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Zen Retreat, Part I

Two weekends ago my head-teacher was in town, Zen Master Ji Bong (Robert Moore). He comes up from California a few times year to give talks, lead retreats, and conduct ceremonies. We had all three this most recent visit… so I thought we’d shift gears from acupuncture, to the other core component of my practice, zen. While daily meditation is greatly beneficial, there is nothing quite like a retreat to really deepen one’s practice. Many times throughout the year I’m in retreat. Sometimes on my own, though most of the time in a group setting. Invariably, I’ll hear something like, “have fun!” prior to or “did you have fun?” after the fact. Apparently this response is not uncommon, as one of our teachers was sharing how his wife will ask him the same question after a retreat. It must be the word “retreat”. It probably makes it sound like a vacation or day at the spa. And this just isn’t the case! So what goes on at these things anyway? I started writing this post, and I thought it way too long for one post, so I’ll publish it as a series to make it a bit more digestible.

There are many traditions out there, so this is just a brief look into the retreat format within the Korean Zen tradition here in America. They can start as early as 4:30am and go as late as 9:30pm each day, lasting anywhere from one day to 3 months or so. Each retreat is led by someone referred to as the Head Dharma Teacher. He/She makes announcements, keeps time, and basically makes sure everything runs smoothly. Then there are the senior teachers called “Ji Do Poep Sa Nim” (Guides to the Way, or Dharma Masters). These are individuals who have been training under the same Zen Master for at least a decade (usually longer). They have demonstrated over the years a certain kind of meticulous effort and skill as they engage their momentary life. They have a calling to teach and spread the Dharma through compassion and wisdom. Finally, they are authorized to give koan interviews. I’ll talk a little bit more about this later. But many dharma-centers or temples only have one individual, usually the head-monk, able to give koan interviews. At Blue Heron Zen Community, we are blessed to have three very skilled teachers that have been given this honor.

To round out the lineup, we have our guiding-teacher, Zen Master Ji Bong (Robert Moore). He received transmission (and given the title of Zen Master) from the famous korean Zen Master Seung Sahn after almost 30 years of training. Now with a collective 40 years of training under his belt, he oversees the teaching and practice of Blue Heron Zen Community in Seattle and the Golden Wind Zen Order in Long Beach, CA. We are very lucky to have him…

Zen retreats are always silent, and this begins the moment you come into the zen center. If you need to communicate something to someone, there are pads and pens located throughout. The attendees come into the dharma room (main meditation hall) one by one, bowing as they enter. Each finds their cushion for the rest of the day and gets settled into their meditation posture. This is my favorite time of the retreat. It’s still dark and cool outside. People’s minds haven’t kicked into high gear yet. The vibe is easy, calm and peaceful.

Then the Head Dharma Teacher welcomes everyone, asks us to bow to the senior teachers/zen master, followed by an orientation and reading of the temple rules. The temple rules are very old and are a wonderful way of not only carrying out your life while at the zen center, but even just day to day. Everyone then recites the 4 Great Vows and does 27 full bows. Bowing is its own practice… not a devotional display, but one of humility, respect, and movement (which can help cut through a mind full of stuff!). Then we go through our core chants which takes about an hour, including the Heart Sutra. This particular one is chanted throughout all (or at least most) sects of Buddhism. Chanting is also its own practice… one of breath, compassion and heart-opening. Then, we start the core of the retreat – a combination of seated meditation (approximately 10-14, 30-minute periods per day), walking meditation (10 minute periods), 2-3 formal meals, 1-2 work periods, and koan interviews.

More to share in Part II…

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