real. This is why we refer to them as “unexamined, seeming reality.”

If the understanding of this point develops and takes hold, so that it becomes self-sustaining, that is what we call ‘experience’. When we become more and more familiar with this, so that the mind is no longer swayed by thoughts of aversion or attachment, that is what we call ‘realization’.

When we examine thoughts again and again in this way, we come to see that although they have no real existence, still they appear, and although they appear, they are insubstantial. At the same time, we understand how the thoughts of the past, present and future exist only as mere names or labels, and have no more reality than that.

If we have this understanding, then whenever we think of our mother and remember all the kindness she showed us, we need not succumb to thoughts of attachment. We will think, “Even if I were to go and see my mother, what good would that do? She has managed to provide food and clothing for herself, and even to provide for my material needs as well. If I were to take on this role, I would need to find work in some trade or business, and that would provoke all kinds of attachment and aversion and produce lots of distractions, which would only come in the way of my Dharma practice. Instead, I should put my energy into practising the Dharma, straightaway as much as I can, then dedicate all my sources of merit to my mother, to help relieve her sufferings of birth, death and the bardo states. It would be better for me to forget about ordinary worldly feelings of attachment to my mother. She has other children who can take care of her material needs, but there is no one but me to offer her spiritual assistance.” If we think this way, it will prevent us getting caught in the ordinary patterns of thought which can come up whenever we recall our mother.

This also gives us some clues as to how we can give up our thoughts of aversion towards our enemies. At first it might be a little difficult to overcome our attachment and aversion, but by practising again and again, it will become easier.

If you can overcome attachment and aversion, you will no longer accumulate karma. Moreover, if you look into the unaltered state of mind that follows whenever feelings of attachment or aversion have subsided, you will find the nature of mind. As long as there are not too many thoughts arising, look undistractedly into the mind itself. Whenever there are lots of thoughts, examine them in the way I just described. If you become really familiar with this by training in it again and again, recognition of the nature of mind will occur naturally and spontaneously. The mind will no longer be caught up in thoughts, and even if thoughts do arise, they will not have any real strength and there will be no need to analyze or examine them. It will be sufficient simply to maintain an unaltered state of mind.

If ever you can not counteract a thought of attachment or aversion, repeat the process of investigation. When you have thoughts, don’t react with anxiety, thinking, “I shouldn’t have thoughts during meditation! Now lots of thoughts are going to come.” Simply look straight into the nature of any thought—be it positive or negative—and it will lose its strength and disappear. Without letting go of the state which follows, look gently into the nature of mind, and thoughts will vanish by themselves. When thoughts no longer occur one after another in swift succession you will gradually be able to liberate them.

When looking into the nature of mind, don’t expect to gain some exceptionally high or profound realization, or to see anything new. Nor should you hesitate or doubt your ability to meditate. Just trust that the nature of mind is simply the mind itself left in an unaltered state, and do all that you can to sustain this, without distraction, at all times, during and between the meditation sessions. Don’t expect to gain realization in just a few months, or even years. Whether you develop any of the qualities that come from the practice or not, remain steadfastly determined and resolve to continue the practice with diligence, day and night, throughout this life, future lives and the bardo state.

Understand this: it is more important to take to heart the key instructions than to receive a great many teachings.

In general, you should look at the instruction manual Words of My Perfect Teacher, and check whether or not your practice accords with what it says there. If you notice something that does not correspond, change it; and if there is something that is only partially in agreement, see whether or not it can be improved.

Aspire to practise the Dharma authentically, and never do anything that might upset your Dharma brothers and sisters.

In short, devote yourself to the Dharma as much as you possibly can, with body, speech and mind.

I will certainly come and visit you, and I will always remember to pray and practise for your protection, so that all your wishes in accordance with the Dharma will be accomplished.

| Translated by Adam Pearcey, 2007.