Sangha Strengthening Weekend Retreat
By Phuong Ai La and Nhu Quynh La
At Deer Park Monastery in May 2009, a new Dharma door opened for the World Beat Sangha from San Diego, California. Originally some of us had the simple wish to gather for days of mindfulness at Deer Park. Thay Phap Dung and the other brothers and sisters wisely nurtured this tiny seed. A few dedicated Sangha members nourished the sapling, and the wish finally bloomed into a full weekend retreat. While the road to the retreat was smooth for some, it presented more challenges for others who had to rearrange their lives temporarily to make this appointment with life. And so, tortoise or hare, we all made the trek up the rocky hills, turned the knob, opened the door, and entered an experience that was as diverse as our fifty-six eyes, but also unique in its magic.
Magic? In things as ordinary as breathing, sitting, walking, singing, working, eating, drinking tea, and studying? How could this be? Perhaps there were secret ingredients in the soup. Starting our healthy vegetarian broth, we threw in the carrot of generosity and the sweet onion of inclusion. The Sangha collectively determined that everyone who wished to, could attend the retreat. Sangha members practiced dana (generosity) and contributed money to assist those who couldn’t afford the full cost of the retreat.
For a broth sweeter and richer by far, we included some apples: the exquisite loving-kindness and care of monastics who planned and led the retreat activities. Thay Phap Dung, Thay Phap Thanh, and Thay Phap Ho explained the Sutra on the Four Nutriments and answered questions from members puzzled or bewildered by this provocative sutra.
Thay Phap Dung taught the World Beat Sangha how to conduct our first formal Tea Ceremony. In different ways, we all participated. Some baked cookies. Four served as hosts. Two offered incense and flowers to our ancestors. We enjoyed the songs of musicians, the humor of a puppeteer, the laughter and poetry of children, and Dharma jokes. One Sangha member shared: “The tea ceremony was special. Walking in and sharing a bow with each host in turn. Then sitting peacefully on the cushion, with the abbot embodying solidity. For moments, we let go of discrimination, of judgment, of past and future. We laughed, sang, and drank deeply of the joy of living together.”
Slow Down, Relax, Breathe
But it was not all cookies, tea, and song. There was work to be done, joyfully and mindfully. We couldn’t live off of a thin, watery broth. We needed substantial protein and nutriments—chunks of squash, slices of daikon, cubed tofu, and chopped scallions. We rallied to the call of the dedicated Plant Sangha and the good cheer of Thay Phap De, who doled out our gardening gloves, shovels, and hoes. For several hours, with refreshment and rest in between, we were dutiful weed whackers, planters, and mulchers. We managed to clear an area that had been full of weeds. Trees were nourished and several young plants put down roots that day, ready to welcome Thay and the Plum Village Sangha for the summer.
In truth we were really fertilizing and mulching ourselves. We were the young plants that put down deeper roots that day in the hazy sun. To practice is to stop, or at least slow down. And when you stop the monkey mind—just as when the morning or night is at its quietest—strange and shy creatures emerge. Daily stress, frustration, and countless negative habit energies that catch us unaware, that push us unceasingly away from a genuine connection with life, come up. We say, “Ah, hello friend, so there you are.” A Sangha sister shared her fertilizing moment, when she encountered difficulty upon arriving and felt frustration and disappointment. She was reminded that “a more respectful, saner solution with the help of breathing and a little more mindfulness might help. It did.” Another Sangha friend penned a poem about his own encounter with stopping:
Slow down, relax, breathe—notice your breath, notice your green relatives with white flowers; notice other relatives have green leaves and red flowers, notice your relatives give pure air, in the pure land, on the pure mountainside. So slow down. Ask for Buddha mindfulness, remember the “enjoy your footsteps” sign, and enter enjoyment. Slow down your footsteps, end suffering, enter peace.
A Wonderful Dharma Door
Traditional Buddhist literature teaches that there are 84,000 Dharma doors. Thay inspires us to find new Dharma doors appropriate for our brave new world. That weekend we found one, not with just one pair of eyes but with twenty-eight. This manifold quality of the unfolding of the weekend was present in the diverse range of ages, ethnicities, and cultures within the Sangha group; the coyotes, caterpillars, frogs and toads, turtles, and rabbits; and the light footsteps of our two young Sangha members, Ananda and Micah. No one could forget three-year old Ananda, dancing and prancing, moving from person to person, hugging and tickling and hanging from our serious-looking and stoically seated practitioners who were trying hard not to burst into laughter.
Reflecting upon the fruits of our Sangha strengthening weekend, one Sangha organizer shared this beautiful insight:
“We at the World Beat Sangha recognize our great fortune of being in such proximity to Deer Park Monastery. A Sangha weekend together may be less feasible for those much further away from a major practice center. But the local Sanghas in California, on the east coast, in France, Germany, and elsewhere may also like to take advantage of being near a practice center, and explore this wonderful Dharma-Sangha door.”
Perhaps this metaphor from another happy Sangha sister describes the experience most aptly: “Each of us is precious and complete on our own. However, as members of our Sangha, we become richer. We become a nutritious, celestial bowl of World Beat Sangha Soup!” It was a magic soup indeed, a soup of our collective practice. We hope that your local Sanghas will open your own Dharma doors, enter, and cook up a bit of magic too.
Phuong Ai La, True Compassion of the Heart, and Nhu Quynh La, True Gentleness of the Heart, are sisters who live and practice in San Diego, California. This article was written with insight from Velma Carrio, Healing Practice of the Heart, Barbara Casler, Jim Cook, Ron Forster, Joyous Equanimity of the Heart, Jim Hornsby, Namaste Reid, Joyful River of the Heart, and David Viafora, True Mountain of Meditation.