“You have arrived, you are home” a sign informs me as I drive past the entrance to Deer Park monastery. Indeed, I am home. Having practiced in the Plum Village Buddhist tradition for a few years, I’m overjoyed at finally getting to go to one of Thay’s monasteries for a day of mindfulness. Cruising up the long mountain approach, the arid desert of Southern California disappears into a lush canopy of oak trees as I pull into the populated part of Deer Park. Brown-robed monks and nuns glide by in a relaxed pace on their way to Clarity (women’s) hamlet for the beginning of the day of mindfulness. A sense of calm courses through my body as I take the aptly named “bump of mindfulness” speed bump. With the calm atmosphere present at the monastery I’m driving at a snail’s pace, so I get a little laugh thinking who would actually need a speed bump around here. Nevertheless, any reminder to slow down is a welcome reminder.
I sit down among 50 others, an even mix of resident monastics and visiting lay people, to listen to an audio talk by Thay on the topic of suffering. As always with Thay’s teachings, the lesson is practical and easy to understand. It gives me some good mind-stuff to chew on as we move into a short break before dharma discussion. After walking around the gardens for a bit, I start talking to Jorge, a San Diegan who’s here for his second time. A few minutes into our conversation a clock chimes. Everyone in the community stops everything they’re doing. Brilliant! What a great way to live. Regular bells of mindfulness every 15 minutes really help maintain presence. Then the phone rings. Same result—we all stop and breathe in harmony until it gets answered. The impatient never get to speak to anyone at Deer Park. The hope is that they’re making use of their bell of mindfulness at the other end of the phone.
Monks and lay people split off into separate groups as we proceed into dharma sharing—a discussion based on Thay’s teaching and our own practice. The beauty about this formation (as is the case with all mindfulness practice communities) is that there’s no leader controlling the group, but an experienced facilitator. Doug is working with us today and relates the process of dharma sharing to newcomers: bow in to speak; try to speak from experience; listen mindfully without thinking about what the other is saying.
Most of us choose to relate something about our practice to the teaching of the day: how our habit energies routinely bring us down into the murky waters of delusion. We wrap up the talk after half an hour almost as if we come to some kind of group consensus—we all agree with Thay that though life brings us into murky waters, it is possible to just see this darkness as our current situation and be accepting of it. Doug wraps up by saying a lotus grows only in the mud, so perhaps the murky waters are our best place to grow. Nods around the circle express silent agreement. Then the lunch bell sounds and we stop.
We help ourselves to a great selection of delicious vegetarian fare. We all wait for the bell and reading of gratitude before eating. Eating in a community of others who are eating mindfully makes focusing on the food effortless. Eating quite slowly, I experience the true flavour, texture and smell of the food. Truly a meal I’ll never forget!
After lunch I hike up to the Solidity (men’s) hamlet that sits perched atop a cliff overlooking a beautiful, lush valley where I proceed to sit in the meditation hall. There’s a nice feeling of spaciousness in this large hall that’s quite conducive to meditation. I sit for a while, filled with the spirit of regular meditation that this hall holds. Torn by the magnificent view, I go outside for some walking meditation where a strong wind blows through me like a flag waving in the air. I feel like just going with the flow so I wander around a bit more through Solidity hamlet and up to a small ceremonial stupa higher up the mountain. From this height I take in all of Deer Park, appreciating the view and expressing gratitude for being here.
I casually make my way back down the mountain to spend time in one last place before I leave: the oak forest. With thick gnarly trunks, long overhanging branches and big flowing leaves, oaks possess quite a lot of character. Together as a forest, they create a sense of calm complementary to the monastery. It’s not just the trees that thrive at Deer Park, but their residents. Just a few feet away a squirrel sits staring at me with a seemingly relaxed expression that indicates it’s not at all disturbed by my presence. The length of time it stares at me surprises me, which I take as yet another reminder. Like the character the trees possess, so does this squirrel. It seems to have an expression of presence and peace—likely a by-product of monastic living. I could easily see why. After just a few hours at Deer Park I too feel an incredible sense of presence and peace thanks to the many regular reminders to come back to the present moment. I drive off humming my favourite gatha “In, out, deep, slow. Calm, ease, smile, release,” reminding myself to breathe. Reminding myself to be present. Reminding myself that I have arrived, I am home.