2017 Deer Park Daily Musings
Written during a retreat I attended from January 6th-27th (though was unable to post until the Internet became available once I returned home)
Background Info & Terminology: Deer Park Monastery is rooted in the mindfulness tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and is situated in Escondido, CA, north of San Diego. Mike and I choose to voluntarily lodge separately when we go to Deer Park during the winter retreat, which affords us the best of both worlds: having our own retreat experiences and able to spend time together 2 or 3 days a week. Mike stays with the brothers in Solidity Hamlet and I stay with the sisters in Clarity Hamlet, which are a short 10-minute walk from each other but do operate quite independently.
Laypeople: Also called lay friends or laymen and laywomen; those of us who practice in this tradition 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.
Thay: Refers to Thich Nhat Hanh, meaning “teacher” in Vietnamese)
Wednesday January 11th, 2017
This is usually about the time I head to the parking lot to walk around and listen to music, as I slowly reinvigorate myself from my nap. But the rain is falling and I’ve already gotten damp a few times today. I’m ready, now, to remain as dry as possible.
I realized, today, that one of the benefits I receive from coming here is to practice having no preferences. I have a lot of preferences, normally. I sculpt my daily routine around them. It comes quite naturally, here, to practice letting go of them – in many ways because I have to. Since I don’t want to be miserable, here or elsewhere, it’s worth investing my time and energy into limiting the need for certain comforts, conveniences, and preferences, at least every once in a while.
I practice no preferences, both by circumstance and by choice, during my retreat stay here. By circumstance: I sit either on my bed, a metal folding chair, a meditation cushion, or the ground. The loveliness of heat is generated only in my hut. Boundaries are in place and I cannot visit anywhere beyond the large hall, except for on Sundays and Thursdays, or go past the bottom gate. I’m a light sleeper and my roommate, a lovely woman in her 50’s, snores louder than my ear plugs can keep at bay. And I drink only water or tea. By choice: I don’t ask for a pillow and simply make due with my hooded sweatshirt and a pillow case I brought from home. I self-impose a one bowl policy, where, at each meal, everything I eat goes as one big happy family into just one bowl. (Normally, I’m very particular about not having foods touch on my plate that aren’t “supposed” to.) And, today, I went for outdoor walking meditation in the chillifying rain led by one of the Sisters, even though, in truth, I didn’t want to go. We were a very small delegation of water walking warriors. Just the one Sister and about 5 laywomen.
Tonight, the Venerable is teaching a class up in the big hall at 7:30pm. And I will likely have the opportunity to practice releasing my preferences there, too. From prior retreats I’ve found that attending classes or talks given by the Venerable are more of an exercise in letting go, than of learning and absorbing meaningful dharmic lessons and values. His teaching style tends to be a little too Zen, for my taste, and is often above my pay grade of tracking and understanding, which is partly due to his rather rapid speech flow, causing his translator to be on their toes in order to keep up with him.
I see, though, that opportunities to practice letting go are no small thing, even if it isn’t exactly what he’s intending. So, in this regard, his teachings are rich with grist-for-the-mill. The last time I heard him speak was during TET celebrations last January. He gave a talk in the big hall, and many monastics and lay friends were present. Over the course of more than 90 minutes, people were dropping like flies all around me. From the body language I observed, and the fact that people were leaving in droves, I deduced that many were having difficulty in following his train of thought. While I, too, had very little idea of what he was talking about, I chose to stay and listen. But I decided to change my focus. Instead of attempting to glean insight and understanding about what he was saying, I practiced to let go of my ideas and assessments of what I thought should be happening. I practiced letting go of my preferences. It was difficult to do, during that talk. It was a struggle. But, that’s why I chose to stay. I needed the practice.
Coincidentally, the lay women joined together in the dining hall today at 3:00pm, to watch a DVD Dharma talk from Thay, on the subject of letting go. How well timed!
The talk was given during a retreat at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi, in 2013. Here are some notes I took during Thay’s talk:
Volition, the third kind of nutriment, is your deepest aspiration. If you have a deep aspiration, that is good because it will give you energy. If not, I invite you to become a monk or a nun. :) Many more Dharma teachers are needed, both lay and monastic, around the world. We do not have nearly enough, in order to respond to the needs that are present.
When we know how to suffer, we will already suffer less, right away. The art of suffering is linked to the art of joy and happiness. Letting go is the first step in generating happiness. There is a kind of joy and happiness that is born from letting go. We think that certain things are necessary in order to generate our joy and happiness but in reality they are obstacles to our joy and happiness. We need courage to practice letting go. And when we let go, joy and happiness can come right away.
We should all take the time to write down our (attachments), to identify what they are, so that we can learn how to let them go. One big (attachment) is our idea of what happiness is. We think that when we get a certain degree or marry a certain person or live in a certain house, we will be happy. Our ideas of happiness can be an obstacle to our happiness.
Letting go is very effective in bringing joy and happiness. The second way, is with the practice of mindfulness. We have so many conditions for joy and happiness. Mindfulness is a source of joy and a source of happiness because it allows us to touch the conditions for joy and happiness that are already present (within and around us). Then we have concentration. If we are very mindful, concentration will be born and can burn away our obstacles. Then there is insight, which is a kind of light that can liberate us from illusion, it can dissipate the darkness.
Yesterday, during our working meditation assignment of collecting and spreading mulch in the oak grove, we uncovered a beautiful little snake, in one of our truck loads of mulch. As we were scooping out the truck, someone spotted it. We all stopped working, to admire its lavender grey coloring and orange underbelly. I was standing in the truck bed on top of the mulch pile, so I scooped him up and handed him to one of the women standing on the ground, and went back to work. A couple women tended to the snake, placing him in an area they deemed snake happy-land.
About 10 minutes later, as we started to walk back up the hill, to collect another truck load of mulch, I heard one of the women behind me call out: “Oh shit!” It was the first time I had heard anyone curse around the monastery grounds, and it struck me as very foreign sounding. As it happened, she had been one of the snake-tenders and just witnessed one of our resident red-tailed hawks swoop down and nab the snake for a meal. The woman was quite upset about it, as she had attempted to place it in an area she thought was safe from harm. I continued walking, with the awareness that the hawk was simply being a hawk, and no travesty had befallen the snake. But because she was attached to a certain outcome, she suffered when something unplanned and unexpected happened. In that moment, her happiness depended on the snake living happy and free, and was taken away when the hawk scooped it up.
This is a good example of how our attachments to ideas of what joy and happiness are, can be obstacles to actually experiencing joy and happiness. When we are able to cultivate mindfulness, it affords us a bigger perspective as to what’s going on and allows us the opportunity to practice letting go of what we think should happen, in order to make space for what is happening.
For my working assignment today, I was among a team of women helping one of the Sisters clean the big meditation hall. I got to use the leaf blower, to clear the sidewalk of plant and tree debris surrounding the hall. It was great fun! It was also a good fit for me, as I prefer to avoid socializing and chitchat, which is what some of the other women were heavily engaged in during their tasks inside the hall.
Tomorrow is lay day, where all of the lay friends from both hamlets join together for shared programming, while the monastics all join together for their programming. So, for morning sitting meditation, we’ll be going to the small hall in Solidity Hamlet to start our day together as lay practitioners. We’ll have breakfast together in the big dining hall and then set to a few scheduled programs, followed by a shared lunch together. It is the only opportunity each week where the resident lay friends from both hamlets spend time together. It is both something I enjoy and something I dislike. It allows me to spend time with Mike, which I love, but it also opens more possibilities for someone to attempt at engaging me in social conversation, which I purposely avoid here. What I most often do, if someone wants to talk, is allow Mike to field the conversation, which he’s good at and doesn’t mind doing, while I venture off elsewhere. It seems to work well enough. I find that people who like and have a strong need to talk, don’t much care who it is they’re talking to, as long as it’s a warm, friendly body.
The temple bell is sounding. Class will be starting soon. I’m off to walk my favorite dirt steps, amid the gently still falling rain.