Reflections from a recent retreat at Gak Su Temple

Minh Ngan Tran


As I sat this Winter Kyol Che at Gak Su Temple, a big question appeared: All the Zen Masters are always talking about clear mind. What is this for? Why should we always keep clear mind? All of a sudden, in the midst of this two-week retreat, I had lost the reason for practice. I know we're practicing to keep clear – moment to moment, what are we doing? But WHY?

All the familiar answers didn't suffice, and this doubt lingered until my third kong-an interview with Sifu (Zen Master Dae Kwan). I was soliciting Sifu for meditation advice because my sitting wasn't going so well. She took one look at me and immediately said, "Your shoulders are very tense. Relax them." Ah…this is what clear mind is for!

I started sitting seven years ago, and for seven years, I couldn't sit. For more years than that, I've been plagued by shoulder and neck pains. But now I understand! My mind and my body are the same. If my body is tense, my mind is tense, and vice versa. By noticing my body, I can see my mind; by checking my shoulders, I'm checking my mind. What am I holding? What am I making? It then became clear that it's not just the shoulders; it's the whole posture. Is my spine, from tailbone to neck, straight? Is my chin slightly tucked in? How is my mudra? Are my fingers relaxed? Is my dantian (energy center) going in and out with every breath? These regular physical checks have revolutionized my sitting. A relaxed body means a relaxed mind, an essential component of meditation that I've been missing for the last seven years!

Sifu's one second of clear mind resolved many years of suffering. What's encouraging is that it doesn't take a Zen Master to notice that another person's shoulders are tense. We often cannot see ourselves – our desire, anger, and ignorance. If we have clear mind, then we can see our own mistakes. If we don't have clear mind, someone else's clear mirror can help us.

However, to be this clear mirror moment to moment is not easy. We have to put down ALL of our desires, emotions, and thinking. Water with ripples cannot reflect. Only when our mind is completely still can this mirror function correctly to help all sentient beings. So this meditation, this cultivation of clarity, is not for me; it's for everyone and everything I encounter. This is why I practice.

Minh Ngan Tran