Phyllis Colletta was among hundreds of people who signed up for a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, only to learn he had been hospitalized and was unable to teach. Soon her dismay turned into delight as the power of sangha took hold.
My sole motivation for signing up for a six-day retreat in the Rocky Mountains was to see Thich Nhat Hanh. I wanted to be in his presence, and for this I would put up with the vegan food, cramped dorms, and early wake-up calls. Like many, I’d read Thay’s books and listened to his CDs, and I just wanted to absorb his peaceful energy.
My friend Marty, upon hearing of my intention to sit in the mountains with the master for a week, enthusiastically insisted on accompanying me, even though she had no idea who Thich Nhat Hanh was and had never been on a retreat. In fact, she was a little wary of “all this Buddhist stuff,” but I guess she needed a quiet vacation near some trees. So on Friday, August 21, 2009, we set off in Marty’s convertible, headed for Rocky Mountain National Park, a more-than-middle-aged spiritual version of Thelma and Louise.
Thay’s retreat was billed as a mindfulness retreat and the theme was “One Buddha Is Not Enough.” We’d soon be grumbling that “One Thay Is Not Enough” either, but the registration process was hopeful, with some nine hundred folks mindfully not butting in line or getting cranky. Yet. As we snaked our way from one card table to the next station for more information and instructions, I marveled at the mix: a grandmother-type from Wisconsin, a reluctant teenager, exhausted parents with kids, an old man in a wheelchair. Come one, come all to Thay’s retreat. They were young, old, fat, skinny, mostly (but not all) white, and all looking for love in this, the right place. And all but Marty, I suppose, here to drink in Thay’s wisdom.
By 5 p.m. on a fine Colorado summer evening we were eating dinner in silence, and I was quietly excited about the 7:30 dharma talk because I knew I would finally see Thay. The YMCA campus hosting the retreat had been teeming with soundless movement, a brown wave of monks and nuns.
We filed into the meditation hall that evening, being more reverent than usual just in case the teacher actually took notice. We sat quietly in chairs, meditated for ten minutes, listened to angelic chanting, and waited. The monastics gathered together on stage, maybe fifty of them, a strong hushed mountain of devotion.
“I will now read a love letter from our dear teacher,” one said.
“‘My dear friends,’” the monk began, and I’m paraphrasing here because the next line lost me completely, “‘I write this letter from Massachusetts General Hospital.’”
There was an audible gasp, and nine hundred people simultaneously gnashed their teeth.
Thay’s letter went on to explain that he had a difficult lung infection that precluded him from being at the retreat. The doctors in Boston had insisted he stay in the hospital for fourteen days. He said that otherwise he was fine. But I sure wasn’t. Within a microsecond of my mind comprehending the impossible—Thich Nhat Hanh not here!—the following flashed through my head, in no particular order:
WHAT!!!???? He’s not HERE? What the heck? What is going on? He’s not coming to the RETREAT? And what are we supposed to DO? He’s the only reason I came! NOW what? He’s not HERE!?
And so on. It doesn’t take much to conjure up the vastness and intensity of complaint. Talk about your monkey mind. It was a jungle in there—in my head, that is. Outwardly we sat like good little Buddhist students, pretending to remember that we should be concerned about Thay being sick but really just trying to stifle the guttural noises of disappointment.
“So, he’s not here?” Marty whispered innocently.
I glared at her. It made no damn difference to her whether Thich Nhat Hanh was here or there. She didn’t care. Good ol’ beginner’s mind. The evening ended with a monk reminding us about noble silence, that period of nontalking from the end of the evening activity until after lunch the next day.
We filed out of the meditation hall, stunned. I’m guessing a few folks were sneaking onto their Blackberries to see about the next flight out. I continued to entertain the two-year old in my head, until I got to my hot dorm room where my two aged roommates were grumbling their way under the sheets. We sort of glared at each other, sharing disgust at our bad fortune. Thay had never, ever missed a retreat before. Figures.
Saturday morning I arose dutifully at 5:30 a.m. and pulled on warm clothes for the morning walking meditation. As always, a walk outside seems to clear up my mental garbage and today was a glorious Rocky Mountain show-stopping revue. Several hundred retreatants slowly came together into a coherent group of followers, walking silently in the dark behind a tiny nun.
There’s a morning twilight in the mountains that spills about five shades of white and gold over the peaks before the sun even pokes up, and there they were: splendid soft colors framing the skyline while the stars still shone bright. I breathed in deeply the chilly mountain air. It felt good to have these people walking slowly with me. Right by my side was a black man with the arms of a football player. In front was a young woman with a rose tattoo peeking out from under her shirt. In a split second the sun shone its first small beams over the mountains and immediately the coyotes began to yip and howl. It was amazing. I put one foot in front of the other.
From the other side of the park, another huge mass of quiet humanity moved together, slowly, across the dewy grass. Somehow we all met in the middle, nearly a thousand of us, sleepy but mindful. We sat down right there and breathed, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, washed in cold clean air. It felt good to be free of my own incessant babbling about how disappointed I was. I just sat still with all these strangers, and felt better. We walked peacefully to the meditation hall, and sat again.
Something began to shift softly inside me with the retreat routine in place. I felt safe, even held, with all these good folks on the path. Even though much of the day was spent in silence, we smiled deeply at each other as we passed on the sidewalk or sat across the table in the dining hall. We bowed every time another person came to eat with us, respectfully acknowledging a new presence.
It’s tradition on Thay’s retreats to have a Buddhist “Be In” on the last night of the gathering. We were scheduled to leave on Wednesday, so during Monday’s dharma group we were told that as a group we’d have to come up with a creative “thing” to present at the Be In. My mind resounded like a gong. I would write a poem and call it “Thich Nhat Here!” I couldn’t concentrate for the remainder of the session, so quickly were rhyming words flooding into my head. We left for dinner and Marty had no idea what was happening.
“I need paper!” I said with a hint of desperation as we hoofed it to the dining hall.
“Marty, I’ve got a poem coming in. You have any paper?”
She rummaged through her backpack and handed me a notebook, still confused about what was “coming in” so quickly.
We ate in silence and it took all my discipline not to scribble things down while I focused mindfully on chewing each bite thirty times. There were colorful jingles dancing in my frontal lobe, like The Starbellied Sneeches. Indeed, more present to me than Thay right then as I munched my tofu was my hero, Dr. Seuss.
We sat outside in the cool evening after dinner, and Marty took out her knitting and started talking.
“Hey, Marty, you gotta be quiet hon,” I scolded, “I have to get this down.”
She crooked her head and squinted, shrugged, kept knitting. I continued to take dictation from Dr. Seuss. This is the creative process, I’d been through it before. You just act as a channel and it comes through you like a baby. But it can be frustrating when words get stuck and some things don’t quite fit. Rather obsessively, I thought about my Dr. Seuss poem for the next twenty-four hours. At dharma group on Tuesday I asked my friends whether they might want to use my poem as our presentation. I read it, and they laughed and hooted. A musician in the group offered to put one of Thay’s poems to music after I read my little bit. Just like that, we had an act.
One of the women in my discussion group insisted that I put my hair in a ponytail on top of my head, “like Betty Lou Who.” It’s just amazing how Dr. Seuss brings out the best in all of us. I complied, of course, proud to be a Who, and we prepared mimes and dancing to go with the poetry. It was fun, almost joyful, and no one had really talked about Thay’s absence in days. We were absorbed in our community, our process, and that was that.
Tuesday evening we gathered in the hall for the Be In and there was singing, dancing, and lots of laughter. After each act—some rather loud and raucous—a monk would ring the bell three times so we would all settle back down. When it came time for our group to present, my buddies were rubbing my head and wishing me well. It had hardly occurred to me that I’d be reading a Dr. Seuss poem to a thousand people while staring into a camera, recording the whole thing for Thay, with my hair in a ponytail on top of my head. Hmm. I stepped up to the microphone.
“A poem in the tradition of the American Zen master, Dr. Seuss,” I said.
“It’s called, ‘Thich Nhat Here.’”
The place exploded in guffaws. They laughed and laughed and I shrugged, letting the sheer happiness wash over us all for a minute. What had caused such suffering only Friday was now bringing the house down on Tuesday. Talk about transformation. Go figure. I began to recite the poem.
I wanted to sit at the feet of the master
When Friday I heard these words of disaster:
“I write this letter from Mass General,” you said
And from 900 people, an audible dread.
I came to experience life without fear
And what do you know? Thich Nhat here!
We came from Virginia, Montana, DC
From the mountains and deserts, by land and by sea.
Spent money, took time, from far and from near.
And what had we heard? Thich Nhat here!
Your brave monks and nuns did not miss a beat.
We sat there stunned, nailed to the seat.
A very good thing we had silence while dining;
In our heads, dear Thay, trust me we were whining.
My roommate was snoring, the room hot as hell
But your monks they were smiling and ringing the bell
And all we could do was to sit, sit, sit, sit.
And we did not like it, not one little bit.
But as the days passed, though we thought of you often
Maybe you did us a favor in Boston.
What we did learn with you far back east
Is we are the sangha, we are the feast.
And who can contain your spirit so vast
In a body that’s old and not built to last.
By Sunday I looked at my roommate so dear
And what do you know? Thay, he is here!
The doctors in Boston would feel much chagrin
To know you’re here where the air is so thin.
You’re here, dear teacher, as we walk in the dark
And sit in the hall and stand in the park.
Your monks and nuns, they did not miss a beat
They breathed and they breathed and they sat on their seat
And it dawned on us all as we sat very still
That you are the teaching as old as these hills
And we live the practice, we light the way
And wherever you go, Thay, and whether you stay
I look in the eyes of my roommate so dear
And what do you know, Thay you are here!
There was not a sound in the meditation hall. I bowed to them, my sangha, and to the camera, for Thay our teacher. Our friend played the guitar and sang one of Thay’s poems. I’m sure Thich Nhat Hanh could not have been more present if he was smack in the middle of the room. When I walked off the stage, one of Thay’s nuns asked me for a copy of the poem, to give to Thay. Happily I handed it over. What do you know? I’m having personal contact with the master through a Dr. Seuss poem. Life is strange, no?
On our final morning together many of us took transmission of the five mindfulness trainings. We wore our best and sat together in the center of the hall. Those farther down the path sat all around us, surrounding us with love and support. The monks and nuns wore yellow over the brown. They were resplendent. During part of the ceremony we “touched the earth” and did prostrations to connect deeply with the earth’s energy. Bowing deeply had never felt so good. As I put my forehead to the rug, I felt a wash of familiarity, like I had come home. When I first did prostrations years ago on a retreat I felt strange and awkward—who am I bowing to? I had wondered. No one, and everyone now was the answer. I could have spent the whole day on the floor.
Thay is doing fine, I hear, his strong eighty-three-year-old lungs recovering well from an infection that would have felled a man thirty years younger. Guess all that good breathing paid off for him, our dear teacher. I am sorry you had to endure two weeks of IV treatment in the hospital, Thay. I’m sorry that’s what it took for me—for us—to understand that the teachings are never about the teacher. The Way is not about one person, one idol, but all of us—good souls on the path together, finding the Buddha, singing the dharma, and loving the sangha.
So all we can do is to sit, sit, sit, sit, and we’ve come to love it. It really does fit.
PHYLLIS COLETTA is a writer and former litigation attorney who plans to enter Upaya’s Buddhist Chaplaincy Program next year. This article is adapted from the forthcoming book, One Buddha Is Not Enough: A Story of Collective Awakening, a collection of essays published by Parallax Press.