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An Oasis of Peace: Visiting Blue Cliff Monastery

by David McCarthy   

In May, I visited the Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, along with Chris Hewitt, the Country Wisdom News Publisher and Marie Doyon, the editor.
The day we went to Blue Cliff was one of those special, late-spring days in the Shawangunks. The air was heavy with moisture from recent rain, and the greenery was bursting as it only does that time of year. It was a cloudy day, but only thinly so, leaving a luminous backlight of sun.
As we entered the large, spacious meditation hall, a video showed Thich Nhat Hahn, the world-famous Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master. He spoke quietly about how we use our time. He asked questions: “Do we have time to be with children? To serve others? To heal society?”
In the video, he was asked about the importance of spiritual community, or sangha. He replied that Buddha spent his time building community. Thich Nhat Hahn spoke about the importance of practicing together and making decisions by consensus, with a synthesis of views. He said, “The dream can’t come true if you don’t have community.”
The video ended, and people slowly got up from their seats. It was a “day of mindfulness,” which happens regularly here. There were quite a few monastics in robes (about 25 live on-site), along with people from the community who had come to spend the day in this environment.
After tea with staff member Stephanie Davies, who had kindly arranged our visit, we moved onto the walking meditation. The monk who instructed us encouraged us to “flow like a river” and “let [our] feet kiss the Earth.” We walked outdoors in silence, very slowly. It was probably a half-hour or less, but it felt longer, and completely peaceful. It was so soothing that I was a little disappointed when it ended, back where we started. But then again we were at the dining hall, and it was lunch time. Everyone got their food and sat at long tables while a prayer was read. We observed silence for the first 20 minutes of the meal, practicing mindful eating. The sun came out as we ate, and I noticed some tiny birds playing in the trees outside.
After lunch, Marie and I spoke with Sister True Vow. She is a radiant, soft-spoken woman who has been a nun in Thich Nhat Hahn’s Order of Interbeing since 1999. Sister True Vow is the Abbess of nuns at Blue Cliff, which is a position of spiritual leadership more than an administrative one.

What follows are a few excerpts from that conversation:

Q: Could you speak about the importance of mindfulness in the tradition you practice?
Sister True Vow: Mindfulness is an energy that allows us to be aware of what is going on inside and around us, and it helps us to touch both our suffering and our happiness in a deeper way. Basically it is a way of living that allows us to live more meaningfully, a way that’s connected to our environment. … Being more aware and in harmony with our environment, we know better what to do, what not to do; to help, or not to hurt. We can see very clearly with environmental issues today that it is very important to be aware of a larger sphere than just our own personal interest—or to be pushed or pulled by our habit energies.
Q: For people who aren’t in a contemplative environment like this one, what are some ways they can cultivate mindfulness such that it becomes part of their everyday lives?
Sister True Vow: The trick in bringing mindfulness into one’s daily life is to set goals that are feasible. Out in the world, we might not have an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening to sit, but we certainly have five minutes here, five minutes there. We certainly have a walking path that we travel every day which we can commit to making into an oasis of peace, an oasis of concentration. So, just because you’re not in a monastery doesn’t mean that you can’t practice. What it means, though, is that you have to be more creative. You have to find an intelligent way to practice that fits your schedule. And the beautiful thing about tailoring your personal practice to your daily life, is that doing so begins to change your daily life. As you continue to practice, mindfulness informs your lifestyle.
Q: How does this connect with the commitment to compassion?
Sister True Vow: In our tradition, there is a very clear equation between understanding and love. The practice of mindfulness is there to help us to see more clearly, and to gain a deeper insight into ourselves and our environment. When we have a deeper understanding, naturally our heart is unfettered. It is unclouded and allows us to open up our heart of compassion to help, but to help in a wise way. Often we have the desire and intention to help others, but we don’t have the tools to do so, because we don’t have a deep enough understanding, in a holistic way, of what needs to be done. This applies to the environment, to our families, to our work life—whatever sphere we’re talking about. With the foundation of mindfulness practice, we can act compassionately, which means wisely, to relieve suffering in a long-lasting way.
Blue Cliff was established in 2007 by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to share the practice of mindful living.