2008 3 Day Chan Retreat
In the spirit of helping those who could not attend this 3 Day Retreat, I would like to share some of my experiences of this retreat itself. Also, I would like to comment on and relate what I learned through Guo Xing Fashi's thorough and insightful teachings and Chang Wen Fashi's guidance.
This 3-Day Retreat was a very special one for me because there was a great deal of Dharma talks, with so many different insights into how the practice of Chan applies to everyday waking existence. Guo Xing Fashi talked about what Chan is, how we can deal with personal obstacles in the practice itself, and the meaning of impermanence and no-self. Fashi discussed these issues in a way that made them seem close to people's hearts and relatable to real experiences. The examples he used were memorable, if not simply for the fact that they are familiar and close to everyone.
Guo Xing Fashi's first Dharma Talk centered around the principle of what we are doing on this retreat, and what attitude is most beneficial to the practice. One of the most colourful metaphors he used was that of "making a date with yourself". That is, we go on retreats as a way of really becoming more acquainted with who we really are—what sensations we are experiencing, what our bodies are like, and what it feels like simply to be what we are. One over-arching purpose of the retreat is to find space away from these daily tasks and routines, so that the seed of mindfulness might start to grow, and gradually spread into daily life and practice.
The other aspect of making a date with oneself is that of learning to simply enjoy and appreciate our experiences as they arise, no matter what they happen to be—just as one would on a date, when one is letting go and relaxing into the moment. At first, I was a little confused by this sort of attitude. By "enjoyment", does Fashi mean being happy even with painful occurrences? Does it mean desiring what is painful, as would a masochist when they turn pain into a kind of delight?
I was initially skeptical of this teaching, especially as it pertained to the mundane irritations of meditation practice, such as physical pains and wandering thoughts. However, as the retreat progressed, I began to appreciate what Fashi meant by this expression. I feel it has to do with being able to accept what is happening and almost to allow it to just happen, without resisting it with preconceived notions of what should be. Going further than this, it also means that when we do encounter resistance to pain, we allow that resistance to happen also!
Perhaps it sounds paradoxical, but the attitude of enjoying experience is truly the most all-inclusive forms of acceptance. When we experience leg-pain during meditation, for instance, we try to understand that this leg pain is real and happening—and that resisting or rejecting the pain only compounds suffering by putting a label on it. However, even when we do resist leg pain and complain, we just accept that this reaction is arising. We do not, in other words, add more to the pain itself by rejecting our reactions to the pain, or saying "I shouldn't be so weak in the face of pain". This is a kind of interesting practice, because it challenges us to be radically accepting both of situations and what is arising within us to greet those situations. We might not "like" what is happening here, but the challenge is to look upon all these things with a mind of calm acceptance: this is just what needs to happen at the moment.
So, in this manner, the enjoyment part of contemplating experience has to do with observing whatever reactions come up without identifying too much with them that they become a gauge of our success or failure in practice. Having pain does not make for a bad sitting, but reacting badly to pain also doesn't make for a bad sitting—as long as the mind is aware of the sensations and perceptions without thinking "that is me", or assigning an absolute value to one's self because of it.
Guo Xing Fashi described the approach to afflictions in terms of looking at the Buddha's contented face and adopting this expression into our practice. No matter what we are experiencing or arising in mind, we are able to smile at it in the same way—to see that it does not affect our choice and ability to remain content and find some kind of good in one's own being. In this way, we actively choose to calm our minds in the moment rather than go back to habitual ways of reacting to pain or defending ourselves against it, as though it were something that needed to be avoided or conquered.
I admit that, throughout the retreat, I had some concerns about what Fashi was saying. My attitude could sometimes be summed up as "well, it's easy to put on a smile in the face of suffering, but is this not also fighting your real feelings?" Throughout my sitting practice, for example, I was really trying to experiment with finding the right attitude toward the practice when my body ached, or I felt cramped and confined. Sometimes, I told myself to try to be more courageous, and realize that other people are forced to endure more painful experiences than mine, for whatever reasons. At other times, I thought it was too hard, and wondered what the point was of enduring needless suffering, especially when there was no immediate reward or sense of progress.
During this retreat, I also struggled with aspects of my sense of social identity that I am not normally aware of. My mind often grasped at some sense of validation: a feeling that perhaps I was doing "well" or a much needed pat on the back. Not receiving any visible feedback in the immediate environment as to how "well" my sitting was, I became frustrated and even a little despairing. Suddenly, the ability to endure pain became a kind of nearly-impossible obstacle that needed to be surmounted in order to prove my worth or the value of the practice.
But then, it slowly dawned on me that I was still stuck in the attitude of expecting and wanting something tangible from the practice to validate the self. Fashi helped me identify what I was doing when he distinguished between pain and suffering. Whereas pain mostly lies on the level of sensation, it is what significance we attach to the pain (in the form of perceptions) that we experience that pain as suffering. So, for instance, when I compare pain with something that is pleasurable or think that I should not experience any pain, I am adding suffering to pain by perceiving it as undesirable compared to other experiences. And, of course, when I think that others have less pain than I do, that makes for double the suffering!
More than anything, this experience has taught me to try to revise my understanding of what it means to enjoy or appreciate anything. Enjoyment is not about being ecstatic or delighted about something, but rather about having appropriate awareness to neither grasp at or reject the content of experience. By "appreciating" an experience, Fashi does not mean assigning a great importance to something or exaggerating its characteristics. Quite the opposite: it is more a matter of accepting the level of difficulty and intensity that is a necessary part of a particular experience. For example, rather than saying "this leg pain is awful. I can't possibly stand it… I shouldn't be here!", I was required to balance my perspective a bit by acknowledging the nature of this experience that is making it painful. The attitude then became, "Well, I know it's difficult to go through this, but try to enjoy your own process of working with it and trying to be with this pain." Is it possible to describe this state as "being comfortable with discomfort?"
After this 3 Day Retreat, I have noticed that there is a stronger awareness of when my mind is scattered and unfocussed. I've been working on letting go of thoughts altogether when there is awareness of the nature of wandering thoughts, and how disruptive they are to the quality of my experience in general.
I'm able to observe two things: first, the way scattered thoughts drain me emotionally and physically, and two, the suffering that arises from narrowly fixating on particular thoughts and repeatedly recreating them. Simply acknowledging these kinds of suffering puts me at a remove from it and allows me to calmly reassess whether it is worth it to entertain the practice of wandering thoughts.
One other practice I am learning to appreciate is being able to "smile at" all experiences, no matter how painful they might be. I have realized that this is not about just putting on a silly grin throughout the day. It means contemplating the conditioned nature of experiences; knowing that nothing is really as permanent or as real as I imagine it to be. It also entails recognizing that there are always advantageous aspects to every situation if only our minds choose to focus on those advantages, with kindness. If all else fails, this amounts to just taking a break from "scattered thoughts." Don't we all deserve a break from that every so often? The choice is ours to finally let go and let the mind quietly rest on the present moment. And if we can't do this, why not? What's stopping us? It's easier than we "think"!
I think this is enough for me to work with for a long time, at least until the next 3 Day retreat with DDM. I would like to say a warm thank you to Mount Alverno for providing the services and accommodation for this retreat, as well as for the volunteers and members of DDM for their help and support with the retreat. Most of all, I would like to thank Guo Xing Fashi and Chang Wen Fashi for coming to Toronto to support us and provide us with these wonderful Dharma teachings. I hope you can come back soon, and continue to offer your kind support to our practices. Amitofuo.