The following is excerpted from a November 27, 2023 Tricycle event with Chan teacher Dr. Rebecca Li. A dharma heir in the lineage of Chan Master Sheng Yen, Dr. Li is the founder and guiding teacher of Chan Dharma Community. She teaches meditation and dharma classes, gives public lectures, and leads retreats in North America and Europe. Her talks and writings can be found at rebeccali.org. She is also a professor of sociology and lives with her husband in New Jersey. The event centered on a discussion of Li’s new book, Illumination: A Guide to the Buddhist Method of No-Method, from Shambhala Publications.
In this discussion, Dr. Li discusses her beginnings in Buddhism, including her struggles and obstructions, and offers advice for new practitioners.
How did you come to Buddhism? I had no idea what Buddhism was when I was younger. I realize a lot of people assume that I grew up with it, but as I grew up in a completely nonreligious family, I never had any contact with Buddhism, except in those kung fu movies, when they will occasionally have Buddhist monks who are very good at kung fu. Other than that, I didn’t know anything about Buddhism.
When I was a graduate student in California, in my early 20s, I didn’t understand why I was not happy. The curious thing was, things were really going quite well. My graduate school study was going well. I was able to study with two very well-known professors who I went there to study with. Many things were going well in my life, but I felt this nagging sense of unsatisfactoriness.
I was reading a book by Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom. In the book, he mentions how some people escape from freedom [by reading] too much. They hide in reading, which was a shocking thing to read, because that’s what I did a lot. Then he mentioned meditation, which I actually never heard of [or] encountered.
Around [this] same time, I met the person who [would later become] my husband, and he mentioned he practiced meditation. And I was like, “Oh, really? Can you teach me how to meditate?” I started to meditate an hour in the morning, an hour in the evening, on my own. Then he said he didn’t want to be pushy but that he joined a weekly meditation group held in a couple’s house. They were students of Master Sheng Yen’s, and actually, my husband talked about Master Sheng Yen quite a lot. I had never heard of him. I started borrowing books from the library of a Buddhist monastery in Los Angeles. That was how I encountered [Master Sheng Yen’s] teachings. Then someone in the meditation group told me about retreats, but, [for these specific retreats,] you had to go all the way to New York. Somehow, I thought, that’s what I want to do. I didn’t know why. That’s how I started to practice.
Understanding the technique itself is not that difficult. It is learning right view about impermanence and emptiness that is crucial, engaging in the practice that allows us to be free from suffering. That is what’s tricky, because we are very good at fooling ourselves.
Do you think a lot of people start that way, meditating on their own? Can that be enough for people, or is that never enough? I think everybody’s path is unique. I’ve met a lot of students who spend a lot of time practicing on their own, which is easier nowadays. Back then [when I started], there was no YouTube or Headspace. But still, a lot of practitioners who find their way to retreat with me, they discovered it is not quite enough. Understanding the technique itself is not that difficult. It is learning right view about impermanence and emptiness that is crucial, engaging in the practice that allows us to be free from suffering. That is what’s tricky, because we are very good at fooling ourselves. We are very good at using our existing erroneous view to project it onto the practice and convince ourselves that we are doing it right. That’s why we work with a teacher who can tell you where you might be. You might be getting it wrong a little bit. It’s very important.
Do you remember what you struggled with most when early in your practice? When I was sitting on my own, I was able to sit for an hour in the morning, an hour in the evening. Meditation came relatively easily for me in that way. But in my first couple of retreats, I remember struggling with drowsiness, partly because I was going from the West Coast to the East Coast. At the retreats, we [would] wake up at four o’clock in the morning, which is 1 a.m. in California. It was a really serious case of jet lag for a number of days. So I had a lot of experience practicing with drowsiness, and had a very deep understanding of how it is a series of sensations and that we can practice with it.
Another thing, after I moved to New Jersey with my husband, I wouldn’t say I was struggling with, but [I felt] obstructed, and it had to do with my being a professor, an academic. At that time, we had a lot of opportunities to practice and study with Master Sheng Yen, where he would teach us about Yogachara, Madhyamaka, [and other] things like that. I’m a theorist, so I love those ideas, how to put them into different boxes and figure them out. But instead of realizing that those are teachings [meant] to help us cultivate a correct understanding of the dharma—teaching correct understanding of emptiness, for example—I was trying to figure out where I can just find liberation. And so that was really good for me, to realize how easy it is to fall into the misunderstanding of believing that you can find liberation just in words or in thoughts.
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