In the Eyes of the Sangha

By Soren Kisiel mb53-InTheEyes1

“Thay…will not be coming to Colorado.” My friend’s words were carefully chosen: neutral, to lessen the blow.

Volunteering at the Order of Interbeing sign-in table, I heard those words before most people. Some of the Dharma teachers had been informed, and I found myself privy to their whispered conversations.

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My first thought was for Thay’s health. But once it had been explained to me that he was in good hands and didn’t seem to be in danger, disappointment came to me in such a rush that my head swam. I thought of my wife’s efforts, single-parenting for a week so I could be here, and of the money I’d spent to get here. I would be ordaining in the Order of Interbeing at this retreat. But without Thay? What would that mean? Could one be ordained without Thay?

A line was forming at my registration table. “If you can’t practice nonattachment here,” I whispered to myself, “where can you?” I took a few breaths, found a smile, and continued signing people in.

the morning sun brightens the mountainsides whether my heart is light or not

Thay’s letter was read to us, and the monastics forged ahead with the retreat. I decided: this retreat would be all about my practice. My disappointment began to lift. I could make the best of the opportunity by practicing fervently. I was here.

Then something happened. As the monastics began to share with us, in the Dharma talk and private hellos: there was our teacher! There was Thay, right before our eyes! His teaching, his understanding, his gentleness, so carefully transmitted to our monastic brothers and sisters. We were dazzled with how diligently they’d learned, and I was filled with gratitude for their efforts. In return we all sat a little straighter, practiced a little deeper. More people practiced mindful walking after that first Dharma talk than I’d seen at any other retreat.

Within a day or so, as we became used to seeing Thay in each monk and nun, we began to look for him in every one of us. And there he was. In each person’s eyes, in each smile, in each gentle step. His presence permeated the retreat. Something very precious was taking place. We all felt it. We discussed this in our Dharma groups. Here was interbeing, right before our eyes. Thay and the Sangha were one and the same. We and the Sangha were one and the same. Here was Thay, present with each of us, in each of us.

Suddenly I felt lucky to be at this retreat. The Sangha was crystallizing into a glittering diamond. It was developing confidence in itself, in its strength and ability to support, to carry on. How fortunate to be here for that—to be a part of this magical and precious teaching.

When I shared my feelings with Brother Phap Hai, he joked, “Oh, great. When Thay calls tonight, I’ll tell him you’re glad he’s not here.”

my brother is listening I can see myself in his eyes

When I first came to the practice eighteen years ago, I was living on my own in Sri Lanka, and the practice for me became wrapped in a sort of lonely romance. It wasn’t something I wanted to share with others; it was my own pursuit, meaningful, intimate, and private. I practiced alone.

After more than a decade of this style, I found Thay’s teaching, and it turned my practice on its head. Thay stressed Sangha, community, to a degree that I found startling. My mentor for ordainment, Rowan Conrad, tells a story of first arriving at Plum Village in the late 1980s. “You think you are here to see Thay,” he reports Thay saying, “but that is a misperception. You are here to see the Sangha.”

Once that seed was planted, Sangha became key to my practice as well, its support taking me to depths I hadn’t imagined possible, teaching me that compassion was every bit as important as wisdom. My practice began to bloom, but as one blossom in a wide field of flowers.

without a sound a dewdrop has fallen into the lake

As my ordination into the Order of Interbeing approached, to my surprise I found myself feeling that Thay’s absence made a sort of sense. I missed Thay that morning, and wished he were there to be a part of it. On my way to the Dharma hall, I sat on a bench to quietly thank Thay for all I was learning. In my heart I sent my ordination to Thay as a get-well gift. But as I took this step into the community, I knew the only individual that had to be there was me. Me, and the Sangha.

“You think you are here to ordain with Thay,” I said to myself, “but that is a misperception. You are here to ordain with the Sangha.”

The Be-In celebration that evening was filled with light and love and joy. We had seen something in one another and in ourselves. The energy of our smiles filled the room to bursting. The bears in the hills, I’m quite certain, could hear our laughter.

dragonflies dazzled with one another —late summer in the Rockies

The first time I wore my brown jacket at the retreat, shortly after ordination, a woman stopped me and asked me to instruct her in walking meditation. I was thrilled at the opportunity to share.

After some initial guidance, we walked together. “Picture lotuses blooming in each footstep,” I told her quietly, paraphrasing Thay. “You are leaving a path of lotuses behind you.”

She breathed deeply at the image and smiled, eyes wet. I knew in that moment she saw Thay in me. And, in that moment, I could too. Gratitude flooded through me, deep and strong. And my eyes, too, filled with tears.

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mb53-InTheEyes3Soren Kisiel, True Land of Serenity, was ordained last summer, and is part of the Deer Park Dharmacast team. His home Sanghas are the Open Way and Flowing Mountain Sanghas in Montana.

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