The Maenllwyd, our retreat farmstead in Wales, had been home to "Zen" retreats for some years prior to the arrival of Master Sheng Yen on that wet April day in 1989. I had been presenting Western Zen Retreats (WZR) based on Charles Berner’s "Enlightenment Intensives"1 at the Bristol Encounter Centre since the mid seventies and these had found a natural base in the Welsh hills. Newcomers were faced with lamps and candles, holes in the barn dormitory roof, haylofts for bedding, cold winters and sometimes a lot of snow. These "toughies", as we later called them, had a fierce Zen streak in their genes it seemed, for, in those immediately post-hippie days, such people would tackle anything for a glimpse of enlightenment. Yet these Zen events were hardly orthodox and legitimate questions could be asked as to whether they were Zen or Buddhist at all.
It was with this doubt in mind that I first attended Master Sheng Yen's Chan retreats in New York. Not only did I have a personal need to deepen my understanding and experience of Buddha Dharma but I felt that if I were to continue my retreat presentations at the Maenllwyd I needed to know how they stood in relation to orthodoxy. I believed that what I was doing was no mere idiosyncratic, self-indulgent, and possibly dangerous group process as adversaries were prone to suggest, but a very real contribution to the personal development of others. How to check this? In the event Master Sheng Yen was interested in my work and recognised the utility of the method but he agreed that the WZRs could not be considered to be Zen unless they included Buddhist vows and led on to the taking of Precepts.
After I had trained with him on several retreats and he had seen our work in Wales, he asked me to lead orthodox Chan retreats at the Maenllwyd in addition to WZRs. I was to be, as he put it, his "representative." And so our story began. The Bristol Chan Group was formed by a small group of enthusiasts2 who asked me to be their teacher (NCF 1. 1990).
One of these was Jake Lyne who, in this issue, now presents us with a valuable and searching examination of our endeavour since those exciting first days and our subsequent creation of a national charity - the WCF. It is significant that we conduct such an examination now, not only because some of our senior members have come through a controversial period, but also because both Master Sheng Yen and I will be 72 this year and "time waits for no man". Furthermore I face personal questions as to how best to fulfil the trust placed in me by Master Sheng Yen consequent upon his transmission to me of the Chan Dharma (NCF 9. 1994 p 2 - 4) in the Dharma Drum lineage.
Among the questions Jake raises are matters concerning the relevance of our activities to our time, the effectiveness with which we attempt to fulfil our constitutional objects and the question of transmission to 'second generation teachers'. Implicit in considering these matters is also the need for a clear definition of the particular focus in Dharma teaching which the Teacher is endeavouring to convey.
We live in a peculiarly materialistic age dominated by scientific reductionism and an economic system rooted in the unsustainable maximisation of profit by competitive private companies. In such a world spiritual values of traditional religions have become largely ignored, sentimentalised or distorted into dogmatic belief systems of social intolerance.
Certainly under the impact of social changes led by these forces the cultural roots of Buddhism, and perhaps all major religions, are declining - as Jake has suggested.
Yet there is ample evidence of an increasingly vivid awareness of something lacking in our modern world. Not only are the times exceptionally violent with problems of control over weapons of mass destruction, but poverty is inexcusably widespread, politicians fail to deal with the major issues of environmental degradation world-wide, and the capitalist ethos of the modern world view offers no remedy leading towards long term solutions. The result is commonly a personal sense of alienation, confusion as to values, drug addiction, a macabre fascination with rape, murder and child abuse and, among thinking persons, existential anxiety and a sense of cultural failure. Peter Reason, in an article in the last issue of this journal, quotes a student essay which told him that "despite a whole array of 'graduate opportunities' there is a growing sense of claustrophobia and sense of powerlessness; for all the relative luxuries of the western world we are still unsatisfied: there is an unmistakable sense of longing, a deep craving for some kind of release or escape" (Sara Atkins). And Reason locates the source of that craving for escape in the "all encompassing frame of the modern world view - which stops us listening to the world" and which therefore requires us to confront the entire modern set-up. This widespread search includes a lively interest in Buddhism in all its forms.
So is Buddhism, and especially the Zen of this essay, relevant? Jake correctly points out that some traditional themes in Buddhist teaching do not sit well with a scientific understanding of the world nor with the modern needs of self enhancement in career, family, the gaining of credentials of all kinds. Classical ideas of reincarnation and the monastic emphasis on asceticism look strange to contemporary entrepreneurs, and career climbers, even when they themselves feel an alienation of mind from heart. These issues do need to be reframed and understood anew and a deep acquaintance with Buddhist philosophical psychology can certainly clear the way.
One of the useful ways of understanding "reincarnation" is to consider this theme as a metaphor for the descent of cultural traits and problems from one generation to another3. I once heard Shifu remark to a Chinese doubter that perhaps many of the traditional ideas concerning reincarnation need not be accepted as literally true, but he insisted that to be a Buddhist one needed some idea of "continuity". The kind of continuity I believe he meant was the way in which, for example, the character of a great grandmother can so warp that of her daughter that her children develop odd characteristics in adult life which are ultimately responsible for some of a descendants own oddities at the present time.
Awareness of such inter-generational descent can give a broad picture of the onward passage of "karma" (although this view differs in some important ways from traditional formulations). Likewise the descent of cultural themes can impel karmic roots from the past into the present; for example the way in which the British imperial period is significant to an understanding of multicultural modern Britain; and, correspondingly, the way in which the history of democracy and the labour movement in Britain influences the character of that multicultural scene. Interpreted in this way the notion of "karmic retribution" in the present for (mis)deeds in the past retains its meaning and its relevance. Who but the British can be held responsible for our own history and our current state? Only I can undo the karmic confusion engendered originally by the character of my grandmother. We cannot set aside these ancient themes without a deeper penetration into their meaning and their relevance today.
Furthermore, to avoid Buddhist ideas and to stress only those physical methods that relieve stress and reduce anxiety is equally a faulty path. Efforts at "mainstreaming" Buddhism through introducing mind calming meditational practices to prisons, hospitals etc without the teaching of the ideas of the Dharma can only cheapen Buddhism - much as yoga tends to become an activity of beauty parlours. This is not to say, of course, that any effective remedial treatment should not be used in helping distressed minds - but this is a presentation of psychophysical medicine, not of the Dharma path of the Buddha.
An interest in the asceticism of the monastic life is today actually quite lively. Athos is almost booming and Christian monasteries are receiving attentive interest if not necessarily ardent recruits. Asceticism is based upon a principle of restraint. Within the extraordinarily successful Indian order, the Brahma Kumaris, for example, there are many European adherents otherwise active in careers and family life who choose the path of celibacy in direct opposition to the near pornographic sexuality of so much of the social scene. Many others see in periodic withdrawal from the world, in nature, solitary cottages, retreats or monasteries, a means of facing the alienating pressures of city and corporate life. Monastic asceticism in itself seems unlikely to be a barrier to an interest in Buddhism. Furthermore, Tibetan Tantra emphasises a way of transformation through mindful participation in life rather than self denial, although a wise lama will tell you that this is barely possible without a mind also trained in restraint.
A romantic Western fascination with monastic practices, especially those of Japanese Zen monks on heroic retreat, has blinded many enthusiasts from the fact that no Sangha ever existed without a substantial lay following and support. The Buddha himself had much to say to his lay followers and, in both China and Tibet, enormous congregations would attend the reading or chanting of lengthy sutras or the giving of empowerments. Such events supported the 'everyday practice' of laypersons in their homes and work places. Buddhism has perhaps never focussed particularly on family problems, but it has never been unfriendly to family affairs.
The key practice for a layperson, whether at home or at work, is to maintain 'self at ease' at all times however difficult or fraught with tension. There are many ways to facilitate 'every day' Zen: daily sittings of short duration with family participating; the maintenance of a family shrine; etc but it is true that few contemporary western practitioners bother with such things, especially when the spouse/partner may not be a practitioner. Until they do so, they are dependent on bringing home with them the good practice uncovered on retreats. Our own intensive retreats certainly function to a degree in this way as retreat reports often testify. Shifu has remarked with humour on a westerner who, when asked why he came on retreat, replied, "Well, you see, Shifu, after a retreat there are a few days during which I do not quarrel with my wife!"
A deeper problem concerns the disproportion in the numbers of each gender that come on retreat. There is a paradox here in that women who do our retreats certainly get as much value from them as men do (see p 27 - 32 and p 36 - 41 in this issue): but the proportion of women attending retreats is low and seemingly falling. Yet women occupy a disproportionately large number of leadership roles in our Sangha: so that while we need more women members, we also need more suitable men to come forward as leaders.
The reasons for these anomalies may well lie in the reputation "Zen" has for being a particularly masculine type of activity - and it is true that, so far as monasticism is concerned, it has been a predominantly male one. There are therefore good reasons why women need to investigate what forms of practice are most suitable for them. If there are unconscious male biases at work then our women practitioners need to come forward with their own suggestions and preferences so that they can be carefully considered. There are reasons for thinking that women’s groups function differently in self exploration than do predominantly male ones and we do need to investigate this in the context of our own fellowship. It is interesting that gender ratios are at parity for our Mahamudra retreats which involve basic Tantra. There are clues here which we need to examine.
Yet, when this is said and done, it may be that our Chan retreats are particularly well related to male problems in our current society wherein many young men seem disoriented and uncertain in ways that lead to an unpleasant "laddishness" that has now gone so far as to generate government concern.
Buddhism comes to the west in many forms, Chinese, Japanese, Indian etc and each arrives festooned with cultural concomitants, festivals, liturgies, meditation methods etc. Different individuals will find some such aesthetic accompaniments attractive and others not. The smorgasbord of Buddhism can accommodate many tastes and provisioning such preferences becomes the basis for a developing marketplace of superficial spirituality. In bookshops, magazines, films, we find innumerable means of providing for such a range of preferences - all the way from smiling lamas to new types of meditation cushion or a new "western" way of doing things and making them easy. The main Buddhist journal in America, Tricycle, is, for example, full of such adverts and presumably largely financed by them. The market soon catches up on Buddhist taste just as it did with the aesthetics of the sixties. It is not easy to escape what Trungpa Rimpoche styled "Spiritual materialism".
The question emerges as to what is meant by 'relevance'. It is certainly no part of traditional Buddhism to pander to the aesthetic tastes of a market in sentimentalities. Nor is Buddhism deeply concerned with the therapeutic adaptation of individuals to a more socially acceptable or acquiescent life. The Buddha proposed a remedy for suffering out of his own experience of suffering. Is that remedy relevant to the suffering of today?
We need always to return to the core teachings when considering this issue of relevance. Suffering remains with us in ever more complex forms. The Buddha said again and again that the only thing he knew was the relief of suffering - metaphysics, history, the origin of the Universe, were not his brief. So what is relevant today can only be the “great doctor’s" prescription for the relief of suffering. We return then to the Law of Co-dependent Arising, the Four Noble Truths, the basic formulae and their emergence in the Prajnaparamita sutras and Madhyamaka philosophies of the Mahayana, for these provide a profound analysis of the human condition of suffering. Furthermore the Buddha stated no dogma, things that had to be believed to achieve salvation, rather he suggested a path and invited individuals to test it. His open ended offering of a spiritual empiricism remains basic to Buddhism today - although not all institutions fully understand it. Does the WCF teach this effectively? Are these themes being presented in the "direct, simple and relevant way" that Jake envisages?
The WCF is a young institution and we can be reasonably happy about our development so far. We have created a fine Chan hall for retreats at our meditational base in Wales, we hold many retreats, we have a number of small but active city groups in most regions of Britain, and we run an internationally recognised website and a challenging journal. We seek to open up questions concerning lay Buddhism in the West and have not failed to criticise what we consider to be corrupt, inadequate or failing practices. Although we have had one or two internal rows and individual defections, the warmth of our Sangha was well expressed at my birthday party in November 2000 for which I feel great gratitude. In addition I run retreats in a number of European cities and Simon Child and I are again to run a WZR in 2003 at Pine Bush - the heart of Chan in America. So far so good - but are our approaches and methods effectively representing the Dharma and conveying it to those who join us?
The main message practitioners need to receive remains the core insight of the Buddha as contained in the basic formulae. The source of suffering and our sense of alienation lie within the self and its habitual attachment to self-concern rooted in profound illusions about its nature. This is true whether one is speaking of personal self or institutional self. Impermanence implies that the self is empty of inherent existence as a discrete entity. Rather the mind and all things exist within a universal flow as described by the Law of Co-dependent Arising. Attachment to things as if they could be permanently acquired or safeguarded remains an illusion and this illusion is the prime cause of our sense of lack in a world focussed on acquisition. Such a world therefore needs challenging by an alternative image. This means that the self of which we are so fond needs to be confronted as the very first step in practice. And this is why newcomers at their first WZR immediately face the question "Who am I?" And we can say that twenty years of these retreats certainly shows that individuals can be greatly changed through this practice gaining new views on themselves and the world which may lead on to further Buddhist investigation.
Table 1 (below) depicts the range of training that the WCF provides for its practitioners. These retreats offer experiences of calming the mind and insight into its nature, which thereby facilitate self -confrontation through various well-tried routes. Retreats are supported by activities in local groups.
Unfortunately the deep import of such training quite often remains misunderstood. The prevailing culture biases people towards the satisfaction of needs and wants, often with little awareness of the difference. We hear that Zen can provide wonderful experiences, we want them; Zen seems to imply a hierarchy of ever deeper and wonderful realisations, we want them; we want relief from a troubled mind; we want to "get" an answer to our problems. Me, me, me. Sometimes on retreat we do indeed find some relief and for a while the self is satisfied. The dog has his bone. But to encounter the basic source of the confusion in one's own mind requires high levels of mindfulness not only in the retreat process but also in one's everyday life. The practice and the teaching has to inculcate a way of thinking and being in the world that makes a difference through satisfaction of a deep need; not merely a selfish want. This deep need is for a fresh comprehension of what being a self actually is and how it operates in illusion and in insight. No easy job.
The difference between the life of a trainee monk and that of a western lay practitioner lies in continuity. The monk has the monastery always in his face. The casual retreatant may return to his office to begin advertising new brands of some commodity to feed new addictions without being fully aware of the discrepancy between his quest on retreat and the social negativity in his employment. There are countless variations on this theme. Yet, only in the intimacy of one’s personal life can the world as self be confronted.
In monastic training the mind settles for long periods and a fresh understanding of increasing insight and clarity emerges. A truly new attitude may arise in which the diminished self allows an opening of the treasure house- as Dogen puts it. And out of gratitude for this peace of mind, clarity of awareness and freedom from bias, attention turns to others - and indeed the social system. To care about others and the world more than about one's self is the discovery of the truly "awakening mind" (bodhicitta) of the Bodhisattva. At this point one's stance in the world may indeed begin to make a difference.
How to facilitate this transition? It seems that the requirement for longer/deeper continuity of practice, which can facilitate the emergence of such an opening, implies something like a (necessarily limited) monastic endeavour. For this reason I am proposing the provision of solitary retreats within the WCF for those seeking this dimension of change (See p 25). In a supervised solitary retreat the gains from group retreats and daily training can deepen and become entrenched as wisdom begins to replace ego - exactly as Shifu describes it. And once established, this may last. In this practice the almost addictive desire for high religious states and insights falls into the background as an attitude of kindness and selfless compassion takes their place without thoughts of reward. One begins to experience ‘self at ease’ whether enlightened or not.
Of course it may be said that good-hearted souls can accomplish beneficial change without going on solitary retreats. True indeed. Yet intelligent personal and social engineering is not the same as a shift in the heart that eventually comes to influence others in a qualitatively quite different way. We can trace here a route back to an enchantment with the world through freedom from the obsessions of self. Life in relation to all things becomes a poem in which all participate. We are talking here of a spirituality in which a heart change creates another world - much as the appearance of HH the Dalai Lama, a man with so many responsibilities, can shift one’s mind merely through the apprehension of his smile.
In Zen there has always been an emphasis on "mind to mind transmission" whereby a master acknowledges the Dharma insight of a follower thus empowering him or her to teach4. There are no written examinations in Chan Buddhism; any testing is of a quite different nature yet, in its own way, highly sophisticated. Even so, this transmission of authority has been considerably questioned in the West in recent years and not without good reason. There are numerous examples in which Western and sometimes Eastern individuals suborned by the permissiveness of our culture have shown themselves severely lacking in the personal constraint which their acquired charisma as teachers demands of them. Financial and sexual scandals, dis-robings and covers up have manifested not uncommonly. The result has been personal distress for many and serious doubts about the whole matter of transmission. And I believe it has to be said that the masters passing down such transmissions have done so mistakenly - mistaking experiences such as kensho or personal devotion for a maturity in which ethical behaviour and compassion would have naturally developed.
Such faults have emerged particularly but not solely among the "second generation teachers" of Jake Lyne's concern. Yet younger teachers of great competence, inventiveness and authority have also been arising whose integrity can be respected. Among these we may perhaps list Reb Anderson, Bernie Glassman and Daido Loori as well as Martine and Stephen Batchelor, among a number of others whose creative teaching and personal influence has done much to sustain the reputation of the Zen Dharma.
A key feature of Zen necessitates a heart to heart personal confirmation from Teacher to disciple. This is because the essence of Zen is conveyed and realised in direct experience not in any indirect description, writing, gifts in verbal presentation etc. which are the hallmark of a more typical educator. Zen seeks to educate the mind in the immediacy of apprehending the world and not into some system of ethics, behaviour or dogmatic belief or even the holding of opinions. To find out whether a trainee has the capacity to convey Zen insight in this manner requires face to face encounters in meetings of direct experiential sharing. It has to be 'now or never'. It is through such encounters and meetings that a master comes to trust the insights, and integrity of his or her follower and becomes willing to let them take on the job. "Passing down the robe" is not agreed upon in committee but through a master's discretion. Yet, as we have seen, and as some masters admit, mistakes can be made5.
The issue turns on an integrity that needs to be based in the long-term training we have been discussing. A young man dressed in flashy robes, sporting a reputation for being "enlightened" and giving verbally brilliant discourses may not be a teacher to trust.
Someone of warmth, few words, and tolerant of stupidity may be far more reliable. A true teacher will know this and it will be apparent in whom he may choose as a dharma descendant: well aware of the disappointment he may give to secretly ambitious others.
It is therefore not so important that "second generation teachers" provide talks that find ways of speaking Zen in the fashion-conscious "speak" of the time or who as a result of their personal contacts with great teachers can present a bridge to the older cultures now fading, the aesthetics of which may have diminishing appeal. A "second generation teacher" needs only to be true to him(her)self in an honesty which includes a profound personal acquaintance with both the actuality of suffering and the response to it through Dharma understanding and practice.
The way to "present Chan Buddhism differently, in a way that will appeal to a new generation and that is not so much at odds with modern thinking" lies through a rigorous training based in the easily comprehensible truths of the basic formulations of the Buddha. Someone who does this can meet others face to face and declare the presence of the moment without fear or favour. Of course mistakes will be made, inadequacies surface, karmic retribution strike, but the integrity of the intention to be true to the essence of mind is what counts here. The ancient folk beliefs of Asian culture are, in this context, merely an aesthetic background. The matter in hand is culturally present, simply because the Buddha's own insight was so cogent and relevant to the human condition in any culture and in any time.
So does our approach work? Well, at the last WZR at Maenllwyd the majority of participants were newcomers between the ages of around twenty and thirty-five. This is the new generation and they went away showing changes in attitude and experience much as had the generation before them. If a teaching has the psychological truth of suffering by the tail, the response of one generation will differ little from another. How else could Buddha's teaching have survived 2500 years?
What changes in the world are contexts, fashions, opinions and modes of self-justification? Suffering has not changed, personal and social stress remain rooted in a psychology well described in the Buddha's basic formulae. It follows that adherence to the heart of the teaching and the practice is the way to ensure that Chan continues into a future generation. By all means change the decorations, wash the curtains but, above all, examine the foundations if you want to build a home.
A correct understanding of the relation between personal insights and a role in the institutional transmission of Chan is essential. A person who has experienced a deep 'kensho' may not necessarily be a person well equipped to teach Dharma. Dharma teaching skills rely on an ability to gain the trust of practitioners, a certain attributed charisma that can only be earned slowly, an ability to interpret and empathise with the suffering of others, a strictly ethical but flexible life style and a lack of egoistic ambition. We are describing here someone who is maturing in wisdom with "self at ease" rather than someone bent on winning the credentials of spectacular insights. It is the intention to live life as a Bodhisattva in the service of others that is crucial here. Hidden, or even partially unconscious, egoistic ambitions to earn a title or be seen as "enlightened" must be rooted out if a would-be teacher is not to be quickly set aside by a discerning master. No holds will be barred by a master in attempting to ensure that this is so. Why? Because if he appoints a teacher who fails, the entire reputation of the tradition is questioned - as indeed it has been.
If we believe in the deep value of the traditional teachings, the manner in which they are passed on becomes crucial. No amount of glitzy mainstreaming will help - only an essential authenticity.
Master Sheng Yen has made clear6 what is needed for a teacher to be given a role in the transmission of the Chan lineage. Individuals with deep experience and Dharma understanding but without a 'kensho' experience may teach and lead limited retreats. They will perform a vital role since authenticated 'kensho' in a person also capable of teaching is rare. Only the latter however may be considered Dharma heirs within the lineage authorised to create future masters with the same or better qualifications than themselves. The reason for this is that the enlightenment experience of 'kensho' (however realised) can only be understood between two people who both know what is involved here. Yet this is not really a matter of ranking since kensho arises by "grace" and not by attainment. In this lies the shamanic mystery of transmission best left in many ways as mysterious - like the universe itself indeed.
Modern relativists are apt to negate the significance of lineage because of a belief in the value of individualistic effort. A number of westerners have styled themselves, or permitted their followers to style them, as Roshis or Rimpoches. While some such persons may have been splendid teachers they end by allowing the Dharma to evaporate into a form of self justification only too easily followed by practitioners not free from illusion. Adherence and understanding of lineage acts as a constraint on the ever-present tendency of the ego to inflate itself in endlessly subtle ways. Lineage is awesome when one considers the names on the chain. The attainments of great masters such as Huineng, Hanshan, Linchi, Tahui or Hung-chih are so far beyond most Dharma followers today as to inspire an essential humility. As Master Sheng Yen reminded me on my own transmission "Only in these difficult times could one with attainments as shallow as your own be considered even useful for the transmission of Chan. Yet in these times a person such as yourself can achieve something in a world so set in illusion" This applies to all of us who read this text.
Similarly, I was once discussing Western interests in the Dharma with a Ladakhi yogin at Lamayuru Gompa. He said "The difference between a western lay practitioner and a yogin is that the yogin is a consecrated person". Here we get a glimpse of the life-long commitment and total dedication of a true practitioner whether monk or lay. Consecration, furthermore, is a communal matter; one is recognised by one's fellow yogins and teachers because of a common attitude that has undoubtedly been hard won. In such company the careerist quickly exposes him or herself. And, although not necessarily immediately apparent, this difference becomes understood by others even if they cannot describe it exactly. This is something implicit rather than explicit.
Yet, we must not, through an excessive concern for authenticity, set the barriers too high for those genuinely touched by a wish to serve the Dharma. The root of the matter is a disposition to be kind to others and to be present for them in places of suffering as well as joy. What then should one with such aspiration do to fill the role of a budding Bodhisattva in the West of our time? The following matters need attention:
i. Motivation. How is it that such an interest has arisen? What exactly is the intention behind this interest? Has one faced up to the inherent egoism in all such endeavours?
ii. Training in retreat. Experiential training in a variety of retreat practices with qualified masters is essential and understanding must be confirmed in interviews.
iii. Personal daily life practice. What is it? How does it relate to the practices of others and one's daily life and career? Does it work?
iv. Dharma understanding. There is a need for thorough and ever deepening insight into the basic formulations of the Buddha and the Mahayana sutras. A good grasp of the meaning of the Heart Sutra and a number of fundamental koans is essential for any Dharma teacher who is more than a textbook repeater.
v. Global awareness. It is important to break out of the parochial concerns of one's class, country or profession. The whole world is culturally and economically interdependent these days. The bookshelves are loaded with knowledge and one needs to acquire a global perspective on the relevance of Buddhism in our time. This means study, reading and discussion.
vi. Pilgrimages. It is important to travel to India, Tibet, China, Thailand etc to appreciate the atmosphere of lands and societies where Buddhism has deep roots. Naturally this takes time, dedication and funding but it is important if one is to gain a global insight into the Buddhism of our time. Without this there is a risk of underestimating the depth of Buddhist tradition through misunderstanding the role of myth and metaphor in older civilisations; and hence to trivialise Buddhism within the seductive world of post-modern capitalism wherein we are embedded.
vii. Never teach or even discuss that which one does not know. Dharma gossip is idle talk that aids no one. Back to the cushion of direct experience every time.
viii. Receive direct teaching from a master on how to present Dharma effectively, how to teach meditation and run retreats and how to listen to practitioners who may seek one's help.
ix. Recall the Aspirational Prayer given in NCF 26 and use it daily.
With these nine points in mind "second generation teachers" can feel they can acquire the basis for a compassionate practice in the interest of others which in the end is their only qualification. Furthermore, as such training deepens, they will acquire a fund of anecdotes about experiences, places, teachers, atmospheres etc which can form the roots of their own inspired and spontaneous talks leavening the core of dharma with life and wit.
Of course such a programme cannot be fulfilled all at once. This is a developmental process over time. Yet, as one goes along, these points of focus can act as a useful guide.
The retreat leaders, guestmasters, local group leaders and meditation instructors are as important as the teacher in our Western Chan. Their efforts would have little effect without the practice and focussed understanding of practitioners all the way from beginners to "old hands." In the creativity of the Chan practitioner lies the future of the WCF. Already we have practitioners developing valuable means for helping others using their own initiatives based in their training. Most local groups arise in this way as an individual decides to offer a room where people can meet for meditation and feels able to help with instruction. This opening initiative is perhaps the first step on the Bodhisattva path, a sign of emerging bodhicitta7.
In the Bristol Chan Group, for example, a number of individuals have used their own initiative to create very useful Dharma activities; social walks to get to know one another; a Buddhist art exhibition and poetry reading; a dharma study group which ran for a year or so; short retreats for children and teenagers all carefully thought out; and a recent initiative with Ken Jones of Aberystwyth proposing a short workshop on the experience of ageing. Our 'Mount Kailas in Wales' expedition and Ken's inventive use of landscape (p 27 this issue) as a source for retreat meditation in semi-solitary conditions in wilderness are perhaps especially noteworthy. All these initiatives reveal that anyone can use their talents towards the common good if they set their minds to it. This in fact is the root of community, a sharing of talents and skills towards a common object, the well being of one another. In the end the test for the WCF is whether practitioners feel able to contribute to the common good, both Buddhist and more generally, in ways that reinforce communal feeling as well as gaining a personal benefit. If this begins to happen more widely we will have created the basis for a culture in the West with roots that can continue to grow.
1. I had trained in the leadership of these retreats with Jeff Love at Quaesitor and other centres of the period and Jeff had approved my idea of creating a Zen retreat based upon the Communication Exercise, the main method of Berner's process.
2. Paul Cohen, Hilary Richards, Jake Lyne, and Tim Paine. Of these two were medical practitioners, one a psychotherapist and one a psychologist.
3. For an extensive earlier discussion of this issue see:
S-C Kolm 1979. La philosophie bouddhiste et les 'hommes economiques'. Social Science Information. 18. 4/5: 489-588.
Blackmore, S. 1992. Beyond the Self: The Escape from Reincarnation in Buddhism and Psychology. In: E and J Berger (eds.). Reincarnation: Fact or Fable? Aquarian Press. Bexley.
4. Master Sheng Yen has provided a detailed examination of the details of Chan transmission in Chan comes West" (Rebecca Li: editor) Dharma Drum 2002.
5. Which is why I have insisted that in the constitution of the Western Chan Fellowship there are clauses that can ensure the removal of a seriously faulted teacher.
6. See discussions in Chan comes West.
7. Bodhicitta means the quest for enlightenment through assisting others to achieve it before oneself
Fig 1 FLOW CHART OF PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT IN WESTERN CHAN FELLOWSHIP
John has recently become the sole owner of his property in the Mendip Hills of Somerset. The farm is well suited for development as a meditation training centre and in this article John offers suggestions as to how he may augment the Intensive Retreat programme of the WCF with a provision for personal training in supervised solitary retreats.
Winterhead Hill Farm lies on the western ridge of the Mendip Hills overlooking a gentle valley leading down to the Bristol Channel with distant views of the Welsh mountains. The location is surprisingly remote for this heavily populated area, tucked away together with two other properties at the end of a gated track and invisible from roads. The seclusion is perfect for a monastic setting. It is also quite beautiful with rolling pasture, bluebell woods and bare limestone hills providing excellent walking country. While the weather can be wet and stormy, there are many quiet, peaceful and sunny days too. It is within half an hour’s drive from the cities of Bristol, Wells and Glastonbury and an hour from Bath. Access to M4 and M5 motorways is easy and Bristol Airport is twenty minutes away with access to the continent on KLM shuttle flights.
The farm has outbuildings sited around a courtyard and I sometimes dream about establishing nothing less than a small monastery here or at least a regional Chan Hall for the South West. Such a project would be quite possible but require considerable funding. Whether there is a demand for such a thing is however far from clear. The take up of the new facilities at the Maenllwyd for individual retreats has for example been minimal and a suggestion concerning a project in Southampton stimulated no interest.
My belief remains that a number of people would welcome intensive meditational training on a personal basis through solitary retreats under supervision in a small community of retreatants. Such a system does operate well for example at Gaia House for Vipassana, but is not particularly associated with Chan training.
I propose therefore to offer two new training opportunities for Buddhist practitioners familiar with the retreats of the WCF at the Maenllwyd and who wish to develop a deeper personal practice. My suggestion would be especially appropriate for any practitioner wishing to undertake solitary practice in a small communal setting under supervision, any Buddhist facing a life crisis for which a period of withdrawal from the world with intensive practice seems appropriate, and people simply wishing to take their insight into the experiential Dharma to deeper levels only achievable through longer term seclusion. Many practitioners gain considerable insight from weeklong intensive retreats but are unable to sustain this for long on returning to an abrasive daily life. The following suggestions would allow insights achieved on 7 day sesshins to be sustained and better understood through incorporation into a daily life practice.
Supervised Solitary Retreats. Accommodation will be provided for individuals interested in furthering his or her existing practice through solitary retreat. The retreat schedule would be agreed with the director (Retreat Master) who would be available periodically for consultation. Methods of practice could be Chan mindfulness, Silent illumination, Koan work or Mahamudra.
Yogin Training. The practitioner undertakes to deepen his/ her practice of Chan or Tibetan Buddhism through a course of training modelled on the training of Himalayan yogins. Practices would include basic preliminaries, tantric visualisation, breathing yoga, bare awareness and Mahamudra. The practitioner would undertake to learn, receive and practice teachings in Mahayana meditation under close supervision. The idea would be to develop a yogin's orientation to life as a basis for daily life practice and the teaching of Mahayana meditation.
Currently three rooms (bed sitters) will soon be available for individual occupancy. Durations of stay would range from one to eight weeks, the eight weeks comprising a term after which the Centre closes for a period. Preference would be given to those registering for the longest period of time.
Accommodation will be on a self-catering basis with self-provisioning. Apart from the individual "cell", there will be a Buddha Room, a meditation area, a communal lounge and a kitchen available for retreatants’ use. The contract will include a two-hour work period on the property per day. Individuals may use the kitchen communally or on a rota as desired.
Current estimated cost: £10 per day for those staying for eight weeks. £15 per day for between four and eight weeks, £20 for two to four weeks and £25 for one to two weeks. These values are based on similar charges at Gaia House.
Schedule. A simple monastic regime will be followed with a morning and evening communal meditation, sometimes with liturgies. Apart from the daily Work period(s), the programmes will be individually constructed with the Retreat Master so as to suit the particular requirements and endeavour of the retreatant. Except for an occasional supply run to local stores, retreatants will be expected to remain on the property with walks in the vicinity being part of the programme. Visitors and pets will not be allowed. The house will be 'silent' except for agreed periods.
The Director will be in (private) residence most of the time but may be absent running retreats etc. for periods. If there is more than one retreatant in residence, one will be appointed as Guestmaster during the Director's absence.
Suggestions, enquiries, exploratory applications are all invited. Start date - 2003
WCF Centre for Yogin Training
After moonset stars shine more brightly in the still air,
Earth turns slowly rolling into day,
the great fly-wheel spins,
stars drift around the pole,
western mountains rise against my feet
and in the east the long horizon falls.
Onward she rolls, vast galleon
pivoted upon her pole,
time in empty space sits still
watching the moving dayline on the planet's rim.
Slowly, from the dark mass of brooding hills,
the vineyards and the running brooks appear,
dry, white rocks pierced by cypresses,
grey to old gold the distant hills,
sunlight greeting the trees yellowing the parched land.
Last owl poops its hidden cry,
with hesitation first cicadas trill,
breathless the air hangs waiting,
the landscape unfurls.
Heat collects, stirs in the rock strewn
valleys between pines, spills over,
pushing the air around.
Now under the baking sun
breezes fleck silver the olive trees
waves ripple over the lines of vines,
toss in sudden squalls domed planes.
Shuttered farms close inward
keeping cool their dark interiors,
the light hurts.
Crowning the hill top, Notre Dame de Graces
sits in her oak groves, shadowy pines,
short terraced gardens, crumbling walls
for lizards, nooks for images.
Resinous airs linger in the shade dark oaks incubate.
Wind in the tree tops heralds an afternoon's mistral.
Nobody about, empty the tables
set with chairs upon the terraces,
empty the gardens, pine shaded courts,
the only discord here must be my own.
Nothing moves in the stone mind
of the old centurion, guardian of the gates,
stone is still, inactive information.
A mason gave this rock a life that touches mine,
these questioning eyes, forbidding gaze,
"What are your credentials
that, passing me, you wish to tread
the steps to the sanctuary?
Many there are who pass within
making their noise
polluting the quietened atmosphere.
Go slowly now and make
these few steps sure a pilgrimage.
If rock has voice
consider well the silence in the stone."
Not any wood would do -not any hill.
Although I do not share the simple faith
of these crude images
I understand their transformations.
Cicadas purr in your stone head as well as mine.
Outside time you stand here guardian,
whoever comes may read your face,
your right to question, forbid frivolity.
I come neither on my knees
nor aesthetically sampling the handiworks of another age.
I sense the stillness of your stone time;
cicada cry among the oaks;
wind drift resin in the wine;
the hill top sacraments of fragile immortality
where form and substance interact in history
and shapes, frail in time's mistral, bloom.
I bow in gratitude before these crude configurations
constant recurrence, same place and time,
here, there, somewhere,
hands carving the connecting minute
one arrow hits another in the air
and all is gone.
Swallowtail curves a brief trajectory
above the jagged aloe spears.
Images flicker among breeze quickened leaves
"Defence d’allumer du feu!"
Why disturb a still pool?
Endlessly spreading from still centres of place and time
Cicadas call, circles radiate and disappear.
One man only
peasant with a fruit basket
has passed this gate
in an hour of musing.
A door slams along the hill;
a breeze shifts leaves yet nothing moves;
the air falls dreamlike into insect time.
Ants make pilgrimages,
flies from time to time
alight on table top.
The Virgin in the rocks
hasn't moved and no birds sing.
High above and passing
a raven calls.
Under a cone-covered fir where the path turns-
a wide-armed cross without inscription
backed by the heavy foliage of an oak,
bare wood, sun dried,
rock the soil in which it’s driven.
The figure moves among the trees beckoning
no words - a total statement.
Death and time and history
deep rooted in a believing land,
the saviour's instrument.
Where the lines cross the trail begins.
Old lady coming from the house
does not look at me, composed
she passes by leaving the stranger quiet beneath the trees.
All but the desert plants wilt in the heat
roses struggle along dried up terraces.
Beyond the Cross the hillside drops away,
the great view looms.
Forests, rock cropped mountains,
far distances jagged and curved.
What is a World?
Down there the motorways exude
the roar of cars, polluted air,
the sea crazed industry generates its violent rhythms.
Airplane flies along the coast
dragnetting for customers
"Patron - et trois Duvals."
Crowding the beaches people are purchasing the sun.
At Notre Dame de Graces almost no one.
No price on this commodity -
silence tuned by insects and the warm wind.
A summer of opposites perhaps -
within such silence human insects cry
What is a World that contains all this?
Here in the wilting rose garden
the hardened plants need rain.
Wind falls with the fading light
gold to slow silver the rising nightline comes.
Day lingers greying the land, cicada silence,
hill crest firs collect the remaining breeze.
Down in the valley among the olive trees
shutters open from white walls
lights glimmer in dead houses
the troglodytes emerge.
Under deep well-heads dark water lies.
Revised 26.12.93, 11.6.1996, 6.8.02