By Martin Choi
From September 22 to 25, 2023, I attended DDM's three-day silent retreat at the Bliss Haven Retreat Center. This was the first time I experienced a retreat that had Dharma talks held in English. I was very appreciative because I could now listen to Guo Yuan Fashi articulate his wisdom directly.
Each morning at 5 a.m. the sound of a wooden stick striking a board woke us, signaling that we had 30 minutes to prepare for our morning practice. As we started, Fashi guided us through a series of stretches followed by a body scan to relax our muscles. Using an analogy between meditation and horse riding, Fashi compared our breath to a wild horse — initially unpredictable but, with consistent training, something we can harmonize with. To help us get on that horse, he emphasized relaxation's importance; if the body is either too tense or too slack, it can affect one's meditation, giving rise to further vexations. To illustrate, he had us fixate on a particular point. I felt my eyes straining. But when he instructed us to soften our gaze over an area, the tension went away, leading to a more relaxed mental state.
After engaging in several mindfulness exercises, we delved into Dharma talks. One central idea that Fashi emphasized was "emptiness." Rather than defining it as a void or absence, he stressed that nothing exists in isolation. Everything in the world is interlinked. Due to the ever-changing nature of these individual elements, everything else is subject to change, which means all things are impermanent. Using a mountain as an example, he explained that though it seems permanent, wind and rain will inevitably reshape it over time.
Building upon that idea, Fashi discussed the concept of "no self." To illustrate, he asked us to imagine the expansive connections that certain artists, musicians, philosophers, spiritual leaders, and astronauts might feel – a profound bond with people, the earth, and/or the cosmos. He emphasized that there are varying depths to which one might experience this sense of "no self." To reinforce this concept, he posed a question: Have you ever looked at an old photograph of yourself and wondered how that could be you?
Yet, I struggled applying these teachings especially during some of the meditation sessions as there were moments where I started to imagine if it was possible that my leg may actually snap. I wasn't alone feeling physical pain as other practitioners expressed their struggles with it. Fashi reinforced the "no self" idea, emphasizing that we ought to perceive pain without personal ownership. Rather than thinking "my leg hurts," we should recognize that "this leg hurts" reminding us that we are not our bodies.
Fashi also stressed the need to accept and acknowledge such pain. Accepting it and then reverting to the meditation method will diminish the sensation of discomfort. Conversely, resisting or suppressing the pain amplifies it. This approach to pain can be applied to all types of pain. When we accept and acknowledge discomfort and setbacks, we will heal and move forward. When I reflect on this, I realize he's right. Resisting the pain gives the pain more attention and it prevents me from being in the present. As soon as we acknowledge and accept it, the mind at that moment feels more relaxed. And so, the more present my mind becomes, the less pain I will feel and the closer I will be to my true nature.
The retreat had so many diverse practices to help bring us back into the now — from varied meditation forms, chants, to mindful eating. One such practice saw us in nature, where Fashi guided us to experience the practice of direct contemplation (via unprocessed hearing or observation). I chose to immerse myself in sounds. Through the practice, I was able to hear much more than before as I tuned into the wind, leaves turning, and birds and insects chirping. The experience was similar to mindful eating where food that tasted great was now absolutely delicious. Both practices heightened my senses, fostering, calmness, peace, and a deeper presence. Thinking about it now, I can't believe how opposite my life is outside of this retreat where direct contemplation to the present is rarely if ever done.
Another unforgettable experience was the evening's slow prostrations. With the sound of the bell chiming in the chan hall, we bowed repetitively and slowly. As I felt more calm inside, my initial awkwardness became more of a graceful prostration. I felt this way because I sensed we all were in harmony and in unison.
An interesting observation I noticed near the end was how my wife was becoming more mindful and present when dealing with some of the insects found in the Chan Hall. Typically, at home, I handle bugs since my wife fears them. But, during the retreat, I saw her calmly collecting spiders and other insects in a cup and gently releasing them outside. I too began to see these bugs differently and I know it was only because I felt more in the present.
When it was all over, we concluded by gathering together in a circle to share our reflections and thoughts. We were now allowed to talk freely! Everyone expressed gratitude for having the opportunity to share such an experience together. Thank you Guo Yuan Fashi for sharing your wisdom and thank you DDM for organizing an amazing retreat that helped all of us feel more mindful, grateful, connected, and present.