Chan Practice in Modern Time (part 1)

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Master Chi Chern in New Jersey, USA

When talking about Chan, often we have in mind an image of sitting cross-legged, like what we are doing now. We consider those of you who sit on chairs in the back not practicing Chan, because you look so relaxed on chairs, even though it may not be so comfortable.  We think those who sit on the cushion in the front are practicing Chan. This is the general idea of most people about Chan — sitting cross-legged on a cushion.

Our impression about Chan also includes the time when sitting diligently in a Chan hall for several periods a day in intensive retreats.  We try everything we can to sit quiet and still, adjusting the posture when the body is uncomfortable.  Even when we feel drowsy, we try very hard not to fall asleep, or keep our eyes wide open in order to maintain an appearance that shows “I’m doing Chan practice”.  Perhaps many practitioners think Chan practice ought to be like this. Of course, other than sitting, there are various methods or approaches in the Chan sect or in other traditions of meditation. Usually, though, the general idea is that the sitting form of meditation is Chan practice.

Viewed from this angle, we find that people in modern times rarely have the opportunity to practice Chan because people are busy most of the time.  Even if we want to practice, we feel a lack of opportunities since we do not have the time to go to Chan centers and sit in the meditation hall.  Also some people feel meditation is not easy because it requires sitting quietly in cross-leg posture.  So people in modern times rather feel distant from Chan practice.

However, we also find that people in modern times seem to sense the importance of Chan practice.  They have learned from various sources of information that Chan practice is beneficial to the body, possibly helpful to improve health, and more importantly, calming the mind.  Since our lives are so busy and intense, we always feel stressed.  Under such conditions, many negative emotions arise and we feel disturbed or anxious.  Even though we know that Chan practice could help us adjust and harmonize the body and mind, we find that we have no time to spare for practice — There are already so many worldly affairs, where can we find time to sit and meditate?

In addition, there are a limited number of temples or Chan centers and they are located in areas not so easy to access.  If we want to learn meditation or attend a Chan retreat, we may need to travel very far to those places via various transportations.  Therefore, Chan practice seems to be a difficult thing to do, and probably why today’s topic for my talk was chosen by the host to be “Your Whole Life is Chan Practice — A Challenge for Modern Time”.

The word “challenge” more or less has a flavor of “something impossible to do but you must try to do it”, or “there is an obstacle which you must face and overcome”.  Perhaps this is what the title of the talk was suggesting. The reason for communicating with the impression of “challenge” is that we limit Chan practice to the Chan hall or Chan centers, or certain forms and methods.  We think that only by doing it in such a particular way, in a particular kind of space, is Chan practice.  Without having such forms or conditions, it is not considered Chan practice, and since we are so busy in our daily lives, it is a challenge for us to take up Chan practice.  We think that proper conditions are lacking or there are obstacles in front of us.  We want to harmonize our body and cultivate our mind, but we are constrained by these fixed forms of practice and space, so we are unable to do it.  If we view Chan practice this way, of course the subtitle of today’s topic would have appropriate meaning.  If we look at Chan practice from this point of view, it perhaps is impossible to overcome such challenges.

Even if some of you can overcome the challenges, what you do is probably only trying to find time and go to a nearby Chan center and attending some meditation sessions, or scheduling a vacation each year to participate an intensive Chan retreat.  What most people do is probably just sit regularly at a scheduled time or attend a local group meditation on a weekly or monthly basis.  With such activities, we think we are practicing Chan.  However, this way of thinking is still within the common idea about Chan practice — at fixed time and space, with fixed form and method.  Because of this perception, we have the notion of “challenge”.  So we must begin to investigate our understanding and see whether Chan practice is a challenge to us or not.

To most beginners, Chan does have forms, and it does have methods for practice.   If we seriously practice, we do need a proper space and time with proper methods.  If we have overcome some of the external difficulties and taken up the practice for some time, learned the methods and attended intensive retreats, we may feel we are in the world of Chan practice.  However, we still feel the challenge because the time we can spend on retreat is very limited.  There are temples or Chan centers offering a few retreats every year or one retreat every month, but the number of people who can participate is limited.  If meditation is the core of your life and you can put aside your work and daily responsibilities, you may be able to spend extended periods on such practice.  Even so, you may face another problem since you need to make a living unless your job is at a Chan center where you can earn a living while participating such activities. This type of position is very rare.

After you have learned the methods and brought the forms of practice home, e.g. you have a sitting mat and a cushion, and you set aside some time each day to meditate, you then consider that period of time “Chan practice”.  Many students who overcome various kinds of difficulties and finally participate in retreats try to keep the practice at home like this.  But, such set-aside time is a very small portion of their daily life.  For example, if you attend one weeklong retreat in a year, that is 1 in 52.  Even if you attend a weeklong retreat every month, the ratio is 12 to 40, still a big difference.  If you sit at home 2 hours a day, that is 2 to 22, quite small portion of your everyday life.  With such a perception about Chan practice and seeing it only in sitting form, in certain space, and at a fixed time, the time for practice really does seem limited and a very small portion of life.  Trying to solve the problems of daily life with sitting meditation being such a small part of life is, of course, very difficult to do.  This is why a lot of people still find too many problems after they have learned Chan practice.  It is hard for them to really devote themselves to practice since this is almost all they can do. Those who can do so find it difficult to expand it even though they know about the beneficial effects.  This is because we limit ourselves to a certain time and space, and cannot extend its functions to most parts of everyday life.  Hence, Chan practice remains only a small part of our life.

Of course there are some practitioners whose life revolves largely around Chan practice. They can sit a few hours each day, and participate several Chan retreats each year, and they practice very diligently.  However, they are unable to play their roles in everyday life.  For example, if someone sits on the cushion and meditates every day, as a father he will not be able to carry out his responsibilities of a father, and as a mother, she cannot take care of her children very well.  As a result, they feel distance or conflict with work or society.  This seems to be saying that if Chan practice cannot become a major part of our daily life, what we can do to practice it is very limited, but when we make it a big part of our life, we find it difficult to carry out a normal life.  Such seems to be the conflict.  How do we face this apparently practical issue?

(To be continued…)

(A public talk given in Ann Arbor, Michigan on September 8, 2014.  Chinese transcription by Yawen Hsu, photo by Kongzhu Shi.)

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