Shi-fu came to Britain again this June to lead his third retreat at the Maenllwyd. Ever since January three teams of builders had laboured in all weathers to complete the new Ch'an Hall in time. The main building was ready for use two days before the retreat. The old barn, reborn in its new guise, positively shone for the occasion, the pine trees on the hill peeping down through the end windows and the sun often beaming in through the open doors.
Shi-fu told us he may not be able to visit us again since he is very busy in Taiwan developing the new monastic university on Dharma Drum Mountain. He took care therefore to instruct us deeply. He taught at three levels. Firstly, he was concerned to show us both the correct way and the right attitude with which to practice Silent Illumination. Secondly, he spoke often of the way of conduct in the world: the practical ethics of the Dharma. Thirdly, he went deeply into the profound texts of Hung Chih Cheng Chueh (twelfth century), literally retranslating them together with Ming Yee, to reveal the great subtleties of insight which they contain. Perhaps not all participants could follow him here, but we all gained a glimpse of the depths of the Dharma in the mind of a great teacher.
Shi-fu left us with tangible marks of his visit also, a portrait by Ros Cuthbert perhaps destined for the interview room, some beautiful calligraphy of a verse by Hung Chih, and his own poem, read to us in Mandarin and then translated by Ming Yee - the inauguration verse for the Ch'an Hall.
Birds are chattering, sheep are baaing
Streams sparkle, mountains spirited,
Cool and refreshing, self at ease
Everyday is a good day!
Transmitting the light, spreading the Dharma
Vast ocean, vacant skies.
Mind illumined, self-nature realised,
Everyone is Buddha!
Even in this English version the delicate balance of these matching verses comes over. There is great depth here as well as the Dharma joy which so beautifully reflected the happy occasion and the clarity of mind that many participants experienced on this retreat. The verse will be an inspiration and I have already given a "teisho" on it to the Ch'an Group in Bristol. In many ways it conveys the silently illuminating vision of Hung Chih which inspired us all so much during this retreat. We thank Shi-fu, Guo Gu Sse and Ming Yee Wang for having come and very much trust they will be back again. In the meantime we have our own work to do.
In June the long Welsh evenings only slowly give way to night. As the Celtic twilight faded and the last 'Boards' of the day sounded in the yard we could all experience:
Half moon rising and one lone star
Evening fades in the green valley.
Birds fall silent, sheep are settling down,
One lamp shines in the Master's room.
The time seems ripe to put a suggestion to the readers of New Ch'an Forum that has been germinating for some time. Practitioners have often remarked that they would like some form of community based on their experience of retreats at the Maenllwyd with which they could feel closer identification. There are indeed now many people who have come and continue to come to the Maenllwyd regularly for that mixture of insight, peace of mind and companionship that the practice of intensive retreat provides. Furthermore, on our mountain pilgrimages and on convivial occasions at Rickford there has been a real sense of a community of common purpose reflected in the retreat reports of a number of participants.
I therefore propose the formation of a charitable institution of simple form to be called something like "The Fellowship of Western Ch'an Practitioners". This would have the function of arranging and managing a pattern of retreats and sociable events designed to meet the needs I have just described. The advantage of such a procedure would also be the formalisation of the practice of retreat and a network of practitioners in close mutual contact able to meet conveniently at a number of centres where we already have small groups; Swindon, Manchester, Edinburgh, Cardiff and supportive of regular training at Maenllwyd. There are also financial and administrative conveniences (as well perhaps as some difficulties to be looked into) in having charitable status. Basically membership fees (small) and retreat bookings (standard) would be paid centrally and used to fund the hire of Maenllwyd and the services of the Teacher, Cook and sometimes a Guestmaster. We may also be in the position to support local groups and events of a different nature from those we run at present - solitary retreats, longer term communal events, mini-conferences, teaching, pilgrimages, support of parallel organisations in the Mahayana etc.
The "spiritual" direction would remain as it has been, focusing on the teaching approach of Master Sheng Yen and his lineage with additional supportive training in Tibetan Mahamudra and introductory Western Zen Retreats. This pattern could be developed in several ways. We would create an advisory body from our membership, perhaps with two or so external advisors, which would consider the views of trainees and their needs, possible developments and, in specified instances, challenge the mode of teaching should it be felt that any mistake was being made. Behind this creation is the question concerning the role of lay monastic practice in the modern world and our work on this should be thought of as an experiment. We have not only the Asian models to guide us but also the long tradition of Western spirituality and monasticism in relation to lay practice.
The core of Zen training is to be found in intensive retreat, a tradition from which major personal discoveries can be taken out into the world. This is a key position of the Maenllwyd perspective.
Here then is the outline of my proposal. It seems a natural way forward after the inauguration of the new Ch'an Hall at Maenllwyd and the establishment of an effective teaching pattern there. I want to make clear however that it is not my intention to create a vast organisation; merely to improve the efficacy and value to individuals of the system we have already created. Retreats will not change their form or atmosphere nor grow into meetings unwieldy because of numbers. In any case the severity of the training will see to that!
I would welcome responses from anyone who feels they would like to join in such an adventure. Please indicate whether you would like to commit yourself to membership should we decide to proceed. Please respond soon. I would welcome opinions and look forward to reporting back. Needless to say, if there is insufficient interest, things will continue as they already quite happily are.
You carry me on your shoulders
through the dark
and explain to me
The owl in the old oak
calls in the night.
You chuckle, joyful
in that mysterious bird.
One day you received a stuffed fox
and, to everyone's horror,
set it up in the hall.
You wanted to put tiny
light bulbs in its eyes and make it see.
Later the owl came
to sit above the grandfather clock
striking the hours
with its hoots.
When I was six
and staying at the big house,
the Blue Room I remember,
you came and slept in the great bed
next to mine.
Before dawn I lay awake
a little sick or something,
you took me into your sheets
and together we watched
the light come.
Dawn, never so mysterious,
never again so filled with rapture,
your explanations of the rising sun,
the globe that spun, the east-west
meaning, time and openings
of day and night revolvings.
When the sun came
striking the gauze curtains
and filtering into the room
I was one with the planet's turning
lying in your arms.
Long after the uncertainties began
I still went to church with you.
It seemed there was nothing else to do
and anyway there was love.
Stumbling hesitatingly through the Creed
one day I heard you say
"- in so far as it can be believed"
and my heart leapt
letting go all fears of losing love,
thrilling me with the vast courage
of that great doubt.
I sang the hymns so high
into the rafters I think
the tiles moved.