5-Day Winter Retreat 2023


I have been getting to know the DDMLA Chan community for about a year now, mostly through hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains together, but also through the English language meditation group and through other activities. For the hikes we take together, which my partner and I loosely lead, I have a few objectives. One: I want to introduce and deepen the knowledge of the local mountains and the plant and animal life they support to people who, like me, did not grow up with these particular plants and places. Two: I want this knowledge, gained on foot and in situ, to become familiar, comfortable, and feel just like a welcoming friend. I want to add a local flavor to the relationship that the people of this community have with ecology, their deep respect for nature, their practice of being present. While DDM's mountain iconography comes from another place and time, the San Gabriel Mountains, looming above the center's parking lot, are a fitting range in which to be present and find in phenomenal form all of the metaphors of mountain-related dharma: a journey, the path, evident time spans far in excess of a single human life, peace and quiet, a raw nature with a definite history but without any agenda. I leave it to the practicing Buddhists to teach me what else they see. This has become my third objective.

In the name of making some progress on that last point, I signed up for the first five days of the winter retreat with Ven. Guo Guang. For a meditation beginner like me, with my restless nature, wandering mind and tight muscles, sitting still was my main accomplishment. I was not really ready for the retreat - I was inexperienced and underqualified. When I attended a one-day retreat earlier in December, I realized that and tried to back out, but Lisa Wong and Chang Tong Fashi would not let me. Those ladies are tough! They also told me that the teacher was going to be great, that Lisa was willing to be my roommate, and that there would be other English speakers in attendance, so it would be a chance I should not miss. They were correct on all counts. The teacher was great, the nun who translated for her was also great, and the Chinese language speakers sacrificed the beauty of the Chinese liturgy and chanted in English so that we English speakers could understand what we were saying. This was very moving for me personally - I could hear that the sound of English was not as measured and beautiful in the way that the syllables of Chinese are, but the experience of the community of practitioners speaking English with us in the Chan Hall altogether was very moving and beautiful.

I only managed to sit still for a few of the sitting sections. More than once I became convinced that I was doing it all wrong. But very quickly I learned to trust the structure of the retreat. The care and concern for us all was evident in every detail of the schedule: Ven. Guo Guang's challenging and encouraging Dharma talks, the timely breaks and stretching sessions, the delicious meals. As the person doing the cooking in my family, I treasured the thoughtfulness of every dish on the table, especially the creative way leftovers were transformed into following meals. We practiced no waste through the kitchen's beautiful improvisations. The practice of noble silence eliminated all small talk, so instead of using chatter to intimate friendliness, people were simply kind to each other. Instead of using chit chat to evoke a feeling of common ground, we simply lived each day bound together in mutual respect for our common journey. The neighbor's rooster became my clock. I formed no linear memories from that week, no narratives. As I relaxed into the schedule, I found a pattern to help me practice presence in daily life. My perception of time changed dramatically. Even today I feel both that I am in a hurry and have no time to lose in accomplishing my life projects in the mountains, the garden, the art studio and at the same time I don't have to rush, that I have expansive and unlimited time to do things the way they should be done, should it be the right time to do them.

Many thanks for the wisdom and kindness of the Fashi of DDMLA, all of the volunteers, my co-retreatants and lay teachers.




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