Category: Resident Journal

Reflections on Retreat


We’ve just completed a 7-day retreat at Empty Cloud, our first long retreat since I arrived and preparation for the two month winter retreat starting in January. Not until the third day, when the background chatter of the mind started to fade in a familiar way, did it start feeling somehow very Right, and I realized – this was the first retreat I’ve been on in two and a half years.

There wasn’t just one thing that kept me away. Primarily it was health reasons and the ever-shifting symptoms of Lymes disease. But there were also emotional blocks to going on retreat. I felt profoundly unsettled after disrobing, and struggled to get some foundation externally to allow for the internal peace of retreat. But the more I worked the more tired I was, and the further away retreat seemed. Getting back to it after all this time feels like an incredible victory.

Life builds up, adding ever more layers of complexity, and it seems like the only way out at times is to turn it all off and go on retreat. But I found myself reflecting – What is retreat?

My answer: Simply, it is everything that isn’t your life. That might sound absurd, but consider: What do you identify with? What are your struggles? What is your pride and joy in life? What is this overarching story you are part of?

Now, set all that aside. Turn off your phone; stop answering emails. In fact, stop talking altogether. If it feels contrived, it is. This is not meant to be enduringly feasible or a long-term approach to life. Just do it anyway, because it has worked and continues to work.

By Day 3 on the cushion, it’ll start to work as you realize it’s just a body sitting there. Breathing in, breathing out. You’re aware of the digestion. Aches call out from previously-ignored places. There is some mental chatter, but whereas before it was an incessant drone, now there are enough gaps to see the individual lines of thought. Here, a mental conversation on some annoyance, there, the replaying of a pleasant memory. Now, though, it’s all very present and clearly the nature of a human being, just being.

In this moment, in this awareness, you’ve stepped out of ‘Your Life’ and into just ‘Life.’ You’ve stopped having a very individual experience and story, and joined the rest of the human race in the universal story of being born, growing up, and then passing away.

In Majjhima Nikaya 119 the Buddha describes Mindfulness of the Body, and even if we set out to explore some other theme during our retreat we inevitably return to this mainstay. Nothing is more in the present moment than the body we have carried since our conception. When we stay with the experience of the body, the Buddha says, “the memories and associations related to the household life begin to fade.” It’s a natural process. We just have to give ourselves to it.

Soon our sense of presence is not just on the cushion. The mind becomes even quieter, and it seems like the whole world is reverberating at a higher volume. Every movement, every change in posture, every sip of tea, is suddenly thrown into contrast. This is the actual stuff of our lives. A body in space, living and breathing and eating, moving from one posture to the next. All of the story, which was previously so vital and demanding of attention, seems like an illusion.

We stay in that space for a day, or a few, or even weeks or months. Time doesn’t seem to matter. There is just the now.

Then, just as gradually as we started, there is the coming back out. Whether eagerly anticipated or inwardly dreaded, a familiar burden begins to settle on the mind as we retake the mantle of our worldly duties. Chores need to be tended to, things need to be planned, words need to be spoken. A very individual existence emerges again. But for now, at least, there is still that space in the mind, and a knowledge that ‘This is not real’. Of course, it’s real, but not a solid real like the body or the breeze or the ticking of a clock. Not real like the dhamma. This life is transient, ever shifting, and for awhile we get to see that it need not be taken so seriously, that it really is still a body in space, drinking tea.

The knowledge will fade in time, but if we value the experience we will return again and again. That, too, is a natural process.

One Thing For Sure


The night of September 5th, when we called for the monastery chickens, only two returned. Hima was nowhere to be found. Flashlights in hand, we searched the surrounding shrubbery, calling out Ina-Suki! in the hopes that she would pop out from behind some bush or boulder. But as the night got darker, we knew it would be next to impossible to find her—and almost impossible for her to find us. After all, chickens fall into a stupor at dark. All we could do was hope that she found shelter on the branch of a tree or in a secluded burrow.

You see, Empty Cloud Monastery is not only home to me and my fellow monastics, but also to three rescue chickens: Yama, Yamaka, and Hima. Though all from the same brood, Yama and Yamaka are almost identical, adorned with black, red and gold feathers. Hima, on the other hand, is the smallest, with a coat of gray and black and blue that shimmers in the light. That’s why we call her Hima, which means snow in Pāli.  

These three are free-range chickens in the truest sense of the word. By day they roam the monastery grounds, as well as the neighborhood, foraging for food and treating themselves to dust baths throughout the day. Sometimes you might even catch them sitting in meditation on the back porch, or preening their feathers in the shade of the pine trees. 

Then, before nightfall, we call out Ina-Suki! and they come running—waddling over in the ungraceful way chickens do. We toss them some feed and secure them in a wooden coop where they roost for the night, safe and sound. After sunrise the next morning, we let them out for that day’s next great adventure. 

I realized this recently: They are an integral part of our monastery life—part of the Sangha, part of our family.

A Pile of Feathers

This morning, I stole glances out the window, hoping to see Hima, in her gray-blue plumage, strutting through the garden. I didn’t. So during walking meditation later on, I took a stroll through the park next to the monastery. And there I happened upon a pile of gray feathers scattered about the base of a tall oak tree. My heart sank. Bending down, I saw clearly: these were Hima’s feathers—proof she had been attacked. 

Was it the hawk that soars overhead almost every afternoon? Or one of the foxes that prowls the perimeter of the monastery grounds? Or perhaps a bold and shameless raccoon? I felt a lot of things, but I wasn’t angry. Mostly just sad.

I searched for her remains but found nothing. It is possible she survived—chickens have much more feathers than we think. But it is more likely that Hima—our little artic chicken—was killed, dragged off somewhere, and eaten.

No One Born Can Escape Death

Life is uncertain. “Okay,” we think, “tell me something I haven’t heard.” Sure enough, we see and hear this phrase so much that it’s become a truism—banal, cliché. Buddhists are supposed to contemplate the sheer unpredictability of life in each waking moment. It is the teaching of anicca, the teaching of impermanence. And while we can become very adept at quoting theory and concepts, for most of us they remain just that: ideas with no real meaning in our lives. That is, until something happens that we simply cannot ignore.

When we come face-to-face with the death of a being we hold dear, it’s like whiplash or a glass slipping from our hands and shattering. How could this be? It’s too soon. It’s too painful. It’s too this or that. But when we return to the contemplations that life is uncertain and everything is impermanent, we see that—if we are honest with ourselves—we foresaw this outcome all along. We just pretended otherwise.

The Buddha taught that there is no way something born cannot die. It is simply the way of things, the way of the world. And when we penetrate this truth with clear understanding, then death is no surprise. It loses its sting once and for all.

Yes, this is the ideal, but it’s also how we can comfort ourselves after a tragedy. I can say that it does hurt to have lost a dear, feathered friend. The sweet hen who yesterday leapt for a cookie from Bhante Suddhāso’s hand. The little buddy who scampered away every time I tried to pet her. That is, until she finally let me—yesterday. 

And although her disappearance hurts, I can use it as motivation for my practice. In fact, I owe it to her. To cultivate compassion and harmlessness towards all beings—to even the hawk and the foxes and the raccoon, who unfortunately must kill to survive. And I will reflect on how lucky I am that I don’t have to kill to survive, that all around me beings can feel safe.

So may I never forget that life is uncertain, and may I use all of my energy to practice kindness and compassion to all.

And may you be happy dear Hima, and may you swiftly attain awakening for the benefit of all beings.

September 10, 2020

The fox has killed another of our hens, Yamaka. Bhante Pamutto heard her cry out, but by the time we reached outside, it was too late. We found her body near a neighbor’s fence, her neck broken. We collected Yamaka’s remains and carried it to a grove of trees on the south side of the monastery, where it was buried. A stone now rests atop the grave.

The resident community gathered for funeral chanting to say goodbye to another one of our dear friends. May she remember the Dhamma and her time with the monastic community, and move ever closer to the most sublime, peaceful Nibbāna.

Aniccā vata sankhārā
Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti
Tesam vūpasamo sukho

How impermanent are formations.
Their nature: to arise & pass away.
They disband as they are arising.
Their total stilling is bliss.