This article takes a close look at the efficacy and function of key activities in Chan. It arises from reflections on discussions both within the Fellowship and with our consultants in New York last November. It was originally presented to the Leaders Retreat of the Western Chan Fellowship in February 2007 as a policy document for discussion and intended to be a guide for new activities in teaching by local Leaders. This final version is extended to include a broad survey of the relationship between retreat practice and everyday Zen in the understanding of Dharma.1
Some years ago a practitioner at the Maenllwyd on being asked why he was there, told me, “to make a difference”. I have always recalled this reply and wondered how effective we may be in making any difference to the world or ourselves. At this time of reconsidering our orientation and commitment, it is appropriate to have a serious look at this question.
Do our retreats make a difference in the lives of participants? Do our participants use our retreats to make a difference? We know from our retreat report collection that our retreats are highly effective in opening retreatants to themselves, to fresh views of living and to the onset of some understanding of Buddha dharma. Yet the effect is normally short lived, people return to their karma-determined habitual ways and many soon feel the need for a return visit to this farmstead in Wales, which many come to call “home”.
Many have remarked on the yo-yo effect of attending retreats; the up and down in mood, quality of being, depressive tendencies and personal relating that goes on between repeated visits to the Maenllwyd. Serious practice between retreats is quite rare. Many restrict themselves to half an hour of meditation in the mornings and perhaps also the evenings – the rest of the day being spent in the habitual rush of business or minding the baby. The brief appearance of calm is followed by the repetitive and ultimately exhausting daily routine. It is not as if routine life is commonly based in some values related to either retreats or daily mind calming, rather in this consumerist society all values pivot automatically upon self improvement; self satisfaction; concerns with comfort, beauty, status, health, competence and earning power, all subject to shaky self – confidence. It is a me-me-me society.
Yet it is also far from clear whether a more persistent Buddhist practice really makes a much greater difference. Geshe Damchos Yontan of the Lam Rim Centre once told me of a Geshe who, having a bad temper, took himself off onto a three-year solitary retreat. On his return everyone remarked on his calm, happy demeanour, yet, within a week, he fell out with someone and was back to his raging and backbiting. Shifu once asked a retreatant why he came regularly on retreats. “You see, Shifu,” he replied “For some days after I get home I don’t quarrel with my wife!” Certain young western Zen masters given both inka and transmission by their Japanese teachers have fallen by the wayside in spectacular fornication and money mis-use, leading to their being expelled and disrobed by their sanghas. Even a monk’s training here made little difference to a basically immature person ultimately thinking of his own pleasures.
A number of critics have pointed out that the Zen training of laity as part-time monks in a monastic style in the West sometimes produces a split between a pseudo-spiritual life of meditation, liturgy and even significant Zen experiences approved by masters, and ordinary lay activity where irritation, karmic mistakes, hurtful relationships continue, even within the Centre itself. Such a practice commonly becomes abandoned after some years and the reputation of Zen necessarily questioned. Even sincere practitioners may continue to have such persistent difficulties in their life however honestly they may try to surmount them.
It seems therefore that a lay Zen practice following a monastic schedule whether on intensive retreats or over longer time spans makes only a limited difference. Lay practitioners of course have in no sense ‘left home’. They are neither renouncers nor ‘consecrated’ to their practice as a monk may be. To a degree, a pattern of schizoid activity is almost inevitable. The question remains open as to how best a lay Zen practitioner can train in Buddha dharma. Yet, as Shifu has pointed out, monks too have their dilemmas and having left the house may not necessarily mean, “leaving home.” Attachments may indeed persist. For monk and layman alike the issue concerns coming to terms with the karma of the self.
It seems clear that meditational sitting upon a cushion may not by itself necessarily bring about a difference. Whether one does one’s half hour a day or practices alone for three years there seems to be no guarantee that a deeply embedded change will necessarily arise. It looks as if the self-concerns based in karmic habits have not been sufficiently touched. What then is lacking?
The answer is self-confrontation. One may sit on one’s backside for aeons, either in a state of hassling mind, a calm condition or even a thoughtless one but that does not mean that one’s personal problems and prejudices are being addressed or habitual self reference being confronted. Indeed this was the root of Da Hui’s objection to the quietism he believed to be present in Silent Illumination.2 Meditation may suppress emotion and bring a degree of calm but it does not in itself address the fundamental origin of one’s karmic reactivity in prejudice, anger or self-concerning love. Meditation in its basic breath-watching forms is the opening teaching in much Zen practice and may lead one into skilled awareness of silence or into states of trance without for a moment asking who or what the meditator is. Such self-confrontation is essential if any difference is to be made. So how to bring it about?
Our intensive retreats begin with the Western Zen Retreat3 in which the key issue in the communication exercises is the question “Who am I?” “How is life fulfilled?” “What am I?” and related questions circling around conceptions of self. Statistically, some 25% participants discover forms of self-acceptance that contain the roots of great teachings and insight into Zen, others come to understand the human condition deeply and a few suffer much but find the struggle to have been beneficial.
Yet it has been argued from a Chinese perspective that the use of enquiry involving “Who?” questions slows down or may prevent a ‘realisation’ due to focussing on self concerns. It is certainly true that a question (hua-tou) such as “What is Wu?” being empty of any target for thought, may allow a retreatant to “drop the question” in a direct realisation of emptiness perhaps more easily. There is however a serious error in the view that working with “Who?” is mere psychotherapy or potentially a side-tracking of the mind into irrelevancy. The problem with immersing oneself too immediately in a dropping of all concern, as may occur with “Wu?” is that genuine personal karmic problems (samskaras) may remain far from resolved, being merely buried for the time being.
We have seen how inexperienced Zen masters who have undoubtedly experienced kensho have none the less subsequently committed serious immoral acts. Clearly, this is because kensho alone does not heal buried karma. The communication exercise in the WZR does allow buried karma to be processed by raising issues of personal distress through focussing on “Who am I?” Subsequently this then allows the mind to address “Wu?” from a condition no longer involving the repression of karma but from an inner freedom generated through self understanding. While this work can be described in Western psychotherapeutic terms, it can also be understood completely within the psychology of mindfulness utilised by the Buddha himself (see below). Moreover, a prime theoretical basis of the WZR retreat lies within the tradition of the Vijnanavada school of Mahayana Buddhism as found particularly in the model of mind presented in the Lankavatara Sutra.4
Yet, even these retreats do not necessarily prevent the yo-yo effect from developing and a practitioner may soon be back for more of an essentially therapeutic treatment. More is needed to extend the insights of the retreat into everyday practice.
There are two ways of embedding new understanding: Vow power – as Shifu calls the determination to fulfil precepts through vows, and Mindfulness. Vow power involves taking the precepts seriously and in depth every day. The Chan lay precepts are expressed conventionally in negative terms – no killing, lying, stealing, irresponsible sex or drunkenness. Each precept needs further interpretation as in no killing of a child’s joy, no false advertisements, no stealing of other’s beliefs etc. These are important no-nos but what we need in contemplating the precepts are positive and assertive injunctions. We need to express the precepts in positive terms: – give life; always speak truth; be generous, express love; be mindful. As part of an everyday practice one needs to recall these positive vows powerfully and be mindful of whether one fails in expressing them or not.
A serious practice of mindfulness requires a more or less continuous awareness of the quality of one’s mind and behaviour. Normally when something happens or someone says something negative to one or about one, we immediately react with rejection, irritation, anger or, sometimes, even violence. These reactions come about instantly and recur unbidden in memory whenever the mind falls vacant to be immediately filled by wandering thoughts. A hurt person spends hours mulling over, nursing their pain and planning revengeful responses. A mindful person observes these states of mind, lowers their intensity, questions them, and alters the resultant behaviour. Instead of swearing or threatening, one may ask “Did I hear you correctly?” or “Lets have another look at this,” - thereby opening the way to negotiation rather than dispute.
A longer pause allows one to note what aspect of one’s self is responding so angrily. One can see that at the root of all such reactions lies fear. Fear is the father of all emotions: jealousy, anger, scorn are all fears for self. The reflex irritations arise without thought; they have become automatic through a deep repression of fears long ago experienced in childhood. These are the source of karma, the roots of personal ‘samskaras’. When one reacts in this way, one is not aware of the deep origins of such responses. Long ago Freud pointed out that understanding the self involves the ‘recovery of the repressed’. We need to know the origins of our fears and their attendant emotional derivatives. Once we do know them, it becomes possible to identify their re-expression as it arises and to create a tiny mental pause as if remarking to oneself –“Ah, here it comes again!” What I call the ‘wry smile’ may arise. Such an observation allows a modification of one’s habitual reaction into something that with practice becomes a reflection rather than a reaction. To reflect on something allows a pause for consideration to arise. We need therefore to train ourselves to reflect rather than to react. The capacity to reflect in this way is the crucial aspect of mindfulness. It is far from easy.
A prime realisation that comes from such reflection is the shocked understanding of the omnipresence of a selfishness that persists even though a mind may have been skilfully calmed to yield a one-pointed focus on external or internal events as occurs in many practices of shamata or vipassana. Indeed such a sometimes blissfully relaxed focus can prevent one from seeing how even such a praiseworthy practice may be a self-serving activity. Furthermore, if the focus on “Who?” questions leads only into self-referential introspection without a break-through, the subtlety of the enquiry may be missed. It takes time, persistence and a willed focus to recognise the largely unconscious self-serving orientation of the mind even when the stated intention may be the induction of wisdom and compassion.
The specifically Dharmic intuition known as prajna is an insight that sees this obsession clearly and allows the mind to drop out of it into the more basic underlying no-self condition known as “No–mind”, “Buddha mind”, “Emptiness” or the “Unknown”. This is a quite radical state of clarity in which the distinction between self-concern and its absence becomes observed in action. Although not a “kensho”, i.e. the totally complete experience of self-absence that may last only a short time, this clarity becomes a form of knowledge of “the other shore” where compassion emerges simply as the natural form of the absence of self-reference. It may arise through intensive sitting practice or in any highly one-pointed reflection providing it does not get stuck in ‘the cave of demons’ of self-indulgent relaxation.
Once it becomes possible to rest in this clarity, the mind may expand further to a “one mind” state that embraces the whole of experience rather than the divided mind that is present in normal consciousness. When realised, the contrast between these states is at last understood or intuited and can then be sought for both within formal practice and outside it. It allows the practitioner to put the other fully before oneself since the relevance of one’s self can be set aside. This is then the basis for an uncontrived, compassionate empathy that is the expression of a Bodhisattva’s intentionality (bodhicitta).
The Buddha himself was a prime exponent of such mindfulness. Indeed, it formed the basis for his novel practice whereby he was able to observe the mind in all its expressions rather than bending it wilfully into trance – as was the prime activity of meditative yoga in his time. The essential ideas are expressed in the Satipatthana Sutta and Mahasatipatthana Sutta. The focus of mindfulness dwells on four foundations, mindfulness of body, the feelings, the mind and the objects in mind. These are observed precisely as they are without judgement. The attention is entirely focussed, for example on the body in breathing; “just as a wood turner concentrates on his blade as he makes a long or a short turn.” The practice extends into mindfulness of the Four Noble Truths of Suffering, of the Cause of Suffering, the Elimination of Suffering and the path of practise. It is at this point that the omnipresence of self can be observed and the mind transformed. In a further sutta, the Mahadhammasamadana Sutta, the Buddha examines the ways by which activities may be undertaken through understanding what ways may be pleasant now but end in pain, unpleasant now and end in pleasure etc. the foundation of the ways lies in mindfulness. In these methods of close observation, the mind becomes practised in understanding its many ways of arising, their origin and their cessation. Such understanding brings about the power to alter behaviour through personal knowledge gained in practice. Clearly here is a way to make a difference.
Our contemporary ways of life in the West are shaped by the extreme individualism of our times that have become pronounced in European and especially in American traditions since the European Enlightenment. There is thus an especial need for Westerners to understand how our egotism is cultivated in education and through consumerism. Yet, this is not to shift blame onto culture. We are the culture and just as we have created it so can we change it. In becoming mindful of the ways in which we respond and of their origins in our personal histories, both as individuals and as members of a culture, we can initiate change. In that such changes allow for understanding the responses of both self and other, real shifts in compassionate understanding become possible. In such a development, the task of training must inevitably emphasise the everyday practice as one not of lesser importance than training on retreats but rather as the foundation from which going on retreat is a further development. In the West, such work requires direct understanding of one’s self and one’s motivation.
When Shifu first asked me to lead Chan retreats in his stead, I asked him how I should do it. He said, “John, I am Chinese, you are British. You find out!” Although amazed by Shifu’s level of trust in me, this is precisely what I have been endeavouring to do since that time. Perhaps, however, neither Shifu nor I perceived in what ways our differing cultures of origin might require contrasting approaches to the same Dharma. Extensive psychological research shows conclusively that East Asian peoples (Chinese, Korean and Japanese) educated within their traditional systems show very high levels of communal concern and a much less individualistic motivation than traditionally educated American or European citizens.5 The aim is to merge with the positive aspects of the communities or groups to which an individual belongs, whether that is the family, the firm or a religious group. Identification with a collective psychology means that an individual is less concerned with standing out from a background and creating waves of his or her own. It follows that the question “Who am I?” has less significance for a traditionally educated Chinese than it does for a Westerner. Indeed, in interview with one Chinese gentleman he confessed that at depth he could not see a difference between himself and his engagement with his family. I suspect this East West contrast lies at the root of Shifu’s playing down of the “Who?” question in favour of a direct approach to “Wu?”
There is also a difference between the requirements of monastic and lay practice. Monks, through extensive mind calming practice may have considerably reduced their karmic entanglements so that a focus on who is doing them would be less essential. Yet, perhaps one should not be too sanguine in considering monkish attainments.
Of course, neuroses occur just as frequently in the Far East as in America but their basis in ego- psychology is different and consequently the manner of working with personal identity needs also to differ. China, together with India, is in any case little influenced by post –Freudian developments in Western mental health psychology - so that models of mind well understood among the laity in the West have little impact in the Far East. What the appropriate question for a traditional Chinese in a WZR might be remains undetermined but plausibly “What am I like if completely alone?” or “Without a role, who am I?” might be startling.
The practice of intensive Chan meditation is a yogic discipline for training the mind in one pointed observation through the cultivation of samadhi. In itself, it has no effect on the emotions, which are suspended or suppressed during practice. The yogic endeavour is to change the conditions of consciousness within which thought may occur so that for example, in a calmed mind objects normally giving rise to anger appear in a different light – just as they are. Repeated practice gives rise to an easier induction of calmed states as the condition for deeper realisation that, if one avoids the faults of falling into 'the cave of demons’, may take one all the way to the cessation of ego reference in enlightenment. In returning to everyday life, these skills wane through lacking a basis in the meditative mind state. It is only with the addition of mindfulness that a persistence of a collected mind can be actively and successfully cultivated. As the Buddha remarked the four foundations of mindfulness, provide the direct path for the purification of beings.
For us practitioners in the contemporary world we can now see that an exclusive practice of meditation with neither self confrontation nor an everyday mindfulness under vows that can at least sometimes take one into clarity, is unlikely to make much of an impact on our lives. Yet a system of training in which everyday mindfulness, powered by determined resolution, is enhanced through the periodic cultivation of meditative mind states allowing a deep insight into mind in illuminated calm, may indeed place one firmly on the Buddha path. It is this approach therefore that the Western Chan Fellowship needs to promote if it is “to make a difference”.
Many people have almost no insight into the causation of behaviour that often causes them deep distress. The practice of psychotherapy has become almost universal in the Western world and does indeed often assist people greatly. A key aspect of this is the recovery of repressed mentalities that, once understood and as it were ‘digested’, lose their power to cause anguish. Almost any method that effectively brings about such renewed understanding helps enormously; whether this is in individual counselling or in workshops designed expressly for the purpose. These can be given a Buddhist flavour providing a basis for putting feet on the Buddha path as, for example, participation in Ken Jones’s skilled, Zen oriented workshops undoubtedly does. In Master Sheng-yen’s eyes, however, unless vows are taken and precepts adopted such approaches do not amount to Chan itself.
The Tibetans too, understand very well that meditative practice needs support through other activities – the mind, speech and body supports – visualisation, mantric chanting and physical yoga. In this way, they cultivate a rounded path related to everyday life as well as the tantric endeavour.6
Among our retreats the WZR is, as we have mentioned, first and foremost an endeavour to understand the sources of one’s karma. It is for this reason that I recommend it as the first or prime retreat on starting intensive practice. The WZR, through the “Who am I?” approach, establishes a basis for mindful self-awareness in subsequent everyday life. When this approach leads into or includes the taking of Vows, it becomes the first step in Chan study at both experiential and knowledge based levels. We need then to consider how, within the WCF, we can support the mindfulness practice that ensures the making of a difference. A new role for the leaders of local groups can be envisaged.
The local groups of the WCF are ‘led’ by kind people who often lend their homes or make other arrangement for the meetings of weekly or monthly groups. They may also provide elementary guidance in how to “sit”, begin meditation, basic Dharma ideas such as the Four Noble Truths and offer helpful guidance. They are, however, neither allowed to teach Dharma as such nor to carry out intensive interviewing. This is because faulty teaching of Dharma subtlety can lead to quite major misunderstandings and because they are not trained to deal with possible personal distress.
We are however endeavouring to shift the major orientation of the fellowship away from a primary focus on intensive retreats onto the everyday practice of those who have or intend to take up intensive work on retreat. Indeed, there are also those who have no wish to attend an intensive retreat but who would benefit from basic teaching concerning everyday Zen. We are not of course reducing our concern with the vital functions of intensive retreat, but, rather, adding to it considerations that have so far been rather neglected.
It is here that the leaders of local groups can take up a further, highly responsible, activity. This concerns the promotion of Vow Power and Mindfulness in which they themselves may require further training. As we have seen, Vow power stems from the positive and active assertion of the Precepts in promoting life, truth, honesty, love and mindful awareness. Leaders need to understand these points in depth and consider the ways in which the precepts provide numerous metaphors for conduct in everyday life that can be monitored through personal mindfulness.
The practice of mindfulness requires skill in self-examination. This however should not be some sort of worried introspection asking whether one is good enough. Rather it should be a simple mental note taking as to mistakes, successes and misunderstanding in seeking to sustain ones positive vows. Mistakes, errors and inadequacies are inevitable. A careful watchfulness will however increase the beneficence with which one faces life and reduce the often distressing reactions with which one so commonly responds to other people. The mnemonic is the replacing of reaction by reflection. One’s responses to others become increasingly considered and considerate rather than automatic and ego based.
During weekly meetings, means for the maintenance of vows and the practice of mindfulness can actively taught, considered and perhaps monitored. While confession can be an excellent practice not all may be inclined to go that far – even though it is a basis for monks’ relations in Theravada monasteries. One suggestion is the use of the new Aspirational Prayer as a very practical approach to the Precepts. This is available in our Maenllwyd liturgy book. There is also the very helpful Tibetan practice of lojong mind training, with its use of memorised slogans as reminders of the work and the related tonglen practice of taking in and giving out – exchanging bad thoughts/feelings for compassionate ones.7
Of course, leaders have to be practised in these ways themselves. In particular, no self-righteousness should be allowed in relation to moral success! A kind of dispassionate and objective evaluation is what is needed. Above all the entire endeavour should be considered as a path of compassion, the practice of a Bodhisattva.
We have to discuss many aspects of this. What training do leaders need or want? Who is prepared to add these roles to their work as leaders? What difficulties can be foreseen? And so on.
I believe that a training in the vow based, mindful application of “Reflection not Reaction” to be provided by our leaders in their local groups can indeed begin “to make a difference”; to push forward Shifu’s teachings among Westerners and to augment our practice of intensive retreat in beneficial ways.
Presented by the Teacher to the Leaders Retreat of the Western Chan Fellowship at the Maenllwyd Retreat Centre, Wales, in February 2007. Subsequently revised.
1 I have benefited greatly from extensive discussions on the theme of this paper with Simon Child, Rebecca Li, David Slaymaker and Jimmy Yu (Guo-gu) to each of whom I am very grateful. The more general discussions within the WCF provided the background for the initial enquiry, which had led to a consultation with Master Sheng yen, our Dharma patron, in November 2006 in Pinebush. NY. (see Teacher’s Report to the WCF’s AGM 2007.)
2 See: Cleary, C. 1977. Swampland Flowers. The Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui. Grove Press. NY.
3 For a description see: Crook, J.H and D.Fontana (Eds).1990 Space in Mind. East-West Psychology and Contemporary Buddhism. Element Chapters 8 and 13
4 See Crook, J.H. 1990. Mind in Western Zen, In Space in Mind: East-West Psychology and Contemporary Buddhism. (Eds; J.Crook & D. Fontana). Element.
5 See: Neisser U and D.A. Jopling. (Eds) 1997. The Conceptual Self in Context. Culture, Experience, Self-Understanding. Cambridge University Press. Especially Chapter 2.
6 See: Crook.J.H and J, Low. 1997. The Yogins of Ladakh. Motilal Banarsidass. Delhi.
7 Chogyam Trungpa. 1993. Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness. Shambala.
John Crook and Simon Child met Shifu in his personal residence at the Dharma Drum Retreat Centre at Pine Bush in upstate New York. The interview was interpreted by Rebecca Li and filmed and recorded by monks in attendance. The meeting began with formal prostrations: a warm welcome followed, during which tea and cake was provided. The meeting resulted from discussions about the future of WCF throughout the year and is presented in full in the teachers report to the AGM of the WCF 2007. (See website). John and Simon were also able to visit Roshi Loori at his monastery on Mount Tremper, NY and this article summarises their discussions also - and provides a concluding assessment of both consultations. Shifu’s clarification of the meaning of transmission is especially significant in relation to lineage security.
Shifu’s health is very poor. He remains resolute, strong in spirit and lucidly clear in his responses to our questions. We covered a lot of ground and here I can only summarise main themes. We showed him group photographs of recent retreats. He commented upon the relatively advanced ages of the participants – an issue he was to return to.
Although various interpreters have attempted to explain to Shifu the relation between therapy and Chan practice in the WZR, Shifu clearly considers the WZR to be a psychotherapeutic exercise. He emphasised the importance in all Chan retreats of ‘Vow Power’, that is the taking of vows and precepts as a basis for daily practice. To this end, he emphasised longer retreats using Silent Illumination or Hua-tou, encouraging larger attendance and teaching Dharma in them more profoundly. In response, John agreed that there is a strong psychotherapeutic component in the WZR: its great value to Westerners being increased clarity of mind and motivation using Western terminology prior to a clear entry to Chan practice. WZR retreats are especially useful for newcomers to Buddhism, and experienced practitioners also often find value in their fresh approach. He pointed out that our “flag-ship” retreat remains Silent Illumination.
The idea that the WZR is essentially psychotherapy has regrettably taken hold in some quarters of Dharma Drum Mountain in New York and may account for the rather poor attendance over two years. This is both unfortunate and erroneous and the precise function of therapeutic themes in this retreat is once again being emphasised both to Shifu and DDM with an insistence on the use of our own retreat description in advertisement of these events. (See further On making a difference: above)
Shifu took up the question of integrating Dharma and daily life. He stressed two main approaches. Firstly, to emphasise the use of both methods and concepts in daily life reminding oneself to ‘pick up’ the method as much as possible especially when facing problematic issues: secondly to create longer residential programmes. These may however have only limited benefit, he argued, unless the results extend beyond into subsequent every-day life. He suggested local groups should do much more to emphasise daily practice, even instituting early morning gatherings for those living close by. Group leaders should devise methods for re-enforcing individual participation in Dharma group activities through a variety of focussed events. Dharma gossip and mere socialising should be avoided through emphasis on the importance of the issues involved for each person and their relationships in life. Local leaders should help people develop a thirst for learning the Dharma and going deeper in both practice and concept. Again: develop Vow Power.
With regard to transmission in lay lineages, Shifu emphasised that transmission lasts longest when the recipients are young Dharma heirs with a long life ahead of them. Older recipients do not have much time left either to teach or to find their most effective replacements. Such young recipients should be encouraged to go to Universities etc. to understand the problems of the time. Failure of a lay lineage is by no means certain. Indeed properly established monastic lineages can and do also fail.
John discussed the problems in modern society of finding an appropriate Dharma heir. Most lay practitioners are primarily engaged full time in business or in family support. For most, a retreat is an occasional recuperative event however well the process is understood and applied. Shifu said that it is vital to locate enthusiastic supporters of Dharma who will put energy into continuation and future transmissions of Dharma. Some such persons may not have experienced enlightenment (kensho, i.e.: ‘seeing the nature’) but if they have enthusiasm, sufficient understanding of concept and method, and vows, then they can receive a form of transmission. Such serious students will do everything they can; they may teach, run events, do the accounts and support the Dharma programme in every practical way.
A student who has “seen the nature” has gone further and, having gone beyond residual doubt, Dharma becomes the focus of his or her life and career; profession and family are secondary to Dharma - Dharma indeed is then expressed through such activities. Such a person is a prime candidate for full transmission.
John asked, “Can those who have not ‘seen the nature’ themselves give transmissions?”
Shifu answered that such a teacher would not be able to lead a retreat at a deep level. They would not be able to recognise clearly when another has ‘seen the nature’ because they have not had that experience themselves. Such a teacher must know his or her limitations and be up-front about it with trainees. Such teachers are not qualified to transmit the ‘Dharma of mind’ – i.e. to give ‘inka’. They can share the principles they know but cannot confirm another’s experience. Only a sufficiently advanced and experienced practitioner can do that. Dharma heirs can be transmitted as teachers or administrators but may not necessarily be Dharma Masters – only those with kensho experience can be considered as the latter. This needs transparency and must be well understood lest errors occur. It is clear that lineage descends only through the transmissions of qualified Dharma Masters although others assist them greatly on the path. Even so, transmission does not depend on kensho alone. As previously stated by Shifu, a candidate needs to have a sound knowledge of Dharma, a well-established personal practice, be able to teach and attract a following and have a place in which to do it.
John suggested that maybe we need to emphasise Bodhicitta – the will to become a compassionate Bodhisattva - in contemporary Chan, rather than chasing after experiences. Shifu replied that it is easy to give rise to vows but hard to ‘see the nature’. He recalled that we need both in the development of wisdom and compassion. John asked whether it was essential to go through a long ceremony and teachings before one can take the Bodhisattva vows in Chan. Shifu said John could make a proposal for a simple ceremony. The main elements are the three pure precepts, the ten virtues and so on. Guo Gu has translations into English. Shifu would then approve if suitable.
Concerning the differing points of focus of monastics and lay practitioners, Shifu remarked that there should be no difference in the depth of Dharma training. The difference lies in the styles of life. John remarked that lay persons with their families and businesses have to attempt non-attachment within attachments. Is not this a major koan about the nature of renunciation? Shifu replied that it was not the case that monastics did not have attachments! Lay people need to train in the context of their family lives. Since monastics have few possessions that is undoubtedly a help, - but they may still be very attached to self. So home leaving is in the heart – not physical – suggested John. Shifu agreed. Leaving the house does not always mean one has ‘left home’.
John and Simon thanked Shifu for his inspired teaching over many years and told him they will continue to sustain the lay lineage he had created in Britain through their transmission.
Mount Tremper is about two hours drive from Pine Bush and set at a higher altitude among pine forests. The main building of the monastery is a massive, rather austere structure, originally an institution for correcting bad boys from New York. A number of other buildings are scattered among the trees. The forest is beautiful and the open-air shrine and cemetery above the main quarters is sublimely peaceful. In the winter, there is heavy snow.
Roshi John Daido Loori is a large, impressive man seemingly in late middle age. He greeted us warmly without the formalities we are used to in Chan. He responded at once to John’s quote that he had argued that lay lineages only last three generations. Roshi said he had had much more experience of teaching both lay and monastic practitioners since he had written that. Never the less the monastics had a clear advantage in some respects. At Mount Tremper, they can pursue their studies without interruption from worldly affairs. During “Dharma combat” Roshi felt that monastics were usually clearer in their replies and understanding. None the less, lay practitioners do well. As many as fifty families had left their home locations and settled in nearby areas so that they could attend teachings. Many had gotten jobs or some form of employment in the vicinity. Schoolteachers spend their holidays at the monastery; those with their own businesses or the self-employed can find the time for practice and teachings.
Roshi spent most of our interview explaining the teaching model he had developed at Mount Tremper. Monks receive a $100 stipend per month but lay residents do not. Basically, monastics and laity follow the same teachings and practices. These are mainly Rinzai Zen, developed from Roshi’s own teacher (Roshi Maezumi) and include progression through 750 koans, although this is too many for lay people. The koans are tested through supplementary questions; there is the Rinzai rush for interviews that are usually brief. The process is supported by lectures, mondo, Dharma combat and a rising through a hierarchy of positions and roles within the institution. There are however those who prefer to practice in the Soto style using Shikantaza. Transmission in Rinzai may be to either monk or lay persons but on the Soto path transmission to non-monastics is not possible. The Shobogenzo of Dogen is a prime teaching text.
Roshi suggested that intellectuals like koans, those with faith in practice prefer shikantaza. Yet, he argued, the end result of either process is similar – the “capacity to enter samadhi”.
He argued that a residential community guarantees a greater degree of continuity than any other institutional structure. It provides a disciplined community atmosphere in which it is possible to delve deeply into Dharma, experience self-confrontation within a community, and practice in the long term. Even if such an institution falls upon hard times or fails to produce good teachers, the existence of the physical presence of a place often carries the institution through till better times and better teachers emerge. This has often been the case in history, he argued – and indeed the survival of Chinese Zen through the intense communist period in China partly illustrates this. Most of the old monasteries, however badly destroyed have re-arisen in their own grounds.
The prime emphasis in this system is an educational one, intellectual, physical, artistic and spiritual. It is a gradual progression with tests, examinations and movements from one stage to another. The range of spin–off institutions is considerable and clearly a great many excellent people and teachers are involved.
There are few British institutions that can compare with western American Dharma centres or monasteries such as Mount Tremper, Green Gulch Farm or Tassajara in terms of Dharma training, monastic recruitment, lay support and financial security: nor are there many to compare with the Tibetan monasteries established in France. Our own institution is a small contribution compared with these but a significant one. There is no doubt the Fellowship is bringing intensive retreats with few attached strings to an increasing number of serious Dharma enquirers across Europe. There are doubts however about both the depth of our Dharma training and its viability into the future. Serious thought needs to be put into our approach, its institutionalisation and the responsibilities of leaders. The extensive membership, life commitment, organisation and financing of these other institutions provide models of modern practice to be seriously examined as we go forward.
Our discussions together and with Shifu and Roshi Daido Loori suggest a number of considerations to be developed as our policy for the future. As Teacher, I recommend the following:
Shifu’s clarification of transmission within Chan Buddhism clears up several confusions. It is clear that, while transmission may be given to teach or administer within an institution, only transmission to someone having received inka confirming the experience of “kensho” amounts to the transmission of Dharma Mastership within the lineage. Only Dharma Masters may transmit such Mastership to others. Unfortunately, the term transmission still refers to both forms of “promotion’ and relies on the honesty of teachers in making clear their status to disciples. If this is not present confusion can still be a result. It is to be hoped that a change in the Chinese terminology may clarify this matter still further.
ii/ Emphasise Local Groups.
Participation in Maenllwyd retreats has led individuals to offer their homes as meeting places for meditation and now local centres are active across the country. It is from these centres in turn that many individuals come for retreat at the Maenllwyd. The Maenllwyd lies at the hub of a large wheel that continues to acquire more spokes. This institutional structure has proved very successful in promoting important and deep Chan practice utilising retreat formats of four kinds - unique in Europe. The weaknesses we have been identifying stem perhaps from too intensive a focus on attending occasional retreats. We can conceive of a further wheel in which the personal life practice of individuals takes central place and retreats at Maenllwyd become one of the spokes - perhaps necessarily a rather distinctive one. These wheels are not alternatives but rather complimentary ways of envisaging and focussing our planning. One wheel on each side of our chariot - as it were. We should do two things: emphasise the importance of membership of local groups, and encourage their leaders to take on much more responsibility for the members' initial recruitment and training.
Membership of local groups should require active participation in Dharma events and participation in their planning and organisation. Members need to be pro-active in finding and recruiting young beginners interested in what Buddhism has to say in the modern world – especially in relation to the ongoing and increasing world crisis. The responsibility for this shift in orientation must lie with local leaders. These need to undergo more training, study Dharma more deeply and play a very active role in the encouragement of local members. They need to provide the initial teachings, show the relevance of the Dharma to our time, demonstrate how Dharma can be practised in both family and business life and encourage participation in our central retreats. Attention may need to be given to providing leased or purchased premises for events of increasing size. This may entail considerations of local fund raising. Local leaders need therefore to upgrade their programmes with more Dharma social events, more frequent, even daily meditation meetings, giving talks and exchanging visits with other local group leaders and senior Fellows and retreat leaders, arranging meetings between neighbouring local groups etc. Local leaders may need to establish small local committees to help them. Each local group has unique characteristics so that each one can develop its own unique mode of participation in Dharma teaching. The focus should be on increasing the sense of community in a local group with a view to lessening the separation between Dharma and ordinary everyday life. Clearly this gets easier as a group enlarges to acquire aspects of a community; hence the need for recruitment.
iii/ Local Leaders’ Responsibility
The responsibility of local Leaders thus emerges as a most important new emphasis in a developing Fellowship policy - and this will require improved ways of training local leaders. To this end we have discussed ways by which local leaders may consult with the Teacher or Dharma heirs when necessary, and sign up with a ‘mentor’ from among the senior Fellows with responsibility for Maenllwyd and local retreats. Mentoring can be a way to share and discuss difficulties, the advisability of suggested local programmes, how to deal with problematic members and improving Dharma teaching appropriate to the group. The Teacher will discuss these proposals further with an advisory sub group – probably the same as took part in the initial Teachers consultation. Conclusions will then go before the Committee.
iv/ Recruit Youth
It is especially important that young persons across all classes of society be encouraged to come along. There should be no unconscious class or community prejudice in our local endeavours. The more intellectual groups need to open themselves to practitioners that are more simple-minded. Those with only basic understandings need to obtain instruction in more difficult issues. Hopefully it will be among younger members that some future Dharma heirs may emerge. This is a point strongly emphasised by Shifu. He suggested recruitment should be focussed particularly on universities and colleges where Dharma involvement can become part of adult education. Group leaders active near such colleges should take this point seriously.
As discussed at a previous Leaders retreat, networking can be used to increase communication between groups and especially between local group leaders. Networking should be supported by visits from those designated as mentors who can evaluate the quality of the Dharma life of local groups and advise accordingly. Dharma heirs should also travel to local groups in the same way. While busy timetables has made this difficult John has visited Glastonbury this year, given three talks to the Bristol group and visited the Precious Wood of Eric’s associated group in SW Wales. We hope to develop this further when not dashing across Europe to respond to yet another call for a retreat.
vi/ Month-long Dharma Retreats.
Shifu and other Masters recommend much longer retreats – rains retreats or 49 day retreats. The most we have managed is a three-weeker. Effective Dharma instruction needs embedment through living it and this is best acquired initially on long term retreat in which the intellectual and experiential understanding can develop together without dilution from worldly involvements. Such a strengthened practice can then be more easily assimilated to a daily life practice on completion of retreat.
To this end, I am considering offering longer retreats of three to four weeks focussed on Dharma teaching. These events would not however be intensive retreats such as the five or seven day events at the Maenllwyd; rather they would be more like monastic living in periods of non-intensive practice. We would have a loose programme centred on Dharma instruction backed by periods of zazen, work, administration, cooking and recreational walks etc. A test of such a retreat took place after the failure of the Skokholm adventure and will be tested again during the Chan Convivium of the present programme. Two advantages spring from this longer period of retreat. Firstly, there is time for experiential understanding to develop together with intellectual realisation of the meaning of Dharma concepts. Often academic instruction needs to be followed by experiential instruction of an entirely different order. One is form and the other is emptiness – it takes time to understand and also experience their relationship and meaning. Secondly, life in a small community necessitates the cultivation of tolerance for the individual idiosyncrasies of others. There is training implicit here in compassion and in mindfulness of others in a way not available in intensive, individually focussed, short retreats. This aspect of monastic training undoubtedly contributes to the tolerant compassion often visible in older monks whether Buddhist or Christian.
Such longer-term retreats need appropriate premises with reasonable mod-cons. The development of old buildings at Winterhead is a possibility that could meet this requirement. John is consulting with Nick Salt concerning such a project, which may or may not require some financial participation by the Fellowship.
It is far from clear however whether the present members of the Fellowship would wish to attend these rather differently oriented monastic type retreats and the offer may have to be made more widely. The signs are not especially promising as the absence of solitary retreatants etc. suggests. It would therefore be useful if readers of this report could state their potential interest in such a project.
viii/ Residential Community
There can be no doubt that Roshi Daido Loori is right when he argues that the establishment of a residential community is probably the best way to ensure the continuity of a lineage even through dark periods. This current suggestion for longer term, Dharma focussed, retreats may be a way towards establishing such an institution, which is clearly not possible for us at the moment.
These eight recommendations do not cover the entire range of issues discussed during the year but they emphasise the prime conclusions. In the coming year they will be considered further, discussed in committee and brought before the AGM. In this way, we are hoping both to improve our presentation of Dharma in the West and ensure its continuity into the future.
I am well aware of an alternative perspective to the one I have outlined above. This would be based more on an appreciation of our success story so far and upon the hard work, indeed devotion that many have shown during its development. Indeed, maybe we do not need to do anything! Continuing as we are and allowing an organic growth of our current activities is certainly an attractive option. Could we rely on it? As one written contribution to the Teacher’s Consultation put it: “A Zen attitude for me is an attention to my moment to moment reaction to the world around me in a precise and aware fashion that is appropriate, honest and authentic … This is best expressed when self-concern drops out of the way. We learn about self-concern through the practice of Chan. We should be careful we don’t develop a kind of organisational self concern that overwhelms our authenticity”. These are wise words and they need attention. If only it were so easy!
What then drives the motivation apparent in the ‘Preliminary conclusions’ paragraph above. I have spent some four years writing a book entitled “World Crisis and Buddhist Humanism” which is at last in press and will be published in about a year’s time. Investigating the current world crisis is indeed a sobering activity but it was encouraging to discover how closely Buddhism compares with the finest values of the European humanist ‘enlightenment’ in its empirical approach. There is hope here; although time for adequate correction is short. The overwhelming stupidity, ignorance and political inadequacy of our times, contrasting so pathetically with our scientific genius, is painfully apparent and the selfishness on which the institutionalised greed of our largely unconscious consumerism depends is clearly revealed.
We cannot perhaps rely solely on the authenticity of a well-meaning individualism however focussed on moment-to-moment involvement in living. In less stressful times, that may be adequate but such an approach may be too easily swamped today by the illusions and cults of the contemporary, self serving, global society. While it would be easy and doubtless gratifying to relax back into one’s hermitage of authenticity, the cultivation of bodhicitta impels us to care for our world. This necessitates consideration of how we can best operate to make a difference. Here the role and function of our institution can play a part and we need therefore to examine it seriously. It is this that I encourage all fellows to do.