Three Year Retreat


The three-year retreat is a traditional program of intensive meditation practices intended for serious students who wish to train in the core teachings and practices of the Kagyu Lineage. The three-year retreat was formally instituted in the nineteenth century by the great master Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Taye. The three year and three month timeframe derives from teachings in the Kalachakra Tantra regarding the time required to transform karmic energy into wisdom energy when engaged in undistracted meditation with proper view.

The very first three-year retreat in North America commenced at Kagyu Thubten Chöling in 1982, following consecration of the retreat land by His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa in 1980. Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche bestowed all the empowerments and performed the sealing ceremony for the first two retreats. Subsequent retreat empowerments have been given primarily by Chamgon Tai Situ Rinpoche, along with the Very Venerable Bokar Rinpoche, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

The retreat program at KTC was created by Lama Norlha Rinpoche, who completed two three-year retreats in Tibet by the age of 21 and is renowned for his mastery of the Six Yogas of Naropa. He is one of the most experienced teachers of the traditional Kagyu three-year retreat alive today. In his lifetime, he has guided 8 three-year retreats at KTC and numerous others in India and Tibet.

Participants in the three-year retreat read and chant from the original Tibetan texts, learning and practicing the same progressive stages of meditation taught in traditional three-year retreats in Tibet. English translations of teachings and texts are provided.

At the heart of the retreat are the practices of Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa . The related curriculum includes the main preliminary practices, guru yogas, deity mandalas and mind instructions of the Karma Kagyu tradition, as well as practices from the Shangpa Kagyu and Nyingma traditions.

The retreat structure follows the tradition established by Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thaye, which includes four meditation sessions a day and group chanting in the morning and evening.  The retreat environment is designed to facilitate devoting all the energies of body, speech and mind to the transformative practices of the Vajrayana.


Intention and Commitment

"If you are considering doing a three-year retreat in the future, you must prepare yourself well for it. If you can actually follow through on it, it will give extraordinary meaning to your human life."
Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche 

Life in three-year retreat is governed by a set of rules based on instructions from Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche and Lama Norlha Rinpoche, which are designed to simplify life, reduce distractions, and promote harmony in the group. It is very important to enter retreat fully prepared to respect and adhere to these rules, which will be discussed with retreatants beforehand. Those with strong resolve and deeply grounded appreciation for the profound methods of the Dharma will meet the rigors of retreat with joyful diligence. Attempting to engage in a three-year retreat without some direct experience of the efficacy of Dharma practice and at least a basic understanding of the nature of mind is likely to lead to an unhappy result.

Undertaking a three-year retreat is a serious commitment. Retreatants hold monastic vows and wear robes for the duration of the retreat. The schedule is strict, without any days off. Retreatants sleep sitting up in a meditation box, and are required to attend all group chanting sessions and participate in group work activities. No phone or internet access is allowed, and incoming and outgoing mail occurs once a week. Participants in the three-year retreat are permitted to send a maximum of four letters a month to family members and/or friends, and two letters a month to monastery residents. Participants have no direct contact with anyone outside the retreat except the retreat master, the resident retreat caretakers, and visiting Rinpoches who bestow teachings or empowerments within the retreat.

“My life’s main work is the three-year retreat.”
Lama Norlha Rinpoche


FAQs about Three-Year Retreat at KTC 

1. What kinds of people do three-year retreat?

Many different kinds of people do three-year retreat. The main requirement is a serious commitment to practice dharma. Recent college graduates, professionals, retirees, parents, and monastics have all done retreat 

2. How do I prepare for the retreat?

It is strongly recommended that you finish Ngöndro (the preliminary practices) before entering retreat. If not possible, discuss your situation with Lama Norlha Rinpoche.

Because all practices in retreat are conducted in Tibetan, you will need to learn to read Tibetan and chant at a moderate pace. Learning to chant the morning and evening prayers is a priority. Resources for learning to read and understand literary Tibetan are available at the monastery. In addition, there are an increasing number of resources available online and in apps and books, such as:

There are also excellent free Tibetan Dictionary apps for tablets and smartphones.

Additionally, the classic Tibetan-English Dictionary, with Sanskrit Synonyms compiled by Sarat Chandra Das, can be downloaded from the Google Play store, for reading in a web browser or on Android or iOS devices:

3. What is the cost of the retreat?

If paid up front, the cost is $25,000 for the entire retreat, which generally lasts 39-41 months.

Other payment plans are available, however. Please contact Lama Jamdron for more information. Additionally, retreatants are required to participate in a four-month preparation program prior to the beginning of retreat, which costs $625/month or $2,500 total. Fees cover room and board, teachings and certain basic supplies.

4. What do I need to bring with me for retreat?

Kagyu Thubten Chöling provides practice texts, transcripts of teachings, and certain room furnishings and basic supplies. For a complete list of items needed for the three-year retreat, as well as the list of supplies provided by the Kagyu Thubten Chöling please contact Lama Jamdron.

5. What is the retreat schedule?

The daily practice schedule changes as various practices are added to the daily commitment, but a typical day is as follows:

4:00                             Yoga of Awakening, Ngöndro (Preliminary practices)
5:35                             Chutor (Water Offering)
6:00-8:00                     Group Chanting: Tara and other prayers
8:00-8:20                     Breakfast
8:20-10:30                   Main Practice Session 1 followed by aspiration prayers
10:50-11:45                 Tibetan Yoga with group
12:00-2:00pm               Lunch and free time, or work, depending on schedule
2:00-4:30                     Main Practice Session 2 followed by aspiration prayers
5:00-7:00                     Group Chanting: Mahakala
7:00-7:15                     Dinner
7:15-8:30                     Dorje Purba, Practice Session 3
8:30-9:50                     Concluding Rituals, Chöd, aspiration prayers                        

6. What are the retreat facilities like?

The two drupkang (retreat house)  buildings—Naro Ösal Ling (the men’s retreat) and Nigu Kachö Ling (the women’s retreat)—both have accommodations for up to ten retreatants with in-house bathrooms, showers, and laundry facilities.  In addition to the living quarters, each drupkang also has a shrine room, a bepkang or yoga room, a finished basement area for eating and study/recreation, a circumambulation path, and a small yard enclosed by a fence.

7. Why do retreatants sleep sitting up?

Sleeping sitting up is more conducive to bringing awareness into sleep and dream states. It is one of many profound methods for engaging the full depth and breadth of our experience on the path to enlightenment.

8. What will happen if I have a medical problem in retreat?

A physician who was given permission to enter the retreat from Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche in 1987 is available to assist with minor medical issues. If a serious medical problem arises, retreatants can be taken for treatment in an appropriate medical facility.

9. What commitments are associated with the retreat?

After completing the retreat, many of the practices introduced in retreat are considered lifelong daily commitments.