On the 23rd of August participants began arriving at in the afternoon at Buckden Towers, a historic set of buildings dating from the 15th century in Cambridgeshire. The monks were already in residence having arrived the previous day to look over the grounds and make plans for the retreat schedule. The King’s Hall was used as our Ch’an Hall, a lovely large room with wooden floors while on the first and second floors were located the women’s and men’s dormitories. In the basement was the cooking and dining facilities. It was almost self-contained except for the chapel next door that we used for interviews. Set in a rural landscape, the grounds of Buckden Towers included a small wood of cedar and birch trees and a nature walk around a large duck pond. We had good and bad weather but the temperatures were thankfully mild.
There were 24 participants this year. The numbers have continually grown from our first retreat in 2012 with 14 meditators. This year we had 8 repeat participants. Conducting the retreat was the Venerable Ji Cheng, a Ch’an master of many years who has led all of our retreats. With him was Venerable Chang Wen, the director of DDM Retreat Centre in New York. He translated the Dharma talks that Ven. Ji Cheng gave twice daily into English. This year in particular the talks were excellent, taking practitioners through the basics of meditation to methods of practice and how to practice in daily life. Ven. Ji Cheng even gave some history of Ch’an which was fascinating but always he made it relevant to our practice. In previous years, the venerable had spoken about the Silent Illumination method. This year he spoke in detail about the Ch’an method of Hua-tou. The Ch’an Hall Supervisor was Ven. Chang Xiang. His role was to conduct the daily routine of exercise and meditation. Adherence to the daily schedule of activities is most important and the day begins at 4am with meditation beginning at 4:30 and ends at 10pm. In between these times, everything is taken care of for you so that you can focus on the task at hand.
Like all Ch’an retreats, this was a silent one, communication is by board, bell, drum and fish. Why is this necessary? We live our lives focused on the external and in continual dialogue with others. Also we are in constant dialogue with ourselves. This discursive mind interferes with the mind in its natural state. This mind, intuitive by nature, is both clear and still but the delusion of modern living cover it up. By removing speech and instilling a routine in a retreat, the mind turns inward and becomes more conducive to meditation.
Sitting meditation sessions were typically 45 minutes or half an hour. When 24 meditators settle into their practice, there is a profound silence in the hall. Ch’an meditation is only one part of Ch’an practice though, Ch’an mindfulness practice was employed in the many activities that featured in the daily schedule. Walking meditation (slow, fast and walking pace), morning exercises, morning and evening service are part of the practice also. An important part of this mindfulness were the two periods of work practice daily where each participant was given a list of cleaning tasks to be conducted with moment-to-moment focus. Included in this list must also be participation in the three meals daily where we recited the Four Great Vows and reflected on whether our practice was worthy of the food we were to eat. Practice across this broad spectrum of activities mirrors the Ch’an monastic community practice where monks and nuns each have their duties that form a part of their practice.
Keeping to this schedule, the days passed quickly and around me I saw those experienced practitioners who sat immovable while others struggled to find their method. Each day Ven. Ji Cheng’s Dharma talks seemed to be relevant to my difficulties showing that these talks were carefully calculated to help practitioners progress during the retreat. The morning and evening services provided an opportunity to lose yourself in the moment as you chanted the liturgy, it felt cleansing. Ven. Chang Xiang kept the Ch’an Hall discipline, watching us all day after day and it was pointed out to us that as a monk, this was a part of his practice.
On Friday evening, the silence was broken when we split into groups to reflect on our experience and then share with the whole group while the monks gave their reflections on the retreat. The Saturday routine was again observed in silence which, following the Triple Gem Service, ended at 10am when we all were allowed to speak to one another and talk to the monks.
Orca and I were very impressed with the quality of the 24 participants which made the retreat go smoothly and the atmosphere in the Ch’an Hall better for meditation.
DDMBA London depends heavily on the donations and the gifts of time and effort that all the participants contributed toward the retreat and we are humbled by their generosity and kindness
Our thanks for the support of Dharma Drum Mountain, Taiwan and to the venerables who have taken our retreat these last three years, Ji Cheng Fashi, Chang Wen Fashi, Chang Xiang Fashi and Chang Sui Fashi. May the wishes of the donors be fulfilled.