Author  Koren Eloul MA'21

Every semester, students and staff at Dharma Realm Buddhist University collectively take part in what is known as a Contemplative Exercise Immersion, or CEI. The CEI acts as an intensive laboratory practice, allowing students to gain an experiential comprehension of the wealth of teachings they have been exposed to in the semester. This Fall semester, both the Bachelor’s and Master’s programs studied Pali texts using Bhikkhu Bodhi’s In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon as a centerpiece for understanding the oldest recorded teachings of the Buddha and his disciples. As such, this CEI was organized as an unprecedented collaboration with Abhayagiri Monastery, whose monks’ Theravada practices are drawn directly from the Pali Canon. The CEI organizers decided, given the central role of mindfulness in Theravada practice, to establish the retreat theme on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which are drawn from the Satipatthana Sutta. Abhayagiri was deeply generous, offering to send its two Co-Abbots, Ajahn Naniko and Ajahn Karunadhammo, to each teach for one day of the CEI, and Guiding Elder Luang Por Pasanno to teach participants on the final day.

The CEI took place at Sudhana Center’s Buddha Hall from October 16th through October 18th. During those days, Noble Silence was strongly encouraged (except during chanting and shared inquiry sessions), as was a retreat from electronic devices to help settle the minds of the participants. The retreat schedule was an interweaving of chanting, Dharma talks, sitting meditation, walking meditation, lunch and, at the end of each day, shared inquiry sessions. Shared inquiry is the learning style DRBU utilizes in its classroom sessions – it asks all participants, including the instructors (who adopt the role of facilitators), to engage the material together, collectively expanding each person’s understanding as he or she takes on the roles of both teacher and student. Students were asked to read various related texts prior to the CEI to deepen the understanding with which they could explore the teachings they would receive; the questions posed during the share inquiry sessions, which were conducted in small groups, were drawn from these readings and challenged the participants to collectively approach foundational practice and philosophical questions relating to the role of mindfulness in Buddhist practice. It also offered participants an opportunity to connect with their peers about their experiences and learnings over the course of the day.

Although each day had its own flavor, associated with the unique personality and approach of that day’s teacher from Abhayagiri, the teachings themselves were consistent: the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (mindfulness of the body, feeling tone, mind, and dharmas) are crucial to successful practice and attaining Nibbana. Various guided meditations and lectures helped frame and provide experience recognition of the distinct importance of each Foundation, as well as demonstrate the wealth of skillful means available for the differing personality types and experience levels of the participants. Overall, this semester’s CEI, thanks to the generous teachings of Ajahn Nanijo, Ajahn Karunadhammo, and Ajahn Pasano, in addition to the hard work of the various organizers and volunteers, and the dedication of the participants, was a great success. Hopefully, it is just the beginning of further collaborations with Abhayagiri Monastery in many CEI’s to come.