Monasteries Everywhere

This is actually a letter I just sent to my friends taking the current Appamada course, "The Heart's Release: The Zen Path to Softening Barriers to Love." I thought it might be of interest to a larger audience so I am including it here as a blog post. I hope you find it an encouragement to find practice in everyday life.

Greetings from Molokai:

I am spending this week at the annual “Great-fullness Camp” held at Hui Ho’olana, the retreat center where I have taught for the past 16 years. It is a week in which friends of the Hui gather to deep clean everything, work to support the existing landscape, clear invasive species and prepare for additional native reforestation, do maintenance on the buildings, and build new structures if needed. We have a wonderful time together as old friends arrived to offer themselves in support of something that has shared meaning—this place, the land, the vision of the non-profit, and each other.

About the second day during lunch I told my table-mates, “I feel like I did when I was at Tassajara (the Zen monastery where I trained). We get up early, sit in meditation, have breakfast, gather for work circle and a small inspirational reflection, and then disperse to our work teams until lunch. After lunch we enjoy a small break and then we are back to work in the kitchen, in the garden, on maintenance crews, etc. We end the day with dinner and warm conversations on the porch.” The basic arc is the same as in the monastery even though there is far less sitting and no formal services. However, the deep intention, the shared work, and the pace is quite similar. We begin with sitting, we work in teams to support the place and its complex array of interdependent parts, all necessary to maintain this transformational container for guests and teachers throughout the year, and maintain a shared schedule during this 10-day “retreat.”

But here is one of the most interesting and unexpected things (at least to me) that has emerged this week. When I arrived, Bronwyn Cooke, the Director of the Hui, suggested that I could offer morning meditation before breakfast if I wanted. It is always a good way to start the day so I agreed. I was also interested to see who might join me. Surprisingly there was a very robust response. There was also a request for an altar so I made sure we had a simple altar and candle. There was mention of people who were ill or who had recently died, so we constructed a second memorial altar covered with cards bearing the names of people we are holding in our hearts. We began to add things from nature, a beautiful Kwan Yin statue, and the cards. One of the participants had recently been to Bhutan and had brought back prayer flags blessed at a monastery in the mountains. I helped her hang the colorful string of flags over the entry so we pass under them each morning as we enter and depart our meditation hall. Suddenly we had a little temple, altars, and shared practices.

In addition, there is a tradition at work camp in which one person begins the morning work circle with a poem, a reading, or some other brief reflection to support our aspirations for the day. At the end of the circle the person who has offered the reflection for that day invites another person to lead the next morning. Bronwyn opened the first morning and tapped me for the second. The next morning I spoke about our shared connections and what a true circle of care can create. I used a short piece by Wendell Berry (attached below) and then had the group stand and enact the circle of care with the Metta phrases we use at Appamada with the appropriate gestures (the words without the choreography are below). Knowing that traditional hula combines chanting and whole-body gestures to tell a story, I said half-jokingly that our little practice would be a version of the more traditional Hawaiian hula. We would chant and use gestures to help tell our story of loving kindness. It seemed to be well received with a great circle of 34 people smiling in the morning sunlight.

Something organic happens when people offer themselves wholeheartedly toward a shared purpose. We all know this and have probably been blessed to experience it at times. However, I was not expecting the deep desire for practice to be so close to the surface. It only took a small invitation and a little nudge and the group was practicing together in a beautifully simple way. This is how ready the heart is to be released, to “blossom into a future graced with love.” (from John O’Donohue’s, To Come Home to Yourself). This is the “in-most request” that we all carry waiting for a place for it to be called forth. This week, this has been one of those places.


To Come Home to Yourself
~ John O’Donohue

May all that is unforgiven in you
Be released.

May your fears yield
Their deepest tranquilities.

May all that is unlived in you
Blossom into a future
Graced with love.

Gathering for morning work circle

We Clasp the Hands
~ Wendell Berry

We clasp the hands of those that go before us,
And the hands of those who come after us.
We enter the little circle of each other’s arms
And the larger circle of lovers,
Whose hands are joined in a dance,
And the larger circle of all creatures,
Passing in and out of life,
Who move also in a dance,
To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it
Except in fragments.

Metta Phrases

May this body be at ease
May this heart be open
May this mind be boundless
May this being awaken

May your body be at ease
May your heart be open
May your mind be boundless
May you awaken

May our bodies be at ease
May our hearts be open
May our minds be boundless
May we awaken together

May all bodies be at ease
May all hearts be open
May all minds be boundless
May all beings awaken together