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Refection on the Two Day Retreat, from DDMBA Ontario

 

 

 Write Up by Keith Brown

 

 

From Friday January 26 to Sunday January 28, Dharma Drum Mountain in Toronto had the pleasure of hosting a 3 day meditation retreat with Venerable Chang Hu, at Crieff Hills Retreat Center in Pushlinch, Ontario. During this retreat, Venerable Chang Hu provided very in-depth guidance on many aspects of the meditation practice, including posture, methods and setting up a daily life practice and attitude. Perhaps the most important theme that was brought up throughout the retreat was the importance of relaxation: how to relax, why relaxation is so necessary to meditative practice, and the way relaxation embodies the teachings and practice. Venerable Chang Hu guided the group of fifteen participants through gentle moving exercise, massage, standing exercise, and other techniques to deepen one’s awareness of the body prior to using the meditation method. These instructions were supplemented with very detailed understanding of the energy flows throughout the body and how they can become blocked through improper daily posture, excessive computer use, and other issues. I had the pleasure of volunteering as the timekeeper for this special event, and the following is a brief write up of some of my observations.

 

 

 Throughout this retreat, participants were reminded of one key principle of meditation practice: how the state of mind and body are crucial to how we understand and embody the teachings themselves. As Venerable Chang Hu mentioned, if a person’s state of body and mind are moving, their understanding of the Dharma teachings is going to be colored by that moving mind. Conversely, if a person deepens their relaxation, they will be able to develop a still mind with more depth of understanding. Venerable used the example of someone who is a kind of “expert” in stillness practice, whose samadhi had developed to the point where they are able to see the individual colors prior to the formation of a light beam. Venerable Chang Hu suggested that we often say we “know” impermanence, but we are not able to experience it close-up because of the mind being continually moving from one thought to the next, and not having necessary stillness to appreciate impermanence. As Venerable Chang Hu emphasized, simply reading about Dharma is not going to help a person understand it. The understanding needs to come from a stillness which arises from a mind that is not agitated by thoughts.

 

 

Another example is the five skandhas, or aggregates, mentioned in the Heart Sutra. Can a person really experience the skhandas, or are they only conceptually knowing it? Venerable Chang Hu brought up the example of a story from Chuang Tzu, where a person becomes very angry at a boat colliding with his, only to find later that the other boat had been empty all along. It’s perhaps not easy for people to extend this practice to the emptiness of daily things: when we are angry with a co-worker, for example, can we really know in that moment that we are angry at our own thoughts and preconceptions, not an actual person? Though it might be easy to know this conceptually, it’s hard to experience it to the point of feeling it in one’s body. This disconnect comes from diving into the method without a proper grounding in relaxation practice. As Venerable Chang Hu suggested, relaxation is not forced or “commanded”, as when we say “relax your arms!” It needs to come out of one’s awareness and experience, rather than being forced through some conceptual logic or book learning.

 

 

Another point that I found quite valuable in the retreat was Venerable Chang Hu’s reminder to incorporate slowness into their daily practice. Instead of quickly getting up after meditation, he advised participants to take their time to thoroughly massage after each sitting, particularly as preparation for the next activity or practice. When eating, one engages a similar process of observing oneself rather than rushing for the next bite or piece of food. I have to admit that I struggled with the teaching on slowness throughout the retreat. On the second day, for example, I did experience pain in my knees and legs, and I was tempted to very quickly pull them out and focus on massaging them. However, after striking the bell, I noticed that Venerable Chang Hu hardly seemed to move at all, let alone open his eyes! I waited somewhat impatiently to see what he was doing next, only to find that he would gradually move his fingers and upper body after about a minute. What I liked about this approach is that Venerable Chang Hu is not responding “automatically” to the sound of the chime. He is giving his body a chance to gradually and naturally emerge from the meditation practice, with slow and deliberate gestures. Equally important was massaging thoroughly without cutting corners or focusing only on “painful” parts of the body. Here, too, Venerable Chang Hu provided a wealth of different kinds of massage to focus on all the major touchpoints of the body, emphasizing a gradual and methodical approach to massage before getting up to take a break or do another practice.

 

 

Because Crieff Hills Retreat Centre was providing such delicious meals throughout the retreat, I did rush a little bit during the breakfast to pick out my favorite foods. Maybe this was also partly because I hadn’t eaten a very big dinner on the previous evening, but I am sure it has to do with the delicious food I saw that morning. Venerable Chang Hu mentioned how he observed many participants taking much more than they needed during the breakfast, remarking on the tendency for our mind to grasp and take more than what we really require, let alone can ingest. When Venerable Chang Hu mentioned this, I did feel a bit embarrassed, remembering my eager “run” for the breakfast table in the early morning and how I spilled a lot of my food while eating. But when lunchtime came around that day, I decided to take Venerable Chang Hu’s approach and try to slow down while eating the various items on my plate. When I did this, I did notice my tendency to panic a bit when I did not have the food I really liked in my mouth right away. This is a real insight for me into the way my mind is completely taken in by certain kinds of experiences or sensations. Interestingly, when I ate more slowly and deliberately, I found myself savoring the food more, while also being less hungry in the end. I realized that the craving didn’t come from the food itself, but from all the associations I was making between that food and my past experiences. Chewing the food deliberately made me realize that the actual taste of the food itself had very little to do with my past experiences or expectations.

 

 Throughout this retreat, I had quite a few challenges. First and foremost was being able to internalize the methods of relaxation taught by Venerable Chang Hu. While the first evening was delightfully relaxing, the second day proved to be a day of tests, as leg and back pain started to take over all those gentle experiences that Venerable Chang Hu was guiding us with. Part of the problem was that I did not know how to relax every part of my body, because some parts (such as the spine) are hard to trace, let alone understand. I resonated with Venerable Chang Hu’s remark that sometimes when a person really contemplates pain, the pain ends up being very elusive and hard to locate. On the Saturday evening of the retreat, Venerable Chang Hu explained different approaches to managing these kinds of pain. Among them are being able to imagine a warm, sweet fluid pouring down the muscles of one’s body; contemplation of the pain (where it arises, what it feels like, etc.); acceptance of certain kinds of pain as inevitable; adjusting one’s body to a more relaxed position that addresses the specific pain; and, finally, awareness of the breath. Venerable Chang Hu suggested that the latter is perhaps the most effective, precisely because it moves away from excessive dwelling or attachment to painful sensations. Perhaps the one remark that benefitted me the most was “Pain is none other than true mind”. That is, how a person experiences the pain is a reflection of their mind: the more one attributes thoughts and particular feelings to pain, the further away one gets from the true source of the pain, and the more pain becomes a very complicated vexation.

 

 

During the Saturday evening Dharma talk, I was most particularly moved when Venerable Chang Hu discussed the importance of diligence, and not being lazy with one’s practice. He noted one psychologist whose practice is to focus on his method before the pain even starts to set in. Venerable Chang Hu mentioned cases where people were able to survive the most unsustainable conditions of hunger and thirst because they had “gotten used to waiting”, or simply through sheer will power alone. His examples made me reflect on to what extent I might be using the feeling of pain as an excuse not to go deeply into my method, since I may be afraid to know what the method will reveal about me. After Venerable Chang Hu’s talk and subsequent prostration practice, I redoubled my efforts to go deeply into my method. I found that my angry determination to stay with the method caused my body to somehow adjust to whatever aches and pains it was experiencing, and I was able to sit for much longer than I could have imagined before. This example suggests to me that sometimes all we need in practice is a sense of faith and determination to keep going with our method, not dwelling on the inner pains that arise like tiny doubts on our consciousness.

 

 

During one of the Sunday sitting practices, I had also experienced this similar “fear of what my method could do”, and I think it’s somehow a fear of emptiness. What if this “body” of “mine” and this self I have cherished for so long turned out not to be really not really fully who I am? Then who am I? I shivered a bit at the boundlessness of that question and its potential answer, knowing that it is stirring up fear inside. I found myself hitting a barrier then, but I continued to practice anyway, just allowing my mind to relax. The question lingers with me, however. When participants were sharing at the end of the retreat, Venerable Chang Hu mentioned the importance of knowing where one’s questions really come from. Are we asking questions about practice because we really do want to practice, or are the questions only ways to delay our knowing of what we need to do to develop as practitioners? Venerable Chang Hu used the example of time, noting that when we want to do something, we will find the time to do it. In this world of suffering, am I really making the time for daily practice, or do I just enjoy the samsara so much that I will keep putting off practice indefinitely? These questions are for me to reflect on well and long after the retreat.