It seems incredible that thirty years have passed since I began to offer meditation retreats at the Maenllwyd. We began with Enlightenment Intensives held in a ruin of a cottage remote from the world. One of them was led by Jeff Love who taught me how to master this process. This was all part of the programme of the Bristol Encounter Centre which I had created earlier with psychotherapeutic friends following my return from California. Gradually we moved to presenting Soto Zen meditation and eventually Shifu came over to support my endeavours and the Western Chan Fellowship was formed. So much history, so many feelings and states of mind embedded in those well juiced walls! It's odd to remember holding full retreats in the Buddha Room which seems so small today. Old hands have much to remember and be grateful. This issue is a celebration of these thirty years. It looks ahead with accounts of the training of Guestmasters, important book reviews concerning Buddhism and both therapy and social engagement, and a response to our recent articles on Buddhism and science. Shifu returns us to our roots with an account of the foundation teachings of the great Master Linji. Enjoy
We now have in place a policy for the training of Guestmasters on our retreats. Here I outline the way whereby I am seeking to create retreat officers of distinction who will eventually continue the intensive work of the Fellowship well into future years. It feels appropriate to share these issues as part of our celebratory journal.
As most readers will know our Training Policy envisages inviting willing people to function first as Time Keepers or Workmasters in which roles they gain a thorough knowledge of how the retreat is presented, its schedule, timing and stages of development over the period of the retreat.
The role of Guestmaster is undertaken by invitation. It means working closely with the Retreat Master in the detailed organisation and monitoring of a retreat. There are two main aspects of this job. Firstly there is the care of the participants, ensuring they are comfortable in their lodgings and understand the rules, answering any questions, encouraging the faint hearted and levelling the pompous or misguided. The second aspect is that of Disciplinarian who, gently at first, but with ultimate severity, corrects any failures in retreat procedure or rules on the part of a participant. A truly problematic participant will be interviewed by the Retreat Master and may be requested to leave.
Guestmasters develop their own style and usually welcome the greatly increased insight into the whole process that comes from caring for others. It can be a worrying job especially perhaps on the first days of a WZR when many newcomers to retreat may be present. The Guestmaster shares with the Retreat Master all aspects of the retreat as it unfolds and the two will often confer together, sharing their impressions.
After several retreats functioning in this way, a Guestmaster may be asked to participate in the interviews of participants, first as an observer and then in trying their own hand under supervision at interviewing participants and facilitating their process. This interviewing process lies at the heart of a successful retreat both in terms of a participant's new understanding and in terms of the communal experience of all. Training here must be highly critical and responsive. For example, psychotherapists may have problems in adjusting their skilled techniques to the demands of running a Zen interview. The purpose is not the same.
Ultimately a senior Guestmaster may be entrusted with Mastering a retreat under supervision and eventually alone relying on their own experience and training.
The principles are the same for all types of retreat. In the course of such training the trainee is faced by the powerful authority of the Retreat Master and this can easily give rise to fantasies and projection which sometimes take quite strong forms that the Guestmaster-trainee has to understand and control. All strong teachers are used to the mildly Oedipal reactions their best students commonly manifest and both Master and Guestmaster need to share these to undo any possible misunderstandings.
Guestmaster and Master form a strong team and the ultimate success of a retreat depends on their skills in managing the shifting moods and styles of experience revealed by participants. Although any one person's realisations are a result of their own willingness to work hard, there is no doubt that skilful interviewing and precise Guestmaster intervention can often bring a troubled practitioner through to realisations he or she might not otherwise have had.
In NCF 25 we presented a retreat report from Jake Lyne in such training, and in NCF 28 Nigel Jeffcoat presented his report on Guestmastering a Mahamudra retreat. Here we present Fiona Nuttall's report of her first experience as a Guestmaster. Others no doubt will follow. Good fortune to them all!!