It’s my first time attending Zen 7 retreat in this spring. When first told about the meditation retreat, I wasn’t anxious about keeping the silent vow. I’ve always found that easy; in fact, often, I’d rather be just like that. During the retreat, there’s a proscription on mobile phones, alarm clocks, reading, and writing. Waking time is to be devoted for meditation and mindfulness.
On our first day, the Abbot asked us to allow ourselves the full experience of the retreat—to forget the world and all worries in the next seven days. Our main task is to sit, and hopefully discover the mind’s true nature.
The first two nights, I found myself still wide awake after lights out. I could already hear my roommate snoring on their futon, but I’m kept up by my chattering mind, and wondering about things other than the present, worrying whether I could wake up on time, and distracted by itchy insect bites.
The time we spend outside the Chan hall—that is, time not spent for sitting or walking meditation, are punctuated by hanging bell or the wooden board, to indicate time—to retire, to wake up, or to announce the next incense session. A discovery that surprised me was my penchant for knowing the time; how that, in turn, would prescribe what other things which I thought I ought to be doing—time to go, time to wake up, or time for bed, time for this, or that. On my fourth day, I got into the routine comfortably. I got up, on my own, without having to wait for the wake up call. Between incense sticks, when we could rest or take a nap, I would find a quiet corner and meditate by myself, then head back early to the Chan Hall to meditate more.
The meditation time during morning and evening services are dear for me. This is the time when the monastery is still and quiet. In that quiet Chan hall, amidst the beautiful mountains of Puli, and with a comfortable early-spring breeze, we all sit cross-legged. There are moments when I thought I can manage my mind. I then tell myself to let go, and just breathe.
With around 1,800 participants, and over 300 people in the same hall I was assigned to, you’d be surprised by the hush, as everyone sits placidly.
When I left Manila, the Shifus bid us with “Have a good stick of incense”, which I thought was just a reminder for us to have a positive retreat experience, not any different from “Bon Jour”. The monastery’s Abbot, the Venerable Master Jiandeng, also said the same when we started the retreat. I was itching to ask him how that is determined—“What are the metrics?” I thought—but missed the chance to ask it during our tea with him.
Now though, I think I have an idea. A good stick of incense is when your mind is still, and you are aware of where you are; your back is complaining—and you shut it out; your knee is hurting—and you quiet the thought; and your leg is numb, and you just acknowledge it, and continue sitting still; when you nudge your wandering thoughts to stillness, but still acknowledge them when they monkey about. Ding! The hand bell is struck to remind you it’s time to come out of sitting meditation. Forty minutes has gone, and you thought it was just five.
A few friends may wonder: what’s the point of meditation? I used to say that it helps to calm my mind, and it still does. Now, I’ll probably just say “it’s just is.” That is, meditation helps me realize that the only purpose in life is to fully live in the “now.”
There is no past, and no future. They are mere abstracts derived, or inferred from the immediate moment. A “good stick of incense” is not 60 minutes long. It’s an infinite now—but only until your next thought. Sometimes, we travel far to seek home, when we’ve been in the home of our true nature all along.