Dispatch from a Chan Session

The Mind   |   Jason Tseng  |   March 14, 2013, 10:00 pm


The atmosphere was alert, clear, and crisp, yet quiet and pleasant. The spirit of shared collected effort across the campus gave it a sense of not solitude, not loneliness.

I went to the City of Ten Thousand Buddha in January and most of the residents were in the midst of the final week of a three-week Chan meditation retreat. I dropped by the DRBU building and only a few staff were there. The entire building and the surrounding campus were completely silent. It was a wonderfully quiet feeling. The atmosphere was alert, clear, and crisp, yet quiet and pleasant. The spirit of shared collected effort across the campus gave it a sense of not solitude, not loneliness.  I was trying to reflect on why that is.

A lot of the writers on our blog have been discussing and reflecting on the idea of loneliness and solitude and the idea of camaraderie.  James had, in various living situations, found himself in situations where he spends a lot of his time in solitude.  Alexandra in her response states that “solitude, on the other hand, is something that we choose for ourselves, or at least accept.”  In a way, a communal, silent meditation retreat is a collective choice in group solitude–everybody practicing meditation, working on being totally concentrated in their own minds, together.

James, who stays at CTTB full time, commented on the same thing.  He said that it was really nice to write during the Chan Session.  He had free reign of the entire DRBU building and there was a sense of liberation. It was easier to think through and put in writing a few WASC documents during this “alone time,” and it was quite wonderful.

We were thinking about what a community that valued solitude could mean, and what it might look like.  I used to think of community as sharing a communal space and place for communication.  I believe having those factors are very important in developing as a sense of community.  However, it may also be important to think about community as a source of camaraderie.  Or more specifically, the feeling that everybody is making a concentrated collected effort toward a shared goal. This kind of community can dispel a sense of loneliness.  At least it was a shift in thinking on my part.  What do people think?

When does solitude infringe on individual liberty? In protest, can an anti Chan Meditation group beat pots and pans outside the hall? Is a barking dog more or less guilty? Why doesn’t anyone speak up for the sounds? Im always angry because of this sound, angry because of that sound….Áh perfect silence, perfect concentration…

Nigel 03.16.13, 02:40 PM

We would be each other’s teachers.

James Roberts 03.17.13, 07:00 AM

Hi Nigel, thanks for pointing out the issue of having silence as a pre-condition to how we frame a “perfect” setting. I was trying to describe what kind the situation was occurring, and while while it was very silent, I’m not sure if that’s the key element. I guess what I’m trying to tease out is that maybe it’s the feeling that everybody working on their mind in a concentrated, collected sort of way together is what makes what is supposedly a silent, lonely period actually quite un-lonely.

Jason Tseng 03.18.13, 12:50 PM

Concentrated, collected, tranquil, and flowing. No matter how quiet, there will still be sounds. It’s like the physicists trying to find emptiness. Even in the deeps of space there is some sort of particle.

The big boom car stereo, police siren, Harley gunning the gas, trains tooting as they pass by, These sounds make my mind feel angry and hurt. But, the people who make the sounds are just doing what they do.

Advanced Chan practitioners can deal with the sounds; but lots of people can’t. Some people work on their mind by making music with others. This helps to focus the mind – training students to work together and listen.

The Buddha was known to make loud sounds – the roar of a lion – Such a community should not be set up to the exclusion of the lion’s roar. Just because it is quiet all the time, it is not perfect.

Nigel 03.20.13, 07:32 AM

The other day as I was hiking alone I realized that I was not truly alone though I was by myself. I did feel a bit lonely for human championship though I was also deeply aware of the fact that I was surrounded by the stirring of so many living and non living things This realization quieted any longing for things to be different.

And in response to those who are considering this idea of solitude/aloneness and loneliness—we are surrounded by so many living things including one another whether we are in direct communion or otherwise—whether sitting, cooking or doing kinhin—so yes there is a camaraderie even in silence, collective or otherwise.

Perhaps the only time we are truly alone is when we are coming into or bowing out of this our beloved earth and world (but even then I am not so sure)

Isabella Salaverry 03.20.13, 07:50 PM

Hi Isabella,

Thanks for your reflections. One of the interesting aspects is that we can be surrounded by and even be interacting with all these people / living beings, yet feel isolated, or alone still. So, in a way, this silent camaraderie is interesting addition to the social dimension to I have been contemplating. Like you said, it gives more of a nuance and dispels a certain way of looking at my loneliness when it does come up.

Jason Tseng 03.20.13, 08:14 PM

I had my very first Chan session experience in this April and it was amazing…I thought it would be difficult since I know how scattered and wild my mind is usually. But in the Chan hall, the atmosphere was very very different from simple silence. I don’t know what was going on in the hall “secretly”, which made it a very peaceful, safe and pleasant place to be. It was not “boring” at all. I must thank all true cultivators at CTTB and encouraged me to “look inside”. I believe this is due to your collective efforts, especially due to the the merit and virtue as a result of upholding pure precepts. So we have this amazing energy in the Chan Hall. I don’t know how to express my gratitude. From now on, I would encourage my friends to go to Chan sessions, because otherwise you probably won’t start to understand that the true happiness, the ultimate happiness should be found by looking inside.

Chin Lan 04.22.13, 09:18 AM

I went to the CTTB in late December and attended the first week of Chan meditation retreat. This is my first retreat at CTTB, beside a little bit cold, things are nice and quiet up there. A week flew by so fast and then I have to return to my busy life here in the Bay Area.
My only disappointment from the trip is the schedule has been cut a lot from the original 15 sits schedule. Why do we change something that has a proven record of more than a thousand years?

Dzung 06.03.13, 01:52 PM

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