RETREATING WITH TILOPA*

JON GREGG

22 SHORT POEMS, WRITTEN ON AN ANNUAL 4 WEEK SOLITARY
CABIN RETREAT AT KARME CHOLING, TIBETAN BUDDHIST 
MEDITATION CENTER, IN WEST BARNET, VERMONT
FEBRUARY – MARCH 2019



“ why are Buddhists in retreat all the time; 
………don’t we ever get to advance ? “ 
Larry Rosenberg


 * 10thCentury Buddhist Meditation Master

P. 8

RED SKY AT MORNING

“Red sky at morning”,
we know the warning that brings;
but has climate change changed 
the sailor’s wisdom too ? 

Today the sky stayed blue all day, 
the sun laughed at our presumption;
shining in timeless reminder, 
of presence, far greater than ours.  

P. 25

CLIMATE CHANGE

Sunshine brings a smile.
So do happy dogs, babies, children.

Clouds bring smiles in other climes,
a cloudburst joy, a rainstorm, jubilation.

Climate questions vex the West, today,
While in India, Asia and Africa,

4 billion don’t have power even now, but  
do have smartphones, to call up their desires.

They seek the cities light and noise,
in hopeful quest of pots of gold.

While in smiling paradox, I choose a cabin,
in the woods, and meditate, 

to free myself from my desires
in the simplicity and silence they shun.

P. 55

WAITING FOR THE RAIN

Northern Vermont Spring comes late,
signs of last week’s snow still here.

Less ice on the path to the outhouse,
but Yaktrax are still a good idea.

At 6:00 a.m.  out among bare young trees,
( leaves won’t bud for another month or more ).

On this cloudy warm March morning,
I find I’m waiting for the rain.

Waiting the first rain since November,
the sound of water in pattering drops.

Instead of only silent flakes of snow
We’ve had for half the year .

Then suddenly, I’m not waiting for sounding drops of Spring,
But for the first rain that ever fell, as if earth and I are new.      
                                                            

P. 17

6 AND 70

Sun rose in a blue sky, I rose and smiled to see it.
An hour gone, blue turned grey, graying my mood as well.

Sun and clouds releasing rain, allow for life on earth;
of no import, my self-important preference for the sun.

“Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day.”
 we sang, as children; thinking to command.

Our first 6 years we thought that this was true, then 70 more
to try to learn it’s not….., and not feel somehow cheated.

P. 71

FOR THE BIRDS

Last year on retreat, same time of year, same cabin,
meditating on the same cushion, facing the same woods
(shorter by a year), through the same window;

in the same small tree, there were 6 – 8 small birds,
( moving branch to branch too fast, to count )
who aren’t there this year.

10th century Tilopa wrote “don’t try to figure anything out”
the birds aren’t here, accept that that is so;
perhaps they’ll return, before Friday when I go.

P. 24

DAY 8 OF A 28 DAY RETREAT

Go ahead, even when you don’t know why,
and each day’s questions are too big.

“Known can never know unknown”,
and knowing, if possible, isn’t all important.

Today is day 8, tomorrow is day 9, Monday day 10,
just show up and sit.

“don’t try to figure anything out”
“don’t try to make anything happen” 

And don’t forget to breathe.

P. 11

LIMITED CHOICES

Meditate, chant, sleep, cook,
eat, shit, walk, draw, write,
meditate, think of Louise,
meditate.

No tasks, no plans, no meetings
no dinner and a movie,
no music, TV, phone, no Trump,
no travel, no bike, no painting.

No conversation…
save with saints and demons in my head.
Could I live like this as “normal life” ?
with Louise I could …

And please….. may I have painting too ?

P. 35

SQUIRREL, BIRD AND SMILE

On retreat, my squirrel brain runs its’ frenzied wheel;
lots of energy expended, for the tiniest of gains.

Like my meditation, over 50 years, repeating questions; as if
salvation was in answers, not here and now – if only I would see.

Then a small bird, puffed against February chill;
grey white feathers, black head and beak alights on the porch.

I smile, am here again, breathe again,
Let go and accept what is.

P. 5

CROWDED CABIN

Thanks to all who made this privileged isolation possible.

Road builders, cabin builders, walls, roofs, floors, windows and doors,
fashioners of nails, screws and staples; creators of cupboards, cups,
dishes, pots, pans, propane stoves, lights, sinks, sponges, and shrines,

All made elsewhere, by others, earning their daily dollar;
raised, fed, clothed, taught and trained, and doing the same
for their children, who’ll  grow up, go off, and start it all again.

And all the while, I sit in solitary splendor,
meditating on the illusion of self- sufficiency
save for fortunate glimpses, of the crowd in the cabin.

P. 18

GRANOLA

Retreats open the heart and concentrate the mind,
with each breath, in, out, long, short, hours and days on end.

Awareness expands of what was, what is, what is yet to be,
And of all the sentient beings therein.

At breakfast with granola, once again the crowd arrives:
farmer, with sires and sons (seeds of other sorts),

tractor driver, harvester, trucker, millhand, wholesaler, merchant,
“butcher, baker, candlestick maker” they strain the cabin walls….

but maybe today…. I’ll have an egg ?

P. 9

WHITE SUSHI RICE

On retreat I eat rice cooked on a wood stove
And as I do, surrounding separateness dissolves.

As I learn to thank the soil, sun and rain where rice is grown
and all involved who grow and get it from there to here.

P. 4

WOODSTOVES SEEM SIMPLE

Put in wood, light it, get heat.  But others cut the wood stacked
by the cabin, others cut the kindling waiting in the box ;

Others left matches and the New York Times,
paper catches quickly, consigning old news to flame.

Others in Finland, cast their lot together, to cast the iron stove.
The stove then sailed with Finns, Laps, and  Russians over the Atlantic in a ship.

Others, like a trucker took the stove to this cabin,
where it joined with chimney, damper, and flue and set to work;

heating  retreatants, past and future, and me the current incarnation
sitting alone while learning of connections and interbeing.

P. 13

SCANDINAVIANS

Another day. Thank you sun, snow, tree, logger,
millhand, trucker, all alive within this sheet of paper.

Gratitude for pen, ink, table, chair, windows, cabin and contents.
And on this frigid day, especially to the Finns who made the stove.

Or is the stove from Denmark ? …….and with that thought,
have generations of stove making Finns,

suddenly disappeared, replaced by neighboring
Danes, doing the same cast iron dance?

Finn or Dane, the wood the stove is burning,
was cut by a chainsaw from Sweden.

These Scandinavians  know
their way with wood.

P. 16

CONTAINED AND CATASTROPHIC

It’s cold at 3:00 a.m. … last night’s bet:
4 blankets against an unlit stove… lost.

Time changes on retreat, unconcerned for losing sleep,
I rise at 3:00 a.m. flashlight in hand to light the stove.

Open the damper, and the door, stir the ashes,
looking for an orange – red glow…

to catch the kindling, without paper,
add firewood, left in readiness before.

And marvel at the pleasure sudden warmth,
of fire, contained in cast iron brings.

Oh Californians! with hills and homes blazing ,
compassion fills the heart, contemplating your conflagration.



PATIENCE AND TRUST

Teachings of patience and trust shine
through tempered glass in the woodstove door.

The lesson starts with the New York Times
(perhaps the Boston Globe),  kindling and matches.

Adjust 2 dampers, one for stovepipe, one for door;
strike a match, and sacred transmission begins.

Advanced students then do nothing, just let go.
Stalwart in Right Patience, confident with Right Trust,

in natural laws of combustion and thermal draft,
they rest secure, serene, knowing heat will come.

Seeing the same lessons, through the same glass door,
the less advanced, not yet firm in Patience and Trust;

fret and cannot let it be; they open the door “to make sure”
draft diminishes, the new fire hides and quells.

They’ve yet to learn door dampers direct the air
where needed, to feed the fire, open doors do not.

They close the door and while they worry,
flame returns, the damper working as it should. 

Lacking Trust they open the door again, “just to check”
by thermal law and stove design, results repeat, flames disappear. 

Disappointed, they take a break for tea,
amazed on their return, to see a blazing fire, hear it roar.

P. 7

THE SOUND OF THE 91

Complete silence is hard to find.
Jets overhead, diggers in the earth, chainsaws in forests,

generators in jungles, deserts, and polar ice;
We shatter blessed silence with our sounding throng.

On retreat on a Vermont hillside, I hear birds, owls, insects
scrittering squirrels, coydogs at moonrise, occasionally a moose.

But baseline to it all, a mile away.
the unwavering hum of cars on Interstate 91.

Inside the cabin, windows closed to February’s chill…it’s quiet,
day after day, breathe in, breathe out, to stem the tide of thought.

On the Interstate, at 65 and more, everyone has somewhere
they seek to go, or to be ……as I am going nowhere … slowly. 

P. 27

TIMES UP

No matter your wealth,
when your “time is up” you die.

You carefully guard your treasures,
against corruption of moth and rust.

And yet, you fortunate few,
you newly labeled “ one percent “,

How do you guard against the thief
stealing your most precious treasure ?

Time on earth, ticking by, on the costly watch
worn so proudly on your wrist.

Your wrist, with its’ unstoppable pulse, no matter
what you buy, or how you try, to slow its beat.

P. 10

TIPS FROM TILOPA*

“Let go of what has passed”
“Let go of what may come”
“Let go of what is happening right now”
“Don’t try to figure anything out”
“Don’t try to make anything happen
“Rest, Relax, Right Now, and rest ”*

On retreat, watching late February
sun melt snow … does it really matter?

On nearby 91, cars move past… fast
to appointments in Samara or just St. J.

Either way it’s still a drive towards death…
so why the hurry ? “Rest, Relax, Right Now, and rest.”

P. 21

MILAREPA AND TILOPA OFFER ADVICE

In the 7th Century Milarepa said:
“if demons enter your cave, don’t fight,
 offer them a cup of tea”

In the 10th Century Tilopa said:
“ Don’t try to figure anything out ”
“ Rest, Relax, right now, and rest ”

In 1945 when I was born, my mother killed herself.
War had raged for 6 preceding years,
children by tens of thousands lost their parents.

Since birth I’ve sorrowed for myself,
but still have yet to win the prize
for “ Saddest Childhood Ever

… a cup of tea, perhaps?

P. 40

MY MOTHER AT 100

When my mother, killed herself at 28
I was 6 months old. Now I’m 74 and she’s 100.

Frail, stooped, hard of hearing, failing eyesight
and if she walks, its likely with a walker.

This is the superwoman, I sought all these years,
whose kisses and endearments, calm all confusion,

A week into retreat, Forgiveness came by the cabin;
I made tea, listened and learned.

Forgiving her has joined my daily chants and mantras…
Could I perhaps forgive my father too ?

P. 62

MY FATHER

Occasionally we pass in dreams, 
but never talk or touch,
our troubled history makes us wary.

Retreat is solitary, but suddenly I find him here;
sharing my body, hands, feet, lips pursed in thought
sharing my eyes for us both to see the world.

Has he been waiting all this time to get me alone ?
or maybe my mother told him I’m learning to forgive
and thought, if I’m forgiving her  ….why not him?

P. 45

INTER-BEING WITH MY FATHER’S FEET

One day, you look and see you have your father’s feet.
You’ve passed the secret balance point
between how old you were,
when you noticed your father had “old man’s feet”
and how old you are, when you notice
you’re wearing them.

So now, on retreat, with my fathers feet,
I practice walking meditation, mindfully,
Slowly, I go on the path, to which
the guru’s teaching points the way…
and as I start to walk, I hear my heart
ask my father to come and walk with me.



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