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Lotus in the Sea of Fire – a Personal Reflection

On September 2016, my uncle Pho Tran and I had a precious opportunity to attend a 5-day mindfulness retreat at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California. The theme of the retreat was: Lotus in the Sea of Fire. “Sea of Fire”! Does that sound a little too dramatic to you? Well, it did to me at least… and my initial response upon learning of the theme was “Let’s go to the retreat, and find out!”

We left San Jose on Wednesday, September 14, in the morning, and arrived at Deer Park around 6pm the same day. The ride wasn’t short, yet it didn’t take us much effort because every distance we covered was in itself our journey. With that awareness, the long road turned into joy!

Unlike past retreats with the presence of the beloved Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh when the crowd could easily reach above 1,000 participants, this retreat was conducted by his disciple monks and nuns. The population was divided into 9 families, each comprising 20-30 practitioners under the guidance of 3-4 monastics. We were lucky to be placed in the Lotus Seed family under Brother Protection, Sister Concentration, and Sister Protection. On our first day upon arrival, everyone was encouraged to attend the orientation session to learn about mindful manners such as mindful walking, mindful sitting, mindful listening, mindful speech, mindful working, and importantly, noble silence!

For some (and this includes me), the retreat was much like a vacation because they had to take time off from work and family and traveled hundreds, if not thousands of miles, to such a secluded place off to the Northeast of San Diego. But then what is the reward from attending such a retreat, you may ask? “Not much” is my short answer. But as we learned to sing, laugh, and let our hearts open, happiness suddenly poured forth, like the following lyrics in one of the songs we sang:

            “Happiness is here and now. I have dropped my worries.

            Nowhere to go, nothing to do. No longer in a hurry.

            Happiness is here and now. I have dropped my worries.

            Somewhere to go, something to do. But I don’t need to hurry.”

As we learned to adjust to life at the monastery, it seems laborious at first because we had to strictly follow our daily routine: wakeup at 5:15 am, meditation at 6am, exercise at 7 am, breakfast at 7:30 am, working meditation at 9 am, attending dharma talk at 10:30 am, lunch at 12:30 pm, deep relaxation at 2 pm, attending dharma sharing at 3:30 pm, dinner at 6 pm, meditation at 7:30 pm, then! lights out at 10 pm. But through engaging these activities mindfully, we learned to come back to ourselves, turning inward and looking deeply. We learned to find joy in the simple things whether they are cutting carrots, washing pots, cleaning the toilets, walking down the path, offering a helping hand to the sisters in the kitchen, or listening to others with compassion.

These simple acts though seem trivial and are often done with haste outside of the monastery, contain in themselves much joy, peace, and satisfaction when we do them mindfully. Looking deeply, I could see our anxiety, worries and fear that we are constantly faced in our lives are the sea of fire; yet our capacity to love, understand and offer a helping hand, is innate within us, like out of the mud growing the beautiful lotus. And I realized that amidst anger, hostility and fear, if we could be peace, joy and happiness, that is the practice. That is Lotus in the Sea of Fire!

This retreat gave my uncle and me many opportunities to connect with many friends, some of whom were traveling across continents as well as those coming from different backgrounds, cultures, and traditions; yet we all shared similar practice: Mindfulness. On this rare occasion, we also shared our practice of charity with our new friends and distributed Đặc San Hiểu & Thương 2016; and they readily embraced and praised this practice with enthusiasm!

Gratitude is what I have to say for being on this wonderful path of mindful living, because it has filled me with hope, joy and inspiration to fuel my work, knowing there’s a Sangha always there to support and guide me. Collective awakening is what we need in order to transform our lives and sustain our living on this beautiful planet.

With a deep bow of joy and gratitude,

Peaceful Filial Piety of the Heart – Kiet Truong