Author: Wanda Chu
My name is Wanda Chu and I come from Toronto. Between September 30 and October 7, 2018, I attended a dynamic and inspirational Dharma Cultivation retreat in Vancouver hosted by the International Buddhist Temple of Canada and the Vinaya, Samadhi and Prajna Lecture Hall of Hong Kong. The 70 participants came from Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, England and other places of the world. It is the first Buddhist retreat I have been to.
The idea was for all of us to spend a whole week living a monastic life and learn to calm the mind by practicing basic Buddhist philosophy. A big part of the week-long retreat was the cultivation of Zen through medication. In strict accordance with the Buddhist tradition, we got up at 4:00 am each morning and spent between two to four hours a day on sessions held in the Meditation Hall.
As Venerable Guan Cheng, abbot of the Temple, explained, Zen is the cultivation of concentration (Samadhi) and supreme wisdom (Prajna) — a training process for the mind. To attain supreme wisdom by cultivating Zen alone, however, is hard. As I understand, long ago Sakyamuni Buddha introduced us to the Pure Land Dharma offered by Amitabha Buddha. By practicing Zen and Jing (Pure Land Dharma) together, we vow to be reborn in Pure Land. Cultivation is made easier in Pure Land because there are no bad elements to obstruct our true wisdom from prevailing. There, we may develop a Bodhi mind, vow to become a Buddha, and finally return to this Saha world for the salvation of other sentient beings.
We learned that there are different steps in this practice: reciting the Amitabha Sutra, prostration, chanting Amitabha Buddha’s name, walking and sitting in meditation. I must admit that I had never spent that much time in chanting and meditation before attending the retreat. The experience was both spiritual and very inspirational.
Towards the end of each session, our mentor Venerable Shan Yu would further discuss and explicate important concepts of the Dharma in easy-to-understand language, using storytelling effectively to demonstrate, e.g., what mindfulness is. I loved her stories. Venerable Yuan Chuan, another mentor, elaborated on the key aspects of meditation, such as proper posture, breathing and mindset. Each of these elements is important to follow in order to meditate properly.
A host of other activities
The rich 7-day program also included daily morning and evening services and doing many types of volunteer work to put our Buddha mind into action. To help us purify the mind and reduce afflictions we each have created, our morning and evening services included making the Grand Vows, taking the Three Refuges in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and committing ourselves to repentance. The morning gong and evening drum, a regular ritual, was performed during each of the services.
We learned that the morning gong and evening drum ritual is indeed spiritually meaningful. Once upon a time, there was a cruel general who had killed many lives. He was reborn as a thousand-headed fish. As such, his heads would be chopped off hundreds of times and he suffered enormously. One day, as the sounds of a bell and a drum came from a nearby temple, he immediately felt a sense of remorse and began to repent his evil deeds. Later, when he met a monk meditating on the river bank, he told him his story and asked if the monk would strike a bell and a drum every day to help him repent. Filled with compassion, the monk agreed. Since then, this ritual has spread to become part of the daily routine for Buddhist temples, to signify in a way the release of pain and suffering of all sentient beings.
We further learned that Buddhist repentance is unique because we are not asking for divine forgiveness. It is the clear recognition of our own unwholesome deeds and irresponsible actions done intentionally or otherwise through the body, speech and thoughts. We were reminded that we are the masters of our own destiny and thus are accountable for all our actions, good and bad, big or small. After recognizing our faults, we resolve to be as mindful as we can be, so as to never repeat these faults under any circumstances.
And with volunteering, we spent an hour or two each day helping with many types of jobs needed on the temple grounds, from trimming trees and plants and harvesting vegetables from the Temple-run farm, to cleaning and cooking in the kitchen.
We learnt that volunteering is one of the many ways of practicing the six paramitas and putting one’s bodhicitta in action: giving, discipline, endurance, perseverance, meditative concentration and wisdom. By practicing the six paramitas one aims to cross the sea of suffering (Samsara), so that one may escape the reincarnation in the six paths within the three realms, and to finally arrive at the other shore of the ultimate joy and happiness — Nirvana.
Simple yet amazing vegetarian food
During the retreat plain but nutritious vegetarian breakfast and lunch was provided to all practitioners. I must say all the meals were amazingly delicious. The variety of dishes, the freshness of ingredients and their nutritional values were carefully considered and the food was diligently prepared. Our enjoyment of the vegetarian cuisine would not have happened without the hard work of all the devoted volunteers, some of whom started work for the day as early as 2:00 am.
What I have learned
I was truly blessed to stay at the International Buddhist Temple for the entire retreat. For seven days we shared rooms with fellow participants, slept in individual bunk beds, used communal washrooms and shower stalls, and rested just enough before rising in the dark every morning. For seven days we refrained from shopping and from use of cellphones and computers. We forgot about makeup, jewelry, designer handbags, fancy cars and fashion, we wore only the temple-dweller uniform and followed strict Buddhist precepts. We cast aside worldly conveniences and material pleasures and lived a life of utter simplicity. It helped my search for something deeply spiritual and ultimately more valuable.
Words may not express fully my utmost respect for and gratitude to Venerable Guan Cheng, organizer of the retreat, and my sincere thanks to the Sangha, staff and volunteers at the International Buddhist Temple, for putting on such a productive Dharma cultivation event. Indeed, the path to enlightenment is a long journey for anyone, but this memorable retreat has given me a good head start. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in finding spiritual peace and joy.
In conclusion, let me end my sketch of this invaluable retreat by a Zen poem:
My true nature and Prajna is as luminous
as a pearl treasured within me.
Yet I could not realize it all my life because its radiance
was shrouded in impurities I had created.
Now that the impurities have been cleared
the pearl shines, my untamed true nature and Prajna prevail.