Victor: I can change and I can always continue
—- Retreat Sharing, 7-day retreat, June 4 – 11, 2016
This June I attended the seven days retreat in Yangming Shan as organized by the None Zen Center. This intensive Zen mediation training was one of the most challenging things I did in my life so far. This retreat had numerous sitting sessions, lectures/talks, sharing sessions, and one-on-one tutorials with Shifu Linda, who was leading the retreat. The purpose of this retreat was to advance the Zen practice of the participants by pushing the participants to their limits and beyond. So, how did I advance my Zen practice by attending this retreat?
1. Correct posture
On the third day of the retreat, I finally learned how to sit properly by sitting on my sitting bones at the tip of my meditation cushion. This concludes my yearlong struggle to sit properly on my meditation pillow.
2. Profound doubt
Besides knowing how to sit properly, I realized that there are more “I don’t knows” when it comes to my Zen practice; I got more profound doubt. To start, I don’t know what no-self is. I also don’t know what Enlightenment is and what the implications of actually being Enlightened could be for my life. Then, I don’t know what the correct indicators are for evaluating making progress towards Enlightenment. In addition, I started to realize that I don’t exactly know why (my reasons) I want to get Enlightened. The only thing that keeps me going is that I have no clue what no-self is, and that I am kind of curious to find out what it is as there seems to be something there. So, I continue to ask the question “what is no self?” | “this me, no-self?” | “no-self?” to continue my doubt.
3. Improved self-awareness
Through the activities in this retreat, I enhanced my self-awareness; I got to know myself better. Essentially, I learned that everything is in my mind; it is not the flag, or the wind that is moving, but my mind that is moving. This includes the leg pain, my fear, and the strong emotions associated with my leg pain, my thoughts of already having paid enough, and other thoughts and forms of resistance to continue my Zen practice.
Furthermore, I became aware that my karma (the result of my previous actions and thoughts in the ever-changing interdependent reality) is that I am person who sometimes rejects things. In addition, if I am confronted with a situation that I resists and don’t want, and when there are no exits, I can become fearful. Through my Zen practice, I have the opportunity to overcome my karma by continuing and changing.
In several instances during this retreat, I experienced situations when I was sitting in complete agony, having leg pain, shaking, releasing legs, moving on the pillow, basically resisting my Zen practice. During these times, Shifu Linda was standing behind me and touching me with her Zen stick (there was no way out). Shifu Linda was preventing me from moving and she was correcting my sitting posture, while shouting and guiding me through to continue my doubt by asking the question no matter what was happening. Shifu Linda even used strong phrases such as “keep asking, or you die on your pillow today” to encourage me to continue.
Through these experiences, Shifu Linda taught me something very important. I can always keep holding on to the last piece of wood that keeps me afloat in the big storm at sea after ship wreckage (like the Titanic). This metaphor refers to the last little piece of doubt that allows me to keeping asking the question no matter what happens in my mind (pain, emotions, fear, resistance etc.). Basically, I pull all my thoughts / all the forms of I through my question/doubt; “this me, no self?” In other words, I doubt on every thought that is not doubt. In short, I learned that I can change and that I can always continue, even amidst great pain. My doubt / my question is the only thing I got amidst turmoil.
4. The mainstream
To build up the mainstream (dharma/true nature stream), I was instructed to keep asking “no-self?” sincerely (from the heart), strongly/powerfully (with all my effort left), loudly, hardly, deeply, slowly, and continuously. I had to keep asking (continuously) no matter what, i.e., no matter pain / no pain, right / wrong, doubt / no doubt sensations, moving / not moving, fear / no fear, thoughts / no thoughts, happy / unhappy, or willingness / unwillingness. The purpose was to keep asking the question to break through the duality stream. I was instructed not to deal with any of the dualistic thoughts from the duality stream as to build up the mainstream, and to keep it running like a river to the ocean. With every new moment, with every new question, with every new me, I was supposed to be asking the question as if I was asking it for the first time.
On Friday evening, I kept sitting straight and still, and I kept asking the question as instructed to build up my mainstream. After the last session that night, I slipped into a deep concentrated state, as state in which I was focused on the question and was seized by my doubt that I don’t know what no self is. My mistake was that I indulged in the pleasure of feeling no pain in this state, and by labeling this as progress. As Shifu Linda reiterated to me, this event pointed to my experience that there is something beyond my intellectual/logical understanding. Zen mediation is about my experience; the point is not being free of pain as this is dualistic thinking.
In this retreat, I became fully aware of my (current) obstacles to my Zen practice. My biggest obstacle is to follow Shifu Linda’s instructions to the letter. Although Shifu Linda’s instructions are quite simple, they are not always easy to implement. Sometimes I add my own rules, or I ignore her instructions because I don’t completely understand them, or because I resist them. This prevents me from making my Zen practice efficient and to make progress rapidly. For instance, I tend to move around on my pillow when I have severe leg pain, instead of focusing on my question/doubt.
The following questions then naturally arise; why is it that I have difficulties following Shifu Linda’s instructions? What are the obstacles that prevent me from following Shufu Linda’s instruction? Why do I resist Shifu Linda’s instructions?
First, I have some challenges trusting people when I don’t fully know them yet. In addition, I have some problems opening up – showing my vulnerabilities – to those people as well. In addition, over the last couple of years I have been developing a logical I through my academic training and in my daily life by deeply analyzing circumstances and people, to determine my goals and what I can do best. Essentially, becoming an independent thinker who develops strategies to make optimal choices given his constraints. So, yes, as Shifu Linda correctly pointed out earlier, I have the tendency to analyze and conclude on everything. The combination of having some challenges fully trusting people who I don’t know yet and my logical thinking are the obstructions to listening and following Shifu Linda’s instructions immediately, and to advance my Zen practice as well.
This brings me to my second obstacle to advancing my Zen practice, which is my obsession with pain. I have the deep desire to be free of pain. I do everything to prevent and avoid pain, either physical or mental pain; there is a strong pain-avoiding I. For instance, the whole drama that unfolded when I was selecting my meditation pillow while everyone was watching. I was calculating which pillow would be the least uncomfortable/painful.
Today, I took the first step by acknowledging these obstacles to my Zen practice. The second step then is to do something about it as to advance my Zen practice. When it comes to following Shifu Linda’s instructions, I will put more effort in following her instructions by doubting on thoughts of not trusting what she says or when analyzing her instructions. When it comes to my pain-avoiding I, the only thing I can do is to do my best by holding on to the last piece of wood. In addition, I continue to ask and doubt on the I that is resisting the pain and which is tensing up the whole body fighting the pain.
In sum, to advance my Zen practice, I continue my Zen practice (self-inquiry) by just doing it (no reasons needed), whether there are obstacles or not. I just continue and keep asking “what is no-self?” | “this me, no-self?” | “no-self?” no matter what happens. This question (huatou) serves as my tool (I can ask louder, more powerfully, more frequently etc., depending on my situation), allowing me to continue and doubt on my various forms, aiming at increasing my overall doubt. **** check more Student Sharing ****