Rebecca Li teaches within the North American Chan tradition. “Zen” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character denoting “Chan” – 禪. The practice first arose in China, and the classic koan collections are all Chinese. Rebecca is a second-generation Dharma heir of Chan Master Sheng Yen, whose Dharma Drum Foundation now has affiliate centers in fourteen countries.
Rebecca is a retreat leader. The goal, she tells me, is not only to teach people how to meditate but how to “use the method of meditation to work with themselves and to use the practice in their daily life in all kinds of activities. It’s not just a technique, but it is also an adjustment of attitude, mentality, and being aware of where they are.”
An important point for beginners is “unlearning some of the misconceptions they might have developed around what meditation is about. The most common one is they believe meditation involves eliminating everything from the mind. They believe they’re supposed to cultivate a blank mind.”
It is an error that comes about because people lack “adequate guidance. Because a lot of people now do it on apps and stuff, they bring their existing ideas about things to make sense of it. So that’s another layer of what I talk about, that we are bound to go about meditation the wrong way in the beginning because we take our usual habits, our usual mode of operation – which is all about causing suffering – into the meditation. We use meditation to cause more suffering in the beginning. So that’s where we start, and then we learn about how we are causing ourselves suffering by looking at how we approach our meditation.”
She tells me that the current Covid-19 crisis provides “a wonderful opportunity to practice Chan.”
“Right now there’s a lot of suffering. So people are basically taken out of their routine. They are unable to do what they usually get to do that makes them happy or less miserable. Everybody creates some kind of forms of comfort, really various forms of you can call them distractions, you can call them supports in different ways, like being able to visit their loved ones, spend time with them, or do things they enjoy, like go to movies, go to restaurants. With all these different things they fill their lives and know their world. So as a Chan practitioner, this is a good opportunity to see how our world and how we feel really is conditioned by being able to do these things. And we see that these things that we’ve been doing are not there permanently; they themselves are conditioned by many causes and conditions. This provides a good opportunity to get an understanding of the most important teaching in Buddhism: That every moment of our existence – of our world – is the coming together of many causes and conditions. And when people see that their world fell apart, then the truth of the matter is revealed that our world is constantly changing and evolving, and we just created this idea that there’s this world that’s mine, that I’ve created, and we work very, very hard to protect it and make it a certain way, and that’s our idea of what’s going on. We don’t see that it is constantly changing because it’s conditioned. But right now, when it’s disrupted in such a spectacular way, then we’re more able to see what’s been happening that’s less visible for us.
“Another thing is to use the practice of Chan meditation to be with suffering. So one of the talks I gave recently was on how to practice to suffer better. So usually all these distractions or the different things we do in our daily life that now many of us cannot do are put together to avoid suffering, to run away from suffering, but the practice of the Bodhisattva – the practice of cultivating compassion – is not to run away from suffering but to be with the suffering. And not to turn away from the great suffering of the world. So first we notice our entrenched habits of wanting to run away from it, to be numb, and notice how that creates more suffering. And to learn to use the practice of allowing that just to be the way it is and see that suffering, too, is conditioned. And the suffering is actually the result of our resisting what’s emerging in the present moment.
“A lot of people in the first couple of weeks of the lock-down said how much they hate it. My college students, that’s the thing they say; they hate it, it’s so boring, and they want their life back. And the people doing that are resisting the present situation, but maybe they are also feeling, ‘I should not feel like this’ when actually that’s the brain’s natural response to acute danger, to a situation you realize can present a lot of danger. So actually it means your brain is working. It’s pumping out stress hormones to make you more alert. So what we interpret as something being wrong is actually perfectly normal. So not resisting all these abrupt changes is the way to suffer better.
“Of course there will be grief also. You’re grieving some lost time with family and things that you were looking forward to. People could not have weddings or couldn’t spend last days with their loved ones in the hospital. There’s real genuine grief. And so to suffer better not to create more suffering. Because very often when we create more suffering for ourselves, we also create more suffering for other people. That is not compassionate. And so the cultivation of clear awareness of our experience of suffering is critically important for us to not generate more suffering.”