(Helpful Info & Terminology: This is a 4-week long series of blog posts written during my recent retreat stay at Deer Park Monastery, located in southern California, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. Due to not having had Internet access I will be posting one day’s worth of my writing each day from while I was there on retreat.
Laypeople: Also called lay friends or laymen and laywomen, are all of us who come here to practice but are not monks or nuns.
Monastics: The collective group of both monks and nuns.
Clarity Hamlet: Where the nuns, also called Sisters, reside. Laywomen stay here as well.
Solidity Hamlet: Where the monks, also called Brothers, reside. Laymen and couples/families stay here as well. (Clarity and Solidity are just a short 10-15 minute walk in distance from each other).
Thay: Refers to Thich Nhat Hanh, meaning teacher in Vietnamese)
Sunday January 17th, 2016
One of the best things about being here is the amount of tofu served at meal times. Tofu is one of those foods I could eat everyday and not tire of. So this place is great in that regard! And it’s super good tofu too (because not all tofu is created equal of course).
Today was the public day of mindfulness and I would guess around 150 people were in attendance. It was another lovely sunny day. This morning started out with our regular routine of 5:00am wake up and 5:45am sitting meditation in the big hall, where we were joined, as usual, by the Brothers and laymen from Solidity Hamlet (which on many days is the only time our two hamlets intermingle). I tend to wake up before 5:00am here. Last night I awoke about every half an hour starting around 2:00am but managed to keep coaxing myself back to sleep until just before 4:00am. The monastics also awaken at 4:00am each day so perhaps I am tapping into their energy and spirit when I’m here. In any case 4:00am seems the right and proper time for me to wake up. My senses are quite keen and sharp and I revel in the early morning silence and stillness before the active day begins.
After sitting meditation Young Brother announced that he would be leading stick exercise in the parking lot and that all were welcome to attend. I was so glad to be able to join in with the Brother today! Later on after breakfast I approached the Brother to ask about whether it would be possible to join in on the exercises every day, and not just on days of mindfulness. I explained how the morning before an announcement had been made about the stick exercises only being open to Solidity Hamlet residents. While I didn’t want to intrude I thought it was worth asking about. The Brother said that of course I was welcome and that it was open to all of us, which I was very happy to hear. That’s how things work here sometimes: one person says something is one way while someone else says it’s another – just like life outside of the monastery eh?! On the days of mindfulness, which are on Sundays and Thursdays, our two hamlets eat breakfast (and lunch) together. On Sundays we eat both meals in the Brothers/community dining hall, which is much larger than our dining hall here in Clarity. On Thursdays we eat here in our dining hall for both meals due to the fact that far fewer people come out in attendance.
I was looking forward to seeing Mike today. He often does not attend the morning sitting meditation, on account of not being a morning person, let alone a super early pre-dawn person. And oftentimes even getting up in time for breakfast while on retreat is a stretch for him so I didn’t find him until an hour after breakfast today. I could tell he had just woken up. I felt badly he wouldn’t be able to get anything to eat, as the meal had been well cleared away by then. Turns out he hasn’t been sleeping well on account of having some bad neck pain creep in. He spent most of the day in bed yesterday. As his spouse I of course really disliked hearing that he’s been in pain and wished I could take it away for him and carry it myself instead, the same way he feels when the tides are reversed. We walked around a bit and grabbed some tea and chatted about our day apart yesterday and joked, as we tend to do when we’re here, about the differences of how the two hamlets function. Clarity Hamlet is much more strict and closed off than Solidity Hamlet, which has to do with the different cultural influences involved. There is a much greater western influence in Solidity where here in Clarity the Vietnamese influence is greater, which is more formal and reserved.
The day of mindfulness officially started at 9:00am. We met in the parking lot by the main hall and sang a few practice songs together before being led by Young Brother (Phap Dai) up to the Buddha statue above the large stupa for walking meditation. I find it quite lovely to be amidst the slow moving sangha body during outdoor walking meditation when we’re a river of some 200 people. There were kids walking hand in hand with their parents that were especially a delight to see. After walking meditation we met in the big hall for a Dharma Talk by one of the Sisters, given in English. Here are some of the notes I took during her talk:
She mentioned having had once spoken with Thay when he talked about how we’re all builders, we’re all mental construction workers. She went on to say that we can build a while World Trade Center of a person without even knowing anything about them. We are great builders and great story tellers, always creating labels to put onto others. We label that in which we don’t know with what we’re familiar with. Labels play an important part of identity but they aren’t the whole of who we are. Compassion is only compassion when it contains within it the element of understanding.
There are the Four Nobel Truths: Suffering, Causes of Suffering, Joy, and The Path Leading to Joy. And there are the Four Diligences: Recognizing the Negative Seeds, Taking Preventative Measures (to not allow negative seeds to arise), Inviting Good Seeds to Manifest, and Maintaining the Good Seeds.
We can begin to take off the layers of the onion of labeling other people by watering our seeds of compassion, interbeing, and impermanence. Watering these seeds within ourself will help us to free ourself. We need only to begin by opening a little bit of space – like one post-it note size on a wall full of post-it notes. Making just a little room is enough so that we can fill it in with compassion, kindness, equanimity, interbeing. Kindness is enough for change to happen.
Stop, breathe, and smile before labeling someone, or our own self. And if you cannot yet practice this then let the Buddha do it for you – the Buddha’s got your back, let him do it for you. May the force be with you (she ended her talk by playing an audio recording of some people humming the Star Wars theme song :).
After the talk we had a short break and then did a formal recitation of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings, which they do every 3rd Sunday of the month here, followed by lunch. All meals are held in silence however on days of mindfulness, with so many new people coming to visit, there is often a great deal of chattering that happens. Today was no exception. One of the Brothers kept announcing over the speaker system about how Nobel Silence is held throughout the meal line and meal time but his words were barely audible over the cacophony of so many conversations going on simultaneously. Finally after his 5th or 6th announcement people understood and quieted down. Silence is quite challenging for those not accustomed to it. It is very unfamiliar and awkward for many folks. It’s good for me to be reminded of this so I’m not swept away in frustration when it happens. During lunch time on days of mindfulness a bell is sounded after about 20 minutes, indicating that people can get up to get seconds or go wash their dishes. It also ends the silent period. Talking commences before the announcements can even be fully delivered.
Since lunch was a time for me to be with Mike I stayed for the meal. Soon after eating I began turning into a pumpkin. Ready for a nap I parted ways with Mike, after having made plans to meet up tomorrow at 10:00am. Tomorrow is Lazy Day, which means the only scheduled events are meal times. There’s no morning wake-up bell or morning sitting mediation or anything of the sort. Mondays are free and open days to do with as you will. This afternoon and evening were also deemed as lazy periods. After my nap I took a shower and then went for a walk up the fire road to my rock. The valley was so lovely in the afternoon light. Around 4:30 I did a 30 minute sitting meditation on my own in our small hall after singing the evening chant. We had dinner at 5:30 (which included tofu just like lunch!). Many of the lay friends that arrived on Friday left this afternoon, which leaves just 8 of us now in total. My hut is down to three of us. What Mike and I do tomorrow will depend on how he’s feeling and what he’s up for. I’d love to go up the mountain to the large rock overview, which is about an hour’s hike each way but we’ll see what happens. There’s plenty of time to visit there on another day. I sure hope he’s able to get some rest tonight and begins to feel better soon. Sweet dreams dear friends.