During Chan retreat, it is not unusual to encounter problems. Some problems are physical, such as various bodily reactions or blockage of energy; others are psychological. To some participants, it would be untrue if you think they did not understand the Buddhadharma or they did not understand the method. They do have the knowledge of right understanding about some important concepts of Chan practice. However, when they are in the Chan hall, they are unable to apply it to the mind in their practice.
The main aspects of a Chan retreat actually is not complicated. This is why the simpler the motivation of participating in Chan retreat, the better. In fact, when you enter the Chan hall, you only need to keep one simple thing in mind – “I have come here to practice.” In other words, when you are in the Chan hall, you do not entertain any other motivations. You just sincerely practice.
The ultimate goal of practice is, of course, to liberate ourselves from the cycle of birth and death. But, in order to attain the fruit of liberation, first there must be the causal conditions to liberation. This so-called “cause” is that you can put down everything so that you can realize emptiness. Therefore, during the seven-day retreat, it is best to put down all the burdens in the mind. When the motivation of practice is pure and simple, it is easier to be able to apply the method. Some people tend to put pressure on themselves before meditation. Some others think about displaying how good their practice is and get people’s attention during the retreat, or think about what they will achieve at the end of the retreat. These are vexations of the mind. If you are aware of yourself having such motivations, it is necessary to remove them from your mind.
When one wishes to do something or study Buddhism, it is not wrong to establish a goal before getting started. However, during Chan retreat, it is helpful to put aside the goal for the time being. Do not constantly think about the result of the retreat, simply focus on the method at the present moment and sincerely, single-mindedly practice. As long as you are focused and put your effort on practicing the method, it will naturally generate the energy and momentum for the practice to deepen.
During an intensive Chan retreat like this, usually there is dynamism of collective energy of concentration for practice, and therefore most of the participants are able to focus and use their method well in such an atmosphere. This kind of energy might not be generated in your regular practice, even in group practice. Therefore during the seven-day intensive retreat, various conditions or circumstances in meditation may take place. Only when such situations happen, we would deal with them with appropriate approach. Before it happens, we do not need to pay attention to the problems. If someone sitting next to you is experiencing bodily or mental reactions, you do not need to be distracted or imagine what might be happening, because that is their situation, not yours. Your situation or problem may not be the same as that of the next person. Do not think that someone having reactions such as crying or laughing while you are not means that you are doing better than them.
To a great extent, learning and practicing the method of concentration and contemplation is none other than a harmonization of one’s body and mind. During such a process, it is normal to have some bodily or mental reactions. This merely tells the state of practice in that moment, it does not mean that you are practicing better than others. Many people think that having bodily or mental reactions during meditation is a sign of success, not knowing that the cause might simply be health related issues. Usually people whose health is not in great condition experience more bodily reactions, which can be strong or violent sometimes. If you think these mean strong meditation and you want to show it off, it would be a big problem. When you have the mindset of “showing off”, you might suggest to your mind to have such reactions. We know that, psychologically, it may become a “real” thing after repeated suggestions in the mind. So you would cry when other people cry, or your body would move when others jump due to energy movement. But these are not real conditions, and they are not natural reactions due to practice but a result of mind’s suggestions. Chan practice is not fabricating something. It should be a natural process.
When you practice, all you need is to have a good grasp of the method and keep at it. To what state it will lead to depends on your internal condition. If your karmic root is not favorable and deep, which means the causes and conditions were not sufficient, you cannot force a certain result. In addition to the method you have learned, your effort in regular practice or preparation in other aspects is also a key factor.
(Teachings during Chan retreat at Ipoh, Maylasia. Originally published in Chinese by Fa Lu Yuen Publications, 1998)