This past week I had the opportunity to travel to Ontario to participate in a five-day retreat with Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh, affectionately called Thay. It was my first retreat in 15 years and my first retreat with Thay. In this week’s blog, I thought I would share with you a bit about my experience and thoughts about a teacher.
There is no substitute for experiential learning to convey clarity and wisdom. Experiential learning transcends the mind and concepts. One can study and read much about what has been written by great teachers and sages, but to gain understanding in an experiential way takes one’s awareness to a new level. Having studied andragogy and been a practitioner I know the benefits experiential learning can have. It takes the understanding from a concept to a practical application for the learner (e.g. applied learning). Imagine trying to learning to drive a car from a text-book. This would be very challenging and difficult. The experience and feeling of being behind the wheel of a car driving down on the road conveys learning in a way a text-book can’t. The same is true for gaining insight from a spiritual teacher. One cannot substitute the clarity, insight and experience of a master in terms of helping the student to practice meditation mindfully. The simplicity, yet profound way, in which they confirm meaning and understanding, can excel a student that would otherwise take many years of self-study. This was my experience with Thay during the retreat. His demonstrated insight and articulation of deep thought provided insight which would not have been gained without many years of deep study.
A great teacher conveys an energetic transmission that has to be experienced to be understood. I have been fortunate to have spent time with a couple of meditation teachers over the past 27 years. Through years of deep study and meditative experience, a master operates at a much slower vibrational energy than we do on a daily basis. Their own experiential learning has provided them with such depth and clarity, that they live and breathe at a higher consciousness. Being in their presence, people’s energy slows down, we open to their teaching in new ways and receive blessings that one cannot gain on one’s own. There is a direct transmission that occurs between a great teacher and a student, providing the student is open and willing to receive it. On some level, simply being in close proximity to a master raises one’s consciousness. This was my experience with Thay during the retreat this past week. Being in his presence, I felt more blissful, light and expanded than I have in many years. He has an unpretentious demeanour that carries deep insight, clarity and compassionate energy. Through his presence, people benefit energetically from a profound deceleration in being-ness.
Being with a teacher however is not all love, light and delight. A true teacher will challenge a student’s ego in ways not previously imagined. From an energetic perspective, because we typically lead lives that are busy and fast paced, spending increased time meditating will eventually bring up issues. One cannot slow down without releasing stored up tension and stress. In releasing the pressures of daily life, people are not only going to slow down themselves but they will need to let go of thoughts, feelings and physical blockages that are unable to operate at a slower vibrational level. Thus, during retreats participants may/will experience energetic releases on a mental, emotional or physiological level. The more open one can be open to this experience the easier one will release tension and experience greater bliss. With a true master, participants will go through cycles of expansion and contraction. This was certainly the case for me with my time with Thay. I had moments of intoxicating bliss and periods of resistance and negativity. Despite expecting and anticipating this, difficult times are never easy to go through unless one remains open.
Being with a master, one benefits simply by being in the grace of the teacher. This concept is hard to explain unless one has had the opportunity to spend time with someone who is accomplished as a spiritual teacher. The grace of the teacher transforms the student energetically. It is like sitting in the sun and bathing in the rays to get a sun tan. Through spending time with a sage, students immerse themselves in the waves of higher consciousness, while simultaneously having their burdens lifted. If one sits in the sun long enough, they will receive a tan. If one sits too long in the sun, they will burn. Knowing how much sun to get and when to sit in the shade is something we all must learn. The same is true with a great teacher. How much of the teacher’s grace can one absorb and at what point does one need to step back so as not to get burned. The strength and attachments of our own ego will determine our ability to lay in the sun or seek shade.
Along with most great teachers there is also a community (Sangha) of like-minded people. The Sangha is a great opportunity to commune with people who have the same interests, experiences and focus. They can be a great support in terms of one’s own practice, while being a safe place to ask questions. In a world of nine billion people, it is beneficial to have a community of people on the same path as you. In a community where other people are journeying what you are experiencing, and struggling with their own spiritual challenges to come through the other side, the Sangha can be a great place to support individual students on the path. A community is a place for us to give back and help others by sharing our experiences. We soon discover we are not alone and are not unique in our quest.
I am so very grateful for the time I got to spend with Thich Nhat Hanh and all 1,400 participants last week. Thank you to the organizers in Toronto, the monastics who dutifully serve Thay and the community. I would also like to thank Ani La and Yeshe (from Gawa Ling Mindfulness Meditation Center in McClure, BC) for suggesting this trip for me and being a support to me, while also creating a local Sangha. Finally, thank you to Thich Nhat Hanh for sharing himself and his mastery with the world.