Friday, July 13, 2012

Meditation Retreat in Kwan Yin Chan Lin International Zen Centre at Pengerang, Malaysia

On the 16th-23rd May 2012, 6 of us from NUSBS came and plan to have a 8-day meditation retreat in Kwan Yin Chan Lin International Zen Centre at Pengerang, Malaysia.

We happened to join in an ongoing 7 day retreat on their 3rd day. The teachers were Zen Master Dae Kwang 大光法师 and Venerable Chi Boon 继闻法师. There were about 33 people in the Zen Centre at the busiest period. It was a blessing in disguise that I was able to volunteer for kitchen duties: to help to cook!

Our objective for the retreat is:
To find the correct direction/purpose of the human life. To be clear, at every moment, of our correct situation, correction function and correct relationship, so as to live a life of wisdom and compassion, helping all sentient beings.

As it was the first time I had attended a Zen meditation retreat, it was fascinating for me to learn about the “Don’t know mind”. Don’t know mind is not don’t know. It’s the mind before thinking arises. I clarified with the Venerable that it is also known as mindfulness in other traditions. And the practice of Zen is to keep the don’t know mind at all times is exactly what Theravada traditions do too! Having this confidence that the teachings of the Buddha are consistent amongst traditions, I start to love the way Zen makes us see things.

It’s the same practice, but viewed from another angle. The angle that makes us feel like living in heaven on the 7th day (after we got used to the little suffering of not going online and meditating for 7-8 hours a day).
Our daily schedule is almost always the same. Waking up at 4a.m. Chanting, meditating, 108 prostrations, breakfast, rest, work, exercise, meditate, lunch, rest, meditate, dinner, rest, meditate, dharma talk, meditate, until bed time at 9 p.m.

One immediate thing that I noticed is the way of eating. We keep 5 precepts in the retreat instead of 8, however with the noble silence and our simple sleeping quarters; we might as well have been keeping 7 precepts, minus the eating after noon precept. The meal times are counter intuitive compared to Theravada meal time. We were taught to eat slow and savor every bite mindfully in Theravada style. However, here the spirit of “together action” is more important.

“Together action” means doing things together as a group. Thus, we start preparing the utensils at the same time, start eating at the same time, and finish the meal at the same time, washing the utensils at the same time, and then keeping it at the same time! Surprisingly, it takes a good deal of attention and mindfulness to be able to not be the last one every time. Well, from my constantly being the last one to finish up, I knew I had a lot more to train!

There was one interesting feature of fasting too. On our 3rd day in the camp, we fasted along the previous retreat participants (it was their second last day). This fasting consists of not eating any solid food from the dinner of our second day all the way until the breakfast of our fourth day! Even water is discouraged! For me who was used to fasting after noon time, I don’t feel hungry (at least not much) during the whole day. However, I also carry around a 2 litres of water bottle everywhere I go, so around the afternoon of the fasting day, I can’t take the suffering of dehydration anymore and thus drank some 500ml worth of water. After that I was pretty well to continue on meditating.

The morning after our fasting, we were excused from the tiring 108 prostration. You can sense the gratefulness of everyone there. Our breakfast is not the usual bread and porridge, but it’s of raw vegetables and fruits. One caveat is that we will have to drink a bowl full of lime & salt water before eating any solid food! The volume of the bowl itself is enough to fill our stomachs and I am just amazed and grateful that I can still eat quite a lot of the fruits and vegetables.

All those eating and not much exercises tend to make one sleepy. However, there is one good thing: the unique thing about Zen retreats, the Zen stick. For those who fear of getting hit by the Zen stick, just do one thing: meditate in the correct posture. That means don’t fall asleep! We can choose to do standing meditation instead of sitting, however we are not allowed to leave the room for the 40 minutes. To go to the toilet, we’ll have to take the opportunity during the 20 minutes of walking meditation. Personally, I am grateful for the Zen stick. It ensured that I didn’t waste most of the time on this retreat sleeping when I was supposed to be meditating. That said, there were quite a few times when the stick had to wake me up, first with a gentle tap then a beating that is more awakening rather than hurting. (None of us got bruises if that’s what you’re afraid of) A good training is also to look at the fear of the Zen stick and say it’s ok if it hits me. Then the fear goes away.

All those long hours of meditations made us appreciate the two outings that we had during the retreat. First of it was the trip to the hills behind the Meditation centre. During the break after dinner and before the night meditation, we walked and hiked all the way up the hills behind the Meditation centre. Some of the more senior participants guided us along the way and lots of pictures were taken!

However, the difficulty of the hike was nothing compared to the trip to the beach. Venerable Chi Boon personally brought us there and we had a challenging time following him along the beach to a good spot to sit down and enjoy the breeze. Having the don’t know mind, the experience is much more fulfilling compared to any holiday trip. Venerable also said that these natural places have positive energies that we are absorbing by being there. These energies can help us in our meditation practices!

On the last day, before we leave, there was a great lunch for us! And the best thing is that we don’t have to eat them in a hurry! Looking back at the experience, Some of my personal reflections that I had during the retreat was:

• We are almost always thinking about the future or the past. When do we ever live in the present? I want to live in the present, no matter how boring or painful it maybe. I want to know that I lived.

• The present cannot be grasped. Attaching to a moment, it becomes the past. To remain in the present, one has to be non-attached.

• To want something in meditation is not meditating, to meditate just do it.

• Calm, peaceful, bored, painful, tired, sleepy, don’t check, just meditate.

It was definitely an eye opener and worthy of our holiday time!