Retreat Report

(The retreat in Russia, under the guidance of Guo Xing Fa Shi, 2018 May)

Dharma Teacher Constant Illumination (Chang Zhao, 常照), Moscow, Russia.

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Exactly 15 years ago I met Master Sheng Yen, and started to practice the method of Silent illumination (mozhao). For several reasons, Sheng Yen became my favorite, my closest teacher. First, our approach to Dharma is the same: practical, but with striving to understand its mechanisms, how it works. Secondly, Shifu taught in clear and simple words, but at the same time deeply, pointing at the very matter. Thirdly, he removed the delusion I held during nine years before I met him. Having read various books, I believed that the great overturn I experienced in 1994 was the enlightenment. Sheng Yen explained that it was an experience of the Unity of Mind, and how it differs from enlightenment. It's a very rare piece of knowledge. Even among Zen teachers, the majority mistakes the Unity of Mind for enlightenment. There are plenty of incorrect descriptions in books, talks, articles… That's why my practice was incorrectly directed during nine years. Even though by that time I had already some enlightenment experiences, I didn't know what was what, and was unable to cultivate them properly. Now there are many practitioners who can't «catch» the enlightenment and develop it, because of misconceptions. Thanks to Master Sheng Yen, I got clarity, what is what, and now I can help such practitioners.

In the retreat with Venerable Guo Xing, 15 years after the retreat with Sheng Yen, I heard: «An enlightened person considers everything [around] to be one mind». I'm glad that, thanks to Shifu, I can make a correction: «An enlightened person DOES NOT consider everything around to be one mind».

Indeed, an enlightened one does not consider it to be this or that. «One mind» is just an imaginary construct. «Enlightenment» is seeing that such constructs are conditioned. In other words, from the awakened viewpoint, One Mind (or Buddha Nature) do not exist.

Sheng Yen said it's necessary to drop everything – self, mind, universe, all ideas – only then Chan opens, seeing reality beyond constructs.

If we ignore this point, then there is a great risk to be stuck on the level of the Unity of Mind. As Sheng Yen said, without correct instructions there are very little chances to find real enlightenment.

On the other hand, the idea that all the variety of phenomena, me and you – are manifestations of one mind, or one Buddha Nature – is a useful idea for leaving our habitual oppositions. On this retreat Guo Xing Fa Shi thoroughly, once and again, explained that idea.

For some participants, the idea itself was not something new, but we had the opportunity to meditate, to perceive in the light of that idea. Earlier I had quite a few of wandering thoughts disguised as something useful. For example, I could think over something in the future, while pretending to be sitting in meditation. Now, focused on the illusoriness of self, I observed such thoughts and sorted them: «This thought should be thought not now»; «And this one thought comes from self-centeredness, and it's of no real use» – and so on. Some thoughts were like comments of some broadcaster, not related to me at all.

Thus I discovered that almost all wandering thoughts are not necessary or not timely, and I started to let their whirlwind go. Thanks to such mindfulness of thoughts – because Guo Xing focused my attention thusly – the quality of the mind changed. Much of the unnecessary dropped. It was not very apparent during the retreat, but afterwards, when I rode the subway home, I discovered that I look at the world not in the habitual way. I didn't hold my eyes looking down, shutting out the others, but I looked at everything around naturally. At home, when I sat in front of my computer, I felt the keyboard as something very unfamiliar, as if it was something from another world. Looking at things I dealt with before in the internet – fora, texts – I felt that there was a lot of something shallow there.

I realized that in everyday life I want to develop this new, deep state of mind. During fifteen years I practised mozhao, but now I grasped it tighter.

Generally, it seems to me that it's hard to grasp the method of mozhao. If you try to hold to something in your practice, then it's easy to lose the fluidity, non-attachedness of mozhao. But if you don't hold to anything, then it's easy to fall into the groove of habits, and lose the practice.

So I thought sometimes: «Mozhao method is too simple, it's hard to catch it».

On this retreat we started with focusing on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness – especially body mindfulness – breathing in particular. During the last decades I didn't meditate much on the mindfulness of breathing: it seemed to be something simple and not very interesting. But now, as it was the topic of the retreat, I tried to watch the breathing during three days, and I understood that it helps to notice and to change our habitual reactions. When I disagree with something and get ready to argue – the air gets pumped into the chest; when you see something beautiful – you breathe in and hold the breath. Thus I discovered that «the simplest» mindfulness of breathing uncovers my habit of meeting everything either with clinging or with throwing away.

Therefore that «practice for the beginners» helped me, after dozens of years of study of Buddhism, to stalk and to let go self-centered mental habits. Also I understood that practising sensitivity to breathing we could develop subtle awareness not only to our own state, but to mental states of others. And that expands our abilities to help others.

In the second half of the retreat, on the basis of several days of continuous mindfulness of the body, I returned to mozhao. Guo Xing Fa Shi described one of the variants of mozhao, where after the disappearance of the body and the disappearance of the environment, there are «direct contemplation» and «emptiness contemplation» (contemplation with no clinging).

That led me to the thought to try to feel the disappearance of the body as disappearance of «the body as body»; and to feel the disappearance of the environment as disappearance of «the environment as environment». In some talks Sheng Yen said: the practice of mozhao doesn't necessarily require to fall into samadhi; rather, we keep being aware, and thus we remain here-now, not going to samadhi. The point is to let go of stereotypes and attachments.

I thought: in the perception free from the illusory self, phenomena do not disappear from the perception; rather, «self» disappears as «the self».

Likewise, phenomena of «body and environment» may keep being perceived, only without the habitual stereotype of «body» and the stereotype of «environment».

Thus I tried to imagine that the body is a part of the environment. It appears to be not so hard to feel: the body as a part of the environment, one with the rest of the conditions.

Then, having that environment felt as «one environment», I tried to perceive it as «the absence of One Environment». It was possible too. So phenomena still appeared, but without feeling of the body as the body and the environment as the environment. It was especially easy during the walking meditations: you walk, and phenomena flow through the space of perception, without fixations.

Those states had deep calmness, detached from habitual reactions.

So the retreat passed in very solid and fruitful manner. I believe the schedule was ideal. Thanks to the variety of body exercises, massage, walking, work meditation, rest periods – the fatigue didn't accumulate, and a good level of awareness could be maintained almost at all times. At the end, both me and other practitioners could readily continue to practise like that.

Those were wonderful days, thanks to diligent efforts of Dharma Teachers Guo Xing, Yan Jian and Yan Guang, and help from Russian participants. During personal interviews we also discussed how to better develop Chan in Russia. I hope that, as a result, some good impulse would help not only the practice of the retreat participants, but also the spreading of Dharma around us.