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Silence, Koans, Gong and Incense

A report on the Western Zen Retreat June 2004. This article appeared in the Independent on Sunday Newspaper 10th October 2004, view the scanned article.

Holidays are a complete waste of time!

That’s a bit harsh, but you know what I mean. Two days back at work, and where did that wonderful, relaxed ‘holiday essence’ go? Just like last year, it slipped through your fingers again.

How about if it hung around for a bit longer?

It was with something like this on my mind (and considerable trepidation) that found me driving to Maenllwyd, a remote farmhouse in an unvisited part of Mid Wales. I had booked myself onto a silent ‘Western Zen’ Buddhist retreat organized by the Western Chan Fellowship (WCF).

I had recently started meditating, found the results very positive, and wanted to take it a step further. I had been attracted to the WCF’s practical “Dear fellow Westerner, ask and we’ll help, but no pressure” philosophy. I was assured I wouldn’t have to take an Eastern name, wear fancy dress nor give up my friends. It sounded inclusive, not exclusive.

The very track to Maenllwyd slowed you down, winding for a mile around small hills, through fields, gates and over a stream. And the modest farmhouse was the perfect holiday cottage, tucked neatly at the bottom of a wild tree filled cleft.

On arrival, it was clear most of us were uncertain first timers. There were 18 of us, from a wide cross section of society. I think we had all meditated before, but that is not a prerequisite. Neither is Buddhism, as all are welcome whatever their religious persuasion.

The Western Zen retreat is designed to be an end in itself, appropriate as a one off opportunity to take a step back and look at life. Simon Child, the course leader, gave us an informal, lightly humorous introduction to the retreat. His skillful leadership throughout was in keeping with the WCF’s ‘no head is higher’ principle.

Each person should consider the retreat their own. The purpose of silence is to keep you centered on yourself, creating space for personal insights. A minimum of essential interaction is OK, and silence was broken during interviews with Simon or his assistant Jake, but personal exchanges should be avoided.
Introduction over, we walked across the yard to the Chan Hall for the opening service, and our first meditation. When we emerged at dusk the retreat had started. It felt like we had left port and there was no going back.

Like roosting birds we retired to our allocated sleeping areas, mine a futon under the eaves of the barn. Maenllwyd has no electricity, but there are oil lamps and fireplaces. There IS hot water! I crawled into my sleeping bag at 10:30pm, wondering what the next day would bring in this strange place.

“Clack! Clack!” ……… “Clack! Clack!”……….”Clack! Clack!”

Jake was walking around the sleeping areas, bashing a wooden board with a stick. It was our 5:30am wake up call. They should make alarm clocks like this.
Within fifteen minutes we were up, washed, dressed, and outside in the yard. We hadn’t had time to think (which is the whole point). The sun rose across the valley as we started our morning exercises, listening to the birds and sheep as we swung our arms, bent our knees, and rolled our shoulders.

The monastic rhythm gently seeped into us. The silence was never uncomfortable, although I frequently smiled to myself during mealtimes, as to a casual observer they resembled the most unsuccessful dinner party ever held, or the play Harold Pinter never dared to put on.

The lack of pressure to be entertaining was liberating. I found myself waking with a clear head, so different from the usual morning torpor.

The calm creates a setting for the communication exercises. These are a one-to-one sharing process in which we explored fundamental questions (known as ‘koans’), such as “Who am I?” and “What is my true nature?” My koan sounded suspiciously like a question from a cryptic crossword. I was doubtful this could achieve anything. I was in for a surprise.

Paired up, we talked through our questions in turn, giving no response to our partners’ observations. Verbalizing your thoughts to an unresponsive partner leaves you to draw your own conclusions. In reality it was sometimes impossible to give no response to a partner who is upset, or says something so funny you both end up laughing.

The situation was totally unpressurised, but as warmth and trust grew between us I found myself talking about some surprisingly personal information. Suffice to say, it wasn’t always easy. The power of the koans astonished me. Sometimes answers came leaping at me out of nowhere with explosive “eureka!” clarity.

Everything on the retreat had a purpose. Even the rituals, the bowing, chanting, gongs and incense form a structure that hold it together.

Unsure about ritual myself, I took some comfort in a Buddhist poem: “No guru, no church, no dependency. Beyond the farmyard the wind in the trees. The fool by the signless signpost stands pointing the way.”

It felt strange breaking the silence on the last day. Words suddenly seemed incredibly clumsy, and dangerously prone to misinterpretation.

I came home with a sense of clarity. My priorities, and the importance of things had subtly shifted. I’m still in the real world – it doesn’t make life easy – but it helps.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was how much I’d enjoyed myself. A step towards enlightenment (whatever that is) and a good time. What more could you ask from a holiday?

© Rob Stratton 2004. Use with permission. May not be quoted for commercial purposes. Anyone wishing to quote for non-commercial purposes may seek permission from the WCF Secretary

By Rob Stratton