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Master Ming Yi – Shaolin Temple Ch’an Weeks Retreat
Master Ming Yi (明一) is a contemporary Ch’an master, born in China in 1963. He is the student of Ch’an master Jing Hui, and is the Dharma-inheritor of the Linji lineage, passed on to him by Jing Hui in 2010. Master Jing Hui was a student of master Xu Yun (1840-1959) and has brought the Ch’an Dharma into the modern era despite many difficulties. Master Ming Yi resides at the Fourth Ancestor Temple (Si Zu Si - 四祖寺), situated in Huang Mei (黄梅) County, Hubei province, south-central China. The following translation is from a blog entry dated the 18th of March – 2007, written by master Ming Yi, which conveys the experiences he had during his attendance at a three week Ch’an retreat held at the famous Shaolin Temple, in Henan province. The original Chinese text has been provided to me by Upasika Sheng Hua and is entitled ‘在少林寺打禅七’,or ‘Shaolin Temple Ch’an Weeks Retreat’, this refers to the practice of a Ch’an Week, which consists of seven days of intense meditation practice – here, master Ming Yi is attending three Ch’an Weeks (i.e. 21 days) in a row, without a break, but as he arrived half-way through a week of meditation, he participated in 3 additional days – making 24 days in total. Throughout he is making use of the hua tou ‘Who is thinking of the Buddha?’ – And receiving meditation instruction from master Hui Tong of Mount Yunju, who is serving as the master of the meditation hall, and guiding the Ch’an Weeks retreat.
Master Ming Yi – Shaolin Temple Ch’an Weeks Retreat.
Section One - The Beginning.
It was with a distinct sense of uneasiness and apprehension that I approached the Shaolin Temple. Three continuous weeks of Ch’an meditation stood in front of me, and this seemed like a daunting task. This is the ‘real’ Shaolin Temple, and I would be spending the next 24 days within its walls. However, I had been planning and anticipating this trip for the last three months. The experience leading up to the retreat has been ‘freeing’ - like being in the divine sky - one moment, and like being ‘trapped’ in hell - the next. The preparation has been a time of great growth.
These three characters - “少林寺”(ShaolinSi) - are very well known in China. The Shaolin Temple is famous for its martial arts, and these arts have been depicted in movies such as ‘Shaolin Temple’. This film has had a very profound affect upon the modern generations in China. For many young people (including myself as a teenager), the aspiration of gaining a place in the Shaolin Temple was very strong. However, the urge to be a heroic monk diminished with age, as the hands and feet no longer flew with the vigour of youth. As a young man I took up the study of Buddhism and turned my back upon the path of heroic adventures. Instead, I retreated into a life of quiet contemplation. The Shaolin Temple appeared to have nothing to do with Buddhism, despite the fact that it is the birth place of Ch’an Buddhism in China. Indeed, I had no intention whatsoever of visiting the Shaolin Temple until several months ago when I heard that the Shaolin Temple was holding Ch’an Weeks. This news rekindled my dream of training in the Shaolin Temple, but when I applied to my abbot for permission to go (on a number of occasions), my requests were flatly refused. At this time the idea of attending the Shaolin Temple looked like it would remain forever a dream. Some people say that the Shaolin Temple is not traditional and emphasises martial arts more than Buddhism, and that a Ch’an Week is like a fight rather than a meditation retreat, but I remained true to my aspiration. Trying to attend the Shaolin Temple was proving to be harder than I imagined. I requested again to attend a meditation retreat in Shaolin – but the abbot said that he was going on a journey and that I would have to wait. The abbot was away for more than a week before returning, and as there were many duties to perform, permission was not immediately granted. However, I remained patient and diligent in my task, performing all that was required of me. Temple life can be very busy on a day to day basis – even involving travel to far off places for various reasons. One’s own temple can not usually be left at short-notice, as the performances of one’s duties are important for all concerned living within the community itself. Eventually, despite the many obstacles that existed, the abbot did finally grant my request, and permission was given for me to attend the Shaolin Temple. Receiving this permission inspired a great excitement within me, and a great number of doubts. Ch’an Week attendance requires a tremendous spiritual and physical effort, an effort that many do not fully understand. The inner strength needed is beyond that required for any other endeavour and is difficult to achieve. The idea of failing can affect the confidence of one’s self and those around. Therefore the importance of this attendance at the Shaolin Temple can not be underestimated – I must rely solely upon my own efforts and strive to do my best for myself and all others. Before I can attend, however, I must make all the many and necessary arrangements to leave my temple, and for travel to (and accommodation at), the Shaolin Temple.
I contacted the Shaolin Temple for advice about the best route to travel. They suggested a train to Zhengzhou, and then by car to the temple itself. I boarded the train for Zhengzhou around 930pm – it did not seem to be moving very fast. I did not get much sleep and got up in the morning to meditate, and then I ate and took care of certain other matters. I sent text messages to the lay-Buddhists in Zhengzhou (Henan), telling them that I was coming and asking for assistance to get to the Shaolin Temple by car. The train arrived at Zhengzhou train station at around 530am in the morning. The weather was very cold and this made the roads around Zhengzhou difficult to drive upon. The bad weather conditions had caused a number of accidents and this led to the car (that was picking me up), to be delayed by around half an hour. Soon, however, we were on our way toward the Shaolin Temple itself. As we approached I began to feel the immense energy of this holy place cultivated over many hundreds of years of discipline. Snow covered everywhere, and the car we were riding in had to drive very cautiously along the road. My mind was full of questions. Despite the reputation of the Shaolin Temple I was not sure what I would face in my quest for self-knowledge. It would be very hard work, of that I was sure. After-all the temple was famous as the birth place of Ch’an Buddhism and for its martial arts practice. Snow was falling and dancing through the air, covering the strong, old pine trees on Songshan.
‘Snow falls heavy upon the pines,
The trees do not bend under its pressure.
How can they?
Nobility and purity maintain integrity
And even the heavy snow has no influence.’
Poems of this kind reveal the great depth of reality that resides within the mundane and the ordinary. As I approached Shaolin the perception deepened and broadened as if in anticipation of what was about to happen.
The car dropped me at the bottom of hill and I bid farewell to the lay-Buddhist driver. My journey would now be on foot through the thick snow that was beginning to melt. My arahant slippers, being made only of thin silk would not be of much protection. As a consequence, my feet were wet through and I tried hard to seek some kind of shelter. Eventually, however, I began not to worry about my feet as my mind rose above such relatively trivial matters. I had to ask for directions a number of times, and then the iconic gates familiar in movies and photographs came into view – I had finally arrived at the Shaolin Temple. I entered the main hall and showed my respect to the Lord Buddha before going to the reception room where I talked with the other monks. I realised that even at this point in the proceedings, I still had to get permission from the head monk (who was in-charge of the meditation hall) to attend the Ch’an Weeks at the Shaolin Temple. Without hesitation, I went straight to the meditation hall and discovered that the head monk was master Hui Tong, whom I had trained under on Mount Yunju. After introducing myself, I reminded the master that I had attended his Ch’an Weeks in the past, and he said that I could attend the Ch’an Weeks, and that I should find the guest monk so that the appropriate arrangements could be made. I changed into a dry pair of socks and entered the meditation hall at around 1030am. I sat in the meditation posture and calmed and cleared my mind. I was blessed by the Buddha and Bodhisattvas!
Section Two – Everyday Life.
When a temple holds Ch’an Weeks, there is much preparation that is required. This is not an easy or simple task. The material resources required are often extensive and usually beyond the means of a normal temple. However, with careful organisation and planning what is available is allocated precisely to provide for the maximum number of people, over the longest possible time, depending upon the duration of the meditational retreat. Everything is arranged in the meditation hall, including; food, drink, clothing and even tissue paper – all resources are to be in place before the Ch’an Week can begin. The presence of appropriate material resources frees the practitioners to look clearly into their minds, and for the master to teach the Way (Dao) from the deepest levels of wisdom. Those who participate during the Ch’an Week rely upon the continuous labour of many other monks living within and outside the temple grounds. There are the chefs, the incense and lamp lighters, the water providers, the manual workers, the master of the Treasury, and the general administrators, as well as many others. During Ch’an Weeks the temple must retain its discipline and there are monks whose job it is to keep law and order whilst the head monk guides the Ch’an Week from his seat in the meditation hall. Protecting a temple at this time is a difficult task indeed. It can be said that even the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have to work hard to provide protection for the Dharma during these times of great effort. Such is the difficult task of holding a Ch’an Week. Those who meditate benefit from the compassionate duty of many others. It can also be a very expensive endeavour – for example, it cost the Shaolin Temple around 400,000 (Chinese dollars) to host six weeks of Ch’an meditation, and this large amount only paid for the required food and drink. I think that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas would be alarmed at this amount.
The Shaolin Temple is not like many other temples in China which rely heavily upon the surrounding lay-community for support and development. The Shaolin Temple is entirely self-sufficient and has had to support itself throughout its history. In modern times the Shaolin Temple has developed tourism in the area of Songshan and used the earnings to keep the temple functioning, and this has benefitted the local people. This self-sufficiency has been very important nationally, as in the 1980’s the temple developed martial arts as a means of promoting Chinese culture and Buddhism and this has assisted in the economic development of China. The local government assisted in the building of the Shaolin Temple Motorway so that visitors can get to the temple with a greater ease than use to be the case. This modern self-sufficiency is in accordance with the practice of the ancient Buddhist monks who use to work the land around Shaolin to grow rice. The Vimalakirti Sutra says; ‘Buddha wisdom is attained through the transcendence of desire.’ The abbot of Shaolin – master Yongxin – has done just this, and leads the monks in a correct manner. He used the success of the movie entitled ‘Shaolin Temple’, and made effective use of the popularity of gongfu practice which exists amongst the people. Through the practice of martial arts, people have been drawn to the correct teachings of the Buddha and this has revived the Shaolin Temple as a spiritual centre in China and the world. As a result, Ch’an Buddhism is now very well known and a popular form of Buddhism. Master Yongxin has re-built the temple and grounds extensively, preserving the traditional structure, whilst at the same time modernising the facilities to a high degree. Around the Shaolin Temple, retreat centres for gongfu practice have been developed to allow students to practice and discipline their minds and bodies. Within the temple itself, the abbot and monks live a very pure and pious life. Many other temples rely upon donations and are often guided in various directions by the laity – but the Shaolin Temple, being self-sufficient does not have this problem as it is led exclusively by the monastics themselves, thus preserving the pure lineage of Shaolin Ch’an Buddhism.
Master Yongxin has insisted that the meditation hall be fully restored and this was finally accomplished about a year ago, with a number of Ch’an Week meditational retreats already being held. This is a very positive step that has benefitted many and will continue to benefit innumerable beings in the future. From a personal perspective, I am deeply grateful to have had this chance to participate in a Shaolin Temple Ch’an Week.
The great master – Yongxin – as the abbot of the Shaolin Temple is a very busy person. However, such is his compassion that he sits with us during the meditation retreat, and as well as providing and regulating food and clothing, he clearly explains the origination of the Chinese Ch’an Buddhist tradition itself. The Ch’an tradition is spiritually important not only for China, but also for the world. The Shaolin Temple (on Songshan) has been instrumental in the preservation and development of Ch’an Buddhism in China. People should be educated about how Ch’an Buddhism is a treasure of Chinese culture, and every one should practice Ch’an and even try to attend the Shaolin Temple at some point in their lives. The Shaolin Temple, as a living tradition can provide religious instruction to any one who needs it. Attending a Ch’an Week is a very positive step on the spiritual path that should not be feared. Master Yongxin encourages us in our efforts and this gives extra strength to our practice. Discipline is important within the meditation hall. Food and drink, which is provided by other monks not participating in the Ch’an, is strictly regulated to prevent the wrong kind of energy (qi) being generated and accumulated – as such energy can disrupt meditational practice. Eating and drinking should be kept to a suitable level relevant for maintaining a healthy mind and body when in the meditation hall. Eating too much is a product of greed, and eating too little is a product of ignorance; it is best to tread the middle path in such matters. Some times the monks eat too little due to their discipline – but master Yongxin, out of compassion, insists that they eat a little bit more to keep their strength-up, and to avoid unnecessary aches and pains in the body, particularly in the leg area. I found that I sat very comfortably due to the way the meditation hall was organised and disciplined. Master Yongxin teaches that we should eat when it is time to eat, in this way there is no greed or corruption in the mind, merely appropriate action in the physical world during the time of a Ch’an Week retreat. There is no need to hide food, or take it back to the dormitory for eating later – there is enough for all. The nourishing food of steamed stuffed buns and boiled water is plentiful. Master Yongxin sets a very high example that emulates the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in the ten directions. His compassion knows no bounds and his example allows others to firmly follow the Dao and realise the Buddha Dharma.
Section Three – To Study With Diligence.
For over a year now, master Yongxin has performed various roles in the temple, including the offering of pastoral care to all those who require it. This involves the interpretation of events from the Buddhist perspective, which requires a deep understanding of Buddhist philosophy and the ability to apply this understanding to ordinary life. This advice is essentially instruction on how to be ‘consciously aware’ during the entirety of the life experience itself, how to dedicate one’s life to the correct spiritual path, the cultivation of gratitude, tolerance, sharing and the creation of lasting (positive) karmic connections with others; to have no regrets about the past, or complaints or worry about the future, and to always maintain an attitude of humility. Participating in the Ch’an Week has given master Yongxin the opportunity to change roles and lead the meditation training himself. In this way he can personally guide the monks during their inward journey, and demonstrate true Ch’an acquisition.
I spent my first time period in the meditation hall concentrating upon the slowing of my breath. I did this for the time it takes an incense stick to burn down. Slowing the breath stabilises the mind and body which is essential if good cultivation of the mind is to be established; and although my shoes were wet, my socks were dry. I sat still and quiet until noon – when it was time for a vegetarian lunch to be eaten. Master Yongxin cares very much for the spiritual and physical health of the community on Mount Song, this is why the bowls and chopsticks of the resident monks and the visiting monks are kept separate, so as to prevent the potential spreading of any infectious diseases. However, it is good discipline that we must wash our own bowls (with boiled water) in the designated wash area some distance from the meditation hall. I followed this procedure very carefully after learning it from the other (visiting) monks. Nothing is to be rushed, but rather carried-out in a conscious and dignified manner – washing bowls is a form of meditation at Shaolin. Water is precious and can be scarce at difficult times; its presence should not be taken for granted. This explains why the water that is used to wash the bowls is then used as drinking water. These practices (and others like them) are not necessarily unique to the Shaolin Temple, as I have come across similar practices elsewhere, but it is true to say that at the Shaolin Temple a balanced practice between stillness and movement is observed. This creates an all-round cultivation that is fair and just to all. The discipline is designed to assist the transcending of individually produced karmic obstacles that are encountered along the Way (Dao).
The noon meal had to be eaten and digested in around half an hour before we had to return to the hall. This is a reasonable amount of time providing we move quickly and efficiently, in a disciplined manner. Two days of no proper sleep and the fatigue from my long journey is beginning to take its toll – but I can not wait to return to my meditation seat and begin again as soon as possible. Applying the meditative method of the Buddha’s path I focused my mind and I studied hard. As a consequence the hours went by very quickly. Meditating for hours on end can be physically as well as psychological difficult as the desire aspect of the mind is ‘turned inward’, away from the world of external desire, and toward its empty essence. This breaks the karmic habit of many life-times and creates the condition for a profound realisation. However, for many people this is not easily attained and the training often involves severe strain – which is its point. The ordinary, desirous mind is transcended through self-effort and the pain and discomfort that is felt is clearly perceived as the illusion it actually is. Sitting on the meditation seat can cause intense pain in the body and the mind – particularly in the legs and feet; it is also the gate-way to the cultivation of a peaceful and tranquil mind itself. When standing and moving around the temple (between the periods of seated meditation), there is no rushing or running, but everyone moves in an orderly fashion with enough space between each person to prevent collisions. It is important to allow the body and mind to relax into the training and not resist the natural effort that is required during Ch’an Weeks. It is true that some times, due to the strain, some monks fall asleep whilst sat in meditation. This is a great error that must be carefully watched for and prevented through a heightened sense of awareness. The day is separated into periods of meditation and rest – with meditation taking-up the greater part of around 11 hours. Modest sustenance in the form of stuffed vegetable buns (and boiled water as well as soy milk) is served at certain times of the day, but the mind must not dwell on this or greed will be encouraged. Officially the day starts at 4am and finishes at 11pm – with the night period being used for sleep, or further meditative study. The sessions throughout the day are measured by the burning of very large incense sticks. At the end of the first day I was exhausted with pain throughout my body and feet. I did not get to sleep until around midnight – but I woke up continually throughout the night. It is also my understanding that I snored when I did manage to fall asleep – keeping others awake – for this I must ask for their forgiveness!
There is a martial arts book that says; ‘Like a knife to the neck, or a punch to the chest’, – this is what a Ch’an Week is like, it is a matter of life and death, and one’s existence is no longer one’s own. After three days of hardship, the strain is becoming very difficult to bear. Aches and pains are all over my body and my feet hurt more. I also discovered that my hands are swollen. It hurts even when I sit down to meditate. I feel that my physical existence is no longer my own. Despite the pain, every one present is reminded to focus upon the goal of enlightenment and not let the physical reality drag us away from the empty Mind Ground. I can not even remember the other day – it passed in a vague manner – all I was aware of was the presence of others as we meditated, ate, toileted and slept – all to the signal of burning incense – truly we are all trapped together!
After three to four days things got worse for me. I became sick and started coughing during the meditation practice. As I did not want to disturb the others who were meditating, I decided to seek out some kind of medicine. At this time my legs did not hurt as much, but I am aware that there is inflammation all over my body. No matter how I focused, the pain and coughing was getting worse. Then I remembered what the Patriarch said; ‘When you suffer disease, use the reduction of the intake of food as a medicine.’ After this I did not eat the stuffed buns, but drank soy milk with ginger in the morning. After three or four days, my cough disappeared and my legs no longer hurt as much as they once did – now I could meditate without the pain in my legs distracting my concentration. The pain in my body disappeared and the swelling in my hands went down. The blisters on my feet began to heal, but continued to hurt occasionally. However, generally speaking my physical condition improved considerably and I was able to meditate effectively. About a year ago I took-up the practice of the hua tou method of asking myself ‘Who is thinking about the Buddha?’ – since that time I have made progress in my self-cultivation. I have found this hua tou to be very useful and I feel comfortable with it. It must be fiercely held in the mind so that it’s spiritual force can over-come the physical discomfort of intensive meditation practice and transcend the dualistic mind that is the product of ignorance. Some times, if the hua tou is held in the wrong way, I have heard that the head and the eyes can swell-up. The effort must be directed firmly inward, away from the physical – where the mind is habitually attached. If the physical is mistakenly focused upon, then the ignorance and attachment become even greater resulting in no positive progress whatsoever. However, with the passing of the pain I was suffering, I was able to focus clearly and firmly upon the hua tou and establish a good inner concentration. After a few days, some pain did return, but I found that it manifested in a cycle of comfort and non-comfort, appearing only within the mind. The difference now was that the pain and comfort no longer disturbed the hua tou or diverted it from its true course of realising the great Way (Dao).
After another three or four days, good news came. Master Hui Tong decided to delay his return to Mount Yunju – this meant that we may sit for another seven days and extend our retreat time. According to tradition, in the fourth week of a Ch’an retreat (and in the weeks thereafter) it is customary to allow participants to attend an interview with the head monk or master known for his wisdom (班首 - banshou), on the fourth day of the week. This master has the important task of probing the mind of the participant, and through exact comment and action, to untie any knots of remaining delusion. This spiritual interaction is also used to affirm understandings and sanction progress. A monk does not have to attend this interview, but if he refuses to meet the master – he will be encouraged to walk around the Buddha-shrine (in a clock-wise direction) within the meditation hall by the master in-charge of discipline and security. This master possesses a ‘fragrant wooden plank’ (香板 – xiangban), which he uses to good effect – striking the walking monks to keep their attention and concentration clear for the attainment of deep and insightful meditation. This instrument is also used to strike seated monks who are falling asleep, or who are otherwise lethargic in their practice of meditation. Although it can have a number of names, it is shaped like a sword and is used within the Chinese Buddhist Sangha to maintain standards of discipline. It is particularly important during Ch’an Weeks, as the banshou monk expertly strikes the various pressure points around the shoulders and upper back so that the qi energy is stimulated as a result. Despite its use, this devise is one of encouragement rather than one of punishment. The practitioner is fully re-energised after being stroke with it. In this regard the striking master must understand the channels of qi flow within the human body and possess the skill to strike each point accurately and without hesitation. Initially I did not attend the interview with the master, as I entered a state where my body and mind appeared to be empty. And all my pains disappeared. At this time the hua tou was very bright and clear and I was quite content to sit strongly and peacefully. There was no desire to see the master, and the striking with the ‘fragrant wooden plank’ seemed to be like nothing to me. Eventually, however, master Hui Tong advised that if everyone works hard upon their self-cultivation, then attending an interview can be very helpful – so I decided to participate. I told master Hui Tong that I grasp the hua tou neither too much, nor too little and am content with my realisation of emptiness. He asked me how long I had been using my current hua tou – to which I replied around a year or two. The master immediately replied that my contentment is not a true breakthrough – but just a calm state of mind, and that I should put more energy into raising the hua tou in the mind itself – in this way a true breakthrough can be achieved. He added that I must not mistake a dull emptiness for true emptiness - whilst holding my hand and giving me encouragement to train harder.
This advice was simple, precise and very wise – it struck right to the centre of the matter for me. I had been advised (previously) in a similar manner by master Ming Ji – so I know that this is what I have to work upon. Falling into a dull emptiness is a form of apathy that deviates from the true path, but which seems comfortable at the time of entering it. A dull emptiness is simply a form of ‘not sensing’ things – coupled with a pleasant feeling - and is often mistaken for the realisation of true emptiness (sunyata). It is more a state of ‘nothingness’ rather than ‘emptiness’ and resting within it should be avoided so as to prevent spiritual stagnation. The master has shown me that my contentment is not a real breakthrough, even though this feeling often permeates my mind and body even in my sleep. In this state the hua tou becomes dull and it must be re-invigorated through concentrated will-power. Meeting the master in a Ch’an Week acts as a method to break out of deluded habits and re-focus the training method itself. The master expertly probes the mind of the student and through wisdom reveals his spiritual weaknesses. The master’s wisdom had created a great doubt in my mind which will give me the strength to carry-on to a deeper level of attainment. I asked the master about the meaning of the Fourth Patriarch’s saying ‘Do not think of Buddha, do not grasp the mind, do not look at the mind, do not measure the mind, do not think of contemplation, do not view the path, do not become scattered in confusion; instead continue to perform one's duties. Do not leave the community to live alone, but purify the mind exactly where you are, make it bright and clean so that it becomes reflective, like a mirror. Looking within - the purification of the mind in this way may take one, three or five years to achieve, but with correct instruction the bright and pure mind can be realised immediately, here and now.’
The master answered that the most important point is that the mind does ‘become scattered’ but is correctly focused through the appropriate use of the hua tou method. This advice prevented my mind from being scattered in confusion and I was able to focus upon the cultivation of the empty bright light within the mind itself without hindrance from externals. Therefore attending the interview and asking the master was a very good opportunity for my spiritual development as it cleared away the inner confusion and revealed the true Way.
Eventually the Ch’an Weeks reached a conclusion as the allotted time for the intensive meditation retreat came to an end. I am ashamed to say that my own efforts hit no where near the mark despite the compassion and wisdom of all those around me – particularly the abbot Yongxin and those who worked quietly in the background for our welfare – when I think of this I am near to tears! I felt as if I should do some thing for the master, like serve him tea or bring him his meals – but it became obvious to me that all that the master wanted was for us to realise full and complete enlightenment and take our place among the Tathagata.
With the conclusion of the Ch’an Week retreat, the attending monks donated around a thousand (Chinese) dollars which was used to pay for a vegetarian meal. This gesture was intended to thank every one at the Shaolin Temple for providing the facilities and resources that allowed us to take part in this intensive meditative activity – and for the arranging of the details of our eventual departure down the mountain. Before I left, however, another monk and I, who had attended the retreat went to visit the Cave of Bodhidharma – the place where the Indian monk spent many years meditating, over 1400 years ago. We hurried back to the temple to eat lunch – before descending the mountain just after noon. I had only light clothing and wanted to travel during the warmest part of the day. I wanted to reach the Bai Lin Temple by around 11pm – so that I could attend the morning chanting and scripture recitation. I wanted to give thanks to the Lord Buddha, and to the Shaolin Temple for providing the conditions for the Ch’an Week that pushed me to my limits. To the abbot – master Yongxin – whose spiritual strength regulates the temple and all its activities. To master Hui Tong for his guidance and insight during the interview process, and to all the other masters and workers who helped to facilitate the conditions that led to the Ch’an Weeks being held – their selfless efforts allowed me to work upon my own spiritual development and I gained much from this experience.
Section Four – Abundant Conditions.
The meditation hall at the Shaolin Temple has been recently developed and modified so that there is central air-conditioning, and a 24 hour supply of hot water. As the meditation hall is self-sufficient, there was no need to leave it during the 24 days that I spent at the temple. I would some times wake up and fall asleep without knowing whether it was day or night outside. Everyone followed the strict discipline laid-down and maintained by the masters and all studied with the utmost diligence in the cultivation of the Way (Dao). All things, including diet are strictly regulated by the masters, so that a daily order is maintained within the hall itself. This ensures that the training method is given the maximum possibility to succeed.
Meditation begins at 430am at the Shaolin Temple. This is the time that the practitioner must be sat cross legged in the meditation hall. If you want to wash your face or brush your teeth you must get up at an appropriate time before 430am. If you over-sleep, or are late for any other reason, then the monk in-charge of discipline will strike you with the xiangban (or ‘fragrant stick’). At 5am the cook-monk arranges for the meditators to be provided with salted, boiled water and ginger. The correct portion is placed in front of each meditator by the experienced workers whose duty it is to take care of the monks all day long. The ginger and boiled salted water warms the stomach and relieves pain (ginger is known to have an anti-inflammatory effect), together, this mixture calms the body and creates a comfortable physical condition that allows for concentration to be focused purely upon the empty essence of the mind itself. Everyone eats together like one great family – and when the meal is finished, the meditation master rings a bell and everyone settles back into their seats – the master then knocks the wooden-fish (木鱼- or ‘muyu’) together and meditation resumes. Once meditation is underway, the 40 to 50 participants are kept in order by the master of discipline – who keeps order through the use of the xiangban, or ‘fragrant stick’. He walks around the hall applying the xiangban to those who request it, or those who need it. To request the strike a practitioner bends forward from the waist, with the head tipped forward. After receiving the strike the practitioner resumes the meditation position, briefly placing the hands together. Those who are dozing are struck immediately with no warning or preparation – this brings clarity to their minds. Some times the master of discipline delivers the strike with a ‘piercing’ shout that cuts through the air – clearing away negative qi from the outer environment, and the inner mind. The entrance in and out of the meditation hall is strictly controlled by a master – this includes the strict regulation of those who wish to answer the call of nature – with the meditation master himself having to wait until the break periods. I have seen similar practices in other Ch’an temples. In ancient times the Buddha said: “First light incense, and then look deep within to realise the essence.” The xiangban master carefully performed his duty – after I was struck there was an experience of spaciousness. The great community of practitioners meditated until 630am.
A 630am a signal is given for the food hall to be opened. At this time the wooden-fish (muyu) is struck calmly. Even though it is time to eat and leave the meditation seat it is important that decorum and discipline is maintained. It is wrong to move quickly out of greed or desire, this is why the masters that are present control procedure very carefully, signalling to the great community of meditators exactly what to do and when to do it. At the right moment we rise from the ground and form an orderly line – all is quiet and calm as our minds remain serene and expansive. Eventually permission is granted for the great community of meditators to leave the meditation hall and enter the food hall to partake of vegetarian food. The masters present oversee all this activity, and through their guidance a sense of respectful worship is maintained throughout the procedure of moving from one place to the next. The masters eat after we are all settled – such is their humility.
I will no longer describe events in great detail but declare in brief that the order is rigorous and the atmosphere is orderly.
After breakfast we return to the hall to resume the meditative practice. As we have just eaten, the master of discipline is alert to any one falling to sleep due to the warm feeling in the body of the food digesting. If we doze, we are struck twice with the xiangban (fragrant stick). We meditate in this way to around noon – when we break for lunch. After eating our vegetarian meal we enter the meditation hall again and resume our sitting. We sit until 345pm – and then have a rest period where we can sleep for around one and half hours. Every one gathers back together in the meditation hall at 530pm and meditation begins again. We conclude the day’s meditation at around 11pm – and retire for the night to get some sleep.
Out of a 24 hour time period we meditated for around 11 hours, but some times for 12 hours, all under the watchful eye of the master. Much of the time food was brought to us for eating whilst sat in the meditation posture. At times, the pain in the legs could become severe and almost unbearable – but when within a Ch’an Week, one lives or dies depending upon the established rules of tradition. The rules state that if a person becomes debilitated through illness, then they are permitted to leave the meditation hall and withdraw from the Ch’an Week retreat. Those interested in reading these rules can reference the document known as the ‘Gold Mountain Law Contract’ (or JinshanGuiYao -金山规约). Sitting for hours and days without end can lead to the experience of great fatigue, however, the master with the xiangban (fragrant stick) looks after us and gives us greater energy when he strikes. Such expert striking takes away the tiredness and relieves the pain. We can not speak day or night – but only when we ask to be struck by the xiangban with the loud and clear voice – shouting ‘ai - 唉’ (meaning, within this context, to say ‘yes’ to the strike). There then follows a powerful outward breath as the system is cleansed with the xiangban strike.
Such intense and specialised training requires a great deal of expert guidance, and a good and nutritious diet. Indeed, there is a steady supply of food and drink throughout the day, sent to your meditation spot – such things as ginger, salt water, milk, ginseng, rice pudding, tea, pear syrup, noodles or rice balls, stuffed vegetable steamed buns with boiled water, and condensed milk. In the Food hall the food is comprised of vegetarian porridge for breakfast and rice for lunch, but there are also available open bottles of water, qi building soup, soy milk, ginseng, and boiled water, etc. There is also a medicine cabinet that contains many medicines, as well as snacks, however, despite all these supplies it is important to eat sparingly and not to indulge greed. Besides, the meditation master watches every practitioner very carefully and will not allow any excesses to occur, indeed, even going to the toilet must be achieved within a certain and appropriate amount of time.
The Shaolin Temple meditation method is particularly strict and the meditation master allows only short rest periods – perhaps ten minutes here and there – with the maximum rest period being around one and half hours. The meditation master insists that we meditate through our breaks – as long as it is possible. He does this out of compassion for our spiritual well-being. The older, more experienced practitioners sit very strongly and set the standard for the rest of us to live up to. Usually the Ch’an Week duration is six weeks (or 42 days) – but as the Chinese New Year was approaching, (and the fact that master Hui Tong – the meditation master – had to go back to Mount Yunju), the Ch’an Week retreat lasted only five weeks - 35 days. Finally, the abbot Yongxin announced that the Ch’an Week retreat was at an end – but he added; “I really do not want to bring this retreat to an end, and I hope that you all stay.”
Section Five – Review & Conclusion.
My experience at the Shaolin Temple has generated many thoughts and feelings which I have endeavoured to place into a logical order within these pages.
1) I have developed a completely new understanding of the ShaolinTemple, inparticular regarding the abbot Yongxin – the great master whose understanding and wisdom has transformed the Shaolin Temple beyond measure in recent years. The masters and monks of the Shaolin Temple know how to endure suffering – they can meditate for over two hours at a time without moving or showing pain. Maybe it is because they are Shaolin Temple monks who regularly practice martial arts, and routinely prepare for much suffering in their daily practice. It is my sincere hope that the Shaolin Temple will grow and become a renowned centre for authentic Ch’an Buddhist meditation practice, as well as martial cultivation.
2) Master Hui Tong – the meditation master who guided us through the Ch’an Weeks retreat – exudes wisdom and compassion in equal measure! Once he said that all desire originates within the pristine mind of oneness; as soon as I heard this all my physical pains and psychological concerns dissolved into a tranquil happiness free from any hindrances. When he spoke it was like hearing the highest, most wise part of my mind talking directly to me –indeed, I wanted to say ‘I know’ to every thing he said! Compassion is tempered by wisdom, and wisdom refined by compassion – one can not exist or properly function without the other. This is why master Hui Tong is patient and very precise in his managing of the meditation hall and our spiritual well-being. These attributes are essential for the care of the novices and advanced practitioners alike. Master Hui Tong always advocates the power of the Ch’an Week and urged us never to miss an opportunity to attend such a retreat – as he never misses an opportunity to hold one.
3) Within the meditation hall, the master speaks and the student listens. This is an important point that must not be underestimated or misunderstood. The practitioner must always be fully aware during the meditation practice. When the master speaks, he is offering a profound spiritual instruction based upon his own cultivated Buddha-wisdom – it is important that these words do not fall on deaf ears, but our heard and understood exactly. The expressed words must have their intended effect which is dependent upon the perceptiveness of the student. Some times my direct attention is not as good as it could be, and the training at the Shaolin Temple has helped me. We must never miss the opportunity of a ‘word’ or ‘phrase’ to enlighten us. If the master gives instructional advice then the idea must clearly be moved through the mind so that the full benefit is gained.
4) Master Hui Tong appears to be made of iron, as he never seems to experience pain when teaching meditation. He always points out that when a practitioner enters the meditation hall he must be prepared to suffer and ‘eat bitter’ during the retreat time. The practice of a Ch’an Week is not an easy undertaking and all kind of grievances and annoyances must be expected and endured with a calm mind. Some times those being struck with the xiangban (fragrant stick) react with inner resistance and feel wronged by the experience – but this is a misinterpretation of the use of this device. It is true, however, that some times the strike from the xiangban can still hurt the following day.
5) The xiangban is designed as a device to instil the attribute of ‘alertness’ in the practitioner. Every one present receives at least six strikes of the ‘fragrant stick’. Whatever the case, there is little point in complaining about an ‘injustice’ to the master, as this is wasting valuable time instead of developing the mind. Instead it is better to rise above any ideas such as this, and allow the training to touch the mind completely. There is no excessive use of the xiangban (in the meditation hall) and it should not be feared. On occasion a person might be struck for maintaining a poor posture – my view is that this is correct and good for discipline.
6) The most important and central aspect of the training is that a practitioner sits correctly, keeps the mind alert and aware – and does not unnecessarily move. The correct practice must be maintained regardless of the physical and psychological pain that is initially experienced. It is important that one does not fall asleep whilst meditating. This training takes great courage to achieve, but perseverance eventually leads to the attainment of the sweetness of the true Dharma. Some times when a quiet mind is attained a new problem arises – such as disruptive thoughts in the mind. Defilements within the mind arise during the training – these are klesa caused by previous, deluded karma. With focusing the mind upon the hua tou these defilements can be cleared in a moment. With the correct training there is no need to worry.
7) It is good to accept things for what they are without attachment; the shoes are wet, let them be wet. The legs hurt; let them hurt. The feet hurt; let them hurt. The whole body aches; let it ache– it will pass! Acknowledge the pain and put it down, do not become attached to it. Follow the method and a beautiful realisation will be achieved. Realisation is the entire point of the Ch’an Week training and is why gratitude should be shown to the master who has shared his wisdom and tolerated our weaknesses. With our understanding, everywhere becomes the Pure Land (beneath our feet) and we can share our developed mind with the entire world.
8) On several occasions, due to my training at the Shaolin Temple, others have asked me as to whether I am a Shaolin monk? I have always firmly replied; ‘No.’ The Shaolin Temple has two distinct aspects (which are ‘one’ in essence), the practice of advanced martial arts, and the practice of Ch’an meditation – I have only trained (briefly) at the Shaolin Temple, but I am very grateful for the 24 days of Ch’an meditation that I experienced at this very important, spiritual place. (The End).
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2012.