Guo Gu two-day Huatou Retreat

Guo Gu two-day Huatou Retreat            

by Jean Yu

I have come to many weekend meditation retreats at Dharma Drum Mountain, San Francisco Bay Area Center.  The weekend retreat to me is like a treat after a busy week at work and always helps refresh and inspire my practice of meditation as well as mindful living.  

At the beginning of this two-day retreat, Guo Go used the analogy of vacation to set the stage.  He said, the retreat "is a vacation; a vacation from the past, the future, the environment and your body."  Our work is to put down everything, be present, moment to moment, and practice the method.  The method practiced in this retreat is Huatou, a unique method in Chan practice.  Huatou’s literal meaning of "source of words" is in fact the source of thoughts.  When we observe the Huatou, we are actually trying to contemplate Mind (心).  It's one of the Chan methods to achieve no-mind and usually practiced in a 7-day retreat.  Nevertheless the 2-day retreat, as Guo Gu put it, would give us a flavor about Huatou.

Guo Gu emphasized relaxation is the foundation for sitting mediation.  Before we started to practice, he walked us through the steps of systematic relaxation throughout the body, starting from head, shoulders, chest, to abdomen and feet.  He also explained how to ground our body weight onto the lower body so our upper body could remain totally relaxed.  In my previous practice of Huatou, when I tried to generate sense of doubt more intensely, I felt too much energy stuck in my head.  This time, the progressive relaxation method was really helpful so I could intensified the questioning without feeling any discomfort. 

Guo Gu was also instrumental to address some common problems in sitting meditation.  "How you respond to all the thoughts in sitting meditation mirrors how you deal with problems in daily life."  He provided practical advice and encouraged us to take initiatives to overcome them.

"You have to help yourself.  If you feel drowsy, you can open your eyes."  For leg pains, don't label it and watch it as a physical sensation.  For wandering thoughts, "don't try to suppress or get rid of them, just recognize them.  Don't follow them. Don't attach to them."  They will vanish on their own accord.

When we put forth efforts to work on our method in the retreat, very often it can initially bring about agony and stress in our consciousness.  So when Guo Gu said, "Never hate your vexations; never hate yourself!", it had such a soothing effect on me and helped me stay open and accepted whatever was happening during sitting.

Throughout the retreat, sitting practices were interlaced between Dharma talks, yoga and walking meditation.  On the second day, we also had opportunity to have one-on-one interviews with Guo Gu to ask questions and issues we came across in our practice.  The interview session was very helpful to clarify my questions about sense of doubt.  In the sitting practice that followed, I had a good grasp of great doubt sensation and could understand why Guo Gu said the Huatou can bring a very dynamic concentration that is very different from other methods.

As Huatou should be practiced under an experienced instructor, Guo Gu did not encourage us to practice Huatou at home by ourselves. Instead, he gave us the homework to practice One-minute Chan 5 times a day for the next 3 months.  "Pick 5 routines every day to do the one minute practice: relax, feel your body and be fully present with the task at hand.  You can set alarms on your phone, or it could be the first bite of your lunch, or climbing stairways.  You can incorporate this practice in your daily life, especially when dealing with difficult people or challenging situations."

When I left the Chan Hall and walked toward my car after the retreat, the rain had already stopped.  After a full day of rain, the rear windows of my car were covered with wet fallen leaves.  I started to remove the leaves before I stopped and thought to myself: maybe I don't need to do anything about them.  Because the leaves might be flown away by the wind when the car is moving.  So I left the leaves alone and took off.  When I hit the road, I could see from my rearview mirror that some leaves were blown away as some were still stuck there.  I smiled to myself, knowing that I won't worry about the leaves that are still there.  As long as I keep moving and pick up more speed on the highway, the leaves, just like my wandering thoughts or vexations during my sitting, will vanish by themselves into the air.