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The Monks and Me
How 40 Days at Thich Nhat Hanh's French Monastery Guide Me Home
By Mary Paterson
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Mary Paterson
All rights reserved.
Body: Taking Refuge Within My Wise Self
Men are born soft and supple; dead they are stiff and hard ... Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.
—Tao Te Ching
It's not a bad way to wake up; it's just so early. A Buddhist nun is ringing a brass gong, and it's 5:00 a.m. My eyes open, then immediately close. Can't get up. In fact, the gong sounds rather pleasant. I could easily sleep through its mesmerizing vibrations. To slip out from under my warm blanket would mean to face head-on the chilly air in my spare, monastic room. But meditation starts at 5:30 a.m, so I have to get moving—latecomers are not allowed in the Buddha Hall. Eyes open again. This time I brave the ice-cold air, wrap my ivory wool shawl over my still-sore-from-traveling shoulders, and head down the stairs of the residence onto the outdoor path leading to the Buddha Hall. The sun is still quiet.
I am now sitting on a square, navy blue cushion on the floor, in the first of eight vertical rows that stretch toward a magnificent, six-foot tall, white Buddha statue perched in a nook in the stone wall. There is a shrine of incense and flowers before it. Upon closer examination, I realize the Buddha is a salmon-pink color but the lights of the hall cause it to appear a brilliant white.
All the Sisters of New Hamlet and the visiting female pilgrims have gathered to chant, pray, breathe, and bow to the earth in reverence of the Buddha's great teachings. Good fortune has brought me here, and yet I can't help but wonder why the Sisters I see here chose this monastic life, essentially giving up, for good, romantic partners, having babies, café lattes with the New York Times on lazy Sunday mornings, and hot, lavender-scented baths. "And they get up at the crack of dawn every day," I think to myself during a moment of mind wandering. Instead, I should be thinking: Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I release the tension in my body. "And they will most probably rise early for the rest of their days." With this last thought, I gaze in admiration at the women sitting in meditation with me. And then I come back to the moment. Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I release the tension in my body. As I turn inward, my breath gradually becomes deep and slow. Attending to these languid whispers softens my body.
Later on, I will refer to nuns as women, only to be firmly reminded by a stern-looking Sister who reminds me of a tough-as-nails-nun from my Catholic school days that Sisters are not to be referred to as women—they are to be called Sisters or nuns.
The first of my forty days is a whirlwind of beautiful bald heads, earth-brown robes, resplendent chants, and majestic surroundings. My deep curiosity touches all of it. Plum Village is another universe.
After dinner and linden flower tea with my new British friend, who had journeyed here with me yesterday, the two of us take a walk outside to see the blackest of country skies filled with masses of luminous stars. The air smells like the earth, damp and rich and cool. I breathe in the density. Three more thick breaths, and my fatigue finally catches up to me. I say goodnight to my walking companion and head back to the residence.
At the end of this long first day, the only thing I want is a shower. I am now standing in a washroom so tiny that every time I turn I bump a body part into a wall. "But this shower will be glorious," I think. I can't wait for the steaming, hot water to pound on my tired back. Body undressed, tap turned on, expectant delight. But instead of a forceful stream of fiery water, out comes a tepid dribble. A frown crosses my brow. Into the shower stall I go anyway, under the illusion that force of will could fire up a water furnace. But—and I know you've already guessed it—the very minute I am covered in soap, the trickle that was there disappears. I am buck naked, wet, and shivering cold. Did I mention I have itchy soap suds all over my body? I glance down at my goose bumps. But I am at a monastery and maybe the air is just different here. In the few moments of standing and wondering what to do, I recall Thich Nhat Hanh's dictum, "Take refuge in your self." "Right, that's why I came here," I think, "to figure out how to take refuge in myself—no matter what is going on." I must not forget that the monk who uttered these true words is my guide on this journey. Simply recalling this relaxes me somewhat, and then my concentration sharpens. I think of my options. I can wrap my miniscule towel around my wet body and traipse down through the nun's quarters and into one of their showers. I quickly dismiss that idea. I can stand here and pray that the water will come back on. That seems dumb. Okay, how about this? I can follow the monk's suggestion and come back to the island that is myself.
So, here I am. It is ten o'clock. There's not a peep in the residence. Everyone is in bed, and I'm standing here tired, cold, wet, and naked, with soap suds covering my entire body, in a beige-walled shower stall with no running water. In a monastery. In France. There's nothing else to do but stand here and breathe. And then maybe, just maybe, some idea about what to do will miraculously appear. I stare at one beige wall of the rectangle shower box. An agile black spider crawls up one corner. She must be happy there's no water here. I focus on her shiny, ebony spider body. In the next moment I hear my breath. I bathe in the sound of my breathing. I listen to the damp air coming into my chest. I am soaked in the sensation of the following exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Stillness. Inhale. Exhale. Stillness. I know I am breathing. Within about sixty seconds, my gooseflesh softens. I am yielding. Somehow, I begin to accept my circumstances. Whether or not the water comes back on has nothing to do with me, so why fight it with stiffness and inflexibility? "And, furthermore, why do I battle against all the things in my life that I can't possibly control?" I am talking to the arachnid now. "I am able to rule my body, right? But I can't control my surroundings." I bring my face close to the now-motionless spider and examine her eight skinny, soap-free legs. "You know this, don't you? Why don't I always remember this?" I say it out loud, the ebony spider as my witness: "Take refuge in your self, Mary."
* * *
Eastern teachings state that your body is a microcosm of the universe. As you tune in to your body, you know your body. Then, because you have insight into that body (the microcosm), the workings of the world (the macrocosm) are revealed to you. Herein lies a great ability.
To master oneself is to master the world.
Think of all the things you do with your body. Earlier today I did a little weeding in the garden greenhouse in which the nuns grow organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs. This is one of the many working meditations that visitors are asked to partake in while staying at the monastery. At dinner, I relished the spinach and arugula leaves from that very garden. After a few too many butter croissants in Paris prior to my pilgrimage, even after just one day of eating nutrient-dense meals, I feel lightness in my body and renewed clarity in my mind.
The food we put into our bodies influences our mind and impacts our health. That is why, here at Plum Village, careful attention is paid to the quality of all meals. Too much sugar, like sickly sweet donuts, and we see everything through a curtain of fog; too much spice (watch the chilies!), and we can't concentrate during meditation; overeating makes us sleepy. Everything we ingest affects us in some way. There is something else—the wrong type of food can produce deep tension inside our bodies. It is difficult to come back to the island that is yourself if that island is full of pain. Who wants to visit an abode of suffering?
Relishing these wholesome culinary delights today, I wonder why I don't have the discipline to consistently eat well at home. Salt and vinegar potato chips make my muscles hurt—like they are crying out for real nutrition. In just twenty-four hours, being at the monastery has awakened me to my own misery. I realize now that I slip in and out of treating my body with the respect it deserves.
Thich Nhat Hanh says that the physical tension existing in our bodies is "a kind of suffering." Pain will eventually cause illness unless we have an effective technique to release that pressure on a regular basis. "We should always try to be compassionate toward ourselves, then we will understand how to reduce the pain we carry within." Thây speaks of taking refuge within our self, of going home to ourselves through the act of mindful breathing. This conscious breath technique, which the Buddha counseled as a prescription to rid ourselves of our suffering, unifies our mind and body so that we become established in the here and now. I take the first of many silent vows: "I'm determined to remember to breathe mindfully."
So who is the Buddha? Who is this being who has influenced countless people, not to mention Thich Nhat Hanh?
The enlightened Being we now call the Buddha was once a man named Siddhartha Gautama who lived in India over 2,500 years ago. This young man was a seeker. He wanted to understand the nature of existence and human life. After six years of intense practice with several renowned spiritual teachers, Siddhartha sat under a Boddhi tree and vowed not to stand up until he was enlightened. He sat all night; then as the morning star arose, he had a breakthrough that filled him with understanding and love. He became enlightened. After enjoying his realization for forty-nine days, the Buddha walked to Deer Park in Sarnath and joined five of his fellow ascetics. As Thich Nhat Hanh recounts in The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings, the Buddha then proclaimed some version of the following teaching: "I have seen deeply that nothing can be by itself alone, that everything has to inter-be with everything else. I have also seen that all beings are endowed with the nature of awakening."
The Buddha then taught The Four Noble Truths:
1. There is the existence of suffering.
2. There is the making of suffering.
3. There is a way out of that suffering.
4. There is a specific path to restore well-being called The Noble Eightfold Path.
"Wherever the Noble Eightfold Path is practiced, joy, peace and insight are there."
Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes that this Noble Path of Eight Limbs—. Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration— are of the nature of inter-being. The Zen master notes that "each limb contains all the other seven."
Since I am here to apply the Buddha's teachings, and now that I am gratefully lying in my warm bed, I ponder that frustrating, albeit minor, upset of my inaugural monastic shower. I was distressingly tired, wet, and cold. This was evidence of The First Noble Truth—I was suffering. That's pretty straightforward. My aversion to the lack of water was The Second Noble Truth—that is, there was a reason I was suffering and that reason was I hated being freezing cold and wet! But there are always choices. Faced with no water in the shower, I could either have fought that reality or accepted my circumstances. The fact that I understood through mindfulness that it was possible to reduce my discomfort proves The Third Noble Truth—there was a way out of suffering. Then, choosing to concentrate on my moving breath brought some relief from my frustration, as well as some insight. I knew my discomfort was impermanent. Nothing lasts— no pain, no pleasure. My concentrated breathing brought me back to the island that is myself, where many resources and insights exist. In this case, the recognition of the simple truth that no water in a shower is a very minor upset. There is a freedom in recognizing when you have absolutely no control in a situation. Acceptance is entirely liberating, as is resolve. My frustration was instantly cut in half. I touched The Fourth Noble Truth, the path that restored my well-being.
Today I glimpsed the immense possibilities of mindfulness. "I can see that coming back to the island that is myself, this taking refuge within, is empowering and liberating," I muse. But I wonder if I will be able to go there when a more difficult situation arises. That is the real question.
The Buddha did not say that everything is suffering as many interpret his teachings to mean. Thich Nhat Hanh said that the main aim of the Buddha was to transform suffering. "You must find the ill-being within yourself and then transform it."
The water in my shower eventually came back on, the black spider crawled away, and I happily rinsed off the soap suds. When we relax, things have a way of turning out.CHAPTER 2
Beginner's Mind: Conquering My Boredom
The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.
I am at the dining room table having dinner. Across from me sits a stunningly beautiful young Vietnamese nun. Her full lips and prominent cheekbones grace a perfectly golden visage. Even with her bald head and dull, brown robes, she is breathtaking. For a moment, I think about shaving my head. I wonder if the nun's beauty mesmerizes the monks. I can't take my eyes off of her. A thought crosses my mind. Perhaps monks and nuns have achieved the ultimate escape—that is, from romantic relationships.
I once left a deeply loving relationship with a close to perfect man. At the time, I thought I had moved on to seek higher ideals, but I see now it was simply out of boredom. I realize this much more clearly here, far away from home, in a Buddhist monastery, sitting across from the beautiful young nun. "What was the real cause of my lethargy?" I silently wonder. What was this ennui that I had felt with Mr. Wonderful? Thich Nhat Hanh might say that I had lost my mind—my "beginner's mind," that is. He might just say that I had forgotten what I so enjoyed about this man who had loved me perhaps more fully than any other had. Thây teaches that forgetfulness is the opposite of mindfulness and that we are made of these two conflicts. And when our forgetfulness dominates the picture, we absolutely do not have a beginner's mind.
Years ago, at a meditation retreat, I learned how to be mindful during my daily activities. As I brushed my teeth, for example, I concentrated just on that task. While washing my hands, walking, or eating lunch, I attempted to quiet my chattering mind and immerse myself fully in one action at one time. As I became mindful, I realized that I hadn't always completely concentrated on these everyday activities. Because such actions were so very regular, I had done them with a degree of mindlessness. But whenever I paid close attention to what I was doing, no matter what the activity, something changed within. I felt less outside of myself. I identified more with my inner energy. In yogic terms, this energy is often called life force, chi, or prana. In simple terms, mindfulness connected me to my true self. Whenever I was able to be mindful, every moment felt new—because it was—and there was nothing for my habitual mind to grasp on to. I wasn't mindlessly eating a cheese sandwich in the present while, say, worrying about my landlord not fixing the leaky roof at my yoga studio, for example. Being engaged in one action at one time kept me from fantasizing about some far away golden future. These present-moment awakenings were fleeting, but the more I concentrated, the more the flashes came. And when they arrived, it felt very good—like I was living life, not ruminating, thinking, or fantasizing about life. Time goes by in a flash, yet strangely we act as if we will live forever. Waking up to the moment shines a powerful spotlight on this reality. Here at the monastery, I am reminded yet again of the life-enriching power of sharp concentration.
Excerpted from The Monks and Me by Mary Paterson. Copyright © 2012 Mary Paterson. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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