I really had no expectations of this retreat (October 2011 at Blue Cliff Monastery), except to participate in the OI ordination ceremony, and to spend five days with Thay and 1000 of his brothers and sisters. But of course, I found that they were my brothers and sisters too, my sangha also. It was wonderful to be with my FCM OI friends John and Bill and Barb and Chris and Mary and Martina, and of course with my lifetime heart companion Nancy – I knew that would be so. But I also took my place as one cell in a larger sangha body, the Plum Village – Blue Cliff – Deer Park – FCM – everywhere sangha that has grown around Thay and his teaching.
Nancy and I camped at Blue Cliff, in a tent village with hundreds of others, in simple, silent harmony. How beautiful to see many dozens of colorful tents grouped naturally together, each with just enough space around it, without fuss or clutter. When we rose in the early mornings the only noise to be heard was the unzipping of tent doors as we made our way in ones and twos under the bright stars to the great Dharma Hall.
So many “strangers,” yet as the days passed we came to know each other so well, to see each other with compassion and friendship, usually without a single word spoken.
The fourfold sangha became real for me, as the brown-robed nuns and monks wove themselves into the fabric of the community of lay practitioners; though really it was the other way around, as the dozen monastics who reside at Blue Cliff generously – almost incredibly – gave of themselves and stretched the resources of their monastery to accommodate a thousand lay practitioners, and did so with remarkable efficiency and grace. Each monastic in his or her unique way contributed their particular skills, energies and presence to the sangha body: Vietnamese or Westerner, young or old, tall or short, serious or smiling, silent or vocal. The monastics chanted for us, beautifully, before each of Thay’s Dharma Talks.
Thay’s teaching – over two hours daily for the five days of the retreat – was clear and complete. His voice, his words, and the Dharma flowed through him like the cool limpid water of a mountain stream, pure and refreshing and utterly clear. He gave us everything we need to know, and showed us how to make it real in our lives.
Thay had the dozens of children attending the retreat sit in the front rows in the Dharma Hall, and began each talk speaking directly to them, never with the slightest condescension, before asking them to bow to the sangha and depart to their own activities. Then Thay taught the adults the sixteen contemplations of full awareness of the breath, the Noble Eightfold Path, and so many other of the skilful teachings of the Buddha. After he was done, Thay gathered the children around him again for walking meditation, holding hands with the young ones as the slow column of walkers kissed mother earth with their feet, arriving home with every step.
The extended OI sangha also became real for us. Every afternoon at 4 pm our family of ordinees – more than two dozen in all – the “Amusing Avocadoes” as our discussion group was named, gathered to share our names, our home sanghas, our aspirations for the retreat, and what had touched us deeply in each day. Brother Phap Tri facilitated our talks, and we all came to know and enjoy each other. I got a much better sense of the geographic breadth of Thay’s sanghas, and of the wonderful sangha builders and sincere practitioners that would be ordained with us. A new family, each of us marked with our own suffering and our own happiness.
Even before the ordination we were welcomed by our brown-jacketed OI sisters and brothers. One day after lunch we all met in Harmony Hall, the ordinees in a circle in the center, the ordained OI in a larger circle around us. The ordinees each introduced ourselves by name, location and 5 mindfulness trainings transmission name, and then the ordained OI gave us their silent and sincere welcome and support. Their loving kindness was palpable and warming.
The ordination ceremony began at 6 am on the next to last day of the retreat. Brother Tri had encouraged the ordinees on the first day to be careful to maintain in ourselves a silence and stillness, to make of ourselves empty vessels to receive all that would be offered at the transmission ceremony. He also advised us to come to the Dharma Hall at least 30 minutes before the ceremony, to settle in and release any anxiety.
Nancy and I didn’t sleep much the night before, and by 4:30 am we were up walking in the quiet, black spaciousness of the starry pre-dawn sky. By 5:15 I was seated in my assigned place in the Dharma Hall, and began a mindful inhaling and exhaling that quickly became as deep and stable as I have ever experienced. I felt very calm, centered and present throughout the sitting, chanting, prostrations and Heart Sutra, and then for Thay’s introductory words and the reading of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, our wonderful and by now familiar guides and protectors. After each Mindfulness Training was read, Thay stared at us intently as he asked if we made the commitment to receive, study and practice it, waiting for our response. As Brother Tri had told us, it was a wedding ceremony, and as we all said “Yes, I do,” we felt the solemnity and exaltation of marriage vows.
My OI mentor Andy had generously sent me my new brown jacket, and after the transmission ceremony Bill presented Nancy and me with our jackets to put on for the first time, instructing us to ask ourselves each time we put them on: “Do I have enough humility to wear this jacket?” It was wonderful to share the ordination with Mary and Nancy and Chris and Martina, with Barb and John and Bill there in support, as well as with our new wider family of fellow ordinees. Our ordinee family name is “Collective.” My new name is True Collective Healing, which I like very much, as healing is very central to my practice and my aspiration, for myself and all beings. Nancy’s new name is Truly Living Together (a variant on Collective).
The next morning, the last of the retreat, we took our places for the first time among our OI brothers and sisters for the transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Hundreds of people, almost all the non-OI folks at the retreat, received the transmission. What a joyful multitude!
Thay’s final Dharma Talk that morning seemed to pull everything together in a way that was so simple yet so profound and inspiring. I already felt tears of joy before he exhorted all of us to continue the career of the Buddha, each a cell in the sangha body, the dharma body, the Buddha body. Then Thay called the monastics and the OI to the front of the Dharma Hall, and we stood, linked together, one swaying brown organism as the whole assembly sang “No Coming, No Going” and “Happiness is Here and Now.”