The giant Buddha statue in Varanasi, India, commemorating the spot where the Buddha first revealed the 4 Noble Truths to humanity. I was there is 2015.
Buddhism is often misrepresented as a cynical religion, a frequently espoused inaccuracy based on only a superficial understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. I have practiced Buddhist meditation and studied Buddhist teachings for years, and many of my good friends are either Buddhist monks or teachers. I can tell you from experience that Buddhist practitioners are some of the most joyful people I know. And I myself have become a far happier person after integrating the Buddha’s meditation methods into my own life, although I still do not consider myself “Buddhist.”
One of the reasons why many people associate Buddhism with negativity is the single-minded focus on human suffering in the Buddha’s historical teachings. The Buddha famously said that if you were shot by an arrow and were bleeding to death, you would not ask irrelevant metaphysical questions about where the arrow came from, who shot it, or why it exists. The Buddha was reluctant to comment on questions about the existence or non-existence of the gods, or the ultimate fate of the universe, because he believed that the essential purpose of the spiritual life is the pragmatic search for human happiness. He wanted to actually remove the arrow instead of merely “explain” its mysterious origins.
– The meditation hall at Great Vow Zen Monastery, where I have lived for 9 months and have participated in 10 sesshins. I have also done one 10 day Vipassana retreat (as taught by SN Goenka), which I highly recommend.
I returned this week from a 5 day silent meditation retreat that Zen Buddhists call sesshin (sesshin is often translated as “touching the heart-mind”) at Great Vow Zen Monastery. It was my 11th long retreat, and, as usual, it was a deeply meaningful experience. It was also utterly outrageous and fascinating; although retreats can be difficult, for me they are like going on spaceship adventures through my own mind/body and discovering new worlds! In this post I’ll share three reasons why I feel that going on meditation retreats is spiritually useful. This post is mainly about retreats that are 5 days or longer. There are also shorter 1-2 day retreats that are good introductions to retreat practice, and that can be very powerful experiences. My discussion in this post is also limited to my experience in the Zen tradition, though I have also done a Vipassana retreat which I strongly recommend as well. For a more in depth explanation of what meditation retreats are like, and for a fuller explanation of why I think they are important, you can read my book (specifically, the section is entitled “Meditation Retreats”) in the free pdf above.
– Me at the Mahabodhi Temple
Nearly 2,500 years ago in India, a wandering monk named Gautama was practicing severe austerities in the forest with five fellow mendicants. After 6 years, he had nearly starved himself to death and attained almost unimaginable states of single-pointed concentration. Yet, despite his herculean efforts, he was still dissatisfied with his understanding, for he discovered that even subtle bliss states lasting for days at a time were subject to the law of impermanence. After controversially accepting a bowl of milk from a maiden named Sugata, enacting with his own body the principal of the “middle way” he would someday propagate to the world, his five friends abandoned him in disgust.
Shortly after this incident, he sat down under the now famous Bodhi Tree, and vowed not to leave the spot until he attained enlightenment. Traditions differ, but the most popular one says he meditated for a week, observing himself with mindfulness and scrupulously inquiring into the nature of his own experience. On the 7th day, he saw the morning star and finally experienced his own True Nature. Then he said something like, “I am awakened together with all beings!” The monk Gautama had become the Buddha, or the “Awakened One.”