What’s like to spend a weekend in a Zen Retreat (a personal experience)
Some months ago, I ended my first Zen retreat. The first direct and practical journey into Zazen. And what the way of living “when you’re doing something, I’m just doing” means. It knows how this ancestral way of life of “sitting” and more can contribute, and how it can help you to live better in a world like today…
A few months ago, I interviewed Dae Bong Sunim, a renowned Zen master at Musangsa. Before and after the interview, behind the curtains, he made references of two centres in Spain, one in Mallorca and the other in Barcelona. Recommending the centre’s teacher Ji Di Peop Sa (Bárbara) for an upcoming interview. With this data and the contact with Barbara established, I investigated the options of making a small retreat/course in Spain before going to South Korea for an intensive course — something quite complex in these times of COVID-19.
The Dae Bong team shared the website and email address with me, so after seeing Mallorca, I connected with El Bori Centro Zen in Barcelona and its Bori Sa retreat program in Alta Garrotxa (Gerona). I contacted them for an interview (scheduled for “coming soon”) and filled out the registration for a 2-day retreat on September 18th.
Why this Zen retreat
This was special to me for several reasons:
1. My first serious journey into the practice of Zen and Zazen.
2. A different final training for the preparation of the Holistic Ultraman, “Holistic High-Performance Man” that takes place this week.
3. Being able to see the contrast of teachings between the Vipassana technique, the teachings of the Shaolin monks and Zen — a more Korean style.
Train from Valencia to Barcelona, and then with part of the team from the centre to the place of the retreat, a 2:45 hour journey from Barcelona by car.
The trip was uneventful, I barely spoke a word, except for a few impressions and perceptions that I exchanged with Marta in the passenger seats. I remember her telling me about her experience of a week-long retreat, where at midnight you wake up to continue meditating and then go back to sleep for 7 days, “it removes everything, I still feel it,” she explained.
Arrival at the centre
We arrived and saw the rest of the group. We were 6 people, with a total experience in Zen between us all of 6 and 15 years. There was Gloria, Marta (8 years old), Daniel (10 years old), Tonda (more than 2 years) and Bárbara, the teacher (more than 20 years). I was the only “new” one, but in reality, I felt something challenging to find wherever you go, and that is that everyone went with a white belt mentality.
There you breathe a stringent and disciplined air with a Zen character but at the same time, soft, gentle and fluid.
What happened in a day and a half at the Zen retreat
What follows is, in part, my experience in the Zen Bori Sa Kwan Um School of Zen retreat. I will explain it in chronological order of activities, adding what I consider relevant to each of them.
The bell rings at 5 am to get you up — I felt tired, I didn’t want to wake up.
We performed 108 prostrations at 5:15 am — something I have never done before, meditating with the body and the mind. We warmed up and connected with everything (now). As they explained, prostrations could serve as “an emergency measure” to clarify the mind. I felt discomfort at first, but mental and body liberation as I progressed. There is a special practice of 1,080 a day (spread throughout the day).
Chants at 5:40 am — this part is about reciting sutras and chants. It is another Zen meditation technique, just like prostrations. Here they are in groups (like a kind of mantra) and the key, as I was told, is to put intention into each syllable and unite the volume and energy with the others. You realize how easy it is to get lost and how complex it is to put all your attention into pronunciation, tonality and volume. It requires presence and “now” is where the true practise of meditation “being in the present” appears.
Zazen Meditation at 7 am — two rounds of 30 min each — and in between a walking meditation for 10 minutes. I needed those 10 minutes because in both parts I fell asleep. I noticed afflictions that occurred because I was trying to get somewhere. Where? I don’t know. In Zen meditation, you can opt for several techniques, but meditation is always the one that stands out, relaxing your body and doing long and deep inhalations and exhalations. There is a whole “science” behind Zen, explained brilliantly in this book, a work of art.
A formal Korean Zazen breakfast at 8 am. A rigorous protocol, with four bowls, you only put food in once. Your spoon has to be at a 90º angle, and then you pour water over the bowls to clean them before and after eating. It is an exercise for attention and discipline. Tonda explained to me how to coordinate and use them for eating and cleaning. This way you also make sure that you are as present as possible as I said because everything has to be taken care of to the millimetre, even the distance between them and at what angle you leave the spoon that you eat with.
Chores to help in the kitchen at 9 am peeling onions, olives, cucumbers and potatoes. Also cleaning dishes. I tried to do each one of those actions with more care and dedication than the most valuable task in the world for me, and suddenly I was not in the kitchen, I was in the centre of the universe.
I covered my free time at 10 am with Tai Chi, writing about my thoughts, taking breaths in the sun, a micro-nap and a short reading. This was a session of flow with the movements and what arose, without music, in the open air, natural silence in the middle of nowhere. I was just there enjoying the activity. I didn’t care what I was doing, because I was doing it.
Lunch at 12pm — very conscientious and participatory, helping every one of us with all the different tasks. The delicious food draws attention to the moderate amounts making you not at all anxious when distributing food.
A ceremonial act (online) at 1 pm for the funeral of Myong Hae Sunim, a Zen teacher and nun who is much loved in all centres around the world. This was precisely the last day of the 49 days that the offerings and tribute lasted. It was interesting not knowing anything about her and being able to meet her through the interventions of her Sifu, other teachers and friends, reciting sutras and making offerings. I am left with a story where the Koan that changed his life told: “would you be able to lie to anyone?” And how do you think:
- Let us always remain with the “mind of trying”.
- There are no opposite sides.
- There are not even sides.
- Your true “I” does not exist because only “you” exist.
- Serve the world and don’t stop smiling at anyone.
Free time at 3:45 pm to do 15 min of Qi Gong to release, connect and conduct energy.
Walk at 4 pm for 30 minutes with stillness halfway. It is there, walking, where I realized the following: “I want it to be the moment that is now, I want this, as it is” and then I realized that I was no longer in what is to come, but in what is being, it was powerful and transformative.
5 pm dinner — nothing to add here than the art of the Oryoki Bowls is quite incredible; there is even a manual on how to use them.
At 6:30 pm, we continued with more songs — this time, they were speedy, or my mind judged, and I felt like I was not a white belt. That was precisely what evaded me a lot from the session, especially at the beginning, I think the speed was to train more attention and abandonment of what happens.
7:30 pm meditation — (again) 2 × 30 min and 10 min walk. Here I used the different Zen techniques I was learning; one was breathing, plus counting to 10 and going back to the beginning. The other was the “koans” questions. And the third for the second part was a mix between the first technique and scanning the sensations of your body (Vipassana technique).
The day ended here, at 8:45 pm. I went to the bedroom, to write, to read, to use my floss bands and to sleep. The next day we had to be up at 5 am to start the half day.
The next day it was the same schedule. Except that at 11 am we sat in Zazen in three 30-minute batches and two meditation walks of 10 minutes each. And then we came to an end, the meal, at 2 pm, which I did not have because I decided to practice the water-only fast all day. Why? Because I felt like I was going to like it, and it also served as preparation for the challenge, to activate the immune system.
It is exciting what you can get to experience in a day and a half, in addition to everything that Zen can offer you, trying it in a retreat in such a short period of time, but as intense as a complete daily practice.
Some reflections to think about from this second day of Zen retreat
I realize that I progress every time I apply the “not knowing” why… How are we going to know something in a world that is constantly changing every minute?
When I approach things with a white belt mentality, I don’t even feel the need to progress, because by not knowing, you realize that you don’t know or need to know where to progress, just being in that moment, alive, living it.
The problem is not that your mind thinks or takes you from one place to another; the problem is that you give it credit for it, that you even pay attention to it.
For a clear mind, there is no noise; it just is how it is. There is only a moment to moment, existence in its pure state because anything goes, whatever is happening is the result of totality.
Something else to highlight is the family atmosphere; respect, closeness, kindness and honesty that is breathed in the centre and between the team and students, pure love.
Video about the life experience at my first Zen retreat.
[Originally published at https://isragarcia.com]