Nan Tien Temple Meditation Retreat

:: a gentle yet powerful retreat for beginners

© Image by Ainsley Nan Tien Temple, looking towards the meditation hall

Instead of going to the pub, last weekend I did something completely different; the silent meditation retreat at Nan Tien Temple, Wollongong.

The retreat was run by composed yet charming nuns. They taught from their own experience of life, with surprising worldliness and humour. I’d heard that Buddhists are a happy bunch, and from what I saw it might be true.

The weekend is billed as a meditation retreat, although I feel it really teaches mindfulness. This is a good thing. After all, in our meditation practice most of us are never going to enter jhana. But we do have a chance of really living in the present moment, not regretting the past, not fearing the future. Mindfullness is a great first step in this direction.

nan tien meditation retreat program

Program for the Nan Tien Temple weekend meditation retreat

Those like me who are phobic about religious indoctrination can relax. Obviously there were constant references to Buddhist teachings, but these were presented as philosophy and wisdom rather than evangelism.

The order to which Nan Tien Temple belongs teaches "Humanistic Buddhism". The reference to humanism is interesting. Secular humanists ask: How, in this one life we have, might we make the most of our time here for ourselves and for others? For answers they look not to god, but to reason, experience and compassion.

There is certainly no conflict there with the original Buddhist philosophy. But over the centuries Buddhism has changed, from a way of living to a religion. And, as with any religion, people can lose sight of its original ideals, leading to self-absorption (“stone buddha”) or even fanaticism.

So Humanistic Buddhism is a response to these failings. It is less about prayer and institutionalised religion; and more about getting out and helping in society, making a heaven of this life.

Having said all that, each day began with highly ceremonial chanting in the main temple. Do you see on the program the 5:50 AM alarm call? A cheerful nun bangs wooden sticks outside your door, and 20 minutes later leads you through the cold pre-dawn to the temple. The first morning I enjoyed the beauty and serenity of the ceremony. I would have preferred to spend the second morning in the meditation hall.

t’ai chi

As the sun begins to rise over the temple courtyard, rows of robed figures silently perform “Cloud Hands in a Horse-riding Stance”. It’s easy to imagine myself as a warrior-monk in ancient China. Until I spastically fall off my horse.

sitting meditation

The directions to Nan Tien Temple read “…located in a quiet, peaceful environment, overlooking Mount Keira and Mount Kembla…”. This description probably breaks the 4th precept about false speech. A more accurate statement would be: We are directly above the M1 motorway, 5 minutes from Port Kembla Steelworks, and open to hordes of tourists. It was not peaceful!

Ah well, all part of practising in the real world. The meditation instructions were excellent, covering both the theory and the practical.

noble silence

Noble silence is another technique to help calm the mind. If we are constantly socialising, comparing, chattering, then our mind continues in its same old pattern, almost as though it were something separate to “me”. If we can be quiet, then perhaps we will hear in a new way, be open to new ideas. Maybe even hear messages from our body or subconscious.

Ultimately, the silence was not so noble. One group couldn’t make it past breakfast. Never a thought entered her head, that didn’t immediately leave through her mouth Puh-leeze, my own mind has enough meaningless drivel of its own without hearing anyone else’s.

I was in the end grateful for the jabber. Not due to any new-found tolerance on my part (I wish!), but for the way their nonsense contrasted with the earlier peace, and really emphasised the point of noble silence.

temple meals

Friends had told me Nan Tien Temple cooking was excellent. They were very wrong. The highlight was cabbage and rice. This was much better than it sounds, seriously tasty in fact.

The low spot was cold mashed potato over raw chunks of apple … for breakfast. Perhaps this was another mindfulness training exercise: note your initial aversion, chew slowly, really taste it without judging, as if eating for the very first time. Nope, still horrible.

mindful calligraphy

Mindful calligraphy at Nan Tien Temple meditation retreat.

This is my masterpiece resulting from an hour of silent tracing of Chinese characters. I blame the detailed instructions: Hold the brush vertically. Begin.Of course, the point is not to learn calligraphy, but rather to learn to focus the mind on a single task. If you’re totally absorbed in moving the pen, you can’t at the same time worry about the property market and how you’re never going to own a hovel in Sydney.

The message was the same during the Tea Chan, and was a theme throughout the weekend. A core value of Nan Tien Temple teaching is the idea that meditation is not purely about sitting on a cushion, but is something that can be practised at any time and place. And eventually we may discover that mindfulness of daily life is a way of really living.

when walking, just walk

The walking meditation was the surprise hit for me. Again, this is a technique for calming the mind, this time by concentrating purely on the physical sensations of walking. This pushes away all the usual obsessive thinking, planning and worrying. I couldn’t believe how effective it was, and will certainly be trying it in real life.

retreat tips

should you go?

Buddha statue at Nan Tien Temple.

There were so many new and wonderful experiences that I came away feeling excited rather than relaxed. I’m looking forward to trying out everything I’ve learned (although curiously I was reluctant to return to “real life”). It’s too early for me to say whether there has been any real benefit, but it sure was an interesting experience.

I couldn’t imagine a better introduction to meditation, mindfulness and Buddhist ideas.

Nan Tien weekend meditation retreat is perhaps not for those wanting:

Everyone else should try it.

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