(Most of the photos in this blog, have been obtained from Dharma Drum Singapore)
This is the first time since the establishment of Dharma Drum Singapore (DDS - 法鼓山新加坡) that they will be conducting a 7-day zen retreat in Singapore. From Dharma Drum Taiwan, they have invited 3 zen teachers over to conduct the retreat.
Pre-Retreat Briefing Session
DDS informed all participants to attend a preliminary briefing session on the 22nd Sept (Saturday) 4pm - 5.30pm. In the briefing session, the timetable was shared with us. As compare to the zen retreats held in Taiwan, the Singapore timetable starts an hour later at 5am and end 30mins earlier at 9.30pm. Thereafter the volunteers with DDS share with us on meditation postures and techniques, before we break off into groups for further discussion.
The participants come from diverse background with wide age range. I believe the youngest being in their 20s to the oldest in the 70s. It has a very family feel to the participants due to the wide age range. There are 80 participants with 20 guys and 60 ladies. And it is supported by 17 volunteers.
Day of Arrival
Our official registration time is between 6.30pm - 7.30pm on the 29th Sept. I arrived around 6.40pm and received the number tag - M8. According to the registration person-in-charge, the numbers are assigned according to our sequence of arrival. Before me, there are 7 who have already arrived. We made our way to the male quarters and slowly settle into the environment before the 7.30pm briefing.
In the photo below is the main meditation hall, where we will be spending most of our time in the next 7 days. Venerable Guo Li (果理法师) explaining to us the proceedings as well as the rules and regulations. The first rule is maintaining noble silence.
The 2nd floor is where the main meditation hall is. As seen in the below photo on both the left and right, we have the ladies quarters on the 3rd floor, and the male quarters and volunteers quarters on the 4th floor.
After the retreat kick-off briefing, we proceeded to our quarters and rest for the night.
At 5pm, the sound of knocking wood woke us up from our quarters and we have 30mins to wash up and proceed to the meditation hall. There are ample toilet and washing facilities in the male quarters and by 5.30am, everyone is seated in the hall.
The next 20mins are the morning exercise which they call 八式動禪. There are 8 different exercise steps. I have embedded the actual video which we watched in following the exercise steps below.
After our morning exercise, it is 20-40mins of sitting meditation. We started with 20mins sitting on our first day but it was gradually increase to up to 40mins. The meditation technique we used is watching the breath meditation. Basically how it works is we sit down on a cushion, and just watch our breath going in and coming out. We can also do counting of the breath for each cycle of in and out. It seems to be a simple technique, but it is actually quite difficult to do. Our mind will gradually shift and start thinking of things in the past or in the future, instead of just watching our breath. Thus the training is about strengthening our mind in watching our breath and being in the present.
We have the ladies sitting in meditation below.
And also the guys in meditation. Morning meditation in the first day was tough as we are not used to waking up so early. There is a tendency to just fall asleep after a while. But in the subsequent days, it is alright.
After our morning prayer session, we proceeded to the dining hall for breakfast. This repeat itself for both lunch and dinner. We will need to walk together in 2 columns of straight line from the meditation hall to the dining hall. Throughout the process, we have to be mindful and remain in the present. Our mindfulness will be together with our steps as we walk down the stairs.
Here is our dining area. This section has been especially partition away from the rest of the dining area.
The retreat volunteers scooping up porridge for the participants. Soup is served instead during lunch and dinner.
Even when we are having our meals, we have to be constantly aware of the food we consume. And notice the flavor of the food: sour, sweet, bitter, spicy and salty. It is also important to slowly chew and regurgitate it. That is in contrast to our usual urban style of just eating food fast.
After meals, we also need to walk back together to the main hall. Let's take a look at the pillars design along the walkway. Previously when I visited the temple, I do not understand why the base is wider than the pillars. Now I finally understand. When you are doing walking meditation along the pathway, you can gauge the distance by looking at the walkway, instead of looking up to avoid walking into the pillar.
In the afternoon session, we have walking meditation practice. Here we have the teacher explaining to us on how we practice walking meditation.
And we slowly walk along the perimeters of the hall. The pace of walking vary at the command of the zen teacher. From gradual pace walking where we are fully mindful of our every single steps to brisk walking where we have to avoid running into the person in front.
There are also sessions of prostration. The prostrations may go up to 108 times. It is said prostration is the most healthy form of static exercise and quickly bring the mind down into a calm state. There are many points of movement and contact, which brings our mind focus to the movement.
In a day, there can be 4 - 5 x 30mins sessions of talks by Venerable Sheng Yen - founder of Dharma Drum. These videos are only shown during meditation retreat and are not freely available. Through these videos, many misconceptions and questions are clarified. There are also interview sessions conducted by the venerables to all the participants. So if there are any other questions, they can raise in the interview sessions
Many of the methods we have learnt in the retreat are applicable when we go back into our daily urban routine of weekdays work and weekdays rest.
We have to do prayers twice a day in the morning and evening, 30mins long on average.
Towards the end of the first day, we were taught proper sleeping techniques. We incline to the right with proper legs and hand posture. This will allow us to fall asleep easily and wake up afresh.
Let's take a look at our retreat environment. Below are the restrictions, from both the temple and the retreat.
Our slippers / sandals are properly placed on the racks.
Here is how the male sleeping quarters look like. It can accommodate up to 20 participants.
There are ample washing and bathing facilities.
On the last day - Friday evening, there is a sharing session of our experiences in the retreat.
We were split into 9 groups and we have to nominate a speaker from each group to share. Below we have the speaker from our group.
In the first two days, time passed very slowly. But towards the last 3 days, it pass by so fast that before we know it, the retreat has ended. Below is a group photo which we took.
The retreat this time round is hosted in Kong Meng Shan Temple, located at Bishan.