Sesshin in Singapore

Note: photos courtesy of Wah Keong

Since I practice Zen, I am interested in seeing what is going on in the Zen world throughout Asia.
In 2010,  I spent time at Bodhizendo, a meditation center in India, founded by Father Ama Sami, a Jesuit priest, who studied Zen in Japan. His teacher was Yamada Koun Roshi, of the Sanbo Kyodan lineage.

Robert Aitken Roshi , whom I sat several sesshin with, was the teacher of Nelson Foster, my teacher at  Ring of Bone Zendo, my ‘home Sangha’ which is a part of the Diamond Sangha network of Zen practitioners.  Aitken Roshi had likewise studied with Yamada Koun Roshi. So, if we think in familial terms, Nelson is my ‘Dharma Father’. Aitken Roshi was  my ‘Dharma Grandfather’. Yamada Koun Roshi was my ‘Dharma Great Grandfather’. That makes Ama Sami my Dharma Grand Uncle.

And it turns out that there are teachers in Singapore who also trained with Yamada Koun Roshi, as well as one of his key successors, Kubota Roshi. Kubota Roshi would also be considered my Dharma Grand Uncle.
So, when I told Nelson of my plan to sit sesshin, an intensive Zen Meditation retreat, he was supportive of the idea, especially since he has met Kubota Roshi. I decided to contact Wah Keong, a new Sanbo Kyodan teacher, who studied with both Yamada Koun as well as Kubota Roshi. Wah Keong, then, is my Dharma Cousin.  Wah Keong and Nelson have also met. So this sesshin was really a family affair for me.

Wah Keong graciously let me stay at his house, my having arrived a day early from Chiang Mai. I had been able to arrange a direct flight from Chiang Mai to Singapore, but flights are only twice a week. So staying with Wah Keong was convenient and helpful.

Singapore is an unusual city. It had been a British colony for many years, but as part of Malaysia. However, it separated from Malaysia, maybe because it was in a seriously impoverished condition at the time, maybe because its population is mainly Chinese, rather than Malayan. I am not sure of the details. In any case, in the last 30-40 years, it has made really amazing strides. It is a very clean modern city state of about 4.5 million people, with good infrastructure, safe streets, an excellent bus and train system, that is reasonably priced. It also has an excellent education and health care system, and many employees from what I could determine have pensions.The government also runs a Sovereign Wealth fund, which invests widely and is run for the benefit of the people. Kind of like a big trust fund. (Norway and other countries have one too.) Sometimes, nowadays, Singapore is referred to as ‘the Switzerland of Asia’.

It took about an hour and a half to get from the airport to Wah Keong’s place by bus. English is a major, though not the only language spoken. Many people speak a form of Chinese.  There are also  Malaysians, who speak Malay, as well as those of Indian descent, who speak Tamil ( a south Indian language).  Enough people speak English, though, so getting around was pretty easy.

The sesshin was held at his large flat in a condominium complex in Singapore. This was a really international group. The main teacher was Kubota Roshi, who is Japanese.  Wah Keong also gave  daily talks as well as dokusan (private interview with the teacher) the first day (while Kubota Roshi was en route from Japan.)

Wah Keong is of course Singaporean Chinese, with a full time practice as an anesthesiologist. The fact that he could go through his medical training, raise a family and become a successful doctor plus pursue his Zen study so assiduously is amazing  to me. Add to that his warm hearted and disciplined practice, and he is as good a “Dharma cousin” as one could wish for.

Along with the two teachers, were,  I think, 4 Germans, long time Zen practitioners, two Indian Singaporeans, several other Chinese Singaporeans, two Japanese fellows who came all the way from Japan to practice with Kubota Roshi, and myself, from America. There was a  total of about 11 students during the week and another 7 or so who had time on the weekend. This was a very seasoned group of Zen students.

Most of the chanting and Zendo etiquette were the same as with the Diamond Sangha. We even chanted the same translation of the Shodoka, Song of Realizing the Way, and Hakuin Zenji’s Song of Zazen.  Kubota Roshi and Wah Keong both gave excellent talks on Koans (Dialogues or stories with a subtle meaning), which I especially enjoyed, having spent much of my time practicing with no dharma talks, either in Thailand or in China. Kubota Roshi was the first Japanese teacher I had practiced with since my earliest days in San Francisco. He is an excellent teacher, both strict and warm. I also very much appreciated Wah Keong’s suggestions and support. Dokusan took place three times a day, quite unusual for me.
The schedule of sitting and length of the periods was also pretty much the same as with Ring of Bone Zendo, my ‘home zendo’ in California.Twenty five minutes of sitting, and 5 minutes of walking.

The sesshin even ended the same as Ring of Bone, with a circle of sharing experiences and a group lunch.
In the evening, we all went out to a fancy Japanese style restaurant. After the eating was done, we  had a chance to sing songs, which is a standard  Asian custom.  Fortunately, I had prepared myself, so as to spare myself the embarrassment of being asked to sing, and not knowing what to do. I sang three songs, finishing off with Blowin’ In the Wind, which is very popular in China and in Singapore as well. Of course, other students sang too, and we also had a very special slide show. You see, this was to be Kubota Roshi’s final sesshin in Singapore. He is now 80 years old and wants to concentrate his efforts in Japan, while giving Wah Keong and his wife Vivien (both of whom are Zen teachers) the chance to develop their own teaching practice. So we watched 16 years of pictures, showing many of the students at this sesshin as they were going back to 1996!

The following morning, we saw Kubota Roshi off at the airport, and I ended up staying in Singapore for another three days, mainly resting and walking around the China town area, and having tea or ice cream with my new Sangha friends. A special thanks to Maria, who helped me out with hotel accommodations one night, and Kim, who treated me to maybe the best ice cream dessert I ever had!

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1 Comment

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One response to “Sesshin in Singapore

  1. Thanks Eric, for another great article. I’m impressed by the international mixture of people and their strong intention to practice. Buddhism can be world-centric with such an attitude. Who would have dreamed, a hundred years ago, that such an international sesshin would be possible. More evidence that as bad as things appear, the world is actually evolving to a higher center of gravity in the realm of consciousness.

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