(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)
Tuesday February 9th, 2016
For one day a year, during Tet, the monastics invite visitors into their rooms. Yesterday it was the Brothers who opened their doors and today it is the Sisters turn. As I type, in the waning afternoon sun streaming through the oak trees, I can hear voices and laughter spiraling down from the Sisters residence. At 2:00pm there was drumming and a dragon dance, along with the loud cracks of the traditional lighting of hung strands of fireworks, marking the opening of the room visits. I went up and joined the small crowd and followed along as the dragon gave us a tour of the new nunnery residence. It was lovely to see the building up close, as lay people are generally not allowed up in that area and I had not yet seen it in all of its finished glory. As part of the new nunnery residence there’s also a new separate residence for Thay and his assistant. There are signs posted with information about the new building, which I recall from our time spent here last January when Mike and I were able to help during a couple of community working meditation days on the construction project. The new nunnery consists of 8 bedrooms, slated to house up to 5 Sisters per room, along with two bathrooms, with multiple toilet and shower stalls, and a couple of storage areas.
The first January I came here in 2014 my retreat stay included the celebration of Tet as well, unbeknownst to me at the time. When it was the Brothers room visitation day I didn’t feel inclined to enter, especially as a youngish female person. It’s important to me to be respectful of the monks and nuns and going to visit the Brothers just didn’t feel like the right thing to do. I felt the same way this time around as well and as such did not visit with any of the Brothers yesterday. I could see that if Mike were still here I might feel more comfortable visiting with him but to go on my own didn’t feel proper. I did visit with the Sisters last time though, although I’m feeling torn about doing so today. The room visits go until dinner and then continue afterwards until 9:30pm. I find it interesting that they end so late.
There were a lot more lay people who attended the festivities yesterday than are here today for some reason. Both yesterday and today included an oracle reading before lunch. Oracle readings have a long history in Vietnamese culture and involve the use of a traditional tale called the Legend of Gio (that spelling is probably not correct). The tale was written as a poetic verse, which is quite long, and is sectioned into couplets. For the oracle reading the tale is typed out and cut into strips, each containing one couplet from the tale. Each strip is then placed in a brightly colored envelope and put inside the meditation bell. People are then invited to come forward with a question in which to ask the oracle (meaning the tale) and do the following: touch the earth one time (bowing in prostration), sit in front of the bell, with one hand placed on it, and sit quietly for a few moments to silently get in touch with your question, pick out an envelope from the bell and hand it to the bell master (one of the monastics), then turn outwards facing the community stating out loud your question. Once the question is asked someone reads the slip of paper, in both Vietnamese and English, and then it gets sung as well, as is traditional. Then amongst the monastics who are present, which tends to be only a select few, those who feel moved to do so will answer the question, guided by the part of the tale they received.
Yesterday, the Brother who introduced the oracle reading spoke about how it wasn’t to be seen as a superstition but more as an offering of insight (I think that’s how he worded it). I wasn’t completely invested in the oracle reading yesterday but I found today’s very enjoyable and beneficial. Perhaps it was because the questions that were asked today spoke to me more deeply. Or maybe it had to do with the fact that today’s reading was done in our small hall here in Clarity Hamlet, verses the big hall yesterday, and the more intimate environment was more conducive for me to connect more closely with the dharmic energy of it. In the formal reading, when all is said and done, it takes about 20 minutes per one person’s question, so only 4-5 people are able to come forward in the time allotted. When the reading is over people are welcome to come up on their own as well to silently ask a question and take an envelope, which can then either be deciphered on one’s own or by a monastic, should you choose to consult with one. During Tet in 2014 I went up on my own and received an envelope but this time around nothing has come to mind in terms of a question to ask. The idea and practice of the oracle reading is an interesting concept. While I don’t dismiss it entirely I also don’t really resonate with the spirit behind it either. But I do appreciate hearing the words the monastics have to offer in response, which to me seem more rooted in our engaged practice than in the poetic couplet having been chosen.
The sun has set over the hills on another cobalt blue day. The song birds are winding down their melodies. The air is growing colder. And I breathe in with the ease of nature’s beauty surrounding me with its fragrance of both constancy and change.
I wasn’t sure I’d write more after dinner but here I am, wanting to share about my ongoing love affair with the moon. After dinner I visited my hut briefly before making my way up to the Sisters residence, still trying to gauge whether or not I felt called to visit. I stood by the decorative arch way to their residence area, which they had erected specially to welcome visitors, adorned with strings of Christmas lights, fake flowers, and paper hangings. Hearing the muffled sounds of conversations, songs, and laughter I delighted in the symphony of merriment wafting from the rooms of the Sisters but did not feel drawn to joining in. On the way back to my hut I lost sight of the sparsely used, darkened trail I had followed on the way up so I decided to take the main road instead. And thank goodness I did! I happened to look up to the sky, in just the right spot on the road, and caught a glimpse of the setting moon. Through the trees I could see a delicate slice of the moon hanging its lit belly just over the hills. The sky was dark enough, and the thin crescent bright enough, that the entirety of the moon’s shadow could be seen glowing in the wake of its own light. It was a spectacular sight. I decided to climb the dirt steps up to the big hall in order to afford myself a better view and reached the top just in time to see it sink itself down into the valley below, watching as the very last drop of light disappeared. I don’t recall ever having had such a prolonged period of time when I was so in love with the moon as I’ve experienced here on this retreat. What a gift it’s been.
Here are a couple of short things I wrote today in my journal:
In dawn’s return
sits the awaiting potential of day
collecting in pockets of breath.
What we do and don’t do
with the unfolding hours
is all that really matters.
I’m finding myself here,
amid the hills and ravens,
the reverberations of the bell,
the cobalt days and raven colored nights.
I’m keeping good company with my own person,
delighting in the shadow dancing beside me at dusk,
renewing the acquaintance with my internal light
that awakens with me before dawn