With Thay in England

By Rosamond Richardson Thay once wrote a poem called "Froglessness," about a frog's tendency, when put on a plate, to jump off again and again. My frogness was doing well when I arrived at Wymondham College in Norfolk for a five day retreat last spring. It was my first experience in Thich Nhat Hanh's presence, although I had read several of his books, heard tapes, and been on two Sangha retreats. The frog was destined to have an interesting time.

At first, I felt overwhelmed by the nearly 500 people, uncomfortable at sharing a room, and underwhelmed by my surroundings. The bath and shower on the landing did not work. I felt homesick. People did not respond to smiles. But the food was excellent, served with grace and sweetness by the college staff; the spring weather was perfect; and the college grounds were beautiful.

By day five, all my negative seeds had been supplanted by spring flowers of joy and understanding. And the frog had calmed down. How did this happen?

My turning point was Thay's second Dharma talk when I experienced Thay as an embodiment of wisdom and compassion. With his elegant lacing of humour, I was spellbound. Thay taught that mindfulness can arouse us from the unconscious state in which we choose to live. He told wonderful stories illustrating how suffering often results from wrong perception, and how we frequently find what we seek in unexpected places. The frog began to relax and listen.

It was the start of a beautiful day. After a quiet yoga practise I soaked in a bath (yes, the plumbers had called!) and absorbed the richness of the teaching. After lunch, Sister Chan Khong led Total Relaxation. In nearly twenty years of yoga, I had never experienced going so deep. Her beautiful singing took me to a place I didn't know was in me. The session seemed to untie every knot and iron every crease, right to my core.

That afternoon, the monks and nuns offered a "Question and Answer" session. Several people asked about joy, pointing out the lack of its manifestation around the campus. From then on, we gave ourselves permission to smile, to feel cheerful, and above all to enjoy the practice. The atmosphere changed and everyone became more relaxed.

Later that day, someone told me a single room had become available. I went to see it and wandered back to my room to pack, but on entering realised that I no longer needed solitariness. I had moved through a defensive wall and opened up to actually enjoy sharing (a first for me). I had, I think, negotiated a passage to the island of my soul and had no need to close a physical door between me and others. My breath was a perfect refuge if I needed one. That evening's meditation was deeper and more peaceful than before.

The following morning, Brother Michael led a guided meditation on seeing ourselves and our parents as five-year olds in order to heal and reconcile, and then to transform our relationships. I found it profoundly moving, and allowed the tears to run freely. One section hit an incredibly painful spot, but by allowing the pain to release, I healed a very old misunderstanding. This was appropriate preparation for Thay's Dharma talk, where he reminded us of our interconnectedness to our ancestors. He went deeper into the Heart of Understanding, clarifying it with such crystalline simplicity that it was easy to absorb. My admiration for him as a teacher, let alone as a human being, was increasing by the minute. The way he related interbeing to quantum physics was masterly. Taking the now axiomatic "waves are particles, particles are waves" he turned to write "wavicles" on the board. Non-duality with a smile.

When Thay addressed the children each morning, the child in me received those teachings vividly. Watching the children absorb the atmosphere and the teachings was deeply touching. On the last day, they sang a song and presented Thay with a card of The Buddha Within, drawn and signed by them all. I was moved to happy tears.

"You are already what you want to become," Thay said. What a relief to let go, and simply be. "When you sit," he said, "just smile and be yourself. To meditate is not to achieve, but to be. There is no attainment. Only then is stopping possible." In answer to a question about the butterfly mind, he said to love the butterfly, to embrace it with the practice of breathing. Me and my frog, we were beginning to do the same thing.

The last morning I walked alone around the park after a quiet meditation in the chapel and absorbed the primroses under the great beech tree. As I walked towards the sheltered pond a green woodpecker flew out of the thicket and went to drink. I walked past waving poplars shimmering in the early sunshine and felt at one. The retreat had reconnected me not only with the joy of life (which comes fairly naturally to a frog), but also to its sheer beauty. What a wonderful gift. The path of joy and understanding was no longer just words, it was a living reality.

Rosamond Richardson practices with the Cambridge Sangha. She is an author and a yoga teacher.

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