Andrew Rock shares about the recent experience of being on retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh at Magnolia Grove Monastery.
Northern Mississippi might seem an unlikely place for a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh to generate a wonderful energy of mindfulness, kindness, clarity and healing, based on the teachings of the Buddha. But the fourfold sangha of monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen who worked so hard to develop the Magnolia Grove Monastery near Batesville, Mississippi have created just such an environment.
The brand new red-roofed meditation hall, named the Rising Tide, comfortably held almost a thousand of us; the surrounding fields and woods sprouted colorful tents by the hundreds. We ate our meals under a shady grove of mature oak trees. We were inspired by a huge mindfulness bell hanging in its beautifully ornate bell tower and, nearby, the large white statue of Quan Yin (the female, Asian form of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion), rising from an island in the middle of a lush green lotus pond.
Thay, as everyone calls Thich Nhat Hanh (it means “teacher” in Vietnamese), told us that “the collective energy generated by the environment you create is very important. That is why sangha building is so important. If you put a person in a good environment of brotherhood and sisterhood, peace and kindness, that can be very healing.”
Thay gave a long Dharma talk every morning, the highlight of each day. If we know how to breathe and walk mindfully, Thay told us early in the retreat, we don’t have to be dominated by anger, anxiety or depression. We can bring our mindfulness up from our store consciousness – where our experiences have planted dormant seeds of happiness and suffering – and give our afflictive emotions a “mindfulness bath,” to relax and heal them with our tender attention. Practitioners know how to generate compassion as an antidote to anger, stability as an antidote to anxiety, joy as an antidote to depression. And we know that concentration has the power to burn away obstacles to happiness.
Sometimes suffering may be unavoidable, and Thay told us that a good practitioner also knows the “art of suffering.” She knows that happiness, which like everything else is empty of its own intrinsic existence, is made of non-happiness elements, including suffering; and suffering is made of non-suffering elements, including happiness. Suffering and happiness inter-are. So we can use our practice of mindfulness, understanding and loving kindness to be present to our suffering, without shooting a “second arrow” into the same wound by blaming ourselves or someone else for our suffering. We know that it is impermanent, like everything else, and that even as we suffer, we also have more than enough conditions to be happy. “A practitioner should be an artist,” Thay told us, “and know how to skillfully create joy and happiness.”
Thay’s clear, calm voice, and his effortless, flowing movements as he rose and glided over to write on the whiteboard were teachings also. He embodies mindfulness, stability and a simple, peaceful joy. Yet he has great confidence based on deep insight, and he has no illusions about the extent of the degradation of our society and environment from greed, violence, war, and pollution. On the fourth day of the retreat, instead of a formal Dharma talk, Thay held a Q&A session, and several questioners asked how to create world peace and about the role of political activism and civil disobedience to address environmental problems. Thay said:
“I have seen ecologists who are very angry. They have a lot of pollution in them. When they become less angry, it is easier to help.
“Protesting is not the best way – that does not help them to transform their anger, fear and craving. It is by loving speech and deep listening that we can show them another way and help them transform. We should learn to write love letters, not protest letters, to our politicians. That is the way to world peace. ‘Dear Mr. President: we understand that you have many difficulties. We have a way to help you.”
The better way, Thay told us, is to set an example of peace, to show that happiness is possible without a lot of money and weapons. Healing yourself is healing the world. The most important thing, he told us, is to live happily as a sangha. Calm down first, and live harmoniously and simply together. Other people come and observe your community and they learn. When they see the way you live, they wake up and they change. Your community can practice peace education – go and tell people very concretely how it is possible to be happy.
Several times Thay talked about mindful consumption. The consumption of toxins waters the seeds of anger, fear, and desire. “We should consume in such a way that health, happiness and a future are possible. If we practice mindful consumption, we will be able to heal ourselves, heal our society and heal our planet.” This is important for us as individuals, families and in our sanghas.
Building a sangha is not easy, he told us. We need a lot of compassion and patience. We need to practice deep listening. We need to give ourselves enough time and space to come together and transform. Without a loving community we cannot realize our dream. “The most important thing is to live happily as a sangha. If you have that, the rest will come.”
There were about twenty members of the Florida Community of Mindfulness at Thay’s Magnolia Grove retreat. We met briefly every day, at the bell tower, to share our daily experiences as our teacher, Fred Eppsteiner, had asked. We also met daily in small group discussions with other practitioners from Florida and the southeast, many without sanghas or teachers. We realized how fortunate we are at FCM to have such a learned and dedicated teacher, and such a kind and committed community. We also realized that, as a large and geographically dispersed community, FCM can be a resource for other practitioners in Thay’s tradition, and so we “spread the word” at the retreat about our community, our weekly sanghas, and our new website as a gateway for information and access to our programs. Already, in the two weeks since the retreat, several of our new friends have become members of FCM and have attended FCM activities.
Fred asked that our FCM members at the retreat think about what we can bring back home with us. One thing we have certainly brought back is a renewed appreciation for the good and important work of sangha building that we are engaged in. Another is a refreshed inspiration to continue our practice in the tradition of our root teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, and also a strong infusion of the joy that is embodied by Thay, his monks and nuns, and the sanghas that grow up around them at every stop of this North American tour.
Thay and the monastics conducted transmission ceremonies the last two mornings of the retreat. On the first morning, fourteen aspirants were ordained as members of the Order of Interbeing (“OI”), including our own FCM members Darlene Stewart and Anne Kracmer. We were delighted to be there to support and congratulate Anne and Darlene, and to present them with the brown jackets worn by OI members to symbolize their commitment to humility and service, understanding and compassion.
On the final morning, Thay transmitted the Five Mindfulness Trainings to those who wished to receive them for the first time, and to those who wanted to renew their prior transmission. Many of the retreat attendees were new practitioners, or new to Thay’s tradition, and virtually every one of them wanted to receive the transmission. It was wonderful to see hundreds of people simultaneously touching the earth as Thay transmitted each training, and to see their smiling faces, alight with happiness and purpose, at the end of the ceremony.
The retreat ended with a final walking meditation, led by Thay and the children, through the lush green meadows of Magnolia Grove, pausing to rest in a shaded forest glen, and then back, refreshed, invigorated and inspired, to return to our communities, knowing that wherever we are, we are always home.
True Collective Healing