What is a Zen Retreat?

At the end of his life Buddha said, "Life is very short; please investigate it closely." This is the first meaning of a meditation retreat: Investigation. Everyone knows that life is short; soon the show is over. Behind that realization is always the question, What am I, really? This question and the profound doubt that it entails is what the Buddha faced. That is the question of our life too -- what are you?

In China, a cut of meat is called "pure meat," meaning that it is not mixed with anything else, like in a sausage. People always want the butcher to give them "pure meat." There once was a Zen practitioner who was investigating the question, "Who has Buddha Nature?" -- i.e., what am I? All day long, as much as he could, he would look into this question. Every day on his way to work he would pass a butcher shop. He would always hear people clamoring for pure meat, but he never paid it much mind. One day as he passed by, a women was vehemently insisting that the butcher give her only "pure meat." Her insistence rankled the butcher, who shouted back, "Madam, which piece is not pure?" When the man heard this angry shout, he suddenly realized that everything is "pure meat." Everything has Buddha Nature. What doesn't have Buddha Nature? He was enlightened. This is true investigation. If it is constant and sincere, then it will have a result, guaranteed.

Our retreats are governed by the temple rules. Originally these rules came from the monastic code for Zen temples set up by Pai Chang Zen Master, one of Ma Tzu's top students. Much like the Rule of Saint Benedict, it sets forth rules for how to live together harmoniously. Our temple rules also tell us how to practice correctly. But more than that, they contain a prescription for relating to everything in this world in a compassionate manner. Central to this and to the correct practicing of Zen is what we call "putting it all down." The temple rules say, "Do not cling to your opinions. To cling to and defend your opinions is to destroy your practice. Put away all of your opinions. This is true Buddhism." This tells how to practice correctly. Just let go of -- i.e., let rest -- your every opinion. As the temple rules say, "The great round mirror has no likes or dislikes." This is our original nature. The second meaning of any mediation retreat is to put down your opinion, your condition and your situation, and return to your original nature.

In the Majjhima-nikaya, a collection of sutras in the Pali Cannon, a monk asks the Buddha to summarize all of his teaching in one sentence. In the course of forty-some years of teaching the Buddha taught many, many things. However, his simple reply was, "Don't attach to anything." Wow, there it is in a nutshell -- very simple! The Fifth Patriarch got his big enlightenment when he heard this line from the Diamond Sutra: "When thinking arises in your mind don't attach to it." These ancient worthies were always teaching the same simple thing. Our only job is to do it. So the third meaning of a retreat is "just do it." After all, retreats are very simple. Everything is decided for you: when to get up; what to eat when to meditate -- everything. Your job is to do it.

Most of our retreats are relatively short -- one, two or three days, or perhaps three months. But Buddha practiced very hard for six years and Bodhidharma sat for nine years in a cave above Shao Lin Temple. How can we possibly attain what they got? Actually, it's very simple: At this moment, just apply yourself with sincere effort in asking this question: What am I? That means investigate closely. That means cut off all thinking -- wake up from your like and dislike dream. At that point, you and Buddha and Bodhidharma become one. This is the last meaning of a retreat -- wake up and help our world. That is already the Buddha's mind. But that's just dead words so, I have a question for you: How is it possible for you and Buddha and Bodhidharma to become one? Quick! Answer! Thinking won't help you.