‘Just sitting’ at the zazen weekend retreat

zazen retreat


For the past few years, I would spend one February weekend attending an annual zazen retreat organised by my zazen group at a farm outside of London. Our zazen group is quite small, so most of us know each other quite well. People come and go, and there is no pressure to attend the sessions regularly.

The path that brought me to my teacher and the group was windy, but it was worth it. After my teacher moved away from the UK, the annual retreat would be a good opportunity to spend quality time with him and listen to his talks. Our group’s practice is based on the teachings taught by the 13th century Japanese Zen master, Dogen Zenji, who founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan. However, our group is not associated with any Soto zen organisation or institution, since my teacher (and his teacher) do not like the hiercharchy, rigidity and dogma of any organisation – even the Buddhist ones.


zazen retreat


Due to my upbringing, I have felt like an ‘outsider’ all my life, and I never felt the need to belong to a group, yet my views changed since I became a regular at my zazen group. In Buddhism, Sangha means a community of fellow practitioners, and it is the third of the Three Jewels (the other two are The Buddha and The Dharma i.e. the teachings), so it is an important part of the practice. Practising with a group of people from all walks of life is not only interesting, it also broadens my horizon. They are not friends who I hang out with, though they are more than acquaintances, and I know I can turn to some for support if I need it. I dislike clique groups, so perhaps the reason why I like this group is that we tend to maintain an adequate distance between us. Low-key and friendly, but not cliquey.


zazen retreat  zazen retreat


There are many misconceptions regarding zazen. I want to clarify that the zazen practice taught by Dogen is neither mindfulness nor meditation. It is not about emptying the mind, finding happiness, or seeking enlightenment (this is the major difference between Soto and Rinzai Zen); the core of Dogen‘s teaching is Shikantaza, which can be translated to ‘just sitting’. This form of practice was introduced to Dogen by his Chinese teacher, Rujing, a monk of the Caodong school of Zen Buddhism in China. Unlike other kinds of meditation practice, it does not require you to focus your attention on the breathing or solve a koan or visualise, instead you just sit in a full or half lotus position (if possible) wholeheartedly and be aware of your body-mind (N.B. body and mind is not separate). This kind of practice is more difficult, but over time, you would become more aware of all the sensations in your body and the fleeting thoughts that come and go. Letting go of thoughts, stories and images does not involve conscious effort, as long as you don’t grasp or dwell on them, they would eventually fade away.

When you sit without trying, aiming or judging, you may experience what Dogen describes as shin-jin-datsu-raku, which meansbody-mind dropping off(originally translated from Chinese). Of course, he does not mean it literally, but from my experience, it feels like there is more ‘space, clarity, openness and calmness’ within. This is not a state that you can seek, it happens naturally, and without making any effort. All the effort you need in zazen is to keep your body relaxed and upright, yet this is easier said than done.


lower shaw farm


Zazen is crucial if you want to understand Zen Buddhism because it is experiential. You can learn Buddhist ethics and teachings from many books, but zazen is not an intellectual practice, it is an ‘action’ that does not involve thinking. My teacher often emphasise that zazen is not about sitting still, rather it is an action that requires constant adjusting and you can only find balance through the subtle adjustments and movements. It is like walking on a tightrope or riding a bicycle – both are balancing acts that require adjustments of the postures.

“Zazen is good for nothing” is a quote by the prominent Japanese Soto Zen teacher Kodo Sawaki (who died in 1965), which completely contradicts other goal-oriented spiritual practices. Zazen is not about self-improvement, and it does not make you a better person; to me, it is more about acceptance and awareness. After practising zazen for 6 years (and prior to it, I spent 6 years practising different forms of meditation), now I simply enjoy the act of ‘just sitting’. I don’t sit because I want to be in a different state, I sit because I want to, even when I feel down/happy/conflicted… We all have the tendency to want to escape from reality, but the truth is it never works. Although practising has not always been easy, it has become a habit to me (like brushing my teeth) and I would miss it if I don’t sit for a while.


zazen retreat


Many people think of retreats as some kind of spa holiday where you would relax for days – nothing could be further from the truth! It is actually exhausting to sit in a upright position for 4-5 hours a day. We would start each day at 7am and end after 9pm, and the day is filled with different work duties (samu in Japanese), hence a retreat is hardly a holiday. However, after just a weekend of sitting and time away from my digital devices, I usually would feel quite uplifted despite the aches and pains in my body.

Like my teacher would say, “After a weekend of sitting, all the stiffness in our bodies would ‘drop off’ and this would be revealed in our postures”. Surprisingly, our sitting postures reveal a lot about the states of our body-mind. According to some cognitive and neuroscience research, the balance state of the autonomic nervous system is one of the benefits of the practice. Besides the health benefit, Kodo Sawaki Roshi said that “Zazen is to tune into the universe”. I believe that zazen is just one of the many methods that enable us to let go of our self-centredness and be more connected to the universe. If all of us can find a method to feel this connectedness, then perhaps our world would one day become integrated and harmonious.





Tsz Shan Monastery & Buddhist Art Museum, Hong Kong

Tsz Shan Monastery


Of course we all know this: money can’t buy you happiness. But for Li Ka-shing, Asia’s riches man, money can buy him a Buddhist Monastery, and possibly nirvana. I have wanted to visit Tsz Shan Monastery funded by the Li Ka Shing Foundation since its opening four years ago. However, the online booking system only permits visitors to book one month in advance and it was always fully booked when I tried. After learning about the opening of the new Buddist art museum in May, I was determined to pay the site a visit. And finally, I was able to book a morning slot – honestly I was a bit surprised by the popularity of this monastery.

Then I had to work out how to reach there, as it is located in the rural parts of Tai Po under the hills of Pat Sin Leng. I opted for public transport, taking both MTR and train, followed by a taxi ride uphill from the train station. It was easier than I had expected.


Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery


The Tang dynasty-style monastery covers 500,000 sq ft of land, took over 12 years to build and costs HK$3 billion (US$384.6 million). It features a 76 metres (250 feet) tall bronze-cast statue of Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, which is twice the height of the Big Buddha on Lantau Island.

The layout of this monastery reminds me of Chi Lin Nunnery, which is another Tang style Buddhist temple located in Diamond Hill. It is one of my favourite spots in the city, and I particularly like The Nan Lian Garden, a Chinese classical garden also built in the style of the Tang dynasty.

There is no scenic garden at Tsz Shan Monastery because its location is scenic enough. According to Feng Shui principles, a house is more valuable if it faces water while backed by a hill or higher land; this probably explains why this site was chosen.


Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery   Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery


Although I complained about the online booking system, I also appreciated that the limitation of visitors policy has helped to keep the place sparse and tranquil. In a city where you are constantly being bombarded by noises, you are most likely to experience serenity here. And best of all, there is no incense burning here, so it is smoke-free, too.

Tsz Shan features a Grand Buddha Hall, a Universal Hall, a Great Vow Hall, a lecture hall, and a new Buddhist art museum which opened only a few days before my visit.


Tsz Shan Monastery   Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery


Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery   Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery


Located underneath the Guan Yin Statue, the 24,000 sq ft museum houses precious Buddhist artefacts and objects from different parts of Asia, and many of which come from Li Ka Shing‘s personal collection. This is the first and only museum in Hong Kong that is dedicated to Buddhist art and relics. The Museum is set within a circular enclosure with very dim lighting, and there are staff scattered around to explain the history and origins of the artifacts. The exhibits comprise 100 Buddha statues and 43 hand-copied sutras on permanent display. Visitors can scan the barcodes near the artifacts with their smart phones and download the information to learn more about the works. I am not a big fan of this technology as the lighting there was too dim to read, and I couldn’t save the info to be read later either. I think the museum should have some printed information for visitors to learn more about the historical significance behind the artifacts if their aim is to educate the public.


Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery   Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery   Tsz Shan Monastery


Tsz Shan Monastery   Tsz Shan Monastery

Tsz Shan Monastery

Inside the Buddhist Art Museum


Although there are an estimated 1 million Buddhists in Hong Kong, according to the Hong Kong Buddhist Association, many of them (esp. elderly) tend to associate Buddhism with superstitious rituals such as burning incense for blessings, and they do not practice mediation. With the interest in Buddhism is growing in recent years, mindfulness and meditation have sparked the interest of the younger generation. At Tsz Shan Monastery, they offer activities such as meditation and sutra copying, educational workshops, as well as seminars, which hopefully would make Buddhism more relevant to the younger generation.

At the end of my visit, I saw a group of anxious men (who looked like body guards) gathering, and then I heard a few people saying loudly: ‘Hello, Mr Li! How’s your health?’ I turned around and saw a small old man dressed in black suit, smiling and waving to the small crowd nearby. It was Li Ka Shing. He seemed friendly and exchanged greetings with the crowd as he got into a golf cart-like vehicle. According to some reports, this monastery is rumoured to be Li‘s (90) final resting place, and if this is the case, then he has found the perfect spot. Who needs happiness when money can buy you serenity in your afterlife?!


Tsz Shan Monastery


Mumbai’s ancient Kanheri Buddhist caves

Kanheri caves

The view of Mumbai’s highrise from the top of the hill


Before my trip to Mumbai, I was told by my friends from Mumbai that there isn’t much sightseeing to do in the city, yet it is up to the visitors to find out what this city really has to offer. And they are right. In fact, I never would have believed that 109-129 ancient Buddhist caves exist right in the middle of this mega city.

Originally I had planned to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site – Elephanta Caves – a collection of Hindu cave temples located on the Elephanta Island just off Mumbai. But when I learned about the lesser-known Kanheri Buddhist caves located in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, I was deeply intrigued. Since I had insufficient time, I decided to visit the Kanheri caves instead, and splashed out on a private guided tour. This, later turned out to be well worth it.


Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Monkeys everywhere up in the forest area…


The 109-129 Kanheri Caves, are part of a monastic complex that expanded over 1,000 years, dating from the 1st century BCE to the 11th century AD, located up on a hill in the middle of Sanjay Gandhi National Park on the city’s northern edge. The word kanheri comes from the Sanskrit Krishnagiri, which means black mountain; meanwhile the caves are carved out of black basalt rock. These caves saw the rise and decline of Buddhism, so they are hugely significant as they provide us with insights into the development of Buddhism in India.

After about an hour’s drive from the hotel, I met up with an elderly female guide who was looking rather distressed. She informed me that the officials were forbidding cars from entering the park (no reason given), and that she had just spent the last hour arguing with them. We then wasted another 30 minutes reasoning with them, and eventually they told us that the only way to visit the park/cave was by a shuttle bus, followed by a short hike up the hill. My guide was slightly reluctant, but I told her that I really wanted to see the caves, and was willing to take a bus and walk up.

The bus ride up the hill took about 15 mins and then we had to walk uphill for another 15-20 mins, which was not as bad as I had expected.


Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Cave 2, along with cave 1 & 3 were closed on the day of visit


I was really grateful that I had a guide with me as she knew the caves like the back of her hand and her knowledge (she studied ancient Indian history) helped me to understand the caves’ history, the sculptures, and how the site evolved over the centuries.

It annoyed me when I read some negative comments online written by tourists who complained about the caves for not being ‘spectacular’ enough. Many of them visited the caves independently without much understanding of the caves’ history and significance. I have to stress that if you visit these archaeological sites without a guide, you may be disappointed, so it is worth getting a proper guide to explain things that are not written guide books.


Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Cave 3 is a Chaityagraha or prayer hall


Since there are over 100 caves altogether, with no map to guide visitors, my guide picked some important ones that she felt was worth visiting and in doing so, we did not ramble like other visitors.

Sadly, the most prominent cave near the entrance – Cave 3 – a Chaityagraha or prayer hall with stupa was closed on the day (as well as cave 1 and 2). My guide was bewildered by the closure and told me that she has never seen them closed before! It probably was not my lucky day.


Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves


Buddhism reached its height in India during 268 to 232 BCE thanks to Emperor Ashoka, an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, who promoted and spread Buddhism across India and Asia. Throughout the history of the complex, the schools/traditions evolved from Hinayana to Mahayana and then Vajrayana.

Located between three ancient ports, Sopara, Kalyan and Chaul, the Kanheri caves were not only a monastic complex, they were also part of a trade route where merchants would pass by and stay while they were on their ‘business trips’. Over time, the complex developed into a residential educational complex funded on the basis of ‘Dana’ (Donation) by merchants, traders, rich brahmins and members of Royal families who were lay devotees.


Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Unfinished painting on ceiling of cave 34


In the early days of Buddhism, the Buddha was never represented in human form, but through aniconic symbols like footprints and Bodhi tree etc. Hence, the earliest caves here are either simple single or multiple-cell viharas, devoid of decorations and sculptures, and they are used for living, studying and meditating. The stark contrast between the earlier unadored caves and the later ones which feature some stunning Buddhist sculptures and paintings reveal the development of Buddhist art and culture over the centuries.


Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves


Since the monks were in contacts with the Chinese monks through the Silk Road, and these cultural exchanges subsequently influenced the art and architecture of the caves. In some of the caves, the Greco-Buddhist art style is discernible. Greco-Buddhist art originated from the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian kingdom (250 BC- 130 BC), located in today’s Afghanistan due to the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. This art form is characterised by the strong idealistic realism of Hellenistic art and the representations of Buddha in human form, which differs dramatically from the earlier aniconic style.

The unique blend of Classical Greek Art and Buddhist culture flourished in Gandhara (present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan) before spreading further into India, and to the rest of South-East Asia. Later, it also spread northward towards Central Asia, China, and eventually Korea, and Japan.


Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves



As we meandered up the rock-cut steps passing by cave after cave, I struggled to imagine how the builders managed to cut into the massive basalt rock up on a hill surrounded by forests over a thousand years ago. While the earlier caves tend to locate near the water streams, the later and higher caves feature water-cisterns outside that collected rainwater for the dwellings.


Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves


Aside from carved sculptures, statues, reliefs and wall paintings, there are also numerous inscriptions in Brahmi, Devanagari and Pahlavi scripts, and some of which have yet to be deciphered.

While most visitors (including myself) admire the beautifully carved statues and sculptures of the Buddha and Avalokiteshwara, my guide told me that what is more important are the grid patterns assigned to individual deities, since these grid patterns are laid out according to different mandalas.


Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves


Thanks to my guide who knew some of the guards well, we even managed to get into a locked cave because she wanted to show me some important features inside. And what is also interesting is that each cave has a stone plinth for a bed, while some have benches outside.

In some of the caves, the empty deity spaces indicate that the statues were removed, but the whereabouts of these statues are unknown.


Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves  

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

The colours of the volcanic breccia can be seen on the Avalokiteshvara sculptures above


Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves


The last cave we visited was cave 90, which is one of the most important and famous caves here due to its oldest preserved mandala dating back to the early 6th century AD. I was completely blown away by the carved statues that covered the three walls. The walls feature The Buddha seated in Padmasana (lotus throne) with attendants that are often seen in the Mahayana style, and they are surprisingly well-preserved.


Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves

Cave 90


As we headed back down, we were able to enjoy the wonderful view of the city in a tranquil setting that seemed impossible in Mumbai. Despite the closure of the three important caves, I was glad to have visited this site, and wish to return again some day. I felt slightly overwhelmed by all the information provided by my guide, and I probably needed more time to linger and absorb the true beauty of the art inside the caves.

Before we parted, my guide also informed me that there are numerous Buddhist caves in the Maharashtra State and urged me to visit them in the future. One of the famous one is the Ajanta Caves, a 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave complex which dates from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 CE, and it is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. I do hope that I will get a chance to visit this site in the future.


Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves






Japan’s sacred mountain – Koyasan


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Danjo Garan Temple complex


For a long time, I have been wanting to visit Mount Koya or Koyansan, a sacred mountain in the Wakayama region. It is the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism ( a Chinese-influenced esoteric sect), introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai. Located in the lush Koya-Ryujin Quasi-National Park, the monastic site has 117 temples and 52 of them offer temple lodgings or Shukubo to the public.

Unfortunately, the scenic cable car was out of service for a few months due to a disruptive typhoon last winter, so I had to take a train from Osaka, followed by two bus rides to reach the mountain. Yet the fine weather upon arrival made it all worthwhile. Sunny blue sky was not what I had expected ( I think I was misled by all the misty and snowy photos online), but I could hardly complain about this!

After much online research, I decided to spend the night at Saizen-in, a small temple with 24 guest rooms and a rock garden created by Mirei Shigemori, a notable modern garden and landscape designer.





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I have stayed at a temple in Kyoto before, but the self-catering accommodation was located in a new building within the grounds, so I didn’t feel like I was staying at a temple at all. At Saizen-in, the Japanese-style tatami rooms have modern amenities like a flatscreen TV (which I was surprised to see), wifi, a safe and an under-table heater for my feet (which i loved). And like most Japanese-style accommodations, the toilets (very clean) and bath are shared among the same sex.

After checking in, I left the temple and headed towards the town centre to grab some lunch, followed by a visit to the Kongobuji temple. The organic vegetarian set lunch at Bon On Shya Cafe and art gallery was delicious and satisfying, and I especially loved the strong coffee and tofu cheesecake.


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Top row: Bon On Shya cafe and gallery


Originally constructed in 1593 and rebuilt in 1861, Kongobuji temple is head temple of Shingon Buddhism, hence the temple is Koyasan’s main tourist attraction. The temple contains many nature-inspired sliding screen doors painted by the famous painted Kano Tanyu (1602-1674) from the Kyoto Kano school. The temple’s Banryutei Rock Garden is the largest rock garden in Japan. Built in 1984, its large rocks from Shikoku, the birthplace of Kobo Daishi, represent a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds.







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Kongobuji temple and its rock garden


Besides Kongobuji temple, the most popular attraction at Koyasan is undoubtedly Okunoin, Japan’s largest and most prestigious cemetery. It is the resting place of the founder of Koyasan, Kobo Daishi, and more than 200,000 Buddhist monks who are said to be waiting for the resurrection of the Future Buddha, Maitreya. There are regular night tours of the cemetery, but I think it would be too creepy, so I wasn’t too keen on this idea.

What struck me most as I walked through the 2km-long cemetery was the ancient cedar trees. I think these tress help to make the place less eerie. Apart from monks, many historically important figures are also buried here, and you can tell by their massive tombstones. The path leads towards Kobo Daishi‘s mausoleum, located behind Torodo Hall, which is filled with 10,000 lanterns. This is a pilgrimage site, so phones/photos are strictly forbidden.


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Okunoin cemetery


Everything was within my expectations until I strolled towards the newer looking part of the cemetery… I first spotted a tombstone for the Panasonic Corp, followed by a coffee cup and saucer-shaped stone for UCC Ueshima Coffee Co. Yet the most bizarre one has to be a rocket for the aerospace firm, Shin Meiwa Kogyo. Is this most sought-after cemetery in Japan? Definitely. If you were a ‘nobody’ in this lifetime, then getting a spot here would probably elevate you to a ‘somebody’. It seems like status still matters in the afterlife!


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After the long hours spent strolling around the cemetery, I took a bus back to Saizen-in before dinner time. The delicate and seasonal vegetarian/vegan dinner was served inside my room, and it was served by a friendly monk/lay person (not entirely sure if he is a monk because he worn non-monk clothing and doesn’t have a shaved head) who could speak quite good English. I asked him about the famous rock garden, and he told me that the room that faces the garden is occupied and so it is not available for viewing. However, he said he could try to arrange for me to see it after breakfast the next morning when the guests have checked out.



Vegetarian dinner at Saizen-in


The following morning, I got up early to attend the morning prayer and sutra chanting. I have been practicing zazen (sitting meditation) and studying mostly Zen Buddhism for the last few years, but I am not familiar with Shingon Buddhism and their rituals, so the session was a new experience for me. I also followed other Japanese guests and queued up to offer incense, which is considered a standard Buddhist tradition that takes place in many parts of Asia.






After breakfast, I went to see the friendly monk/lay person from last night and he told me to follow him. It turned out that a group of Japanese women have booked the garden room, but they gave him permission to let me in and admire the gardens! The three gardens were planted by Mirei Shigemori in the Showa period, and it is designated as a registered monument of the country in 2010. Each garden represents a rich “Koyasan” of water, and the flow of water is tied in three gardens.

After we left the room, he led me upstairs to show me a different view of the garden, then he ook out his phone and enthusiastically shared with me photos that he has taken during different seasons. I felt very moved by his kind gesture.



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The rock gardens designed by Mirei Shigemori


Before leaving the mountain, I went out for a short stroll to enjoy another day of blue sky and warm temperature. It was a serene morning with few visitors and cars – it was a huge contrast from Osaka where I had stayed earlier. I felt great and was a bit sad to leave this behind.



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After checking out, I wanted to ask the receptionist if I could see the monk/lay person before I leave, and luckily, he was just walking down the corridor. I thanked him for everything and we chatted a little before I headed off. I don’t think my stay would have been the same if I didn’t encounter him. I probably would have enjoyed it anyway, but I think it was his hospitality that made the stay even more memorable.




A week of silence in Devon

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Main: The 13th century Grade I listed West Ogwell Church; bottom right: Gaia house


Not long after I returned from Asia, I went to Devon for my first week-long silent meditation retreat at Gaia House, a well-known Buddhist meditation retreat centre which was a former convent. Although I have been meditating regularly for the a number of years and have been to various group meditation retreats including weekend silent ones, I still found the idea of not communicating, reading nor writing for a week rather daunting.

The reason why I wanted to do this particular retreat was because of the retreat teachers, Martine & Stephen Batchelor. I have read some of Stephen‘s books and articles, and I found his agnostic and secular approach towards Buddhism stimulating and appealing. As someone who has issues with hierarchies and institutions, for years I struggled to fit into one particular Buddhist institution/organisation even though I found the Buddhist teachings, ethics and meditation immensely beneficial. I was particular bothered by some Buddhists who apply the dogmatic attitude from other religions to Buddhism. Personally, I don’t regard Buddhism as a religion nor merely a philosophy. From what I understand, Buddhism is essentially a practice and training, it is about our direct experiences rather than a theory or a dogma.

Martine and Stephen‘s teachings are scientific (In fact, Buddhism has many parallels with science), rational, practical and most of all, contemporary. They emphasise the importance of Buddhist ethics/values while using meditation as a practical tool. Instead of treating the four Noble truths as a set of doctrine or rules, Stephen suggests that they can be viewed as ‘tasks’ to be performed in our daily lives. His thought-provoking insights may not be accepted by many traditional Buddhists, but they resonate well with me.

Judging from the popularity of their retreats (they have been leading this since the 80s), talks and books, I know I am not the only person who has difficulties with the traditional approaches and institutions. Their retreats are free from religious rituals and chanting which suit me well too. While some people like to call themselves secular Buddhists, I don’t think a label is necessary as it ends up segregating and confining people into boxes, which I think is pointless. Our constant need to identify ourselves with certain groups is an act that confines and limits us, and ultimately leads to unnecessary conflicts and discrimination.


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The first two days at the retreat were extremely difficult as I was not familiar with the surrounding and sharing a room with four strangers without direct communication was an awkward experience. Yet the most challenging part was the long sitting meditation sessions (about 6 hours per day excluding the walking meditation), which caused much aches and pain for all of us.

Nevertheless, things started to change on the third day, and instead of counting the days/hours (and wondering why I was torturing myself), I started to lose track of time and began to ‘enjoy’ my experience while accepting the aches and other uncomfortable feelings. During one listening meditation session, I was able to detect sounds from five different birds outside, which I found quite exhilarating as it seldom happens in the city.


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When friends asked me what I did for a week without talking, reading nor writing, I said, “Aside from meditation and walking… NOTHING!” I did not even take photographs until the last day as I did not want to be occupied by the act either. The best thing about these retreats is that they allow us to just ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ as we are so preoccupied with doing and thinking these days that most of us have forgotten how to ‘be’ anymore. Our culture today does not celebrate idleness, so the idea of not doing anything sounds completely absurd to many. Yet with my work, I always have to be ‘connected’ and so it was a liberation for me to enjoy the silence, idleness and nature without distraction from the outside world.


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Martine and Stephen‘s teaching styles are distinctively different, Stephen is rational, articulate, philosophical and thought-provoking with a sense of irony; whereas Martine is light-hearted, engaging and practical, yet they complement each other very well. Their emphasis on how to creatively engage ourselves in different situations is perhaps one of the reasons why many of the retreatants (I later learned) are from the creative industry. At the end of the retreat, they reminded us that the most important aspect of the retreat was to apply what we learned and incorporate it into our daily lives. Having been to many meditation retreats before, this was by far the most challenging yet fulfilling and much clarity was gained during and after the retreat.

After spending so much time in nature, I almost did not want to leave… I loved walking in the countryside (even though I did get lost one day and ended up in the nearby village asking for directions), and spending time observing nature and sheep (they are quite adorable). And after I got back to London, I noticed that my senses were stronger than ever, not only I could detect odour from my surroundings (not recommended on tubes and other public transport), but I could even differentiate layers of different sounds! Though it was a challenging retreat, it was also extremely rewarding and I would most definitely do it again in the future.


A very special Christmas retreat

Recently a few people have asked me this question: “Why do you continue to go to these meditation retreats?” My answer is simple: I need to get away from the city, work, stress and reconnect with nature and myself. Retreats help me to detox my body and mind, when you are cut off from the outside world and external distractions, you naturally become more in tune with what is going on internally.

I nor my family have ever been bothered about Christmas and New Year, but since the business started 2 years ago, the month of December has turned into the busiest and most stressful time for me. Hence this year I decided to go on my first Christmas meditation retreat ( though I have previously been on New Year ones) to get away from the excess consumption during this period, and the location is Devon at the Sharpham estate run by the Sharpham Trust.


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Like many other retreaters, I originally wanted to go to the Barn retreat, which is also within the estate; but due to the limited numbers, it was already fully booked when I looked in September. And so I turned to the Sharpham house, a new location that is used for the first time to host Christmas and New Year retreats.

This retreat was special largely due to the stunning house and spectacular location overlooking river Dart. Designed in 1770 by the famous architect, Sir Robert Taylor ( who designed the Bank of England), the Palladian-style house is not only rich in history, it is also full of wonderful art works including 2 sculptures by Barbara Hepworth in the entrance hall and sculptures by Jacob Lane.


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Top left: the front door; top middle: the back door; top right: a ‘secret’ safe in the bathroom wall’; second row left: entrance hall with a compass on the floor; second row right: Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture in the entrance hall; third and last row: the magnificent staircase; Fourth row left: The Octagonal room; fourth row right: The music room; Fifth row left: my bedroom (!); fifth row right: books about the trust/ house.


I was slightly gobsmacked when the taxi drove into the estate as I had no idea of the how much land ( 550 acres) the estate occupies! And this includes a farm used for educational outdoors project and a diary farm and vineyard that produce a range of award-winning cheeses and wine!

Upon arrival, I was asked to pick a folder on the table and in it contained the name of my bedroom… so by some fortunate luck, I was assigned to one of the best rooms in the house. Walking up one of the most beautiful staircase that I have ever come across, I was rather astonished when I saw my very high four poster bed ( which reminded me of the Princess and the pea story) and the river view from the bedroom window. It felt so surreal to be doing a retreat in this grand/ Downton Abbey-style setting, but then again, why not? To be honest, I can’t think of a better location to spend Christmas than this place!


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Top middle: a brronze sculpture in the garden; Top right: the bathing house; Main: A view of the house and Jacob Lane’s Seven stones/ Temple to pan sculptures; Third row middle and right: the Quarry; Fourth row right: the boat house


I have been to more intensive mediation retreats before, but being completely exhausted mentally and physically before I even arrived, a more relaxing and flexible meditation retreat was what I needed. Apart from three short meditation and a sharing sessions each day, we were also offered optional qi gong, yoga and walks. The timetable was flexible with plenty of free time, and so I took the opportunity to go for walks, read or just take naps ( which turned out to be what my body needed)! With the stunning view from my room, I was able to watch the storm ( we were lucky to be safe inside this villa during the storm), the rain, dawn and sunrise. Living in the city, it is hard to see the sun rising from the horizon, so I will always cherish the moments sitting by the window and observing the beauty of nature.


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At retreats, you are put into a confined space with a group of strangers from all walks of life for a short period of time, so you will meet people you are likely to bond with and people who you don’t get along or have difficulties with. In situations like this (which we often encounter in real life as well), we have nowhere to run but to confront our feelings and deal with the situation. This is also part of the challenge of a retreat, but I think it is a small test for us to try and cope with the situation in a positive manner, which subsequently will help us to deal with similar situations in real life.


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After almost a week of no contact with the outside world, no calendars nor clocks to check the time and dates, I completely lost track of time and date when I left. It actually felt good to be slightly disorientated because I am so used to checking my schedules and planning my timetable most of the time. Suddenly, all the so-called ‘important matters’ didn’t seem so important anymore, and I didn’t feel like I needed to get things done asap. Instead, I felt calm, content, healthy ( thanks to all the delicious organic food and no alcohol) and best of all, I slowed down and I started to change my old habits.


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The retreat was a wonderful way to end the year for me, and now I am feeling positive about the coming year. If you can’t afford the time or money to do a retreat, then a walk in the countryside or even in a park may help you to wind down, but most importantly, we need to ‘unplug’ from technology now and again to stop ourselves being constantly distracted from the external world. The older I get, the more I believe that “Mother nature has all the answers”, and all we have to do is to protect and observe it.

I wish everyone will have a stress-free and healthy year ahead. Happy New Year to you all!


Pop-up at Alternatives

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Top left: the Eros snow globe at Piccadilly Circus; top right: the Christmas tree outside of St Jame’s church; bottom left and right: interior of the church


One aspect I love about running a business is that you never know what will happen tomorrow. Although this applies to life in general, but with business, any opportunity or unexpected event could come along, so I believe having an open mindset is essential. A few weeks ago, I received an unexpected phone call from the spirituality and personal development organisation, Alternatives asking if I was interested in doing a pop-up at one of their regular Monday evening events at St Jame’s Church in Piccadilly. It was a new trial for them as they have only sold books at their previous events, and so it took several phone calls and emails before we could finalise on it. I was told that there would be a screening of a documentary on the Dalai Lama that evening, and so it was going to be a packed out event.

Intriguingly, this was the second time that I have been approached by a spiritual/religion organisation since I started meditation a few years ago. Back in 2009, I was hired to design a booklet for the Buddhism festival that took place at the V & A and Barbican in London. Coincidence? Perhaps not. I was informed by the organisers that they particularly like our eco-friendly range of products and felt that their members and subscribers would appreciate them too. Very encouraging words indeed.


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The evening’s documentary was the Road to Peace with a Q & A session with the director, Leon Stuparich. The documentary follows the Dalai Lama and goes behind the scene on his trip to the U.K. in 2008. It captures the playful and down-to-earth side of His Holiness that we rarely get to see, so it was fascinating and eye-opening at the same time.


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However, most people who attended the event were there to ‘see’ the Dalai Lama and not to shop, so realistically speaking, it was not probably not the most ideal night or spot to be selling. Many people were curious in regards to my ‘odd’ presence, but I could not say that it was a fruitful evening ( in economic terms). The experience was completely new for me, not only did I have to set up everything in less than 45 mins, I had to pack up in even less time… this could be a good training if I were ever to become an illegal street vendor!

Part of the fun of running a business is that it is unpredictable and risky, and I have come to realise that every ‘mistake’ ( or setback) brings me more insight and helps me to make better decisions in the future.

Leaving the church, I consoled and told myself that at least I had an opportunity to sell inside a historical church and watched a spiritually enhanced documentary, so all is not lost… luckily, there was still the East London design show to be followed in a few days’ time…


Summer retreat in Scotland

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Top left and right: Dhanakosa; Main: Loch voil


What is your ideal summer holiday? Sun and beach? Doing eurorail across Europe? Or adventures in South America? After spending three months traveling and working in Asia earlier in the year, I felt the need to give myself some ‘me’ time and space, and to get away from the city, work and responsibilities.

I realised that it has been almost 1 1/2 year since I have been on a meditation retreat, and I felt that it was time to do one again. I didn’t want to travel out of U.K. and wanted to combine it with some hiking, so this easily limited my options to only a few places…

Finally, I opted for Dhanakosa, a remote Buddhist meditation retreat centre located in an idyllic setting by Loch Voil in Scotland. I was slightly concerned about the indirect travel routes at the beginning, but then I decided to leave a day early to get to the ‘biggest’ nearby town, Stirling to do some sightseeing before the retreat. Actually Stirling is hardly a big town, it was easy to walk around and I ended up spending hours exploring the historical Stirling castle and nearby sites on the day of arrival.


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Top left: The Erskine monument in Stirling; top right: Stirling castle; bottom left: Kings knot garden; bottom right: Wallace monument


Getting to Dhanakosa was slightly easier than I thought ( even though I had to take 2 buses and a taxi ride from Stirling), and I was completely taken by the scenery as I was traveling towards the retreat centre. Upon arrival, I felt so joyful because of the stunning surroundings and location of the retreat. Instinctively, I just knew this retreat would be a special one. And I was right.


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For many people, a media-free week might sound like a daunting idea, but for me, it was exactly what I needed. No tweets, posts, texts, emails, phone calls, TV, radio, newspaper and music… just nature and a group of strangers.

Now back home in front of my computer, words fail to describe my feelings… contentment, joyful, grateful, peaceful, relaxed, reflective, energised… is it possible to feel all of the above at the same time?




In the last few years, I have been to various types of retreats (mostly gardening ones) and I have learned not to compare my experiences because each one was unique, largely due to my state of mind at the time. However, I would say that this was probably the most fun and relaxing retreat that I have ever been to. Even though I noticed my mind constantly being distracted during the meditation sessions, it would immediately calm down when I was out in nature. Observing nature allowed my mind to rest, and standing by the loch alone, I could feel the sun, hear the wind, birds, insects, which all made me feel immensely peaceful.


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On this retreat, we experienced the typical Scottish weather while we were out hiking, showers, sun and heavy rain… we were completely drenched one afternoon, and even my 5000 mm waterproof jacket and leather hiking boots could not save me from being completely soaked from head to toe!




Aside from the beauty of nature, what touched me most was the group of strangers whom I spent the week with. There was so much laughter, joy and harmony, and because we knew it was an experience that could never be repeated, we all cherished the time spent together.

For those of you who were at this retreat ( if you ever get to read this), I want to thank you all ( especially the retreat leaders and team members) for giving me one of the best summer ‘holidays’ that I could ever wish for!


Kyoto temples & gardens ( Part 2)

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Famous rock gardens at Ryoanji ( A World heritage site)


With over 1600 temples and shrines, including 17 Unesco World Heritage sites in Kyoto, it is impossible to visit them all even if you live in the city. Hence it is best to plan ahead, so on this trip, I concentrated mostly around the Arashiyama district and Myoshinji area. However, I was still constantly running out of time as some temples close quite early in winters. And with so many hills, trekking up and down can also be quite tiring. I especially regretted cycling to Ryoan-ji as I had to climb uphill most of the time, and since I am not a regular cyclist, it was extremely physcially demanding for me.

Here are some photos of the other temples that I visited on this trip, but I also recommend Ginkaku-ji, Honen-in and the wonderful Philosophy path which I have previously visited. Although winters may not be the ‘prettiest’ time to visit, but it is less touristy and has a more subdued and calm atmosphere, which made me realise that the beauty of Kyoto can in fact be appreciated in all seasons.



Left: Tenryu-ji ( A World heritage site). Right: Nison-in temple

Ninna-ji ( A World heritage site)


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Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple





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Moss gardens at the Gio-ji





Kyoto temples & gardens ( Part 1)

Okochi Sanso Villa

Okochi Sanso Villa


Ever since my parents brought me to Japan at the age of seven, I became fascinated by this country, its culture and the people. Over the years, I continued to visit this country and I became even more intrigued. When I was younger, I was more interested in the aesthetic and design aspects of the Japanese culture, but in recent years, I developed an interest in Zen Buddhism and the philosophical aspect such as wabi sabi. I also wanted to understand more about rock gardens, so Kyoto seems to be the perfect starting point for a beginner like me.


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Books on wabi sabi, Japanese aesthetics and gardens in Kyoto


During my short stay in Kyoto, I visited about 14 different temples and gardens ( I skipped some famous ones as I have previously visited them before). Since each one has its own characteristics, each touched me on different emotional levels. Some famous temples, like Ryoanji ( or Kiyomizu-dera Temple) was so touristy and packed that I could hardly enjoy what was on offer. Hence, the ones that I really enjoyed were the lesser-known or less touristy ones.

Here are some of my personal favourites:

Okochi Sanso Villa (Arashiyama)

For some unknown reasons, I felt profoundly peaceful and blissful at this villa/ garden. There was only one other visitor when I was visiting, and I spent most of the time wandering on my own in this beautiful villa and garden built by the famous silent actor, Denjiro Okochi. The view here is stunning, but it is also tranquil and calm… I even spent some time meditating alone in the Myohkohan, where the actor’s wife lived after his death. All I could feel was palpable peace here and I did not want to leave at all. The site also has a semi-outdoor museum exhibiting photos and memorabilia of the actor. The entrance fee also includes green tea and a Japanese confectionery in their tea house.


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Okochi Sanso Villa 


Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple (Arashiyama)

This small temple up on the top of the hill in Arashiyama is a bit out of the way, so I had to take a bus ( a wrong one… but I eventually got there thanks to a kind bus driver). Like many temples in Kyoto ( or Japan even), it was rebuilt many times and eventually moved to the current location in 1922. The attraction here is not the temple itself but the 1200 carved Rakan figures made between 1981 to 1991. Each figure is different and many of them are quite humourous. Although these figures are relatively new, they merge so well with the surroundings that they don’t seem out of place at all. A fun and unusual site that is worth the track.


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Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple


Taizo-in  ( within the Myoshin-ji complex)

This small temple near where I was staying has two famous landscape gardens designed by the Zen master and painter, Kano Motonobu and Nakane Kinsaku. I was slightly overwhelmed by the ineffable emotions that I experienced here. I could not explain it, but I was close to tears here for no particular reason. Perhaps the hospitable gardener could sense this from afar, so he waved me over and showed me the ‘secret magic’ in his garden despite our language barrier. It was a very touching moment, and I left the garden smiling and filled with gratitude.


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Jojakkoji (Arashiyama)

This secluded temple does not look very spectacular from the entrance, but it has an amazing view of Kyoto and is also a well-known site for autumn foliage. The temple has a Taho-to pagoda, an important cultural property built in 1620, and the atmosphere is particularly subdued here.





To be continued…