The articles in this issue circle around a number of concerns that are occupying those of us attempting to see more clearly how Ch'an can be taught and practised in Britain. A number of us recently met at Maenllwyd and decided to create an institutional structure to help with these matters. It is to be called The Western Ch'an Fellowship and a report of our first deliberation forms part of this issue. The New Ch'an Forum itself is to become the journal of our new body. In February 1997 we met again to establish an executive committee prior to seeking charitable status. We intend to devote a large portion of the following issue to the new fellowship and many of the matters arising from our deliberations.
The creation of our fellowship raises issues concerning the points in Buddhadharma and in practice which we wish to emphasise. Basing our approach in the teachings of Master Sheng Yen gives us authentic roots which we need to water regularly. But, as Shi Fu has already impressed on me, we in Britain, with our distinctive culture, have to find out own way to be creative in our expression of the Dharma - just as the Chinese did when Indian Buddhism first began to spread in China.
It is with joy therefore, that I welcome Stephen Batchelor's article in this issue. We need to experience for ourselves the extraordinary discovery that "everything is as it is"; that the Buddha never said anything religious; that he realised for us that religious belief can be highly illusory predicating properties on the mind and the universe which cannot actually be found there. The mind in its ignorant search for identity, security and perseverance imputes properties to itself and the objects and persons that come within its ken. These are actually no more than the predications of the mind itself and the realisation of this is both alarming and freeing. Indeed the opening to such "emptiness" in full force is, as Stephen says, truly shocking. Enlightenment is just such a shock. To realise that "not knowing" is the root of being and creativity is an extraordinary liberation yet one difficult to come by because of our "need to know". As Krishnamurti so often says, freedom lies in going beyond the "known" for the known is a trap that ensnares us all in hope, fear and, ultimately, in a consolation in pretence. Institutions that foster such illusory certainty are ultimately devisive.
Stephen's use of "agnosticism" as a theme is thus of the greatest interest and Shi Fu, in his talk after my first retreat in New York in 1986, is saying very much the same thing. Not knowing, freedom in the suchness of things and creativity, seem pivotal points in the dharma to be worked upon in our new fellowship.
The New Ch'an Forum has not been tardy in attempting to clarify some of the concerns of Buddhists around the scandals that have affected us all in recent years. Reform depends on social critique and in our last issue Ken Jones extended this to some British Buddhist institutions (although without imputing scandal to them). Not surprisingly, we have had a vigorous response from one of them. We welcome this sharing of views but do not want it to descend into acrimony or personal comment. The texts on this subject are the last for a while - it will be interesting to see if our social criticism leads to any positive effect.
A happy 1997 to everyone.
In the last few months old hands at the Maenllwyd have lost two much loved retreat companions. Don Ball and Jane Turner had been coming to the Maenllwyd ever since we started retreats there. They both knew the days when accommodation consisted of a barn with a much holed roof through which snow might drift or an owl come in to share the shelter. They both knew the crowded retreats we used to have in the Buddha Room and the early morning runs in rain up the hill. Both worked hard at their life koans and loved to return again and again to Western Zen Retreats. Don indeed never tried anything else at Maenllwyd but Jane "graduated" to Ch'an Retreats and Shi Fu from whom she learnt much.
I was very fond of Jane, we shared bird watching interests and the love of countryside. Although often troubled by tensions and anxieties her inner life gradually became more peaceful so that during her last years she discovered a truly spiritual stance in life which brought her much joy and peace. I was very happy for her and our last interviews were as much an inspiration for me as they were helpful to her. Jane, I shall miss you and feel your spirit still with us in the quiet moments of retreat. Her daughter Sue has written the article that follows.
Don too was a tireless explorer. He loved the koans of Western Zen Retreats and stuck doggedly to them, often finding a resolution some days after ending a retreat and writing to me about it. As the years passed he emerged from struggle into light and was often an inspiration to his many friends. Again some of the interviews I had with him in his last years were as insightful to me as to him - maybe more so. Once he was working on "Who is God?" Near the end of the retreat we sat together in interview and I asked him his question. "I am your friend!" said Don.
His exemplary death, described in the obituary to follow, showed how his training had moved him to a point where he could accept the last journey with an equanimity that has moved all who knew him. I am grateful to his son, Veda Ball, for the details of his early life. Don's spirit too floats in the zendo as we sit together. "There is no time. What is memory?" Don would have given a sprightly answer to that.
Don and Jane continued coming to retreats into great age. Neither was ever troubled by the tough rules and hours yet both suffered as much as anyone on the first days. They knew their value. Youngsters who want an easy time take note!
Don Ball, a great supporter of the Maenllwyd and a personal friend for many years died, peacefully on December 14th 1995 in a way that fulfilled with a quiet heroism his many years of spiritual quest. His was an unorthodox Zen training that went all the way to the end.
Don was born on March 25th 1914 in Hampstead, London, the oldest child of four, a brother Keith, who was later my team doctor on a research expedition to Ladakh, and sisters Jeanette and Heather. His parents were Leonard and Eileen who followed the Baptist Christian faith.
Don and Keith both trained as doctors at the Middlesex Hospital in London. Called up in World War II, Don sailed in a convoy for Burma but his ship was diverted to Bombay when Burma fell to the Japanese. He spent the war in India and loved it, later bequeathing that love to his whole family. He worked as a medical officer rising to the rank of major in the RAMC. He saw service at the key military bases in Poona, Deolali, Madras and North India. Don married Margaret Reid on July 29th 1941 in England. Margaret stayed behind in the UK for the duration of the war and the eldest boy, Luke, did not meet his Dad till he was four. When the war ended Don, joined now by his wife, stayed on for three years teaching medicine at Vellore Christian Medical College where his second son, Veda, was born in 1948. Later there was a daughter, Neera. At this time Don's spiritual interests were quite orthodox middle class Christian.
After 1950 Don returned to England by ship and remained one year before taking up an appointment at Makerere College, the University of Uganda, where he taught medicine and wrote a thesis on chest disease which was to become his speciality. On his return to the UK in 1955 he took a consultancy at the Miner's Chest Diseases Treatment Centre in Cardiff and established a beautiful home in Dinas Powys.
Luke also trained as a doctor and while at medical school met the woman he was to marry. As so often happens, when the original family begins to expand to include newcomers a difficult period of transition occurs. During this time Don and Margaret went through several years of reassessment of their lives and values. This was to become the first step on a path of personal growth that continued ever since.
Don's interest in Quakerism led to an involvement in "T" Groups which he came to know through the Anglican Franciscans of the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield. T groups gave him access to the whole range of the Humanistic Psychology movement then burgeoning in Britain. In a deep and what was to become a prolonged search for spiritual values Don became interested in the ideas concerning human potential coming from Esalen, California and especially in the many forms of encounter group available at the training centre in London, Quaesitor. He experimented with LSD therapy, worked with Frank Lake and also took part in the People not Psychiatry movement led by Michael Barnett and experimented with communal living. Margaret also participated in these explorations with an approach more private and with a more cautious understanding than Don's adventurousness was to allow. These contrasts were to lead to their eventual separation. Their children, growing up in the hippy atmosphere of the time joined in these activities becoming ardent also in their quest.
When the encounter movement started taking an interest in Indian and eastern spirituality, Don's experiences in India stood him in good stead. He heard of Bhagvan Shri Rajneesh in 1971, well before this teacher was known by this title and attended his camps in India before the founding of the institution in Poona. For a time, indeed, he functioned as Bhagvan's personal physician. His children were to follow him to Poona but Don did not at first take the sanyas (vows) that Bhagvan gave his followers. That came later, but Don was perhaps never totally submerged in the Rajneesh movement although he contributed much to it both personally and financially. He visited Rajneeshpuram in Oregon before the troubles started there and was impressed by the enormous dedication of the whole movement before wealth, corruption and Bhagvan's failure either to control developments or perhaps to understand America led to the ultimate catastrophe. Don was saddened but not distraught. By that time he had deepened his understanding to the degree that he was able to use the positive side of his Rajneesh experiences and let go the rest. He began coming regularly to the Maenllwyd and, elsewhere, led some group experiences himself.
I had first met Don when I was training in Encounter, Gestalt therapy and Sensitivity Group methods at Quaesitor. We kept bumping into one another at groups and especially on the Enlightenment Intensives created by Charles Berner and brought to Britain by Jeff Love. In the heady atmosphere of the time these intensives were magical experiences. There was little doubt or pessimism in the air, anything seemed possible and on those retreats it seemed to happen. Perhaps it did.
When the charismatic founder of Quaesitor, Paul Lowe, and Michael Barnett both went off to India to become two of Bhagvan's most influential early followers, Don moved his focus there too. I also was attracted by the Rajneesh movement and later visited Poona where I was amazed and delighted by the extraordinary energy of the place, for it seemed as if human potentials were at last being fully expressed and explored. Yet I also noted that no one seemed to have a mind of his or her own. Every conversation began with "Bhagvan says..." The hypnotic influence of that man seemed total. I was too bloody-minded a loner and wary of psychological invasion to be convinced.
Having attended groups in California and at Quaesitor I had founded the Bristol Encounter Centre together with Ken Waldie and Hazel Russell. In the early 70's we offered a wide range of groups and intensives to become briefly the third largest such organisation in the country. Jeff Love taught me how to run Enlightenment Intensives and approved my plan to draw these nearer to their origin by creating the Western Zen Retreat which places Berner's communication exercises within the framework of an explicitly Zen retreat.
Work with the communication exercise focuses on the question "Who am I?" and related themes. It can lead to an experience of authentic being in which the games of life are set aside giving rise to a renewed confidence and sense of self-worth with accompanying openness to others. People work through and beyond words to a direct experience of self perhaps, in a few cases, identical to that known as Kensho or Satori in Japanese Zen. Don's work with these questions was characteristic. He remorselessly ploughed through the story of his life, complete with long anecdotal digressions, journeys down cul de sacs and vague intellectuality commonly without focus. I often despaired of him as he seemed lost in the complexities of his own mind. But his process often worked its way through to a conclusion that brought him much peace and happiness. He had the knack of allowing his thinking to become increasingly lateral so that he surprised himself with new insights again and again. I believe it was this capacity for inventive insight that allowed him so much success with his admittedly rather heady approach.
Once Don came on retreat following a severe heart attack and a period in hospital. He arrived wan, tired and worryingly unfit for the intense work entailed on the retreat. He told me, "I shall work on the question "What is death?"
And he set to work, exhausting himself until I became concerned for him. Then quite suddenly he broke through. The way he expressed it was to say, "Death is Now". The question fell away from him and with a profound sense of the interdependence of all things and times, he drove off rosy and full of renewed health.
In his last years Don suffered from Parkinson’s disease, the shaking sickness, which must have troubled him greatly. But he did not allow it to get to him: practicing his Zen attitude with characteristic fortitude he set up a joyous eightieth birthday celebration just over a year ago. A short time before Christmas 1995 I was rung by friends to tell me Don was terminally ill. So I went to visit him.
Don's condition had reached a point where he could no longer swallow. He had the choice either of being put on a drip as his life slowly and speechlessly failed him over a number of weeks or months, or simply ceasing to take nourishment and pass into a final coma of his own volition. He chose the latter course saying that it was better to go that way with all senses alert than by the alternative. He decided to let his own life come to its natural conclusion.
When I reached his room the frail old man was in a chair attended by his son Veda and Veda's wife who had come over from Boulder, Colorado, where Veda is a therapist. They showed me a paper to which Don had given his signature to his decision. Don could hardly speak but through Veda, who could read his lips and sounds, conversation was possible and I soon learnt to understand him.
I asked Don if he remembered the retreat on which he had worked on "What is death?"
Don's eyes took on more life. Yes, he did.
"Do you remember the answer?" I asked him.
Don said, "On what one cannot speak on that one should remain silent"
Bowled over by this quotation, the last lines of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, I remarked, quite unnecessarily, that the German verb for "remain silent" (schweigen) could have the very strong sense of "Shut up!"
Dons eyes sparkled "Why don't you shut up then?" he smiled. We held hands together allowing the stillness of the room to grow upon us.
"Don," I asked, inquisitive as usual, "Do you remember the words you used at that retreat when you dropped that question?"
"Yes," said Don, "Now!"
Later that afternoon, Don's last, he remarked to Veda,
"You know I am enjoying dying!"
"I will tell your friends that."
"They will never believe you!"
"Coming from you - they might."
Don had achieved dominion over his own death and went out fully aware and joyous in his self-determination. Such deaths are rare. We read of them here and there in the lives of lamas and masters. Most of us lack such a focused understanding of the appropriate and the timely. Many of us do not have the good fortune to be able to make the choice. When it is possible and comes about where then has death a victory?
We are grateful to Vishvapani for his response to Ken Jones' critique of "movements" (FWBO, Soka Gakkai and NKT) in British Buddhism (NCF 13) and my own editorial comments.
I am sure most Buddhists would agree that Western Buddhism is going through a phase of re-assessment after scandals concerning both Zen and Tibetan teachers of both western and eastern origin. Social critique is an essential part of reform and in the New Ch'an Forum we have several times addressed this issue. In my view it is just as important to pursue a critique of contemporary institutions as it is to focus on individual failings. The purpose of such critique is to ask questions, to speak out firmly but in such a way as to encourage debate rather than acrimony.
Vishvapani argues that it was absurd for Ken to "tarnish three movements with the same brush". There are however similarities as well as contrasts between these institutions and, although we both recognised that there are indeed contrasts between the three, the point was to focus on wider generalities. Furthermore, there are indeed many positive aspects of the FWBO which we readily celebrate. In particular, the Karuna project assisting new Buddhists in India, is especially praiseworthy. Our point was to bring into sharper light some current objections which are by no means only our own but generally discussed by "open" Buddhists.
Who are "open" Buddhists? I refer here to those whose orientation and affiliation is to a main stream tradition of practice, whether it be Ch'an, Zen, Tibetan or Theravadin, but without the formulation of tight rules of membership, obligations to particular charismatic leaders and an obvious competitive sectarianism such as does indeed characterise the institutions we discussed. We are perhaps especially aware of these points as we ourselves are attempting to create a democratic fellowship of Ch'an practitioners.
Open Buddhists view the trends shown by these movements with some suspicion and may indeed suggest that some of them, such as those shown by NKT over the Shugden dispute, cannot be conceived of as having been remotely favoured by the Tathagata. Such posturings are clearly harmful to Buddhism as a whole and it is shocking to see such matters pursued more by Western adherents than anyone else.
Rather than being over sensitive to our critique we would invite FWBO to consider our points more openly. There are widely voiced objections here which the organisation might well consider in its own time. Neither Ken nor I have any wish to "beat other Buddhists". This is an absurd suggestion that fails to see the spirit in which our critique was presented. Those interested in a full statement of the FWBO's position may care to read the 48 page document by Sangharakshita entitled "Extending the hand of Fellowship. The Relation of the Western Buddhist Order to the Rest of the Buddhist World", Windhorse Press. That so lengthy a justification was considered necessary is perhaps an indication of a felt need for a cautious reassessment of some features through which the FWBO presents itself to the world.
In a covering letter Vishvapani points out to me that many Buddhist organisations are faced with genuine problems of scale. How do we cope with success, he asks? The question is very much on the agenda of the FWBO and many of the ways in which the FWBO has evolved are attempts to deal with it. I respect this endeavour. Peace to all beings.
In June 1996 John Crook called an assembly of Ch'an practitioners to a meeting at the Maenllwyd to consider his proposal to respond to numerous requests for a development in the field of Ch'an practice in the UK by setting up a charitable institution to promote Ch'an in Great Britain. The following persons attended:
Tim Paine, Frank Tait, Caroline Paine, Simon Child, Sally Masheder, Alec Lawless, Mike Masheder, Iris Tute, Bruce McLaughlin, Ken Jones, Peter Bannerman, Eddy Street (first afternoon only), John Senior, Nick Salt
The following were invited but were unable to attend: Jake Lynes de Ver, John McGowan, Tim Blanc, Bruce Stevenson, David Brown, Guido Montgomery, Ros Cuthbert, Hilary Richards, Alison Jones, Charles Vincent, James Monks, Peter Howard. Some of these sent in written views for consideration at the meeting.
The agenda focused on the proposal from John in the New Ch'an Forum 12 (Autumn 1995) to establish a charitable fellowship in response to requests for greater continuity, community and interaction between those who participate in the Maenllwyd retreats and who practice Ch'an (Zen) on an intermittent or daily basis.
The meeting began by asking the question: What is missing from the present arrangement of occasional retreats supported by small city groups around the country?
The responses to this question took the following form. People have valuable experiences in retreat at the Maenllwyd but many face the problem of establishing some continuity between retreat and daily life and from one retreat to another. There is a yo-yo effect whereby a good retreat experience may be followed by the attrition of daily life which negates the benefit until attempting another retreat, or in some cases giving up or looking elsewhere. The notion of "fellowship" was attractive in that it implied sharing experiences in a communality of commitment; travelling together on a common path; a sharing of problems along the way.
Intensive retreats offer opportunities for self-acceptance, forgiveness, contact in equality with others, experiences of what we may term 'grace' or 'realisation' to varying degrees of depth or clarity. Sharing in group silence was particularly stressed as a valued aspect of retreat. After retreats there is a felt need to share the difficulty of NOT sharing such things during one's everyday life.
A fellowship could allow opportunities through various means and media to: share experiences; share the difficulties of not-sharing in daily life; share "ordinary life Zen"; express personal difficulties in times of mutual trust, caring and hospitality. The assembly concurred in expressing a felt need to relate concerns regarding social responsibility and community to those of personal, maybe solitary, practice and depth experience on retreat.
The prime task was defined as the attempt to bring the themes of solitary endeavour and communal practice together. In that Zen has been primarily a monastic pursuit there is a need to adapt ancient monastic methods to what may be possible in a lay community integrating outer and inner paths in a laity based middle way. It was agreed to set up a fellowship to carry forward these hopes and endeavours. After some discussion the title "Western Ch'an Fellowship" was chosen as a name.
The required institution was seen as resembling a mandala with a central core and a number of peripheral activities all connected as a web. The activity in such a web would constitute a "net-working." At the centre of the mandala lies the silent retreat process at Maenllwyd with its opportunities for receiving practical teaching, interviews with teachers, self-confrontation and transcendence and in-depth realisation. Around the periphery were such systems and organisations as: the network of city groups; the New Ch'an Forum as both journal and newsletter (perhaps involving two publications); Dharma study groups and advice on reading; address lists and sources of contact, tapes and books including a supply of resources for regional groups.
It was argued that the Maenllwyd retreats lay at the core of the structure because here the focused silence provided opportunities to drop concern, allowing "things" to fall away without the need for any egoic reference or social framing. As concentrative ability develops in retreat (joriki) the practice focus of the regime makes it difficult to evade oneself in self confrontation. This facilitates a view of the path in direct experience, a taste of "the state", a touching of the "mysterious principle."
The city groups were seen as providing opportunities for isolated practitioners to get together in practice sessions with someone capable of teaching basic methods, posture and attitude together with the provision of appropriate reading and opportunities for conversational sharing. The executive would be required to supply suggestions for readings, tapes and taped dharma talks for use by the city groups and to offer training weekends for those leading them.
These needed an enthusiastic initiator competent to present basic instructions in sitting, posture and attitude. The provision of a suitable location would be vital. The initiator would create a nucleus of practitioners which would rise in number to a critical mass at which time the formation of a city group under the umbrella of the WCF would be appropriate. Following training leaders may become qualified to offer local retreats.
These would be centred upon the introductory Western Zen Retreats leading to Ch'an retreats and hence to focused retreats on such themes as Silent Illumination, Koans, Mahamudra or Tantra. The central practice would be Ch'an.
In addition the new facilities at the Maenllwyd could be available for Dharma Study Retreats, Discussion Retreats or Mini-conferences, Solitary Retreats or longer term low number (say 4 persons) communities in an extended monastic retreat. In addition a month long community in monastic form containing two weeks intensive practice and two weeks looser communality was proposed.
The functions of the proposed fellowship were envisaged as follows:
1. To promote training and practice in Buddhism
2. To promote and support training specifically in the Lin Chi lineage of Ch'an under the Dharma leadership of Master Sheng yen
3. To provide opportunities for ancillary practices furthering the above aims
The means of accomplishing these main purposes would include;
- Employing a recognised master or teacher (at present John Crook);
- Renting buildings (i.e. Ch'an hall at Maenllwyd);
- Receiving and managing membership fees and fees for retreat attendance;
- Requesting an appropriate programme of "spiritual" instruction from the master/teacher and putting it into effect.
- To sustain contact with the Chung Hwa Institute of Buddhist Culture through Master Sheng Yen.
- To be mindful at all times of the Four Vows.
- To publish a journal and solicit appropriate materials for same.
- To raise funds for use in realising these objectives, providing an educational and/or research programme, assisting local groups, supporting low waged and retired practitioners through bursaries, financing teachings abroad, hiring or purchasing property.
- To initiate pilgrimages to Buddhist lands to increase understanding of Buddhist culture, history and origins.
- To engage an advisory board to comment on the Fellowship's activities, such a board to include at least one "devil's advocate".
The task of the teacher will be to supply an appropriate programme of retreats and education meeting the general aims set out above. As a lineage holder he/she would anchor the approach within the Ch'an tradition of China descended in this century through Master Hsu Yun to Master Sheng Yen. The teacher may however also use other methods from Western and other Buddhist sources to attain this end.
The teacher will be responsible for providing opportunities for practitioners to take some (at least) of the Buddhist precepts, offering event specific liturgies, training city group leaders and initiating training for those interested in, qualified to and capable of running retreats.
The teacher holds authority regarding the spiritual orientation of the Fellowship under its constitution while being responsive to democratic feedback from members and the advisory group. In the event of severe and justified criticism the teacher will be expected to 'consider his/her position' and to withdraw from the organisation.
The institution however has no power to transmit the lineage of Lin Chi Ch'an to another teacher. This power rests solely with the teacher in communication with Master Sheng Yen. In the event of a need to appoint a successor it will be vital to appoint someone able to sustain the lineage within which the Fellowship works even if such a person is not a transmitted teacher. If the retiring teacher had not yet appointed such a person it would be highly desirable to find one. Under the constitution the WCF cannot change its lineage orientation as expressed above.
It is proposed that membership be open to practitioners who have attended at least two Maenllwyd retreats or their equivalents and who have taken some (at least) of the Buddhist precepts.
The WCF will require the usual organisation of a charitable institution namely trustees, an advisory board and an executive committee consisting of at least a Chairperson, Secretary, Treasurer, Journal Editor, Retreat Co-ordinator and other persons appointed or co-opted for specific purposes. The executive committee, in the first instance appointed by the current teacher, will be subject to election at subsequent Annual General Meetings in the manner usual for such institutions with some members up for re-election every three years.
Following the assembly it was resolved to consider the WCF as established, circulate the present document for comment among members of the assembly, publish an appropriate statement in the New Ch'an Forum and to proceed to negotiate charitable status based on a constitution framed from the above considerations.
The second assembly took place on February the 21st to 23rd, 1997. An account of our deliberations will appear in the next issue of New Ch'an Forum.