Celebrating Wesak on the Fourth Day of Mindfulness
Stick exercise! Equipped with a bamboo stick matching my height, I stand in a circle in the dim morning light while a faint rain is drip dropping on my rain coat. Wielding my stick precariously over my head, stretching with it behind my back, this is fun!
Today we are leaving the Lower Hamlet again in the white mini vans to celebrate Wesak, the Buddha’s Birthday, at the Son Ha building, a short drive away. Everyone from all Hamlets gathered together again for a few songs, wholesome lunch, a short walking meditation and obviously for the Wesak Ceremony.
The previous day, some brothers and sisters had lovingly decorated the estate. They had hung garlands along the water bank, attached flowers to the small bridge crossing the water and, on what seemed a tiny island, had set up a place with a small Buddha statue and a water basin filled with flower petals. It looked really pretty, just the weather didn’t.
Everyone gathered around the big tree to listen to the story of Buddha’s birth. The brothers, sisters and lay friends formed two lines, separating men and women, and slowly walked towards the second bridge, crossing the water, along the small strip of island towards the Buddha shrine.
Up to the very end, as it was nearly my turn, I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do. Nervously observing those in front of me, I bowed, got down on my knees, scooped up a ladle of petal water and poured it over the Buddha statue. Then I put the ladle back down, bowed, stood up and walked as slowly as my nerves were letting me over the bridge and relaxed. It just doesn’t help if a large group of people is looking at me (that includes Buddhist monks).
Suddenly I felt socially very awkward. I didn’t know anyone and couldn’t see the other girls from my hamlet. It didn’t help that a fellow German lay friend recognized me from the Dharma sharing two days ago and started talking to me. It was really quite surprising to notice how different it is to talk to men after a few days among women. It threw me off balance and made me rather nervous. Even more surprising was my reaction to him saying he was getting himself a cup of tea, asking if I was having one. I said no – I simply don’t drink tea – which always seems to give off the idea that I don’t just want tea but don’t want to carry on talking either, which is never my intention. After an awkward moment he turned away to get his tea whereas my throat was blocking off again, and the feelings of rejection came flooding up, just like they had done two days ago at the dinner table.
Now that was strange. I went for a slow walk to calm me down and noticed the brother from the Dharma sharing two days ago, whose story had brought up my invisible core. I approached him, bowed and asked if I could share something with him. “Of course sister”, came the open answer. I told him about my breakthrough and thanked him for sharing his story, as it did help me, unlike I had said there and then, for which I apologized again. I really liked the uncomplicated yet deep way we talked. When he said that I didn’t sound like someone who had only been here in Plum Village for a few days, rather a few years, I replied that I have been talking and thinking like this for many years, just that I don’t really listen to myself often, hence I was here hoping to find stillness so I could listen to myself.
With his tall statue and unique facial features, he stood out from the crowd of mainly short Vietnamese monks and nuns and I couldn’t help but wonder why he had curly brown hair, unlike his fellow brothers and sisters. He explained that shaving your head is a choice you make and that it is usually an obvious sign that something is going on in someone’s head if the hair is growing. I asked if he had found complete peace here with his practice of mindfulness and whether old hurts would therefore cause him no more pain. He replied that even though he had found peace here, he could still feel the pain.
I was thinking aloud whether pain is peace, or peace is to be found in pain. They both appear to be directly connected with each other. Maybe the goal is to find peace in pain? The brother made an interesting remark that stuck with me. With his big blue eyes, he seemingly looked straight into my heart when he said that if we can’t understand our parents, we might be able to find out what is going on inside of them by watching our own thoughts and habits, because it is the same genes at work.
The scent of burning charcoal and roasting vegetables raised my interest and I went to inspect my first vegan BBQ. And it was really, really good! The many different varieties of tofu I have encountered this week is phenomenal! After lunch we are being entertained by brothers and sister with catchy songs, jokes and laughter.
I did speak to the German again briefly during the afternoon, noticing again the difference, this time compared to the monk I was talking to, and how much I long for attention and also affection, not especially his, or of any other random male for that matter, but for my father’s. Though for years and years I thought it was mere attraction to the opposite sex. Now I realise that it is just the missing recognition and accordingly the missing link to a neutral male, being unable to understand fundamental differences between men and women and how to interact. Talking to the brother was like talking from soul to soul whereas talking to the German was like talking from man to woman. Is it necessary for a man to be celibate for me to not get nervous?
I had arranged to walk back to the Lower Hamlet with one of the aspirant nuns form my Hamlet so we could talk. I had asked her a few days ago if she would like to share her story with me. Neither the German nor the brother were around when we were about to leave which to me felt like unfinished business. Even if I knew I would possibly never see them again, I still had made a link with them and simply wanted to say goodbye.
We walked towards the Upper Hamlet and I was able to see the impressive group of Buddha statues in the woods. She remarked that I was lucky to see all the hamlets within one week. That usually doesn’t happen, she said. While passing through the Upper Hamlet, we not only bump into the German for yet another banter but the brother also walked round the corner. I get to say a proper goodbye and leave with a serene feeling of happiness, which is topped by the brother driving past us a little further down the road, leaning out of the window saying ” Good luck with everything, Anna, and thank you again for sharing!”
While talking to the aspirant nun I see a lot of similarities. I observe her talking with another brother and wonder what would happen if brothers and sisters fall in love. She explains to me later that she isn’t permitted to talk to brothers unless she has a “second body”, another nun, with her. This she finds hard, especially since she has quite a good friendship with one of the brothers. She tells me that she had come to realise that she is much happier without a relationship because it enables her to be herself, without being tied down by others. Her story resonate with me, since I used to picture myself living at a monastery when I was younger. I am in awe with the way the brothers and sisters treat each other here, with unconditional love, just like real brothers and sisters.
Both encounters, with the brother and the sister, touched me deeply. And all these other wonderful conversations, so deep and profound, with people that I had met only so briefly, left me feeling as if I had known them forever. And together with the Buddha’s birthday and last night’s ceremony on beginning anew, I also feel like I have just been born again.