(written on June 16th, 2012)
Thay is teaching about perception, I am listening in the periphery of my mind. The notions are too thick for me to drink in. A soft breeze flows through a nearby open door bringing the sounds of a weed wacker from next door and the aroma of someone’s fragrant soap. Mike and I are seated in the fourth row from the front in the Assembly of Stars meditation hall in lower hamlet. The name is funny to me. For some reason whenever Thay mentions the hall’s name I think of Ed McMahon and the old tv show Star Search. I envision an announcer saying, “welcome ladies and gentleman, we are here broadcasting live in the Assembly of Stars concert hall in New York City! Please give a round of applause to your host of Star Search, Ed McMahon!”
The following are some of the notes I took during Thay’s talk on June 16th:
(The 6 mantras of true love) 1.) I am here for you. To be there is a practice, not just a declaration. The practice is to restore your true presence. Before you can be there for him or her you have to be there for yourself. The first definition of love is to be there. You cannot love deeply without mindfulness. 2.) Darling, I know you are there and I am very happy. Nothing is more precious than your true presence. 3.) Darling, I know you suffer, that is why I am here for you. (Saying this) she will suffer less right away. 4.) Darling, I suffer please help. It is so simple but so difficult! We will suffer less right away. 5.) This is a happy moment. This is not wishful thinking. We have so many conditions of happiness. It is mindfulness that makes the present moment into a wonderful moment. 6.) Darling, you are partially right. (When we are criticized or praised).
I am terribly exhausted and my body is very sore. It is 4:30 in the afternoon, Saturday. After the dharma talk there was outdoor walking meditation, which I never participate in on account of it being far too slow for my little feet and my chronic pain, followed by what is called a formal lunch, which I had never heard of before today. All of the hamlets were together. The monastics dish their food in a separate area and the rest of us dish our food together with the OI members going first arranged by year of ordination. I was surprised by how close to the front I was given that I ordained only 5 years ago in 2007. After receiving our food the OI led all of the laypeople on a slow procession to the dharma hall. As we neared the hall we stopped on either side of the dirt and stone path, men on one side and women on the other, and stood waiting in silence for 20 minutes or so for the monastics, led by Thay, to walk through. Then we continued to the hall. After everyone was seated, which took some time since we came in slow, single file, some words were spoken and then sung and spoken again in a different language, three in all: english, french and vietnamese. From dishing our bowls to the first bite it might have taken around 45 minutes to an hour. While the formal lunch was quite special it was also challenging. I was very hungry and my body was overworked from standing so long (for my chronic pain standing is the worst action on my body). After washing my dishes Mike and I soon parted ways, me to my bunk and him to his hamlet. It was difficult to choose rest over spending time with Mike but I knew I desperately needed to lie down – I had already not listened to my body’s needs once today by not sitting down on the side of the path in the lunch procession and was paying the price. I worried that it might be disrespectful to kneel down while waiting for the brothers and sisters and I wondered what others would think of me if I did so, since I had left my cane in my room. Sometimes I use the cane to simply signify that yes I have a condition and need certain accommodations, even if I don’t need it in the moment to help me get around (my pain varies a lot through the day and some days are better than others and I find I don’t need it all of the time). When people see a young woman who doesn’t look sick many judgements and misperceptions can ensue.
Each time I have to part from Mike knowing we won’t see each other until the next day is difficult. This part of me is glad there are only 4 1/2 days left. One of the insights I will take away with me is that it’s OK when things are difficult. Say bon, as the french say, it’s OK. This does not mean I don’t take action it means that I do not have to be swept away by my afflictions. If I am always working to avoid pain and discomfort, thinking it is other than life, I will never be free.
It is another sunny day, 23.5 degrees celsius (74.3 fahrenheit). My alarm clock has a thermometer that can convert to either fahrenheit or celsius and since the unit of measurement here is celsius I am trying to learn. The standard time throughout France is monitored in military time, although I am sure that’s not what they call it here. I’ve never been very good with military time, always having to count on my fingers what time it is past noon, but now I am learning that too. There has been so much newness to step into here and I feel I’ve adapted quite well. Being in another country, separated from Mike, having 7 roommates, being with mostly all women for 3 weeks, having almost no distractions like the computer or netflix, waking up early, and having really no control over what or when to eat or the schedule. Being equipped to handle impermanence is a strong and powerful tool. Lately I have been seeing this skill emerge more in myself and it is like a breath of fresh air.
On loan from Clara I am reading Sister Chan Khong’s book Learning True Love. For some reason the title has kept me from reading it in the past. I am so grateful that I was out of something to read and that this book was really all that Clara had on her that wasn’t written in dutch. It is a story of her life and her work with Thich Nhat Hanh. I’ve never read such an inspirational account of the power of one. Her stories are almost unbelievable to me. The suffering, the trials of spirit, the devastation she has encountered and how she continued to keep going and practicing will stay with me. When my suffering seems great I will hope to think of her reaching remote, war torn areas across Vietnam through active fire on foot and boat carrying rice and medical supplies to impoverished villages. I will hope to remember her secretly eating a petition calling for peace from her backpack in the backseat of a police car after being picked up for something benign, knowing that if they found it in her possession she would be jailed for many years, if not tortured or killed. My suffering, while it should not be considered trite or unimportant, should also not lose sight of the world’s cries or be taken too heavy handed. (I wound up being able to finish the book a day before leaving Plum Village. It was an incredible book and I highly recommend it).
Inspired by Thay, the retreat and my own insights I wrote this:
“My friend, at some point, laying our suffering down is more skillful than carrying it around.”
“But how? How do I do this?” she asks anxiously with squinting eyes and scrunched forehead.
“By smiling,” he gently replies.
“But I have so much suffering, so many afflictions, how can I possibly smile?” she asks quickly.
After following his breath for a couple of minutes he answers, “We smile to our pain so that it knows we see it. We smile in such a way that our pain knows it’s OK to be there. We practice, with our smile, to accept ourselves deeply and fully for who we are. We smile because we also see that we are made up of more than our pain alone. We smile because we are alive.”