Three-day Chan Retreat 2022 (by M.C.)

This Three-Day Online Chan Retreat was hosted by Dharma Drum Vancouver Center on April 15-17, 2022.

Retreat report by Michelle C.

First, I want to express my sincere gratitude to Rebecca, for carrying out the weekend retreat so meticulously and guiding us through the practice in such a loving and compassionate way.

I’d like to describe how I feel about the retreat by using an analogy. For Chan practitioners, self practice is like hiking the longest journey alone. We don’t know how long it’ll take us to the final destination, but we do know we’ve been experiencing ups and downs along the journey every now and then. A Chan retreat is functioning as a staging post, offering shelters where we can take good rest and get necessary food supply, and meet other hikers on the same path, hearing their experiences and advices. We can also get a band-aid if we’ve got a wounded finger or a blister covered heel, or a compass which we may find helpful in navigating across a desert or forest along the way. Therefore, when leaving the retreat, we will be fully recharged and equipped, and hopefully, with a more clarified view of which direction we should be heading toward, and what attitude and method we should be applying along our own journey ahead.

The past weekend retreat with Rebecca has been extremely healing and rejuvenating for me. It has not only corrected some of my erroneous views on practice, but also cultivated my appreciation of being unconditionally kind to ourselves. From now on, I will keep practicing to relax into every emerging present moment, by allowing thoughts and feelings arising in and passing through my mind, and by letting go my entrenched habit of constantly judging and criticizing myself for not being good enough, based on past experiences or future assumptions. It’s okay for not being okay, as long as I become fully aware of the constantly changing nature of every phenomenon in every moment. It’ll pass whether it’s favourable or not. All I need to do is bring myself back to the present moment, and fully experience it. If I were allowed to take one word from the retreat back to daily life, which I can use as a reminder for myself from time to time, it would be “BE HERE, JUST BE HERE.” Simply enough, yet powerful enough. 

Once again, my deep appreciation for Rebecca’s teaching and for all the causes and conditions which has brought me here today at this moment.

Retreat Report for One-Day Online Retreat (by J.X.)

This is a retreat report for a One-day Online Retreat conduct via Zoom on February 26, 2022. This bilingual retreat report was translated from Chinese to English by Rebecca Pai.


I always feel blessed to be able to participate in Chan meditation retreats. This is particularly true for joining retreats guided by Teacher Rebecca Li. Chan retreats guided by Li is productive and inspiring. Her teaching is a booster for me to reflect on my life attitude and to enhance my interest and courage in going on and on with Chan practice.


The theme of Dharma talks for this retreat is refuge-taking. Teacher Li raised a question: Are you always expecting to get liberated from vexation through assistance from others? I was deeply touched on hearing this, for it seems to directly probe into my heart. I used to be a dependent person, relying on parents and teachers as a little girl, dependent on my husband and coworkers in my adulthood, and on the advice and support from spiritual teachers. I’ve been starting to take heed of the problem for the past years, but how hard it is to eradicate those deep-rooted habits! Teacher Li reminded me of the fact that this is not a case like “O.K., got it,” but rather, it’s a universal problem worthy of constant reflection.       

雖然聽了不少禪宗祖師關於皈依自性的教導,但在我看來這些教導一直都是非常高遠。老師很形象地說明,皈依就是“coming home”, 讓我這幾天很認真地思考真實皈依處這個問題。老師強調,當下一刻練習回歸自性,如實觀照、接納自己的身心狀況,我們就是走在皈依的路上。

We have learned from Chan masters quite a lot of teachings regarding to “taking refuge in our self nature”, but to me these are all based on remote and profound viewpoints. Teacher Li’s specific definition of it, “coming home”, has urged me to seriously ponder on the issue “where is the sanctuary.” According to Li, we are precisely on the path of refuge-taking if we can keep on practicing contemplating our real states, returning to our self-nature moment after moment, and accepting our momentary physical and mental state.   


As far as my understanding goes, I have to take care of two parts in regard to this issue. The first one is to keep immersing myself in the learning and understanding of Buddha Dharma, and the other is to increase my self-confidence through solid and steady practice so as to strengthen the confidence and perseverance, which is necessary for the spiritual cultivation and to gradually reduce the upside-down view of seeking outward.

這次禪一的另一個收穫是關於方法。過去幾年我一直使用數息法,因爲數息法的所緣非常明確,能夠幫助我攝心專注。而老師指導的方法是覺察不斷變化的身體覺受。因為自己對這個方法不熟練,感覺上比較容易陷入昏沉或者散亂,因此常常就會不自覺的去提起數字、回到數息。但是,老師開示時提到,我們常常用禪修來為自己樹立一堵保護墻,在墻裡享受輕安與寧靜,誤以為這就是禪修的目的。當我們這樣做時 ,我們其實並沒有真正置身於當下。那麼,我是否應該練習著放下數字呢?我在小參時請教老師。

Another reward I reaped from this retreat is concerning the application of method. I’ve always been using the method of counting the breath, for the key targets of the method, breaths and numbers, are efficient items in terms of retrieving the mind to concentration. The core skill taught by Teacher Li is to be clearly aware of our changing sensations. Since I am not quite familiar with this skill, drowsiness or scattering thoughts become my frequent disturbance. Accordingly, I would very unnoticeably return to the method of counting the breath and pick up the numbers. However, as instructed by Li in Dharma talks, practitioners have a common habit of taking meditation concentration as a wall for protection, inside which they can enjoy ease and tranquility. This is mistakenly considered as the goal of Chan meditation but actually it is precisely against the core teaching of Chan: live the moment. Then, what should I do, should I practice letting go of numbers after all? I asked Teacher Li during my personal interview.


In response to my question, the teacher very skillfully emphasized the cultivation of the clear awareness of body and mind as the major goal of Chan meditation. She reminded me of closely watching the mental states of rejection or evasion whenever I am going to pick up the numbers. Mental states like these can be likened as noise which can impede my abiding at the moment and honestly facing my own self. I ventured to clarify my preference of sense of security based on well-organized and step-by-step way of handling matters, otherwise I would easily fall victim to anxiety. In reply to this, Teacher Li prompted me to do a self investigation out of curiosity and ask my self, “What on earth are you afraid of?” She suggested that I practice facing and accepting my internal contradiction and conflicts with an open-minded attitude. After continuous practice for a period of time, the mental states of resistance and evasion would naturally transform and dissolve. Peace and ease of body and mind would according be attained.


The method suggested by the teacher was sort of shocking to me at first, but it turned out worthy of try. Yes, what am I worrying about? What am I scared of? Am I afraid of being rejected? Or am I scared of being punished? I decided to give it a try. In the next two sitting sessions after that individual interview, I tried to tell myself, “Let it go! Let’s see what’s the next!” whenever the notion of picking up the numbers popped up. I felt so good for the next sitting sessions in maintaining the state of relaxation, in which I was experiencing the physical and mental sensations in between drowsiness or wandering thoughts once in a while. It is exactly the case as stated by the teacher, no big deal, just keep on practicing letting go and returning to the method.  During the two sitting sessions I was fully enjoying the internal calm and contentment.


The more I practice meditation the more I realize the essentials of Chan practice: a process of inward exploration. Whether it’s about the learning and reflecting on Buddhism teachings or the application of practice methods, the goal of exploration is aimed at the mental activities of consciousness. 

Deeply appreciated to Teacher Li for your wisdom and skillful instructions. Your guidance makes Chan meditation more and more fascinating to me. I aspire to take the best opportunity to work hard on practice, so as to cultivate my mental power and to bring about my part of peace and serenity to the world.

Retreat Report–WZ

I am learning to be friendly to myself, to allow myself to feel tired, frustrated. I can tell myself “Let’s see how you feel, what you want to say”, instead of not allowing any negative emotions and thoughts. There is no need to push them away – they are part of myself. I can deal with them in a positive way.

What a relief to know that it is OK to doze off, to make mistakes, to feel tired, to not feel up to par. I am only human. There is a gentleness in allowing. Not allowing things to be causes agitation and tension; constant fighting and rejection causes fatigue.

Just to accept oneself and all as it is brings relief. Causes and conditions determine the way things will be. I need to give myself a break from constantly trying to improve myself, from trying too hard to change. I am good enough the way I am, regardless of my faults and shortcomings. I need to concentrate on my accomplishments in life and allow, accept and be at peace with how things are. It will save a lot of mental anguish, of wanting things to be different from what they are. It will free me from trying to be what I am not. I am no better or worse than anyone else. I am unique and am not obligated to live up to other’s expectations, and nor should I allow myself to get caught up in the pressures, the struggle and the comparisons.

I have been unfairly judged and have unfairly judged others. It hurts me and it hurts others. I do not continually have to keep trying to be better than I am or to try to live up to other people’s ideals. I can be at peace with myself and relax.


Allow the leg pain, emotions and thoughts

to come, stay and go,

Allow the clouds, rain and the sky to be grey.

Allow all to be just the way it is.

without hoping anything to be different than how it is.

without criticizing, judging and blaming.

Allow and accept all just the way it is…..

All is just the way it supposed to be……. unique and beautiful.

Retreat report by T.M.

Reflections from Western Zen Retreat October 11th – 16th 2019 Dharma Drum Retreat Center

“Nothing matters, and everything must go, Yet love is having the heart touched in the valleys of suffering”

These words which were part of the liturgy recited at the retreat really sum up how I am post-retreat.  I also cannot help but recite these words and I cannot remember exactly where they are from but

“When I close my eyes and look within I know I am no-thing and this is wisdom, when I open my eyes and look outside I know I am everything and this is love”

As I’ve said to yourselves and to many other people since, this retreat with its very special format should be compulsory for everyone who considers themselves “a meditator”.  I have been practising so called meditation for embarrassingly many years yet I now feel I know what it really means to meditate properly and to understand the simple truth of when I’m not meditating. The insistence on moment by moment mindfulness of everything going on in the body, mind and environment yet remaining completely relaxed was compelling.  I realise I’ve been pretty good at the body sensations and the environment but tracking my own mind/emotions on a moment by moment basis has really opened me to my denied and disowned suffering and given me the ability to really empathise with others, developing compassion with the listening exercise repeated over and over and over again.  I was so amused and guilty on the second day when Rebecca spoke of how “Buddhists” struggle with this retreat more than others because of our “Buddhist concepts” which of course, I was naively spouting after a few rounds of the “Who are you?” – “well I’m pure awareness” “I’m empty”- hee hee!  Instead of being prepared to go in to the 100,000 caves in the dark mountains (a reference back to my koan on my first Chan retreat) and shine light on that which I have not explored.

There were revelations of course, regarding my childhood, my behaviour, relationships, emotional baggage and more but all happening in the now and passing through, bringing me to a deeper understanding of the Rumi poem – The Guest House.  I noticed my constant rehearsing of conversations!  I do this all the time, I mean all the time.  Is this as a result of my fear of rejection, reprimand, confrontations? – I seem to be treading on eggshells so often around men in particular, no wonder my throat chakra and surrounding areas (shoulders) are suffering!  And then Rebecca’s reminder to be careful of “I already know” – constantly reminding us to stay curious, explore, allow and taste and check.  Tenderly caring for our suffering, tenderly care for the grief, loss, sadness etc. It was moving and painful to hear others whose suffering was great and to feel in others their inability to “open” and as such block themselves, but as Rebecca taught us, everyone does this at their own pace and in their own time.  Reminding me of the word “titrating” which we often use in our Sangha.

This all lead to a renewed appreciation and understanding and I could even say embodied experience of impermanence.  Drilling the fact of the coming and going of everything except this always present, available and unmovable silence.  What more is there to say?

Words cannot quite .………………………………………

Retreat Report by P.T.


I came to the Western Zen Retreat because it offered opportunities for personal interviews.  I have been in another retreat with Rebecca, and have also had an interaction or two with Rebecca outside the retreat.  There was no way I was going to turn down a chance to have several personal interviews with her.  I knew nothing else about the retreat, and I’m glad I did not.

I struggled throughout the retreat.  I’m used to having 6 cups of coffee before I leave for the office in the morning.  And there was no coffee at the retreat!  I could barely stay awake on Saturday.

The biggest challenge for me was the communication exercise.  I found myself going back repeatedly to my “greatest hits:”  I’m the black sheep of the family; I’m a loser; I’ve been given opportunities and assistance no one else has received, and look where I am despite all that; I am yet to grow up and become an adult; Look at the others I know – my brother, my parents, my friends—see how much they have accomplished; I am an addict; All I do is move from one pleasant sensation to another.  I talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

And then came my personal interview with Rebecca on Sunday.

I can’t remember what exactly Rebecca said, but the rug was pulled out from under my feet.  All these responses I had disclosed to various partners were narratives, nothing more.  All they did was confine me in set patterns of responses and behaviors.  They imprisoned me.  A heavy, unbearable burden had been lifted.  The elation that accompanied the sense of freedom was palpable.

But this was only the beginning.  The exercises did not get any easier.  If I wasn’t all those things I believed myself to be, then who was I?  I struggled more.  I tried at all times to be genuine and state what was arising at the moment, without being influenced by responses I heard from my partner, without any intention to impress my partner or gain sympathy.  I attempted to stay with the top plate.  I was searching, honestly.

What I want to add is that the process of unraveling continued after I returned from the retreat.  It is still working in the deep recesses of my mind, even (annoyingly) when I am asleep.  The energy from that well keeps on flowing.  It is 10 days now since the end of the retreat and the unraveling has not ceased.  Something foundational continues to stir within me.

As a manifestation of that change I have not resumed coffee—I realized I was drinking coffee just to do something, to be distracted; how could anyone like dark, black, strong coffee!  I have not had alcohol or cannabis.  I indulged in these until the very day I came into the retreat.  There are many other behaviors I have had difficulty with in the past that seem to be falling away.

There are many new behaviors that are beginning to take their place.  Wholesome behaviors.  I am being less defensive, more open, more expressive of affection toward my children, my mother, and my friends.  I spend more time with my 87-year-old mother.  I am more open to self-evaluation at work.  I’m looking less toward others to satisfy my need for connection.  I am becoming more respectful toward myself.  I am more comfortable being by myself (it’s Saturday evening now and it would have been inconceivable that I am not out partying!).

I will close my reflection with something I came across the day after I returned from the retreat.  Talk of serendipity!  “Through the constant refining of the self—of teasing out what is not self and letting it go—we suffer less, get unburdened, feel lighter.  We become more adept at discerning when something is within our control, and bears our acting on it, and when it doesn’t.  We can see what kind of perception of self is skillful and put that into practice for as long as we need it, thereby cultivating a reliable inner strength that can ferry us to the other shore.  To be one’s own mainstay is to be one’s own self help.  Teaching us to do that is the Buddha’s ultimate gift.”   From Tricycle’s Daily Dharma, “Saving Vacchagotta,” by Mary Talbot, October 17, 2019.

And that was the greatest gift I received from coming to the Western Zen retreat.  My deepest bows of gratitude to Rebecca, Fiona and Hillary.  May you be blessed abundantly.

Retreat Report–Anonymous

Three years ago, I joined my first SI retreat.  The experience of the first retreat is like to be locked in a solitary confinement.  I was struggling in enduring both physical pain and emotional stress.  But I did get a breakthrough of a complex that had been bothering me for years.   This time, I’m more adapting to the scale of sitting sessions.  There is less resistance from the body or the mind.  But there’s also an added layer of expectation and fear.  Am I going to have an emotional meltdown?  Am I able to face the truth of my imbalance? Even after the registration, I’m still hesitating whether I have the courage to face my own shame and insecurity.

Surprisingly, on the first full-day of the retreat, I have a serene experience of sitting after Simon’s guided relaxation.   It is simply peaceful.  My heart is filled with joy and I feel in harmony with the body and the surrounding during the sitting. I was expecting a teary journey for the nine-day retreat.  And I have a complete opposite experience on the first day.  Really?  Can the mind really be at ease and peace?  Can it be so simple to get rid of the perpetuating suffering in life?  I’m so grateful I have a taste of peace and joy from Silent Illumination. In the interview, Simon points out that there is no involvement from the mind.

For the next two days, I want to have the “happy” experience again. It seems like the correct outcome matching with the description from Shifu’s book of Silent Illumination. But, of course, with the wanting, I’m falling into the secondary.  In the interview, Rebecca reminds me that there is no judging the good experience vs the bad.  Coming back from the interview, I stop trying to cut off the “irrelevant” thoughts any more.  The mind is not focused; thoughts about work, family, conversations, and memories just come up randomly. I’m just in this messy state one sitting session after another for few days.

On the 6th night, the meditation session is extended from 40 minutes to 1 hour.  After settling down on the cushion, I catch myself getting worried that I can’t make it through the whole session.  It’s shocking to know that I’m so deeply concerned about being labeled as a failure even just for a sitting session. I can almost hear my mother’s disapproving remarks if she knows about this. I’ve been conditioned to prove myself over and over again in the race of accomplishments. I have to come out on top in getting good grades, going to good schools, grabbing promotions at work, and making my children getting good grades, good schools, good jobs also. I put unnecessary pressure on myself and my children. I always feel that I’m not good enough and I make my children feel the same way.  The one-hour sitting goes by smoothly as the mind is engaged in the investigation and getting deeper insight.

During the interview on the 7th day, Simon mentions 3 steps in facing my fear.  First is to recognize I was trapped in this mode of fearing my mother’s judgment. Second is to be aware of my emotions when I face the judgment. Third is to communicate with her about my true feelings. The mind is focused on the investigation for the rest of the retreat.

In the afternoon of the 8th day, we have a meditation session in free format for the entire afternoon.  I choose to sit by the window feeling both relaxed and motivated. In the investigation, I keep on repeating a comment “you are just so-so in your life” to see how I take it. I try to think of something positive of myself to refute the criticism but I find it extremely uncomfortable in doing so. I’m just a mediocre, I’m just a faker. Nothing is worthy of recognition. It is I who label me as a failure. I accept that I am a disappointment and I think I deserve the shame. I put the curse on myself. It is an overwhelming realization and tears start coming down.  I find the root that causes me so much pain; and it is all generated by my own mind.

In one of the Dharma talks, Simon mentions that we often practice the First Great Vow as to deliver innumerable minus one sentient beings. We tend to put our own self as the last one to pay attention to. I realize that, if I don’t build myself up, I’ll continue to inflict the same harms I felt to people around me.  I’m a victim and a persecutor as the same time.  The vicious cycle will continue to the next generation; and the harm can spread to innumerous sentient beings. I have to work on it, accepting myself and catching myself falling into the trap of shame.

I have strong faith in using the method of Silent Illumination now.  It has helped me resolve some perplexing issues at both retreats. I also have better understanding of how to use the method, dropping the controls and simply being aware of the presence. It is a valuable journey to get to know myself and to strengthen myself. I’m grateful for our teachers, Simon and Rebecca, in clearly explaining the subtleties of “the method of no method”, and in guiding us applying the method for our life investigation.

Retreat Report by I.U.

Silent Illumination Retreat report, 5-25-2019 to 6-2-2019 at DDRC

I was in a bit of a funk when I arrived for this retreat. I had been practicing too hard in my daily life and had a bit of an eruption. Had to take a few steps back. As a result, I was the least excited about this retreat that I had ever been. I was just there to practice and see what happened I told myself.

The instructions given were similar but different to other retreats, even other Silent Illumination retreats. Yes, it was still brightly illuminate the mind, be aware of the body, environment, all of mind, but unlike the other retreats I had attended there was a component to explore thought. In every other retreat I felt that if I started to have thoughts I was somehow failing. If I caught myself thinking, the thought had to be brushed away. Even the tiniest little bubble of thought was a failure. Here, though I was encouraged to allow the thoughts to wander through the mind. So long as I did not forget where I was, losing the present moment, the thoughts were to be allowed to remain.

After a couple of days, the mind started to settle down a bit, but it was still thinking all the time. In the lectures, Simon told us to completely illuminate the thoughts. I was having all these thoughts about planning for the future, rehashing old arguments from the past. The vast majority of my mental commentary fit into these two categories. When I started to completely illuminate them, I had to start investigating where they came from, and I discovered much to my dismay that they came from pride, from thinking that I was more special than anybody else.

This was a bitter pill for me to swallow, but that’s what I came to the retreat for, so I just kept on practicing. Whenever a thought arose, I began jumping straight to the root. “Another thought based in pride, let it go.” “Planning for the future again? Let it go.” Mind began to gel, so that everything was flowing together. Yes, there were thoughts, yes there was wandering mind, but it was like the great ocean heaving quite naturally, nothing to fear. I was at peace with what was going on, until I started trying to sit double sessions and ran into the pain barrier.

I had an interview with Rebecca where we talked about this. She had me describe the entire process of my experience leading up to my breaking posture. How the pain would grow, how I would just try my best to hold on, widen the focus, let the pain be just a little part of the overall experience. How it would grow and grow until I had a little conversation with myself, convinced myself that it would be better to just give up, that there would just be more sitting, more pain to sit through afterwards. She asked me if there was any real life situation that mirrored this experience, and I described my most recent bout of home training difficulty. I talked about how I had a habit of walking away from things that were difficult, from situations or people that didn’t bring me the fulfillment that I wanted.

I had been living for some ideal future, practicing for some idea of fulfillment that actually had no basis in reality. It was all just a dream. I could see quite clearly how the meditative experience of Chan is a microcosmic reflection of every day life. The same problems and patterns that are present in mind out in the world will arise on retreat. I was told that the real work was to be done in my normal life, that if my meditation as ever to progress, I would need to deal with this pattern of disengagement in my own life. I generated the intention to live an ordinary life, and it was the hardest thing I have ever done. I generated the vow to put down all dreams and just live in the present moment.

After that interview, I went back to the entry hall and just wept. I cried grieving all of the dreams I was giving up, all of those dreams I had held close to my chest for so many years. Behind all of this pain, I glimpsed something extraordinary. What happens when dreaming is over? There is an awakening. I spent the rest of the retreat trying not to run away from this resolution. There was such a tremendous sense of, “Oh wait! No! Not yet! I could be more!” I did my very best, but I’m not there, not yet anyways.

Coming home was not what I expected it to be. I’d had all these thoughts of the big changes I was going to make in my quest to live an “ordinary life,” but have realized that those thoughts were kind of absurd. They were just another attempt of the ego to be special, just special in being the “most ordinary!” What is ordinary? I think that it’s just what is natural. What is it to live awake? To be aware of what is coming and going in mind. Putting these two together, what is an ordinary but awake life? To be free and natural to be what you are and not be confused about what is going on. This will be my operating basis for this next leg of practice.


Retreat Report–T.F.

Hi Rebecca,

I attended your retreat this weekend at the suggestion of my doctor.  He is a wise and compassionate person who I have come to respect and rely upon to help me acknowledge, understand and live with PTSD. So when he suggested your retreat I signed up without question and I cannot say I that expected anything in particular but I will say that by Friday night and into Saturday, I thought he had lost his own mind for thinking I could do this retreat.  I was tempted more than once to get in the car and drive home.  I encountered many difficult personal challenges throughout the weekend and feel that the 2 days I spent on your retreat were more difficult than the 8 weeks of Basic Training I did in the Army.  Upon reflection, I am pleased that I completed the retreat as it was a positive and powerful experience of self awareness for me.

There has never been time when my mind was not troubled. My doctor introduced me to meditation and it helped me to focus on my breath which in turn slowed down my thoughts and reduced the noise but I did struggle with pushing away the thoughts and feelings that came up as fast as I could and didn’t understand how to apply meditation to everyday living.  Your guidance throughout the practice this weekend allowed me to finally understand what he has been telling me.  Your words this weekend echoed his and it just all clicked together at the right time,in the right place  and with all the right people. You asked us to let you know what we wanted to take home from this retreat and my answer is clarity of mind and the ability to be present in my own life.

Yesterday, my first day back from retreat, I got stuck in traffic on my way to an appointment. It is a fact that I do have road rage and I immediately became angry and frustrated and then I heard “this is a good opportunity to practice”.  It made me stop, it made me think of you and my doctor and I smiled as a great sense of accomplishment grew within me and I sat in traffic, still annoyed and anxious but when I got to my doctor’s office I was able to laugh about the traffic and I had a good day.

I am grateful to you for allowing me to practice under your guidance and for your patience throughout the retreat.

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.

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.