Special Topics

Q&A for Meditation Beginners

What are the rules to follow when practicing in the meditation hall? Should we keep silent all the time? Is it difficult to adapt to communal practice? Ven. Chang Cheng, experienced in guiding Chan practice, will answer some of the frequently asked questions.

Ven. Chang Cheng, Director of Dharma Drum Mountain's Meditation Activity Department

1. After entering the meditation hall, do we really have to keep silent at all times?
A: Yes. "Keeping silent" during the retreat period serves to remind practice retreatants to refrain from talking to other participants. In dealing with people and situations in our daily life, we need to constantly engage in conversations, so our mind tends to look outward to external objects in the environment. When attending a Chan retreat, you're only required to follow instructions from the Dharma teacher or the supporting volunteers, without needing to speak at all. However, if you do have urgent questions or need to report something important, you're still allowed to raise your hand to ask, or write a note to inform the guiding Dharma teacher.

2. Do we have to sit cross-legged in doing meditation?
A: Yes. Basically, anyone who has no particular physical issues can practice sitting in meditation with the cross-legged posture. Seated meditation can be taken as the basic skill for Chan practice, just as martial arts practitioners have to practice the horse stance. The cross-legged position is emphasized mainly for the sake of adjusting the practitioner's posture. With a correct cross-legged position, one can naturally sit upright with a straightened back and improved  blood circulation throughout the body.
Sitting cross-legged in meditation also helps the mind calm down most easily. Sitting in the state of stillness, you become clearly aware of the changes in your body and your thoughts. If your mind is often in a scattered state, you'll be less aware of what is going on in your body and mind, and it will be less effective for you to adjust the state of your body and mind.

3. I am a night owl and I cannot really follow the schedule. Can I still participate? 
A: Yes. In modern times we tend to live a hectic lifestyle, and sometimes even live against our biological clock. This will take a toll on our body and mind in the long run. From the perspective of Chinese medicine, the operation of our organs has to follow a certain schedule. There is a time for them to be active and a time for them to recuperate. As an expression goes, staying up late at night hurts the liver. For multiple-day retreats, practitioners can slowly adjust their pace by following the meditation hall's timetable, although at first people may find it difficult to get up early and may therefore feel absent-minded. In addition, having a good rest at night also helps us become more energetic during the day. There are also breaks during the day, so you don't need to worry too much about being unable to follow the timetable.

4. Can I use a smart phone during a meditation retreat?
A: No. The admission notice will inform participants that when checking in, all smart phones will need to be turned off and kept out of sight, along with other personal electronic devices, until the event is concluded.
Smart phones and instant messaging applications are important communication tools in modern times. Many people tend to slide their phones all the time, for fear they might miss any messages. And sometimes they feel anxious when their message is already read but not yet replied. They are actually being "hijacked" without knowing it! In this case, the mind is actually wandering outside. Meditation practice functions to help us rein in our mind little by little, thus bringing our attention back to ourselves.
Before going on a meditation retreat, we can text our relatives and friends telling them that we will be out of touch during the retreat. This will enhance our determination to participate in the activity. Once entering the meditation hall, you will realize that the smart phone is actually not a must, as most messages we send are nothing but general greetings or casual conversations. In case of urgent or emergent need, you can still be reached by  phone in the meditation hall. So there is really no need to worry about that.

5. Will I be asked to consume vegetarian meals only? Will I be allowed to bring my own snacks?
A: In Buddhist temples, only vegetarian meals will be provided. Some people may worry that vegetarian food  may not be as filling, but a sudden change in daily food intake may be the actual cause. There will be ample supplies of food to meet the needs of all the participants. But, if you have some specific needs, you could bring your own food and leave it in the storage box. To avoid interfering with other participants and to keep ants, rats, and other pests away, please refrain from bringing food into the dormitory.Eating is not allowed in the dormitory. 

6. Can I bring along tea or coffee to stay alert?
A: Yes, you can, but it is not recommended. One of the purposes of attending a retreat is to tune the body and mind in a natural way, by following a regular daily schedule and applying meditation methods. Drowsiness is actually a sign that you are too tired, or even exhausted. As you are in a retreat, you will have the chance to better adjust yourself so as to recover both physically and mentally. Although taking coffee or tea may help you stay alert, it would be a form of relying on external help, and your body will not have a chance to adjust itself. It is still tensed up, and not truly relaxed. Therefore, it is recommended not to take caffeinated drinks during a retreat.

7. What kind of clothing would be appropriate for a Chan meditation retreat?
A: Notices will be provided in the acceptance letter. Participants are advised to wear loose, plain tops, and long pants. In the summer, do not wear clothes that expose the skin, such as sleeveless shirts, or tops that are too short or have a low neckline. Pants should  be at least long enough to cover your knees. These measures will not only help maintain a solemn atmosphere in the Chan Hall, but also allow the body to stretch freely.  Since there will be some moving exercises during the retreat, you may not be able to stretch out easily if your clothing fits too tightly; hence,your body may not have a chance to fully relax.    

8. For a multi-day retreat, can I bring along an alarm clock?
A: An alarm clock would not be necessary. At the very beginning of the retreat, a few signals of the wooden board will be introduced and explained to all participants. Throughout the retreat, the signals will be used to remind participants as to what to do according to the schedule. As the retreat schedule starts early in the morning, many people worry that they may oversleep. The retreat monitor will remind those who stay in the same room to wake others upon hearing the wake-up knocks. If someone still oversleeps, the time-keeper will go to the dormitory to wake him or her up, and inquire about his or her physical condition so as to provide assistance as needed. 
If you can truly relax your body and mind during a retreat, then gradually, you would be able to follow the schedule with ease, even without having to rely on the knocks of the board. So, don't worry; just bring along a simple heart.      

9. When feeling drowsy during a sitting meditation session, would I be allowed to get up for a walk?
A: When feeling drowsy during a sitting meditation session, you can first sit upright, open your eyes, and keep them wide open. Alternately, you may join your palms, or apply the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Furthermore, you may get up from the cushion and kneel on the floor with your body upright, starting from the knees. If that still doesn't work, you may get up and do prostrations. If, after all this, you still feel very much tired, you may approach the time-keeper for help.
Sometimes, you feel drowsy during a retreat because you are too busy in your daily life. You not only exhaust your physical body, but engage in a continuous stream of thoughts, which in fact consumes a lot of energy. When, you have the sudden opportunity to relax, you become drowsy. This is a natural response from your body. Once your body and mind are better adjusted, you  can then easily stay awake while on the cushion.

Extended Reading:
1. Q&A for Meditation Beginners
2. Five Basic Trainings for Meditation Practice
3. What are the Regulations in the Meditation Hall?
4. A Guide to Meditation Practice
5. Dharma Instruments Used in Meditation Retreats

Resource: Issue 370 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: Apple Lee (李玉芬), Shujen Yeh (葉姝蓁)
Editing: Chia-cheng Chang (張家誠), John Wu (吳俊宏), Keith Brown