my Zen retreat in the mountains

To live slowly is not to live lazily,

Is not to make life dull,

But to live more gently and clearly,

Without the forcing of tension and stress.

Is to have an easy mind,

With more insight in the split second,

To go beyond the haste, fluster and ignorance,

In this panic world.

This is how the hand-out of my Zen retreat starts.

This weekend, I signed up the trip into Hongluo Mountain organized by China Cultural Club. I had seen similar trips the club organized but couldn’t make them. When I spotted this Zen retreat advertised in the newsletter, I immediately gave up all my activities – including a good friend’s farewell party – and snatched up the opportunity.

Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism. The word is the Japanese rendering of Chinese word chan, which came from Sanskrit dhyana, which means ‘meditative state’ or ‘a mind absorbed in meditation’. From what I understand, it is all about having clear, clean awareness, patient mind and finally achieving enlightenment.

I have started to practice yoga seven years ago and took it up more seriously in the past two years as I found it not only a good exercise but also a good way to increase self-awareness. I went for the retreat because I believe that a writer should always be open to new experiences. And hopefully I can learn something from the trip that help me to live a more mindful and conscious life. Unexamined life isn’t worth living.

We left Beijing at 7 pm on Friday evening, and less than 90 minutes later, we arrived at a hotel by Hongluo (Red Conch) Temple in Huairou county, some 50 km north of Beijing. Grandly called Lize Villa, it is a modern concrete building a stone’s throw from the gate of the Temple. It is one of many so-called getaway places that have sprung up in scenic spots in the outskirts of Beijing to cater the needs of affluent Beijingers who are keen to get out of the capital in the weekend. Nothing Zen about it. It is unfortunately the alternative to the usual option, a courtyard hotel on the foot of Hongluo Mountain. But for some reason it was closed this weekend. There is, however, a spacious yard where half several pear trees are blossoming.

As soon as we put down our luggage, we gathered in a room which our tour leader Paul called Zen Hall. Paul is gentle-mannered, highly cultivated Chinese man in his late 30’s, a master of Qi Gong, Tai Qi and calligraphy and he is very knowledgeable about Buddhism. Six participants, all middle-aged western women, apart from myself – sat down on the mattresses Paul had laid down for us, in two rows, facing each other. In the middle sat a burning candle – symbolizing the light that can light up the darkness/ignorance in one’s mind and a bowl of water – symbolizing calmness.

Before we started our fist meditation session, Paul, in his calm voice, asked us, in English, to introduce ourselves briefly and explain why we are here. Two women said they have been overwhelmed by work and needed to empty their minds; the third said she had to make an important decision in her life; the forth declared that she felt lost in life. The last one explained she was interested in Asian philosophy and the idea of Zen. And all agreed that it was a wonderful idea to get away from Beijing.

We were sent to bed early. At 10.30 sharp, he beat two bamboo sticks, symbolizing it was the time to turn off the light. Paul advised us not to watch TV or read any books. I obeyed even though I always read before bed time.

The next day at 6.30, we were woken up by the beating of the bamboo. It was a little struggle to get out of the bed but I was delighted to be in the fresh morning air, doing Tai Qi in the spacious balcony, with the view of the mountain in front of us. I didn’t find difficult to follow Paul’s movements as there’s a lot of similarities between Tai Qi and Yoga.

Then we walked to the dining hall for breakfast. Not just any walk, but Zen walk, meaning, no talking and mindful of your steps.

In the morning, we had two long meditation sessions with a break in the middle. We sat on the mattress, cross-legged and our eyes closed. Paul guided us with his gentle voice. I had a bit of trouble with breathing as I am more used to yoga’s ‘ocean breathing’, which gives me something to focus my attention. But when you meditate, the breath should be natural. In the beginning, I often found my mind wander off, thinking about the joy of seeing my article being published in New York Times and what dishes I would cook when my children return to me on Monday. With conscious effort, my concentration improved a little. For a restless person like me, sitting still for a long stretch of time was a challenge. After sometime, my lower back and legs began to ache.

Luckily, after each sitting down session, a on the mattress exercise was followed, similar Qi Gong movements to the morning exercise.

Then lunch. Meals were all vegetarian, which I didn’t mind. But they were a bit too bland for my liking. Paul said spices dishes might upset the mind.

Nap time after lunch. I enjoyed this little routine as I didn’t have to worry about anything.

The afternoon’s program was delightful. Apart from meditation sessions, we did Zen tea, Zen calligraphy and Zen walking.

The walking was one of the high-lights. It was a glorious balmy spring day. A gentle breeze was blowing, bringing about the fragrance of the pear, peach and apricot blossoms. We walked in circles on the balcony. In the middle, white bed sheets hanging on the washing line were turned into a wall of sails by the wind. We focused on the walking, mindful of each step. I was amazed by the difference it made. I was aware when my sole touched on the ground. And the world around me seemed more alive!

Paul began the evening session by playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata – using his mobile. I had heard the piece countless time but never felt it was this beautiful, right here, in the quiet of the night, in the Zen hall lit by the candles. Paul talked about how the Zen practice has sharpened his senses.

He then read aloud the essence of Zen and gave a lecture. I didn’t quite understand everything he said, even though I have read various books on Buddhism. “The great Bodhisattva, in the deep course of wisdom beyond wisdom, seeing that the five aggregates are al empty of inherent nature, overcame all suffering and distress.” Such language is hard for anyone to understand. But I got the main points Paul tried to make: be present. Here and now.

We ended the day with a party – gentle Zen style. One of the teachers in our group came up with a children’s game of following me, twitching our fingers and moving our legs, which surprisingly broke the ice and relaxed the atmosphere. We talked about the joy and sorrows we have encountered in our lives and asked Paul questions about Zen. Encouraged by him, one lively German lady recited a poem by Goethe about spring. Following the theme, I recited a Tang Dynasty poem ‘Waking Up in Spring Morning’ and I sang a love song. We ended up the evening by playing another children’s game of the ‘sun’ touching the ‘moon’. I bet Paul has never seen a livelier group than this one.

Blessed with this cheerful Zen mood, I enjoyed a good sleep.

On Sunday morning, Paul gave us a guided tour to the temple, an originally Zen temple but later turned into Pure Land Temple. Most enjoyable.

My Zen retreat turned out to be a very memorable experience. I’d recommend anyone who’d like to take a breath and think and reflect about his/her life, in this panic world.

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