The First Retreat at the New Sudhana Center – Sudhana’s Journey

Aug 24, 2016

In 2015, DRBA purchased a seven-building, five-acre property in the center of Ukiah, just a short distance from the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Originally constructed as a convent for Dominican nuns, the property later became known locally as the Trinity School, a boarding school for troubled youth. The school closed in 2009, but now seven years later, in the summer of 2016, the center under its new name “Sudhana Center” hosted its first meditation retreat with a fitting theme: “Sudhana’s Journey,” an opportunity to follow the journey of youth Sudhana on his spiritual quest for awakening as narrated in the Avatamsaka Sutra.

The forty retreat participants came with a pioneering spirit of giving the newest Dharma center of DRBA a test run. Would the new Sudhana Center be an ideal place for creating a Dharma community in English? This weeklong retreat from May 28th to June 4th was a chance to find out. Everyone was encouraged to treat Sudhana Center like their home in terms of contributing to upkeeping the facilities. At the same time, participants maintained noble silence and refrained from digital devices while keeping a vigorous program that blended lectures, ceremonies, meditation, mantra practice, and service.

The lectures were led by Dharma Master Heng Chih and Doug Powers three times a day. These classes consisted of a close reading of several Sutras and Shastras that informed the daily practices. The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime (六妙法門) by Shramana Zhiyi provided a framework for meditation: from a starting practitioner to a sage realizing complete awakening. At the same time, it gave simple and practical insights into the mechanics of practice. Excerpts from The Sutra of Underlying Meaning and the Awakening of Faith investigated the depths of Buddhist psychology with a focus on the Bodhisattva’s practice of the six paramitas.

In the evenings, DM Heng Chih lectured on Sudhana’s journey from Chapter 39 of the Avatamsaka Sutra, “Entering the Dharma Realm.” She showed how each of Sudhana’s mentors embodied different aspects of the paramitas. These primary texts came to life from the stories and explanations of the teachers, insights on translation from experienced participants, and comments and questions from the larger group. For some, The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime[1] provided the missing link that brought together theory and practice. One participant reflected: “I’ve been on many meditation retreats in the past; this retreat gave me the big picture of my meditation practice.”

One of the main aims of the retreat was to create a program that allowed newcomers, especially English speakers, to learn the Dharma. All the ceremonies were conducted in English (except for the mantras, which were in “mantra-language”) and some combined Mahayana and Theravada chants: liturgy of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and the daily chants practiced at Abhayagiri Monastery. Participants reported that the Theravada chants provided a grounding in the fundamentals of Buddhist practice while the Mahayana recitations connected their hearts to the vows and spirit of the Bodhisattva. Five 45-minute meditation sessions complemented the daily ceremonies and lectures. Although challenging, beginning practitioners felt the schedule was doable while experienced practitioners had sufficient opportunities to deepen their practice.

The contemplative atmosphere of the retreat naturally supported participants in keeping noble silence and refraining from using digital devices. By removing the distractions of socializing, email, and social media, participants had the opportunity to develop inner stillness and reflect within. Some found that they were able to more easily attune to their natural rhythms as well as the community around them.

The food during the retreat was also healthy, light and nourishing. The CTTB organic farm provided some vegetables and herbs, while the rest was carefully picked to provide a balanced diet supportive of spiritual practice. Every lunch included a big green salad, which many participants greatly appreciated! Due to the summer heat, the kitchen team made their own Gatorade by mixing water with a bit of lemon, sugar, and salt. This allowed everyone to stay hydrated even in the hot afternoon weather.

Service provided an opportunity to practice giving, the first paramita. Everyone was given a simple work duty such as food preparation, cleaning or dishwashing—many hands make for light work. All the participants could engage fully in the retreat. Work, study, and practice were integrated into a holistic experience of living within a Dharma community.

The retreat was truly a community effort. The planning for the retreat began many months in advance by the DRBU Extension team consisting of Jin He Shi, Jin Chuan Shi, Kien Po, Jason Tseng, Meghan Sweet, and Flavia Lee-faust. Annie Cheng and Wayne Chen have been managing the facilities and made sure that the center was ready to host a retreat of this scale.  A week leading up to the retreat, many DRBU students and retreat participants volunteered to help clean the facilities. And during the retreat, Flavia Lee-faust, Jackie Farley and Kenneth Cannata along with many of the participants prepared three vegetarian meals every day.

The final feedback from everyone was that the Sudhana Center was an ideal setting for a retreat. The former chapel, now transformed into a Buddha Hall, was an inspiring space for ceremonies, meditation and lectures. The elegant courtyard at the center of campus allowed participants to walk around mindfully while others sat on benches studying the Sutras and Shastras. The dorm rooms occupied by the participants were simple and practical with a wooden bed, desk, and drawer. The contained environment naturally allowed for noble silence and stillness.

There were requests for future retreats: programs introducing the basics of Buddhism, intensive retreats with more meditation, and even family retreats to help develop better relationships. People also suggested that the noble silence could have been implemented more consistently as some people ended up talking unnecessarily while working. Others hoped that there would be more outreach to people with no prior experience with DRBA. Nevertheless, as the first retreat at the new Sudhana Center came to a close, there was a sense that this was just the beginning of a long journey of bringing the Dharma to the West or simply the modern world.

[1] Shramana Zhiyi, The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime (Kalavinka Press, 2009)