There was a time not long ago when politicians talked about a new world order of peace and prosperity worldwide. It was the end of the Cold War and all seemed set fair.

We were soon to discover our illusion - the Cold War had frozen not only our good but also many of our bad instincts. Almost at once the new freedoms released the bullies, the torturers, the capitalist egoists, the environmental destroyers from all constraint. Once more we were forced to look into the dark mirror of human history and see that evil had never been far away.

In this issue we follow the Buddha’s advice and confront suffering and the way beyond suffering in an unflinching manner. Human life may be a dream chamber but the plumbing needs attention. On a global scale, the names of places tell their stories - Vietnam, the killing fields of Cambodia, East Timor, Tibet, the Gulag, Northern Ireland, Algeria, Iraq, central Africa, the Caucasian states, Bosnia, Kosovo... the same story; national pride, racial and tribal intolerance leading to abuse, murder, genocide and the long trail of desperate refugees. Yet so often these endless tragedies hardly disturb us as, comfortably, we look at the horrors sliding across our television screens like shining poisonous snakes. Only when we are moved personally, with a shock touching the skirts of human misery, can we start to empathise and in the heart begin to understand.

Suffering may be great or small - yet it has the same quality however intense. In this issue, articles and personal stories reveal both the shadows of our time and the hope that training can hold out for us. Perhaps we have to suffer before we can begin the ‘salvaging of the sacred’ as Marian Partington suggests. Yet empathy for the great pains can arise from the experience of the small. The Buddha had little interest in the mystery of the universe knowing that discussion leads only to endless debate. His great wisdom took on the ills of humanity. Today his message is perhaps more important than ever before. Modern technology means the stakes are higher and the speediness with which we live our lives constitutes a great danger. The heart needs time to understand. Give it time. Please.


What is it like for a lay practitioner to work with a master over a period of time? A single retreat provides an introductory experience but what if one persists through a series of such events? This would indeed be a requirement if the aim was to train in Ch’an. Training takes time but does it take one anywhere?

To assist those for whom this question may be relevant, I attempt to answer it through presenting a series of excerpts from my retreat reports over several years training with Shi- fu1. Shi-fu is keen that participants should write a brief report on their retreat experiences. I have certainly found this to be a useful exercise. What changes may I have noticed over the years?

Naturally, everyone’s experience on retreat differs and the training with different masters doubtless also varies. However, I believe the pattern of Zen retreats has much in common wherever they may be and whoever directs them: one person’s description can therefore give a rough guide, although not an exact one, to what you may yourself experience should you set out upon this path.

I first attended a Ch’an retreat in New York in 1986 but I had previous retreat experience from working in meditation privately several times at Samye Ling Tibetan Centre in Scotland and from several retreats in Soto Zen at Throssel Hole Priory in Northumberland, one of which had been directed by Roshi Jiyu Kennett. Furthermore, I had spent time in the Himalayas with Tibetan yogins. My original encounter with Ch’an had been while serving as a national service officer in the army in Hong Kong 1953-54 when I had been introduced to a noted lay disciple of Master Hsu-yun and taken some teaching2. I was not therefore exactly a beginner, but I knew that work with Shi-fu could well provoke a Dharma struggle through self-confrontation of an order I had not encountered before. I was not disappointed.

Of course this article does not show how far I have come, but rather how far I have yet to go.

Conductor with a motionless baton. New York, May 1986

I knew that the Ch’an meditation centre in downtown Queens in New York was in an urban area yet, as a country-living person from Somerset, I was not well prepared to find myself in a converted shop with a factory on one side and the cacophonous main street of a commercial area on the other. Furthermore, a major street junction with traffic lights was just down the road and a fire station up the way. Every hour or so a fire engine would come roaring through the traffic, klaxon sounding, come to a reluctant halt at the lights and blare away at them in fury. “Of course Zen is everywhere!” I reassured myself as I sat through my first vibrating hours of passing trucks, car horns, full volume radios and the chatter in at least five languages of exceedingly lively passers-by. As my back began to ache and my legs to hurt I made a vow that I would at least survive this thing and that that alone would count as a sort of success. The first two days demanded naked will as sweat from the local heat wave ran down my face and I sat damp from perspiration in my minimal clothing.

I struggled to apply the method I had learned at Throssel Hole - shikantaza - the just-sitting wall-gazing approach of Soto Zen. I was searching to understand what the great Japanese master Dogen meant by “without thinking”. My head was full of scattered bits of television serials; painful memories; bits of old dreams; an endless random collection of pictorial sequences without focus and seemingly without meaning. The scattered mind merged with the traffic noise into a hellish bedlam punctuated by growing physical pain.

Shi-fu’s talks were always helpful, starting me off again with a touch of hope. He suggested allowing thought to subside on an out-breath and leaving it alone on the in-breath to create a silent space. I found this practice beginning to produce gaps in my scattered mind which slowly increased in length, deepening into moments of profound silence. After some hours I felt a swirling energy rising from my belly which changed into a glow of gratitude and release.

The following morning I awoke refreshed and, in the silence of the dawn, the simple song of the American Robin in the little garden sounded in a deep and sustained stillness. In a now rare dream sequence, I found myself seated beside a dark tranquil pool in a deep cavern in the earth. There was a full orchestra seated on chairs there ready to play. I was the conductor with baton raised - but motionless! No sound.

Shi-fu gave a talk about mu-shin, no-mind. My head started up again in a chatter of argument. This was no picture show but a vigorous debate. Did I know what mu-shin was? Certainly some past mystical experiences suggested so. But were these no-mind or merely some form of illusion? I puzzled on about this, working myself up into fuss and worry about how far along the Zen path I might be.

Some hours went by locked in this foolishness but, suddenly, I realised that what I was into was a quest for credentials and approval. As an academic I have a list of alphabetical combinations after my name signifying my attainments. I wanted to add mu-shin to the end of the list! The absurdity of this destructive endeavour got to me and, as I began smiling to myself and accepting that part of me that wanted to strut about exhibiting attainments, a new release arrived. I had an interview with Shi-fu and shared all this nonsense with him. Clearly, I could not tell whether past experiences were mu-shin or not, nor indeed could Shi-fu. He was not me and anyway it was all in the past. Nor, of course, could Shi-fu tell me whether I would experience mu-shin in the future. I could however be grateful for those past moments and press on anew with my method. The whole experience had been a barrier constructed out of my own karma. As it collapsed, I noted the deep truth of Dogen’s phrase, “Whenever the opposites arise, the Buddha mind is lost”.

Yet my body was now troubling me sorely. Backache, due to a small knotted muscle close to the spine below the shoulders, was generating a widening area of pain. I had travelled uncomfortably in the ill-designed seat of the aircraft flying me across the Atlantic. Sitting was soon so awful that I had to exercise sheer will to get through each half hour expecting it to end in an ignominious collapse. Periodic yoga exercises, rolling on my back in the breaks, back walking from a fellow participant and applications of one-handed massage became a desperate work programme to keep me going. The difficulty was not however overcome in this way.

At some point during the penultimate day, during a period of slow walking (kinhin), it suddenly struck me that my discomfort with the heat, my suppressed annoyance at the street noise and my anger at my back pain were all one thing - a burning rejection of being there at all combined with irritation at not “doing better”. I saw myself as simply grumbling as if in some way it would get me out of the hole I was in. Yet grumbling at a self-imposed task was such a ridiculous activity that once again I was amused by this paradoxical and uncomfortable state of mind. I accepted as a blunt and obvious fact that I was just a fool seeing things the wrong way.

After all were any of these conditions bad? Neither the heat nor the sound of traffic were actually doing me any harm. Indeed, I was already aware that, in spite of them, an increasing clarity of mind was emerging. As I began to think in this way, a sudden turn-about in my feelings occurred. Everything that had been horrible a moment before not only became tolerable but acceptable - even inspiring.

As I sat down to face the wall after a break I found my world transformed. With my mind in stillness, I experienced the spaciousness of the room and the presence of others in it reflected there as if in a mirror. For a while there was the exhilaration of sheer joy. With some further hints from Shi-fu about body relaxation, I found it possible at last to let go of all these accumulated concerns as if they were all one thing - ‘me’ in fact. In the letting go of ‘me’, the world simply appeared as it was - all of the ‘same taste’, nothing special to praise or to blame. The experience seemed to reach from horizon to horizon without boundaries so that all the sounds and happenings were simply going on within it like the continuous flow of water in a river. The water was gently wearing away the stone and there was no need for hurry.

After the retreat was over, I spent a final hour meditating near the window of an upstairs room. It was open - and by now a road digger was excavating a ditch in the pavement immediately below. All the sounds were at full volume yet not for one moment was the inner stillness disturbed - in transparency the interdependence of everything flowed along. The hour seemed like a mere few minutes.

That evening I flew to Amsterdam. In the early morning I sat with my son and daughter eating pancakes for breakfast beside a canal. As we walked around, I found my breathing quietly centred in my belly and the stillness ever present in my mind. After every burst of conversation, it simply returned of its own accord. When at last I went to bed, I found I had been alert and active for twenty-seven hours, had crossed the Atlantic without jet lag and was continuing to feel a clarity of unusual perception. Only three days after my re-entry to my normal work schedule did recurrent worries begin to dim this way of seeing. I had truly learnt that “to know all the Buddhas of the past, present and future, only perceive that Dharmadhatu nature is all created by the mind”.

Dogen offering to Dogen. New York, May 1987

I had come to the retreat bringing many tensions of my world with me; mental distress from a difficult domestic situation; remorse and shame at a seeming inability to solve such problems; a slightly frozen shoulder producing referred pain oddly in my upper left arm. Perhaps the physical pain was merely an emblem of pain in the mind?

As session succeeded session an increasing fatigue enveloped me, a deadly drowsiness with aches, pains and fidgety movement. My method of shikantaza was difficult to focus and punctuated by wandering thought, intense feelings of loss, grief and family distress. Whenever this faded away there were haphazard bursts of hypnagogic imagery in fragmentary visual ‘clips’ without apparent meaning. Even so each session was different and gradually some moments of calm emerged.

I began repeating the name of Amitabha, now and again stopping the repetition to gaze into the silence so created. This practice resembled the breathing technique I had used previously but the results were very erratic. Again I found myself pondering Dogen’s insistence that meditation is neither thought nor no-thought but a state of being without thought.

In one of my more silent periods the words of the hua t’ou “What is Wu”3 arose spontaneously and it occurred to me that whenever ‘without thinking’ became established Wu was present. Just before Shi-fu called me to my first interview, the phrase “Dogen is offering to Dogen” arose, apparently meaning that out of Dogen’s method a question had been given.

I told Shi-fu of this and he remarked that a hua t’ou or a koan could indeed arise spontaneously while practising shikantaza. He seemed to like the phrase about Dogen for his eyes shone. It had come from my sub-conscious, he said. As to my practice - “No problem!”

I returned to my cushion; the work was gruelling; sometimes I felt bored stiff and wondered why on earth I was doing all this. Could there be any benefit in so masochistic an exercise? I remembered a statement made to me by a yogin in Ladakh, “You must sit still within the boredom itself and wait for an energy to arise.” I sat.

Silent patches continued to emerge and I felt grateful for them. Sometimes a hint of bliss appeared. “Ah”, I said to myself “I am making progress!” and I considered asking Shi-fu for another interview. Yet, realising I had a strong wish to please Shi-fu like a schoolboy facing a powerful schoolmaster and wishing to impress, I desisted, waiting for this feeling, which felt rather silly, to subside.

Shi-fu’s evening talk was based on the Song of Mind, just two lines of it: “Do not seek an experience of emptiness. Full comprehension emerges naturally.”

This made striking sense and, in response to the charm and open friendliness of his presentation, smiling, playful even, so much the opposite of his stern, inquisitorial face in interview, I let go of my oedipal reaction and felt released from error.

On the third evening Shi-fu commented mockingly on the faint heartedness he had encountered in interviews with participants. Mockingly, he imitated the manners of the young Chinese women present who, like the rest of us, were complaining of leg ache, backache, headache, everything ache. “What is this?” he demanded. “It’s not a retreat at all - more like a Day Care centre!”

I was stung by his remark. Whatever others might be doing I was determined that for me the retreat was a serious matter. However much it differed from the old monastic retreats, the horrors of which Shi-fu had alarmingly described, none the less I would do something. An angry determination arose as I contemplated my incompetence and faint heartedness. So, immediately after the talk, as I sat on my cushion once again, I punched my right fist into my left palm making a loud crack and, powered by anger, plunged into meditation.

The first target was my fidgety body. I stared again and again into the various aches and pains, fully allowing myself to experience them and then commanding their departure. To my surprise, one by one they cooled down, giving way to a quiet sensation that was not uncomfortable. I went to bed feeling that mastery of the body was not impossible and that aches and pains were largely the product of an uneasy mind.

I also became focused on two further lines of the Song of the Mind:

“When birth and death are cut off the principle is seen”

Shi-fu told us that this meant the cutting off of the moment to moment arousal and decay of thought. I could see deep sense in this.

I had a dream in which I had to cross a green landscape, wild open land, in which savage dogs roamed in packs and singletons. I had been given a sharp sword with which to cut them down so I set off with confidence. The dogs came close but none approached to molest me. In the early morning session I felt that this dream referred to my wandering thoughts and that the sword was Shi-fu’s teaching. I sat with confidence.

It was a holiday morning; traffic was absent; the American Robin sang its evocative early morning song; to my surprise the pain in my body failed to appear and my body itself seemed to disappear. I was aware of its presence merely as a bag of guts plopped like a cushion upon the floor supporting a meditating mind. A strange image arose within me. It seemed as if a great grey mass like a tumour was filling out my stomach and gradually protruding from my body, almost as if I were a dividing cell. The experience was quite physical and alarming, a gross wrenching apart of something horrible in me that needed exorcism. As it separated from me, as a big round ball about a yard in diameter, it seemed to be made of grey paper. It was a wasps nest. I poked it with a stick and thousands of wasps poured forth and disappeared in distant air. A feeling of great relief filled me and my mind became tranquil like a mirror, simply reflecting all phenomena. I sat through two complete sessions without a movement.

After breakfast the same feeling continued but now the mirror felt rather tightly bound by its frame. Quite suddenly the frame dissolved and, with a vivid sensation of opening out, a loosening of constraint, a wide spaciousness appeared. The silent mirror now had no limit, there was no movement within it, no thought, no movement of mind at all, a sheer vastness which had not come in from outside but which had arisen with the disappearance of the mirror’s frame. Words fail here for what words can stand for the wordless? I felt open to the entire Universe and, although the sights and sounds around me were all quite as usual, in the world where I had been I was not. There was no-one there. No wanting, nothing holding me for I was not there to be held. Happiness without attachment, for nothing arose to which attachment could exist. Gratitude, a continuing state.

I remembered Shi-fu’s instruction to “Let the Universe do the work- not you!” and I felt at once that, where I had once been, there was now just this universal energy flowing of itself without constriction, time moving. I was time not in time. Wu was both the void of experience and the continuum of a flowing stream, both empty, both wide open.

At interview the experience was still with me for I was second in line and the experience had begun only fifteen minutes before. I described it to Shi-fu and added “Wu is universal energy endlessly flowing - it is also love.” Shi-fu said “Good. Very good. Now you can start practising.” I returned to my seat and almost at once the doubting, self-accusatory mind attacked me with every manner of demonic self persecuting thought and, for several sittings, I quite lost a hold on Wu.

I took up the phrase about birth and death again and could perceive how Wu was obscured not only by thoughts but also by their barely conscious bases that were generating diverse intentionalities and preoccupations not clear enough to take the form of thought.

In the afternoon, after a long series of prostrations, Wu returned. There was complete stillness and openness within a silent, sack-like corpse in and out of whose mouth flies flew as it breathed. I was this fresh corpse and a fear of such deathly emptiness arose together with so grim an image, a terror of losing all I held dear in the world, my pride, my intellect. Somehow, the image of the little blue iris growing in the garden came to mind and, “They toil not neither do they spin but who among you is arrayed like one of these?” I felt better, in touch with life once more.

Gradually, as session followed session I became able to track these movements of minding. The openness became lost not so much when thought arose but rather when attachments, old emotional needs, wants or fears were present. The presence of need, want or fear unrepresented by thought was especially subtle and signalled by bodily tensions, finger scratching, nail biting, fidgeting, the mind speaking as it were non-verbally. At these times there was a sensation of mental closure, as if being surrounded, hedged in. Yet, by allowing this state to develop fully, it began to lose strength, dissolving in the same way as bodily pain had done.

It was never possible to force an opening to occur, for this in itself represented an ego state. Yet, from time to time, a sort of letting go occurred, a putting down not only of ego states but of the entire self as felt in attachments. The putting away felt like something falling away - like sticking plaster being pulled from the skin but with no puller doing the pulling. With that the openness emerged again bringing a powerful sense of relief, “Ah - here it is again - how fortunate!”

This is a condition of total not-wanting. Death would be OK, entirely so, being neither good nor bad in itself. Only when this not-wanting has arisen does this openness flow. To say then “I don’t know. I don’t need to explain. I have nothing to discover, nothing to resolve and nothing to do, nowhere else to go absolutely at all.” was somehow totally complete.

“Whatever arises in the mind gives rise to its own sphere.”

Liberation lasts only so long as one is absent, saying of oneself “Who is here? Not me.”

“Sometimes we raise the eyebrows of old Shakyamuni - sometimes we do not” (Dogen)

Oh - look at that! Maenllwyd, April 1989

This was a busy retreat for me. I was guest master and responsible for the welfare not only of the participants but also of Shi-fu and the ‘team’ from New York on their first visit to Wales, Ming Yee and Gou Yuan Se. I was of course concerned that all would be well.

In many ways my experiences of sitting resembled those of previous retreats. At first I was delighted to sit and blissful moments appeared but then fatigue and scattered thoughts arose and the usual struggle was on. I wrestled with my karmic problems, my unsatisfactory relationships, domestic disturbances and my neurotic desire to please everyone, yet the calming effect of meditation soon released me and at such times, while fully aware of the actual realities of my surroundings, I also felt myself as if floating on a platform above the valley; that the wall before me was insubstantial and that my awareness was reaching out over the rolling spaces of the hills and valleys into some limitless beyond.

At my first interview, I told Shi-fu how my mind was forever seeking explanations, especially since, as a scientist, to seek so had been the chief education of my mind. Shi-fu remarked that for me the most useful path would be silence, especially since my practice of shikantaza had given me some grip on the stillnesses that can arise in the mind. He felt that learning Silent Illumination would deepen this practice further. I returned to my cushion fortified with this thought which gradually yielded a feeling of stability and stillness only occasionally broken by mind wandering and dreamlike images. With a quietened mind I felt free to review my life in the Dharma and I resolved to tell Shi-fu of those rare experiences which had appeared as if by grace several times in my life since boyhood and which I have always been reluctant to share with anyone because of their incomprehensible nature.

I gave him a straightforward account of one event that had followed a retreat at the Maenllwyd. I had been down the lane on the point of departure and had returned from the car on foot to a gate which I had forgotten to close behind me. As I swung the gate, I saw two Red Kites wheeling overhead in the frost-clear air of the sunny, winter day. Red Kites I had never seen near the Maenllwyd before so I exclaimed to myself with joy “Oh look at that!” As I gazed at the circling birds my mind suddenly fell empty, I was no longer present within ‘my’ experiencing. There was only the landscape and the circling birds, a sense of wonder and amazement. I stood gazing for about twenty minutes as the birds gradually withdrew and felt the experience slowly fading as thought reappeared and ‘I returned to myself.’ This was a re-awakening, a joy to have found ‘it’ again, for such an experience has only rarely appeared, often with years between.

I also told Shi-fu of another occasion when I was visiting Naropa’s cave at Dzongkhul. We had spent three days in July 1977 crossing the immense icefields of the Umasi-la pass through the Himalayas into the Zanskar valley of Ladakh. As we were being given tea in the upper hall of the little monastery I had glanced out of the window. The mountainside opposite was falling away as icy water rushed down in a massive waterfall from the glacier above. Again emptiness of self came over me and the great space of the mountains seemed to fill me with itself. I wandered alone for half an hour up and down the flat monastery roof until I felt myself again gradually returning as thought once more created self concern4.

I asked Shi-fu what, from the point of view of Ch’an, was the meaning of these experiences. Without hesitation he told me that this was “seeing the nature” (kensho). I was overjoyed to receive his confirmation of what I had suspected but never been able to test in a direct meeting with a Zen master. Shi-fu also said that, from what he knew of me, he had already understood that I had had such experiences. He then said “Congratulations” and told me to make three prostrations before him, which I did with profound feelings of awe, joy and liberation. He also said that from now on he wanted me to run Ch’an retreats with his blessing and, as it were, as his representative.

While I experienced a great freedom, I also perceived immediately the responsibilities that this recognition implied for me. I also felt bewildered for what did congratulations have to do with simply experiencing the most basic nature of myself? I felt an odd shyness too for, while I was happy at Shi-fu’s recognition, I did not want anyone else to know. In sharing with others minefields of potential miscommunication loomed before me.

After this interview the sitting sessions ran smoothly and clearly with a stillness of a mirror- like quality. One afternoon we did prostrations, carefully explained by Shi-fu. I experienced profound repentance, not only for immediate things but for the long perspective of inadequacies in my life. As the tears poured down my face, it seemed as if repentance must be endless. Oceans of karma from past generations seemed to sweep through me. It was as if this repentance was a beginning of atonement for previous lifetimes as well as for this one. The depth of feeling gradually changed to relief and gratitude towards the Dharma.

The naturalness of how things are. New York, November 1989

On the first day I was happy, rediscovering old friends. The atmosphere of the premises in the new centre, a few houses down the road from the old one, reminded me of the good things of past retreats. There was a large and attractive image on the altar so I went up to pay my respects and to look at the Buddha - and the Buddha looked at me! As I gazed into that peaceful, if curiously distant, face it was if a blissful harmony was transferred to me, a sweet peacefulness that seemed to permeate the room.

On this retreat I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the Chinese word tsan - meaning investigate, enter or go into. How was one to do this in meditation?

Soon the usual troubles began, past and present vexations, dissatisfaction and despair emerged one after another like a host of waiting demons. My body stiffened and my back ached. There were subtle motifs working their way below the surface subverting whole hours of sitting. Two devils in particular were distressing me. The first was telling me that my endless tendency to try to placate significant others could not be satisfied here. It seemed then to me that without feeling that I was pleasing somebody else, I could not feel happy about my own being. Here of course there were no others to please - unless it were Shi-fu and to try and placate Shi-fu was so obviously absurd that I could not even begin. Sitting before the wall there was only myself, and I had to learn to value my own way of being. The second devil was a saboteur. In the middle of a peaceful kinhin a voice suddenly said “You don’t believe any of this!” I was shocked by so traitorous a thought. My discomfort was taking its revenge on the ego’s fortitude in enduring the process by denying the very belief that led me to value the work.

Furthermore, Shi-fu was presenting me with a very distanced appearance, checking my work in cleaning the bathroom on a work period and ticking me off for crossing my legs in relaxation during an interview. Afterwards he remarked that he understood that different cultures had different ways of sitting. It was just that in China to sit in that way seemed somewhat disrespectful. I was mortified by all this for it contrasted so strongly with his attitude towards my work on the previous retreat in Wales. I began to suspect that this was all a training procedure to test my resolution. Perhaps he would ask me to do some impossible task, just as Marpa trained Milarepa and Shi-fu’s own teacher had likewise drilled him into self recognition!

I resolved that whatever he did or said would make no difference to my training. I would carry on regardless. With this I felt easier - even amused to try and spot what device he might throw at me next!

Shi-fu’s talks on Master Hsu-yun’s instructions on Ch’an meditation helped me greatly with my main quest. I had previously discovered that it was sometimes possible to detach from a painful thought and allow my awareness to expand to embrace the experiential moment, the nowness of the room, sounds and atmosphere, without the interpolation of thought. I began to practice bringing myself into the immediate presence of the place. As I did this, it seemed that the monstrous pervasiveness of ego concern began withdrawing into its lair, leaving the stage clear and unobstructed. It was strange how quickly this shift could occur. One moment my head would be in a fog of self concern, the next there I was in the room, clean, clear and present.

It seemed as if I was in a cage inhabited by troublesome monkeys. If I asked myself the question “What is troubling me now?” I could do one of two things. I could either perceive and name a basic problem, one of the monkeys, and worry about that, or I could look at it from the standpoint of the cage itself. This moves the locus of attention from the agitating monkey to the environment that surrounds it. The cage is not the monkey, it is uninvolved. However noisy the monkey may be, the cage is unaffected. Repeating this shift of attention many times led to an expanding and relatively enduring stillness. When I glanced at the Buddha now there was just a reflex of silence.

One morning the chanting of the ritual moved me to tears. All the tragedy and sorrow of the world seemed matched against the beauty of the passing scenes of life. Soon this sorrow changed into a growing feeling of bliss, deep, inward and physical in manifestation. At interview I asked Shi-fu the meaning of blissful experiences within the Ch’an perspective. Shi- fu said that such a feeling arises out of gratitude when there has been an insight into emptiness. Emptiness, gratitude and bliss are related, tending to arise one after the other in unpredictable sequences and with varying durations and intensities so long as the mind is one- pointed. Here was the invisible door out of the cage.

On the last night I sat till midnight. In the stillness of the meditation hall questions from Shi- fu’s talks slowly circled. What was my original face before I was born? Before time what was I? If there was no time before time began, then there could only be space. But no - without time, no space. Simply the naturalness of the way things are. Wu is the inconceivable. Nothing to be said or done about it. Just the great NO of Joshu which seemed to be turning into my great YES. Did I say my yes?

Creating a fuss: seeing the stupidity. New York, November 1990

I arrived from England bringing a relatively calm mind, gentler of late due to some lessening of vexations and months of improving practice. This was to be Shi-fu’s fiftieth retreat in the USA and, on the Tuesday, I was to celebrate my sixtieth birthday. It bode well to be an auspicious time.

Yet I had also brought with me something else of which I was not at first aware. I had spent much of the year away from home with visits to Taiwan and Hong Kong and in two long expeditions to high altitude in the Himalayas, one of them in the deep cold of the winter months. I really did not want to go abroad again: rather I wanted to consolidate at home and write. Yet I had a programme of retreats to lead in Britain in the coming year and I knew I needed further training with Shi-fu, both for myself and for others.

Although the first day was peaceful, I had a growing sense of unease. I was unexpectedly bothered by the rules, by the changed diet, by the feeling that I might make some mistake. I reacted negatively to the powerful authority of Shi-fu himself and became puzzled because, since I had attended retreats before, I had not expected to feel so resistant. Finally I recognised that I did not actually want to be in New York at all - at least not just then. I felt a certain resentment, a feeling of duress, that I had had to come at that time when I did not feel ready.

The realisation helped. Since I was undoubtedly on the Western side of the ‘pond’, the only thing to do was to work hard and enter the retreat as fully as possible. Yet, even if my head was telling me this, my heart refused to obey. It began creating a dreadful fuss. My discomfort grew and grew and, rationalise with myself as I might, it went on and on.

I was horrified to find myself repeatedly judging my companions even though I knew nothing about them and I was trying to follow the isolation rule, deliberately treating the retreat as if I was the only one on it. I soon recognised that these judgements were actually attempts to bolster my superiority because I feared exactly the opposite. To myself I was exhibiting privately a crude arrogance based in my own insecurity, exactly as Shi-fu, to my added shame, was to discuss in one of his highly pertinent talks. At times I felt as if I was the only victim of the strict rules. I did not want to be bound by all these strictures and I felt as if I was being subjected to the imposition of unnecessary authority. Yet, after all, I reasoned, I had deliberately come on the retreat of my own free will knowing full well what retreats were like. I realised that my feelings were nothing other than a paranoid reaction.

I began to develop an acute sensitivity to Shi-fu’s presence. It was as if I were constantly worrying about what he thought of me. I went through seemingly endless and ridiculous mental posturings designed to seek his approval, hoping, for example, that he would notice how well I was sitting and relaxing as soon as he left the room! Of course I knew all the time how totally absurd this was. I knew that Shi-fu’s relation to me was entirely straightforward yet I kept reading into his facial expressions the implication that he disapproved of me. It took me rather longer to realise that this was because I disapproved of myself!

Of course I knew all about such oedipal feelings, not only from my own experience of them with previous father figures, but also because, as a research supervisor for university doctoral degrees, I had considerable experience of receiving and managing such feelings in young men working under my guidance. None of this knowledge helped in the least nor did the fact that being sixty to the day put me in the same generation as Shi-fu himself!

I had a disturbed and self-conscious feeling that I was not doing the retreat well, that I was a most inferior participant. The silence and isolation meant that I had no means of checking this out and no means of playing my usual games whereby I get others to like me by subtly pleasing them, a game at which I recognise my unfortunate skill. I became increasingly anxious about everything, the possibility of being late perhaps at meals or wondering when I should go to the toilet.

Then there was the fatigue. The relentless effort to sit facing a wall with all this in my head exhausted me. The best things were the breaks in the programme for exercises and meals and of course the relaxing Dharma talks in the evenings. Yet I did have one great cause for rejoicing. I had very little discomfort from sitting itself. This was so wonderful a change from previous retreats that I reflected upon the possibility that it was the absence of physical pain that had set all this mental strife going. From time to time all these anxieties peaked in something close to a panic attack. I’m losing control, I thought, feeling desperate and seeking every inner means of steadying myself.

It was then that I remembered my mantra. Years ago I had received a mantra as the sound of my protective yidam in Tibetan Tantra. It had helped me cross passes in the Himalayas and to get me along precipitous tracks where I would have otherwise suffered from vertigo. Abandoning all methods, I plunged into reciting it. Wonder upon wonders, my mind, in the space of one sitting session, began to quieten and experience some peace. Something like the bliss of gratitude arose.

Shi-fu’s talks were tracking my inner process with wonderful accuracy. He spoke of the lack of Dharma confidence, of the inner insecurity that gave rise either to fearful anxiety on the one hand or aggressive arrogance on the other. I followed his advice, classifying each bout of discomfort under a heading. I soon saw that all these headings stemmed from one single source. The common root was indeed an insecurity, a shaky self-confidence, that stemmed from childhood. Everything I had been experiencing came from this one source, me. I had brought it all through the door on arrival. If I was to know the Buddhas of the past, present and future I certainly had to perceive that all worlds of experience were created by the mind.

After each meal, I prostrated repeatedly before the statue of Kuan Yin in an upstairs room. I did these prostrations slowly, staying on the floor for minutes at a time. I understood clearly that what I had been experiencing was nothing other than a process of self-cherishing expressed in several ways. My ignorance of this was shameful, arrogant even, painful and depressing. What hypocrisy to think I could ever help others in the Dharma. I wept. I remembered those I had hurt, ancient sadnesses, failed relationships, the lack of love that feeds on fear. How could Shi-fu have authorised me to lead retreats in Britain when all this constituted so overwhelming a vexation?

But was it? I had an interview with Shi-fu. We talked of method. As to vexations, “Just tell yourself how stupid they are and put them down”, he said. Stick to your method. Simple. Brief. No analysis.

During a period of group prostrations I relaxed into a minute attentiveness to every movement of the body. Hearing others weeping brought my own tears of sadness, regret and repentance to my eyes. Relief came. In silence there was only the movement of hands, knees and forehead. Gradually the rest of the body faded away. Hands flowed, knees bent, forehead touched the floor. It was like swimming, bodilessly, in cool water. Afterwards I sat on my cushion. There was nothing on my cushion. My body had quite disappeared. Above the cushion there was only an awareness in space; the thoughts that watchfully observed had no location; they were neither here nor there but hovering somewhere unlocatable. The thoughts were saying “So, here you are. All of this is me. This is where you start from - right now.” In the now there was nothing but a vivid presence in which was peace.

If this was Wu, what was Wu? I knew how to tsan5 a koan so I launched into it, gazing and gazing into that bright presence. What is it? What is it? Where is it? On and on to a central point locked-on to an absent target. Sound in the room. What is the Wu of that? Music from a ghetto-blaster going down the street. Where the Wu in that? Stillness now in the early morning. Where the Wu in that?

It was the sixth day. The mind settled and hour after hour sped by. I did exercises to ease the tired body but I did not strictly need to do so. I sat on and on in focused peace. Sometimes chi rose in the head so high that I refocused the questioning in the navel. It steadied there. On the last day there were hours of silence often suffused by blissful joy. The dreadful traffic noise registered hardly at all and, when it did, it entertained.

I understood Dharma joy. It had returned with a new confidence. I became aware of my companions in a new way, feeling love and respect for the great efforts that were being made all around me, for the heroism, if I may call it that, of these determined people. I saw Shi-fu once more clearly as the great teacher that he is. In interview I told him of my calmed mind. “That’s good!” he said. “Continue.” And indeed I guess that’s it. Continue. Learn again and again to accept but not before there has been re-cognition.

I start from here. Always from here. At such a moment, looking in, there is the world beckoning.

Lilacs in the cruellest month. Maenllwyd, April 1992

“April is the cruellest month breeding lilacs out of a dead land.” Elliot’s words were with me as Shi-fu arrived the day before the retreat began. The weather was cold and light snow showers were dusting the hills, drifting past on the north easterly wind. Yet daffodils were out and, down in the valleys, the lilacs were indeed coming into bloom. Once again I was the guest master for Shi-fu’s second retreat in Wales.

Everyone was helpful, some sleeping in tents or in the big barn where the cold wind blew through the holes in the roof. My normal room was allotted to Shi-fu as the Master and, on the first morning, I awoke to frozen snow on the roof of my tent. People got colds yet the retreat began to unfold like a musical performance or the setting sail of a ship.

Shi-fu began talking of Silent Illumination illustrating his theme from Hung Chih Cheng Chueh’s poem. The opening words always inspire me, startling the mind into a kind of expectancy, reawakening memories of ‘it’.

Silently and serenely one forgets all words

Clearly and vividly it appears before you

When one realises it time has no limits

When experienced your surroundings come to light.

As I practised, the sense of the poem became clearer and more present. “Full of wonder is the pure illumination, like the dreaming of a crane flying in empty space, the still waters of an autumn pool. The feel of the valley beyond the walls of the Ch’an Hall came into the room. The room was wall-less.

Where does the wonder exist? The words woke me up, the question becoming a hua t’ou. Was the wonder inside my mind? Not exactly. Was it outside my mind? Not exactly. Between the two? Instead of a bounded experience, there again appeared that boundless space in which the observer has no specific location. Sounds came and went merging in a present continuum outside any measurement of time. Only a not-ness was apparent that no words could fit; a not-ness of the usual; no habitual mental movement; Wu in fact? A wonder was simply here, now and wordless, a suspended note of music or a beam of sunlight falling through a window.

In interview I told Shi-fu of this but an interval of time had come between my vivid experience and my meeting with him. Something had happened for I was suddenly overcome by sadness at the passing of time, impermanence and the frailty of things. Nostalgia has been with me throughout my life. Shi-fu remarked that, while my first experience was clear and correct, my mind had “gone down” after it. Sadness is a product of attachment. There is nothing wrong with such a feeling but it is not wisdom. The task is to see wisdom again and again and to understand the nature of emotion.

During the Menshang liturgy Shi-fu would go to the door of the Ch’an Hall and scatter the offering outside. I felt as if time stopped, centuries disappeared and ancient China was with us. My respect for the Dharma deepened and my gratitude to Shi-fu sometimes welled up in tears. Watching participants returning to their cushions I felt deep compassion for each and every one and a profound respect for the confrontation with self that each was making. In the Dharma love blooms like lilacs in the cruellest month.

A Game of Chess with ‘me’ at stake. New York, November 1994

Retreats are like games of chess that one plays against oneself. There is the beginning game, the middle game and the end game. In the first one settles in, endeavours to overcome the trepidation at facing another period of quite severe physical and mental hardship and to set aside both positive and negative expectations. In the second phase the struggle with self emerges, karmic predispositions appear in florid form, the body aches, there may be drowsiness and depression, all of which must be gone through as gates that are gateless. Finally, in the end game, if one is fortunate and has worked well, you come home.

Soon I was caught by the memory of a hua t’ou “There is no time. What is memory?” which I had first encountered years before in Hong Kong6. My mind became engaged in an intense investigation trying to penetrate the logic of this question. This was thought alright but not wandering thought, it was a racing mind intellectually engaged.

If there was no time, then all that has happened is literally no more. The past is dead; yet so often it seems that history determines the present moment as if all those dead persons were still with us determining our fate. False: the past is totally gone and since the future is not yet here there can only be this existing moment. All the shaping and conditioning of this moment springs from the recreation of the past. But if memory is only thought, what happens if thought, that colourful cognitive representation, that neurotic working out of unfinished business, is dropped? There is just the silent moment of existence, life but no-mind. What is that?

At that moment, I thought, there is only the unfolding of the Universe which, like a bubbling spring of ever fresh water, never stops arising and changing at the very moment of its appearance. Time becomes momentariness when we freeze it into solid memories. I am no more than a fragment of this vast unfolding which keeps reinventing itself in the virtual reality of memory. When I stop there is just the flowing. I bowed to the Buddha. “No path!” I said and the Buddha seemed to wink.

In my racing mind there was a focused excitement of exploration. Chi was running high and as each inference fell into place there was a real shift in experience, a thrill of discovery and an opening to whatever might come next. Finally, with nowhere else to go, the wholeness, the gestalt, of reaching an end gave a sense of realisation and joy. Yet, I suspected, all this was no more than “namtok” as the Tibetans call it, illusory intellection in which the ‘I’ was preening its golden feathers.

In interview I tried to speak of this with Shi-fu. He was not impressed. Metaphysical speculation, however exciting and revealing, was not enlightenment. Was I experiencing doubts about my method? I returned somewhat deflated to my cushion. I was clearly not using my hua t’ou properly. I shifted to “What is NOW?” using the directions helpfully given by Shi-fu.

On the last afternoon Shi-fu told us the story of the monk who, lest he be beheaded, had to carry a bowl of oil over a set distance without spilling a drop even though startled by various threats and surprises. Shi-fu bade us do likewise with our meditation so I focused my hua t’ou and worked hard. Silence descended in a profound samadhi within which thought sometimes moved softly. Holding my hua t’ou, I seemed to be a helmsman of a small ship bidden to steer towards the peak of a distant mountain. Waves and wind constantly moved the bowsprit off the marker and, as I adjusted the wheel, the bows swung past the marker in the other direction. Steering is a constant flow of minor adjustment to the lively movement of ship and sea. I had a vision that the ship was my body, steering was my mind and that the two were linked in a flowing process in which the ‘I’ need not be present at all. There was simply the flowing expression of cause and effect in the endless selfless flow of a sea-borne dance.

As I emerged from this samadhi I felt the room around me, the cars roaring and honking in the streets outside, the voices in many languages of the passers-by. All this was the sea on which I steer the ship under the guidance of the hua t’ou. But no one was steering the ship, no one was sitting on the cushion, there was just a cushion-sitting under an open sky. Instead of being locked in meditation everything opened out in joyous freedom as I sat there, beyond meditation, marvelling at the view. As the last moments of the retreat passed it was as if the ship came home to an island harbour. Unobserved, I bowed quietly to the Buddha, to Shi-fu and the assembly.

Nothing matters and everything must go, yet love is having the heart touched in the valleys of suffering.7


Final reflections

Personal critique

What lessons can I learn from these reports that may be useful for a beginning practitioner?

Firstly, on retreat one will indeed discover that one is not in control of one’s own mind. Gradually, under the caring eye of the Master, you learn to practise with a method that calms the mind and establishes an awareness that includes refreshing and novel states of consciousness. Liturgical chant and prostration provide opportunities for deep feeling which is likely to include repentance and a renewal of forgiveness and hope. The whole process provides an often startling insight into the operations of one’s mind.

It is also clear, moreover, that this process is not accomplished without a struggle with your own concerns; about who you may be; how you are regarded; what is comfortable or comforting to you and what stress may be supportable by you. Indeed, you may soon realise that the retreat is set up deliberately to challenge the self-referring mind by providing circumstances that challenge all its wants and desires for stability, security and sense of permanence. The challenges are tough and increase or lessen at the apparent caprice of the Master. You submit to his authority willingly, yet at the same time inevitably resist his power and influence. Who is he to order me about?

The participant is being challenged to recognise the validity of the Four Noble Truths. Life is suffering because desire is endless. Only when addictive desire is challenged at its source is there a hope of going beyond desire and finding freedom from habitual attachments. On retreat, desire is subtle: we are not speaking of major lusts after sex or chocolate but discrete underground movements; hurrying to a preferred place at table; wondering whether one needs another cup of tea and whether it should be Earl Grey, English Breakfast or Camomile; preoccupations with whether the Master approves of you; how near you might be to an experience of enlightenment; all this against a background of physical discomfort which you would dearly like to avoid. All these take over the mind and become barriers to insight. This is no easy ride, it is rather a Dharma struggle, trying to see the truth of the Dharma in its experiential reality rather than reviewed perhaps sleepily in a late evening armchair. Only when the difficulties, errors, stupidities and need to repent have been passed through in acceptance can they be laid aside. Indeed the putting aside begins to occur quite naturally as the acknowledgement of one’s foolish egoistic self becomes unavoidable and accepted. That is when meditation starts.

These retreat reports also show that similar patterns crop up repeatedly in successive retreats. There is no question of a sudden immediate enlightenment just because you have elected to sit facing a wall for a few hours. This is long term work requiring dedication over a period of years, even a lifetime. Yet there is a kind of spiralling progression. As one spirals onwards, there is a change in each returning spin. The anguished dreams and pointless madness of the mind’s career begin to centre clearly in the problems that are the result of a personal past, a personal karma, the very nucleus from which self-concern springs. Again and again, one brings this karmic complex through the door of the Ch’an Hall. Again and again, it goes through its destructive paces but gradually a clearer insight into its nature emerges. The sense of self-importance and protection diminishes. What does it matter where I sit, which tea I drink or whether Shi-fu is watching me? The body too gets trained, so that sitting is no longer a trouble, aches and pains become rare events. When you see yourself clearly, maybe you begin to find that rueful grin that is the start of acceptance. Yes, I am a joke, sometimes pathetic, almost always foolish, but, hey, this is where I start from.

Wilful dedication is needed on retreat and, with persistence, the mind indeed calms down. The way the mind works and leads you astray becomes clearer, depression gives way to confidence. Yes, after all I’m alright. A thrilling sense of freedom emerges. One returns to everyday life open and joyous. Working through karma to acceptance allows an integration of the fragmented and often rejected parts of one’s mentality, recreating a unified sense of being in the world. Yet this is not completion.

One of the problems that began to manifest clearly as I progressed through several retreats was that my mind easily began to race under the influence of high chi. These were exciting times when the enthusiastic mind spun webs of intellectual insight, created poetry and imagery and became quite delighted in its manifestations. Shi-fu had indeed warned us that when there is too much “illumination”, silence gets drowned out and the meditation becomes unbalanced. After such times I reflected: fun it certainly had been but none the less I seemed to be losing my way. Freedom did not lie in this direction: the dangers of an increasing self-satisfaction and an addiction to high intellectual energy were becoming clear. Furthermore, I had the impression that, as retreats became easier for me through familiarity, this difficulty was increasingly present. All that stuff about the ship coming into harbour with no one at the tiller. Highly suspicious!

I began to do some short solitary retreats in the hills to watch my mind-games more closely. I began to be able to relax without excited elaborations in the silence of the Total Body Awareness and the spaciousness that followed its emergence. In those silences there was little thought, perhaps a movement or two on the back burner but nothing up and running. In that space lay a new sort of freedom; nothing special; just an open presence; just “being time” as Dogen might say; a freedom from the need to do anything; abiding in not knowing; a bare awareness that simply let the world go on turning, a sense of vivid enquiry. Perhaps in that lay the secret of the Buddha’s smile.

At least I feel now that this is the clear path. With practice such freedom begins to arise at any time; thoughts just drop out and there it is; nothing in particular; nothing to talk about; a private intimacy that feels complete.

Enlightenment? What’s that?

One is told again and again that for an enlightenment experience to occur the self has to be forgotten. How can you do this when it is clear that, when you want such an experience, the ego is unavoidably present? Enlightenment cannot be a product of thought and intention. It arises out of its own nature when it wills: it comes over one in its own time often in a moment of amazement. Unplanned, unexpected, nothing to do with ‘me’.

What then is enlightenment? There is so much confusion around this term in the literature and also, it often seems, in the teachings, that careful contemplation is needed and the facts of the mind’s journey on and off retreat need to be well understood. Enlightenment refers to two separable processes, firstly to the gradual emergence of a self-understanding that leads to openness and caring for others. Secondly, it refers to periods, often quite short, when all egoistic reference falls away, the mind and environment merge in a mirroring wisdom felt at once to be an ultimate realisation, “seeing the nature”. In any generation there may be a few individuals for whom this state is stable and long enduring but for most, who are so blessed as to realise such vision at all, it is of short duration, even momentary and comes only infrequently and capriciously in a lifetime. The records of the masters indeed show that for many of them such an event was infrequent, yet it formed the root inspiration for their stance in life.

A simple conclusion follows from this. As Roshi Reb Andersen once put it “You can’t do it!” If you, that is your ego, is present, kensho cannot happen. If you want it even a teeny bit, its possibility is entirely precluded. Training can achieve a one-pointed mind and that which follows from that but does not necessarily predict a self-transcending insight. One may indeed return to the market place from one’s mountain cottage as an unfragmented person well capable of practising the Bodhisattva’s way and helping others but without having had an enlightenment experience. ‘Seeing the nature’ cannot be won, you can only be open to a possibility. Maybe you become enlightenment prone, maybe not.

It is for this reason that the wisest of Ch’an masters have always insisted that training should continue after realisation. Indeed, after a brief experience of kensho, training is even more important lest illusions of grandeur and a return of self importance corrupt the path. As Shi-fu so wisely says “Continue, continue!”

After one retreat I discussed with him the fact that experiences of self-transcendence occur not only in all religions but also among nature mystics and poets. It seems a universal property of the human mind however rarely seen. What then was special about the Zen enlightenment experience? What is the especial insight of Ch’an that gives Ch’an its peculiar claim to truth. Indeed, what is truth apart from opinion?

I had asked Shi-fu whether it could be said that kensho resulted from training. If you say ‘yes’ then it is possible to say that kensho is a goal of training but, if you say no, then training cannot produce it. In response Shi-fu remarked that, rather than as the result of some technique, it was training broadly in the Dharma as a whole way of being that facilitated the emergence of kensho. A transcendent experience within the Dharma is rooted in an understanding of impermanence and it is this that constitutes the especial claim to truth of Ch’an. Other similar religious experiences may be attributed to God or some outside agent and are therefore aspects of an ‘outer path’ with a dependency projected beyond human life. In Buddhism, Ch’an, life, the universe are all experienced as one pervasively interpenetrating, always moving, whole. There is no other. In kensho this is nature seen, yet what it is that is seen remains beyond any certainty of description, of any closure. There is only amazement within enquiry.

A dead mind?

On another occasion, Shi-fu had remarked that one of the reasons why the koan system had been created was that monks in monasteries had become no longer able to “maintain the dead mind” and hence masters had had to invent new ways of focusing. I said to Shi-fu that the thought that Ch’an requires the development of an extraordinary mind is a problem many people have. It appears that there is an everyday mind and an enlightened mind with training purporting to create one from the other. Yet, in his talks, Shi-fu had been insisting that there was only one mind, the ordinary mind of awareness. What then was this “dead mind”?

Shi-fu said that the dead mind was one that had become dead to attachments or, better put, a mind in which attachments had died. One should not differentiate this mind from ordinary mind for it is simply free from the dependencies that bind it to wants based in ignorance. Once freed, the mind becomes an awareness of clarity with unobscured insight into its own nature.

“Did this mean it had no thoughts?” I asked. “No”, said Shi-fu, thought remains. Indeed there is always thought however quiet it may have become. The difference lies in what thought concerns. Attached thoughts express themselves in wanting or not wanting and they move about quickly. There is division and divisiveness. In a calmed mind thought remains but there is less conflict and it moves slowly. It may even become so slow as to be undetectable, but it is there none the less, latent. Even under the Bo tree thought was present. The Sutras show clearly that the Buddha was aware of his experiences in a way that could be expressed in thought. The essence of the contrast does not lie in the presence or absence of thought but in something else.

I said, “What happens then in the moment of ‘seeing the nature’? Something has gone absent at this time. If it is not thought, what is it?”

Shi-fu replied that it was the self, or rather the sense of self, that had gone absent. There is then no self to which experience can be referred nor any self as a subject of experience. There is no self-concern whatsoever. Absolutely no wanting therefore. There is a pristine clarity of an awareness without any sort of desire for there is no cognisable basis for one who could want.

Shi- fu went on, “The ‘me’ is a sort of symbol, a script the thinking state invents to account for itself. It is just one, although a very major one, among many such scripts that appear to perception and thus to consciousness. When the mind puts it down, experience changes its quality, not so much its nature. It sees its own nature directly without a secondary activity of imputation and explanation.”

I remarked that when self-reference is present that mind appears in split form, self as subject, self as object. Understanding can then only be a form of explanation. Direct seeing means the end of dualism.

“The ‘dead mind’,” Shi-fu continued, “is a mind without attachment and, in seeing its own nature, it has no self. The enlightened mind is never the less the ordinary mind of awareness: thought, perception and all other attributes remain in place. The beginner’s mind can be an enlightened mind as soon as attachments drop away. The presence of a self-cherishing mind is the hallmark of Samsara while its absence is Nirvana.”

I said, “This then has nothing to do with samadhi or trance states of any kind. Dogen was right to insist on no fundamental difference between sitting and enlightenment.”

Shi-fu said “Only when a self-cherishing mentality dissolves of its own accord naturally and without willed effort can the insight occur. In a sense nothing special has happened - and that is why it is special. All one can do is the practice. Let the rest alone.”

I said, “Shi-fu, you make it all so easy!” One of the monks present remarked “That is the sign of a true master.” Shi-fu just smiled, remarking that in our conversation he had had the strange experience of understanding what I was saying even though he did not really know the English words. There was, he said, direct communication.

1       Some of these reports have been already been published anonymously in the Ch’an Magazine of the Chung Hwa Institute of Buddhist Culture, New York.

2       See Crook, J. H. 1997. Hilltops of the Hong Kong Moon. Minerva. London. Chapter 14.

3       Wu is the Chinese for the better known Japanese word Mu.

4       For a fuller description see Crook, J. H. and J. Low. 1997 The Yogins of Ladakh. Motilal Banarsidas. Delhi p37-40.

5       Chinese: Interrogate, examine, look into.

6       See Crook, J. H. 1997. Hilltops of the Hong Kong Moon. Minerva. London. p139.

7       Author’s verse from the liturgy of the Western Zen Retreat, Western Ch’an Fellowship.

8       It must not be thought that “seeing the nature” arises as a direct product of training. Often such an experience arises outside a retreat and only obscurely linked to the training undergone. At other times it occurs spontaneously outside any training but usually in some life circumstance that has something of the quality of self-confrontation about it. When it does arise in relation to training it comes in different ways depending on that training. The intense methods of koan exploration in the Rinzai sect of Japan tend to produce the classic, dramatic and sometimes questionable breakthrough described, perhaps misleadingly, in popular literature. In the quieter, less driven, system of Soto it arises gently, almost surreptitiously so that the distinctions between a very complete personal integration in a deeply silenced mind and enlightenment are difficult to determine. Teachers are correspondingly careful about acknowledging experiences. In Tibetan Mahamudra again the realisation comes gradually as a result of concentration on emptiness (see Note 3 above). In all cases however the subject will know the difference from the ordinary mind however steeped it may be in samadhi states. Even in absorption in emptiness, when no clear feel of self is present, a sense of intentionality may be there. In realisation, it is not.