Reflections on my Western Zen Retreat in October 2018 at Dharma Drum Retreat Center (by D.S.)

I had searched for a retreat opportunity off and on for six months when I came across the Dharma Drum Retreat Center online. I registered for its Western Zen retreat after reading positive reviews but not exactly knowing what to expect.

The Western Zen Retreat ended up being a unique experience. It combined communication exercises with sitting meditation, daily dharma talks by retreat leader Rebecca Li, as well as some meditation “in action” activities and exercises – walks, a daily work contribution, and an evening activity that three out of four nights involved creative movement or dance.

There were various highlights. The meditation and communication exercises utilized a method that was familiar for me as a practitioner of vipassana-style meditation yet completely novel. They involved a form of inquiry – dropping a question into my mind that triggered the process of meditation itself. “Who am I?” was my question. It became the framework for the physical and mental subjective experience that followed during the formal seated meditation. I observed all of my mental, physical and emotional phenomena within the context of that question.

In some ways this was the same as other methods of meditation that I had used. Watching my breath, either with an intense or light focus, “just sitting” or shikantaza, a Japanese Zen style of meditation, body scanning, and mental noting (using labels such as “thinking”, “seeing in”, or “feeling” to mark the arising of various forms of subjective experience) were all styles of meditation that I had used to frame the perspective of a non-judgmental observer to my own moment-by-moment experience.

Inquiry was a kind of meditation I was familiar with, but this was the first time it formed the basis of highly focused meditation. Daily sits, about four times a day of silently observing everything that arose as if to provide an answer to the question of who I was. I found a rewarding experience from what you might call the question of being and identity and an excellent framework to get into the meditative zone.

At times, I saw it as a rhetorical question or device. At other times it engaged both the spiritual and philosophical roots of my own personal existence. Was “who am I” what I did? What I was? What I experienced or perceived, who my family and friends were, what I was proud of, ashamed of, my role my family, or my connection to the universe? Did it matter?

I soon learned that while most other participants had the same question, some, those who were repeat participants at the Western Zen Retreat, had other questions such as “What is my true nature” or “What is love”. In many ways these questions overlapped with mine and pointed to the less literal uses of the method.

The other revelatory part of the retreat was the communication exercises. For six, alternating five-minute intervals that amounted to 30 minutes in total I participated in a kind of dialogue with another “retreatant,” up to four or sometimes five times a day. With a new partner each time, we started by finding out each other’s names and our question. The bell rang and one of us asked the other our question. “Dan, please tell me, who are you?”

My partner or I then had five minutes to answer the question by saying whatever came to mind. As the first person talked, the other listened in a stance of non-judgmental attention, neither assenting to nor questioning anything that was said by their partner. Just being present. The bell ring and roles reversed, back and forth for a total of six times.

This was revelatory for two reasons. Number one, I was given a glimpse into the core subjective experience of my fellow retreatants. It felt like a glance into our mutual humanity. We all live quiet lives of desperation at times, questioning our identities, what we’ve done to ourselves or others, and our sufferings are so similar it can be eerie. What we hear when the other opens up in a context of trust blows away our inevitable prejudgments of whom we thought the other might be. Gender, race, age, physical appearance – none of that matters. It is one thing to believe that we were all similar but quite another to have it proved again and again over the course of a day.

The other revelation was to talk about myself for upwards of one hour or more each day to strangers, again and again confronting, at least to start with, the worst aspects of what I saw about myself. For reasons I perhaps cannot explain, on day one of the retreat I started with a deep need to talk about the parts of myself that I had the toughest time confronting.

But that changed as the days progressed. Within the context of confidentiality, I accessed deeply honest feelings about myself and found, even during the course of a single day, that I could gain a different, broader, more nuanced appreciation of various parts of my personality and history. By day five, I became less convinced I could label myself as one thing or the other and reached a point where, much different than where I started, I felt open, honest, and comfortable about the answer to my question.

Making all of this possible were the daily instructions and Dharma talks by Rebecca Li on method, the communication exercise and related topics, two meetings that I had with her during the retreat and one with her co-leader, Simon Child, and the overall manner in which she helmed the retreat. Rebecca was detailed, empathetic, at times injected humour, and spoke a common sense level and one that had a deeper resonance. Her instructions on how to employ the inquiry (or “huatou” in Chinese) method of meditation and the communication exercises made them easy to deploy and meaningful. The retreat grounds, buildings and vicinity were beautiful, the food generous and satiating, the dorms spare but clean.

There was also a daily morning service that involved Buddhist liturgy that, for the most part, had no references to any theological references. To the degree that there were any – to “deities” or taking refuge in the “three jewels” (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha) – I saw this as symbolic of a confidence or leap of faith in the process that helped me fully engage with the retreat methodology but did not necessarily take it literally.

In some ways what I accessed at the Western Zen Retreat was a greater sense of ease with myself. In others, a closer look at what starts with but goes well beyond words.

Retreat and Dharma Activities Schedule (2018)






Group and Location

Jan 28 (Sun) Meditation Workshop and Dharma Talk (9 am to noon) DDMBA-NJ Chapter, Edison, NJ (


Feb 13 (Tue) Yale University—Meditation Workshop (5:30-6:30 pm) Yale University (


Feb 25 (Sun) Relaxing into Clarity: Daylong Retreat (10 am to 4 pm) Newark Center for Meditative Culture (NCMC)–
Index Art Center, 237 Washington St., Newark, NJ 07102 (
Mar 25 (Sun) Sunday Open House Talk (Topic: Cultivating Generosity as a Chan Practitioner) 11 am-12:30 pm Chan Meditation Center, Queens, NY
Apr 6-8 (Fri-Sun) Foundation Retreat Dharma Drum Retreat Center (DDRC), 184 Quannacut Road, Pine Bush, NY 12566


Apr 10 (Tue) Yale University—Meditation Workshop (5:30-6:30 pm) Yale University (


Apr 23 (Mon) Buddhist Sangha of Bucks County Dharma Talk (7-9 pm) 65 N Main Street, Yardley, PA


Apr 25 (Wed) Mindfulness Meditation Workshop (1-1:45 pm) Rubin Museum of Arts (


Apr 29 (Sun) Sunday Open House Talk (Topic: Using Chan Practice to Reflect on our Biases) 11 am to 12:30 pm Chan Meditation Center, Queens, NY
May 6 (Sun) Meditation Workshop and Dharma Talk (9 am to noon) DDMBA-NJ Chapter, Edison, NJ (


May 16 (Wed) Mindfulness Meditation Workshop (1-1:45 pm) Rubin Museum of Arts (


May 26 (Sat)-June 3 (Sun) Silent Illumination Retreat (with Simon Child) Dharma Drum Retreat Center (DDRC), 184 Quannacut Road, Pine Bush, NY 12566


June 9 (Sat)-June 16 (Sat) Koan Retreat (with Fiona Nuttall) Western Chan Fellowship, Wales, U.K.


July 25 (Wed) Mindfulness Meditation Workshop (1-1:45 pm) Rubin Museum of Arts (


August 3-5 (Fri-Sun) Three-Day Chan Retreat Dharma Drum Vancouver Center
August 8 (Wed) Mindfulness Meditation Workshop (1-1:45 pm) Rubin Museum of Arts (


August 10-12 (Fri-Sun) Beginner’s Mind Retreat Dharma Drum Retreat Center (DDRC), 184 Quannacut Road, Pine Bush, NY 12566


September 9 (Sun) Sunday Open House Talk (Topic: Cultivating Generosity as a Chan Practitioner, Part 2) 11 am-12:30 pm Chan Meditation Center, Queens, NY
September 16 (Sun) Meditation Workshop and Dharma Talk (9 am to noon) DDMBA-NJ Chapter, Edison, NJ (


October 5-10 Western Zen Retreat (with Simon Child and Fiona Nuttall) Dharma Drum Retreat Center (DDRC), 184 Quannacut Road, Pine Bush, NY 12566


October 31 (Wed) Mindfulness Meditation Workshop (1-1:45 pm) Rubin Museum of Arts (


November 5 (Mon) Buddhist Sangha of Bucks County Dharma Talk (7-9 pm) 65 N Main Street, Yardley, PA


November 11 (Sun) Meditation Workshop and Dharma Talk (9 am to noon) DDMBA-NJ Chapter, Edison, NJ (


November 27 (Tue) Yale University—Meditation Workshop (5:30-6:30 pm) Yale University (


December 2 Sunday Open House Talk (Topic: Upholding Precepts as a Chan Practitioner) 11 am-12:30 pm Chan Meditation Center, Queens, NY
December 12 (Wed) Mindfulness Meditation Workshop (1-1:45 pm) Rubin Museum of Arts (


Reflections on my Beginner’s Mind Retreat (J.E.)

This was my first retreat, a 40th birthday present to myself.  Life has a way of building clutter, complications and jumbled thoughts.  I was feeling spread too thin, too impatient and too distracted.  I knew the problem, but didn’t know the solution.  Somehow the subject of meditation seemed to be surfacing more regularly.  I wanted to experience it with full guidance and ended up at this retreat with only a month of short, irregular, app guided meditation sessions under my belt.

The only thing required for this retreat is an open mind.  While I could describe the grounds, the buildings and schedule (all have a simple beauty), there are no words to describe the atmosphere – The sum is greater than its parts.  As I sit here trying to find a way to describe the experience, I realize it is a labor in vain as everyone likely experiences it differently.  While I can’t say my introspective ‘moments’ will be the same for others, I do believe if you arrive with the above requirement you will leave with a new sense of calm and appreciation.

Time stands still while on the retreat…I could have been there two days – or two months; could have been a stranger to the fellow retreatants– or known them my whole life.  I was different when I left than when I arrived…could it really be less than 48 hours later?  Upon leaving the retreat though, the memories fade quickly.  Effort is needed to continue the practice and maintain a sense of presence and calm in a world which is not cooperative towards such undertakings.  It is not an impossible task though – you will realize the tools have been there all along, the retreat just helps you realize it’s worth the effort to learn how to use them.

Why Do We (Buddhist Dharma Practitioners) March?

Why Do We (Buddhist Dharma Practitioners) March? (Chan Magazine, Spring 2018)

by Rebecca Li

Rebecca Li attended her first intensive retreat with Chan Master Sheng Yen in 1996 and began serving as his interpreter in 1998. She started her teacher’s training with Master Sheng Yen in 1999 and started teaching as Dharma and meditation instructor in 2002. Later on, she trained to lead intensive retreats with John Crook and then Simon Child, both Dharma heirs of Master Sheng Yen, and received full Dharma transmission from Simon Child in 2016. Currently, she teaches meditation and Dharma classes, gives public lectures and leads retreats at Dharma Drum centers, university meditation groups and Dharma practice groups mostly in northeastern United States. Some of her talks and writings can be found at Rebecca is also a professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at The College of New Jersey.

On February 3, 2018, I participated in the first New York area gathering of the Buddhist Actions Coalition. Bhikkhu Bodhi started the project and brought together a group of engaged Buddhists to organize the gathering. Greg Snyder, co-founder of Brooklyn Zen Center, asked me if I would give one of the opening addresses to the gathering. As I prepared the talk, I identified a few questions that have been on my mind regarding Dharma practice and being socially engaged. I thought it would be useful to share them. Here is the bulk of what I said that morning:

“Here we are, joining this gathering to find ways to be more engaged. We are putting our moral conviction into action. We may find that we are also putting our practice and faith in the Dharma to the test.

I find myself wondering: how do we engage politically without being sucked into the culture of divisive speech, the mental habit of demonizing those with whom we disagree, and developing rigid views that stop us listening to each other – unfortunate practices that are pervasive in the realm of politics nowadays?

Also, how do we get into the fray of supporting one policy position over another while still being able to empathize with and appreciate the humanity of those of us who may hold different positions?

What do we do when, upon a closer look, we find disagreement between the Buddhist teachings and our existing political position? Are we going to compartmentalize the two, telling ourselves that is where the Dharma no longer applies?

I wonder if it is fear that our current beliefs about ourselves and the Dharma will be challenged if we get more involved that is keeping us from being more engaged.

I have no answer to any of these questions.

We can talk about and analyze them using Dharma concepts, but still we have no idea how any of this is going to unfold in practice. We will just have to find out for ourselves, and the only way to find out is by rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty as we dig into the mess.

If you have been wanting to do more but have been hesitant and wondering about some of these questions, you are not alone. I am with you. Working on this talk has helped me articulate these thoughts.

The question is: do I trust the Dharma practice to get me through the mistakes I will make and find the way to resolve these questions? Absolutely. I have no doubt about that.”

Two weeks after our gathering, seventeen people were killed in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida. We were presented with the opportunity to find out how we can be more engaged while maintaining our commitment to Dharma practice. Surviving students refused to let this be just another school shooting and organized March For Our Lives (MFOL) on March 24 in Washington D.C. and many cities across the country, including New York City, had sister marches. The Buddhist Actions Coalition decided to join the march as a form of Buddhist action. Discussions ensued on organizing various sangha groups and the question of why we would march came up.

I thought about the question, treating it as a huatou, to investigate why I felt it appropriate and important for us Dharma practitioners to march. The following lines came up:

“We march because it is a natural response of our concern for our fellow human beings who have suffered unnecessarily due to the rampant presence of highly potent weapons among civilians. We march because we have been paying attention to the development of this phenomenon over the years and can see that something is seriously wrong, that our society has chosen to prioritize the rights of corporations to profit from selling guns over everyone’s longing to live without fear of unnecessary gun deaths and injuries. We march because we realize that it is not enough to pray or dedicate our chanting or meditation, in private or within our centers or temples, to those suffering from losing their loved ones to gun violence and living in fear of gun violence in schools and other public spaces. We march out of appreciation that someone is willing to devote the time and energy to organize collective actions to try to push for sensible legislative changes and we show our gratitude and support by showing up and participating.”

I shared these lines with Greg Snyder who urged me to share them in a public forum. After some thoughts, I decided to explain my thoughts behind these lines in an article for the Chan Magazine.

“We march because it is a natural response of our concern for our fellow human beings who have suffered unnecessarily due to the rampant presence of highly potent weapons among civilians.”

As we engage in the practice, stabilizing the mind and cultivating clear awareness of our body and mind and the world around us, the sense that we are isolated individuals begins to dissolve. Instead, we feel increasingly connected with all sentient beings and cannot help but feel their suffering. This does not mean that we break down sobbing every time we hear in the news about someone having been killed. When we do hear about these incidents in the news, we allow the sadness and sorrow that are natural responses to such human tragedies to arise and be felt. In these moments, we are experiencing our full humanity as we allow our heart to be touched by the suffering of our fellow human beings. Regardless of their nationality, religion, race or whatever categorizations invented by human beings that can be used to create a sense of separation between us and them, we are all capable of feeling the pain and anguish suffered by another sentient being.

As we allow our practice to help us let go of attachment to, and identification with, these categories that distort our view of reality, the interconnectedness among all beings becomes increasingly clear. Our opened and softened heart can feel touched by the deep sorrow of someone who has just lost their parents, siblings, children or friends. The practice allows us to keep our heart open and soft, as opposed to the cultural conditioning of a hardened and closed heart. We may be tempted by the illusory sense of safety or comfort afforded by turning away, telling ourselves that “life is hard” and “the world is a mess” and “people just have to deal with it.” Regardless of whether that is true or not, as practitioners we need to ask ourselves what motivates us to turn away. Are we afraid of feeling and being overwhelmed by others’ suffering? If so, are we allowing this fear to deprive us of the opportunity to connect with the compassion that arises in our heart when we allow ourselves to be touched by the anguish and sorrow of suffering beings? We may think that we are keeping ourselves safe and comfortable by turning away and holding onto this sensation of separateness, yet we are unaware of the great price we are paying – being disconnected from the unconditional love made possible by an open and gentle heart. With practice and cultivation of clear awareness, the price we pay by engaging in these seemingly self-protecting mechanisms becomes increasingly clear. As we let go of the habit of hardening and closing our heart, concerns about the suffering of fellow human beings arise naturally. It is not contrived. It is not out of the obligation of being a “good Buddhist.” We experience it as a natural part of being human.

As the first noble truth describes, “there is suffering.” One may use this as a reason to support this thinking: “that’s the way the world is, that’s what human beings do – suffer, and there is nothing I can do.” But the Buddha also taught us that suffering is not inevitable. The world of samsara (suffering prompts us to hurt others which generates more suffering for ourselves and others) is co-created by sentient beings. We can co-create a world of less suffering as well. History has shown us that human beings are fully capable of organizing ourselves and living together in a way that makes life on this earth less difficult and challenging. We found ways to cooperate in food production so that we could avoid living constantly on the verge of starvation, thus reducing the anxiety related to feeding this human body. Similarly, many societies have found ways to regulate and restrict the ownership and use of deadly weapons to reduce the unnecessary harm caused by the use of these weapons. The stark contrast in premature deaths caused by gun violence between the U.S. and other countries paints a clear picture. It makes the suffering caused by gun violence in the U.S. all the more painful. While death is unavoidable for human beings, most countries have managed to effectively protect their citizens from unnecessary gun-related violence by keeping deadly weapons such as high capacity semi-automatic rifles out of the civilian population. As many clear-eyed students from Parkland, FL have pointed out, an emotionally disturbed person with a knife could not have killed many. Similarly, a child playing with a knife, instead of an unsecured gun, is less likely to be killed or kill someone with it. The needless deaths and suffering from losing our loved ones adds to the sorrow in our heart. The understanding that we need not live like this fuels the resolve to act to reduce the unnecessary suffering.

“We march because we have been paying attention to the development of this phenomenon over the years and can see that something is seriously wrong, that our society has chosen to prioritize the rights of corporations to profit from selling guns over everyone’s longing to live without fear of unnecessary gun deaths and injuries.”

Many people misunderstand the practice as focusing only on what is happening in the mind in a way that isolates us from the world around us. Retreats are set up to isolate us from the world in order to provide us with a simplified environment to focus on learning how to practice. It does not mean that we should isolate ourselves from the world in daily life lived outside of retreat. When we try to isolate ourselves from the world, we perpetuate the erroneous view that we are independent of and separated from others instead of uprooting it. As we engage in the practice of silent illumination, we cultivate total awareness of everything. When we are sitting on our cushion, we are clearly aware of the moment to moment changes of bodily sensations, mental activities and happenings in our surrounding environment. When we are living in our daily life at home or at work, we are clearly aware of how others around us are acting and feeling, how our responses are manifested in our body and mind.

Living in the society that we co-create with others; do we pay attention to what has been happening? We do not need to become experts on every issue. If we pay attention, we will notice that every mass shooting was followed by articles by and/or public radio interviews of people who have been studying and following the phenomenon to help us understand the issues. Do we bother to pay attention even when so many people worked so hard to make the information accessible to us? If we don’t, we are setting ourselves up to feel blindsided by events, leaving us feeling shocked, confused, betrayed, disappointed or powerless. If we pay attention, we can see more clearly that these events are the coming together of many causes and conditions, not merely the doing of any isolated individuals.

Among these causes and conditions are: our allowing gun manufacturers to lobby politicians and to control the agenda of organizations such as the NRA, our allowing politicians to become so heavily dependent on private campaign funding as campaigns became more expensive, our allowing mental health care to be neglected, our allowing violence to be glorified instead of promoting nonviolence and kindness in our culture over the past decades, and so on. As we look at the list, beware of our habit of pointing fingers at others. Doing so tends to take us down the road of feeling powerless as we let these “others” be in control of the situation. We can instead reflect on and acknowledge our part in the whole situation. When we do, we may realize that our not paying attention and thus allowing those with vested financial interest in shaping policies and culture in their favor to do so unrestrained may have contributed to these causes and conditions. When we see that our past actions or inactions were part of the causes and conditions that brought about the current state of affairs, in that moment, we can choose to change our actions or stop our habit of inaction and apathy. By taking responsibility without being paralyzed by guilt, we empower ourselves to contribute constructively.

Some practitioners worry about engaging in dualistic thinking and avoid identifying anything as “wrong.” Citing teachings on emptiness, some may argue that everything is empty and thus there is no good, no bad, and no one really dies anyway as death is an illusion. That is the perspective from absolute reality. As ordinary beings, we function in relative reality where we feel the pain of losing loved ones and find devaluing human life in pursuit of profit or power immoral. I find Master Xu Yun’s (Empty Cloud) teaching particularly useful here. In response to people who cited Master Hui Neng’s saying “when the mind is still there is no need to bother upholding the precepts,” the master asked us to reflect on whether our mind is indeed still. By still, he meant the mind “being utterly unmoved when being embraced by someone attractive and naked, not giving rise to a hint of anger or resentment when someone insults or beats us without any reason whatsoever, not discriminating at all between those close to our heart as opposed to strangers.” Only when we can do all of this completely is our mind genuinely still. Until then, we uphold the precepts and practice to discern what is wholesome and what is unwholesome. That is, we do our best to live as ordinary beings using the Dharma as our guide.

As ordinary human beings who engage in Dharma practice, we cultivate wisdom and compassion. With wisdom, we recognize what is beneficial to sentient beings and what is harmful and causes suffering. With compassion, we try our best to bring benefits and avoid causing harm to others and ourselves. In this way, as we cultivate the path toward Buddhahood, we can at least be decent human beings and responsible members of our family, community and society. As we recognize that prioritizing the rights of corporations to profit from selling guns over everyone’s longing to live without fear of unnecessary gun deaths and injuries is causing fear and suffering, we do our part as citizens in a democracy to reduce the suffering. At the same time, we practice to not give rise to hatred and delusion as these vexations obscure our wisdom and compassion.

“We march because we realize that it is not enough to pray or dedicate our chanting or meditation, in private or within our centers or temples, to those suffering from losing their loved ones to gun violence and living in fear of gun violence in schools and other public spaces.”

When we hear news of people being killed and hurt by guns, our heart aches. Our heart goes out to everyone who lost their lives, who had to experience those terrifying moments of violence and endure the trauma in the months and years to come, who are heartbroken by the loss of their loved one, and who find their sense of safety shattered and become anxious and fearful. We express our solidarity and support by praying and dedicating our practice to everyone who suffers. This shows that we are human and that we can empathize with other people’s suffering.

Praying calms our mind as we struggle to make sense of what has happened. The increased level and intensity of anxiety triggered by news of gun violence can be quite overwhelming and unsettling. Practices of praying, chanting or meditating in private or with fellow practitioners in our temples can be very helpful in these challenging times.

While we are praying or chanting or meditating, we need to pay attention to thoughts and feelings that arise under these circumstances. When we pray or chant or meditate for peace and alleviation of suffering, we may notice nagging questions such as: How is the peace we are praying for supposed to come about? Who is going to do the work to bring about peace? When we ask these questions, do we picture that someone else will do the work necessary to bring about the changes for which we are praying? Who is this “someone else” supposed to be? Why aren’t we one of these people? Are we waiting for someone to miraculously make everything better for us?

One of the most inspiring quotes I have seen is “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” Instead of helplessly waiting for the perfect person to show up to save us, we can do something in this very moment. We can take responsibility for co-creating the world we would like to live in. While there is no absolute safety in the world, we know that it is possible to co-create a world where we do not need to live in fear of gun violence while attending school (or while our loved ones are at school), watching a movie, attending a concert, spending some leisure time in a shopping mall, or gathering with others in a house of worship. We know it is possible because we have seen a world without rampant gun violence. We have seen other countries experience drastic declines in deaths from gun violence when they treat gun ownership as a right that comes with responsibility, and limit such right only to those unlikely to harm themselves or others with their guns.

Why is praying and dedicating our chanting or meditation not enough? It may be enough if all we want is to feel better ourselves. If we are serious about benefiting sentient beings and care about the well-being of our fellow human beings, we need to contribute to changing aspects of our system that allow gun violence to proliferate. Many countries passed and implemented laws to restrict access to deadly weapons after experiencing mass shootings, and saw deaths caused by gun violence drop precipitously. What needs to be done in our system is not a mystery. As long as those profiting from the current system can continue to do so unabated, they will. Hoping that corporations will stop maximizing profits permitted by the law is wishful thinking, a form of delusion, and not seeing reality clearly as it is. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has said, “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.” Praying for what we hope for is not enough; we also need to take part in the work of change-making.

When we pray and show our solidarity and support privately or within our centers or temples, we are not aware of how widely shared the sentiment is that something is seriously wrong and how deep the suffering is. When responding in isolation only, we are prone to underestimate the severity of the situation. When we join others and learn about how others feel, we allow the gravity of the situation to sink in and touch the core of our being. Reading the signs made by other participants at the march put a human face on all the abstract ideas that I have read about regarding the issue of gun violence. Some of the most haunting sights at the march were seeing a man hold up a sign saying “I was a kid when my mother killed herself with a gun that she should never have been allowed to get” and an elementary school child wearing a sign over his chest saying “Am I next?” Connecting with other humans in our response makes things real and keeps us from turning away or falling back into the habit of thinking that it is just another news story.

Bringing structural change is hard work and takes perseverance. The suffering expressed by these fellow human beings will motivate us to keep trying, doing what we can to contribute to the causes and conditions needed to bring about change. We may not live to see the legislative changes needed but we vow to keep doing our part. As my late teacher Master Sheng Yen said, “empty space may have limit, my vow is limitless.” In this spirit, we vow to contribute to the betterment of this world as part of our bodhisattva vow.

“We march out of appreciation that someone is willing to devote the time and energy to organize collective actions to try to push for sensible legislative changes and we show our gratitude and support by showing up and participating.”

The students of Parkland, Florida put time and energy into organizing March For Our Lives to bring change after witnessing years of inaction. They could have been doing fun things to amuse themselves as teenagers, but they chose to do something for all of us. The least we could do was to do our best to show up and encourage others to do the same. If no one participated, we would be telling these young people that we really did not care and therefore breed more cynicism. We would also be killing their enthusiasm and hope for a better future by not showing our support. These are examples of how inaction creates unwholesome karma. Many years ago, I learned from a volunteer at the Chan Meditation Center who encouraged everyone to show up for an event as a form of offering. Indeed! There would be no event if only the speaker showed up. Similarly, the students were doing the heavy lifting of organizing the march, all we needed to do was to show up. They gave us an opportunity to cultivate the paramita of generosity, by offering our embodied presence to a worthwhile cause.

It was also an opportunity to cultivate gratitude to those who are willing to lead and act, despite having to endure criticism and sometimes personal danger by speaking out and organizing for change. One way to express our gratitude is to show up and participate to repay such a generous offering of courage and fearlessness that gives us hope and empowers us and keep us from falling into despair.

Some people may think that it was a waste of time as nothing would change even if hundreds of thousands of people joined the march. It was not a waste of time because everyone who participated was changed, and everyone around them were changed indirectly through their participation. It may not be visible, at least at first, these inspiring moments are like seeds that germinate in our heart. An event like this inspires those who were there and those who weren’t, but there would be no event if no one participated. Our participation is a very concrete way to co-create the world we would like to live in by co-creating these moments that become seeds in our heart. Some of the organizers and participants may become our future political leaders, civic leaders, corporate executives, pastors, teachers who will continue to spread these seeds that were planted in their hearts. If we remember the teachings of the law of cause and effect and the law of causes and conditions, we will know that it is an erroneous view to believe that nothing would change with so many people showing up and being inspired by each other. In fact, the country’s mood regarding the issue of guns has already shifted since the march.

Joining the march was not the only way to act. Many people donated money to support the students’ organizing efforts. Some helped with publicity and encouraging others to march even though they could not participate. At the march in Manhattan, some people bought food and water and handed them out to participants along the route and cheered us on. I was deeply moved. Every little thing each of us does serves to encourage everyone to remain involved and persevere, as structural change will take decades if not longer to materialize. In response to my invitation to join me at the march, many people sent encouraging words and support even though they were not able to join me. Their support, in turn, encouraged me to remain engaged as it would have become all too easy to let other things in my life to push this aside.

We need to be careful not to put ourselves above others when we engage socially as Buddhists. I was grateful that causes and conditions allowed me to join the march. Many people were not able to join for many reasons. Some had to work. Some were too exhausted from work. Some were not physically well enough to march. Some had responsibilities they could not get out of. It was a miracle that the march was scheduled on a Saturday when I was available, as weekends tend to be very busy for me. I was grateful that my schedule worked out and my life circumstances allowed me to join. Many people told me that they wanted to join but could not because of various reasons that kept them from participating. I was grateful that I could be there and marched with them in spirit. That means the millions of people who showed up at March For Our Lives across the U.S. and around the world represented only a fraction of us who cared and wanted to engage. May we remember this to keep our heart nourished, especially for the moments when we feel loneliness, cynicism and despair are about to take over our heart. May we all have the good fortune of finding the causes that move us to engage as we tread the bodhisattva path together.


Click here for the PDF of the published article

Reflections on my Beginner’s Mind Retreat (by S.A.)

I’m not sure exactly what I expected from the retreat at Dharma drum. I definitely wasn’t ready for the quite visceral effect it had on my body and the overwhelming emotions that followed. As I look back on my time there I find it hard to believe that only 2 days passed during this experience and as much as the first day was difficult and overwhelming, the second was all opening and I wished I could stay for longer.

I reflect often on Rebecca’s analogy of a twisted hose pipe moving frantically in every direction until the block is passed and the water can run smoothly. There are surely many decades of blocks and knots in me! But where as in the past I believed that I had to go back and examine each twist and knot in detail to move away (something I NEVER wanted to do) now I can just acknowledge them and let them go, looking forward to the time when the water runs smoothly. And already it feels a little calmer.

I come away from my time at the retreat feeling changed.

Changed in a way I don’t quite understand. Changed in a way I can’t express using words. I have a sense of beginning to understand something that was right there in front of me but which I never took the time to try to comprehend.

I feel simultaneously calm and strength. I have a notion of clarity, as if I just know what to do, not for anything in particular but just a general sensation.

I will take all of this and establish a daily practice and make it my priority. If I can make that happen, I’m sure that family, work, relationships, health in short everything, will benefit.

Rebecca gave the first public lecture hosted by Vancouver Chan Meditation Center

Our First Lecture at VCMC (by Tom Kaczmarski, VCMC member & volunteer)

On Thursday August 2, Dr. Rebecca Li presented the first, of hopefully, a long list of Dharma lectures at the new Vancouver Chan Meditation Center at Cambie and Broadway. Rebecca is not only a second generation Dharma heir of our founder Master Sheng Yen, but also a sociology professor at the College of New Jersey. This unique combination of deep spiritual practice and extensive academic achievement, as well as a personal familiarity with both oriental and western culture is rare and precious. It allows Rebecca to bring age old concepts to life in a modern world. Her lecture was entitled “Living a Fulfilling Life in Chan Practice”.

DSC_5467(Photo provided by VCMC)

It is common misunderstanding that Chan is only about sitting meditation. As Rebecca pointed out meditation is a small, but significant part of Chan practice. Throughout its history teachers and masters have emphasized that Chan must be practised continually, or it is not Chan. Chan exists in motion as well as stillness.

What then is the role of meditation. Rebecca explained that, meditation calms, settles and concentrates the mind. This is of crucial importance to our practice as Buddhists. It is only in that clear and settled state that we can become aware of how our mind produces our suffering. This understanding begins on the cushion as we deal with our reactions to our method of choice. It is in this simplified and quiet state that we first have a chance to see our grasping and rejecting first hand.

DSC_5484(Photo provided by VCMC)

But the work does not stop there.  As we grow in our meditative practice, and as our minds become more and more settled, we must take this awareness into the rest of our day to day lives.  The goal is to make our lives a moving meditation and in that movement find a growing awareness of our relationships with ourselves and the rest of the world.

As this awareness grows so do our choices.  As Rebecca pointed out, how can we make choices if we are not truly aware of our thoughts and actions.  So much of what we do is based on habitual thoughts and reactions that we are often not aware of yet deeply attached to. Chan practice aims to open this awareness and plumb its depths. It strives to understand the mind and its workings.

DSC_5465(Photo provided by VCMC)

Chan in its practice on and off the cushion aims to make the invisible visible, and in so doing breakthrough Mara and Samsara, or could we say today illusion, bias and prejudice. These illusory views are the bricks that form the walls we put between ourselves and others, and these walls are the impediment to our fulfillment as sentient beings.

This is but a brief synopsis of an informative and enjoyable talk and my hope is that a recording of it will be available on the internet for others to hear.  The day after this lecture Rebecca held a Three-day Chan Retreat at the Dharma Drum Center in Richmond that I had the good fortune of attending.  Her clear and relevant teaching continued throughout those three days.  I look forward to her return next year if causes and conditions allow.