A relaxed intensive retreat

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A relaxed intensive retreat

During the three-month summer and winter meditation retreats in Korea, there is a weeklong practice period during which participants do not sleep and completely devote themselves to Seon (Korean Zen) meditation. In Korean, this type of retreat is known as yongmaeng jeongjin, or bravery devotion. It’s not easy at all, so practitioners do all sorts of peculiar things to try and fight off their overwhelming drowsiness.

One fellow went out in the middle of winter and rolled around on the snow-covered ground in order to try and stay awake. Another guy stuck a long skewer into his forehead so that he would be poked whenever he nodded off and it would keep his mind clear. People who get through this kind of no-sleep retreat tend to feel proud of themselves, like U.S. Navy Seals who have completed Hell Week.

If you listen to the stories told by those who have completed these kinds of retreats, however, the point seems really vague. Everyone boasts of how they overcame their drowsiness and endured not sleeping, as if telling tales of heroic deeds. But it’s quite rare to meet people who talk about how they made progress in their practice, perhaps because they consider cultivation to be their own private concern. I’m curious what this type of retreat actually means.

This passage is from a chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra.

Receiving radiance is yongmaeng —
This brilliance awakens the indolent one;
Discarding all fatigue and relative distinctions,
I respect and make offerings to the Three Jewels.

The word yongmaeng implies a continuous, dedicated effort to continually empty the mind and move forward — when one does this, both fatigue and relative distinctions no longer exist.

For example, if we stay up all night doing something we really enjoy, we don’t feel any sense of fatigue or displeasure — in fact, we don’t even notice that the time has passed. It’s the same when one becomes completely absorbed in intensive practice — there isn’t any tiredness or aggravation.

When practitioners boast of their intensive retreats, however, they put emphasis on the intensity — tensing themselves, with bulging eyes and clenched fists, like one trying to pierce through a great iron wall. Eventually this extreme effort gets absorbed by the mind and it becomes hard and stiff, losing all its supple nature. Struggling and fighting like this, the mind becomes fixated on the word yongmaeng and gets stuck there.

If the mind is caught in this way, it’s difficult to nurture your egg – to grasp your Great Question. Even though you hold your question, the chick doesn’t hatch, because an egg needs the proper time and temperature, and a Great Question is exactly the same. What kind of attitude does a mother hen have when she sits on her egg? The hen doesn’t sit there thinking, “No matter what happens, I have to make this egg hatch,” tensing her throat, legs and chest. No, the hen sits there with a relaxed, compassionate mind, so that the temperature naturally rises; the energy for the egg to hatch arises from this original point, where nothing abides.

When people undertake this kind of no-sleep retreat, however, they misunderstand the meaning of yongmaeng, so they furrow their brows and struggle not to fall asleep; they shout and even burn their fingers, imagining that they’re making meditative progress — but that’s not the point, at all!

Can it be true that the world and I are not separate? Why is it that without relative distinctions the Tathagata can be seen? How is it that an hour ago something bothered me and now I still feel upset, even though that situation has passed? Why does summer come after spring, and then autumn after summer?

When we continually investigate questions like this about ourselves and the world, we begin to inwardly reflect more and more. When we calmly and quietly follow this line of questioning without ceasing and go deeply within, eventually we nurture our own inner seed of Buddha-nature — we embrace this living, breathing question. This is the true meaning of an intensive no-sleep retreat.

Buddha also practiced this way 2,500 years ago, leading an ascetic lifestyle in which he ate only one grain of rice per day. It was said that if he touched his stomach that he could feel his back-bone and that if he touched his back he could feel the surface of his stomach.

He finally abandoned this kind of asceticism just before he lost his life after eating some rice porridge that had been offered by a young girl.

The companions with whom he had been practicing called him a traitor, but using the energy he got from eating this porridge he sat in meditation with renewed vigor — a relaxed, natural and compassionate attitude. Buddha nurtured his egg with this kind of mind, and at last, when he saw the morning star, his egg hatched — he attained enlightenment. Buddha has already shown us the temperature and attitude with which we should nurture our own egg.


*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo writer on religious affairs.

Baek Sung-ho

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