(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)
Thursday February 4th, 2016
This morning, just after the tender hour of 5:00am, I sat perched outside of the big meditation hall, awash in the red glow of my headlamp, and wrote this in my journal:
Moon cycles change quickly. It seems only yesterday I was watching it full faced sinking over the hills at the same hour as its now just ascending into the sky as a glowing banana, which I humorously imagine a cartoon monkey trying to reach for.
I wrote this earlier this morning too:
The sun, like the practice, can be misleading. “A clear sunny day, it must be warm out,” we say to ourselves, only to discover that its golden rays were deceiving. It’s still chilly outside! To practice the way of mindfulness is like this too. “Oh, it’s so simple!” we think to ourselves. But then we find out it’s not easy.
I’m getting a lot of inspiration here. Inspiration for the creation of new teaching talks I’d like to give, ways to translate the practice for the benefit of others. Over the last couple of years my practice has shifted more in this direction. My interest in attending retreats, listening to dharma talks, and receiving the teachings is being motivated more for the purposes of studying the ways the practice is offered so that I can learn my own approach as to how to interpret it for others. I’m practicing more for the sake of others now than for myself. And while I aspire to become ordained as a teacher I continue on this path always as a student.
Within the span of only one hour I had three special animal encounters today. The first was with Tofu the cat, who lives with the Sisters. He was out napping in the sun and I settled down by him and he and I chatted for a little while – I imagined he was telling me all about how great it was to be relaxing in the warm sunshine; I told him about how I had two cats at home who looked a lot like him and how I missed them. About 30 minutes later I was making my way up to the bookshop in Solidity and ducked into the big dining hall to find a ground squirrel dashing out of it from an open door. When I went inside I found a little bird on the floor of the dining hall eating something off the floor. In seeing me it hopped across the floor further venturing into the enclosed dining hall. I went around and cut it off at the pass in hopes that it would startle him backwards towards the open door. I softly called for him to go the other way and off he went out the door to freedom! And then, just a few short minutes later, I came upon a snake at the top of the concrete steps leading to Solidity. I watched his graceful maneuvering and admired his skill. He then wove his way down one step towards me. I approached him more closely and he tried going back up to the top but was having trouble getting a hold of something to pull himself up by. He eventually found a spot to grab onto but then appeared to get stuck and unable to wriggle any further. So I gave him a gentle boost and he slithered off slowly away from the path. I enjoy the wordless exchange of animals, it feels like such a gift every time I get to interact with one.
On account of TET, today was the last public day of mindfulness for the remainder of my stay here. We started off by watching a dharma talk video of Thay, from the same 21-day retreat held in Vermont in 1998, that we’ve been watching on the last few Thursdays. Before outdoor walking mediation a small gathering was held around the erecting of a large pole and flag in celebration of TET. One of the Brothers gave a nice explanation and story about its symbolic meaning in Vietnam – feeling as though I would not do it justice, I won’t offer an attempt in trying to relay it. I skipped the walking meditation but joined with the group afterwards for dharma sharing. I then skipped lunch, which followed, and rested briefly before venturing up to the bookshop, which was open today from 1:30-2:30 and would be my last chance to peruse the store before departing next Friday. I picked up a stack of cd’s, of chanting and guided meditations, for our sangha’s library back home. I also bought a small package of fig bars and fruit snacks, which were a wonderful treat. They were a small shock to my pallet, and enjoyably so. For the last 3 weeks I’ve grown accustomed to eating very similar types of food each day, which suits me just fine – all the meals are delicious here! But it was nice, too, tasting bursts of sugary, fruit laden flavor.
For breakfast each day I have oatmeal topped with cranberries, walnuts, and cut slices of banana. There are other things available too, such as cereal and fresh bread, vegan milks, oranges, rice cakes, and an assortment of nut butters, jams, and honey, but I prefer the simplicity of my bowl of oatmeal. Back home I also eat the same breakfast almost every day: two hard boiled eggs and a banana. I usually skip lunch here and dinner tends to offer rice or noodles, and often both, some kind of vegetable soup, tofu, fresh greens, and another cooked vegetable on the side.
I slipped very quickly into retreat mode this time around. During my first January stay in 2014, when I was here for four weeks as well, it took me maybe two or three weeks to find my retreat rhythm. Last year, in 2015, it took me about a week or so. But this time it happened right away. My personal retreat mode involves my waking up very early (at 3:30am) quite naturally each morning, and subsequently going to bed early each night (around 8:00pm), requiring less food than I would normally sustain myself on, having far fewer personal preferences to uphold and maintain, and being able to engage in a much higher level of physical activity than I am able to manage generally in my everyday life, without an increase in my pain levels. These changes, which seemingly happen effortlessly on my part, are a very fascinating phenomenon to me. One example of the personal preferences I mentioned, which I find of particular interest, is when I’m at home I don’t like my foods to mix together when I’m eating, unless they’re “supposed” to. I can sometimes go to great lengths to keep my foods separated on my plate, so they don’t blend with one another. But here, I just put everything harmoniously together in one bowl and love it. I mix rice with noodles and soup and tofu and it’s simply delicious. We are funny funny creatures sometimes.
My one roommate, whom I’ve had since the start, left yesterday, leaving three of us now in our hut. It turns out that even with TET starting on Sunday tomorrow will be a regular arrival day for new people. I’m practicing not to dread the inflow of more people, and the likely possibility of more roommates. Oh, my. I really do feel ready and eager to return home.