At my high school reunion this weekend (link requires Facebook login), I heard many life stories and was impressed with the variety of issues and difficulties people have overcome or are still facing. It’s easy to forget when we surround ourselves with folks with whom we have a lot in common, but we really are so very uniquely individual. The same is true when we meditate. The tensions and obstacles that we hold in daily life have to be released, resolved, or temporarily set aside in order to settle into a deeper experience of alert tranquility. I often talk about how many people think too much and it’s hard to get our of our head and just sit. But others are quite the opposite and are so very sensitive to the conditions of their body and senses that they can’t just ignore them and be present. In finer detail, each person has a unique path from their daily life state of mind to the heavenly content and vibrantly aware state of mind called of jhana. Traditionally in Zen centers, those things can be discussed in private one-on-one discussions with the teacher where both can be very specific. But there are always lectures, books, dharma talks, etc where the audience is wide. In those cases we have to be selective in the advice we listen to by knowing what our difficulties are.


Retreats these days are kind of a vacation from daily life. We hear in ancient times, stories of persons going off to the wilderness, a monastery, ashram, temple, etc for years to totally transform their sense of self. Buddha’s 7years ascetic life in the wilderness, The missing years when Jesus may have trained with mystics in the Dead Sea. Even my teacher, Shibuya Sensei lived about 4 years in the wilderness of Hokkaido. These are drastic life-changing turns, that we rarely do while we seek to be more enlightened, succeed at work, maybe raise a family, stay healthy and beautiful, and have fun all the while. That’s ok, no matter how driven or lazy we are, eventually we will get there; there’s no deadline and no rush. But when we suffer and realize we can’t fix the circumstances, we are motivated to hurry up and get free of it. So typically we could use a retreat as a time to make that extra effort, and even if we don’t reach enlightenment we will be more settled physically, emotionally, mentally, and have a clearer sense of who we are and what we stand for. Returning to our daily efforts with that clarity and wholeness is quite valuable in the short as well as the long term. Retreats differ of course. Corporate retreats, yoga retreats, physics conferences, Chapel retreats, Zen retreats, and the retreat we did last year. They differ in cost, duration, amount of time spent in practice vs socially, as well as venue and purpose. This year’s retreat will center on three two-hour meditation periods with an hour after for solo contemplation. We’ll reserve the meditation hall for greater silence and continue being social at mealtimes. This seems like the right amount of challenge and rest for us for a 2-day retreat.

Going back to another story in ancient times for inspiration, Hokyoji temple in Japan is the #2 Zen headquarters and was founded by Hokyo Jaquen back in the 13th century. He emigrated from China when Dogen returned to Japan with Zen, but after Dogen passed, he was disillusioned with the level of practice at Eiheiji monastery (#1) and went into the deep wilderness on his own. Meditating on a large rock, he lived with a dog and a cow there for 18 years before a local samurai lord discovered him and asked him to teach. This led to Hokyoji. When Shibuya Sensei was young and seeking, he went to Eiheiji and Hokyoji and studied under Hashimoto Roshi. He too was disillusioned with the level of discipline when he saw how no one really practiced when the master was away, and left for Hokkaido. Are you seeing a pattern? When a person is really driven to find the solution to themselves, eventually they have to be alone with themselves. Meditation is the method, and jhana is the depth of the meditation which is the message that really matters, but each of us has to get the message by experiencing it and apply the method to use that depth of contentment to transform our personal suffering into a new sense of self. In my own life, I spent 10 years (off and on) living in a small town in Washington state, working in a remote underground former missile bunker with a couple other scientists. This was like a life retreat for me, physically apart from all the efforts I was involved with in Southern California. I was definitely a different person as a result, more settled on what mattered to me, more content about who I was, more relaxed about everything else.


A couple questions came up at the workshop on Saturday that made me think: how long do you meditate for? and what psychic abilities do you have? After some thought I realized these are excellent questions to ask of someone who’s teaching how to develop psychic abilities or to have good regular meditation practice. But I am doing neither here. My message is simply jhana. Yes, a good regular meditation practice will be good for almost anyone. But it is not required nor perhaps even helpful for you to discover jhana. I’ve often found a break from practice leads to a clearer, harmonious and enthusiastic practice when I return to it. Each of us is different and regular practice may help you get jhana or may not. The obstacles we bring to meditation are overcome by our own effort when we are ready and willing to overcome them. How long does it take to be ready and willing to overcome your fear, trauma, desire, etc. When you do experience jhana, and after some time practicing it you recognize it clearly and experience it regularly, then everything else will get simpler and I trust you will figure everything out. I’m sure you are thinking…”jhana may be there in my distant future but meditating now helps me feel more centered and I need a regular practice to support my challenging life.” As you face the obstacles in your life, why start with the small ones when they will all become irrelevant when you solve the big one? When you discover how to be settled to the degree of jhana, it’s the same; the smaller challenges fall off you like water. Spending your time overcoming the small things is really just biding your time until you are ready to be truly content. You CAN do it.


What does Buddhism say about psychic and medium abilities? Well, first of all there’s the terminology; Siddhi or Rddhi is the Sanskrit term used. There are many lists of these supernatural powers, and many examples of them being demonstrated by Buddha and others back in 500BC. There’s also a text of the biographies of the 84 Mahasiddhis (Buddhist psychics) available now with the title “Masters of Mahamudra” from about 1000AD. But later, for instance in a Zen monastery of the 1700’s, you would be kicked out for practicing these abilities. Why? Well, if you go back to what Buddha taught, he said basically that practicing psychic abilities was not as valuable as as learning to care for yourself and others. Zen monasteries grew to become very focused and determined to reach that goal and don’t allow tempting distractions like these abilities. You can see that if the reason you strive to develop such a skill is because it makes you feel good about yourself, then maybe you can’t afford to fail. That leads to delusion, which is the #1 danger of developing those skills according to Rev. Larr who founded the Chapel in 1972. There’s also the pitfall of the consumer of psychic advice, which Hollywood and our culture encourage. Here you could become addicted to finding out what you “should” do; from your life’s goals to what you should buy at the grocery store. So what’s the good side? Rev. Larr’s #1 reason to learn medium skills was to avoid accidentally crossing over by being sensitive to warnings about accidents and such. His #2 reason was that the experience of being a medium removes the fear of death. But it’s tricky to avoid the ego attachment, and I’ve seen many fall into it over the years, and almost none recover from it. The bottom line as I see it is that as you get more settled with yourself and the world, everything gets simpler and easier, and some things that appear supernatural become natural for you to experience. We’re just a part of an evolving Nature, and suffer when we get stuck on specifics whether it’s psychic abilities or more money.