This New Year, I traveled to the Big Bear Retreat Center in SoCal. It’s a meditation center 7000 feet up in the mountains about 2 hours outside Los Angeles.
I was there to cook with my friend Jessica, a master retreat cook. I was (and still am) a neophyte.
It was hard! Heavy lifting, a lot of time on my feet, chopping and stirring and washing pots and falling into bed early to get up and do it again. If I ever needed to be reminded that those who support us while we’re on retreat need to be honored, I learned how much effort goes into feeding 60 hungry (and silent) mouths.
There are wild animals there; bobcats and coyotes and raccoons. Snow on the ground, the lighted ski lift at night, temperatures in the teens.
Nicole, the other apprentice cook and I got up every morning before breakfast and went to the Dharma hall to sit in the dark and quiet. What a blessing to be in silence, wrapped in blankets, at the start of the day. What a rare opportunity to give this gift to ourselves.
I have sat many, many retreats, over 250 days of retreats. I have sat for a day, a week, a month. I went to Burma a few years ago for a month and was awakened at 4 AM. In the dark I got up, put on robes of orange and pink and went out to the walking paths to join my fellow retreatants in silence. O beautiful time of day when it’s cool and dark and (mostly) silent. Just us, walking back and forth, passing each other while down below us down a thousand stairs, our breakfast of rice cereal is being prepared for us.
And now I think about those cooks, working over an open fire and a huge cauldron. Dogs lying nearby, hoping for a few scraps or bones. We would, lead by a tall, silent Western monk, walk single file down those stairs to the dining hall where the tables were set with the morning meal.
As renunciates, my fellow nun and I sat with the resident nun, Ma Kamala. She would encourage us to eat, would give us some of her food. Her air of kindness a constant presence. Even now I can feel her love.
There is a way to live that is easier, kinder, more true.
I spent several hours today filling out an application for a Buddhist training that will start in 2020. I have a dim hope that I’ll be accepted. But I’m giving it my best effort because the questions are provocative. “If you are selected, how do you envision creating or serving your community?”
Death is certain. The time of death is uncertain.
How will each of us journey through this year, with kindness, with care, with clarity? How will we serve all beings, without exception?