Formless meditation


By meditation is meant formless meditation, that is, meditation without content. It is not a guided meditation or accompanied by music. Following the breath in silence is the starting point. The experience of mindfulness is gradually expanded and further refined into awareness, finally filled with tremendous conviction, without pretence.  Training for the mind supports this experience and offers a gradual replacement of the ego-thought system. This opens the eyes for 'second sight': the ability to see beyond the veil of this world.


My experience


Although a contemplative monk for 21 years, my main training in meditation was Buddhist, more specifically in the Mahayana tadition of Zen or Chan tradition. It all began with buying a Do-it-Yourself book on meditation when I was 23. At about the same time, I also decided to enter a Trappist monastery, Mount St. Bernard Abbey in England. But my trial month before entering there was almost compromised by the fiery determination to crack the koan ‘Mu’, central to Zen. 


I passed the screening process and succeeded in entering the very strict monastery of Mount St. Bernard Abbey with community of 38 monks at the age of 28 and meditated in the crossed-legged position in my cell where no one could see me. This monastery belonged to a contemplative order and as such was familiar with apophatic prayer, i.e., silent prayer without devotional focus, much like the Eastern practice of shikantaza or Maha Ati yoga. Although one of the monks had been on an monastic exchange to Japan, as a whole such activity was more tolerated than celebrated.


Outside regular time for contemplative prayer, there was a strict ascetic culture of silence and work in the abbey, and the food was basic. As novice I underwent a deeply challenging time, thankfully with therapeutic support. After all I was an ex-punk, in itself a very colourful experience, breaking social behaviour constraints and thoroughly exploring fear both in myself and others.


As junior monk I was able to transfer monasteries (unusual but permitted) and while living in another abbey in N. Ireland, a Dutch abbess invited me to visit the Netherlands. Zen was openly encouraged and practiced by the abbot and the prior in one monastery I visited there, so I chose to transfer to this my third Trappist community. Then my training in the Mahayana changed gear, and from being private to public. In the years that followed, I met 16 Zen teachers, had private interview (sanzen) with 8 of them, and studied koan with 4. Of these four  teachers I was personal assistant to two. One for 8 years and the second for 3 years or so.


The first teacher (former abbot Jeroen Witkam) was authorized to give koan training by AMA Samy, an Indian Zen teacher of the Sanbo Kyodan school and Jesuit priest. As well as leading the group while individuals went to see the teacher in sanzen, I myself was able to work through the Gateless Gate (Mumonkan) and Blue Cliff Record (Hegikanroku) koan collections. In addition to the introductory koans, it amounted to about 230 koans altogether. I went on to give my own successful weekend sesshins for guests specifically coming to this monastery for instruction and experience in zazen. I would receive participants in sanzen (private interview) during the weekend, while my assistant took over the group in my absences in the zendo.


As chair of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue for the Dutch-speaking region, I was privileged to take part in the 2005 Spiritual Exchange with Zen monks in Japan, a gruelling but rewarding experience including a week in the Gifu mountains in an ‘oni’-temple (‘devil’-temple) where the training is particularly hard. 


The second teacher I was personal assistant to was the Dharma heir to Teh Cheng, otherwise known as Ashin Jinarakkhita (1923-2002). Birth name Tee Boan-an, my teacher’s teacher was an Indonesian-born Chinese who revived Buddhism in Indonesia. The teaching style of this Chan school included mutual enquiry and written answers to koans, a style also used in Japan for more advanced monks in temples such as Daitokuji, yet even today not openly talked about. At the request of this second teacher (Ton Lathouwers), I collected my written answers to koans together and published them as a book. As assistant I was indicated as sole designated person to receive participants in private interview in the four and 10 day sesshins during the year, when numbers could run up to over 100 participants. I also gave basic instruction to newbies in correct meditation posture etc.


After leaving the Trappist Order, I went to America to train in the Vajrayana practice of deity yoga, specifically Guru yoga, under the guidance of Rev. John Perks. This included reciting 100,000 mantras over a period of about three months. I was subsequently ordained as a Drala priest, the ceremony taking place on the anniversary of my monastic profession. I am now authorized to teach formless meditation in the crazy wisdom lineage of Celtic Buddhism. Five years later I became lineage holder in this tradition.