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Western Zen: For Non-beginners and Beginners Alike

lake in autumn
photo by Simon Child

We had been curious about the Western Zen Retreat (WZR) after hearing about it-it was a process that had been developed by Dr. John Crook, Master Sheng Yen’s (Shifu’s) first Western Dharma heir. At first we thought the retreat was for beginners, only because we had been told that the retreat was a good way for those new to Chan to start their practice. But after taking part in a number of Western Zen Retreats, we have now come to realize that non-beginners can receive significant benefits from the retreats as well.

We have both been practicing Chan consistently and sincerely for a number of years-attending classes, teachers’ training, and Shifu’s intensive retreats. While we do not feel particularly “experienced,” we also were not entirely new to the practice when we joined our first Western Zen Retreat a few years ago. For both of us the retreat was a life-changing experience, deeply affecting our practice. The integration of “communication exercises,” sitting meditation, Dharma talks geared toward the Western mind, and personal interviews brings about the state of “self at ease” so effectively, and so naturally, that one almost feels it is too easy. In particular, the communication exercises combined with the interviews by the teachers helped us deal very effectively with longstanding karmic obstructions, what we in the West call emotional and psychological blockages. The process allowed us to see what had been missing in our practice for so many years, which is the ability to know our selves clearly and accept them as they are. We subsequently attended a few more Western Zen Retreats, each time learning more about different facets of our selves, and learning to be at peace with them. At first glance, this sounds like nothing more than a good psychological exercise-working out one’s issues. One might ask, “So what if one now feels at peace with oneself? What does it have to do with Chan?” As we came to find out, it has everything to do with Chan. Although it has taken some time for us to realize it, the experience of “self at ease” has been crucial for our Chan practice.

Before we elaborate, it is useful to explain a little bit what happens in the Western Zen Retreat (WZR). All first-timers on the WZR will begin with the question, “Who am I?” One asks oneself this question at all times, just like a traditional huatou, initially allowing answers to arise and drop away. In the communication exercise, however, one works the question verbally with a partner who will ask, for example, “Mary, tell me who you are.” The receiver of the question, in this case Mary, will have five minutes to tell her partner “who she is.” Mary says whatever arises in her mind-essentially free association. But one remains mindfully aware of what it is that comes up. Such mindful awareness is also important to maintain a free flow, and not get tricked by one’s self into avoiding certain issues or ideas. For many of us this also takes substantial courage-to share one’s honest thoughts and self-images and self-assessments with another human being. Of course, everyone has also agreed to a strict confidentiality in order to support the trust and openness required. In the example here, while Mary talks for five minutes, her partner sits facing her, and listens attentively, without showing or vocalizing any response whatsoever. Thus, the person is heard, but has the absolute freedom to let flow those thoughts that arise. After the five minutes are up, it is the partner’s turn to be asked, and Mary’s to listen. This is repeated three times in one session.

John Crook calls the communication exercise process “emptying the barrel.” It is an apt description. In the process, a person gives rise to, becomes aware of, acknowledges, and lets go of the whole accumulation of self-directed views and conceptions, biases and hopes, regrets and accomplishments. Some of it has been suppressed in the mind out of fear; some of it we flaunt daily out of pride. But there it all is. If one engages in this exercise as one would any other method, with sincerity and earnestness, allowing everything good and bad, pretty and ugly, hoped for and terrifying to see, to come up, be shared, and let go of, one eventually runs out of things to say. Then the question-which continues growing in strength-becomes no longer conceptual, but experiential. And ultimately, when the question drops, one realizes with clarity that one is just oneself, a perfect product of one’s own self-nature-of unique, infinitely complex, and infallible causes and conditions. Self-concern has dropped away, and the self is truly, and completely, at ease. This “self at ease” is an experience of genuine happiness and joy as one discovers that everything is fine as it is. No problem, no flaw-all is right in its place. For some it lasts just an hour or so; for others it may last many days, weeks, or longer.

“Self at ease” is not the limit of the WZR as the unified mind state occurs relatively frequently in WZR as well, but it is the usual outcome after one has worked hard on the entry question of “who am I?” Following this, one takes another question that helps one explore another aspect of the self, or one may take up a traditional huatou, depending on one’s need at the time. It is important to understand that one can go beyond the experience of “self at ease” in WZR. Since the most fundamental and common insight in WZR is a deeper and more complete understanding of oneself, however, culminating in “self at ease,” here we want to make note of why a retreat that so regularly and frequently generates this experience is of use to both new, and more experienced practitioners.

Master Sheng Yen emphasizes in his intensive retreats that one must have confidence in the teacher, in the method, and in one’s ability to practice in order to engage in Chan practice effectively. This last point, confidence in one’s ability to practice, seems straightforward but is often the weakest point in one’s practice. The experience of “self at ease” generates this kind of confidence. That nagging doubt of whether one is practicing correctly, and the sense that one may not be good enough or capable enough to practice correctly is broken at its core. This confidence comes from the experience of “self at ease” in which one sees one’s neuroses, anxieties, doubts and insecurities for what they are and stops believing in them. Thus, “self at ease” helps cut away a level of self-doubt that otherwise obstructs the practice, both on and off the cushion. Of course, we are not saying that the WZR and the “self at ease” experiences it generates so readily are the only ways to attain this confidence in one’s ability to practice. We would however say that they are a very effective way to get there.

More recently, we participated in a short Metta retreat, where we practiced meditation on loving-kindness. The practice, as traditionally laid out in The Path of Purification by Buddhaghosa, begins with generating Metta for oneself. In our retreat, this was done through the words, “May I be safe; may I be healthy; may I be happy; may I be at peace.” For many people, generating Metta for themselves is not as easy as one might think. The practice calls for reciting the lines during meditation and invoking the associated state of mind-that of goodwill toward oneself filled with the sense of acceptance and contentment-based on actual experiences of such feelings in the past. We found that the experience of “self at ease” allowed us to draw on and generate a deeper and more peaceful practice of loving-kindness than we could have otherwise. Later on, when we practiced sending loving-kindness to others-people we revere, love, feel neutral about or dislike-we needed to invoke similar feelings of goodwill, again, based on actual experiences. Here we found the “self at ease” experience very helpful again, since it seems futile to try to cultivate loving-kindness for others without having accepted oneself.

We feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to take part in a number of Western Zen Retreats, and for the push they have given us along the Path. These retreats allowed us to see that experiencing “self at ease” is not very difficult under the right conditions with many people on each retreat having such experiences. Yet it is powerfully transformative, and an extremely valuable building block in the practice. Clearly, the WZR is not the only way to gain these benefits, but it is a uniquely effective one for both beginners and non-beginners alike. We both feel that obstructions of self-doubt that could have taken us years to see through otherwise were greatly reduced in five days. Since our last WZR, the effects of the retreat have continued to deepen and to benefit our practice. Like all others, the experiences are temporary, but if one chooses to use them, the effect on one’s practice is not.

by Rebecca Li and David Slaymaker