Monday, April 26, 2010

Monastery Retreat

This past weekend, I joined fifteen or so sangha members on retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery.


It was lovely being up there, taking in the calm and practice of the monastics, and it was lovely being there with sangha friends.

The first day was sunny and beautiful. Apple trees and others were in fragrant bloom. Trees were still in their first green leaf, a few weeks behind Brooklyn in their pace through spring.


The second day was rainy and beautiful. The birds did not mind the rain at all. I heard birdsong I’d never heard before. In front of the cabin I stayed in, I watched chickadees and titmice brave the blue jay who kept trying to usurp them from their branches, their patch of grass.

The formal Question and Answer period with four of the monks and nuns made a deep impression on me. I noticed, first of all, how Sr. Thệ Nghiêm (True Vow) transcribed our questions onto the board in a way that often conveyed an answer. As if she were reminding us that questions contain their own answers, and we already know what they are.

Here are the questions, and what I inferred were her answers:

1. Inner commentary – how to practice with it

Practice mindfully with it.

2. Fourth Mindfulness Training (in relation to anger)

Be in loving relationship.

3. Resurging habit energies (thoughts, desires, attachments)

Habit energy is always just habit energy.

4. Practicing when others act harmfully/selfishly

Just practice.

5. Dwelling in the present moment “out there”

Dwell in the present moment.

6. Addressing fear in daily life

Hello, my fear.

7. Taking care of self (vs?) others first or simultaneously

Yes. (The word “simultaneously”was Sister’s, not the asker’s.)

8. Prayer (subject/object/function)

In prayer, the subject and object are one. That is the function.

9. What are your personal, intimate volitions

What are yours?

None of the monastics directly answered the last question, except one who said he had never thought of volition as personal and would have to think about it. I suspect that the asker meant “intention” or “aspiration.” By their answers to the other questions, though, they all seemed to reveal their aspiration quite plainly: To live mindfully for the benefit of all beings.

About habit energy, one monk suggested that we may hold on to habit energy out of fear that we will feel lonely without it. Also, he said that some habit energy is beneficial, such as the habit of coming back to mindfulness. Those habits we should nurture.

But the comment that most transformed my experience was this. One nun related how she tries, especially when doing an action that is very familiar, such as entering the meditation hall, to place her mind exactly in that action. “Is my mind with my hand on the knob of this door?” For the rest of the day, I made an effort (an easeful effort) to be more mindful with every door I opened or closed. I also remembered hearing how Thây had instructed the monastics, if you haven’t been mindful with every step in a staircase, then you must go back and climb or descend them again. And so I tried to attend to every step. To some extent, I was successful, and it made me very happy.

Another very special moment was hearing Sr. True Vow sing to us during deep relaxation. This video features her lovely voice. Please enjoy.


P.S. Remember this fellow? About halfway through the first meal, I noticed him hanging in the nun’s dining hall.

Sr. True Vow told me that the sisters were delighted with him. That makes me happy, too.


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