Warm winds run through the moonlit oak canopy of Deer Park with energized gusts, and by dawn, the sky reveals strange swirly clouds gathered from all directions, reminiscent of a playful toddler’s finger painting. The 90-day Rains Retreat (Sept 18 – Dec 18) began this year, on an early Friday morning, with this auspicious sign. These potent clouds carry a renewing rain to welcome the arrival of rain retreat participants. The following days of pleasantly coolness—a relief from the hot dry summer spell of prior weeks—transforms the landscape in mysterious ways and carries the monastery into a quieter phase of the year, ready for concentrated practice. The transition brings about many comings and goings, yet the energy settles into a beautiful number of 100 participants committing to stay for the 90-day period within the designated hamlet boundaries during the counting-stick ceremony.
The Most Venerable Thích Phước Tịnh gave an inspiring opening dharma talk on coming back to ourselves for this Rains Retreat, nourishing joy, freshness and youthful innocence through the practice, so that we can be a source of timeless joy even if we are 80 or 90 years old. In this way Thầy was able to transmit his message to young people everywhere. We should dive fully into the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, which is the only sutra in hundreds of sutras that says “This is the sole path leading to peace, overcoming afflictions, ending sufferings, attaining right understanding, and realizing nirvana.” The Buddha, arhats, Zen masters and many wise spiritual beings have walked on and practiced this foundational path. By simply being mindful in the body—noticing how the body moves about, shakes head, bends, coughs, spits, chews, etc.—we won’t have any time to pay attention to how someone looks, then judge, compare and resent them or to feel lonely and despair. We then will be able to release the accumulated physical and mental stress and wisdom arises right in the body.
The maintenance of this mindfulness throughout the four positions of sitting, standing, walking, and laying down can radiate peaceful harmonious energy and easeful contentment and inspires many others who come in contact with us. As an example, the Venerable relates a story about a tribe of long-lived harmonious people with little feuds, illnesses or needs for therapy because their souls are full of joy and gratitude. Each morning and evening, they watch the sunrise and sunset, sending forth gratitude for the gift of dawn arriving and a night to sleep soundly.
Being able to be at a practice center, reading a page of the sutra or hear a Dharma talk is just taking the first step into the door. The second step—once inside—is to apply the practice in our daily lives and heighten the yearning to study and practice. The third step is to maintain continuous mindful attention in the body at every moment. After many years in a monastery, that fire of practice might fade away. It is a good time to reflect about our curiosity and burning passion in our soul to understand the highest fruit of the path. Only the person who truly yearns to practice—to transform their despair and suffering right in this life and not be powerlessly swept away by events in the current of life—will focus all their energy into the practice of mindfulness in the body and taste its fruit. A thousand people might come but maybe only a few people will truly complete the path of right understanding and highest realization
We should ask ourselves: why do we come to a practice center and spend three months or many years here? The chance to be in a meditation center is a very unique fortunate event. Sometimes, over many years, our deep interest in the practice can fade. We might die next year! Once we step outside of the gate of the temple, we might not be able to come back again. So this 90 days of practice is a rare chance to invest wholeheartedly in the practice of being mindful of the body in its every movement.
Please continue to enjoy the many fruits of his wisdom in this rousing talk.