Retreats are a great way to initiate a personal exploration of Buddhism, and of yourself. The thousands of dharma centers and Buddhist monasteries that have sprung up in the West offer many kinds of retreats for Buddhist newbies.
There are "intro to Buddhism" weekends, workshop retreats that focus on a Zen art such as haiku or kung fu; retreats for families; retreats into the wilderness; retreats for silent meditation. You can travel to a distant, exotic locale for a retreat, but it's possible there are retreats within driving distance of your home.
Attending a "beginner" retreat is an ideal way to begin a personal experience of Buddhism outside of books. You'll be in the company of other beginners, and such matters as temple protocols or how to meditate will be explained. Most Buddhist centers that offer retreats will make it clear which retreats are appropriate for beginners and which require some prior experience.
What to Expect on a Buddhist Retreat
Let's start with the negatives. Be warned that a monastery is not a spa, and your accommodations are unlikely to be luxurious. If having your own room is a deal-breaker, inquire if that is possible before you sign up. You may be sharing bathroom facilities with other retreaters. Further, some monasteries may expect you to help with the chores -- cooking, dish washing, cleaning -- while you stay there. Monks with clanging bells may walk the halls before dawn to call you to a sunrise meditation or chanting service, so don't count on sleeping in.
Still reading? Be warned also that you probably will be expected to take part in the religious observances of the monastery or temple. Postmodern westerners often hate rituals and mightily resist participating in them. After all, you signed up to learn tai chi or commune with the Great Whatever, not chant alien liturgy or make obeisance to gilded Buddha figures.
Ritual is part of the Buddhist experience, however. Please read "Ritual and Buddhism" before ruling out Buddhist retreats because you might have to participate in a ritual.
On the plus side, if you are serious about taking the spiritual path, I think there is no better way to start than with a beginner Buddhist retreat. On retreat you can find a greater depth and intensity of spiritual practice than you are likely to have experienced before. You will be shown facets of reality, and of yourself, that may surprise you. My practice of Buddhism began 20 years ago with a beginner retreat that I am infinitely grateful I attended.
Where to Find Buddhist Retreats
Finding Buddhist retreats is, unfortunately, a challenge. I have found no one-stop directory that makes it easy to find out what's available.
I suggest you begin your search with Buddhanet's World Buddhist Directory. You can search for monasteries and dharma centers by sect or location, and then go to individual web sites to see each monastery's or center's schedule of retreats. You can also find retreats advertised in Buddhist publications like Tricycle or the Shambhala Sun.
Please note that in some spiritual magazines or web sites you can find advertisements for spiritual retreat centers that give an impression they are Buddhist, but aren't. That doesn't mean those retreat centers are not lovely places to visit, just that they are not Buddhist and will not give you an authentic experience of Buddhism, if that's what you are seeking.
Accept No Substitutes!
There are, unfortunately, some well known, or at least well advertised, "Buddhist" teachers who are frauds. Some of them have large followings and beautiful centers, and what they teach may have some value. But I question the character of someone who calls himself or herself a "Zen teacher," for example, when they have little or no training in Zen.
How can you tell who's for real and who isn't? An authentic Buddhist teacher will be very upfront about where he was educated in Buddhism. Also, the lineage of teachers is of vital importance in many schools of Buddhism, such as Tibetan and Zen. If you inquire about a Tibetan teacher's guru or a Zen teacher's teacher, you should get a very clear and specific answer that probably can be verified through a web search. If the answer is vague or if the question is dismissed, keep your wallet in your pocket and move on. (See also "Finding a Teacher.")
Further, an authentic Buddhist retreat center will nearly always be part of at least one well-defined and well-established tradition. There are some "fusion" centers that combine more than one tradition, but those will be very specific, not some vague generic Buddhism. If you are looking into a Tibetan center, for example, the center should be very clear about which Tibetan tradition is followed there as well as which gurus taught the teachers.
Advanced Buddhist Retreats
You may have read or heard about advanced meditation retreats, or retreats of several weeks to as long as three years. You might think you don't need to begin swimming in the shallow end of the pool and are ready to dive into the deep end. But if you have no prior experience with Buddhist retreats, you really should start with a beginner retreat. Indeed, many dharma centers won't let you sign up for an "intensive" retreat without prior experience.
There are two reasons for this. First, it's very likely the intensive retreat will be different from what you imagine. If you go into one unprepared, you could have a bad experience. Second, if you are absolutely miserable or stumbling around not understanding the forms and protocols, this can impact the retreat for everyone else.
Get Away From It All
A spiritual retreat is a personal adventure. It's a small commitment of time that impacts the rest of your life. It's a space in which to shut out the noise and distractions and come face-to-face with yourself. It can be the beginning of a new direction for you. If you are interested in Buddhism and want to be more than a "book store Buddhist," I recommend finding and participating in a beginner-level retreat.