by Chan Master Zarko Andricevic
This article is taken from his Dharma talk given on the last day of an online retreat hosted by the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in March 2021 and attended by hundreds of people around the world. On this retreat, a different teacher each day would present commentary on a quote from Master Sheng Yen. Here Zarko gives wonderfully clear instruction on the clarity which can result from retreat practice, and how to take that practice further.
The Last Day is Precious
Greetings to all; I see many familiar faces there [on the Zoom screen]. It is an exceptional experience to have such a retreat, not being altogether in one place, instead everybody at their own home, and every day a different teacher comes and gives a talk. This is a very special experience. I hope that we can turn these conditions for our own benefit and for the benefit of all other people. I give thanks to all who participated in the organization of such a complex event. I can imagine how difficult that must have been.
Let me start by simply saying that this is the last full day of the retreat. The last day of a retreat is usually considered the most precious of all. There are several reasons for that. The first reason is that by now you have fully adapted to the conditions of the retreat and have left all difficulties behind, maybe even a few days ago. Secondly, you are able to use your method much better now than was the case at the beginning of the retreat. Thirdly, today your practice is like surfing on a wave; somehow everything goes much smoother than before. For all these reasons, the last day of a retreat is considered to be very precious — a great opportunity for deepening our practice even further. So having said that, I will turn now to the quote for today from Master Sheng Yen:
“You have nothing to do. Both mind and body are at ease. If you have no thoughts, that is good. Then you are comfortable. You don’t even have to continue to notice your breath. If your mind is clear, just sit. But once you start to feel your body, then make sure your posture is correct. I hope you can do this. Don’t think you have to sit because you owe someone something.”
That sounds really wonderful. Mind and body at ease, not many wandering thoughts. You feel comfortable. You don’t even have to continue to notice your breath. It is definitely an important stage of practice — by using the method we have come to the position where we have actually exhausted the potential of that method. For that reason, we don’t need that method anymore. It is like when you are watching your breath, and after using the method day after day, continuously working on it, you come to the point at which your breath is so subtle that you almost can’t notice it. At the same time your mind is very clear, settled and stable, with maybe just a few wandering thoughts here and there.
Nothing to Do
This is precisely the situation which Master Sheng Yen describes in this text. There is no need for us to watch the breath anymore, because the function of the method has been fulfilled. The purpose of using the breath was precisely to come to that stage of clarity and stability. Once we do that, we can forget about it. We don’t need to watch the breath anymore.
This is coming out of the grip of a scattered mind, and the various emotional turbulences we experienced at the very beginning of our retreat. Because when we start a retreat, our mind is very unsettled, and in a state of unease, and sometimes that’s followed by strong emotional reactions. To get out of that and come to this position which is described at the beginning of this quote, that’s a great release. We can finally witness the possibility of getting out of this turbulence. We know now that we can experience a different state of mind and body from the usual one; this marks a very important stage in our practice.
But at the same time, I’m sure that not all of us find this stage of practice at the end of the retreat, isn’t that so? Sometimes it happens; sometimes it does not. Maybe a certain number of you are at this stage, maybe you’ve even gone beyond. But a lot of people are not in that position, and they are still struggling with the body, with all these wandering thoughts and tensions, and various emotional states. This is what we predominantly experience on retreats. So hearing about this wonderful state of a mind and body at ease, it might sound like a fantasy. For this reason, let me say a few words about the process through which we can come to this stage in our practice. Because this stage doesn’t just come out of nowhere, or because some people get lucky. It’s not that at all. No, there is a procedure to come to that stage. If we are very careful and if we know the elements of this process, we can all find ourselves there.
Elements of the Process
Here are the elements which I think are important in coming to this stage of having a mind and body at ease. First of all, you know that when we come on retreat we find simplicity, living a much simpler life than our everyday life. In this situation [an online retreat] where you are practicing at home, maybe it is not so simple as when you are in the retreat center. But nevertheless I am sure that you organized your life in a way to simplify it as much as possible. This is a very important part of training the mind, to simplify life, that is the first and very important thing.
The second thing is slowing down. In our ordinary life we are all, I imagine, living in a rhythm which is very fast, and for that reason not very healthy. It’s a rhythm which brings a lot of tension and dissatisfaction. It’s very important to slow down so that we can find our natural rhythm. When we slow down, everything happens in some kind of clarity, so we don’t miss anything. This is another very important condition.
The third condition is relaxing — recognizing and releasing all those physical tensions which accumulate in our bodies, and calming our mind by releasing the worries which are the result of the way we live in general. Once we relax the body and the mind, leaving aside thoughts about the past, and leaving aside expectations of the future, we start to live in the present moment. Then we are very close to the condition described at the beginning of the quote. In the present moment, the body and mind are at ease. For this simple reason, we are no longer living a complex life full of tensions. Living in the present in the context of retreat is a life free of all those things which create problems.
When we start to feel the taste of the present moment, contentment naturally arises. We become at peace with what is. There are no more fears and hopes, expectations and worries. We are at ease with ourselves, and as a result we start to feel content. There is no need to go anywhere, or do anything. Everything is fine as it is, and we are fine where we are in the moment.
So these are conditions which enable us to experience what is described at the beginning of this quote. Of course there is a method of practice; that is our main tool to arrive there. The most important thing with the method of practice is establishing continuity. I hope that even if you haven’t experienced this so far, that in your practice today and tomorrow you will be able to settle down and use your method efficiently, and experience this contentment; the state of being stable and clear with nothing to do.
Sometimes this experience seems to be very far away from us, but it all depends on how we relate to our practice, how we use our method. If you sit in a good posture; if you relax your body and mind, if you release all those worries and pick up your method with interest and inspiration, knowing that you are doing the right thing at the right time, you can arrive in no time at this state. It’s not necessarily a matter of days or months; it can happen actually in one sitting, and I think that’s very important to know. Because sometimes we approach practice with the idea that it takes a lot of time and experience to achieve anything meaningful. By thinking so, we defeat ourselves, and it won’t be possible to make any progress. But once we know that mind is nothing substantial, mind can change and turn in a moment. So if we establish the right condition for that to happen, it can happen right now.
Chan Practice Is Deconstruction
In general, Chan practice is more about deconstruction than about creating or achieving something. It is more of letting go, discovering what’s already here, than creating something else not existent yet. I think this is very important to know. When we practice Chan, everything that we need for our practice is already here. For that reason, there is no need for us to go anywhere or do anything. By letting go of doing anything, we come closer to who we really are.
We discover our true nature by letting go of all these things which hide this nature from us. On the one hand there is a need for this strong belief that we have this true nature which is there all the time; a conviction that we are not lacking anything, that everything is actually okay with us. But we have obstructions which keep us from being in touch with our true nature. So when we start practicing, we practice by letting go wrong views, letting go of attachments, letting go of anything which hides this nature from us.
This is also the meaning of “you have nothing to do.” If you go back now to the beginning of the retreat, there were a lot of things to do. In our everyday life we are very busy. And the more busy we become somehow the further we are from our true nature. In practice we are letting go of this busyness, and once we come to the point in which there is nothing for us to do, that is a great release. That is actually liberation, because there we can experience our true nature. This stage which is described in the quote, it is not that stage of seeing our nature. It is simply a stage in which, by exhausting the potential of our method, we can enjoy for a while the fruit of our work. Our body and mind are at ease, the mind is stable and clear, and we can simply stop there and not do anything.
What is true is that we can’t maintain that state for long. After a while the mind will start thinking again and will maybe even start to be tense again. So in the second part of the quote Master Sheng Yen says “If your mind is clear just sit. But once you start to feel your body then make sure your body is in the correct posture. I hope you can do this.”
At the point which the first part of the quote describes, Master Sheng Yen is suggesting to us to use the method of silent illumination. In other schools traditionally maybe the four foundations of mindfulness would be the way to proceed. But in Chan, once we come to that stage, we can continue by just sitting. So, from being at ease in body and mind, and being stable and clear, we direct our attention to the body. We continue our practice by simply knowing that we are sitting there, nothing more, nothing less. And in the process of just sitting our minds become even more clear and calm and silent. How is that possible? What is happening there?
Posture and Attitude
Once we expand our awareness to include the whole body sitting, the first thing is to make sure our posture is correct. Once we straighten our posture, our mind becomes very alert. By correcting the posture we correct our attitude, and as that attitude is one of alertness, we become sharply aware of our body sitting there on the cushion. When that happens our field of awareness expands from what was the breath at the beginning, to the whole body now. At that stage it is a very natural thing to do. If we are at that stage which the text describes, we won’t have much difficulty with knowing how to be there with the whole body. That problem arises when our mind is scattered, when we simply don’t have that mental stability. But in this case the mind is very stable and clear and at ease.
Once we direct our attention to the whole of the body sitting there, we have no doubt about how to do that. As soon as you expand your awareness to the body you know that you are sitting. There is nothing confusing there, it is very obvious. You feel the weight of your body on a cushion. You feel all the sensations of your body. Your mind is so calm that it does not jump from one sensation to another — and this is what confuses people when they start to establish this awareness of the whole body: the fact that the mind jumps from one sensation to another creates doubt about how to be aware of the whole body. But when our mind is so stable and clear we don’t have these doubts. We are simply aware, and from moment to moment we continue by being aware of the body sitting there.
At that time, what does our practice consist of? We are aware of body and mind being together in the act of sitting; the practice consists of the mind *not* focusing on the particular phenomena arising in that mind-body context. I hope that is clear. The mind does not focus at one point on one thing, and at another point on another thing. For example, “Oh, now my knee hurts,” so I focus on the knee thinking “it’s not pleasant, how can I avoid this?” If you start following those thoughts, this is not the method of silent illumination, of just sitting. Whatever arises, whether it is sensation arising in the body or wandering thoughts arising in the mind, we are not focusing on those phenomena, not leaving the totality of the body sitting there. Whatever is happening, it’s happening inside totality.
So for example, if you are aware of your whole body sitting, and then your knee starts to hurt, you don’t focus on the knee. You are very clear that there is a pain in the knee, but you are aware of the rest of the body as well. Once these sensations arise, we don’t focus on them and we don’t react in our usual way by rejecting or grasping. That’s the main aspect of our practice there. When we see that our mind reacts to these phenomena, and it’s either grasping if it is a pleasant sensation or rejecting if it is unpleasant — this is what we let go of. Of course our mind will focus, but once we see, we will let go and our mind will return to the totality of the body. And next time we have more chance of succeeding in not reacting to those phenomena.
If we don’t react to these phenomena, what is it that we do? We simply know them. We are very clear that they arise at one point, are there for a while, and then they leave. They are coming and going all the time. The same is the case with wandering thoughts. Whether there are phenomena arising in the body or phenomena arising in the mind, we treat them all in the same way: we don’t react. We don’t follow our wandering thoughts, we don’t fight against them. We know they are there but we simply ignore them. Our attention is on the totality of the body sitting there.
This sitting with a sense of full presence is the main characteristic of the “just sitting” stage of silent illumination. We sit with full presence and whatever is happening should not have the ability to move our mind. The less we react to whatever arises, the more free we become in that sitting. The less conflict there is between our mind and body, the more peaceful and clear we become. If we progress in that way, the strength of the sensations arising in our body starts to diminish and the sensations become less and less noticeable. In other words, our body stops being the burden. Our body becomes lighter and lighter in that practice.
Also, if we don’t follow our wandering thoughts, and are not fighting against them, fewer and fewer wandering thoughts are present. By ignoring wandering thoughts in this way we actually ignore the self-centricity of our mind. Because every single thought is self-centered. By letting go of those self-centered thoughts, the strength of self-centricity is lessened.
It goes up to the point in which we could say our body and mind are reflecting each other, without any kind of conflict between them. We sit and we know we are sitting. It goes to the point in which we don’t feel the body so strongly anymore, we can even leave the sense of the body as we normally have it, and then naturally what happens is our mind expands farther from the body into the environment in which we sit. When that happens we continue our practice in the same way using the same principle, the principle of allowing everything to arise and not grasping or rejecting anything which does arise.
The level of practice becomes more and more subtle. Our mind becomes even more stable and our clarity becomes more present. By not reacting to anything which arises in our body, our mind, and now our environment, we allow everything to come and go. At the same time, we are clearly aware of all those phenomena arising and passing away. If we continue in this way, we actually come into position to understand the nature of those phenomena. Because by doing that, we are outside our mental constructions about ourselves and the world. We are no longer relying on those conceptions, but are witnessing all those phenomena directly from moment to moment. And if we don’t introduce our self there, if we are not describing and coming to conclusions about those things — those phenomena actually describe themselves to us. This is possible because there is no grasping and rejecting (which is precisely the self). When there is no self there, we see things as they are. Whenever a self is there, perspective is very small. But when there is no self-perspective and the mind is very open, it has the ability to see the totality of things, to see how things are actually co-arising. There is none of this strict division of subject and object, self and other.
Compassion is Responsibility
So this is how we can proceed from that stable and clear state of mind, the state at which we arrive after we exhaust the potential of the meditation method. Then we can know further, all the way up to the point of seeing ourselves also as a phenomenon, empty by nature, as are all other phenomena. Once you see that, that’s wisdom and that’s compassion. Wisdom is the understanding of how things are and compassion is the responsibility which that understanding brings, which is very natural. It’s the free function of the mind which is not self-obsessed.
We can see this whole process as one of deconstruction, of letting go. On a retreat we first make a distinction between our wishes and our needs, and we stay with the needs and forget about the wishes. Then we continue by letting go of everything which is not essential. In letting go of all these things and arriving at the present moment, we actually feel contentment; no need to go anywhere, to do anything. And when we go deeper and deeper into our practice by letting go of this pattern of grasping and rejecting, this is a continuous opening into what is really there.
This is what I thought was good to say in relation to this quote from Master Sheng Yen. I hope that I brought some clarity into this practice and that this could be useful to you. I will end my talk here; so if you have any questions I’ll be very happy to answer them.
First Student: I’m happy to hear that all the elements we need for practice are actually in us, we just need to discover them. I have a very beginner question: I’m still struggling with my method which is counting the breath. Even before I actually start using the method, all the wandering thoughts are already in the mind. If I just keep doing it every day, will I eventually learn how to let go of the thought?
Zarko: That is a very usual situation that you’re describing, something which happens to all of us in the beginning stages of practice. Meditation on counting the breath is a very effective method to collect the mind. But you also have to think in a certain way about wandering thoughts, which somehow stand between us and the method. We have to see those thoughts in a certain way in order to be able to let go of them. If you think those thoughts are important, then it will be very difficult to let them go. So first of all we have to see that, when we sit, *we* decided to sit. We ourself decided to use the method of practice. If our mind goes somewhere else from that decision we can reflect on that, and we can say to ourselves that these thoughts might be important in our everyday lives, but right now they are not important at all. Actually they are preventing us from having a clear understanding even of those issues that the thoughts are related to.
Most often the thoughts are about something that happened in the past. If it happened in the past it does not exist anymore; there is not much point in thinking about it now. We are here, alive in the present, and the past is gone. Even the previous moment is not there anymore. So why go there? The same thing is true about the future. We may be thinking about some kind of expectation or planning, or some fear of a possible outcome in the future. If we see that our mind actually builds frustration on the basis of something which doesn’t exist yet, then we can let go of that and return to the method.
So this is one kind of reasoning which can help us. Another thing is that we know, if we stay with our wandering thoughts, nothing will really change in our life. Our range of experience will stay more or less the same. The only change possible is if we stay with one thought — then things start to happen. We start to experience ourselves, the environment, and other people differently than we normally do. That’s enormously interesting, it’s an adventure actually, to stay with the one thought. At the beginning it seems like a very boring thing, counting one to ten. Then we find that we are not even able to count one to ten; it seems very disappointing.
But we can think of it as not actually counting, think of it as one thought we are repeating from moment to moment. As we stay with that one thought, we are not with the thousand other thoughts, and then something starts to change in the way we perceive things. Our mind stops being scattered and becomes concentrated. That’s a completely different condition of the mind which we can actually feel, and we start to be carried in our practice from that moment. When we become one with that thought in our practice, it’s like for the first time we experience ourselves as one whole being. Every single cell in our body rejoices in that moment. It’s an unimaginable experience. But nothing of this could happen if we follow our wandering thoughts.
Second Student: You talk about relaxing the body and the mind. Relaxing the body is easy. But when we try to relax the mind, it’s like trying to shoot a gun with the gun. It becomes more confusing. What you say about relaxing the mind, is it using the method, or going into mental constructions?
Zarko: We start by relaxing the body, and from the very beginning we should know that body and mind are connected. So all this tension we experience in the body is actually caused by mental tension; the origin of our physical tensions are in our mind. By relaxing the body we start with something we know how to deal with. We know how to release that physical tension, and by doing that our mind already starts to be more relaxed than it was before. The first reason why that is so is, as we are relaxing our body, our mind is not trapped in a continuous perpetuation of what makes it feel tense. We switch that attention to the body, and then by relaxing our body there is a pleasant feeling arising and the mind is naturally attracted to that. Being attracted, the mind is no longer trapped in emotionally charged thinking which brings a lot of tension. So this is how we approach the mind.
Then our breathing settles down. As the mind becomes concentrated on the method more and more, it becomes more and more relaxed, because it’s taken out of the usual context which creates mental tension. It’s a process in which we go from what is physical and outer, towards what is finer, inner, and mental. Now when we come to the present moment, body and mind are at ease because in the present moment there are none of these negative emotions arising. Negative emotions arise when we are thinking about certain things in a certain way in which we used to think about those things. When we don’t do any of this, but instead are simply present, none of those things are actually in the present moment. Therefore the mind relaxes.
Edited by Buffe Maggie Laffey