(Helpful Info & Terminology: This is part of a 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 two days 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)
Friday January 22nd, 2016
This morning our little hut was washed in bright moonlight. On my way to the dining hall for tea, around 4:00am, it walked beside me and peeked through the thick boughs of oak trees for one last greeting. By the time I began walking up to the big meditation hall for sitting, around 5:15am, the moon had set over the mountains and everything that had been alighted was plunged into darkness. In my journal this morning I wrote this:
There’s nothing that can be said about the moon that hasn’t already been said,
it is the muse of many artists and creators, yet…
words pitch and heave on the waves of my heart
Its elegant beauty invokes a wisdom deep within,
cradling our afflictions,
amplifying our intentions to be healed and cared for
Another one of my favorite things about being here is the walk up to the big meditation hall in the early morning. I take the steep, dirt steps that lead up by the large outdoor temple bell, situated right beside the hall. There are 91 steps in total. In the morning someone sounds the temple bell continuously from 5:00-5:30am while singing and chanting, so as I climb higher the bell and the singing voice grow louder. It is the loveliest feeling to be invigorated by the steep climb, the cool morning air, and the deep resounding call of the bell. And while I’m sure it’s just my imagination, the universe does seem to bend inwards just a little bit around the bell tower, as though it were leaning in to listen. At the top of the steps distant city lights sparkle in a sliver of space in between the swell of mountains. I like to send my morning greetings on the breeze and hope that it makes its way to the sweet people below. And sometimes the writer in me likes to try to pinpoint the name of the color that permeates the sky at that early hour, as a mix of city lights melt into the dark skies over the monastery. I haven’t really come up with anything suitable as of yet to call it.
Today is Friday and the typical day for newly arriving guests. From my count just 4 new women have arrived. I also saw some additional folks arrive who went to stay in Solidity, which included two sangha friends of mine, Stan and Treva, from my home of Montana! Fortunately I was listening to my music and making my usual slow laps around the parking lot when they pulled in so I was able to greet them.
Since we were only 7 of us laywomen here in Clarity before our new friends arrived, split among 4 huts, and my hut already had 3 people in it, we didn’t acquire any new roommates. While the turning over in our huts is to be expected it is quite nice when we don’t have to bring in new energy into our lodging place. Oftentimes the people that come to stay here are very new to the practice. While it makes sense of course that they would have lots of questions and are very unfamiliar with the traditions here it does bring a certain uneasy stirring of the pot of practice to have so many brand new people arrive sometimes, depending on their dispositions. Some people’s personalities are better suited than others to the practice environment here. Both of my roommates are longer term practitioners and are very quiet which I am grateful for. Many of the new people talk quite a bit and I often find that challenging, as most of my time is spent in silence.
We had our relatively normal Tuesday/Friday/Saturday schedule today consisting of sitting meditation at 5:45, breakfast at 7:30, working meditation meeting at 8:45 followed by working meditation, outdoor walking at 11:30, and lunch at 12:30. Our afternoon was left unscheduled, except for sitting meditation and chanting at 4:30. Dinner was at 5:30. For the new arrivals there is an orientation meeting at 7:00. For the rest of us we have an unscheduled evening as usual.
I often hear packs of coyotes yipping and barking close by in the hills. Today I heard them when I was strolling in the parking lot – I could tell they were very, very close just down in the oak trees. It is such a delight to listen to them. This past Wednesday before breakfast, when we were up in Solidity for our morning sitting meditation, Mike and I saw two young coyotes and their mama on a trail just down the hillside from where we were. The two young ones were playing and rough housing around, we could hear their little growls and noises. Their mama was focused on the trail beside them. Then Mike and I went to the big dining hall where the lay friends will often set out food scraps for the birds and critters. We sat outside and watched different song birds and jays, a rabbit, and two squirrels come to feast about 10 feet away from us. Seeing animals is always such a pleasure. There’s even an orange cat who lives here with the Sisters named Tofu – and of course I always think of my own two orange feline companions back home when I see him.
For working meditation today all of the lay friends helped to sweep around the huts, the path between them, and the area around the building which houses our tea room. Some of the leaves we were able to put into the woods situated just next to the huts but for the majority of them we had to rake them into piles, scoop them into trash cans, and then haul them a few minutes away to the oak grove across the road and spread them out in the woods. It took the seven of us, plus a couple of the Sisters, 2 1/2 hours to finish. When I was helping Sister Tung Nghiem cart the trash cans full of leaves, to dispense of in the oak grove, she smiled and commented on how funny it was to rake up all the leaves only to spread them all out again in the forest.
While helping one of the other Sisters sweep and bag leaves off the road by the tea room she asked if I would meet her on Sunday from 4:00-4:30 to help her practice her English. I willingly agreed of course, though I’m uncertain just what that will entail and hope I can do a good enough job. It seems that often the younger Vietnamese Sisters are eager to learn English. There are about 30 nuns staying here in Clarity, and about 15-20 monks in Solidity. Most of the nuns are Vietnamese, with the exception of Sister Mai who’s french, and 2-3 other western born Vietnamese and Asian nuns. There are quite a few western monks, which really makes a difference to the energy and operation of the different hamlets. Vietnamese culture is quite different than our western culture. It’s more reserved, dignified, and subdued. But I want to make sure not to leave out that the Sisters are also playful with one another and are very kind and sweet. It is a nurturing environment to be here staying with the Sisters. But I have found it to be a rather acquired taste, in my own experience. It does take some getting used to.