This was the first time I had ever been on retreat. I was very excited but also a little scared that I would find it too difficult. I had already indicated to our group leader that I wanted to take the three refuges so I was looking forward to that.
I had to drive our cook, Ting, from Sydney to the site early on the Friday. After one and a half hours’ driving we found ourselves in a pretty, rural region. My GPS then led me through dense bush land (forest) and finally down a winding road to the hamlet of Ebenezer by the Hawkesbury river. Our retreat site was in Camp Ku-Ring-Gai, a recreation facility set back from the river in a beautiful setting surrounded by high sandstone cliffs and forest. There were a number of meadow-like clearings near the hall each surrounded by trees. There were many beautiful noisy parrots in the trees to keep us company.
I felt a bit self-conscious and nervous entering the building. However, I soon met our teachers Venerable Chang Ling and Venerable Chang Zhi. I had been looking for authentic Chan/Zen teachers for many years without success. It was very exciting to finally meet two of them and I looked forward to their teaching. Looking back at it now, it turned out even better than I was anticipating on that Friday afternoon.
The retreat proper started after an early dinner on Friday. Venerable Chang Ling told us to forget everything that had gone before the retreat and everything that was going to happen after it. He told us to let it all go. His calm and friendly manner really reassured me that I was really going to enjoy the retreat and for the first 30 minutes of sitting that exactly how I felt.
Then the pain started.
I had been sitting on my own for about 6 months prior to the retreat for periods up to 30 minutes. I always got a pain in my right knee but once I stopped sitting it went away. On retreat, we sat for several sessions a day with small breaks in between. This was not enough for my knee to recover. I tried a couple of different positions but the pain always came back and I never made it to the end of a session without moving to relieve the pain.
After thirty minutes of each sitting, I started to wish for the ringing of the little bell that would end the session and end my pain. One time, I peeked at Venerable Chang Ling to see if he had the bell in his hand. When I look up, he was staring straight at me with intense eyes. I felt a little electric shock go down my spine and arms. I quickly looked down again. I felt disoriented for a while. Once I settled down again, I felt even worse than before. Not only was I in pain, I’d been found out by Venerable Chang Ling.
I despaired that I wasn’t a good enough practitioner for retreats. I felt despondent. I was a failure.
During question time on the second night I asked Venerable Chang Ling about pain. He told us that, unless there was an injury, the pain would pass and that it was harmless. I thought that may be true of others but not of me. My pain was permanent. I felt unhappy that he hadn’t really listened to me. Luckily, this self-centred attitude would change by end of the retreat.
During Saturday we did slow walking meditation in one of the small meadows. It was a sunny day. I started my meditation in the shade of a large eucalyptus tree. I was moving very slowly. After a while I could see that in about 2 steps time I was going to leave the shade and enter a sunny part, probably until the meditation finished. I thought “Oh no, I’m going to get burnt by the sun” but just as I was about to step on to the sunny grass, a cloud covered the sun and spared me.
I realised that my worry had been futile. I’d been worrying about something less than 1 minute in future and it didn’t even happen. This was my first little insight into the nature of impermanence.
Later during the retreat, we were back sitting in the Chan Hall. The pain in my knee came back. This time, I reflected on the lesson on impermanence that I had learned earlier. It occurred to me that the pain in my knee might also be impermanent. I vowed to not move until Venerable Chang Ling rang the little bell to end the session.
The pain became a pulsating white heat in my right knee but I continued to bring my focus back to the method again and again. Every time I felt consumed by the pain I refocused. Eventually, it stopped getting worse. It was bearable. Just. At that point, I knew that I’d make it.
Eventually, I heard Venerable Chang Ling pick up the bell and tap the ringer against the thin rod attached to the bell as is customary. I kept my focus on the method because I knew that I couldn’t move until the bell actually rang. He did not ring the bell after the usual short interval. I felt the urge to look again but I simply brought my focus back to the method. After a much longer time than usual, the bell finally rang. I was happy that I’d made it.
I very slowly let go of the method. Then Venerable Chang Ling took us through the usual self-massage. By the time this finished, my knee hardly hurt at all and, ever since then, I’ve been able to sit with no pain in it whatsoever. How wonderful. From that point in time, I felt that I started my practice in earnest.
From this experience I learned the following:
· That impermanence is real
· To trust my teacher and the Dharma
· To return to the method again and again
Another issue that arose for me was anger. When we were sitting on Saturday night, someone from the hamlet nearby started playing loud music. I became very angry at this and it completely ruined my focus. The next day something else happened. Venerable Chang Ling told us to practice outside. I found a beautiful spot to sit by myself but very soon afterwards, a very loud motor started up nearby. At the time I thought it was a waterskiing boat from the river but in fact it was a Harley-Davidson motor bike or something similar. The noise continued for quite some time.
I was truly angry this time and had thoughts of killing the person responsible. It was shocking to have such a reaction. I mentioned it that night during question time. To my surprise, it brought laughter from the group. This wasn’t the reaction I was expecting as my thoughts had distressed me greatly. Both Venerable Chang Ling and Venerable Chan Zhi reminded us that a noise is just a noise. It is our own mind that attaches emotions to it.
On our last day, Monday, the three refuges ceremony was performed by Venerable Chang Zhi. This was a very emotional and happy time for me. I felt pleased and lucky to finally become a Buddhist among a wonderful group of people and in the presence of Venerable Chang Ling and Venerable Chang Zhi from whom I learned so much.
After the three refuges ceremony, Venerable Chang Ling gave us time to do whatever practice we liked. It was quiet so I immediately decided that I was going to sit outside where I’d been disturbed by the motorbike the day before. I wanted to enjoy the peaceful surroundings properly this time.
As I sat down, I hoped that the motorbike would not be there. My knee no longer hurt while I sat so I was really looking forward to it. It was going to be my first proper meditation. I settled very quickly and found my focus. I had just finished my body scan when, almost to the second, the motorbike started up again.
This time was totally different from before. I heard the sound but I did not get angry. I stayed with the method and continued until I heard the banging of the wooden block to end the session. I’m glad the motorbike came back. I never got to thank the rider.
(by Anders Linstrom. DDM Australia. The retreat was led by Chang Ling fashi and Chang Zhi fashi from 2-5 April 2010 over the Easter holiday.