We arrived at Deer Park on a clear fall Friday morning last October to help the sangha prepare for the ceremony to dedicate Thay Giac Thanh’s stupa. Sunday would be the fifth anniversary of the continuation of the beloved former abbot of Deer Park. The weekend was particularly meaningful and special for me and my family as my beloved was carrying an engagement ring in his pocket; we had chosen the ring together earlier that week.
Throughout the weekend everyone worked hard preparing for Sunday — cooking special foods deep into the night, washing hundreds of small bowls for the ancestral feast planned for Sunday, and laboring on the mountain to finish the installation of the stupa. Throughout all these activities and during intimate gatherings in the Solidity Hamlet classroom and meditation hall, members of the four-fold sangha mindfully recollected stories about the former abbot: recalling his beautiful teachings, reciting his poetry, and sharing personal memories about their meaningful and inspiring relationships with him. The feeling was one of a large family reunion, at once wistful and celebratory.
Sunday arrived. It was a very warm and clear day with the sun shining bright. The morning began with a special ceremony led by the Venerable Phuoc Tinh honoring our ancestors in SinoVietnamese. We prostrated many times as he recited the ancient blessings and chanted the Heart Sutra in Vietnamese. The morning continued with a silent breakfast and walking meditation up the hill to overlook the stupa. The Venerable shared a line of poetry about how we are often able to see more clearly when we have a view of something from afar. Thus we gazed upon the stupa before proceeding down the freshly created steps; members of the sangha offered us their hands as we carefully stepped down to the dedication ceremony. We gathered very close together on the small steps around the stupa and after heartfelt chanting, the Venerable sprinkled water from a glass using yellow chrysanthemums and offered words of dedication. Some who loved the former abbot were in tears. We looked into the stupa after the ceremony to see it decorated beautifully with two cushions at a small table beneath a lovely altar.
Next the Venerable gave a moving dharma talk in the Ocean of Peace meditation hall. He shared about the name of the stupa, “Floating Cloud,” and likened the life and the practice of the former abbot to a “cloud floating in the vast sky.” He wove a tapestry with his talk utilizing the imagery of the floating cloud and the Buddha’s teachings on no-birth and no-death. He urged us all to practice as the clear blue sky, observing clouds coming and going, but with the understanding of impermanence. He reflected on the nature of a lifespan and noted that some people like the former abbot offer much joy to others and leave behind “a softness of the heart during this lifetime while others are unskillful and leave behind a great deal of pain.” He urged us to live in such as way that we leave behind something beautiful for people to remember.
Thay Phuoc Tinh taught that suffering is essential in life; we can welcome and profit from it by overcoming it, growing, becoming stronger, and realizing grace and peace in our hearts. “If we can find peace and be kind to those who are difficult, we can recognize the Buddha in ourselves.” He shared the poems “Gentle Steps” and “Being Sick” by the former abbot noting how Thay Giac Thanh was able to have a heart at peace when he was healthy and able to give to others, as well as when he was ill and able to receive from others.
After this talk, the meditation hall was prepared for the ancestral feast. Outside the hall, David and I sat on the steps overlooking the oak grove and mountains and shared our aspirations to be together; he presented me with the engagement ring. Smiling, we and the children joined our spiritual family in small groups. We ate delicious traditional Vietnamese foods while members of the sangha smiled, laughed, ate mindfully, and offered beautiful songs from the heart.
Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, and David Nelson, Compassionate Guidance of the Heart, are engaged to be married; they practice with the Organic Garden Sangha and Ripening Sangha in Southern California. The Venerable’s Dharma talk was translated into English by Sister Dang Nghiem.