It was a beautiful autumn day in Taipei when I attended the one-day retreat at Fagushan (Dharma Drum Mountain).
From the gathering point we drove by car to the monastery north of Taipei. We were a group of around twenty people, mainly internationals and some Taiwanese. Some had a little bit of meditation experience, some were completely new. Everything was very well organized, so that when we arrived, we were already welcomed by an English speaking guide.
Our first activity during this one-day retreat was walking meditation. The volunteer explained the route to us and gave us some very basic instructions, such as to pay attention to your walking, listen to the creek, relax and enjoy. He also prepared some short explanation cards in Chinese for the activity. We started walking from our arrival point up to the monastery with our guide ahead, walking slow-paced in the front and the participants behind him. The path was leading along a small creek and was a bit off the street, so it was an relaxing atmosphere around us. It even felt like that this walkway was specifically designed to perform the walking meditation as the sounds of the creek varied noticeably along the way. Something you would not notice during your usual hiking but only if you really calmed down. As we walked slowly we took about 40 mins to reach the monastery although the distance could have been walked in 10 mins easily.
After a short break, the second activity was all about focused concentration. Our guide for the morning had prepared bowls of water filled up to the very rim and he told us that we will have to carry them along a walkway up to one of the main halls.
But before we started he told us a story about the origin of the exercise we were soon going to start: There once was an Indian King who was also a Chan teacher who wanted to see how well his disciple was progressing on the path of Chan. Therefore, he created a challenge to see how much control he can exercise on his mind. He asked the monk to carry a bowl of precious oil to him through a busy market place, passing along all kinds of temptations, such as beautiful women, a wandering elephant etc., designed to make him lose his focus of mind. If the monk was to spill just a single drop, he would be beheaded. Luckily, the story ended well and the monk made it to the Kings throne without having been distracted and he delivered the bowl successfully.
Now it was up to us to carry the water bowls up to the main hall. It was quite a challenge as one was forced to strongly focus on the movements and not to spill the water. As I took the task seriously, I was determined to bring the bowl successfully to its destination. But not after long I got distracted. When a visitor guide close to me was giving some instructions to guests to the monastery, I instinctively turned my head towards the source of the sound, just for a second. Too late, I had spilled the first water out of the bowl just shortly after I started walking. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to see the difference the short shift in focus had made. In the end, we all made it safely to the end of the exercise which ended with a short sharing about our experiences.
After a free and delicious vegetarian lunch, we went to a hall where our sitting meditation was going to take place. The hall was beautifully positioned along the mountain with a view to the valley. It had a lot of windows so that one could really enjoy the view and the relaxing atmosphere in the hall which had a Buddha statue in the back of the room. For the afternoon, with sitting meditation, yoga and walking meditation, we were guided by an actual Buddhist monk from Fagushan, which felt particular special as one does not has this chance every day. But before we started sitting formally, the monk surprised us as he told everyone to relax and lie on our backs for a little while. He expected us to be tired after our meal (which was absolutely correct) and told us to enjoy lying down for a little while, which ended up to be about 25 mins. Only after that we actually started our sitting meditation practice which was guided in English by the Buddhist monk.
Personally, I really enjoyed the sitting practice in this great peace-instilling location. Although my legs started feeling a bit uncomfortable in the beginning, as I am not used to practice meditation in a formal sitting posture, I was able to rest my mind peacefully, away from the busy everyday work life. For the other participants who tried sitting meditation for the first time, it seemed to be an even stronger challenge. I believe one part of the challenge is the posture, the other part of the challenge is the mind. It seems that in our daily life we are not used to longer periods of time without Music, TV and other entertainment. But if we go to a place with silence, the sound of the creek nearby and surrounded by beautiful nature, we can slowly learn how to bring our mind to rest.
Overall, I can say that it was a great experience and I am looking forward to attending the next one-day retreat at this beautiful place. Thank you very much for all the efforts organizing!