By Khanh Le Van
The University of California at Santa Barbara campus was huge. "Wait till you see the gym," said my Dharma brother Arnie. Indeed, for the next five days we 1,300 retreatants would sit together in that gym for meditation and Dharma talks. A team beaded by Wendy Johnson was busy arranging the gym into sitting meditation squares. Some people set up the altar and stage, others carefully prepared Thay's suite and the rooms of the 34 monks and nuns accompanying him. The atmosphere was very warm. I was so happy for the wonderful opportunity to meet my teacher again.
The next afternoon people poured in to register-young and not so young, businessmen and women, artists, teachers, students, Buddhists, and non-Buddhists. The wide variety of people gave me more hope for the work of building peace. Retreatants stayed in dormitories around the campus and could practice walking meditation from one place to another.
As we queued up for supper the first night, the level of mindfulness practice was high for such a large gathering. The vegetarian food was so good that it influenced many to change their diet. Most people chose to eat in the outdoor dining hall under a white tent and enjoyed the beautiful, sunny weather. The Five Contemplations were read after fifteen minutes, giving time for some of us to settle first, and read one more time for later comers. I thought of the millions of hungry children around the world and was very mindful of each morsel that I put into my mouth. I vowed to do my best to alleviate this hunger by deepening my practice of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.
As the days passed, the quality of the noble silence deepened. Since the campus was right beside the ocean, Thay changed the morning sitting into outdoor walking meditation. Streams of people started at three different locations and met at the beach. There, we walked along the ocean as one big group headed by Thay-what a wonderful way to be! Our suffering, despair, anger, and fear, were still there-we recognized them. But, the capacity to be happy, light, and at ease was also there. We touched these positive seeds. Thay invited us to touch and taste what is available in the present moment-walking and sitting on the beach with the Sangha, the fresh morning air, the sound of the waves, and the soft sand under our feet. Throughout the retreat, this early morning walking meditation contributed much to the healing process for each of us.
Thay's Dharma talks were deep and well-presented, answering many core questions about fear of death, fear of the crowd, loss of beloved ones, improving family relationships, pain, and happiness. We also had many special interest presentations on topics including caring for the dying and their family members, and Sangha-building.
We had 57 Dharma discussion groups. The group I facilitated met quite a distance from my dormitory, so I had plenty of opportunity to enjoy my breathing while walking. I enjoyed seeing the campus come alive with retreatants practicing mindfulness with each step. I clearly remember the moment everybody stopped as the university bell chimed. I was standing still on the footpath, returning from a Dharma discussion. After three deep breaths, I noticed the stillness in front of me. I thought that I was walking in the Pure Land or in the Kingdom of God. An immense feeling of lightness arose in me.
Another beautiful scene was the presence of the monks and nuns, the flaps of their brown robes flying with the gentle breeze. They were so fresh, joyful, and peaceful. How fortunate we were to have the monastic order practicing with us. The energy produced by the Sangha was very powerful.
The retreat ended with the transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, received by many retreatants. More and more people are searching for something true, beautiful, wholesome. Practicing the Five Mindfulness Trainings leads in that direction.
May we be diligent in our practice for the future to be possible.
Dharma teacher Khanh Le Van, True Transmission, practices with the Lotus Buds Sangha in Sydney, Australia.