Dear Friends on the Path, and to Those Who Aren’t But Are Reading This Anyways,
It is mid-November here at Rose Apple in Vermont. There is a thin layer of snow blanketing the landscape outside my windows. It is slowly melting. Not quite winter, not quite fall. For some unknown reason, I appreciate and enjoy winters here. I grew up and spent most of my life in Southern California and lived a few years in Tucson. These are places people go to get away from the snowy winters. That is the reason that catapulted my family’s migration from our hometown, Chicago. So where did this affinity for snow, winter, and coldness come from? Perhaps it comes from a past life. Perhaps it speaks to my northern European roots. Perhaps I just like snowy winters. No, this isn’t something I contemplate much – I am happy just to go with it.
This year has been a very special year for me. Some of you may already know, but I decided it was time to take some time away from the monastery life this past March. It’s a way to get to know Phap Vu a little more. I don’t want to go into great details, I’ll save that for my “best-selling autobiography.” It has been, an enriching time for me: Coming into contact with the difficult, the perplexing, the wondrous, and the OK-ness of it all. Quite often one would think that the only way to get to know ourselves better is to go into full retreat mode. I think that lone, quiet, retreats are beneficial, but is it the only way to get to know oneself. I don’t think so. I most definitely learn a lot about myself in day to day life as well. Life in the monastery has shown me this. How do we know what our path is if we don’t journey on? In my sabbatical, I have tried to incorporate both, retreat and engagement have served me well. A few days ago I returned from the last of my travels for this year and am getting ready to embrace the snow, the winter, and the contemplative spirit that it invokes. Time for my retreat.
As I said, it has been a special year for me especially due to my travels and visits with various sanghas. Earlier this year, my first journey of the year, I went to spend some time in London and Scotland. This was in June. I have been to England and Scotland, several times but I’ve never been to London before. Airport layovers don’t count here. I was in London to attend something called the Mindful Living Show, held in the center of London. I had never heard of this before. When I first read the email I thought, “Was this some kind of theatrical performance?” Out of ignorance and into the knowing – no. Actually, it was a type of convention-exhibition-symposium kind of event. The event was about all the aspects of mindfulness offered through the secular realm. Because it was a mindful event, the local OI members thought it would be appropriate to have a booth with Thay’s books and representatives of our tradition. Walking around, I soon discovered that I was the only monk there. The reason I was at the event was to give a talk on mindfulness one day and a guided meditation the next day. Both went well and everyone seemed to be engaged in what I was offering. I have to say, it was the first time I received a resounding applause for a guided meditation. It was a bit surreal in an enjoyable kind of way.
From London, I took a train to Edinburgh. My destination was Wiston Lodge, located near Biggar, several miles, I mean kilometers, southwest of Edinburgh. I have been to both Edinburgh and Wiston Lodge several times before and have gotten to know some of the sangha members over the past few years. Wiston Lodge is an old hunting lodge transformed into a facility similar to a YMCA. It also doubles as a retreat center. Hence my presence. What makes Wiston Lodge, or I should say, the folks at Wiston Lodge so special is that they focus on at-risk kids. A wonderful environment for kids to discover the wonderment of life. While I was in Scotland I facilitated Mindful Lunchtime, which is in the heart of Edinburgh, near the castle. What a great concept. Anyone can take a break and enjoy a mindful lunch practice – in the heart of a city.
After the UK, from late June to mid-July I was in the Boston area visiting the various sanghas. Again, like in the UK, some folks in Boston I have gotten to know over the years. Most there, however, I was meeting for the first time. I visited about seven sanghas or so while I was there. I also gave a public talk in Newton. Typically, I would join the regular activities of the weekly sangha gatherings. I am happy to follow along and enjoy being part of the experience. More often than not, because there is a monastic in the midst, a Q & A would manifest. Usually, I would receive the questions but I also ask questions as well – who said I had to do all the answering in this life. There were also luncheons and dinners and just sitting around talking. Love it.
From Boston, I went down to the Washington D.C. area and was there from mid-June to early August. Actually, I wasn’t in Washington D.C. except for a few tourist excursions. I tried to get into the new African American Museum. It’s so popular that you need advanced tickets to get in. Advanced meaning months. Next time, perhaps. I actually stayed in Silver Spring which is a few stops off the metro from Washington D.C. Terrific place. Kind of urban, kind of suburb with a strong Ethiopian community. This is a real plus for myself because I enjoy Ethiopian food. In any event, there is a multitude of sanghas that span the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area. Again, there are some folks there I have gotten to know over the years but most I didn’t know.
While I was there in the BWDC area I attended a plethora of sangha events. I attended a tea to celebrate Scott Schang’s receiving the Lamp Transmission. You’re in it now Scott. I also attended a 14 mindfulness training recitation. This was the first time I recited the Trainings with an all Lay group. I also taught at a Day of Mindfulness and a mahasangha gathering in Baltimore and, oh yes, I went to prison. No, really, I went to prison – as a guest. Tim Mccormick facilitates a prison sangha and he asked me if I would join him one day. I said, yes, of course. It was a terrific experience and I am looking forward to going back. There was also a visit to the Sackler Gallery to see an exhibit on Buddhism. This was a sangha event and we had a good size group and had to break up into two or three groups for a guided tour. Our tour guide did a pretty good job and seemed to know her stuff although she seemed very nervous for some reason.
This past October I spent the good part of the month in Connecticut. I was at Bruce Nichol’s house, another new Dharma Teacher. I’ve known Bruce some time but I’ve never been to his neck of the woods before. Here my visit took on a new aspect. In addition to joining the sangha gatherings, I began to do private consultations. This is an aspect of my monastic life that I have consistently felt a sense of fulfillment. Dharma talks and Q & As are beneficial but there is nothing like a one on one, connecting on another level. Sometimes they are about something simple and straightforward, like how to practice. Sometimes they are about deep-seated pain and suffering. It’s not that I have the answers to one’s life-problems and challenges, I don’t. Rather, how can I help them find their own answers? How can I help them have their a-ha moment? This is the role of practice – their practice, my practice.
My final leg of my journey this year took me to Nashville earlier this month for about a week-long visit. This was my first time experiencing Nashville and the sangha there. I didn’t know anyone there except for Rhonda who I had only met briefly. The story goes, Rhonda was at the mahasangha gathering in Baltimore, the one I had participated in. She was in Baltimore, her hometown, visiting her family. I don’t recall seeing her there but it was a large group and there were a good number of people there that I don’t recall. In any event, I’m at the airport to head back to Rose Apple getting a cup of coffee when Rhonda came up to me to say hi. We began talking and the next thing you know she asked me if I would come to Nashville. I said yes. Not much of a compelling story but there it is and there I was.
And, here I am. I have to say that this year certainly has been one of the highlights of my monastic life. Yes, it has been a wonderful journey this year in which I was invited into so many sanghas and so many homes. So much to discover, many people to meet and get to know. Offering support while myself being supported. This is the reciprocal relationship that’s not a reciprocal relationship. A reciprocal relationship is based on two when in fact we are all in this together, one big stream. No giving and no taking, just the sense and the actuality of being beyond our borders.
Settling in for a winter’s retreat,
texts, tea, and cushion.
The snow falls and the cold wind howls,
yet, there is enough warmth to share.