For the last 18 years, once a year there has been a gathering of Buddhist monastics in the USA. I just came from this year’s gathering. Amidst robes of yellow, ochre, orange, red, burgundy and brown I felt like I was walking through a rainbow. So much of the last three years I have felt like a solitary monastic in an alien world. At this gathering, I felt relaxed and peaceful, like I was at home. We were 50 monastics who gathered from various Buddhist traditions to share the blessings of talking on Dhamma sharing the joys and challenges of our lives. Though most were residing in the USA, a few monastics had come from Europe, Canada and New Zealand. With some elders having been monastics for 30-40 years and some being preeminent scholars in the world, abbots and abbesses, as well as many living as solitary monastics, the gathering was a varied and colorful by experience and character was it was by color of robes.
We were hosted by the community of monks and nuns that live at Deer Park, a branch monastery of Thich Nhat Hahn that is nestled in a secluded valley on a nature reserve outside of Escondido, California. The beauty of the place was accentuated by the ease, grace and heartfelt welcome of the hosting community. From the peace and joy that was tangible at the monastery from when we first arrived as well as through many deliberate acts intended just for our gathering, an atmosphere of welcome, friendship and a container that supported deep inquiry was created. I felt this seeing eyes twinkle, sharing smiles, being called to morning meditation with Dharma songs, hearing the bell resounding through the canyon, sitting in silence together as dawn was transitioning to the light of day, during our scheduled presentations and discussions as well as over cups of tea.
The theme was ‘maintaining Bodhi resolve with joy during times of challenge.’ – finding our aspiration to awaken for all beings even when it is tough. The first presentation opened up the group and took the conversation to a level of authenticity and into matters of heart when one elder shared his experience working with depression. He learned over the years that with depression having a physiological component, he needed be careful taking medicines that balanced him. He also needed to take care with food and exercise and bringing a lot of patience and kindness to the mind states that arose. It was critical for this elder that his Bodhi resolve had to start with himself. He had to bring a solid determination not to believe the thoughts he was having. Through dedicated effort he found increasing joy in his life that he shared with us and with others.
We employed some of the practices that evolved from the Deer Park community stopping when the bell sounded no matter what was happening. We heard about the practice of “watering flowers and shining light” a way of offering feedback to each member of the community. The way it worked was by the nuns and monks sitting in separate circles at their prospective communities. The youngest members were invited to speak first starting with the strengths and assets a person has. After everyone had spoken with the most senior ones speaking last then they gently shifted focus to the areas that needed some attention and development. The nuns emphasized that they looked to speak about concrete examples of what behavior would indicate growth in a particular area. We had a classical presentation on using the foundations of mindfulness. Then with Thich Nhat Hahn being one of the innovators of “engaged Buddhism” there was a natural fit for the gathering and the resident monastics to join in the walk organized by the Buddhist Global Relief to end hunger. The gathering also had break out groups. Two important ones were the effect of global warming on our values about meditation and engagement and the effect of idealism on individuals and monastic communities. A particularly lively exposition was offered using a power point presentation of pictures of contemporary Buddhist journals as a spring board discsing topic relevant to “contemporary Buddhism.”
You can see pictures of the gathering and walk to end hunger.
I was stunned when we counted up and found we were 13 Theravada Bhikkhinis total- a large percentage of the 40 Bhikkhunis currently residing in the USA. These monastic gatherings have been a place where we have been able to share some of the elements of our troubled history, feel supported as we find a place in the larger Buddhist community and prioritize what is needed now as we grow and move forward. At one session in groups of 3 we shared our personal challenging experiences. I talked about being mostly a solitary monastic the three years since I returned from living in the nun’s community in England and the sadness and aloneness that was so much part of the territory I have had to explore in practice. I shared how Dad’s death re-opened another visit of sadness and aloneness. While I was talking with the two other sisters in my group, it occurred to me that Deer Park might be a good place to scatter Dad’s ashes. I asked the Venerable Sister resident of the monastery what she thought. She said, “Ask your father if he would want to have his ashes scattered here.” When I tuned into Dad, he seemed delighted by the prospects. Then I asked others residing at Deer Park if it would be OK and they said yes with a lot of empathy and tenderness. The whole gathering was invited to join in.
We assembled at a high point on the property- a pickup truck bringing those less mobile. Each community offered chanting. It was as if Dad shifted from being “ my” Dad to being a “Universal Dad”. Each person brought every ounce of their years of dedication, practice and love as if they were chanting for their own father who had passed. Tender, heartfelt, and unhurried, we offered incense, chanting and then I scattered his ashes under a very well established Bodhi tree overlooking a stunning view of the canyon. Being part of a global Sangha, hearing the various communities offer something true to their own tradition and still blending with the whole gathering- a ceremony that unfolded in an organic and spontaneous way – I was deeply touched by how poignant and soothing it felt to be together in this way and how much closure came from this support. Others commented on how special the ceremony was for them. One Venerable Sister said the ceremony of scattering Dad’s ashes was the greatest expression of the theme of the gathering. When I asked her why, she said that for me to scatter Dad’s ashes and include everyone like that brought together the challenges that were present at his death, the joy of everyone being together and the intention brought to the ceremony itself were the expression of sustaining our Bodhi resolve with joy during challenging times.
November 9 was the 100 day anniversary of his passing. I feel so grateful that this Rainbow Sangha and so many family and friends worldwide have been so loving and supportive during this time as I attend to closure with Dad.
You can see pictures of the ceremony scattering ashes.
The last day of the gathering, my preceptor, Ayya Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni spoke with me about “independence”. Traditionally there is a period of a number of years whereby the student lives in “dependence” upon her preceptor to be mentored in the ways of being a nun and to see that she has the skills and maturity to navigate on her own. “Independence” is offered when sufficient maturity is present. Being offered independence brought me a quiet joy, a renewed sense of ease and well being and another sense of completion just as the gathering was closing.
In the time since the gathering has been over, as I have thought about all the many challenges of the last few years and what it has taken to weather each of them. My thoughts return to the practices of opening to what is present, finding balance and letting go. As I let go, I let go into awareness. As I let go into awareness, I know that I am not separate from others or the natural world. Knowing that the practice works, knowing that everything can be part of my practice, I reflect on the turmoil I have been through and the resolution, inner peace and joy that I experience. Seeing that the practice works is where I continue to find my resolve.