Belonging to Sanghas

By Sara Henry—True Manifestation of Offering

I’m writing this letter from a snowy, cold, and cloudy day in New Hampshire. I’m about to make lunch, drive to vote in the primary election, buy groceries, then go to some appointments before returning home. I’m breathing and settling in, and I feel calm.

I owe a lot of the happiness and thriving energy in my life in this present moment to the time that I spent with the monastics and laypeople in Deer Park Monastery. The gifts I received and cultivated are still unfolding—they are hard to understand and express because they are so deep. There are many favorite moments, too many to recount, but I would love to share some of them.

At my first Wake Up Retreat, I didn’t know anyone. On the first day, a lay staff person asked if I would like a hug, and once I accepted, we shared a sweet and long hugging meditation.

My first summer I attended the Family Retreat by myself and felt healed by the presence of families, children, friends, and time in nature. Once I decided I would like to move to Deer Park as a long- term resident, I found the Teen Camp Retreat to be my favorite retreat of the year. One night after the activities finished, I sat on the fire road with a group of teen girls, sitting in complete silence for almost two hours below the full bright moon.

These moments must be given time and space to emerge. Staffing retreats can be incredibly difficult at first. It can be like stepping into an ice-cold pond while windstorms and freezing rain hits the face and skin. It’s a group of people showing up with their suffering and despair overflowing, and their inner children afraid and angry. It’s remembering to sing and move and touch the earth and trust in the sangha. It’s remembering to wash the dish and feel the water. It’s remembering that things are impermanent and also sacred.

I went to an incredible People of Color Retreat, held by Dharma Teacher Larry Ward, Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, and Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams. The Plum Village monastics took such good care of us as we connected with our unique and collective ancestral traumas, and resilience. I witnessed an unfolding in me that I am still listening to. I studied race and peace studies in college, but never had it been interwoven with the practice of stopping and looking deeply.

Brother Phap De passed away during this retreat, after many months of health complications. The week after his passing I was able to join the other Deer Park residents in his funeral, cremation, and ceremonies. It was the first time I watched a body being pushed into the flames of transformation. I felt connected to the long history of Buddhism in India. Birth, death, and no birth, no death insight, the historical realm touching the ultimate. I could see and be with Brother Phap De in the morning fog, the smiles of his daughter, and the bee-safe signs around the monastery.

I became closer with my values, the mindfulness trainings, and the numerous activists, healers, and teachers in the community.

As an American, I was grateful to be living in Deer Park while political and social change rolled forward. Donald J. Trump was elected President. I became closer with my values, the mindfulness trainings, and the numerous activists, healers, and teachers in the community. I am present with the slow and mindful healing of war, climate crisis, racism, sexism, violence, and so on. The intergenerational residents could look at the span of decades and see the threads of change, hope, and fear.

Throughout my couple of years of living in Clarity Hamlet, I would enjoy tea and treats every full moon with guests, roommates, and nuns from the hamlet, meeting lifelong friends and loved ones. I smile as I think about the dragon dances in the Rains Retreats. The oracle readings affected me deeply—Sister Abbess taught me that a bamboo plant can protect the nearby cherry blossom plant from harsh storms, and the cherry blossom plant can bloom in radiance and brightness. The spiritual friendship is reciprocal, we can be one or the other in the relationship, and we have both energies in us. The sangha also has both energies in it.

I spent six or so months just participating. I cleaned the tearoom in Clarity Hamlet. I went to all the activities I could. My mom or dad would visit a couple Sundays here and there. After a while, I facilitated my first Dharma sharing circle on a Thursday Day of Mindfulness. I was so nervous; my hands were shaking as I invited the bell and spoke the Dharma sharing guidelines. I survived! My fear was held by the breath and the group’s collective compassionate presence. I grew in simply facilitating Dharma sharing. The nuns cared for me, pushed me, and inspired me.

Now, as I write this, I belong to many Sanghas. I’m in Wake Up (31 years young!). I co-facilitate in a BIPOC online Plum Village Sangha (Sweet Blossoming Sangha). I live in and help support year-round Plum Village retreats at Morning Sun Mindfulness Center, where nine Order of Interbeing members, two Plum Village Dharma Teachers, four practitioners, four children, and two grandmothers reside and practice. I teach yoga and mindfulness at a local yoga studio, and I always share the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Sangha. I am newly on the Care-Taking Council for the Earth Holder Community, an international Plum Village Sangha of environmental healing and activism. I help with retreat planning and administration, and I facilitate various retreats happening locally.

The practice and the Sangha are what keep me on the path of happiness. I don’t mean the kind of happiness that comes from acquiring something material or superficial (nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s happening mindfully). I mean the kind of happiness that comes from knowing myself and others deeply, being able to embrace and let go of passing phenomena, and opening space for learning and growing into my true self.

I would drink tea together at 4:45 am before sitting meditation. Sometimes, I log into the Deer Park Dharmacast podcast on my phone and listen to the voices that encourage me towards a life of compassion and loving kindness, and I feel the muscles in my jaw and belly soften. I still have a lot of unlearning and remembering to embody and integrate.

The practice and the Sangha are what keep me on the path of happiness… the kind of happiness that comes from knowing myself and others deeply, being able to embrace and let go of passing phenomena, and opening space for learning and growing into my true self.

I was suffering a lot when I arrived. I was like a baby re-learning how to live, to do ordinary things with mindfulness. I am humbled by how many people move through Deer Park, like babies, and look to the monastics, Thay, and Mother Earth for support. I still have seeds of depression, anxiety, inferiority complex, and PTSD. It makes sense, because society can be non-consensual, consumerist, sexist, and racist. However, I relate to my suffering much better than I did before—it controls me less, and I am much more free to be my true self. Most importantly, I take care of my suffering and joy every single day.

Thank you, to all of the seen, unseen, long-term, short-term, day-long people who have touched the land and connected with their hearts in Deer Park. I know it has taken so much hard and mindful work, presence, vulnerability, and integrity. The residents showed me that it’s possible to thrive in an environment of building community in a new, mindful way. I’m so grateful that the community in the hidden mountains of Escondido, California has been there for twenty years now! And may it be there for many more decades to follow, ebbing and flowing with time, and transforming with the practice as the collective heart continues to open. I am so grateful for our connections, which began so tenderly and slowly.

Editors note: this article is reprinted from The Day I Turn Twenty, the magazine commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Deer Park published in the summer of 2020.

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2 responses to “Belonging to Sanghas”

  1. So grateful to read your words, Sarah, as a warm fuzzy reminder of the grace and compassion you offered me when we shared a bunk room during my week first week long retreat back in 2018. I hope you are doing well and that our paths cross again one day. Carolyn

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