By the Dharma Gaia Core Community
Winter Retreat, 4 a.m.
Low in the east a bright Venus lifts the dome of sky just as the Milky Way has spilled herself through it.
The womb of breathable darkness draws you in, while frost crystals catch the moonbeams and snap the light into tiny sparkling fragments ﬁlling the body with stillness.
Step outside the breath shoots up in a gasp of cold. Ears ring and sing and the body ﬁlls with vibrant early morning frost.
That’s when the stillness empties you of everything.
Forest, pond, building with sloping crystal hat, and gardens, they know how to pray. Standing still naked in the moonlight and translucent frost unashamed and prideless in their beauty.
You too are like this but you do not see it.
There is nothing more you want … nothing you just breathe. Your breath is a prayer.
In terms of the physical distance, The Centre of Mindful Living in New Zealand is probably the Sangha farthest away from Plum Village, and yet that distance shrinks to nothing in the time it takes to breathe one conscious breath. There is never loneliness or isolation.
The Centre, commonly known as Dharma Gaia, is located in beautiful countryside, flanked by a tranquil harbour and a majestic mountain on the Coromandel Peninsula, about two hours’ drive from the cities of Auckland and Hamilton. From throughout New Zealand, people come here to connect with the practice. They contribute their physical energy, ﬁnancial support, and most of all their commitment to practising and building the companionship of Sangha by offering regular mindfulness weekends and retreats.
Most people who visit Dharma Gaia are deeply touched by its peace, simplicity, and profound beauty. But Sister Pho Nghiem always emphasises that our true beauty is our love for one another and our dedication to practising as a Sangha. That is what has sustained us for over eighteen years and will go on sustaining us.
In the early morning, we give ourselves over to the Earth, walking peacefully together. We walk the land in silence and stillness, aware of the generosity of many friends who offer energy, funds, and support, which maintain and nourish this island of peace and presence. Our feet are their feet; our steps an offering of gratitude to them.
Sunshine, fresh air and green banana leaves dance. Stream and birds sing the harmonies. Citrus are beginning to golden and the aromatic fragrance of their leaves heralds the freshness and cool beauty of the Dharma Gaia autumn. The Sangha body is everywhere.
Like Plum Village, but on a much smaller scale, Dharma Gaia hosts many people from all over the world. Those of us who live here know it is a deep blessing to have the chance to provide this haven for the constant ﬂow of visitors. We listen and learn from those who come here, and we have the chance to be in touch with the life of the wider community in all its various joys and challenges.
Many who come are young people searching to ﬁnd their place in the world and the right way to live. They stay for a week, a month, and sometimes longer, helping in the gardens, building bridges over the stream, clearing new walking paths, and enjoying the fruits of community and mindful living. Many of them have not heard of our practice before coming here, but later go on to seek out Sanghas in their own countries, or to visit Plum Village in France and other centres in Europe and the USA. In a few weeks’ time, Sangha members will ﬁll the Centre as we take time to share from the winter fruits, complete the Rains Retreat, and receive deep nourishment from our practice together. Wonderful!
When the ﬁrst draft of this article was written, we in New Zealand were stepping lightly into spring. The nights still had that sharp bite and the early morning air was wonderfully fresh. In spring here, the forest gently releases so many forgotten fragrances that rise up out of the sleep of winter. Our Kowhai trees bloom in magniﬁcent splendour, their ﬂowers falling like soft golden rain, and the days are ﬁlled with song as tui, bellbird, kereru, fantail, bees, insects, and countless other beings wake up to the glory of renewal.
Some months have passed; the season changed and changed again. Now the fullness of summer retreats is also receding and we mellow into the changing colours of autumn leaves. How strange and wondrous it is to contemplate that as you read this article in the northern hemisphere, your late winter days are edged with the promise of the spring. Bowing to the wonder of our planet and her seasons, we close by sharing this deep and precious gatha Thay offered to us in the winter of 2004.
The seed is sown in the auspicious earth Now is the occasion to enjoy the spring Day and night dwelling peacefully in touching the earth Everywhere ﬂowers open, lighting up the true mind
This article is offered in honour of two dear Sangha sisters: Aletia Hudson, who passed on December 8, 2011, and Shirley Morris, who passed on March 25, 2012.
The Core Community of Dharma Gaia consists of Sister Pho Nghiem, Doris Drinkwater, Anton Bank, Jeannine Walsh, Mark Vette, Caitlin Bush, Benni Bonnin, and Kim Morresey. For more information, see www.dharmagaia.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.