Spiritual Friendship

Spiritual Friendship

By Laura Hunter

Such is the wonder of life that you never know when something will change you forever. One day in February 2004, upon a recommendation from a friend, we visited Deer Park for the first time. Thay was in residence for the 3-month Rain Retreat. We were late, so the Dharma talk was already in progress.

As I walked up the hill, I heard Thay speaking about how we can be good gardeners and take good care of our compost. Gardening? Compost? That the true miracle of life is to walk on the Earth. Really?! Here was someone who understood my most plant and animal-based spiritual nature. I was hooked immediately.

I still advocate for the environment, human health, wild places, and environmental justice. But, now I have the tools to do it in a way that doesn’t do harm to me or to other people.

Over the next sixteen years, my experience at Deer Park has fundamentally changed me. I cannot say that I am the same person who walked up that hill. But, I cannot say that I am a different person. There is change, but also continuity.

I still advocate for the environment, human health, wild places, and environmental justice. But, now I have the tools to do it in a way that doesn’t do harm to me or to other people. Now, I am not driven by anger, but rather motivated by my strong resolve. I have learned to “not-know” and still be happy.

I can now look deeply into my food and see its true nature—and “cost” to other beings. Because of Deer Park I have become a “salad-roll junkie”. Just the thought of Pineapple Tofu makes me swoon. Karima Mosi and I had so much fun creating the Deer Park Cookbook.

Deer Park showed me how to work for the world I want without having to fight; how to be strong for the things I love without anger and fear; and how to solidly occupy the ground on which I stand and know what it is truly made of.

I am, thankfully, still married. I can see how important every day is, knowing exactly where we will be in 100 years. My husband and I were happy before—but we are happier now. There is harmony at Dog Park (our house).

The greatest gift of Deer Park is that I learned a way to be in the world that allows a future to be possible, and I met others walking in that same direction. It showed me how to work for the world I want without having to fight; how to be strong for the things I love without anger and fear; and how to solidly occupy the ground on which I stand and know what it is truly made of. The impact of these gifts on my life is immeasurable.

I have been grateful to be of joyful service to the Deer Park sangha. Early on, Mike Guerena and I were wondering how to get this beautiful Dharma to the “masses”. With Brother Phap Luu, we started the Deer Park Dharmacast. I remember when the first one was posted; we were ecstatic when we saw that we had a whole 25 downloads! Now each episode has downloads in the 1,000s.

Because of the practice, a new creative energy was released in me that I never had before. My favorite project was when we created the Deer Park Monastery calendar—full of many special Deer Park days including Cow-Free Day, International Stopping Day, and Give Your Notions a Day-Off Day.

The minute after I ordained into the Order of Interbeing in 2011, I was spirited off by Brother Phap Dung for the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation. There I have met some of the best friends (monastic and lay) of my life, and I think earned a Master’s in Mindful Fundraising. It’s never too late to become a supporter!

There have been so many wonderful times and memories. Ancestors Offerings, hikes, moon rises, Be-Ins, so many peaceful steps, easeful breaths, and delicious hours spent in the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall. Even my first “project,” organizing disposal of the hazardous waste, was a gift.

I feel like a true child of Deer Park, manifested by the patient, tolerant, skillful, forgiving, and thoroughly beloved monks and nuns of Deer Park who have been my teachers for the last sixteen years. They have offered the precious gift of Dharma to me. And it was one small Sister, whose name I don’t know, who grabbed my hand on my first walking meditation, and I knew then I was holding hands with the cosmos.

In the end, it comes down to the many friends on the path.

In our dining hall, there are two tall panels with single Vietnamese words in vertical alignment. I thought they were probably a beautiful poem. If I were to write my beautiful gratitude poem for the panels, it would be this:

(Brothers’ names)

Pháp Hải

Pháp Hộ

Pháp Dung

Pháp Lưu

Pháp Đệ

Pháp Trí

Ôn

Pháp Thanh

Pháp Giới

Ngộ Không

(Sisters’ names)

Hương Nghiêm

Đẳng Nghiêm

Đắc Nghiêm

Mẫn Nghiêm

Châu Nghiêm

Hộ Nghiêm

Lễ Nghiêm

Quỳnh Nghiêm

Kính Nghiêm

Thanh Trí

As the Buddha reminded the Venerable Ananda, spiritual friendship is not half the spiritual life. It is the entire spiritual life.

Dear Deer Park, thank you for your many, many precious gifts. You have formed who I am. There is no way I could ever thank Thay and this beloved community enough for your kindness and care. As the sign says, Happiness is Knowing you are on the Right Path—and we are. I know you are there for me, as I am here for you. And I am very happy.

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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