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Welcoming the Iron Tiger at Deer Park

Posted by Chan Phap Ho at Mar 17, 2010 03:40 AM |
- written by Brother Soren Kisiel, True Land of Serenity - “Imagine Thanksgiving, New Year’s, Easter, Christmas and your birthday all happening at once,” Abbott Thay Phap Dung told us, “In Vietnam, that’s Tet, the lunar new year.”
Thay Phap Dung was preparing us for the transformation that Deer Park was about to undergo. With earth cakes and dancing dragons, yellow blossoms and bright red banners, the Plum Village tradition’s Vietnamese roots and community were about to make a vibrant showing at the monastery. 

This would be a celebration of aspirations, of hopes and intentions for the next trip around the sun, a simultaneous appreciation of both the coming of spring and of the harvest, an outpouring of gratitude for the opportunity for renewal. 

“In Vietnam,” Thay Phap Dung explained, “the celebrations go on for weeks.” He smiled, “For as long as they can, really - until all the treats run out.” 
 

the basket is overflowing-

tangerines

in front of the altar 
 

And so the number of treats prepared is no small issue.  

While the Tet Retreat at Deer Park is a very special time, the weekend before also holds it’s own uniqueness. For at Deer Park, the weekend before Tet is devoted to making Earth Cakes. 

Earth cakes – cakes of mung bean and sticky rice boiled inside a banana leaf wrapping – are the traditional treat of Tet. They follow from a Vietnamese folktale that I won’t try to reproduce, so as not to rob you of the chance to hear it directly from one of the nuns. The cakes are perfect for celebrating Tet, we were told, because the banana leaves seal the rice inside, preserving it. The beautiful shining green-wrapped packages are hung by strings around the house as you relax into the abundance of the new year. Guests arrive? Just pull one down and cut it open. They can be hung over the stove, in fact, so a warm earth cake is always available. 

And so the weekend before Tet the monks, nuns and guests spend all day and – literally – all night making earth cakes.  

The dining hall of Clarity Hamlet is turned into Earth Cake Central. The dish-washing tables are now used to wash banana leaves. Inside, every square inch of dining space is used to artfully wrap those banana leaves around rice and mung beans. Raging fires are made outside on the concrete, where enormous pots of water will boil the cakes all night long.  

The visitors are encouraged to learn the careful art of the earth cake, using square wooden frames to wrap them as perfectly geometric shining packages. Many of the visitors, applying their skills from holiday wrapping paper, proved surprisingly adept. More than once Thay Phap Dung held up a neatly wrapped square, “This is their first time! Amazing!” 

As evening rolled round the wrapping was complete, and the boiling began. This year rain was ever-present, and we all took shelter under a dripping awning, singing songs in both Vietnamese and English, as lay brothers and Thay Chinh Quang played the guitar.  For that one evening the back porch of Clarity Hamlet’s dining hall resembles more a Vietnamese village, alive with smoky cooking fires, endless pots of tea, and song. 

As we visitors eventually retired to our rooms, many of the brothers and sisters stayed on through the night, tending the fires. 
 

eyes stinging, hair wet, we sing -

white smoke rises

into the rain clouds 
 

When the weekend of Tet came, and the accompanying retreat, the monks and nuns of Deer Park did anything but relax and eat Earth Cakes. The Year of the Iron Tiger would be welcomed with nothing short of a festival, a grand party to make sure everyone there could feel the currents of renewal flowing deeply inside them.  

Dragons danced brilliantly down the center of the meditation hall, Thay Chinh Quang corralling them with a paper fan and the smiling mask of a Buddha. We were invited to draw fortunes from the Hall’s bell – slips of paper referring to verses of a classic Vietnamese poem, which the brothers and sisters would then interpret for us. Gifts were formally presented from the greater sangha to the monks and nuns, and to the Monastery. Venerable Thich Phuoc Tinh had small gifts presented to each visitor, hundreds of them all combined.  

On the eve of the New Year we walked together outside long long after dark, and then burned aspirations for the new year in a metal cauldron outside the mediation hall. 

We all then sat in meditation in the Hall, waiting for the arrival of the Iron Tiger. And oh, did the Tiger arrive. At the stroke of midnight, with no warning, one of the brothers began drumming on an enormous temple drum. Many of us nearly leapt out of our skin, greeting the new year with a surge of adrenaline that left us vibrating. The drumming went on and on, filling the Meditation Hall, and driving out the dust from the corners of our minds. 
 

quietly under the stars

the embers of our aspirations

smolder 
 

Abbott Thay Phap Dung had told us we would be seeing a side of Deer Park that we wouldn’t see as clearly the rest of the year: Deer Park’s Temple aspect. Vietnamese culture, he told us, holds that it is auspicious to visit as many temples as possible on the first days of the new year. So tour buses would be arriving, five or six at a time, from the region’s Vietnamese communities, filled with families to be welcomed at the Meditation Hall.   

Thay Phap Dung warned us that the lively chaos would be a very different energy from the usual tranquility of Deer Park. He passed on advice from Su Co Dang Nghiem: “When the tour buses show up, put yourself in the calm at the center of the storm.” 

“That’s good practice,” he continued, “So when the tour buses show up in your head, put yourself at the center of that storm too.” 

We watched from the quiet safety of the upper hamlet as bus after bus of visitors pulled up to the Meditation Hall, smiling grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles, aunts and parents walking their children into the meditation hall to watch the dragons dance.  
 

that woman’s face-

a memory of my great aunt,

a tangerine from the Temple 
 

In Vietnam, the weeks following Tet are filled with visiting – visiting your elders, visiting your teachers, visiting your friends, and hosting them all in return. At the monastery, this important part of the Tet tradition is expressed with a once-a-year delight: the monks and nuns open their rooms to us, and welcome us in for tea. 

We went in curious about what a monastics’ quarters would be like. How much stuff did they have? How much space? What we found though, sitting with the brothers and sisters, chatting, laughing and singing, was a clearer picture of the monastics themselves. Seeing them in their own private rooms, often beneath pictures of their family and of Thay, goofing around with their roommates – we got to see the people beyond the robes. We went in looking for stuff, but found humans instead. 

In the early part of the day we sat on the floor of the brothers’ rooms and were offered tea, nuts, candied ginger and lotus seeds. Vietnamese culture holds that it is good luck not to sweep out your house for the first three days of the new year. They insisted we help them gain good fortune, therefore, laughing and encouraging us to toss pistachio shells and tangerine rinds around the floors of their small rooms. 

Thay Phap Ho’s room escaped the mess: he received us on the veranda outside. Lest he not meet with good fortune, however, I threw a tangerine rind into his window, “May the new year be filled with health and so much happiness.” 

The sisters received us warmly in their rooms in the early evening. The homemade treats offered were exquisite, candied cranberries with chilies and ginger. But no one, at least no one male, dared to toss the remains on the floor.  

Coming and going from each monk or nun’s quarters, gratitude was offered with blessings for the new year: “Thank you, our dear sisters and brothers here at Deer Park, for all that you give to us.” 
 

your lights burn so brightly

on this hillside,

they are beacons 
  

Soren Kisiel, True Land of Serenity, is an award-winning playwright and actor, and is part of Deer Park’s Dharmacast team. His home sanghas are the Open Way and Flowing Mountain Sanghas in Montana.

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