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Buddhadharma : Spring 2010
63 spring 2 01 0 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly m y sole motivation for signing up for a six- day retreat in the Rocky Mountains was to see Thich Nhat Hanh. I wanted to be in his presence, and for this I would put up with the vegan food, cramped dorms, and early wake-up calls. Like many, I’d read Thay’s books and listened to his CDs, and I just wanted to absorb his peaceful energy. My friend Marty, upon hearing of my intention to sit in the mountains with the master for a week, enthusiastically insisted on accompanying me, even though she had no idea who Thich Nhat Hanh was and had never been on a retreat. In fact, she was a little wary of “all this Buddhist stuff,” but I guess she needed a quiet vacation near some trees. So on Friday, August 21, 2009, we set off in Marty’s convertible, headed for Rocky Mountain National Park, a more-than-middle-aged spiritual version of Thelma and Louise. Thay’s retreat was billed as a mindfulness retreat and the theme was “One Buddha Is Not Enough.” We’d soon be grumbling that “One Thay Is Not Enough” either, but the registration process was hopeful, with some nine hun- dred folks mindfully not butting in line or getting cranky. Yet. As we snaked our way from one card table to the next station for more information and instructions, I marveled at the mix: a grandmother-type from Wisconsin, a reluctant teen- ager, exhausted parents with kids, an old man in a wheelchair. Come one, come all to Thay’s retreat. They were young, old, fat, skinny, mostly (but not all) white, and all looking for love in this, the right place. And all but Marty, I suppose, here to drink in Thay’s wisdom. By 5 p.m. on a fine Colorado summer evening we were eating dinner in silence, and I was quietly excited about the 7:30 dharma talk because I knew I would finally see Thay. The YMCA campus hosting the retreat had been teeming with soundless movement, a brown wave of monks and nuns. We filed into the meditation hall that evening, being more reverent than usual just in case the teacher actually took notice. We sat quietly in chairs, meditated for ten minutes, listened to angelic chanting, and waited. The monastics gath- ered together on stage, maybe fifty of them, a strong hushed mountain of devotion. “I will now read a love letter from our dear teacher,” one said. A letter? “‘My dear friends,’” the monk began, and I’m paraphras- ing here because the next line lost me completely, “‘I write this letter from Massachusetts General Hospital.’” There was an audible gasp, and nine hundred people simul- taneously gnashed their teeth. Thay’s letter went on to explain that he had a difficult lung infection that precluded him from being at the retreat. The doctors in Boston had insisted he stay in the hospital for fourteen days. He said that otherwise he was fine. But I sure wasn’t. Within a microsecond of my mind comprehending the impossible—Thich Nhat Hanh not here!—the following flashed through my head, in no particular order: WHAT!!!???? He’s not HERE? What the heck? What is going on? He’s not coming to the RETREAT? And what are we supposed to DO? He’s the only reason I came! NOW what? He’s not HERE!? And so on. It doesn’t take much to conjure up the vastness and intensity of complaint. Talk about your monkey mind. It was a jungle in there—in my head, that is. Outwardly we sat like good little Buddhist students, pretending to remember that we should be concerned about Thay being sick but really just trying to stifle the guttural noises of disappointment. “So, he’s not here?” Marty whispered innocently. I glared at her. It made no damn difference to her whether Thich Nhat Hanh was here or there. She didn’t care. Good ol’ beginner’s mind. The evening ended with a monk reminding us about noble silence, that period of nontalking from the end of the evening activity until after lunch the next day. We filed out of the meditation hall, stunned. I’m guessing a few folks were sneaking onto their Blackberries to see about the next flight out. I continued to entertain the two-year old in my head, until I got to my hot dorm room where my two aged roommates were grumbling their way under the sheets. We sort of glared at each other, sharing disgust at our bad fortune. Thay had never, ever missed a retreat before. Figures. Saturday morning I arose dutifully at 5:30 a.m. and pulled on warm clothes for the morning walking meditation. As always, a walk outside seems to clear up my mental garbage and today was a glorious Rocky Mountain show-stopping revue. Several hundred retreatants slowly came together into a coherent group of followers, walking silently in the dark behind a tiny nun. There’s a morning twilight in the mountains that spills about five shades of white and gold over the peaks before the sun even pokes up, and there they were: splendid soft colors framing the skyline while the stars still shone bright. I breathed in deeply the chilly mountain air. It felt good to have these people walking slowly with me. Right by my side was a black man with the arms of a football player. In front was a young woman with a rose tattoo peeking out from under her shirt. In a split second the sun shone its first small beams over the mountains and immediately the coyotes began to yip and howl. It was amazing. I put one foot in front of the other.