By Jim Fauss
In June 1992, Thich Minh Dat of the Stockton Temple told me that Thich Nhat Hanh would be in the area in the Fall of 1993. He had told me that he trained with Thay at their monastery in Viet Nam when they were young men. I had lovingly read the copy of Old Path White Clouds which he had lent to me. I told myself that I would be sure to go to hear Thay.
As the time approached, I became concerned because I didn't have any money to go on the retreat. I was on disability since undergoing chemotherapy for cancer in early 1992. My wife, Artie insisted that we would find a way for me to go. In October, I was off to Camp Swig for "The Greatest Relief Retreat."
I knew it would be rough at first being away from Artie. It was the first night I had spent away from Artie since I'd been sick. Even in the hospital she was usually there for me. The year before I spent fifteen days at Tassajara during the fall work period, and the first night I was so lonely that I almost got in my car and went home. The people at Tassajara were very kind to me and I stuck it out. At Camp Swig, I anticipated the loneliness and was prepared. Right away I saw people I knew from Modesto and from other retreats, and I felt good.
It was an outstanding retreat. Thay's Dharma talks about the Avatamsaka and Lotus Sutras were even better than I had hoped they would be. When Sister Chan Khong sang, it brought back memories of my time at the Army Language School in 1958. We studied Vietnamese and sang a lot there. I remembered that when I heard a recording of the women of Son Tay Province singing in the fields, I thought that it was the most beautiful sound I ever heard. I hoped that someday I would go to Son Tay and hear it live. Now, as Sister Chan Khong sang, I started to cry. I recalled all the pain of that war that I had hated so much. During one guided meditation, as we sent our strength to those who had hurt us, I thought of Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, and Dow Chemical, and my crying became stronger. When I spoke of my pain during a Dharma discussion, the leaders of my group put me in touch with the Community of Mindful Living's veterans writing group.
The last two days of the retreat were beautiful. I felt that the Dharma was being passed on to those of us fortunate enough to be there. I no longer regretted that I was not there 2,600 years ago listening to Shakyamuni Buddha. I was no longer discriminating about the other people in the retreat. We were all perfectly imperfect and beautiful.
I had signed up to be a server on the last day at breakfast. Due to a glitch in the schedule, we had to leave the morning's final Dharma talk on the Lotus Sutra before it was over. When we got to the kitchen, we had very long faces but it didn't last long. We were having such a nice time that nothing could keep us down. We couldn't keep from smiling. My lips were raw from smiling so much. My fellow servers couldn't help laughing at the look on my face while we ate our last silent meal. I felt like I was glowing. We were getting ready to take the Five Wonderful Precepts from Thay, and we were very happy.
When I woke up at home Monday morning, I repeated the gatha Thay gave us for the occasion:
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in the moment
And to look upon all beings with the eyes of compassion.
I began to meditate on how I could possibly say thank you enough to Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and all the others from Plum Village and the Community of Mindful Living. How could I adequately express my gratitude for the wonderful retreat I had just attended?
I fell into an almost sleep state and had a little dream. I was standing in the middle of a lotus and before me stood Mahamaya, the mother of the Buddha. She waved her right hand and I saw that upon each petal sat a buddha and there were countless petals. I got up and went into the sitting room. I sat in meditation for a few minutes then went out and did walking meditation for a long time.
I recalled what great joy I felt when Thay had said, "You are my Sangha. I trust my Sangha," and then he urged us to do walking meditation. There were so many times during the retreat when I was reminded that right here and right now is the time to be walking on this planet.
I met two of my neighbors at the retreat and now we meet regularly with others for meditation, recitation, discussion, and joy.
Jim Fauss is a Vietnam veteran and a bus driver and Sangha leader in Modesto, California.