By Sister Thuong Nghiem (Sister Steadiness) Surrender (1995, a five-day retreat in New York state)
Thay has just finished giving the Dharma talk in the big white tent. Now all the retreatents, 800 of us, are gathering to go for walking meditation. Seeing this huge crowd of people I immediately wish to head in the opposite direction. But everything is so quiet. Only the sound of decaying leaves crunching beneath gentle footsteps and birds and some young chiIdren 's voices are heard. The stream of humanity is so bright and colorful. I am drawn to enter this stream of practice. I see people holding hands walking so slowly and carefully as among precious jewels. Each brown leaf, each scarlet and gold leaf is a jewel. A monk is hugging a tree. I pause and look. I am so touched by that image. And farther on I see a monk practicing movements facing the late autumn sun and many people lying on the earth quietly held by earth and sky.
The Earth, the woods, the silent depth of nature has always been a refuge for me, a sacred space to be truly myself, to be with myself fully, to release my unhappiness, to sing and dance and be loved. I could not imagine seeing these expressions of ease, joy and stillness with nature and with each other in this crowd of 800 people.
This crowd has been transformed into a community of practice and into a river. Slowly I feel myself opening and releasing into this body of beings, feeling the cool freshness of river water, flowing and growing, heading leisurely, steadily to the great ocean of relief. This is the first time I am aware of entering the Sangha body and being supported by the collective energy of a practicing Sangha.
Touching (2000, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village)
I am following Thay's steps and we arrive at the lagestromia bush outside of Thay's room. Thay places his hand first on one globe of pink flowers and then on another. It is only a brief moment in this long day attending my teacher but it is the moment that penetrates deeply into me. I see Thay touches the flowers exactly as he may touch the head of two young novices, with great tenderness and care. And I allow that feeling of warmth, of being touched by our teacher to settle into me.
Openness (200 I, Deer Park Monastery, California)
It's five a.m. and my sisters and I are putting on our hiking shoes. The air is still cool, the sky black. We walk briskly up the winding road towards the stars. We strip off our hats and scarves as our bodies warm. One sister removes her shoes, feeling the soil with her soles. We move quickly, silently, calmly. Rising up out of the valley we reach open space. Here we have a vast view of the mountain ranges, the wide sky. We sit; we dance, preparing for the miraculous birth .
Receptive. A speck of light begins to crack open the mountains. A golden egg pushes her way up out of the earth and brilliant rays begin to spill in all directions, blessing every living being in her path. My body expands to touch this source of life. I feel the warmth and light enter each region of my body, touching each vertebra, resting lightly on my forehead as a teacher's hand touches his disciple or a mother her child.
Flocks of birds pass over, playfully greeting the sun . After many minutes wrapped in this sacred moment, immersed in our own personal intimacy with the sun, we sisters join together, pour tea, peel an orange, sharing our joy as one.
Clarity (2001 , Deer Park Monastery, California)
This evening we are scheduled to have a Sangha meeting to plan our daily schedule for the fall retreat. I have a tendency to get emotional at Sangha meetings. I feel small tensions build up in me over the days. Small wounds of unresolved anger, little bits of jealousy, misunderstandings, pride and sadness accumulate in me. All these small things add up to a larger wound lying heavily just under the surface waiting to spill out of me in tears. Why does it spill out at Sangha gatherings? Why not when I am taking a s low walk in the oak grove or sitting on a rock when I have the space and the concentration to face myself and lovingly untie the knots in me? Perhaps I have not given myself enough time and space to look deeply, to take care of my pain . When I am in the presence of all my sisters and brothers at a Sangha gathering, the collective energy of mindfullness is so tangible that it brings the wound in me to light. Without enough self-understanding and the capacity to embrace my pain, the tears flow from me like runoff from an iceberg melting in strong sunlight.
Recently one sister used this image to describe me in a "shining light" session. "Shining light" is a practice where the Sangha gathers to offer a sister or a brother their reflections of his or her strengths and weaknesses and to offer concrete suggestions for how to practice so as to become more stable, harmonious and happy in the Sangha. That sister said to me, you are like an iceberg and also you can melt in the sunlight and that water is very pure and sweet to drink. So although I had this tendency to release my tears in the presence of the Sangha, perhaps it was not only an uncontrolled outpouring of pain, but also a process of not holding my pain as a cold, solid block stuck in me. The emotional expression allowed my separate self to slowly melt into the river of the Sangha, this group of friends surrounding me and supporting me. But I felt there must be a more skillful and less emotionally draining way to do this.
Now in these moments before the Sangha meeting I felt a deep peace and acceptance in my body and my mind. In the past days a sister and I had been able to reconcile our difficulties with each other that had been there for a long time. We both shared our perceptions and our misunderstandings of each other and we also shared our authentic aspiration to release what was between us and to begin anew.
During the last two months of Thay's teaching tour in the U.S.A., my bodhicitta, my deepest aspiration, was nourished by the opportunity to be in touch with others, to share the practice and to be a positive element of the big Sangha. During the four day lazy period following the tour I had also nourished myself by my mindful sitting, walking, serving the Sangha and looking deeply into my emotions. All of this added up to my feeling light and free. It was not a superficial feeling of lightness hiding festering wounds just below the surface. I had taken good care of my abandoned children, my emotions, and they were no longer hiding in me waiting for some attention and understanding. I felt calm, solid and fresh and I knew I was in a good position to go to the Sangha meeting and to offer myself.
Sister Thuong Nghiem, True Adornment with Steadiness, ordained in 1998 in the Fig Tree family in Plum Village.