One of the first things we encountered as we turned up the road towards Magnolia Grove Monastery was a small, white sign with the words: "I have arrived, I am home" hand painted in grass green paint. I smiled. This is one of Thay's favorite sayings and it is the root of his practice and his teaching. The fact that it was the first thing we saw of our destination after a long journey was sweet. We had indeed arrived.
The monastery sits on about 120 acres of rolling farmland in rural Batesville, Mississippi, about 10 hours due west of Columbia. As we drove up the dirt road that leads to Magnolia Grove, we were full of excitement and wonder. We had no expectations, just a sense of being open to taking in all that the week had to offer.
After setting up our tent and settling in, we began to explore the grounds. The monastery was surprisingly calm and still in light of the fact that nearly 900 people would be arriving within hours. We begin to see monastics dressed in traditional brown robes, with shaved heads, and non las (pointy bamboo or leaf hats), setting about their assigned tasks very slowly and mindfully. Everyone was smiling and working steadily. Their sense of calm and ease was contagious. We immediately felt at home.
We spent the entire week outside with the exception of the bath house which was the only enclosed, heated dwelling that we used. We were essentially "homeless" for the week; living in a tent, eating every meal outside, using the meditation hall tent, and gathering with Thay each morning for walking meditations through the forests and fields of the monastery grounds. Being stripped of our "things" (our house, our comfy bed, our closets full of clothing, our televisions and computers) heightened the realization that home is not in "things", it is in us. It's wherever we happen to find ourselves, in any given moment.
Thay was born in Vietnam in 1926. When the Vietnam War broke out in the 60's (the Vietnamese call it "The American War") and after witnessing unspeakable violence and the suffering of so many people, Thay spoke out against the war and was exiled by the Vietnamese government from his country. He ended up seeking political asylum in France where he has lived ever since. Thay talks about being stripped of his nationality and about how though he was taken in by the French, that France wasn't his true home either. He speaks about how in those early years of exile, he suffered homesickness and sadness until he realized that "home" is not where we live or where we were born. Home is in us.
Our true home is not limited to a place or a time. Our true home cannot be described by geographical location or in terms of culture. Life is our true home. The expression “I have arrived, I am home" is the embodiment of our practice. It expresses our understanding that the past is no longer a prison for us, that the future is no longer a prison for us. We are able to live in the here and the now.
Thay says, "Our true home is in the present moment, whatever is happening right here and right now. Our true home is the place where we no longer seek, no longer wish, no longer regret. We begin to see that the future is available in the present, and when we touch the present moment deeply, we touch the past; and if we know how to handle the present moment properly, we heal the past.
Our true home is not the past; it's not the object of our regrets, our yearning, our longing, or remorse.
Our true home is not the future; it's not the object of our worries, hopes or fears. Our true home lies right in the present moment. If we can practice returning right here and right now, then the energy of mindfulness will help us establish our true home in the present moment."
So whether we are hundreds of miles from our brick and mortar home, or camping outside in a tent, or walking through the aisles of the grocery store, we can remind ourselves to arrive and to be "home" in these very moments by connecting with our breath.
To arrive, simply inhale and silently say: "I have arrived", and exhale repeat: "I am home". Do this as many times as it takes to drop your grasp on the past and worry about the future. Arrive in the here and the now and find peace.
Until next time, please enjoy Sister Chan Khong, one of the nuns we met this week, sharing her happiness :) Enjoy!