This morning, while reading the Discourse on Happiness from our Plum Village chanting book, it clicked. After reading the second sentence: “Late at night, a deva appeared whose light and beauty made the whole Jeta Grove shine radiantly,” I came to understand what Brother Phap De meant two years ago when I was at Deer Park.
He had just finished leading us in stick exercises one morning before breakfast when he asked us, in a light and friendly tone of voice: “Who was that diva dancing the polka in the parking lot yesterday? I think they should lead us all in a dance session!”
In that moment, my internal dialog went something like this: Oh man. That was me. I didn’t really think others were watching. Do I have to declare myself now in front of all these people?! I mean, I really REALLY do not want to lead a dance session, that’s for sure.
I sheepishly raised my hand, indicating that the diva he was inquiring about was me. Then, I raced the heck out of there and headed to breakfast.
Later, I pondered the terminology he has used: diva dancing the polka and felt a mixture of confusion (as I didn’t know exactly what the polka entailed but I was certain I wasn’t doing it), slight embarrassment, and feeling affronted. Did he call me a diva? I thought to myself on many occasions after that. I’m not sure I like that term. No, I KNOW I don’t like that term. Is that how others see me?! Oh dear.
Up until this morning, I thought he meant diva (with an i), as in someone who is a prima donna, as my paperback Webster’s defines it. (Then I looked up “prima donna” to make sure I understood that word correctly – which is listed as: an extremely sensitive, vain, or undisciplined person.) But now I realize he probably meant deva (with an e!), which is described as a Celestial being or angel in the glossary in the back of our chanting book.
Upon making this discovery this morning, my internal dialog went something like this:
This changes everything!
I’ve read the Discourse on Happiness a handful of times since Brother Phap De declared me the deva dancing the polka. But it wasn’t until just this morning that this insight arose, allowing for me to move into proper understanding.
The human experience is so incredibly fascinating, from a self-observation standpoint especially.
While it’s not worth giving it too much thought, I wonder: What changed? What allowed me to make this connection TODAY vs. some other day? I mean, I haven’t consciously thought about this instance with Brother Phap De in a long long time.
One of the guiding life sayings that I like to tell myself often is: Sometimes you don’t get to know why. Translation: This is a moment you would do well to practice just going with the flow of the river of life experience, Nicole. Stop trying to analyze things or come to some sort of neat conclusion that can fit in well with how you view the world, it’s a waste of time and energy.
Over the years since this encounter, even though I wasn’t a fan of being called a diva (with an i), I have dearly cherished this moment between us. He was genuinely interested in knowing who it had been that he had seen down in the parking lot. It was clear to me that he had been delighted in their joyful offering. And while I was mildly embarrassed that someone – especially a monk – had seen me dancing, I was also put at ease that he was able to sense my heartfelt enjoyment of dancing and appreciate it for what it was, vs. perhaps deeming it an inappropriate activity to do at a monastery (which was a back-of-the-mind concern of mine). And he was apparently so taken with my dancing that he even wanted me to instruct and lead others!
Brother Phap De passed away at age 82 (I think) in August of 2016. If memory serves, he made the “deva dancing the polka” comment in January of that same year, when Mike and I were there on retreat. It was an honor and privilege to get to know and spend time with Brother Phap De over the years that Mike and I have been visiting Deer Park, before he passed away. When I do stick exercises – which typically amounts to once a week – I think of him every time, as he was the one who would always lead them at Deer Park. Randomly during his instructions, he would prompt us all to smile – and when I lead them on our local retreats or at other times, I continue his memory and remind people of the same thing.
At the end of my stick exercise session each week, I do two standing bows in closing. The first bow is in dedication of Brother Phap De. And the second is in gratitude for the stick I use.
Gosh it sure is easy to misunderstand things.
Now that I know what Brother Phap De actually meant, I am even more nourished from this encounter we shared. And now that I have been afforded the great gift of insight, it will allow me to carry forward this memory with more clarity, understanding, ease, and joy.
Sometimes – maybe even all the time – more understanding equates to more freedom. Freedom from what? you might wonder. To which the teachings in our tradition would say: Freedom from illusory notions and false views, which is ultimately what all of our suffering (large, small, or tiny) can be attributed to on a foundational level.