SAT CHIT ANAND
- CHAN AND PURE LAND RETREAT REVIEW -
Below is our newsletter, on the retreat I attended at the end of last year / beginning of this year. Retreats are a time of intensive spiritual learning and practice. Writing about retreats, gives others an idea of what is involved, and perhaps interests them to do a retreat themselves. Our newsletters are fairly long, but also fairly infrequent. If you are not interested, press 'delete', or ask us to remove you from our mailing list. Otherwise, read on, you may learn something completely different ... More details of our 2005 programme will follow shortly.
SAT CHIT ANAND
Buddhist Centre & Guesthouse, Plett
JANUARY 2005 NEWSLETTER
with love from Leela
CHAN AND PURE LAND RETREAT
Nan Hua Temple, Bronkhorstspruit
December 2004 / January 2005
Chan Master chanting
The Buddha discoursed to Elder Sariputra: To the West, beyond a hundred thousand million Buddha Lands, there is a world called Ultimate Bliss. In this world, there is a Buddha named Amitabha, who is preaching the Dharma right now. Sariputra, why do you think that world is called Ultimate Bliss? All beings in that world have no sufferings, and enjoy every bliss, it is thus called Ultimate Bliss … Sariputra, that Buddha Land has realised such glorious adornment. [The Amitabha Sutra]
NAN HUA TEMPLE
Nan Hua means ‘Southern Splendor’. It is the first Chinese Buddhist Temple to be built in Africa, situated in South Africa, hence the name Southern Splendor. It is located near Bronkhorstspruit, with close proximity to the airport, Johannesburg and Pretoria. The Temple is situated within a Chinese Buddhist religious, cultural and educational complex called Cultura Park. The complex is huge and very impressive. It comprises Temple, Temple Guesthouse, Seminary for monks, staff accommodation, and Meditation Retreat Centre. It is on a par with other great monasteries overseas, and we are indeed blessed to have something of this kind and calibre in this country. It is built with the far-seeing vision of a Bodhisattva that spans the next several hundred years.
The Temple complex is funded by the Taiwanese, whose generosity towards the Dharma is legendary. Buddhists believe that giving creates good karma and is a cause for wealth, so they are incredibly generous in supporting Buddhism. The support, reverence and devotion of Easterners towards their religion, is very touching, and something that Westerners can learn from. Devotees support the Temple’s activities, attend daily and Sunday services, and make extensive offerings.
Moreover, Sariputra, that Buddha Land constantly rings with celestial music, with floors covered with gold, six periods of the day, there are rains of heavenly Mandarava flowers. The beings of that world, each morning take their sacks, and collect wonderful flowers as offerings to Buddhas of other worlds. At mealtime, they return to eat, stroll and study. Sariputra, the world of Ultimate Bliss has realized such glorious adornment. [The Amitabha Sutra]
CHAN AND PURE LAND RETREAT
The 8-day retreat was described as follows: “The Advanced Chan Retreat is a biannual Buddhist retreat for advanced meditators. Practices include walking and sitting meditation, Dharma talks and chanting. This is a strict retreat done in Noble Silence, sittings are long, and retreatants are expected to be well versed in the etiquette involved on such a retreat.” The Chan Master was a Taiwanese monk with over 20 years experience, who is called ShiFu, which means ‘Teacher’. He taught in Chinese, and the talks were translated into English. There were about 40 people on the retreat, three-quarters of whom were Chinese, and the last quarter comprised Westerners and monastics.
The retreat was very strict. A Zen stick was used if you disregarded the rules; if you were not mindful, awake and aware; if you made a noise disturbing others, or lost concentration during the meditation sessions; if you broke the silence etc. The Meditation Master responsible for maintaining the discipline during the retreat was like a policeman who watched us all the time. Discipline is important - without it self-mastery is not possible. It can be a bit disconcerting being watched all the time, but it is good for strict practice of mindfulness.
The retreat included accommodation in the Temple Guesthouse, which is like a hotel, very elegant, and can accommodate 100 people. My room overlooked a paved inner courtyard, with some trees, and lots of tiny finches that nested in the trees, and fat pigeons that sat on the roofs cooing and kissing each other. It was like looking into the inner mandala of the Pure Land, where the birds are magical emanations of Amitabha Buddha and sing the Dharma all day! One couldn’t see any evidence of the outside world, and one’s attention was drawn beyond the green Chinese style roofs towards the blue sky with amazing puffy white cloud formations during the day, and displays of lightening streaking across the sky at night.
Sariputra, in that world, there are varieties of wonderful coloured birds … These birds sing harmonious songs, all six periods of the day. Their songs expound the 5 roots, 5 powers, 7 Bodhi characteristics, 8 sacred righteous paths, and all such Dharmas. In that world, beings who hear such sounds are inevitably mindful of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha … These birds are magical transformations of Amitabha Buddha, who desires to widely proclaim the voice of the Dharma. [The Amitabha Sutra]
The daily schedule consisted of yoga, morning service, morning Dharma talk, tea ceremony, walking meditations, silent sittings, interviews and questions, evening Dharma talk, and evening service. The morning Dharma talks were on meditation practice, and the evening Dharma talks were on Pure Land Ideology. Meditations were held in the Meditation Hall, and the services were held in Samantabhadra Hall, named after the Bodhisattva of great deeds. The Hall is lovely. There is a large statue of Samantabhadra in front, and hundreds of little Buddha statues in wooden cabinets around the sides of the Hall, each with their own little light in front. The Hall looked like fairyland during the evening meditations with all the little lights switched on.
The Morning Service consisted of incense offering, prostrations, taking refuge in the Triple Gem and generating bodhichitta. This was followed by recitation of the Heart Sutra and Great Compassion Durani. The Evening Service consisted of reciting the Amitabha Sutra and chanting the Buddha Amitabha’s name. The chanting during the morning and evening services was very beautiful and helped transport one to the Pure Land that is available to us here and now, beyond time and space. The Dharma talks were interesting, and I learnt a lot about Chinese Buddhism. I am always amazed how the cultural expressions of the Dharma are richly unique, but the essence of the Dharma is the same.
The daily tea ceremonies were delightful. In both Japan and China, tea ceremonies are a very enjoyable way to practice mindfulness. Actions are performed slowly and silently. If you mess, it is an indication of loss of mindfulness. If you make a noise, it is an indication of loss of mindfulness. The instructions are simple: settle yourself, set aside all distractions and be fully present. Enjoy the fragrance and the taste of the tea. Let all else go. All that remains is tea drinking. As Shifu said: “To enjoy a cup of tea in mindfulness is a joy. Treasure your spiritual friends with whom you can do this. Most friends want alcohol and not tea! Enjoy the taste of the tea; enjoy the taste of the Dharma. Make your mind one with the tea; one with the Dharma.”
PURE LAND IDEOLOGY
Chan is similar to Zen. There is no authority figure or deity. Chan is Ultimate Truth. It indicates true, original mind, pure and peaceful. The practice of Chan is self-powered ie you rely on yourself – you don’t seek assistance from the Buddhas. Pure Land is self and Buddha powered ie you rely on self-practice and also on the blessings of the Buddhas - you pray for blessings from the Triple Gem, and for the power and assistance of the Buddhas to help you. Pure Land Buddhism is part of Mahayana Buddhism.
AMITABHA BUDDHA is the Buddha of Limitless Light and Infinite Life. Amitabha enjoys widespread popularity among ordinary people in China and Japan, as well as in Tibet and the Himalayas. He is the focus of the practice of Pure Land Buddhism, and of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of transferring consciousness at the time of death (phowa). He is the primordial Buddha of the Lotus or Padma family, which is the Buddha family to which human beings belong. He represents our pure nature, and symbolises the transmutation of desire, the predominant emotion of the human realm. More intrinsically, Amitabha is the limitless, luminous nature of our mind.
Sariputra, what do you think? Why is that Buddha called Amitabha? Sariputra, the radiance from that Buddha is immeasurable, and shines over all worlds in all directions, without any obstruction, thus he is called Amitabha. Sariputra, the life of that Buddha and his citizens, lasts for countless kaplas, thus he is called Amitabha. [The Amitabha Sutra]
Amitabha Buddha presides over Sukhavati, the Pure Land in the West, which is uniquely accessible to humans. A Pure Land is a pure realm or the universe of a mandala, generated by a deity or Buddha. Practitioners of Pure Land Buddhism call upon the assistance of Amitabha Buddha to be liberated. They pray to go to the Western Paradise, his Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss, where they can continue on the Path to Enlightenment. You don’t have to be enlightened to go to the Pure Land, and the environment and conditions are perfect for advancing on the Path until you get enlightened. Living in the Pure Land purifies you by the power of the environment. Such is the power of holy places.
Shariputra, all beings who hear this news should vow to be born in that world. Why? One would be in the company with such superior and righteous beings … Sariputra, I see such benefits thus I discourse these words. Beings who hear these words should vow to be born in that world … All beings should believe in the inconceivable virtues and merits of the Sutra, it is mindful and protected by all Buddhas. [The Amitabha Sutra]
Practitioners of Pure Land Buddhism vow to be reborn in the Pure Land, which happens through a lotus flower, symbol of purity. The most common method of practice involves reciting the Buddha’s name ‘Namo Amitofo’ which means ‘homage to Amitabha Buddha’. Invoking the Buddha’s name is done with the aspiration of being reborn in the Pure Land, and with a mind that is focused and concentrated. The purpose of recitation is to purify the mind and dwell in virtue. Recitation can be combined with visualisation of an image of the Buddha. Pure Land teachings are transcendental. If you are reborn in the Pure Land, there is no chance of falling back to this Saha world.
I will end this newsletter with Transfer of Merits: “May kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity pervade the entire universe. May all people and heavenly beings benefit from our blessings and friendship. May our ethical practice of Chan and Pure Land help us achieve universal forbearance. May we undertake the great Mahayana vows in humility and gratitude.”