In this short essay, I would like to tell a story of my encounters with Chan/Zen Buddhism which eventually brought me to Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts (DILA). Through this story, I will try to show the significance of DILA with reference to both: Buddhist studies and Chan/Zen practice.
My first encounter with Chan/Zen Buddhism took place in a Sōtō Zen center in the city of Katowice, Poland. During the visit, I received a short introduction to sitting meditation and then sat in silence with other participants. After the sitting session was over, there was a time to ask a teacher some questions. Since I was a newcomer, I simply asked what I can attain by practicing sitting meditation. The teacher replied: “nothing”. This was basically the whole teaching I received on that day. For the following few years, I practiced on my own and then rejoined other meditators. We practiced together for around seven years. In that time, I became truly fascinated with Chan rhetoric of direct experience and enlightenment. I related it to the psychedelic experiences I had pursued before, which made it sound like something real, like a true quest full of mystery and adventure. That sense of mystery made me think there was so much more than just sitting and attaining “nothing”. That unstoppable will to understand, to learn, set me on a collision course with the teachers who claimed that doctrinal investigation was contrary to the ideals of Zen practice. Such a vision seemed to me somewhat extreme. It was all about radically simplified meditation technique and ineffable experiences. After numerous unproductive conversations with the teachers, I decided to leave the community and practice on my own again.
Dissatisfied with the teachers' attitude, I decided to pursue Buddhist knowledge at the university. I quickly realized the existence of a gap between Chan/Zen practitioners and Buddhist scholars. Former ones usually just sit and do not engage too much in studying the doctrine; the latter ones are preoccupied with social, historical, linguistic, philosophical, and other forms of inquiry, often ignoring experiential dimension or explicitly diminishing the importance of religious experiences. This academic, purely theoretical approach to Chan/Zen, was another extreme that I encountered.
Searching for a middle way between these two extremes, I learned more about early Chan as well as the figures who combined meditation (禪) with doctrinal (教) or textual (文字) studies, namely the figures such as Zongmi, Yanshou, Huihong, Jinul, and others. I also tried to find recent thinkers who combined Buddhist practice
with extensive academic education. This eventually led me to the thinkers and teachers credited for (directly or indirectly) shaping modern Buddhism in Taiwan, namely Taixu, Yinshun, Xingyun, and Shengyan. This whole interest culminated in my journeys to Taiwan, which took place over the last six years. After visiting numerous places representing Buddhism in Taiwan, I ended up commencing visiting graduate student program at DILA and starting a PhD program there afterwards.
I have been staying in DILA and the whole Dharma Drum Mountain World Center for Buddhist Education for more than two years. Based on my observations and experiences, I came to a conclusion that this is a place where a balance between the two aforementioned extremes can be found. It can significantly enrich Chan/Zen practice as well as Buddhist studies via keeping in the same area facilities for Buddhist practice together with places for academic endeavor. Thus, the practitioners will be constantly reminded of the vast knowledge creating the doctrinal context of Buddhist practice, and the scholars will be reminded that religious experience is an irreducible element of Chan/Zen.
This type of balance is embodied in everyday life in DILA campus. The place provides suitable conditions for keeping more or less uninterrupted inward-oriented meditative state during various activities. This is possible due to the factors such as peaceful style of living of the majority of residents which fits well into the semi monastic regulations of this place, rather minimalistic architecture of the exterior and interior parts of the buildings, multiple serene walking paths, the proximity of nature, and the location in the mountain region. This inward experience can be occasionally intensified during sitting meditation activities organized in the campus. Experience of the inward-oriented style of living transfers very well to successful study of Buddhism and research of its various aspects. In addition to this, DILA's libraries and its academic community provide all the necessary outward means, such as rich collection of source literature and academic publications, lectures, seminars, conferences, or trips to Buddhism-related places in Taiwan. Harmonious combination of these outward and inward conditions results in the ability to fully explore Buddhism in its two primary aspects: the source literature and one's own mind.
1 This is an extended and updated version of an essay published originally in “Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts Newsletter” 20/7, 2019.