Chan Meditation Explained

Chan Meditation Explained

Recently during the lockdown period we have been offering out advice about how to staying calm in difficult times  and ways in which to improve your mental heath and wellbeing . One method we suggested is through Meditation and mindfulness practice. I  thought it would be intresting to write about some of the deeper aspects of the practice. Exploring the philosophy that underpins the practice known as “Zen” or in Chinese “Chan”. And also give some practical advice to follow. 

What is Chan?

To start with, some Chinese history! Bodhidharma was a fifth century Indian Buddhist monk who, in legend, came to China to spread the teachings of Buddhism, he is said to have been responsible for the birth of Chan. Chan is a direct translation of the word “Dhyana” which means meditation. Historically Shaolin Temple is where Bodhidharma chose to settle and teach this method or “Way”.

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What can we gain through practice?

Chan is the main philosophy that underpins Shaolin Kung Fu. It is a method or way of practice that gives us greater insight or awareness into our true nature, true mind, Buddha mind.

The mind plays a huge part in this practice. Great sages have said that the mind has no form and its awareness no limit and once we see our true nature or mind we are no longer bound by attachments, there is no duality, we are free from negativity and we can can see the world more clearly with greater wisdom and insight.

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Through the practice it encourages us to live and experience the present moment, to liberate the body and mind, and in time can lead us into a deeper understanding about our own being, existence, life, death and beyond.

The sages expressed that all living things share the same nature, which is difficult to see as it is covered by our human sensations and mental delusions. One way to help us to uncover or discover our true nature can be done through meditation. Meditation can come in many forms and is not always sitting and still but this ancient and traditional method of crossed legged seated meditation seems to be the most effective way to help us to gain this insight.

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How we practice.

Zen Practitioner, Katsuki Sekida, expressed that we are never separated from our personal practice, which we carry out with body and mind.

When we practice it is important that we are mindfully conscious, by that I mean not sleeping or dreaming. We are mindfully present in the moment as we practice.

How do we become aware of the mind?

Through meditative activities consciousness is stopped and we cease to be aware of time and space and causation.

The brain can’t do this by itself; it is unable to control thoughts alone. The power of the control of the mind comes from the body; it depends on the posture and breathing.

So firstly immobility is essential. Sitting crossed legged is a traditional and effective method for practice as it keeps the body still but the mind awake. By keeping the body still it results in producing as little stimulus as possible to the brain, this posture and non-movement reduces the activity of the brain’s cortex. Putting us into a state where we are not aware of the sensation our bodies, this brings our attention solely to our thoughts and minds.

Therefore to summarise – when we meditate we try not to move at all, and by our bodies being in a correct posture it can create as little bodily sensation as possible without us falling asleep, hence the traditional method of sitting crossed legged.

Correct posture also includes straight back, tongue placed to the roof of the mouth behind the teeth. Relaxed muscles. Hands relaxed in lap.

This beginning stage can take a lot of practice and some getting used to. Some may find it uncomfortable as their bodies adjust to this posture (its interesting to note that traditional Indian Yoga training, is a physical training method in order to prepare the body for meditation and its sitting posture) For others it can be very painful and for some it can even be difficult to stop the body from moving. You will be pleased to know that this all passes with practice.  

Once this stage has passed and we are able to sit unmoved, a sensation of timelessness and “unbodily” awareness occurs. This is the first step into our practice. Breathing is then adjusted.

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Our breathing can affect the state of our mind; therefore quiet relaxed breathing has a specific calming affect on the mind. In practise lower abdominal breathing can be performed. This is a way to breathe where the chest is bypassed and breathing is done by the muscles of the diaphragm and lower abdomen alone. We breathe into where the Dantien is located and is said to store our energy and power.

Through the practice the student can go on to realise pure existence, then comes the next and many other stages in training. Hope this is helpful to you and encourages you to keep practicing. I will leave you with this interesting thought – Bodhidharma explained to us that Buddha nature is something you have always had. Your own mind is the Buddha. Don’t search outside yourself for Buddha. Where you are there is a Buddha.

The Buddha is your own mind so to find Buddha you have to see your own nature or your own mind.

Many blessings and Happy Life.

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Compassionate Eating | Nutrition Advice

Compassionate Eating | Nutrition Advice

Every year I like to take a trip to China to expand my learning in Chinese Medicine and Martial Arts. One year I stayed in   China’s oldest Chan Buddhist temple in Fangshan district – Tiankai Temple. Whilst living there I was introduced by the monks and nuns to some beautiful concepts, philosophies and ideas on life. One profound understanding came through our daily eating practices and rituals. Below I summarise what I learnt and hope you can gain some greater insight from it into a more mindful and compassionate appoach to nutrition and eating food.

Eat Naturally

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Try to eat organic food which has been allowed to grow naturally, with little chemical intervention. Locally resourced and grown food is considered better for you and the environment – have you ever looked to see where your food has come from?

Eat Seasonally

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Try to eat seasonally and live in harmony with your environment; food comes at that time of the year for a reason. Remember you are a part of the natural world, you are not separate from the world in which you live but are linked intrinsically with it, and can flow with its natural rhythms.

Maybe consider this famous quote by one of the great thinkers of our time, Albert Einstein:

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Ours must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

 

Eat Variety

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Eat a varied diet (different foods every day) and avoid extremes (too much of one type of food). Variety is the spice of life! Try to eat a wide range of foods rather than sticking to the same old foods again and again. Eating different coloured vegetables (red, orange, green, purple, yellow) with every meal will provide you with a variety of different nutrients.

If you are consuming meat try as best as you can to eat free range and organic, this will hopefully ensure that the animal that you are eating has been given a good quality of life, therefore sharing that quality with you.

Eat Mindfully

Thinking positively about the food that you are eating is equally as important; this is very difficult to do if we are eating in front of the TV or whilst working. If we can mindfully develop a better attitude to our food our bodies will more readily absorb important vitamins and vital nutrients.

Sometimes we can be eating all the right food but not always in the right conditions or environment, Chinese Medicine Diet Therapy encourages us to eat our food in a relaxed, calm environment, stress free and not when over emotional or worried. It encourages us to chew our food slowly. Remember – your stomach doesn’t have teeth!

 

Eat Peacefully

The Chinese believe that it is better to not mix work and food. The digestion works best when we are focused on the enjoyment of our meal and are not distracted by troubles or other influences, therefore it is best to try and not eat on the go but rather in a relaxed peaceful environment.

Eat Early

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It is also not beneficial for the body to eat late at night. At this time the digestive system can not cope with large meals when the metabolism is already slowing down. The food will sit undigested in the system making you feel sluggish, groggy and slightly nauseous in the mornings. In the long term, this may weaken your digestive system and cause stomach and digestive issues later on. It was interesting to note that when we lived in the monastery we ate two times a day, once at 6am and then again at 11am, we didn’t eat again until the next morning.

Eat moderately

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There is a famous saying which can help us to gain a better understanding how best to balance the amount of food we consume. The saying goes:

“Eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at lunch and a pauper at dinner.”

In the morning our stomach and digestive system are at its strongest, making digestion of food easier, at night-time it is at its weakest, so eating smaller portions or lighter foods like soup would be more beneficial.

In western culture especially in the UK we eat completely the opposite way around with very little for breakfast and very large and heavy dinners in the evenings. It is proven that over consumption of food is a prime cause of many modern ills, so try not eating to excess, eat just enough. The Chinese give this wonderful piece of advice:

“Eat till you are two thirds full”

I discovered at meal times in the monastery that eating can be a great time to reflect on the self, your personality and your inner qualities. Some questions you might like to ask yourself at this important time of the day are:

Where has your food come from (not just from the supermarket)?

What is its purpose and why are you eating it?

Eat Respectfully

Finally it is good practice to give some thanks to the life that is sharing itself with you in order for you to be strong and healthy.

Affirmation

This is a small affirmation you may like to say before meal times.

“This food is a gift from the whole universe and so I am thankful.

Each morsel is sharing its life so I can be strong and healthy.

I am worthy to receive its life giving nourishment.

May its energy give me strength, make me healthy and help me to grow and develop as a caring, sharing and compassionate being.

May it help me on my journey through life and in turn help others to do the same.”

Amituofo