(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)
Monday February 8th, 2016
I wouldn’t normally spend my time writing at a point when we have a program starting soon, at 9:30, but I felt compelled to write while my memory was fresh from the experience. There was no morning meditation again today. But I sat in the big hall anyway, along with one other lay friend. After sitting I ventured down to the parking lot to stroll and listen to my music before breakfast, where I noticed a new vehicle parked, a light green VW bus. After about 15 minutes or so I noticed someone approaching me from my peripheral vision. In normal fashion I altered my course and veered slowly in another direction. But then I noticed the figure was quite small. It was a young boy of about 4 or 5 years old. He was very sweet and friendly. We chatted for a little while and then he invited me to come and sit with him over on the side of the parking lot. I followed him and we exchanged introductions. He gave me his full, quite lengthy, name, which I didn’t understand. Then he said his nickname was Elisha Love. Upon finding out my name he called out to his mom, who was just a couple vehicles over, “Hey mom, my new friend’s name is Nicole!” He gave me kisses on the cheek and played with my hair as he told me about how he had seen the dragon dances during last night’s Tet performances. We soon parted ways, with me meandering off to breakfast.
Elisha Love and his mom wound up joining us for breakfast, his little voice carrying through and around the otherwise silent dining hall. It was a delight to have his young spirit around. After a few minutes he began softly serenading us with one of our practice songs:
Happiness is here and now
I have dropped my worries
No where to go, nothing to do,
Never in a hurry.
Happiness is here and now
I have dropped my worries
Somewhere to go, something to do
But I don’t need to hurry
He would often mix up the words: Happiness is here and now, I have dropped my worries, something to do, nowhere to go, never in a hurry :) It was a treat to have him singing to us and it brought many smiles.
Let’s see, where to start. I feel as though so much has happened since I wrote yesterday morning. At 3:00pm yesterday afternoon the Venerable gave a talk in the big meditation hall. Many new friends, most of which were Vietnamese, arrived in attendance, staying through the evening’s activities. Speaking only fluent Vietnamese his talk was translated into english through the use of headphones we plug into portable metal boxes. In an attempt to be both honest and respectful I’ll say that I found his talk uninspiring and, for the most part, lacking in dharmic value. I don’t think I was alone in this, as people were dropping like flies around me. Over the course of his 90 minute talk people were routinely taking off their headphones and exiting the dharma hall. I too had contemplated such an action but decided instead to stay. The Venerable had chosen to orient his talk around one of Thay’s poems. Perhaps my disinterest in the subject swayed my experience because despite having practiced listening closely I walked away having very little idea about what he spoke about. The best I can relay is that he proceeded to describe at length the nature of poets, the importance of memorizing certain poems, and then broke down one poem specifically. In his classic rapid fire stream of words very much was spoken but not much had been said.
Ultimately I decided to stay through his talk in order to practice with that in which is not pleasing, which is an important skill, and crucial for progressing along the path of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. The talk seemed the perfect opportunity to delve more fully into these waters. So I sat, intently listening as best I could, and followed my breathing. I practiced smiling and looking deeply in order to get in touch with the seeds that were arising within me. I noticed seeds of impatience, irritation, and confusion coming up. In paying attention to my own mind and the judgements I was creating I found lightness and humor, which I took as a sign of great progress. When I first entered into the practice it would’ve been that I’d have let any relatively small unpleasing occurrence ruin my whole day, and that of others too. An especially good reminder for me, in seeing humor in my judgements, manifested by way of a lay friend sitting diagonally from me a few cushions away during the talk. Throughout the duration of the talk I would see him routinely nodding his head in agreement with something being said. Whenever that happened I would softly chuckle to myself, wondering what in the world he was taking away from such a dry and boring talk. It’s important to be clear and say that I wasn’t laughing at the lay friend but at the sort of things my mind was throwing out in my silent protest. Good for him in being able to find value and meaning in the talk, something I myself was never able to do.
When the talk was refreshingly over we had a ceremony to welcome in the new year, with a lot of bowing and chanting in vietnamese. Dinner was held in the big dining hall amid the subtle hint of nobel silence, like an artificial flavoring. It was there, but not really. Then at 8:00pm performances started in the meditation hall with loud drumming and a dragon dance. The dragon dances consist of two dragons moving and dancing energetically side by side together with the sound of the drum. Each dragon costume has two monastics inside and is accompanied by someone in a mask who’s job it is to fan the dragon. The head of the dragons has controls located inside that can open and close the eyelids and mouth, allowing them to be very endearing in character. One dragon, appearing to be feminine, was occupied by two Sisters and the other dragon, appearing to be masculine, was occupied by two Brothers. In the acts that followed were songs, skits, and dances done by the monastic community and lay friends alike. I managed to stay until just after 9:15pm and then felt beckoned to slumber and ventured off.
This morning when I arrived in the big meditation hall to sit on my own I was greeted not only by the one other lay friend, who’s always the first one before me in the hall when I arrive for sitting meditation, but also an incessant chirping noise coming from the ancestor alter. I gathered that it was the striation pattern of a cricket, though I had never heard one make such an ongoing ruckus. I sat for about 30 minutes or so, spending most of the time trying to figure out how best to later put into words the nature of the sound. The gift and curse of a writer is that we’re easily wrapped up in how to translate experiences into the art of the written word, which can sometimes come at the expense of having a meaningful encounter. (Side note, and well timed: there’s a ground squirrel standoff/dirt bath contest happening right now just along the path that runs from where I’m sitting on the front porch of my hut that has captured my attention).
What I came up with, in terms of this cricket sound, was that it was like a rhythmic percussive instrument being poorly used (the cricket wasn’t keeping a consistent tempo) – something along the lines of a metal shaker filled with metal pellets. The high pitched noise just kept going and going and going, only stopping for a brief second maybe 2 or 3 times in the span of 30 minutes. I thought maybe it was the last stand for the cricket, with one last unbroken song to sing before it died. In any case, I used its torrent of sound much in the same way as I had the Venerable’s talk, as a practice with things unpleasing. But then, something occurred to me. With how much racket it was making I figured I was likely to find it, and could then capture and release it outside. With this idea I ended my so-called sitting meditation (which was more like listening to the cricket noise and analyzing it meditation) and sprung into action as a self-appointed cricket wrangler/meditation space reclaimer. There was a small light shining on the ancestor alter from which the noise was coming from. When I approached, the chirping stopped. I saw a small cricket in the beam of light right away. I easily scooped him up and placed him outside, feeling victorious, only to come back in and discover the noise starting up again. I went back over and again the noise stopped. I saw another small cricket in the light and again brought him outside, hoping it was “the one.” It wasn’t. Within a few moments of returning the noise returned. Back over I went. Again the sound abated when I approached so I settled down on the floor and waited for it to strike back up. When it did I listened and observed closely, trying to triangulate the precise location of the assailant: one noise box cricket. I soon uncovered one much larger cricket, than the other two I had found, hiding underneath the light. He was more energetic than his smaller companions and proceeded to hop around when I tried to pick him up. Within a couple of minutes though I was able to scoop him up and place him outside. This time I really was victorious! I had caught the culprit and released him! No more noise returned to the hall after that. I sat down on my cushion for a few more minutes before realizing I felt more inclined to move on than to try and settle into sitting meditation. So I did three prostrations and then left the hall, but not before discovering a new small cricket friend right next to my cushion as I was bowing down to the earth. Apparently he had head about my ability to free crickets. Word sure does spread fast!
While waiting for breakfast, on the theme of practicing with things unpleasing, I wrote this based on my new insights:
Practicing with things unpleasing is very important, crucial for progressing along the path. But we want to be sure to use our intelligence and own discernment process, meaning, different situations will call for different responses. There’s no one action that will work for every person or in every encounter. We also want to make sure we practice with unpleasing occurrences in the right fashion. Grinning and bearing something, gritting our teeth, or becoming wrapped up in rage do not constitute right action. We will not progress or experience benefit approaching things this way. We practice with things unpleasing by investigating what’s arising within us. We practice by looking deeply to understand ourselves better. The Buddha taught: All things arise from the mind and are transformed by the mind. We practice coming back to our rhythmic breathing and learn to take responsibility for our own responses, not looking to place blame on someone or something outside of ourselves for our feelings of ill-being. This is how we practice with things unpleasing. This is how we progress further down the path of freedom, joy, and liberation from our suffering.
And so it goes. Sometimes the best response is to transform our situation from within, as in the case with the Venerable’s talk. And sometimes, well, you can take the cricket outside.