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Attending an intensive, silent meditation retreat at Dharma Drum Mountain, Taiwan

This Guide attended a seven-day intensive, silent meditation retreat led by Zarko Andricevic, in the tradition of Chan master Sheng Yen, at Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan. The retreat was bilingual (conducted in Mandarin and English) and focused on the practice of Silent Illumination. Dharma Drum Mountain is opening up again for international retreats like the one I intended, so this article will explore what to expect from the the food and accommodation, what to bring, and we’ll explore a bit of what Silent Illumination is all about.

Table of Contents

Getting to Dharma Drum Mountain

If you’re doing a retreat at Dharma Drum Mountain, they’ll likely organize a bus to pick up attendees, from the main train station in Taipei. For this retreat, we met at 12:30 in the afternoon, at East Exit 3, Taipei Main Station.

There were many attendees traveling from around Asia, especially Singapore and Hong Kong so it was a large coach bus. It took around an hour to journey up to the coast and then into the mountains to the Dharma Drum campus.

Silent Retreat Daily Schedule

Something I enjoyed about this retreat was the consistent restriction on phone use. Our phones were off in some cabinet somewhere. So I didn’t grab a photo of the schedule. And your retreat experience may be slightly different, but it went something like this: 

Wake up bell at 4:00

Meditation hall for meditation, followed by stretching, then chanting sutras

Breakfast 

Work practice and then some free time to do laundry or rest

Meditation << This was always my favorite meditation period. The brain is alert now and it understands what kind of day we’ll be having.

Lunch

Meditation << Each meditation practice time was 50 minutes

Mindful walking (or running)

Meditation

Dinner << Monks or practitioners that have taken the precepts would enjoy some tea but not eat

Dharma talk

Meditation

Bed around 22:00 << If going to bed at 10 and waking up at 4 sounds difficult, be open to the possibility that consistently sitting in meditation can change how you interact with sleep. After a few days of the retreat, I kept waking up at 3am fully awake and ready to go. So I went to the meditation hall to sit in silence. I wasn’t the only one.

 

This photo might not seem like much, but it was one of my favorite experiences each day during the retreat. The Chan practice hall sits on the mountainside, with lush green forest on the slope. Windows looking onto the forest line the back of the hall behind the buddha statue. Our cushions were facing towards the Buddha and the windows. 

When we would sit down to meditate each morning, the hall was dark, and softly lit by a few lights. The windows were pitch black when we would begin meditating. But during that sit, the windows slowly began to glow green as the sun rose. I always had this feeling of waking up with the world each morning.

Meals at DDM

The meals are traditional vegan temple food but there’s substantial food and it was all delicious. 

For meals, the mindful silence of the retreat continues. The meals are very much part of the practice. 

At a traditional Caodong / Soto retreat, you’ll have a single bowl, a pair of chopsticks, and a cloth. You’ll eat everything in the one bowl, clean it at the end of the meal, and wipe it with the cloth.

At Dharma Drum Mountain, the tables all had numbers at the seats. There was a shelf under the table where you could keep the bowl and chopsticks.  

Accommodation and what to bring on the retreat

If you’ve ever seen a traditional Korean army barracks–because there are probably more people watching Kdramas than visiting meditation retreat centers–that’s what the dorm rooms looked like. 

There was an aisle down the middle of the room, with raised tatami mats in a squared U shape around the walls of the room. There were cupboards behind that also served to mark out the space for each person. Bedding was provided and I’d also brought a sleeping bag.

In terms of other things to bring: I went in October and we still had some very hot days. It’s Taiwan, so it can be hot and humid. Bring light clothes but long-sleeved shirts and pants. 

Bring a mug you can use for tea and hot water. There was a hot water dispenser on the dormitory floor and many people brought their own teas and other drinks.

What is Silent Illumination or Just Sitting meditation?

Silent Illumination is a meditation practice common in the Caodong / Soto school of Chan / Zen. 12th century Chan master Hongzhi was a proponent of the practice. Dogen, who brought to Japan the teachings that became known as Soto Zen, quoted Hongzhi’s work widely in his own writings.

You may see it referred to as Silent Illumination or as Just Sitting, which is a translation from the Japanese term shikantaza. At Dharma Drum Mountain, we referred to it as Silent Illumination. When I was at Eiheiji recently, the monks teaching us there referred to it as Just Sitting. Both terms can help you with understanding the practice.

The practice is to just sit and be silent. That silence includes inside of your head. So we’re not sitting and following the breath. That would be two things: just sitting AND breath following. But this is only a practice of sitting. We also don’t need to be counting the breath in our heads or labeling thoughts or having conversations up in our skull boxes or picturing any kind of magical image or anything like that. Silent.

And in that silent sitting, maybe there is an opportunity to perceive reality as it is.

After seven days of silence and rigorous meditation practice, stepping back into a metropolis like Taipei might seem daunting but it’s really an opportunity for the practice to continue. A week of Chan might be the best way to begin a journey into Taipei if you want to be present with all of the tastes and sights and sounds.

Is a silent Zen meditation retreat good for beginners?

I often hear people refer to Vipassana retreats as being challenging. I would say a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat is easier for a beginner than jumping into something like a Silent Illumination retreat. You can read about my 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat adventures in Bodhgaya, India here: What happens at a Vipassana retreat?

If you do a Vipassana retreat, there’s a structured process to gradually teach you how to meditate. You’ll also be following physical sensations. It typically involves a kind of rapid body scan practice. 

An object-based awareness practice, where you’re focusing on something, can be easier than starting with an objectless practice, like Just Sitting.

But you can always approach a meditation retreat with kindness and curiosity. It’s natural for it to feel challenging (especially for the first few days), so don’t be discouraged if you want to explore. Dive in!

Video report on the retreat

While I was spending time in Taipei after the retreat, I shared some thoughts on the adventure (and ate a lot of food in the early morning markets because I was still waking up at 4am).

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2 thoughts on “Attending an intensive, silent meditation retreat at Dharma Drum Mountain, Taiwan”

  1. Hello, thank you sharing your experience at DDM. How does one get in touch with them about a English retreat? I have visited there once before, however trying to reach them in English has been a no go.

    Amitoufo

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