Author: Karina Sabot
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #152
Bone deep. Literally. That was the impact on my body after 10 days of personal retreat at Deer Park Monastery.
There were 5 a.m. mornings when I told myself, half asleep, warm and comfortable camping in a pickup truck, “Nope, today I will NOT respond to that gong. I will NOT walk up that hill in cold darkness; I will NOT sit in that chilly meditation hall, NO, Nada, it ain’t happenin’!”
Then my 12-step recovery would kick in, “If you want what we have, you have to do what we do…this is an action program. You take the action, you get the result.”
Quickly out of the warmth, splashing sleepy face with cold water, pulling brush through hair, wrapping a scarf around and around, then “trudging the road of happy destiny” up to the meditation hall, with certainty that by now, with all that internal dialogue, I was late.
And behold, every friggin’ day I was early!!! This meant I had to sit LONGER than the shadowy figures quietly arranging themselves on cushions for the next 15 minutes. Karma, karma, karma, karma.
It served me well. Diligence, not discipline, “Progress not perfection.”
What actually happened there?
I lived with Zen Buddhist nuns who all seemed bilingual in English and Vietnamese. I ate warm (important adjective), nourishing, healthy vegan food. I walked when they walked, worked when they worked, sat when they sat, bowed when they bowed, and would sing when they were singing, even when their preferred language was foreign to my ear consciousness.
What did not happen?
I did not drive any vehicle or machinery for 10 days. I did not speak on the phone, although I did text a few times while being mindful of doing so, and took a few photos as well. I did not read novels, or watch dramatic films, read newspapers, use a computer, listen to music, dance, or write except to journal at night occasionally. Always striving to be mindful, always watching what was arising within my mind.
“Practice, practice, practice,” a sister said to the small group of lay women visitors. “Use all your time here, everything you do, as an opportunity for mindfulness practice.”
Observing what arose in my mind and emotions, while living and practicing in a monastic community committed to transforming suffering into loving kindness, was profoundly beneficial.
The TMJ, jaw pain that the dentist said could not be cured, disappeared. Gone. Outta here friends, vamos!
I relaxed to my bones. This was a unique sensation. Something deep within had slipped away and something equally profound had grown in its place. All very subtly, while I was resisting, acquiescing, working, resenting, feeling confused, etc. I kept practicing mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating, mindful thinking, mindful resting, etc. Even mindful turtle-raft-building, for the two cold reptiles seeking sun refuge in the nuns’ pool.
It wasn’t the philosophically induced, intellectual realization of dharma teachings. It was the application of the teachings, the actual gardening to get vegetables, “watering the seeds” of loving kindness to manifest loving kindness, that produced the result. The ripening of conditions manifested in myriad ways.
Prior to 12-step recovery, before exposure to Thich Nhat Hanhs’s books and monasteries, I visited many intentional communities in North America. This included hippie communes, land trusts, organic farms, Radical Faeries, Michigan Wimmins Festival, tribal reservations, et. al. You name it, I was probably there searching for a “true home,” where people lived and worked cooperatively.
In lieu of finding Utopia, exhausted and road weary, I slithered into a stone and mud underground hole in the sizzling Sonora Desert. I also designed my suicide by freezing to death in the Northern Territories of Canada, which was six months away, and in the meantime tearfully entered a 12-step recovery program. That was 2002, Amerikana time.
Working the 12-steps of spiritual recovery for nine years, in areas of my life prone to clinging kleishas, mental obscurations, and attachments to all dualistic formations possible, put a pause into my untidy life of action/reaction. “We pause when agitated or doubtful and ask for the next right thought or action,” says the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Hmmm? Ommmm. Ahhhhhhh!
Years ago I discovered Green Mountain Monastery and stayed there unexpectedly while visiting Vermont for a lesbian wedding. I recall crying a lot over the deaths of my two closest friends, cleaning the nuns’ house with obsessive zeal, and being told by a Sister that it would be best if I didn’t fly back to Tucson so soon.
“But I have a job interview,” I whined.
“You won’t do well in the interview,” she stated honestly.
I called a friend with long-time 12-step recovery.
“Dorothy, the nuns think I should stay. What do you think?” I asked tearfully.
“I left a place once after being advised to stay. I drove around lost for eight hours. It wasn’t fun,” she replied.
The Sisters got on their computer and re-arranged my flights, I returned the rental car, and allowed myself to be held in the fine golden threads of compassion.
THANK YOU SISTERS!!!! Many blessings to you all, even though you told me I was too OLD to be a nun…
In Arizona I continued visiting the Garchen Buddhist Institute, sitting with Singing Bird Sangha, led by an OI member in Tucson, listening to the Dalai Lama whenever, and reading dharma texts.
I was able to attend Thay’s teaching in Deer Park, and later “One Buddha is Not Enough” in Estes Park, where I posted a sign for a 12-step meeting, and had a great time sharing with other folks in recovery from around the globe!
My latest visit to Deer Park held a small wish that I might be able to escape from being a weary RN and unfulfilled writer/filmmaker, and from a bunch of muddled aspirations to do “the next right thing,” with skillful means.
What happened was miraculous. The Buddha said there are 84,000 paths available, just hop on one and get going. I have so much gratitude to Thich Nhat Hanh, and Sister Chan Khong, for designing places where monastics and lay folks can live and grow together in their dharma practice! It is vitally important for me to be able to read and practice the dharma in the footsteps of Thay.
Thank you again Sisters and Brothers, and lay friends. May all beings benefit.
Deer Park Monastery is a community in Escondido, California, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. For more information, visit plumvillage.org.