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In the Arizona desert, Buddhists will embark on a three-year silent retreat

There will be no word from the outside world in the Great Retreat, only the quiet of rock and cactus. Adherents hope to find enlightenment in the silence, a gift they plan to share when they emerge.

September 07, 2009|Duke Helfand

BOWIE, ARIZ. — Deep in a remote desert valley, where rattlesnakes lurk in the scrub, Stephane Dreyfus and several dozen other Buddhists are preparing to undergo a mind-altering journey:

Three years, three months and three days of silence.

There will be no word from the outside world in the Great Retreat, only the deafening quiet of rock and cactus, with seemingly endless time to ponder the emptiness of life.

Dreyfus and his fellow adherents hope to find enlightenment in the silence, a gift they plan to share when they emerge from their long seclusion.

They know that outsiders might dismiss them as eccentrics on a strange utopian trip, but their resumes suggest otherwise. Among them are an airline pilot, a dermatologist, a retired biochemist and a former television editor.

They're jettisoning the trappings of their middle-class lives to carry on a Buddhist tradition that traces its lineage through the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. For many in the group, that means leaving behind six-figure incomes, young children or aging parents for the solitude of cramped retreat cabins made of adobe, wood -- even hay bales.

Prolonged silence, they explain, is the only way to reach the deep level of inner awareness required to bring true happiness to the world.

"If I can get to the position of being perfectly free of suffering and develop high levels of mental clarity that cause enlightenment, I can show others how to get there perfectly, quickly," said Dreyfus, 32, who left a job as an assistant editor on the prime-time show "The Bachelor" to teach yoga and prepare for his undertaking.

Dreyfus, a Berkeley native, will be joined by his fiancee, Jessica Kung, a Yale graduate and also a yoga teacher.

When they start the retreat late next year in this corner of southeastern Arizona, they will be newlyweds, sharing a 500-square-foot cabin, communicating only through gestures and facial expressions, and refraining from physical intimacy. Such pleasure, they both say, would dissipate prana -- inner energy -- distracting from the important karmic work at hand.

"I feel a desire to have some serious PhD-like study in yoga [and] meditation," said Kung, 27. "There is nothing better to do with my youth."

Such talk provokes bewilderment, skepticism and even anger from the family members of many of those who will join the retreat.

Hubert Dreyfus, a professor of existential philosophy at UC Berkeley, worries that his son Stephane is wasting his talent for writing and filmmaking to pursue ideas he sees as irrational.

The elder Dreyfus conceded his son is happier than ever. Still, he can't understand why anyone would leave loved ones behind to disappear into the desert -- in this case, for 1,190 days. "I'm just torn," said Dreyfus, 79. "I want grandchildren."

Enlightenment isn't cheap.

Each retreat participant will need $60,000 to $75,000 to build a cabin and pay for three years of food and supplies (the menu will probably include such staples as lentils, rice, beans, potatoes and other fresh vegetables).

Some already have set aside the money. A few are searching for sponsors at yoga and meditation seminars, or relying on the generosity of others on the retreat.

"I'm waiting for a miracle," Ben Kramer, a 33-year-old Floridian, said recently as he practiced yoga poses with his girlfriend inside an adobe temple not far from the retreat site.

Those on retreat will cook for themselves in cabins equipped with kitchens and bathrooms. Power will be supplied by solar panels or propane tanks, and members will probably have air horns to summon help if something goes wrong.

Volunteer caretakers, fellow Buddhists who live nearby, will help by growing or shopping for food and dropping it off twice a week. David Stumpf, a retired plant biochemist from the University of Arizona who is planning to join the retreat, is in charge of installing a water supply system in the valley.

Stumpf has nearly finished building the 600-square-foot cabin he and his wife, Susan, will share on a small patch of earth surrounded by paddle cactus and ocotillo plants, whose red blooms shoot from the ground like Fourth of July fireworks.

Surveying the rolling landscape and cloud-streaked sky one recent day, the 56-year-old proclaimed the setting ideal for deep meditation. "This place is stunning at sunrise," he said. "The lighting on the hillside is just magical."

To reach "retreat valley," drive 107 miles east from Tucson on Interstate 10 through empty stretches of desert to the small town of Bowie, then head south on a narrow asphalt road. From there, a rutted dirt roadway leads to Diamond Mountain University, a nonprofit Buddhist campus where footpaths connect an adobe temple, a tented student lounge and round Mongolian-style yurts.

Another short road from the university to retreat valley is even more primitive, coursing through brush-covered hillsides once home to a cattle ranch.

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