On March 13, 2014, on the first anniversary of its formation, the Shanti Sangha, a small group of dedicated Buddhist Practitioners, was blessed to convene its first annual All Day Meditation Retreat. This special event was open to persons of all faiths and practices. It is very rare to have such quality events such as this in prison and we are all very grateful to have had this opportunity to learn meditation from Venerable Xian Zhong. This event was organized by Venerable Xian Zhong and Shirley Tam of the International Bodhisattva Sangha.
Venerable began the meditation retreat with a discussion on virtue, that is, he discussed with us the value in maintaining a set of personal rules. These are very important. Without these rules for ourselves our meditation will be unstable. While our minds are becoming concentrated, even slight memories or residual feelings associated with bad behavior can disrupt the meditation. A mind that is undisciplined is weak. A mind that willingly undertakes personal rules of conduct becomes strong and the concentration becomes more productive. Virtue is the basis of integrity. Integrity is keeping the promises you make to yourself and others. As integrity relates to our meditations, we need to set specific periods of the day for them, keep the lengths of our practice times consistent, and practice each and every day without fail. This is integrity in practice.
Venerable Xian Zhong then explained to us some of the many benefits of a regular meditation practice. These include having no worries, finding contentment and realizing true happiness. Worries, he explained, come from thoughts of past and thoughts of the future. When we focus on our meditation objects, these thoughts are less and less likely to arise, and after some practice, they don’t trouble us much. Contentment comes when, during practice, we realize that all we really need in this moment is this breath. Letting go of everything else gives us a deep sense of freedom. Meditation will help you understand the true essence of life, and that with this understanding, you will be free from all dissatisfaction. This is true happiness, not the kind of happiness that is temporary. There are, as well, many other bonuses received from meditation. They include: sleeping well, relief from daily stress, and having more mental clarity in our daily lives. The ultimate goal of our overall practice is to be free from all mental afflictions, and meditation is one of the major tools available to us as we work towards that goal.
Venerable then instructed us on the basics of breath meditation. This form of meditation, he explained, “is not strictly a Buddhist practice. There are many religions, paths and practices that use various forms of meditation for various reasons. Everybody breathes from the day we are born to the day that we die, we breathe. A breath meditation, therefore, can be done by everyone. However, many different meditation forms that you might take up in your own personal practice, breath meditation is the most fundamental and forms a solid foundation for all of the other techniques. At the heart of it, this not a breathing exercise. We are only going to watch the breath. We are going to label each breath with counting, say from one to ten, or simply with the word “Breath’”. Each time that we catch the mind wandering we gently bring our attention back to the breath, again and again. We soon find that our focus is stable, our breathing becomes slow, deep and regular. This focused activity should last for the entire period of breath meditation. Exiting the meditation should be performed mindfully without sudden motions.”
The eating meditation instructions, that Venerable gave us, were very simple: be silent while eating, take up one mouthful at a time, and chew each mouthful many times before swallowing. Venerable promised us that if we all took up an eating meditation that, in addition to the benefits and bonuses of a basic mindfulness program, we would all lose weight and experience fewer intestinal problems.
After our lunch meal, we practiced walking meditation. Venerable instructed us on the three main aspects of this meditation which include the “step” itself, which is the object of focus, our “posture” during this meditation, which is upright, our hands in a comfortable position and our gaze on the shoulder of the practitioner ahead of use, or if we were alone, on the ground about six feet ahead. Our “attention”, the third aspect, where we are mindful of is on the pressure of the ground on the soles of our feet. We are to be aware of “lifting” “moving” and “placing” of each foot, making smallish half-steps to maintain balance.
Venerable then gave us instruction on sleeping meditation. He explained to us the reasons for sleeping in the “lion’s position” on the right side: The heart is now on top, which aides in circulation, and breathing while asleep. We were instructed on the proper thoughts to have while we fell asleep: thoughts of gratitude, thanks, and being mindful to transfer the merits of all of our skillful efforts to all others, so that they too might benefit. We should fall asleep with thoughts of compassion for others, with the thought that we rest so that we may serve others better, and have thoughts of loving-kindness for all beings. Venerable instructed us on the specific signs that our sleeping meditation is successful. We would feel refreshed upon waking, energetic with sharpened senses we would note that our sensory perceptions are heightened. We would not be grumpy or irritable. Our first thoughts would be on the welfare of others and we would be awake and ready to be of service.
Venerable instructed us lastly on Metta, or Loving-kindness meditation. He pointed out to us the vast connections that we actually have with everyone else, using the example of the clothes that we wear and all of the good, hardworking people who make our clothes a reality: from the farmer, to the factory workers who make the cloth, to the seamstresses and tailors who cut and sew our clothing for our benefit and welfare. There are thousands of people who are directly invested in the manufacture of our clothes. This example involves just our clothing – the same applies to those who make our food, our energy, our transportation, our medicine, our public safety – everyone. Everyone alive right now, directly or indirectly, is invested in our benefit and welfare, and we should repay them in kind. Our loving kindness meditation began as a repetition of a simple phrase, “May I be happy”. This feeling of self-happiness was then extended to our family, our friends, our teachers, our co-workers, all the people we knew, all the people we know of but don’t know personally, all of the people in our country, all of the people on the planet, all living beings on the planet and finally, extending this simple wish to all living creatures throughout the universe wherever they may be, without discrimination. This was a very deep, powerful meditation.
We are all very grateful to have had this rare opportunity to be taught meditations by Venerable Xian Zhong, and we take our responsibility to practice these instructions seriously. We thank him and Shirley Tam for all of the good that they do.
Guan Ze (观 则)
The Shanti Sangha, Chino California
March 17, 2014