Our retreats are usually well-structured and it is expected that those attending participate in all sessions, e.g. meditation, walking, working, etc, i.e. our retreats are not mere relaxing breaks but are well-focussed events for intensive meditation practice.
The daily schedule on retreat does vary a little between different types of retreat, and different instances of the same retreat type. But in general it is as below.
All our retreats are 'silent' retreats. In our case we specify the rule of silence not as complete abstention from talking, but allowing talking only in certain specific and necessary circumstances e.g. the Communication Exercise (see below) or designated feedback sessions, and when required to achieve some task, e.g. in a work-period you may ask where to find the tools or what is required in the job, or at meal-table you may ask your neighbour to pass the bread, but you do not engage in conversation.
Another opportunity for talking is in 'interview' with the retreat leader. Interviews are scheduled for all participants on two or three days each retreat, and on other days there are usually opportunities to ask for interviews. The main purpose of interviews is for individual instruction in meditation practice and for discussion of difficulties. It may also be helpful early in the retreat when you are settling into an unusual environment to have an opportunity for a more general informal discussion with the retreat leader.
Our standard length of meditation period is 30 minutes. When we have longer sessions with multiple meditation periods there will be breaks between each period. So in the early morning we may meditate for an hour, but there will be a signal after 30 minutes to indicate an opportunity to move and stretch. At other times of day the breaks at the end of each 30 minutes may include led exercises, walking meditation, free walking outside in the farm-yard, and usually also a break for an opportunity for drinks and toilets.
Some of the 'meditation periods' referred to on this page may be used for practices other than sitting meditation. Particularly on the Western Zen Retreat up to half of these periods will be used for a method we call a 'Communication Exercise'. This will be explained on the retreat, but essentially it involves a structured method of talking with other participants about what is arising in one's meditation - there is talking but this is structured so that it is not a conversation and so instead of distracting from one's practice it helps to develop it more deeply.
We usually rise early and go to bed early. This is traditional, and also has practical value - since the Maenllwyd Retreat Centre has no electricity and for lighting we rely on candles and paraffin lamps. Typically on a Western Zen retreat we will rise at 5a.m., and on other retreats it will be either 4a.m. or 5a.m.
The early morning schedule is that there is a waking signal, the 'morning boards' at the rising time, and then fifteen minutes later we assemble for simple led exercises. Unless the weather is bad these will be held outside.
Usually we have a cup of tea straight after the exercises, and then go to the meditation hall for the first meditation session. By now it will be about 35 - 40 minutes after the rising signal. We will meditate for about an hour, with the timekeeper ringing a bell after 30 minutes to indicate an opportunity to move or stretch or change sitting posture.
Next would usually be some chanting for about 20 minutes. The Western Zen Retreat uses a mixture of Tibetan, Pali and English chants. The Chan Retreats usually use the traditional Chan Morning Service with a mixture of English and Chinese.
After the morning chanting we go to breakfast, and after breakfast we have a work-period for 45 - 60 minutes. The work-period is mainly used for undertaking tasks to sustain the environment of the retreat - washing up, chopping vegetables, chopping logs and replenishing stocks of logs at the fireplaces, cleaning, gardening, etc.
On most retreats we schedule a rest-period for about 30 minutes following the work-period, and this is also an opportunity for showers etc. Thereafter we assemble again for a session of meditation practice.
The lunchtime schedule is similar to the breakfast schedule, i.e. meal, work, then rest. After the evening meal most participants have a rest-period for about 45 minutes, with only two or three (rotating each evening) working for part of that period to wash up and tidy the kitchen.
When we reassemble in the meditation hall after the breakfast rest-period there may be a Dharma talk, and then there will be several periods of meditation. Between each 30 minute period there will usually be some exercise or movement of some sort, and then a break for 5 - 10 minutes.
The after-lunch schedule may be similar, though on some retreats, especially on the Western Zen Retreats, we break in mid-afternoon and take a walk for about 45 minutes to ramble over the local countryside. When we return from the walk we usually have a cup of tea and perhaps some cake.
On the Western Zen Retreat we will then do a simple mantra chant, then some more meditation or Communication Exercises, perhaps followed by some moving meditation. On the Chan retreats we would continue straight through with meditation, and then before evening meal we would do some form of chanting, perhaps the Chan Evening Service, or perhaps from some other text in English or other languages.
On some retreats there may be a Dharma talk after evening meal, or it may simply be further meditation practice. We usually finish about 9:45p.m. and have lights out at 10p.m.