/* /* Eclectic Contemplative: Retreat at Buddhist Monastery

Eclectic Contemplative

Driven by a need for a more reflective approach to existence, I am exploring contemplative thought from a variety of traditions, particularly Catholic and Buddhist, in an effort to find a practice that will enable me to access that "inner room" that is at once still and luminous.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Retreat at Buddhist Monastery

When I registered for a retreat at a nearby Buddhist monastery, I was in the mood to do something completely different. But as the day of my departure approached, I had misgivings about the adventure. It was only for a weekend, but there would be very early risings, dorm style accomodations, a completely different contemplative culture than I am accustomed to, and day after day of Asian vegetarian fare. Don't those sound like substantive concerns??

I have prowled the halls of Benedictine monasteries and gardens, Catholic chapels at midnight, know the protocol of most interactions with most religious (except Carmelites, at least in person), but a campus full of practicing Western Buddhists (of whom I know few personally) and mostly Vietnamese monastics would be a foreign environment indeed.

I carefully read the brochure that discussed etiquette - from the removal of shoes outside every door to modest attire, silent meals, inviting the bell (stopping for a moment to concentrate on your breath and recall yourself to the present moment whenever you hear a bell, even a clock chiming the quarter hour), the observance of Noble Silence from 10 pm to after morning meditation the next day (very similar to the Christian contemplative practice of Grand Silence), and especially surprising for someone with my background was an exhortation to avoid private practices, as the focus there was on practicing as a community.

From a personal point of view, I found the people warm and helpful though certainly not chatty, and almost everyone spoke English to some extent. The food was exotic and delicious, but due to the practice of waiting until everyone had served themselves and been seated (80 people) before eating and even then eating very slowly and mindfully, much of my food was eaten cold. Only the dorm rooms were heated as far as I could tell, and the meditation hall at 5:45 a.m. was literally freezing. Winter in the foothills on Southern California includes frost if not snow, and is a real thing!

There was a wonderful sense of the sacred on the campus, but the difference between this retreat experience and a Christian contemplative retreat was subtle, but real. The best way I can think of to describe it is that the attention was centered on an empty space rather than on a concept of God. While intellectually I can see many similarities between the two approaches to sanctity - Jesus exhorts us to see all humans beings as Himself, while Buddhism reminds us that all creatures are as much ourselves as we are, both teachings intended to make us responsible stewards of our fellow travelers - it was hard not to interpret this difference as a "lack", even though I have as easy a time seeing God/Spirit in and as Nature as the Buddhists do.

But at least in the Buddhist community created by the followers of Thich Nhat Hanh, whom they call "Thay" (tie) for teacher, there is a gentleness of approach, a simplicity of being, that seems easy. It is positive and proactive but persistent, like the polishing of a stone. There is no notion of sin, only error and a need to reconcile with members of the community over misunderstandings and try harder each day. That is what makes it seem so accessible, but it subtle and hard to grasp at times. Lay practitioners don't often utilize the ritualistic means the monastics employ in order to foster their interior development, but those methods are known and available. There are "gatha" or little prayers that monastics say every time they do something: Turn on the water, dry their hands, enter or leave a room. A person living in the world would find it difficult to get anything done observing such a practice, but there are a few I tried to bring home with me, like inviting the bell (even the ringing phone) and meditating first thing in the morning even though I'm still sleepy and can hardly sit up straight.

It is hard to miss the happiness of the people who live there and the people who visit there, some from great distances. Their warmth and acceptance and openness is appealing and does indeed make one feel one has "arrived" and is "home." I was tempted to immediately try to hook up with a local sangha, or group of people who support each other in their practice. But my practice is so undefined and my Buddhist knowledge so rudimentary that I think it is better to wait awhile and see what develops.


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