Certainly we all have someone in this world we would savor meeting and perhaps spending time to listen to his or her words. Several come to mind as I write this. Some I will never meet because I have missed the chance opportunity for this reason or that. Joe Strummer was one. My friends invited me to come along to Rock-a-Billy show several years ago, but I had some important shit to do, and later they told me of sharing a beer with Joe backstage… and then six months later Joe left us.
Of course I will never meet Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, or Mother Theresa, true incarnations of peace and compassion. What an opportunity it would have been to look into their eyes and listen to what they had to say… assuming it was more than, “I would like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” No doubt even that would have been profound in some other worldly way, of that, I am sure.
I have been meaning to take a trip north of Escondido to the Deer Park Buddhist Monastery for some time now. But I have always had some important shit to do. A serendipitous e-mail from my Gal, however, alerted me to an event at which one of “those people” would be speaking. The person is brother Thay (Teacher), better known as Thich Nhat Hahn.
Here, a brief biography is owed to those of you have yet discovered and found a place for Brother Thay in your life. He is a Buddhist Monk originally from Vietnam, where he had established the School of Youth for Social Services near Saigon for folk displaced by the war. During the war, his opposition to the war and his advocating of peaceful solutions lead to his expulsion by the South Vietnamese government (call me jaded, but I am certain the US may have had a hand in this). He was quite instrumental in the Paris Peace Talks in spite of his censure. In exile he established Plum Village in France and since then a series of monastic centers worldwide. He was friends with Martin Luther King, who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Award, and Thomas Merton. He is prolific writer, poet, calligrapher and speaker…and he is 85 years young.
Well needless to say, all that important shit, seemed relatively unimportant with this chance to hear Brother Thay. So, last Sunday, I rose real early, ate a light breakfast, told my telephone where I wanted to go and over the next fifty minutes or so, it gave me direction to the monastery. Fortunately I arrived early, and found time in the early morning sunlight to sit and meditate in the hall for a half an hour before the morning activities began. I would estimate eventually 700 people arrived for the event.
The monastery is about a mile and half into the foothills north of Escondido, and you will travel about a mile on a windy, one and half lane road before you come to the main compound. The sign as you enter the grounds reads, “You have arrived. This is a moment of happiness.” (I am paraphrasing because I did not intend to take notes or write about this). There are several buildings in the compound, some old quonset huts, other trailers…the only new building is the meditation hall, a large airy edifice with arching open beamed ceilings with glass doors and windows all around the base. The view of the surrounding foothills covered in sage, buckwheat and live oak is magnificently restful. I found out later, the view may be short lived as a developer thinks it is a good place to build custom homes; the monks haven’t $3.4 million to purchase the parcel, but are attempting to raise $400 thousand to purchase a small buffer zone.
Shortly before 9:00 we were invited to a large patio area outside the hall to gather and sing songs with the monks and nuns. This is where you could tell Buddhist from the merely Buddhist friendly; the Buddhist knew all the songs and at the end of each would silently clap (waving a hand in the air). One of the songs was about a love of nature and as they sang the stanza about free flying birds, as if on cue, a Cooper Hawk flew overhead to perch in a Eucalyptus tree, eyeing us with little interest before flying off in search of breakfast. Just in case you haven’t noticed, I was pretty taken by the place and the energy.
We were all standing quite tightly together in a large semi-circle. As we stood there, a young monk stepped in front of me and gently asked if I could move over a bit. Reaching down to grab my bag, I felt someone brush against my arm.
I stood up and looked down in the most peaceful face I have ever seen. For an instant, my eyes locked with the grey-blue eyes of Brother Thay, and in that instant there was a mutual recognition as he led children to the front of the gathering. He seems to always be either smiling or on the verge, and his manner is one of complete mindfulness… clearly not only living in the now, but experiencing now.
After he entered the semi-circle I could only see the top of wool cap as he spoke to us of mindful breathing and mindful walking. The concept of being able to turn back inward regardless of circumstances to evaluate and act on what is happening to us, and be truly alive and here with those around us. “Breathing in, I know I am breathing… Breathing out, I smile because I am alive…”
He passed by me again as he led us in an hour of mindful walking through the compound and up into a grove of oak and eucalyptus surrounding a small pond. Again, through happenstance he and I sat down opposite each other, separated only by several small sprouting branches of a tree. I watched him as he listened to the sounds around him; a breeze rustling branches, the chirp of blue jay, the hum of an insect…always just on the verge of a smile. The hundreds around us seemed to momentarily disappear and I sat alone in presence of a wondrous human being from whom a powerful yet gentle energy flowed. And then the moment ended and it was time to make our way to the meditation center.
He spoke first to all of us, especially the children and families present, and after a time, he sent the children out to play and be… children.
He then spoke to us at length regarding the Buddha nature of nutrition. I will not attempt to paraphrase what he told us, it would be equally useless to do the same for Martin Luther King’s, “I have a dream,” or the more powerful Sermon on the Mount. Never have l left a talk with more to think about and reflect on the impact of changing small things in my life (did you know if we cut our meat consumption in half we can end world hunger and dramatically improve our environment?).
Afterward, a light lunch was served and after wandering around a bit and letting what was said settle in, I mindfully walked back to my car, and mindfully drove back to San Diego (as best as I could) thinking about Brother Thay’s opening statement, “You cannot buy Mindfulness in a grocery store, it must be generated from within yourself.” Simple words, difficult task, well worth the journey….
Peace and Namaste, Jack