Three Days of Intensive Chan Retreat under the Venerable Chi Chern at Chuang Yen Monastery

It was an afternoon of bright sunshine and gentle breeze in the late summer. I arrived for the first time in a long while at Chuang Yen Monastery in upper state New York. I came with Dharma brother Jau-fang Wu, from whom I first learned the Chan meditation method taught at Dharma Drum Mountain locations.

It was inevitable that I felt a trace of uneasiness from expecting to face unknown people, environment, and events in the coming days. Although I have been studying the vast knowledge base of Buddhadharma for over a decade, and I have visited Chuang Yen Monastery a couple of times to pay respect to the Buddha and obtain Buddhism books, attending a formal practice program at a Buddhist monastery is still a novel experience to me.

Probably owing to my inborn trait as well as the cultivation from my education and work, for a subject matter that really interests me I am inclined to get all my questions answered and study till reaching a very deep level of understanding. Thanks to the kind help of Hung-yang Chang, my college classmate, and his wife, I gained exposure to materials, knowledgeable friends, and the fine essence of Buddhism. But after more than ten years of reading, listening to Dharma talks, and thinking, I am still not a fully-convinced follower of Buddhism.

My employer has been reducing its operations and shedding employees for a long time. Recently my job also came to an end. With my wife’s support, I plan to use this unfortunate situation as an opportunity to thoroughly review my religious belief system from the various angles of philosophy, science and technology, my life’s experiences, etc. I hope this effort will help to move me from being an inquirer of Buddhism knowledge to a practitioner of the Buddha’s way. To my good fortune I learned that the Venerable Chi Chern came to the U.S. for traveling teaching again. I was able to attend every lecture by the Venerable at the New Jersey Chapter of the Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association, as well as the one-day Chan meditation class taught by the Venerable. I found that my heart resonated with the Venerable’s teaching at these programs. To sustain the valuable momentum of learning from the Venerable, I decided to grasp the last opportunity of his teaching before he returns to Malaysia. Thus, I came to Chuang Yen Monastery to attend the three-day Chan retreat supervised by the Venerable.

During the three days of intensive Chan retreat the learners alternated most of their time outside eating and sleeping among receiving instructions and practicing sitting, walking, and moving meditation. Learning and practicing these plain yet powerful methods almost full time in mandatory silence and immersed in the beautiful environment of Chuang Yen Monastery are a drastic contrast to the busy ordinary life of shifting distractions.

The Venerable Chi Chern was ordained as a Buddhist monk by the Venerable Master Zhu Mo, and received the Full Commandments for the Monk from the Venerable Master Yin Shun. The Venerable Chi Chern has also studied under several other leading Chinese Buddhist masters of the contemporary time, such as the Venerable Master Sheng Yen and the Venerable Master Hsing Yun.The Venerable Master Sheng Yen recognized the Venerable Chi Chern as a Dharma lineage heir, and gave him the lineage Dharma name huan Xian Jian Mi? (Seeing the esoteric, transmitting the exoteric).

The Venerable Chi Chern is an excellent coach of Chan meditation. He is also an accomplished writer on Chan practice in specific and the Buddhadharma in general. He has published more than 40 books. The Venerable’s instructions on Chan meditation can be characterized as thorough, detailed, specific, and clear, which made it easy for the learners to grasp the knacks of the method. The Buddhadharma that the Venerable taught appeared to flow freely from his mind’s realization. The teaching covered both the big picture and the specifics. Although the teaching progressed from the basics to the ultimate Buddhadharma wisdom of emptiness, it did not appear incomprehensible because the Venerable’s delineation was very logical, and he was also skillful in using ordinary, modern language and effective communication means such as everyday analogies, examples, and applications. The Venerable also scheduled a few question-and-answer sessions. It was amazing that he could provide sensible answers to all sorts of questions without apparent pondering. During most time of the retreat, the Venerable sat in the Lotus Posture with absolutely straight back. With the Great Buddha and the Kuan Yin Bodhisattva statues in the background and the two teaching assistants, Dharma brothers Tye-yan George Yeh and Jau-fang Wu, sitting also in the Lotus Posture on the two sides, the scene created a concrete impression of the Three Treasures of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sa gha. All of the above were probably reasons why many Chinese and non-Chinese learners reported in the experience sharing session that they gained significant benefits from the retreat.

The following is an elaborated version of my report at the experience sharing session:

Body (eating): In addition to the three daily meals, I normally eat snacks due to recurrent feeling of hunger. During the retreat I only ate the three daily vegetarian meals and nothing else, yet I only felt slightly hungry right after getting up in the morning but not at any other time. Even this rare feeling of hunger would disappear quickly after I drank half a glass of water and started attending the morning service.

Body (sleeping): The retreat schedule required everybody to go to bed early and rise at 4:50 a.m. One of the many learners with whom I shared a large bedroom snored heavily and frequently during sleep. The snoring sound was loud and changed pattern from time to time, and was repeatedly mixed with spoken words, screaming, and even limb movements. Most of the roommates were forced to move to other rooms to seek better sleep. I told the teaching assistant, Dharma brother Yeh, this environmental problem right after the first night. He told me that since I came to the retreat to practice Chan, perhaps I should figure out a Chan solution myself. I said okay, and stayed put at the same bedroom. When I was woke up by the roommate旧 unusual sleep behavior and could not fall asleep again, I counted my breaths to get some resting. To my surprise I did not feel even faintly sleepy during the day other than briefly in two early afternoons.

Mind: Two days into the retreat I began to wonder why my thoughts still wandered restlessly when not listening to the Venerable or the teaching assistants instructions. About the only other time my thoughts did not wander boundlessly was when my legs and feet became numb or sore from keeping the Lotus Posture.When that happened my thoughts would center around the stress of my legs and feet. On the last day of the retreat I came to the realization that my wandering thoughts and my “Meta-cognitive” thought to concentrate the mind were surfacing alternately and somewhat randomly on a linear line of time sequence. The thoughts appeared to be unsystematic manifestations of my mind. They seemed not different levels of thoughts with a controlling-controlled relationship.As a matter of fact, maybe there is not a directing, separate mind behind these constantly jumping thoughts anyway, is there

Breath: During the first sitting on the last day of the retreat I finally settled my legs and feet reasonably well and was counting my breaths more smoothly. Then, all of a sudden my breaths disappeared. I tried to sense them again in vain for the remainder of the sitting session. When I asked the Venerable Chi Chern about this phenomenon he said my breaths certainly did not disappear. They only became very subtle, but my mind was still not sufficiently sensitive to detect them. In the past I had experienced breaths turning extremely slow and quiet as to be undetectable after practicing Tai Chi Chuan, but I did not expect the quality of breathing would change in an instant during meditation.

The three days of retreat ended when I started to taste some success in settling my body and mind. The time seemed too short to stabilize that success. For this short but precious learning experience I would like to thank the Venerable Chi Chern and all other people within and without Chuang Yen Monastery that helped to make this retreat possible and successful. I plan to practice Chan meditation as taught at home regularly, and look forward to the next opportunity to advance my learning.

(Please send e-mail to ct6991@gmail.com if you have any comments on this article for the author. )

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  1. Mata表示:

    Thank you. It really is inaortpmt to find a community of support. No matter what we are trying to do in our lives (get healthy, greener living, make a difference) it is so much better to do it with a group standing beside you.

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