A few years ago, my spouse, Kip, and I signed up for a retreat in Estes Park, Colorado led by Thich Nhat Hanh. I have long admired this Vietnamese Buddhist master who, with his quiet, humble demeanor, teaches that mindfulness and peace can be cultivated in every moment and every act.
We arrived in the Denver airport and boarded the chartered bus to the YMCA of the Rockies. Once there, we settled into our room, then headed for the opening gathering, joining a thousand others who had traveled from far and wide. Finding a place on the floor of the large convocation hall, we sat, waiting expectantly for Thich Nhat Hanh to appear and give the opening talk.
After awhile, one of the brown-robed monks with shaven head approached the microphone and began reading a letter from Thay—as Thich Nhat Hanh is affectionately called. It was a beautiful, loving letter. But I was confused. Why was he communicating with us in writing rather than just addressing us in person? Was this customary in Buddhist retreats?
As the monk continued reading, it sank in. Thich Nhat Hanh would not be joining us. He was hospitalized in Boston, receiving treatment for a lung infection. His community—the nuns and monks from France and their sister monasteries in New York and California—would lead the retreat.
Even though I was concerned for Thay’s wellbeing, this was an immense disappointment. I’d been looking forward to this retreat for months. But I came to a reluctant acceptance. Perhaps this was the retreat’s first teaching: to release my attachment to something I had desired so much.
The nuns and monks did a beautiful job. They gave insightful and moving Dharma talks, and although they surely must have felt trepidation about having to fill Thay’s shoes, their sincerity, the depth of their presence, and the authenticity of their teaching was an inspiration. Over the course of our days together we coalesced into a supportive community, sharing our meals in silence, joining in our small group conversations, accepting the situation and one another with grace and humor. In the absence of the revered master, the community discovered its strength.
The experience made us all more aware of how we so often project onto a single leader the capacities that lie within each of us. Had we really come to see a Buddhist super star? Or had we gathered to become a community—practicing mindfulness, compassion and peace?
As though to express the collective shift we’d undergone, at our joyous closing celebration a spontaneous dance erupted as Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” played over the sound system. (“If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”) The energy in the room was extraordinary. Something powerful had been unleashed during that retreat, not despite Thay’s absence, but because of it.
The event became known as the miracle of the Rockies, a story of collective awakening when the master became embodied in the Sangha. The teaching was no longer the purview of one individual; it had become the gift of and to the collective.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the retreat had been billed: One Buddha Is Not Enough.
One of the most meaningful moments for me personally was when I was initiated into the Five Mindfulness Trainings—practices that give concrete expression to the Buddha’s teachings about right understanding and true love.
Sister Pine, the nun who facilitated our small group, assigned Dharma names to everyone in her group who had adopted the trainings. The morning she passed out the certificates she gestured me aside to quietly whisper something to me. She told me that the Dharma name she had heard for me was Living Christ of the Heart, but she didn’t know if I would be able to use it publicly, so on my certificate she wrote Joyful Gift of the Heart. When she told me, she emphasized the word Living, repeating it emphatically to convey to me that the name she’d heard didn’t refer to something or someone in the past, but to a present, living reality.
I have held the Dharma name at arms length. There’s so much baggage associated with the term “Christ.” It can so easily be misconstrued—becoming a mine field for the ego. After all, how many mentally unstable people have claimed themselves to be the Christ, sometimes with catastrophic consequences?
And therein lies the problem: people believing themselves to be the Christ, as though there can only be one. In fact, the belief in one’s specialness—that one is somehow set apart from the rest of humanity—is an indication that the mind is still operating from an ego perspective, not a Christ perspective.
As I understand it at this point in my life, Christ isn’t a person but a state of being, a state of dwelling in the reality of one’s oneness with the All. Yes, it is a state of being Jesus inhabited, and one he wanted others to experience as well.
We have now reached a point where our collective survival may well depend on all of us awakening to our Christ nature, understanding that it the fullest expression of what it is to be human.
This, I believe, is Christianity’s new calling, metamorphosing into a religion that helps awaken the Christ capacity in us all, just as Thay wished to awaken the Buddha capacity in those of us who gathered on retreat.
While I was at the retreat that summer I bought a watch designed by Thich Nhat Hanh. In the center is the word “it’s” in Thay’s calligraphy, and in the four quadrants is written the word “now.” I’m sure he intended it to be a constant reminder to be in the moment, present to the eternal now.
And yet, against the backdrop of my experience at the retreat I hear it also as a proclamation that we all have the capacity to be Buddhas, that we are all the Christ we’ve been waiting for. The time for us to awaken to that truth is now.
Mary Elizabeth says
“Living Christ of the Heart”speaks to how I understand the Cosmic Christ/Christa. You have expressed so well the meaning of the Body of Christ for me, Patricia. Thank you for your reflections. I was just in Colorado for a workshop on Global Climate Change so I can picture where you had this experience.
Patricia Pearce says
Mary Elizabeth, thanks for your response about the Body of Christ and the Cosmic Christ/Christa. I’m eager to hear more about the workshop you attended.
sara steele says
I grew up in a secular Jewish tradition, and in my teens began to seek a way to travel through my days other than living solely through my ego. I visited different religious traditions and learned different spiritual disciplines, always seeking something that felt like Home. I studied Buddhism and the Tao. I attended early morning Catholic masses, went to Quaker meetings, joined worship services of various Christian traditions, went to synagogues, practiced yoga and meditation, and spent many hours listening to a very wise Sufi sheik. I loved being part of worshipful communities, especially ones that were singing or sitting silently, but I never found a home that felt completely comfortable to me.
One of the things that always bothered me in the Christian traditions was a focus on Christ that seemed to me to be a profound misunderstanding. Christ has been used, politically and otherwise, in ways that seem to be precisely the opposite of who he was supposed to be and what he was reported to have done. And the concept of Christ being a part of each of us that could be awakened never seemed to be satisfactorily articulated.
So once again I welcome your posting Patricia. I always appreciate your penetrating clarity, which does feel like Home to me.
Patricia Pearce says
Sara, I couldn’t agree more about the disturbing misuse of Christ over the centuries.
I knew you were familiar with many different paths, but I hadn’t ever known the back story of how that came to be. I experience you as someone able to access the Greater Reality in such profound ways, and I’m so glad to be able to share the journey — and the experience of Home — with you.
Jennifer Tjia says
Thanks for posting this, Patricia. I knew you were someone very special and different when I met you at Tab. So nice to be able to connect with you on this site. Smiles, Jen
Patricia Pearce says
Jen, I’m not surprised that this particular post spoke to you! I’m so glad to be able to be in touch as well.
Jerry Rardin says
Best blog yet, Patricia! Resonances all over the place . . . theological, psychological, spiritual.
My primary association is to one of those St. Francis crosses which is neither “empty” nor crucifix, but with only the silhouette of Jesus cut out to suggest that he’s gone on ahead and that, like your “disappointing” retreat, teaching us how to fill that open space with that of ourselves which is Christ.
Also, your timing is flawless because the whole blog bespeaks the Pentecost Event!
As my group therapist used to say, “Thanks” can be just a cliche. How about
Surprised and Affectionate Gratitude,
Patricia Pearce says
Jerry, thank you for offering the image of the cross with the empty silhouette. That is so evocative on many levels: Jesus as one who emptied himself of himself so that he could be a conduit for Divine Love, as well as the invitation to all of us to, as you say, “fill that open space with that of ourselves which is Christ”. It resonates for me with the concept of the No One Christ, a la the No One in I Land story (which, BTW, I’m planning to revise in the next few months, amplifying the ending somewhat).
Also, your reference to Pentecost is so apropos. I see the Pentecost trajectory as taking us beyond the linguistic/conceptual frameworks of our isolated religious traditions into an understanding — a relationship — with the entire human family as well as the other species that form the Community of Earth.
Lynne Horoschak says
Living Christ of the Heart – hmm – if we use the word love in place of Christ because I do believe that those words are interchangeable – it makes perfect sense to me. You are the love that is called to be on this earth now, as we are all. Someone, much more intuned with their holiness than I said, and I paraphrase – we are the hands of Christ here and now. So we are the ones called to love today. Thank you, Patricia for making me think and feel about my relationship to God.
Patricia Pearce says
Lynne, I love that for you the word “love” is interchangeable with “Christ”. So beautiful. I’ve been interested for quite some time with what is often called Christ Consciousness (the Mind of Christ), but of late I’ve been drawn to contemplating the Heart of Christ, that universal connecting force (aka Love). Thanks for offering your perspective and being part of the conversation!
Janie Noble says
Patricia, what a marvelous experience the retreat must have been. I very much resonate with your description of our embodying Jesus. Always look forward to your musings!
Patricia Pearce says
Thanks, Janie. The retreat was a wonderful experience in so many ways. I’m really glad the writing resonated with you!
Marjorie Stadnycki says
I have always been delighted to find that once I am aware of a “heart truth,” it keeps revealing itself over and over – confirming for me that it has always been true, and now I am aware. As time passes, the revelation dissipates, but then I have the joy of discovering it all over again. I experienced this rediscovery in your blog this morning.
Several years ago, our family went to the shore for vacation the day after I was released from a week in the hospital with an appendix that had ruptured while they were removing it. Usually, we rented an efficiency apartment, and I used a tattered list to shop, prepare meals and desserts, and pack clothes and towels, being careful to remember the most insignificant items (needed in past years and added to the list). But that year, while I was in the hospital, my husband and children packed minimally and decided to eat meals that were purchased locally. I was released on Friday, and on Saturday morning, they surrounded me in the back seat with the pillows from all the beds in the house, and we drove to Ocean City. I was having difficulty and was not sure that I would be able to walk to the boardwalk, so I went without expectation. It was the best vacation ever! We were so glad just to be able to be there together. I delighted in everything – every step I took outside was a gift. The meals they made were spontaneous and delicious. And, by the fourth day, I was able to slowly walk the two blocks to the boardwalk and watch the waves, hear the seagulls, and smell the ocean. Delight beyond words.
Now, when the revelation is strong… I pack lighter. I try to open myself to the present joy – joy that will come without the added baggage of my expectations (Ocean City), and when I can be open even thought my expectations have not been met (Your experience in Colorado).
Thank you for sharing your revelation. Have a blessed weekend.
Patricia Pearce says
Marge, what a beautiful story. I could almost imagine what it must have been like to be able to reach the boardwalk and see the ocean, hear the gulls, feel the breeze and sunshine after having been confined and in pain. I was moved also by your description of the love and support of your family.
Your experience highlights something I’m continually rediscovering as well, that when I’m able to let go of my efforts to script my life and can just open myself to what is and the infinite possibilities that the future holds, the more able I am to receive the raw beauty of life and the world around me.
Thanks so much for sharing this “heart truth” with us.