Good news! The Western Ch’an Fellowship has been granted charity status by the Charity Commission. So we are fully in business and we invite all our readers to join us as Fellows. Naturally you have to be qualified1 - so come along to our retreat programmes, establish an effective practice and we will soon be welcoming you.
The Western Ch’an Fellowship has developed from some twenty years of experience in offering retreats at the Maenllwyd. In that time things have changed. At the start the pioneers were tough and determined indeed; no heating; sleeping bags in the barely roofed barn with an owl for company; a lot of snoring; thunderbox toilets or worse; little space for sitting; wild Rajneesh action yogas; a lot of alternative therapy and the spirit of the sixties and seventies. Frankly, there has been nothing like it since. People took risks, were amazingly open, even to the extent of nudity in the ‘kundalini’ exercise - nobody minded. People were just ‘doing their thing’. Indeed, there was very often a freedom, dedication and sheer joy in those retreats that is not so common today.
Nowadays, participants are less willing to confront their desires for comfort, for having an easy time. People often refer to their problems with early rising, the absence of mattresses, and are already accepting the presence of showers as some kind of right! All those early simplicities and the problems of adjusting to them were part of an essential self-confrontation; not giving in to the aching body, the sleepless night. Those retreats were inner expeditions. In Tibetan ‘Chod’ one gives one’s body to the demons. Most people find difficulty nowadays in offering it to the Buddha. Why? - the reason is obvious. We are all now ‘consumers’ and expect value for money. So, in addition to a retreat practice guaranteed to yield ‘enlightenment’, we want our home comforts. Sorry folks - at the Maenllwyd you pay for dis-comfort. Are you becoming soft? Do not think it goes unnoticed by the ancestors of twenty years ago.
Even so, perhaps the new comforts at the Maenllwyd have a good side to them. Retreat will undoubtedly be easier for beginners. And for the older generation it is a blessing. Perhaps then we can spread the Dharma in a gentler style well fitted to our time. Self-confrontation is difficult enough in the practice of sitting on retreat and attempting koans. A little more physical kindness may be helpful. Yet we must be careful not to turn what were expeditions into mere tourism. To confront the bodily is perhaps the first move in self-confrontation. If you want to cross the inner mountains the going is necessarily rough; your legs ache and you have no suncream. If you go by helicopter have you really gone at all? You are just imagining the route. So take care.
The Ch’an retreat is more formal today. We are introducing appropriate ritual during the two daily ceremonies and learning better chanting. This is a sign of greater respect for the tradition in which we focus most of our practice. It does not imply a leaning to traditionalism. As Shi-fu told me - we have to find our own way in Britain. We British are a critical people with no great love for ceremony unless it is felt to be meaningful. This journal sustains a social critique of Buddhism itself and I believe this is fundamental at a time when two significant Buddhist organisations in Britain have proved unworthy in important respects.
A vital question concerns the training of future teachers. We have instituted training for meditation instructors and each local group leader will be expected to gain the certificate for this. Training for retreat leadership will be more demanding. Even for those with the requisite qualifications as counsellors or therapists, it needs hands-on training during the event. We will be asking some more experienced fellows to act as monitors on retreat and then as Guestmasters. In this way it will be possible to learn about the retreat process from the ‘other side’ as it were. Further thought will be put into this question.
Sue Blackmore’s wonderful radio broadcast about Maenllwyd was extremely popular and we have had many enquiries. Many letters showed little awareness of what Zen was about. People loved the story line of the broadcast, remote cottage, log fires, meditation, peaceful tranquillity, chanting OM - very new agey. Some however had a more focused understanding and are likely to join us as the retreats roll by. We must come back to Sue whenever we want publicity!!
This issue contains an important article by Shi-fu on Sutra reading. I myself have become particularly attracted recently by the original Sutras. They reveal to us the sort of man the Buddha was and I recommend them to you. Recent translations available from Wisdom Press are outstanding. David Fontana reminisces about a journey he and I took together in Greece muttering our attempts at solving koans to one another. Eric Rommeluere, now a member of our Advisory Board, allowed me to translate and publish an insightful essay that delighted me when I read it on a visit to him in Paris. Carol Evans tells us about her childhood experience of her father. It is a moving account but some may ask where is the Zen in this? Zen lies at the heart of every strongly-felt relationship whether it is known or stated or not. If you haven’t grasped that you need to start all over again. Ann Dickman raises some important issues about retreats. Then we welcome a helpful retreat report that bodes well for the kitchen and some poems.
Every good wish to you all.
1 For details, see page 35
Copper whispers blowing in the wind,
beech leaves chase the rough grasses down the field.
At ninety two, I ask myself,
will she see another spring?
She rests there, quiet, her busy conversation gone,
anxieties softened now in forgetfulness of age.
Beside her in the garden, dozing off,
I see her smiling in a ray of autumn sun.
She set my character in grooves
so like her own, wakeful mornings worrying;
skilled diplomacy; collusion
in the many faces of a smile; all silent now.
Will she see another spring?
Falling like leaves - the boxed up photographs, cracked vases and old time
letters carefully stored away
in chests of drawers, yellowing archives
only she remembers, rarely now recalls; ancient faces;
raucous tones; the quarrelling;
the tears behind the racks of bathroom towels;
not her mother, remembered gentle granny her support.
And will she see another spring?
Suddenly, imagining her presence gone,
the house falls empty, only paper memories remain.
She sits here smiling in the autumn sun
Oh dear - such sadness at your gratitude for my having come.