Deer Park

Day 1 My flight from Portland to San Diego left at 6:40 am so we had to be at the airport by 4:40. We didn’t get much sleep. Going through security was quick and easy enough and I soon found myself waiting at the gate after a very hard goodbye with mom and Lindzay. Lindzay was very strong despite this being the greatest length of time we shall be apart in the three years we’ve been living together and I am so proud of her.
I was pleased when the plane began boarding early and I had no trouble finding my seat, a window seat! A minute later a young kid in marine garb came and sat down next to me. Apparently a group of them were flying out together and the flight attendant was trying to arrange for them all to sit near each other. I quickly ran through the mental list of all the preconceived notions I hold onto about marines but as I listened to them talk, I learned I was mostly wrong. They were off to the next stage of combat training and they were anxious about what it would be like. I was touched when one of them said, “I hope they don’t treat us like crap anymore, I don’t think I can take it.” I saw that beneath the clothing used to portray the image I had initially fallen for, they were just young kids like me, scared about what the future held for them. It was interesting that when I looked up halfway through the flight, the kids with shaved heads seemed to be the only ones who were asleep. I guess the are used to grabbing a wink whenever they can.
After the plane landed I was a little nervous not to see the greeter from the local sangha I expected. So, I followed the signs that said “shuttles” and they led me outside. For a moment I considered going back in to find the information desk but then I saw a woman carrying a Chinese style hat that the rice farmers use and I decided to see where she went. She met with some other people at a shuttle station and when I approached one of them, he saw I was carrying a book by Thich Nhat Hanh. He asked me if I was going to the retreat. I said yes and we introduced ourselves. Soon the shuttle came and drove us to Deep Park Monastery in Escondido.
Escondido used to have a big rollerblading scene except if you were a rollerblader, it was called Esco Zoo, not Escondido. It’s interesting that if I were coming here four or five years ago it would have been to skate and now it’s to meditate. I wonder what kind of person I’ll be when my time spent meditating exceeds my time spent skating.
Deer Park is sprinkled throughout the desert hills high above Escondido. The sun is sweltering but there is an ever-present, pleasant breeze. After arriving I set off to find a camp spot and decided on a nice one amongst a number of trees. It is shaded and cool if I leave the flap of my tent down to let the air in. While unpacking I realized I forgot a blanket or cushion to put under my sleeping bag. But it was no matter. The spot I happened to choose was covered in a thick layer of dried leaves. Once I set my tent up and laid down I decided this would be a soft enough bed for me.
The monks and nuns prepared a lunch for the early arrivers so after setting up camp, I went out to find the dharma hall. In Buddhism, meditation doesn’t stop at mealtime. We eat silently, chewing our food slowly and thoroughly, maintaining mindfulness of the food and the friends we are eating with, possibly contemplating the interbeing nature of the food, our bodies, our minds, and the universe. A curious thing happens when you eat slowly, with awareness; you get full! I’m used to eating so fast that my body barely has time to recognize it’s stuffed before I’ve devoured a small village’s worth of food. This seemed to me to be a problem. By the time only half my food was gone my stomach was telling me to stop. What should I do? Is it ok to throw away food at a monastery? What if it takes me so long to eat everyone else has to wait? “Settle down,” I told myself. I put my chopsticks down and observed a few breaths. Then, always afraid of embarrassing myself, I stuffed down the rest. As I took my plate and bowl to the wash station I saw a bin labeled “compost” with other people’s leftovers. Nothing is gained; nothing is lost. Of course. Still I reserved myself to take less food from then on. After registering, there was nothing to do until dinner but walk around the grounds, introduce yourself to new friends and relax in the shade.
Orientation was beautiful. Thich Nhat Hanh began by saying how happy being with the Sangha made him. I was feeling happy myself in the calm and peaceful atmosphere. The monks chanted with Thay ringing the bell. It seemed to resonate deep into space. The ceremony ended at 9:30 and I was quite ready for sleep.

Day2 If I have to wake up at 5am I don’t want to any other way than at Deer Park. It was sill dark and chilly when a monk began ringing the bell and chanting. The sound was soft but resonant, and could be heard all throughout the monastery grounds. Since 9 o’clock last night we have been observing noble silence and which will continue until after the Dharma talk today. I would have never thought eight or nine hundred people could all wake up and get ready so quietly. All that was to be heard was tents unzipping, feet scooting on the dirt roads, and the bell and chanting. I wanted to get to sitting meditation early so I skipped the shower and mindfully walked my way up the path to the meditation hall.
It was a good thing I went early because there were so many people already sitting, including Thay. He looked like an unmovable monument that had been peacefully resting there for centuries. One of the nuns led us in a guided meditation based on the first part of the Anapanasati sutta where we become aware of our body and calm it. I had been nervous about being able to stay awake during meditation so early in the morning but the atmosphere is so relaxed here that I woke from sleep feeling very refreshed. Though I sill need another good night’s sleep. Tomorrow I think I will be completely revitalized. After 45 minutes of sitting meditation Thay and the monastics led us out of the hall for walking meditation. We walked all the way up the hill to the Buddha Garden. It was around seven in the morning and the sun had risen but the air was cool and foggy. Along the way you could look out over the mountains. The fog curled around house-sized boulders that were illuminated by the penetrating sun and our collective mindfulness. Along the way no one spoke as were still observing noble silence. The only sounds to hear were birds chirping and pebbles crunching under people’s feet. Each sound seemed to burst from empty space and actually deepened the silence rather than disturb it. We continued walking up the hill, each of us a drop in the river following the path of least resistance.
Once we reached the Buddha Garden we sat for a few minutes infront of the Buddha alter and listened to the bells. It was an enormous statue of Shayamuni Buddha in the lotus position, pure white. Around him on the alter, beautiful yet simple flower arrangements were offered. I sat taking in my surroundings, not thinking of anything in particular as the morning mist washed over us. Once the last sound of the bell faded we walked back down the hill to the dining hall for breakfast.
Listening to Thay give a Dharma talk is so nourishing. His gentleness inspired me to cultivate the same quality in myself and made me aware of my habit of responding harshly. I wish to apologize and begin anew, especially to Michael. You are my younger brother and I love you so. But I let irritation get the best of me and as a result I treat you without kindness. I see that these are seeds past down to me by many generations and watered by my own negligence. I promise to do my best to transform these habits. And to Lindzay. You are missing me so much and I am missing you. This is proof that we love each other. But still I take my shortcomings out on you and I criticize and blame you for not living out my ideals. This is not your fault; its mine and I don’t want to treat you like that. I love you and I promise to do better.
Today after lunch, we learned about working meditation, maintaining joy and awareness while completing a task. Our work groups were the same as our dharma discussion groups. My group was tasked with replenishing all the water coolers throughout the monastery and we were led by Brother Equanimity. He used to be an engineer in Holland and was ordained as a monk six years ago. Our group worked as two units. One unit stayed at the filling station while another retreatant and I went with Brother Equanimity to distribute them throughout the monastery. It wasn’t hard. We loaded up the full water containers in the back of an old Mercedez station wagon that had been converted to run on vegetable oil. If you smelled French fries it was just us driving by. That is how Brother Equanimity got the nickname Brother French Fries.
After working meditation we got to enjoy deep relaxation and touching the earth led by Sister Chan Kong. For deep relaxation we lay on our backs in the meditation hall and follow our breathing while Sister Chan Kong directs our attention to the different areas of our bodies. We embrace our body with mindfulness and then release all the tension. It was very relaxing. I caught myself drifting into sleep a number of times. But, I wasn’t the only one. Some people were actually snoring. Sister Chan Kong was very humorous about it. When the practice was over and she asked us to sit up she said, “Goooooood moooooorrrrrniiiiing,” like a mother would. Then it was time for touching the earth. Touching the earth helps us embrace our blood, land, and spiritual ancestors so that we can transcend our small selves and become aware that we are the continuation of a never-ending stream of life. It is a beautiful practice. We contemplate the qualities of our ancestors and see their seeds present in us. We are who we are because they are who they are. We have no separate self. Then if our practice is deep we form the intention to only water the wholesome seeds in us so that we can manifest our ancestor’s best qualities. In this way we honor them.

Day 4 I woke much easier today at 5am than the previous three. This morning instead of going to the meditation hall for a guided sit we were to walk to the dining hall to pick up our breakfast. Then we hiked up the mountain still observing noble silence. It was about a mile hike to the top of the mountain. We walked briskly as the dark sky slowly turned the palest shade of blue and the clouds glowing pink.
The trail led us to a large rock field at the top. Boulders of every shape and size jutted out at every angle and by the time I arrived there were already many people resting on them. Still I found a very nice spot over looking the valley. We could see the entire town of Escondido. The sun had risen and about half of the city was still sleeping in the shadow of the mountain. Whenever I’m that high up or can see for a great distance, like at the ocean, I always imagine myself down in the middle of it, immersed in the vastness. Today I realized that I am actually always immersed in the vastness. Anywhere I am I am at the center of the universe. At that moment all the things that I call my problems suddenly didn’t seem as large as they used to be. As I was thinking this Thay rang the bell and I brought my mind back to my breath. All was quiet as we ate our breakfast gazing upon the peaceful scene below.
Thay’s dharma talk today was his best yet. It was on the subject of true love. True love has four aspects, loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. He proposed four mantras for us to practice the four aspects of true love and it was the fourth that touched me especially. When we think it is our loved one that makes us suffer we suffer 100 times more than if it were someone else. I’ve experienced this myself. If Lindzay speaks to me harshly I feel terrible but anyone else says the same thing and I’m fine. I realized that if I suffer so much then I must really love her. It is at this point that Thay recommends we practice by saying, “Darling, I suffer. I need your help.” Too often when we think our loved ones make us suffer we get angry. We deny our suffering to ourselves and the other person. We want to punish her because we believe that we are fine on our own and don’t need her. This is pride and it only makes things worse. If we deny our suffering to ourselves we won’t know how to handle it and it will consume us. If we deny it to the other person she won’t know what to do either and she will suffer. Seeing this exact thing happen in my relationship made me so sad. I realized I had been treating Lindzay unfairly and that I wasn’t communicating responsibly. I had to wipe the tears from my cheek and make the determination to bring my suffering to Lindzay honestly, lovingly and openly.

Day 6 Last night we had our Be-in. This is a tradition on these retreats that all the dharma discussion groups come up with a skit and present it to the whole sangha. The skit is supposed to reflect our experience at deer Park. My group, the young adults, came up with quite an act. We incorporated a song we learned into a rap. Two of the retreatants and I each wrote a verse for the rap and performed it while the others sang the song for the chorus. We also had a guitar and, since we were responsible for all the water at the monastery, empty water jugs for accompaniment. I was really nervous rapping in front of almost 1000 people but I did pretty well and actually had a lot of fun. After our group presented some of the monks and nuns parodied the Beatles “Come Together.” It was hilarious. After the Be-in I was pretty energized and nervous about the Mindfulness Trainings Transmission Ceremony in the morning. I had difficulty concentrating on going to sleep.
I was already awake when the monk invited the temple bell. Maybe I’m getting used to waking up at five. More likely I was excited about the ceremony. I got dressed and headed up to the meditation hall. All those receiving the trainings were to sit down the center of the hall facing forward. The monks took the first row to the side facing in toward us and all the other men behind them. The nuns and women were on the other side, likewise.
It was quite remarkable seeing the monks and nuns in their ceremonial robes. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition, the monastics wear pants with a long Chinese style jacket that are dark brown. For ceremonies they don the yellow sanghati, which is worn over one shoulder and sewn in a patchwork pattern. The color and pattern of the sanghati go way back to the time of the Buddha when he was walking with one of his disciples and admiring the fields of rise. The disciple exclaimed how beautiful the fields were and proposed to the Buddha that they should be the inspiration for their robes.
To begin the ceremony the monks and nuns chanted the sutra where the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara looks deeply into the 5 aggregates that compose a person and found them all empty. Hearing the monks chant is always moving. I wonder what they do with the ones who don’t have good voices, or if becoming a monk automatically makes you a good singer. Thay also chanted solo but I didn’t know what about because it was in Vietnamese.
To transmit the trainings Thay recited each one. Then he asked if we committed ourselves to studying, practicing and observing each one. We said, “Yes, I do,” and then bowed. Then we received a certificate with each training printed on it, the name of the Lineage of teachings we had accepted, which is the 42nd generation of the Lin Ji School, and our Dharma name. Each person’s Dharma name was chosen based on a small paper he or she wrote and gave to a monk a few days before. Mine is “Profound Awakening of the Heart.”
This retreat has been a profound awakening for me indeed. First of all, I’ve awakened to the fact that I am responsible for my own practice, which means I am responsible for myself, and I can’t blame my surroundings for not being perfect. Most of all, I’ve awakened to the immense love I have for my family, friends, and Lindzay. I’ve been unskillful before and have made them suffer by repressing my own feelings rather than embracing and transforming them. All this I could say I knew before, but only superficially and never touched as deeply as I did over the course of this week. Now that the tears are shed, and wiped away, I am determined more than ever to look deeply into my feelings and perceptions and embrace them as they are, letting my loving mindfulness transform them into compassionate energy.

The Rap

To point out the here and now
You can’t use your finger.
For the present moment is quicker than the thinker.
You don’t need to be a believer. Just be a deep seer.
If you wanna look deeper become a deep breather.
Just enjoy your steps. Right foot, left.
Like an elephant, never forget what’s relevant.
Whatever’s next doesn’t matter.
It’s empty or is it form?
Now I’m off track, but I’m on the right path.
Compassion, kindness in action.
Cultivate that, happiness is yours for the askin’.
Whatever happens, I’m so empty even emptiness has left me.
So to make use of my refuse,
I take refuge.