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A Tour of China – A Series (4): Shenzhen Retreat, Nov. 2012

Photo by Eric Johns.

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.

Tuesday 6th Nov.

Nobody got up until 6 am as they had been drinking tea and talking late into the night, presumably about this book. But most certainly about Chan practice. Auntie made breakfast; I watched and learned her simple clean and delicious cooking style.

We sat for two hours and fifteen minutes. Afterwards I saw Doctor Thomas massaging somebody’s back. He had a good technique. I asked him to do my tight shoulders and within a minute I moved to the toilet and relieved a lot of stuck stuff. The good doctor certainly knew the right acupuncture points.

Sam and I went up on the roof to retrieve our washing. It was boiling hot already at 9 am. We did Tai-chi in a shady corner. When we came down everybody was sitting around the tea table drinking tea and sharing their retreat experiences together. Sam and I said that we wished our mothers had the focus, calmness and serenity of Auntie who had cooked and sat with us throughout. She was indeed a real Buddhist in the truest sense, at 68 years of age. She replied sincerely that anybody who is sincere can follow Buddhist training and transform themselves. Then at one o’clock we sat straight through until 5 pm. The professor continued to do strange things, like playing the Great Compassion Mantra on the computer in Sanskrit. Or leaving the room and walking backwards back in and again sometimes bending over to peer into people’s eyes. Others held their hand Mudras high above their heads in yellow bags. We were doing different types of practices that we had all discussed at the beginning. But all of us were told to use doubt to look into what or who perceived the sound. What was this that could not be found with our intellect but was intuited when we turned our awareness around on itself?

Another Chinese woman joined us; she had been unable to make it earlier. After supper, Sam, I and Master Dong walked to the park again but to a quiet corner where I did Tai-chi and discussed the merits of the retreat. Master Dong was clearly unwell and got very tired. Often I had trouble getting him to wake up earlier when asked to do so by the professor. He found out later that he had a rotten wisdom tooth and infection and had a couple of them pulled out.

On the way back we eat delicious vegetarian noodles without garlic, onion or MSG at a road side stall at 30 pence each. I heard the lady say to Master Dong, ‘What the hell are you doing leaving home (becoming a monk)? You will never have any money!’ I then told her his secret in Mandarin that even his mother didn’t know he was a monk, only his dad and brother. We all laughed together in the warm evening air and ate noodles. We were still on retreat and our collective wish was to pass on the clear radiant mind to this husband and wife noodle team who had come to Shenzhen in the hope of a better life, they told us. We wanted them to see the state of mind that Buddhism teaches. What I didn’t tell her was that when Master Dong went home to see his mum he put on blue jeans and hat, saying that he had a nice job in Nanchang and she said, ‘Hurry up and produce me a grandchild’! Master Dong explained that he could not tell his mum or she would lose her love for him.

What Master Dong did not tell the noodle lady was that everyone on the retreat, including the astonishingly engaging professor, had clubbed together and given him a lot of money for coming along. I saw a large wad of several thousand RMB. 

Wednesday 7th Nov.

We had been told that we would start sitting at 6 am, but at 4 am we were invited to get up and sit straightaway. I had not slept much because of a barking dog nearby. It felt so incredibly hard to sit upright I wanted to disappear into the cold hard floor or be back in bed. The professor had taken to using the incense board to strike our shoulders with increasing regularity, although he only struck me once during the whole retreat. Master Dong was positioned in the middle of the room. Despite his tooth infection he was allowed no rest. Every time he dozed he was hit hard and also at many other times. This did not produce any breakthrough for him. I would personally have hidden the board or broken it to stop the professor, but Master Dong just accepted it. Afterwards he said that those techniques are not allowed in a Chan Monastery. (There, you must use an empty palm with the board, the palm must not touch the board, only the fingers can grip the side loosely as this is not supposed to be punishment but compassion.) This was a different style, we agreed, but were getting more from the retreat than he was as we were not ill, and we were really thriving on it. Then, during the third hour of sitting all my difficulty melted and I sat in a blissfully mild Samadhi for an hour and then through the next hour when the professor delivered his final lecture. There was no numbness in my legs. I stood up as if weightless, light and at ease.

We took group photos and the professor fussed with the camera. One of his students felt his wrist pulse as a Chinese doctor would and we laughed at them. We had breakfast and thanked each other. Then suddenly we were packed and driven to the metro and on a train to the airport.

The driver, Si Ma, met us at the airport in Nanchang. Master Dong headed off to the dentist and we returned to Zhen Ru Chan Monastery just in time to attend the one and half hour evening meditation. I went to sleep to the sound of the Monastery Evening Bell wondering what the hell had happened over the last five days.

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