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Angeo: Buddhist meditation retreat

By Chun Ock-bae, The Korea Times, Aug 5, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- Commonly known as Varsa or Rains Retreat, this three-month meditation retreat has been a regular annual activity in South East Asia Theravada Buddhist monasteries for more than 2,500 years, ever since Buddha’s time.

<< Monks carry out their daily meditation sessions during a retreat at Daeseung Temple, North Gyeongsang Province. /Korea Times file

"Varsa” is a Sanskrit word meaning ``rain’’ or ``rainy season,’’ and this retreat traditionally took place in India every summer during the monsoon period. During the three-month period monks remain within the monastery precincts and practice meditation or study sutras.

Originally in India during the rainy season, monks took refuge in a cave or a monastery from the 16th day of the fourth month until the 15th day of the seventh month. Ostensibly, this was because traveling and outdoor activities were highly impractical in the heavy monsoon rains.

Buddha himself had initiated this rule in response to a group of farmers who approached him with concerns that newly planted seedlings in the fields were being damaged by the monks as they went begging among the villages. In his compassion for the farmers and the vulnerable new seedlings, the Buddha instigated this annual rest and study period.

Following the example of their teacher, Sakyamuni Buddha, who sat in solitary practice in the Himalayas long before them, Korean monks also undergo strong practice retreats, either alone or in groups. Two retreat periods are observed annually in Korea, each of three months duration, in summer and winter respectively.

During these retreats there are five main practices which can help to train the mind to see into one’s original true self or Buddha nature. The five practices are: "ganhwaseon’’ meditation (hwadu meditation), "yeombul’’ (chanting), "juryeok’’ (mantra), "gangyeong’’ (sutra recitation) and "jeol’’ (bowing). The direction of these practices is to strengthen concentration and confidence so as to cut through conventional dualistic thinking and recognize true self.

Meditation is very popular these days, as it can help to settle the mind and bring the body to a peaceful state. A regular meditation practice can help us find peace of mind, inner strength and true happiness. Luckily, it’s not only for monks and nuns; these days many more lay people are practicing together.

The untrained mind is like a wild ox that roams wherever the mood takes it. Such a mind cannot find peace; it is often befuddled, deluded and confused. The stress of constantly reacting to life conditions gives rise to negative thoughts and emotions like hate, worry, fear and greed, which in turn causes mental and physical problems. Meditation training can help us tame our wild minds and interrupt our constant attachment and clinging to thoughts and emotions.

Buddhist meditation trains the mind to let go of attachments and see the world as it is, free from discrimination. Our primary attachment is to a self, or I. "We believe this is what we are, an independent, truly existing self, and consequently, we have a strong concern about this self’s welfare. Day and night we are caught up with how to benefit and protect this self. It is attachment to self and the consequent cherishing of self that is the very source of undisciplined mental states which leads to unhappiness.

Most of our thoughts are self-centered, which results in all our suffering. The remedy for self-attachment is to understand the true nature of self which is "emptiness.’’ Self emptiness means that the self does not exist eternally and independently; it is empty of inherent existence. Meditation can help us to see this true nature which is empty of self and set us free from disturbing emotions that arise from self-attachment.

During the retreat seasons in Korea each year, the main Buddhist Jogye Order has around two thousand monks and nuns sitting summer and winter retreats in Seon monasteries for three months at a time. During this period of angeo (to reside in peace), practitioners remain within the temple gate, devoting themselves to meditation and other practices. The daily routine commences before dawn, at 2 or 3 a.m. according to each temple’s schedule.

At the sound of a bamboo clapper practitioners gather in silence and pay homage to Buddha with three bows. In Seon temples, apart from meals and work periods, practitioners devote themselves solely to the zealous pursuit of sitting meditation, from early morning until 9 p.m., 10 p.m., or sometimes even 11 p.m.

Every temple has slight variations in customs and styles of practice, but overall there are three types of practice schedules. The first is ``ordinary practice,’’ which is done on a daily basis usually for eight to 10 hours a day. The second is ``intensive practice,’’ with the idea to exert more effort by meditating longer for twelve to fourteen practice hours a day. The third is ``undaunted practice,’’ where one practices without sleep, dedicating 18 or more hours a day to meditation. At a designated time during the winter retreat, which, according to the lunar calendar coincides with Buddha’s enlightenment, the entire community in Seon temples will participate in this rigorous practice without sleep for seven days. During any retreat, winter, summer or periods in between, temples may also decide to practice without sleep for seven days or upwards to a month.

Recently, in Korea, short-term retreats have become popular among lay Buddhists, and foreigners may also join at these times. This allows lay Buddhists and interested others to experience the monastic life for a short period. The retreats are usually conducted at major temples which are also centers for Buddhist education. The program participants attend lectures by monks of the Sangha College and are also able to experience aspects of monastic life such as formal meals with four bowls, predawn practices and Seon meditation. Some temples may require participants to shave their heads and wear monastic robes while they are in retreat.

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