By Sister Thuong Nghiem Note: Calling something medicine in the Native American traditions is a way of emphasizing the special qualities of that thing. All elements in the cosmos have the potential to heal us and to teach us when our hearts and minds are open.
One foot follows the other, making a path. My foot follows Thay. My eyes travel the ground, take in the sky, always aware of Thay. Today I am Thay's attendant. Each monk and nun has a chance to attend Thay, spending the whole day from before sunrise until bedtime following Thay and being present in each of his activities of that day. We feel we are the luckiest person on earth on that day. We record every moment of that day in our journal or in our heart, because those moments are very rich organic matter that we can always draw upon to nourish us and to guide us at any time.
Several times today Thay walks outdoors, from Cypress house to the dining hall and around the Solidity hamlet, and up the mountain. Walking, Thay occasionally stops to look at a flower, to touch a leaf. I fee l the great tenderness of Thay's connection with the plants. Thay offers his attention to a tree and the tree offers her presence, her vitality and her freshness to Thay. I observe these interactions and I am so happy to receive these teachings. Earlier today a film crew came to tape Thay for a film about the history of Buddhism. After setting up an elaborate array of lights and carefully arranging objects around the room they were ready to begin. They asked Thay to have a seat. Thay invited the entire film crew to enjoy a short walk outdoors before beginning the filming. We walked in a circular path. Fresh air, green plants, deep blue sky, bright yellow wildflowers, and slow swooping hawks called to us, bringing us to awareness. The film interview went well, as we were all refreshed by our walk, infused with the living energy of mindfulness.
Now in the late afternoon Thay invites me to go on another walk. We slowly make our way up the mountain to the flat clearing where the bell tower will be built. We are heading towards the green hammock suspended between two trees. I am focused on Thay. Thay is sitting down in the hammock, Thay is removing hi s shoes. I am aware of each action. I look to see where I might sit to be able to swing the hammock and still be able to see Thay's face. I look down at the ground around the hammock and I see a snake. Oh!
The snake's body is stretched out in a straight line right alongside the hammock. He or she is obviously at ease, resting. I pick up a small stick and scratch it on the earth, hoping that the snake will be alerted and will move away. The snake makes no movement. I touch the tip of the snake's taiI end with the stick and still no movement. I say, "She does not want to go away. She seems to like Thay's presence." Thay replies, "Don't try to scare her away anymore. Allow her to be there for the moment." So I sit down on a rock to one side of Thay. We sit for many minutes like that, Thay, the snake and I.
I look at the snake. He is patterned brown and green and beige like a rattlesnake. But his head is small, unlike the triangular head I know is the indicator of a poisonous snake. Later I am told he is probably a bull snake. He stretches maybe four feet or so long. In the past I have been very fearful of snakes. Now I have this opportunity to be present with a snake. In this moment I do not feel any fear.
Thay is resting. I feel his great peace and I feel embraced. I ask if I may offer Thay a small song. Thay accepts.
rivers flow through me sunshine is my morning tea body ~ harmony feelings ~ clouds in the sky perceptions ~ stones on the road mental formations ~ birds are singing, singing songs of freedom consciousness ~ deep blue sea wash over me rivers flow through me sunshine is my morning tea ...
The head of the snake moves slightly back and forth , his black tongue flicks in and out. Maybe the snake is hearing the song also. We gaze into the atmosphere, rocks and air, clouds and light soothing my eyes, smoothing my mind.
After another twenty minutes or so the snake begins to move very slowly. His body remains stretched out and every part of him moves at the same time. Over a long time he continues to move ever so slowly. We watch him. He is aware of us also. Thay invites me to sing another song, "No Coming, No Going?"
No coming, no going, no after, no before, I hold you close to me, I release you to be so free because I am in you and you are in me, because I am in you and you are in me.
We hear the sound of the brother's dinner bell. It is 6 p.m. Shall we walk down the mountain? The snake is just beginning to enter the brush covering the sloping earth nearby.
I feel something so lovely inside, a peaceful, deep, grounded feeling. The land has accepted us as her stewards. The animals have welcomed us.
The local San Diego Sangha of thirty or so members, who organized a public lecture in San Diego for over 2,000 people, arrive in the evening to have tea with Thay. Thay tells them about our encounter with the snake. The snake was not afraid of us and he or she moved so slowly in the style of walking meditation or rather moving meditation. Thay says, perhaps the snake was a representative of all the beings living on this mountain, coming to greet Thay.
Thay also recalls the story of when the Mexican workers came across a snake lying under a rock. The workers prepared to kill the snake and Brother Phap Dung intervened. The workers only wished to protect us from this snake, but Brother Phap Dung said, there are so many snakes, we cannot possibly kill them all, let us just scare him away from here instead. Thay said, perhaps the snake we met today was that same snake coming to thank Thay or maybe a good friend of his.
Thay says there are so many beings here, residing all over this mountainous land, seen and unseen. All these beings are becoming aware of our presence. They can feel the peaceful energy of our practice. When we are aware we can also feel their presence. With careful attention we shall learn to live harmoniously together.
Sister Thuong Nghiem (Sister Steadiness) is a novice nun at Deer Park Monastery.
Photo courtesy of Plum Village