The Altar’s Story

I first became aware of Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) while reading an op-ed piece entitled We Are The Beaters And We Are the Beaten (Los Angeles Times, April 15, 1991). In the piece, Thay explains the dynamics and thinking involved in the Rodney King episode, where multiple Los Angeles police officers beat Rodney King with clubs as he attempted to cover himself from the blows. The episode was recorded by George Holliday and sent to a local TV station. The film was broadcast around the world.

Thay’s letter was a breath of fresh air at a time when society was emotionally inflamed and deeply polarized between the victim’s side and the attackers’ side. There appeared to be no middle ground of understanding and compassion until I read Thay’s letter and had an opportunity to see my own thoughts. Thay explained that our culture of violence, hostility and unresolved suffering leads to the manifestations of hatred and violence that can only be resolved through the practice of awareness and understanding. “Because our society is full of hatred and violence, everything is like a bomb ready to explode. We are co-responsible for that bomb.”

We are the beaters and we are the beaten.

Thay’s letter deeply influenced me. It provided me with a middle ground where I did not have to take sides, but instead could develop understanding and compassion. I began studying Thay’s writings and became increasingly aware of the transformative role of mindfulness of thought and action.

In the following decade, I was a member of a weekly Dharma group studying Thay’s writings and sharing stories of our own transformation and healing. Years later, I finally visited Deer Park. The first thing I noticed, besides the beautiful rustic setting, was various monastics smiling joyfully as they interacted with lay folks. This was in stark contrast to another, more austere Buddhist tradition I had been a part of. I immediately took favorable notice of what I was seeing here.

The Sunday of my visit was a Day of Mindfulness (DOM). Being so impressed with what I was seeing and experiencing at Deer Park, I wanted to be part of the community. I stood and took Refuge in the Triple Gem. The community transmitted the Mindfulness Trainings, and I became Accepting Breeze of the Heart.

In the following years, I attended two 90-day Winter Retreats that helped me to recognize my limitations. The intricacies of sharing living space with strangers and adhering to a daily schedule were a source of growth for me. I am truly blessed to have had this experience.

I always like to help-out where I can, and I noticed an inexhaustible supply of carpentry projects in the community. Being a residential building contractor and a journeyman carpenter, I began my career as one of the carpenters at Deer Park, attempting to hold things together and improve the community wherever possible. Over the subsequent years, with a fantastic group of volunteers and monastic sisters and brothers, I assisted in the modification of the Clarity Hamlet kitchen, the water shed, and many other building and repair projects.

The abbot, Brother Phap Dung, came to me with an invitation to build a new altar.

After a World Tour, there became a need for a replacement altar in the Ocean Of Peace Meditation Hall. The abbot, Brother Phap Dung (also a trained architect), came to me with an invitation to build a new altar. We discussed various plans, and after some weeks of experimenting with alternatives, Brother Phap Dung came up with the final plans for the new altar. Although I had never built anything like that before, Brother Phap Dung seemed confident that I could accomplish the project. He asked if I could have it finished by Tet, which was in three months. I had the presence of mind to hedge my response. I finished in time for Tet, but a few years down the road.

That was how the community came to have a new altar, with special thanks to brothers Phap Ho, Ron Forster, Howard, Thom Farrar, Raven, Duke and Van Nguyen, as well as numerous tea and chocolate suppliers. Following the installation of the altar, there were many smaller projects to assist the community of both the Clarity Hamlet and the Solidity Hamlet over the years. But now, in my advancing years, I am retired. I retain my taste for tea and sweets, and above all, the love of this mindful community. In the end, the most important thing we can build is Sangha.

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