By Elaine Solomon
“Hey, Mom. Would you like to learn how to eat mindfully?”
“Yes, that sounds interesting. What do I need to do?”
“Just don’t talk while we’re eating,” my son explained.
“I can do that!” I replied.
This, in a nutshell, was the brief conversation my son Aaron and I had in the summer of 2005 at my small apartment in Angels Camp, California. My son Aaron had come for a visit from Sierra Nevada College, where he was employed as a math and physics instructor. He was enjoying his summer break and decided to briefly visit his hometown—and me. We ate lunch in silence. I did not miss chatting while eating!
After lunch Aaron asked me, “Would you like to go on a mindful walk?”
I replied, “Sure. What do I need to do?”
He explained that walking mindfully was easy to learn. “We’ll walk slowly, without talking.”
I responded, “I can do that!”
He further explained that if either of us were to see something we wished to point out to each other—like a caterpillar or a pretty flower—we would stop walking and share what we had observed before resuming our walk.
It was a warm, sunny day, with a gentle breeze and a few scattered clouds. We began our walk down a country road, a short distance from my apartment building. We had walked, perhaps, ten minutes when I stopped. In the sky one of the clouds was the shape of a rabbit—a white cotton cloud body with bunny ears. I wanted to share the cloud with Aaron, so we paused on our walk to look at the cloud together. We continued our walk, and when Aaron stopped, so did I. He had spotted a cardinal singing its lovely song up in a nearby tree, and we stood quite still, hoping the bird would stay a bit longer. When we returned to my apartment Aaron asked me if I had enjoyed the quiet walk, and I told him that I had taken the same walk many times but never before had I observed such simple yet beautiful things in nature.
Before my son left the next day to return to his home in Nevada, he presented me with two books by Thich Nhat Hanh: Present Moment, Wonderful Moment and The Miracle of Mindfulness. I began to read them, to slowly absorb the words and their meaning. I began to understand the value of living in the moment and giving up my constant rushing here and there. I started to grasp the significance of breathing slowly and drinking my tea mindfully, without the distraction of the radio or a newspaper. I continued to walk slowly and mindfully, even inside my home. I was gradually learning to “drop my worries.”
FRANCE VIA IRELAND
Fast forward to January of 2006. My son was on winter break from his college teaching duties and was again visiting me, not in Angels Camp but in a small central California town where I was a special education teacher in the local elementary school. Aaron asked me, “Mom, would you like to go to France this summer?”
My major course of study in college had been French language and literature. I am a true Francophile. Aaron explained that we would be going to Plum Village, east of Bordeaux, a Buddhist retreat center in the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition, for the Summer Retreat. We could sign up for one, two, three, or four weeks. Aaron suggested that I choose two weeks, since it was to be my first experience at this kind of retreat. Later that day he registered us both for the retreat, and we began to plan our trip. We both had long wanted to travel to Ireland, the home of my paternal ancestry, so we decided to go to France via Ireland!
Near the end of June we flew to Dublin and rented a car, with the plan of driving south through County Cork and on to the west coast of Ireland. It was a wonderful week of sightseeing and soaking up as much Irish culture as we could manage. From the southeast coast of Ireland we took a nineteen-hour ferry ride to Cherbourg, France, and from there, the TGV train south to Bordeaux.
We arrived in Plum Village the first day of the retreat, in mid-July. I was to stay in Lower Hamlet, and Aaron in Upper Hamlet. My dormitory was Persimmon, a stone building with many rooms and a communal bathroom. I had four roommates: one from Surinam, one from the Netherlands, one from Italy, and one from Wales.
A BRAND NEW LIFE
At 4:30 p.m., the English-speaking retreatants gathered for Dharma sharing. The facilitator of the group was Sister Suchness. She had the loveliest smile and radiated so much joy! Our Dharma sharing circle was quite large, numbering about eighteen. There were folks from the United Kingdom, Israel, New Zealand, and South Africa. We gathered again to share our evening meal together. I so looked forward every day to our circle sharings, and we all enjoyed our cosmopolitan camaraderie. At the end of two weeks, I recall wishing I’d committed to the entire four-week retreat. Those two weeks had changed my life, and the entire experience had been amazingly transformative.
I prepared to return to the United States while Aaron stayed on at Plum Village, as I had expected, since he had bought only a one-way ticket to France. In the fall, he became an aspirant to ordain as a monk. When I spoke to him by phone or received a letter from him, I knew he had made the right decision: he sounded happy. I was happy for him.
The following winter I returned to Plum Village for his ordination on February 11, 2007. The ceremony took place in the meditation hall at Lower Hamlet and was quite lovely. I still have a clear memory of Thay holding a small white daisy and of his attendant carrying a bowl of water, walking among the kneeling aspirants. Thich Nhat Hanh dipped the flower into the water and sprinkled a few drops onto each aspirant’s head. There were nine prospective monks and one prospective nun. I later learned the translation of the new nun’s Dharma name: Patience. Perhaps she was aptly named, being the only sister among nine brothers ordained that day. They are the Papaya Family.
After each new monk and the single nun had received their Dharma names, given by Thay, they all assembled in the back of the hall for the head-shaving ceremony. I had managed to witness the ordination without an emotional display, but watching my son’s dark locks and beard fall to the floor, I could not contain my tears. I looked around me, and a few other mothers were also shedding tears. My tears seemed to mark the end of his old life and the beginning of a brand new life as a monastic.
My son’s Dharma name is Brother Phap Man, or Brother Fulfillment. Since the spring of 2012 he has lived at Blue Cliff Monastery in New York, after living at Plum Village for five years. At Blue Cliff he is often behind the camera, filming Dharma talks on Days of Mindfulness. Brother Man was part of a team that recently revamped the monastery’s website.
At the conclusion of a retreat in August 2014, I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings transmission at Blue Cliff. My Dharma name is Loving Speech of the Heart. As I write this in the autumn of 2015, I have been living at Blue Cliff for over a year. My main Sangha service is helping to tidy the tearoom in the sister’s hamlet: cleaning the counters, keeping the tea drawers stocked with tea, and putting clean cups and mugs into the cupboard. I very much enjoy this work, partly because the tea room is a gathering place for retreatants, lay friends, and monastics alike. It is pleasant to drink a cup of tea and share personal stories with new guests and renew friendships with returning visitors. In my younger days I enjoyed growing and caring for both flower and vegetable gardens, so I often offer my help in weeding the lovely gardens at Blue Cliff.
I feel much gratitude to live within such a strong, nurturing Sangha and in wonderfully beautiful, serene surroundings. Of course, it is an added bonus that I am able to live in community with my son. In the words of Thay, “I have arrived. I am home.”
Elaine Solomon, Loving Speech of the Heart, is a resident of Blue Cliff Monastery and mother of Brother Phap Man.