After dinner I walk to the kitchen to check on the soymilk we’ve made today. It should be cooling by now. Later, after evening meditation we’ll put it in the refrigerator, so we can have fresh soymilk for breakfast. The clean-up crew ﬁlls the kitchen with activity carrying racks of dishes, washing pots, and mopping the ﬂoor. I am surprised to see my soymilk teammate Gary standing at the stove spooning okara, the thick soybean residue, from the huge pot of soymilk into a basin. Normally the okara is ﬁltered out by a machine. What happened to the soymilk?
Phap Do taught the seven of us on the soymilk team how to make soymilk for the 350 retreatants of Solidity Hamlet. Making soymilk is a day-long process that reminds me a little of taking care of a baby. After supper we measure ﬁfteen cups of soybeans into a large plastic tub. We wash the beans three times and soak them overnight. The next morning during working meditation the little round beans are mixed with water and ground between two stones in the grinding machine. After that we pour the thick white liquid into the mouth of another machine we affectionately named “The Great Silver Dragon” whose belly is a ﬁlter bag. The machine whirls the soymilk, ﬁltering out the okara, until milk runs out of the spout into a big stainless steel pot. Several times during the ﬁltering process we empty the soft foamy okara from the ﬁlter bag into a basin. The okara is mainly used for compost. Later in the afternoon we cook the soymilk for two hours in huge pots double boiler style. When it is cool, we return to the kitchen and tuck it away for the night in the refrigerator.
Soon after learning how to make soymilk, I begin to identify with the little soybeans. We are both seeds in the womb of Mother Earth, constantly changing. I too, am soaking, soaking in the collective mindful energy of the retreat. My tough outer shell softens, my heart opens. I don’t need to protect and defend myself here. I feel safe.
Like the soybean, I am ground up together with the other retreatants and we slowly become a community. My protective edges wear away in the room I share with ﬁve other women as we bump up against each other and learn to live together in this intimate space. The aloneness I brought with me loosens and dissolves when I am helped over a rough spot by new friends. I feel supported by the people here and I give what I can. We live and work together mindfully day after day. We walk as one body during walking meditation. We eat our silent meals. We sit in the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall in the morning and in the evening. We harmonize our voices to sing and to chant. We walk slowly up and down the mountain without speaking. Separateness is ground away until we become a Sangha river ﬂowing in the Great Hidden Mountain.
Next we are ﬁltered and reﬁned. We let go of suffering, noticing obstacles to happiness, changing old habits. With Thay’s help I see that I’ve carry my beloved grandmother’s despair inside of me for all these years. Her despair is part of my mind. I take Granny for a walk in the hills and she enjoys it so much, the hills, the ﬂowering trees, the birds and the sunshine. She is content now and so am I. I see something else; the way I try to save everyone and end up losing myself, a painful old habit that leads to exhaustion and feelings of imprisonment. It is thick and heavy like the okara we ﬁlter out of the soymilk. I see this when our soymilk team runs into trouble.
The seven of us meet with Thay Phap Do. For the ﬁrst time I realize that my overactive sense of responsibility affects my friends adversely. It let go of every notion and experience great joy! I ﬁnd out that he is right when I experience a deep wordless connection with this mountain, with the rabbits and squirrels, with the full moon, with the Sangha. There is enough time and space to enjoy every moment.
Gary answers my question as I walk over to the stove. “The ﬁlter bag leaked and okara ﬁlled the milk. It was too thick to drink and wouldn’t be very tasty.” My ﬁrst thought is, Why did the ﬁlter bag leak? My second thought is, What about tomorrow when we make soymilk again?
Thay Phap Do comes into the kitchen, looks around, and suggests that we use the metal colander and a big pot. He brings forth a nylon curtain to use as a strainer. I watch him line the colander with the curtain and then I speak. “Phap Do, I think I know what happened to the ﬁlter bag.” He doesn’t respond. Then I ask, “Will we have to strain the milk this way every day?” This time Phap Do answers. “Just do it now. Use this curtain to ﬁlter the milk now.” I feel a little embarrassed and rebuked, having wanted to impress him by ﬁguring out why the ﬁlter bag leaked. I walk
is my habit to arrive early on the days we make soymilk and begin to set up the equipment. I run around the kitchen collecting spoons and pots and basins, thinking how nice it will be for my friends to arrive and have everything already set up. But wait, something is changing. Thay is teaching us to become businessless. I notice that my ancestors’ “businessfulness” appears in me. During our meeting several of my teammates express feeling rushed and left out. My heart thumps in my chest and my breath races. I have never before realized that when I act in that extra-responsible-businessful way I take up my teammates’ space and obstruct us from experiencing the ease and leisure that makes deep connection possible and enjoyable. I happily leave my businessfulness in the ﬁlter bag. At the end of our meeting Thay Phap Do asks each of us, “What does a cow say?” “A cow?” “Yes. A cow. You know the cow that gives milk. What does a cow say?” Each of us replies and then Phap Do asks us to repeat the sound all together. “Mooooo!” we bellow and laugh. We’re becoming nourishment for the Sangha, light enough to ﬂow freely like a delicious stream of soymilk. We begin our working meditation now with a cup of tea and a long “Moooooo,” the joyful sound of the soymilk team.
And then we cook. We cook the soymilk in the afternoon and the Sangha cooks slowly and continuously in the pot of mindfulness. I feel myself growing more fresh and wholesome as I listen to Thay’s Dharma talks. He tells us that we can ﬁnd happiness at any moment. He teaches us to transform our suffering and he shows us that we can into the hall behind the kitchen and feel tears spring into my eyes. And then I smile. Oh! I get it. No past. No future. Only now! No blame. No right. No wrong. No theories or notions. Only now!
I walk back into the kitchen and feel so happy as Gary and I strain the soymilk heavy with okara through the curtain. We pour the fresh soymilk into giant pots and store it for breakfast. Friends from the clean-up crew offer to help carry the pots and mop the ﬂoor. Just as we’re ﬁnishing up, Phap Do reappears and places a new ﬁlter bag on the table.
One morning I sit in the dining room that overlooks the temple and the blue hills. I eat breakfast in silence, concentrating on the oatmeal and the soymilk. Gary sits across the table. I hear a rhythmic sound and look up. Gary points to a red-headed woodpecker in the tree outside the window. We sit silently and watch. Phap Do appears on the path beneath the window. His body is completely still as he stands gazing at the tree and the bird. After several minutes he looks in the window and smiles a Buddha smile. Everything is all right. I no longer need to worry about food or cold or anyone or anything. This moment is enough. I am alive. I am here.
Susan Hadler, Transformational Light of the Heart, lives in Washington, D.C. where she practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community.