The Glittering Night

Every Christmas while on my Buddhist three-year retreat, sacred time magnified, and I would reflect on the overlay of these two traditions in my life. Here below is an excerpt from my memoir, a journal entry from the final year of retreat, sharing with you now.

December 24, Christmas Eve, 2014

The glittering, glittering night, my gratefulness knows no bounds.

My appreciation for the dark solstice, the inner stillness of winter, gave rise today, Christmas Eve, to an integration of my chosen path of Buddhism and my Christian roots; the latter having paved the way at a young age to sublime mystical life at Christmas, now crissing and crossing between traditions, unifying them, and reflecting.

Quiet, so quiet today, but allowing music into retreat, music and the flexibility to meet my spontaneous and natural inclinations. So much joy in one day.

The integration point lit up in reading Anam Thubten’s book in which he wrote, “The greatest miracle is Enlightenment.” Yes, this I believe. And, but of course! And it struck me, having read it at this Christmas time, that that is what Christmas is—celebrating the miracle of Enlightenment.

The Christians see Enlightenment in their Christ only, as a reflection of God’s light. His birth—he came that way, like a tulku. But the miracle is that anyone—someone—manifested as an expression of the ultimate—full of profoundest love, wisdom, impartiality, compassion. And light.

For Buddhists this possibility is everyone’s birthright, and has manifested countless times. When this manifestation happens it’s a reflection of the Dharmakaya, like the Christian God, full of light, pervasive, and beyond conception.

In either case, the once or the many, the miracle of transcending the mundane, or awakening into super-reality, is so awe-inspiring, we’re called to celebrate. Even we mundane ones recognize it, long for it, can nearly define it. Why? Because we all have the same essence, we’re programmed somewhere deeply inside, to also wake up.

So Christmas is a celebration of this bright light of Awakening that sleeps in everyone’s heart. In all this music, the words sing in the language of poetry, which sometimes allude, as poetry does, point to without saying, like art does. Sometimes that’s the only way to get to the heart of the mystery, the paradoxi, where the linear cannot go. Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming, Christ the Apple Tree, The Counselor, Lord of the Dance, Holly and Ivy, Three Ships. And Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, a hundred times.

I think without these ancient songs, this poetry and this praise, we can scarcely begin to comprehend it. It’s why the quite ancient pieces speak especially to the mystical, magnifying the vicarious experience of this enlightenment, or at least, the awe. It is in the dark of winter that the mystical landscape, this tapestry can be spread. It is in the dark of this glittering night that the miracle of this glorious light’s brilliance can be most appreciated. And in the holy moment we fall to our knees.

tulku – reincarnation of an enlightened being
Dharmakaya – ultimate level of enlightened “existence

In the press

My friend Steve Wilhelm, editor of NW Dharma News, very kindly asked me to write up something about my three-year retreat for their newsletter. After some hesitation, i obliged. Here is what they published, in 2017.

Seattle Woman Completes Three-Year Retreat, Uniquely Blending Stamina, Creativity, Balance


Riverside perch on first year of retreat, 2012, just outside Raymond, Washington

Curiosity abounds about three-year retreat, from within the ranks of Tibetan Buddhism, and from without.

People in this largely secular society of ours often don’t know how to respond when hearing, so unexpectedly, that I lived for more than three years as a Buddhist hermit. I sometimes follow with a bit of humor to break the awkward silence, or offer just earnest explanation. More often than not it’s better to leave the subject unsaid, I’ve found.

Among Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, however, the topic elicits interest and a guaranteed conversation. Many people have mulled over the question of whether or not this is the route for them. Three-year retreat has been held out as a potent portal to the holy grail of enlightenment, and for many years it also held that allure for me.

But for years I was far too engaged in my work with Dza Kilung Rinpoche, a lama from east Tibet, whom I had met in India in the mid-1990s and later brought to Seattle.

First we started Kilung Foundation to raise funds for rebuilding the Nyingma monastery, which Rinpoche directs in the Tibetan region of Kham. Later we started a sangha, Pema Kilaya, and both organizations expanded.

The foundation added multiple humanitarian projects in Rinpoche’s homeland, while his Buddhist teachings and students spread far beyond the Pacific Northwest. Eventually we moved our headquarters to Whidbey Island, northwest of Seattle.

My hands were full, over-full in fact. But with more sangha members to help, I began considering that it was time for me to take a break, and to step into serious personal practice. For 15 years I had not only been engaged full-time in Dharma organizing, but simultaneously was taking a very specific kind of training known as “serving the lama.” I had come to see it as understudying, in a way.

Now it seemed the best route to augment this was to go deep into the life of a hermit in traditional Vajrayana form, lo sum chok sum, a retreat of three years, three months, and three days.

But to accomplish such a retreat I had to surmount a few hurdles: There was no retreat center; I was to be the sole retreatant; and I didn’t have large savings. Normally a group of three-year retreatants stays together in a cloistered setting, especially for an initial retreat.

But my retreat would be the orbiting, slightly-wandering kind. My retreat “hut” was eventually in five different locations, and I relocated eight times. Most locations were in unoccupied houses of friends and relatives, and also at an isolated retreat center in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon.

Mine was basically a solo retreat. But to ward off the risks of too much isolation, I stayed in regular phone contact with a confidante, with my family to some degree, and with my retreat helpers—friends—who brought weekly supplies. And of course there were retreat consultations with Kilung Rinpoche.

A few times one or another of my sangha friends also came by for a few days of parallel retreat with me. And then the contact tapered off over time.

All of this made for a somewhat unusual retreat, though not unheard of in Tibet. The point was to stay in balance, to encourage development, while going not too fast with the danger of being thrown off the rails—in a number of ways. And secondly, to find a way to do this kind of retreat without the infrastructure of a retreat center. I thought of this as in particularly American “can-do” terms: Anything is possible—just figure it out. So we did. I began the retreat in the fall of 2011 and ended in the spring of 2015. Afterward more retreat was wished for, so I went back for an additional nine months ending a year ago, the fall of 2016.

According to a promise I made to some family members, this will be the end of long retreats for this lifetime. I think it’s enough. Even as the experience is still unfolding, it’s time to rejoin society and to share the perspective of all these years—of the understudy and the hermit.