Global Buddhist Community :
Chan is the Common Language

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Chan is the Common Language

Editors’ Note: In Indonesia where multiple religions coexist, Agus Santoso of the Yogyakarta Chan Meditation Center is devoted to propagating Chan of the Chinese Buddhism tradition. Based on “Seven Stages of Tuning the Mind”, he developed simple yet flexible teaching methods, and collaborated with other religious groups to sow the seeds of Chan in his homeland.




More than twenty years ago, I was not yet a Buddhist when I saw on the Internet that Master Sheng Yen was going to lead a Chan retreat in the United States. I registered by fax and thus begin my study of Chan with Shifu. One year later, Shifu gave me permission to translate his books. Then a Muslin publishing house helped me publish the translated books.

In Indonesia, such inter-religious collaboration is not uncommon. The government recognizes six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The Yogyakarta Religions Bureau provides support for each of the religions, including Buddhism. Different religious groups help each other from time to time. I started propagating the Chan teaching of Master Sheng Yen through such collaboration with other religious groups.

Founding Practice Group and Expanding Connection

Chan was an unknown domain to Indonesia. As far as I know, up to fifteen years ago I was the sole Chan practitioner in Indonesia. There was no Chan Center, and no one around me to practice Chan together. I started by helping a Theravada temple with their activities. Because I had published some books of Shifu, they regarded me as a Chan practitioner from the start. But I seldom talked about Chan with them, unless someone asked. I simply offered my service for various activities to help others learn and practice Buddhism.

Later, I started a group in the temple to practice meditation and discuss Buddhism. I held meditation sessions, small group discussions, yoga practice, and meditation retreat. In the conventional thinking of the Indonesians, usually only the Theravadins meditate. Some people came to learn because they were curious about us, and our group gradually became popular. Later, we moved to the Buddhayana Temple located about an hour and half’s drive from Jakarta. The Buddhists here supported Chan meditation, and we started to hold regular group practice on the last weekend of each month.

To this day I maintain very good relationship with the most senior Theravada sanga group in Indonesia. I learn from them too. Because I live near the world renowned ancient Buddhism site - Borobudur, I often accompany or help arrange the visits of Theravada honorables or Tibetan Lamas to the sacred site. I also help them arrange forums and activities. Through these activities, I can learn about the teachings of other Buddhist traditions, which not only broadened my perspective and helped us gain confidence in our own method of practice, but also brought us the opportunity to develop good affinity with other Buddhist groups. Quite often, it doesn’t take long before someone from those groups come to ask me about Chan.


Seven Stages of Tuning the Mind as the Guideline

Our courses are based on the teaching of Sheng Yen Shifu and adjusted through actual experiences to suit local needs. They encompass Shifu’s teaching to beginning meditators, such as seven keys to proper sitting posture, whole body relaxation, just sitting, following the breaths, Buddha name recitation, standing meditation, walking meditation, and so on. We even include tea Chan in our course.

When studying Chan, unavoidably many non-Buddhists would want to achieve specific goals. Shifu’s elaboration of “seven stages of tuning the mind” serves as a concrete map for Chan practice. It not only provides clear guidance to the direction of practice, but can also be used to measure one’s own progress. Our goal is to help people progress from the first stage of “scattered mind” to at least the fifth stage of “concentrated mind”. After continued practice in daily life followed by intensive Chan retreats, it is possible to progress to the sixth stage of “unified mind”. Yet, even a small progress from the first to the second stage is a wonderful experience, because it signifies the practitioner becoming the owner of his own mind and life for the first time, and he would in turn gain greater confidence in Dharma practice.

We also incorporate interactive instructions to make sure students can truly use the methods. For example, when we were guiding whole body relaxation, if the beginner students were not able to feel the sensation of certain part of the body, we would instruct them to touch the part of their own body to feel it. If they become tense when concentrating on counting the breath, we would instruct them to go back to how the body feels at the moment.

Incorporating Multiple Assistive Methods

Based on past experiences, progress is built on continuous practice. Therefore we encourage practitioners to set their “minimum daily requirements” for meditation and exercises. For example, they can use the “Insight Timer” app to check their cumulative time of dharma practice. It not only helps them build discipline, but also allows them to see who else are meditating at the same time, creating a sense of being in the same group practice session.

In order to create more opportunities for Chan practitioners to discuss with and learn from each other, we have set up a group on Facebook. In addition to Buddhist sutras, Chan and Dharma, and teachings of other traditions, we also discussed history, philosophy, and health related topics, maintaining a lively atmosphere for our learning. We also found that those who exercised more and have a healthy body can make faster progression in meditation. Therefore we encourage Chan practitioners to build up their interest in exercises.

Meditation Activities in Collaboration with the Re

The Yogyakarta Religions Bureau continuously sponsors Buddhist activities, such as practice activities designed for the youths or for teachers. Because our group has regular and comprehensive courses, at the recommendation of a lay Buddhists Santa, the Bureau selected and invited us to lead meditation classes.

In Indonesia, the majority of the population is Islamic (about 86%). There are not many Buddhists (about 2%). Through this opportunity, many more people get to experience Chan. More than half of the participants were not Buddhists. For example, one Muslin found the information about the class from the Internet, and made an effort to come to learn Chan. Nonetheless, we try to maintain a low key position. Although the Jakarta area may have a more open attitude toward inter-religious exchange, it is not necessarily so in some other areas.

When we teach Chan, we don’t ask about the participants’ religious beliefs. We just put the emphasis on pragmatic issues, such as how to resolve the difficulties encountered in life, and how to be aware of our own body and mind, etc. While we only use basic Chan methods and seldom touch on huatou or silent illumination, with solid practice, our participants can clearly feel their own progress regardless of their tradition or religion. Thus they want to stay and practice with us, and the Chan method of the Chinese Buddhism propagates gradually and quietly.

Written by: Agus Santoso, Yogyakarta Chan Meditation Center
Translation: Yeh, Shujen (葉姝蓁)
Editors: DDM Editorial Team



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Chan is the Common Language