My Lunch Date with Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh visited the Deer Park Monastery in Escondido last month, the penultimate stop on his world tour. He would go on to speak with the staff at Google headquarters in Mountainview, California about mindfulness in the workplace.

I looked forward to this visit with Thich, or Thay, as is followers call him, for months. As the date on my calendar loomed closer, the visit began to take on an almost magical quality, as if just visiting the monastery would bring me peace and happiness. I arranged with a few fellow mindfulness practitioners to meet that day at the monastery so we could sit together. One had seen Thich speak before and related how she experienced a wonderful peace just by being in his presence. I wanted a piece of that!

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

On the appointed day I rose pre-dawn, showered and had breakfast, and packed up my zabuton and zafu for the hour’s drive up to Escondido. It was a beautiful morning with the sun shining on prisms of dew, and soft fog lying in the valleys. I felt good.

As I approached the monastery I began to see cars with bumper stickers like “Coexist” and “Practice Random Acts of Kindness”. My GPS said I only had one mile to go, and I was right on time. “This is perfect!” I thought to myself. Then the cars began to slow, and then stopped completely. Already throngs of people were abandoning their cars and walking toward the monastery. “Geez, this is like a Rolling Stones concert,” I said to myself. And then, “No matter, this is a good chance to practice patience.” I took a few conscious breaths as I inched my car forward.

I started looking at the clock, the minutes ticking by. I felt impatient, worried that I was going to miss out on the opening practice, a walking meditation. Forty-five minutes later a parking lot came into view…and a monk directing everyone to turn around because it was full. On the way back, I passed a sign that read, “Be Zen. Drive 10.” I heaved a deep sigh. “Why aren’t these monks more organized?!” I thought angrily to myself.

I drove a long way out into the suburbs before finding a place to leave my car. For a minute I considered driving straight home. But I’d already come all this way, so I hoisted my cushions on my shoulder and started walking.

A few minutes later a young woman called to me from across the street, “Are you going to the monastery? Is this the right way?” I felt grumpy and didn’t really want to talk, but answered, “Yes. I’m not sure how far it is. I just drove from the full parking lot and it wasn’t even close to the entrance.” “My name is Sophia. What’s yours?” I extended my hand. “I’m Chandra.”

We began to chat, about mindfulness, meditation, yoga, San Diego, the weather, where I got my cushions, where we both lived (around the corner from each other, it turned out). We walked and walked and walked. We talked about pets, family, relationships. We walked some more. Finally we got to the parking lot where I had turned around. I stopped to take off my sweater and drink some water. “I think the entrance is still another mile from here,” I said, the sun beginning to feel more intense. “I’m not sure we’re going to make the walking meditation.” Sophia shrugged her shoulders, “We’re almost there.”

The road suddenly began to incline steeply, the monastery still nowhere in sight. My cushions felt heavy. I felt winded and fell silent. “Know what?” asked Sophia. “What?” I breathed. “I think we’re doing our walking meditation.” I laughed. She was right.

The long, long road up to Deer Park Monastery

The long, long road up to Deer Park Monastery

We climbed and climbed. “I’m thinking about how good it’s going to feel to set down these cushions,” I said. “I’m thinking about how much nicer it is to walk with someone,” she said. I smiled again. A golf cart driven by a monk in a brown robe struggled past us, the back laden with metal folding chairs.

Finally we arrived at the monastery, which was not the tranquil, silent environment I’d imagined but instead resembled Disneyland on a three-day weekend. There were thousands of people milling about, buying T-shirts, queuing up for the bathroom, and fanning themselves with programs. We wove through the crowd to the meditation hall, which was so packed with people that they were spilling out the side doors. I had no idea how to find my friends. We found a couple of folding chairs on the perimeter and collapsed. I’d carried my cushions all that way and now I had to hold them in my lap.

Finally!

Finally!

A voice came over a loudspeaker, a nun preparing us for Thay’s arrival. She encouraged us to practice mindfulness while we waited. “Focus on your breathing. Breathing in, I am peace. Breathing out, I am here. Please be silent. Please don’t walk up and down the aisles; be still.” Dozens of people continued to talk and walk up and down the aisles. A woman seated next to me narrated everything to her neighbor. I closed my eyes, trying to shut out her distraction. She elbowed me in the ribs, “Want a cookie?” she asked, holding out a Ziplock bag. I answered her with a glare. The woman in front of me answered her cell phone. I closed my eyes again. I felt like crying. I was tired, it was hot, I came all this way to be mindful and people were driving me nuts! I looked over at Sophia, who was asleep.

Then, finally, Thich Nhat Hanh came into the hall and began his dharma talk. I couldn’t see him at all. There was a poster on the outside wall of the hall advertising his visit, his portrait looking serious. I tried to imagine him talking. The talk went on for about two hours, during which time I asked myself a lot of questions: Why do you need the guru to be mindful? Why do you need to see? Why do you think it’s better in the meditation hall? Why are you letting other people take away your peace? Why can’t you accept what is?

A gong rang out, and the nun came back on, “Please join us for a mindful lunch, in silence.” Immediately people began talking, the noise filling the air. Sophia and I looked at the long line forming for lunch. “I have some apples in my purse,” I said. Together we walked a ways down the road where we could stand away from the crowd, and shared my apples. “You know, I don’t think I’m going to stay for the afternoon. There are way too many people here and I feel overwhelmed,” I said. “Yeah, let’s go,” she agreed. We set off down the mountain. Dozens of other people walked with us. “I feel guilty, like I wimped out,” I confessed as we walked. “Why? You can be mindful wherever you go. You don’t need this place to know that.” I thought about how Sophia, meaning wisdom, was aptly named.

Together we walked the long road back to our cars. At one point a woman pulled over and asked, “Do you ladies want a ride?” But we were both enjoying the conversation and the company so much, we declined.

Driving home I realized that sometimes the greatest gifts don’t lie where we think we’ll find them. They aren’t necessarily in the holy places. Sometimes, they live right around the corner.

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1 Comment

  1. smilecalm said,

    November 13, 2013 at 10:46 pm

    Wonderful that you found joy in your present moment experience. It was the most crowded day ever at Deer Park. I helped cars park that were already lined up at 6 am. Wishing you peaceful future visits to Deer Park, perhaps during the winter retreat. The retreat and day of mindfulness talks are available at:
    http://tnhaudio.org/


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