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Traveling Together as Sangha


Trish Thompson, Danna Zalenka, Linh Phan Khanh and I are already deep into planning Loving Work Foundation Retreats in Viet Nam for 2019, our 7th consecutive year. The feedback we continue to receive reflects that our 2018 Loving Work Retreat and Homeland of Our Teacher Retreat were engaging and inspiring for participants in all the ways we intend. As we do each year, our LWF leadership team has stopped to breathe, step back, evaluate and assess how our intentions and aspirations are being realized in our annual retreat offerings and in the relationships we’re cultivating with the people we aspire to serve in Viet Nam and with those who join us.

Each of our LWF board members and practice leaders brings a dynamic, yet unifying and complementary contribution to this work, this labor of love. Our specific roles vary in focus from retreat promotion to registration, administration, networking, nurturing relationships with the local Vietnamese organizations the LWF supports, as well as leading and facilitating the retreats. Regardless of our individual roles, each of us represents our tender and sincere love for our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and the spiritual tradition he has imparted to us. Our various contributions blend to help us realize our vision of inspiring interest in the cultural vibrancy, spiritual practices and everyday lives of the people of Viet Nam.

The “traveling sanghas” that come together for our two annual Viet Nam retreats each year are unique in composition. We hail from various countries. There is wide variety in our ages. We come from a variety of practice backgrounds, including those who are new to practice, as well as seasoned practitioners. Many practice in the Mindfulness Tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, while others practice in other spiritual traditions, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist.

Regardless of our backgrounds, when LWF retreat participants assemble each year to visit, serve, connect and practice with the Vietnamese people, we all unite around a common cause and vision: waking up in this moment, individually and collectively in community. We slow down, rest in our breathing, and thoroughly enjoy the many practices, ceremonies and activities that are emblematic of our Mindfulness Tradition as transmitted to us by Thay Thich Nhat Hanh himself.

Traveling together as sangha, what we “do”together is far from a site-seeing tour of Viet Nam. With everyone involved . . . whether retreat participants, those who support us with food, lodging and other services, and everyone in Viet Nam whose lives we touch . . . . we make clear that we are on retreat. We take retreat seriously, if also light heartedly and gently. And with that gentle and deliberate approach, we practice sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating meditation, Dharma Sharing, and singing each day. Some days we practice service and work meditation, other days we visit and do arts and crafts with children and young adults right at their schools, including some students who for various reasons are disabled mentally and, or physically challenged. Our retreat participants are always deeply inspired when we visit children living joyfully despite birth defects and retardation, some of which are due to their parents’, grandparents’, and even great grandparents’ exposure to Agent Orange.

To settle ourselves and inspire inward contemplation and outward observation, we agree together to hold noble silence until after breakfast each morning and at various times throughout the day, including the first fifteen minutes during all meal times. Embracing silence, we find deep joy in quieting and stilling our mind’s habitual fusillade of words and thoughts. Far from shutting down communication and interdependence, our practice is a companionable silence. Companionable silence is about being together in every way but words.

During a period of noble silence before lunch last year, one Retreat friend noticed he was the only person talking. He observed aloud, “Oh, we’re not allowed to talk right now.” Later, I took the opportunity to explain that noble silence is not a prohibition from talking. Our companionable silence is a gift we give to ourselves and to others, an invitation to simply listen. Companionable silence invites us to regard our fellow practitioners in such a way that we hear what is left unsaid.

Another reason we quiet ourselves is so we can listen to all the sounds of the world. Regardless of whether we’re offering our gift of physical labor or playing with children, whether we’re in the city or the countryside, and whether we’re in the meditation hall or traveling on a bus together, we practice stilling our own voices so that we might be able to hear the voices of other things and other beings in our surroundings. The environs we visit all over Viet Nam offer an almost endless variety of “barks” and “tweets” and “caws” and pre-dawn “crows,” as well as “thuds” and “calls,” and countless other living and mechanical voices, both pleasant and unpleasant, sometimes in cacophony. And just as in our own homes and home towns, unless we quiet the ceaseless chatter in our heads, we miss the rich aural texture surrounding us.

Our annual Loving Work Foundation retreats in Viet Nam are an opportunity to join other like-minded wayfarers who wish to experience the homeland of our Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and our root temple Tu Hieu Pagoda, held genially in the container of contemplative practice, traveling in community. At this point in my life, my walk and my work in the world center on inviting others into the joys of waking up fully to our humanity, and therefore to our full human potential. Our retreats offer the opportunity for us to realize this aspiration together.

~ Michael Melancon, Niệm Quang True Recollection of Light

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