Some retreats are real, actual, tangible journeys to meditate in a monastery. When that is not feasible, another intangible retreat can be practiced through mindfulness meditation, journeying in our heart mind to re-nourish ourselves at the spring of a retreat we have attended in the past.
This month Plum Village Monastery in the south of France, is again hosting a 21 day Retreat with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. While I wish I could be there again, my current vow is loyalty to my book tour–and we have been on the road a lot with Pulling Up Stakes: Stepping Into Freedom. Just this past week, we were at the Harvard Co-Op Bookstore in Cambridge, at the Vassar College Bookstore in Poughkeepsie, and in privately hosted “Meet the Author” events in New York and in Washington DC. More about that later.
Now, in my heart’s mind, I am re-envisioning my last retreat with Thay (“teacher” in Vietnamese, for the Venerable Zen Master and poet Thich Nhat Hanh, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King). Being on retreat with him is like a long cool drink of refreshing spring water after a long, long hike. It is so replenishing! So fresh! So deeply healing.
Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California is my Zen “home” in this Buddhist tradition. I enjoyed coming here monthly to meet with the “Ripening Sangha” from 2001-2006 during the years of my preparation for ordination into the Order of Interbeing. Now, I in my mind I am revisiting my last retreat at my “Dharma home” from my new home in Santa Cruz. What a joy it is!
Here is how to create a virtual retreat with Thay. Settle yourself quietly on your meditation cushion, enjoy your “soft eyes”–lids resting almost closed, so the outside world recedes, rest your hands palm upward on your lap, and breathe deeply into the present moment. Because there is “no end and no beginning”, “no here, no there” and because all things inter-are, including past, present and future, there are no impediments to meditating yourself into a virtual retreat with Thay. Join me on my own inner journey revisiting my last retreat with him at Deer Park:
Rosemary, my dharma sister who hosts the Malibu Sangha where I first began to practice regularly (“sangha” is the community who practice together) meets us at the airport. It turns out she has been ferrying arriving retreatants from the airport to the monastery all day. In gratitude I decide to call her the “Roadisatva” as a Bodhisatva is one on the path to enlightenment and who remains dedicated to the well-being of others.
We enter the monastery grounds, breathing, smiling and deeply connecting to this special practice center, made more special because our teacher, Thay, now in his 85th year, is in residence and will be offering the Dharma talks through this retreat. All the more poignant because this retreat falls on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001. A very good place to be for the mindfulness practice of transformation of suffering.
Ten years ago, just after the Twin Towers fell, I was also with Thay in Northern California. He was leading a September 15′ 2001 retreat for Vietnamese people at Kim Sum Monastery in the Santa Cruz mountains. Everyone there was shell-shocked and grieving about the attack. Our then president from Texas was already talking like a cowboy about revenge and urged Americans to show their pluck by going shopping.
Thay was the ONLY public voice I heard calling for restraint rather than revenge, for looking within ourselves to try to understand why others so far away would hate us enough to attack our innocent. As our government set us up for a course of retaliatory war in the Middle East, Thay, himself exiled for nearly forty years from his Vietnamese homeland for refusing to side with either the Communist North or the U.S. backed South, had seen it all before. Speaking outdoors before a giant statue of a contemplative Buddha in the garden of the monastery, with the wisdom of a refugee from a war ravaged country, he knew the dead end alley we were headed for. As he spoke in Vietnamese and I listened through an interpreter, I looked up above me at the canopy spread over the Kim Sum monastery garden. Suddenly, looking at it more closely, I realized it was actually a parachute! These Vietnamese refugees had brought a slightly damaged silk U.S. parachute with them to remind them of the war in Vietnam. Here we were, with these victims of American short sighted engagement in a no-win war in their country, gathering to listen to their pacifist teacher under that relic of a devastating war. It was a kind of “postcard from the edge” foretelling a dark, misguided course for our country seeking revenge and the mythical weapons of mass destruction halfway across the globe from us.
Entering the grounds of Deer Park Monastery ten years later brings it all back. Breathe into the sweetness of entering this sanctuary in your mind.
In my next post, we will continue. In the meantime, Breathe, Smile, and enjoy your virtual retreat.