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A Tour of China – A Series (3): Shenzhen Retreat, Nov. 2012

Editor’s note: Eric Johns (Dharma name: Hin Lic) is a lay Buddhist who chronicled his retreats and visits to masters in China throughout the latter months of 2012. His story continues with his meditation retreat in Shenzhen.

Sunday 4th Nov.

Samantha and I were staying at Zhen Ru Chan Monastery near Nanchang when we were invited to a Chan retreat in Shenzhen. Master He Dong had been asked to bring the incense board (wooden sword used to keep discipline and enhance awakening) and to explain the rules for the meditation hall according to his monastery’s tradition. We agreed to go only if it was a serious retreat and that there was to be no sightseeing to the nearby Hong Fa monastery or any other distractions, and that we could return to Zhen Ru Monastery immediately after the retreat ended. We knew it would be Kwan Yin Bodhisattva’s birthday and the crowds would be huge at Hong Fa Monastery. As our time in China was limited to three weeks and one day, we were only interested in peaceful quiet places suitable for our self-cultivation.

The three of us had been bought plane tickets by a wealthy, generous lay supporter of the Dharma in our Buddhist family: our friend, He Han (Miss Lee). That morning one of the monastery drivers, Si Ma, drove the three of us to Nanchang airport from Zhen Ru Monastery. Then we flew on to Shenzhen, arriving by lunchtime. It was nice and warm: 25C, after the freezing mountain, and we stripped layers of clothes off. We took the metro for around half an hour to a station where we were met by Mr Zheng or John. He was a lay Buddhist, wearing his grey Buddhist suit, who owned half of an apartment block where he enjoyed his penthouse apartment on the top 15th floor. As soon as we had arrived, Professor Su who led the retreat asked us searching questions to assess our levels, whilst Ai Yi (auntie aged 68) cooked a vegan lunch.

Skyline of Shenzhen. From
Skyline of Shenzhen. From
Skyline of Shenzhen. From

Half an hour later the retreat started. There was no timetable – things just happened in the Chinese way, when it seemed a good time to do so. So at 2 pm seven laymen, one auntie and Professor Su and Master Dong started the retreat. We sat straight through three hours, the only structure seeming to be that this was the minimum length of the sitting periods. Professor Su is a top lay teacher in China and teaches Buddhism at Nanchang University. He is an expert on the Lin-chi Chan teacher, Ma-tsu. This was not a silent retreat but talking was about the practice and practicalities – we did not engage in idle gossip.

It soon became apparent that this was also a Mahamudra retreat as some of the participants held their hands in Mudras in special yellow bags above their heads some of the time. The professor talked often during the sitting periods in a very clear un-accented Mandarin (some of which I translated to Sam afterwards). He talked about Master Empty Cloud or Xu Yun and about the Surangama sutra and the ‘perception of sound’ chapter. He also talked about the Diamond sutra. Then, moving on to Hua Tao practice which he defined in detail. Then he proceeded to demonstrate his theory. Opening and closing windows, he asked where the sounds outside came from and how did we know this and where was our knowing to be found? He said our original nature was clear and unmoving and could never be disturbed by sound or anything else. He said that our surface consciousness was just as a painting on the surface of the ocean, constantly changing, dissolving and then reforming as waves or ripples on the surface. Below the surface our original nature was vastly still, unmoving and shining clear, and that was where our investigation should lead. As we could not hear see, feel, smell, touch or find it we had doubt about it. So, holding the doubt would shift our minds from the surface or guest position, to the host position, about which he spoke at length in his clear Mandarin which I could partly understand.

Sitting finished at 6 pm. There had been no break for four hours, but some of us changed our legs. You were allowed to go the toilet if necessary but in the subtropical heat urination was not needed often. Auntie had finished the sitting one hour early and had cooked supper for us. The smell whilst we sat was warm and inviting. After supper Master Dong, Samantha and I went out for an evening walk through the noisy, bustling night market of Shenzhen in the cooler evening air for a couple of hours. We had expected the sitting to resume at 8 pm but nothing happened so we went to bed. Mine was a thin mat on the hard but cool bedroom marble-type floor. At midnight the professor went knocking on bedroom doors inviting everybody to get up and sit. We resumed at midnight after only three hours sleep.

I thought my late good friend Dr. John Crook would have liked this retreat. I could see elements of his style here. I felt he would have enjoyed the unpredictability and uncertainty of everything.

Monday 5th Nov.

From midnight they sat through without a break until 3 am. I had been so tired (exhausted from travelling around the 3rd , 4th and 5th Chan Patriarch’s monasteries with Miss Lee, He Han, over the last week) I slept straight through, missing the sitting completely. Nobody had called me. I woke up to the inviting smell of Auntie’s food. Sam and I were totally confused by the lack of timetable – nothing made sense to us. Master Dong wanted to go to Hong Fa Monastery nearby where his Dharma Brother lived. We refused to go as we were on retreat. Then he wanted to take a slow sleeper train back. We told him we would buy plane tickets back to Zhen Ru Monastery straight after the retreat. He had a rotten wisdom tooth which he tried his best to hide but he keep dozing off. Everybody looked very tired and confused, the translation had broken down, our normal reality had been very skilfully dismantled by Professor So in just a few hours.

Now the retreat was looking promising. It had already gone as deep as it usually takes a few days to achieve. The long sitting periods had become wonderful opportunities to get so deep into our minds. Pain was not really an issue in the highly-charged yet relaxed atmosphere. At 3.30 am we ate breakfast together. We had all moved from normal consciousness to a new state of expectation, calmness and concentration. We held no plans for our future, just managing the present moment only. Despite the difficulties it was very convivial.

We all slept until 7 am, then were awoken gently by the professor. The meditation lasted until 10.30 with no break. After lunch Sam and I did our washing in a machine and hung it out to dry on the penthouse roof and enjoyed the views over the city. We sat again from 1.00 – 4.00 pm. Then the professor lectured for one hour. We also sat through the lecture until 5 pm. The retreat was in full swing.

The professor used very clever techniques to remove our habitual reactions. He slammed doors, threw things around in the kitchen; he used the incense board to strike our shoulders for encouragement. He also came round and peered deeply into my eyes when sitting. He played the Great Compassion Mantra in Sanskrit on the computer for a while. Also he spurted out Sanskrit mantras from time to time with a mesmerising rhythm.

After supper six of us went for a walk to book plane tickets back to Nanchang from an agency nearby. On the way back we stopped at a public park where many people were doing a kind of square dancing to loud music. There was also an open-air cinema. Sam and I did a Tai-chi demo and a huge crowd formed, one of them even filming us. After we returned to the penthouse apartment we were told that we should get up at 1 or 2 am for meditation. Sam and I went to bed at 8.30 in our gendered bedrooms. At 10 pm the professor came in to my bedroom and climbed up enthusiastically on to a bookcase above my bed. He grabbed a book and then fell onto the hard floor next to me!

Apologising a few times, he hurried off with his treasured book.


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