For my next set of interviews, my wife and I drove to New York State on May 22nd, which was—coincidentally—our 43rd anniversary. We spent the day in a quaint bed and breakfast in Pine Bush, New York. It is the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend, and the front porch is decorated with one dozen (two per window box) small American flags as well as one large one hanging from a slanted pole. Pine Bush is the UFO capital of the state, and this is celebrated by a painting of a female alien in a corseted dress and white wig a la Marie Antoinette in the B & B's front window. The control panel for the fancy shower in our room, with special steam nozzles, is at least as complicated as a space ship’s.
I suspect the house we passed on the way into town with the patriotic lawn decorations, including two small rockets with “God Bless America” written on them, would look that way even if it weren’t the Memorial Day weekend. The idea that God might show his favor by granting military victory to one side of a conflict rather than the other is a disturbing one, and one can’t help but wonder what that says about the Vietnam War.
I am in Pine Bush to visit the Blue Cliff Monastery, a Vietnamese Zen monastery associated with Thich Nhat Hanh, who—next to the Dalai Lama—is probably the second most respected Buddhist leader in the world. Martin Luther King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Prize for his efforts to end the war in his homeland. He now lives in France but has three centers in the US, including Blue Cliff in New York. The intriguing thing about these is that they are monasteries in the traditional sense. There are over thirty celibate monks and nuns living at each of the centers. Here in Blue Cliff, there are thirty-three persons; slightly more women than men; slightly more Asians than Caucasians.
The focus of Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing—as it is called—is less on seated meditation (there are only two 45 minute periods a day) than it is on mindfulness of whatever activity in which one is engaged. There is a clock which rings the quarter hour, and each time it does so the monastics stop whatever they are doing and bring themselves back to their breaths as they listen to the clock. There are about 60 short poems, called gathas, which are recited with various activities. Three are posted on the wall of the bathroom. The one by the light switch goes:
Forgetfulness is the darkness
Mindful is the light
I bring awareness
To shine upon my life.
Another is posted by the mirror, and a third is recited when turning on the water tap. There is also a gatha for the act of defecation.
It is easy to dismiss this all as slightly naïve, but it is also accessible and effective. Astonishingly, the majority of the people here are young, including two novices 24 and 25. Nor is it an easy path. Bhikshus—fully ordained monks—commit to abide by 250 precepts (novices start with ten). And yet none of this seems onerous to the people I interview. In fact, they all talk openly about how happy their lives are. There is also a playfulness in them I had not expected.
Perhaps because it is a community, the first practices focus on behaviour and moral relationships. While the precepts are not introduced in the Sanbo Zen or Kapleau traditions until the end of training (after one completes their koan work), here the precepts are the entry point.
It is a decentralized community. Although there is an abbess, she is simply one more nun. Decisions are not made by any individual but rather by consensus. General governance is the responsibility of the Bhikshu Council, and even its chairman rotates among the members. Likewise there is no personal property as such, although people have things they use (a guitar, a flute).
Somehow it all works. The zendo is huge and can accommodate up to 1000 people—although the only time that that many people would show up is when Nhat Hanh is here in person. But 200 people regularly come to retreats. Some bring their families. So there is a large outdoor play area for children. Infants are not uncommon. I ask one of the brothers—Brother Phap Vu who organized my visit—what draws the lay practitioners here, and he tells me it is the monastics, the spiritual energy, sense of peace and presence that they embody and manifest.
The only nun I interview—Sister D—agrees with him. She is a Vietnamese-American woman who came to the US when 16 and trained as a medical doctor, a vocation she gave up in order to become a nun because she felt she could better serve people in that capacity. She, too, tells me that the lay people are inspired by the monastics, and I can see why that might be.
Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp. 439-465
Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp. 439-465