By Therese Fitzgerald Arnie Kotler and I arrived in Sydney, Australia, on January 2. When I awoke the next morning at seven, it was already warm. It was summer for sure and nothing would ever be quite the same again. The sun still set in the west and rose in the east, but it traveled across the northern sky (the direction from which warm weather comes!). Our hosts, Khanh and Dan LeVan, live above a beautiful eucalyptus canyon full of exotic birds, including kookaburra ("laughing birds") and brilliantly colored parrots.
We had a well-attended Day of Mindfulness in the Blue Mountains, spending much of the day outdoors under the tall pine and gum trees, with our meditation and discussion punctuated by wild and raucous songs of the bush birds.
On Sunday morning, we gave a presentation on meditation and knowing our deep purpose in life to several hundred young people at a Vietnamese Buddhist temple. Tuesday evening, we gave a Dharma talk at the Sydney Zen Centre on practice as partners. The next night we gave a presentation on Living Buddha. Living Christ at the Buddhist Library.
We packed up for the weekend retreat at Wat Buddha Dhamma, a Theravadan retreat center in a very hot part of the country. The hour-long drive down a dirt road was awesomely beautiful, through a wilderness of great gum trees and massive sandstone cliffs and ridges. The retreat was brief yet deep. One retreatant, Anh Thu Ton, wrote, "As I seated myself ill a comfortable position ... I began to think about finding joy in breathing and about the patterns and habits of my life which have been going in a completely different direction. What I needed to do most was to slow down and renew each moment .... It was easy to absorb the calmness of the retreat. Practicillg ill a group with other retreatants was enjoyable alld kept me on track. I liked the way others spoke openly about the joys and difficulties of mindfulness practice. and I could not forget the four speakers who shared their experiences that first night. I found myself being very inspired. saddened by some of the stories. and on many occasions I could barely restrain from laughter."
Our last day in the Sydney area was a most vivid one. Tony Mills, with whom we had traveled in Vietnam two years earlier, took us to a trail above a beach south of Sydney. It was an exquisite six-kilometer walk through tall forests vibrating with birdsongs, along high, burnt-out bush with fabulous vistas of the seacoast, down through rainforest, to a sandy glade for a picnic. As we entered a great open field that led down to the ocean, there was concern that we would not make it back home in time to greet the evening's guests. I could hardly bear the thought that we might not complete the hike and experience a swim in the ocean, and I made that clear by hardly stopping to consider our plans. I forged ahead to the sea with the wind at my face like a wild stallion. I plunged in first, ecstatic with the taste of salt water. When I came back towards the shore, Tony warned me, "There's a rip. so don't go out beyond your depth." When Arnie came into the sea, I told him to keep walking against the tide, as this is what I had understood from Tony's warning. The next thing I knew, Arnie was drifting quickly out to sea, seemingly relaxed, with his feet up. I went toward him and saw that he was struggling. He said, "Therese, take my hand. I can't get back in." I swam out to him, took his hand, and tried to pull him and myself towards the shore, to no avail. The sea had us in her strong arms. We were caught in a rip tide. Arnie let go, saying, "It's not working." I continued in front of him, treading water, and suggested that he do the sidestroke to relax. He tried a few more strokes and then disappeared from my view.
At the same time, Dan appeared beside me with eyes wide open, saying, "This is serious." I looked at the shore and saw Tony and Khanh waving their arms in alarm. My breath was very short, and I began swallowing some water. I felt weak and feared losing Arnie and Dan. I realized that I must stop panicking and put all my energy into swimming to shore. After getting on my back to relax and breathe more eas il y, I kicked and pulled as hard as I could. The next thing I knew, Dan was standing up and exclaiming, "Arnie is all right. He's on shore." I was so happy I reached for Dan's hand and held it as we went back to shore together.
Liana, our friend in New Zealand, later asked me, "Did you practice conscious breathing during your experience in the riptide?" I realized that I had been quite aware that my breathing was shallow as I gasped, and those were the signals to me that I was panicking. I realized that my life depended on getting into a comfortable position to allow for more relaxed breathing. It was a difficult choice, though, that I felt I had to make-to focus on my own position and breathing when, as far as I could tell, Arnie was drifting farther out.
The way home was a time to process our experience. We stood for quite a while above the sea trying to understand a rip tide. I realized how strong my will had been; how I had not paused enough to consider the wisdom of going all the way to the sea; how we should have paused altogether on the shore to understand the danger of the surf that day. We did get back home just in time to greet members of the Sangha gathered for a lovely tea and farewell.
The next day we flew to Auckland, New Zealand, where we gave a public lecture at a Unitarian Church and had a Day of Mindfulness at a lovely Franciscan friary.
We also had an interesting opportunity to give a lecture at a Vietnamese temple to around 70 people. We presented basic practices for making peace within and without and reflected on some of the lessons learned from Thay and Sister Chan Khong's work during the Vietnam War. When we departed, it seemed that the Long White Cloud Sangha may begin a fruitful relationship with the temple.
On Sunday, we traveled to the Coromandel Peninsula for a six-day retreat at Mana Retreat Centre with 30 adults and 13 lively young people. During two evening presentations, core Sangha members shared their vivid experience of the Mindfulness Trainings and other practices that have helped them. It was inspiring to witness the wholehearted enthusiasm and conviction of a country that is attuned to the wisdom of its native people. New Zealanders have taken steps to protect Maori land and people and have refused to allow the nuclear age to encroach upon their shores, despite U.S. pressure. The discussion about learning ways to protect the purity of their air, water, earth, and peoples by Right Action through the Five Mindfulness Trainings was powerful, especially because New Zealanders and Australians have a hole in their ozone layer to contend with. We had a joyous Five Mindfulness Trainings Transmission Ceremony in which a dozen people received the Trainings.
On the morning of the last day of the retreat, we celebrated the marriage vows of Liana Meredith and Kees Lodder. Keriata Suart, a Maori practitioner, greeted the procession with a Maori song. After Kees and Liana recited the Five Awarenesses, friends offered songs, flute and recorder music, Sufi dances, and native crafts. The children offered a play, complete with two lassies on horseback! We enjoyed a banquet of sparkling grape juice, delightful summer dishes, and favorite desserts before forming a closing circle to end the retreat.
We spent the next night at Te Moata, a Buddhist retreat center on 1,800 acres of wild bush. In the morning, we hiked with Tim and Anne Wyn-Harris along a stream and high up to a cabin that is ideal for a solo retreat. Then we hiked over to a barn which is a perfect retreat facility for young people.
The next day we drove south to Wellington through the Tongiriro National Park, full of volcanic mountains and high desert. In Wellington, we boarded the ferry to Picton, then caught a bus and traveled along the hil ls by the sea to Nelson. After a short rest and supper under a beautiful magnolia tree, we gave a presentation to 25 people in a lovely neighborhood center, The Fairfield House, about mindfulness practice as protection and nurturance in the midst of our busy lives.
The next morning, we set out for Wangapeka Retreat Centre in Wakefield, southwest of Nelson. Mark Vette flew down from Auckland and was a pillar of practice and support during our weekend retreat. On Saturday evening we had a wonderful walking meditation under a clear sky of bright stars, ending with hot chocolate. We finished the retreat with a mindful feast on the lawn.
Our last two days "down under" were spent seeing some of the beautiful South Island. We walked by Lake Rotuito in an alpine forest of beech trees with a carpet of mosses and lichens, hiked in Abel Tasman National Park, swam in the emerald water of secluded Split Apple Beach, and went to the underground source of the Riwaka River. We kissed New Zealand and Australia good-bye with tears of joy and a warm feeling that much had transpired that was good and beautiful.
Therese Fitzgerald, True Light, was ordained a Dharma teacher by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1994 and is Director of the Community of Mindful Living.