I recently attended a 5 day retreat at the Blue Cliff Monastery in New York with Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hahn. I first became aware of Thai about 8 months ago when I saw him interviewed in the bonus features of a DVD I had rented. I was immediately drawn to him. I was sitting there, staring at my flat screen with a strange and goofy smile on my face. I knew that somehow I had to meet him.
Thich Nhat Hahn turned 84 during this retreat. Thai, more commonly spelled Thay, is pronounced Tie or Tay by members of his sangha. During this retreat I heard it pronounced most often as Tie by the monks and nuns I was with. Thai has been living in exile from Vietnam since the age of forty. He was banned by the non-Communist and Communist governments for his efforts to end their violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. Thai travels the world teaching “The Art of Mindful Living”. Home is at Plum Village in France, a Buddhist monastery, where he teaches, writes, and gardens.
There aren’t words to accurately describe being in the presence of Thich Nhat Hahn for 5 days. We had daily dharma talks with him that would last for 2+ hours. During this time he would fill a dry erase board several times with diagrams, English, Vietnamese and French. He would pace back and forth across the front of the meditation hall. Each time he made a point, which was often, he would look at us and nod several times. I felt, with every nod and arch of his eyebrows, he was injecting the teachings directly into my reality. He is an incredible teacher. He would eventually check the timer placed next to his cushion, look at us, and smile. Knowing he had gone way past the time he was to stop, he would quietly say “we will continue tomorrow.”
When Thai teaches, he talks and moves like a 30 year old. The very moment he stops teaching he is 84 again and moving as slowly as a tree sloth. This was my experience of him at Blue Cliff. It is also seems to me that it’s not about Thai for Thai. There are those that see him as a Buddhist rock star but for me, he’s a human in the purest form. When a human being this pure reaches this level they become windows through which we can view God. It’s this that makes Thai so dear to me.
The Blue Cliff Monastery sits up in the Catskill Mountains on 80 acres formerly used as a resort. There are very few buildings and a handful of very small cottages. During this retreat, we observed noble silence most of the time. Being among that many people in silence is an amazing experience
Two large tents had been erected to use as a dinning hall. One tent held the tables full of our food. One tent held the tables for us. We filled our bowls, ate very slowly in silence, and contemplated every bite. When we finished, we quietly washed our own bowls and utensils. We had to pass between the tents with our arms full. The tents were separated by a web of tall stakes and ropes. There were 1,100 people on the land during this retreat. I never once saw anyone trip. There were no trash cans except the small ones in the bathrooms. We created no trash. 5 days, 1,100 people, no trash, no tripping, no bumping, beautiful, quiet peace.
The monks and nuns sounded a large bell randomly throughout each day. At the sound of the bell, no matter what we were doing, we stopped. Can you imagine what that was like to see 1,100 people suddenly stop moving and do nothing but breathe in and out and smile for a few minutes? Even when we were moving we all moved slowly. Even when we were able to talk we talked softly.
Our days at the monastery began with an hour of sitting meditation at 6:00 AM. The meditation hall is a large sanctuary that sits on top of a mountain. It is completely lined in knotty pine supported by huge wooden beams. The size of the room gives the illusion of being in endless space. The center of the room seems to be infinitely high though I’m not sure of its exact dimensions. Windows cover the front wall and long sides of the building giving a full view of the mountains that surround you. It was dark when our meditation began each morning. Opening my eyes after meditation to the sun cutting through the morning fog; that’s a memory I will have forever.
Breakfast was eaten after morning meditation. Thai gave his morning dharma talk each day after breakfast then led us in walking meditation. Lunch was eaten followed by working meditation with our small dharma groups. My group worked in the garden each day and met for dharma discussions afterward. After dinner we met in the meditation hall again to listen to other teachers. Lights were out by 10 PM. There was no time to spare. If you happened to slip into the past or future while entertaining monkey mind, the bell would ring and bring you back to the present moment.
I was close enough to touch Thai many times during the retreat. I wanted to get one good photo of him. I had several photos of Thai in my cabin but none I had taken myself.
Taking photos during his dharma talks seemed disrespectful. It also meant leaving the hypnotic sound of his voice to point, focus and shoot. I did take a handful of photos while he was either writing on the board or looking down between thoughts.
One morning while walking mindfully with him, I cut off from the group and posted myself on a balcony overlooking the garden with my camera. I knew he would be walking by soon. As he and the group rounded the corner I thought I was staying back enough to go unnoticed. I took one photo of Thai and the group in front of the garden. They slowly worked their way toward me. Once he was right below me, he stopped. He slowly bent down and picked up a tiny red leaf. He looked down at it for a moment then looked straight up and into my eyes. He held the leaf up for me to see. He smiled and nodded as if to say – “this is what it’s all about – understand?” And I did. Clearer than I ever had before. I didn’t have time to join my palms and bow. I simply smiled and nodded. I felt as if I was being infused with every bit of warm, bright energy in the universe at that moment. Looking into his eyes is like looking directly into the eyes of God and no, I didn’t take a picture.
I made a decision to formally receive the 5 mindfulness trainings from Thai on Tuesday morning. These are your basic Buddhist precepts, Thai style. This is what I wrote about that experience: The ceremony began at 6:00 AM in the meditation hall; I began meditating at 5:15. We sat facing Thai. The Monks and Nuns sat facing us on our left and right, sitting in beautifully still meditation. They wore their brown robes but had added a gold kashaya or sash for the ceremony. There are not words to describe the sound of Thich Nhat Hahn’s voice as he spoke to us and we answered, the stillness in the full meditation hall, the damp, cool air, the crows calling to each other as they congregated outside, the sun rising and filling the hall with beams of light through the fog that covered the top of the mountain.
I fell back into some very harmful patterns two years ago. I have contemplated many aspects of myself deeply and filled my life with much study. The ceremony on Tuesday morning was my hard earned sweet graduation.
After the ceremony and the final day of the retreat, I left the monastery and traveled north to Woodstock. I treated myself to a nice room in a B&B. The next morning I headed south to the Ashokan Reservoir. I had promised myself I would play Ashokan Farewell on the dam.
The weather was horrible that morning. The rain was cold and heavy, forced by a strong wind. Several people were scrambling back to their cars as I drove up and parked. I strapped my guitar to my back and started out across the dam. The hills in the background looked like they were painted in bright, unnatural, metallic colors. I kept blinking my eyes, afraid I might be getting a migraine. It felt like I was walking through an old school animated Disney film and I was out there completely alone.
I got my guitar out and started playing, keeping my eye on the hills. After a few seconds into Ashokan Farewell a bright, thick rainbow lifted right off the hills and into the sky. It was in a perfect arch over my view of the reservoir. I played to the rainbow and the water for at least 20 minutes then packed up and headed in off the dam. A mother and her little girl had just started walking out. As I passed them I asked the little girl if she was enjoying the rainbow then realized it had faded into the sky.
Right before I left Blue Cliff an older lady from Vietnam and her daughter asked me to take their photo. A bee landed on the top of my head. The older woman panicked and swatted angrily at my face just as I took the photo. They couldn’t speak much English and I don’t speak Vietnamese but we stood there looking at the image I had captured on camera’s screen and laughed hard and long together.
I have bits of sage from Deer Park Monastery in California, fished from the bottom of a nun’s pocket after she and I had a sweet exchange. I have a new statue from Woodstock for my altar. I have a photo of Thich Nhat Hahn as he walked away with his red leaf.
I spent 5 days with the man from the bonus features and he gave me this: Everyday is full of wonderfully normal moments. Each moment, no matter now insignificant can be savored. There is God everywhere we look.