What Is a “Darkness Retreat”?

Rod Meade Sperry talks to Lama Justin von Bujdoss about the practice of “darkness retreat,” which made headlines this week after NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers revealed he will soon undertake the practice to determine the future of his football career.

Rod Meade Sperry  •  Justin von Bujdoss
9 February 2023
Photo by Nerosable.

NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers made news this week when he announced that he would determine his future in football after attending a four-day-and-night “isolation” or “darkness retreat” soon after the Super Bowl. The practice is not without precedent; various cultures have versions of this retreat, in which the practitioner is ensconced in complete darkness. It may be most closely mirrored in the practice of the “dark retreat” found in Bön and the Kalachakra and Dzogchen lineages of Tibetan Buddhism.

In those traditions, such a retreat is not to be taken lightly, and is acknowledged as potentially dangerous. In order to shed light on what happens in a darkness retreat, and why one might not be so quick to undertake one, we spoke with Lama Justin von Bujdoss, a Buddhist teacher and chaplain, and the author of Modern Tantric Buddhism: Embodiment and Authenticity in Dharma Practice.

Rod Meade Sperry: Thanks for joining me, Lama Justin, to talk about the notion of undertaking a darkness retreat. Given Aaron Rodgers’ announcement, we thought it would be great to speak to an expert on such retreat and ritual. Who should and shouldn’t do such a retreat? What are the preliminaries, and are there dangers?

Lama Justin von Bujdoss. Photo via justinvonbujdoss.com

Lama Justin von Bujdoss: You know, this is really interesting and timely, not just because of this particular instance, but a number of people have reached out to me recently about similar kinds of retreats being done in Costa Rica and Thailand. It’s a little bit like what we see in the psychedelic world where, all of a sudden it seems like everybody’s doing ayahuasca, engaging in that. And I think there’s actually a parallel with these two different ways of going deeper into practice.

And I think one of the best ways of addressing the parallel is that, for example, psychedelics like ayahuasca or iboga are plant medicines rooted in indigenous traditions and shamanistic traditions that have lineage and training and history and context. The practice of dark retreat, especially in the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, has specific context as well.

You’re right to be curious about what preliminaries and training and context around this kind of practice are typically necessary as per the tradition. And what we find with this practice — it’s called yangti yoga, part of Dzogchen traditions that we find in Vajrayana — is that there’s a considerable amount of training that the people do.

Who does this kind of practice?

It’s a real kind of specialist kind of practice, actually not done by most. And so there are the meditative preliminaries, like prostrations, Vajrasattva practice, mandala offerings, guru yoga. And then there’s also, in many cases, years, if not dozens of years, of non-conceptual meditation practice before one engages in this kind of practice.

Why?

Because what happens in dark retreat is very visionary, in the sense that there’s a lot that one sees. And the danger around these kinds of practices is that the person who is engaging in the practice might take these things to be objectively real, or actually real, external things coming towards them.

There’s a meditation text written by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, from the late 1800s, which was a distillation of a terma cycle by this terton [finder of ancient hidden texts] named Dungtso Repa, who revealed this “black yangti practice.” And at the end of the text he describes how dangerous it is, that great care has to be taken. And not just in terms of preparation, but even caring for yourself during these retreats. Meaning, having nutritious food, being heavily rooted in caring and loving oneself because these are such extreme practices. And then, one finds in other contexts, these hints about the importance of not fasting.

We want these practices to liberate, not harm.

I noticed on the website [of the dark retreat center supposed to be hosting Rodgers], to their credit, they talked at least about how they don’t encourage people to fast. One key component for people to actually be able to make it through this okay is being relaxed and easy and settled and grounded. And what’s particularly troubling about these kinds of practices entering into kind of like a pop/spiritual, environment is, there is this kind of rush for experience that people want to have.

And again, the yangti yoga traditions require years and years and years of training and practice. I’ve even come across a quote from Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, talking about how these practices used to be done in the Kagyu tradition, and that they had been not performed recently because of [a] high instance of people experiencing psychosis, a kind of break that can happen.

The other thing, in terms of a business model: it becomes really important to look at what the proper mental health screening would be, too. I mean, this didn’t exist in the 1800s.

One of the things that’s essential in the practice of Buddhism in general, and spirituality more broadly, is relying on qualified teachers to help guide us, especially in moments of difficulty. In moments I’ve experienced as being a chaplain when, when people die, or experiencing loss or sudden change, working with people who have the adequate training to be able to support people around that is important. One would hope that when these practices are made available, that the proper training is offered.

And then also, the high level of guidance / experience on the part of the person who is facilitating the retreat is essential. The same way if you had a legal problem, you would want to go to a professional lawyer who was well trained and came well recommended.

I imagine that there are people who are going to be intrigued by this practice and say, wow, that sounds like the kind of hardcore experience that I might like to dive into.

Mm-hmm.

I wonder what a teacher in your position might say to someone like that and what they might offer as an alternative practice to undertake. If we’re attracted to this kind of a practice, where, really, should we start?

This is a really good question because this is probably going to happen. I think the first thing that has to happen is, for lack of a better term, an assessment on the side of the teacher to understand whether or not this hypothetical person is qualified and should it seem that they need training, which I think it’s safe to say most people would.

Then, an extensive training in the practice of trekchö, which is this non-conceptual awareness practice that’s engaged in before one does any practice like this. It’s typically done seated (it can be done off the cushion as well), where one begins to explore the nature of mind, the nature of phenomenon, the nature of appearance, and really rests into this open, vast experience of who we are. Why this is important is because without this basis, whatever occurs in the dark retreat — A), nothing may happen — but then, B), in the event that there are intense experiences that would otherwise be destabilizing, it’s very likely that the person undergoing the retreat won’t be able to appropriately process the experience.

I think the other thing is just slowing down. One of the really unfortunate things about this particular issue is the speediness of our lives. We want awakening now. We want it yesterday. Even now is too late!

You know, I happened to actually be at the Rubin Museum [in New York City] yesterday to meet with the staff there because we’re planning a little bit of potential programming there around dark retreat. And one of the things that came up in this discussion was that this practice had been honed over centuries at the very least.

And there is just this vast corpus of material that is available for people to take advantage of as they train. And I think that it’s a hard pill to swallow, but when people aren’t ready, they should slow down a little bit. And I think that this kind of redirection is really important, even though it’s not particularly popular in an age like ours.

You are in the process of setting up a retreat center dedicated to this practice, is that correct?

Yes. And in the Vajrayana tradition in particular, and in other lineages of Buddhism as well, there can be a high degree of secrecy around practices that entail risk. And that exists around yangti practice as well. So there always needs to be a balance around risk mitigation on one level, but then also, you know, really honoring the tradition in a respectful way without just opening the gates up to the marketplace, which is what I fear is happening now with this.

So your retreat center, when it launches, will have barriers to entry.

Yes. There will need to be training and an intake assessment. I don’t know what the process is for [Rodgers’] particular case, whether or not there had to be a psych eval or something like this.

These are all worth things thinking about, because we want these practices to liberate, not harm, you know?

Rod Meade Sperry. Photo by Megumi Yoshida, 2024

Rod Meade Sperry

Rod Meade Sperry is the editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide (published by Lion’s Roar), and the book A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his partner and their tiny pup, Sid.

Justin von Bujdoss

Lama Justin von Bujdoss is an American vajrayana Buddhist teacher, writer, and the is a co- founder of Bhumisparsha an experimental Buddhist sangha along with Lama Rod Owens and Yangti Yoga Retreat Center with Dr. Nida Chenagtsang. He is the author of Modern Tantric Buddhism: Authenticity and Embodiment in Dharma Practice published by North Atlantic Books. Justin was ordained as a repa, a lay tantric yogin in the tradition of Milarepa, by His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche, one of the heart sons of His Holiness the 16 th Karmapa and is a ngakpa in the Yuthok Nyingthik lineage.