Located near the Catskills, there lies a special little place that opens its doors to visitors who would like to come and participate in something called “a day of mindfulness.” It is as simple as it sounds. Only two hours drive from New York City, you come in the morning, you sit, you eat, and you walk with mindful presence all day, guided by the Buddhist nuns and monks who live there permanently. Blue Cliff Monastery is the name, and it is modeled after the wisdom of Vietnamese Zen master and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. You come up there to relax your mind and calm the body and brain, ready to return to normal life, renewed. This I of course expected to gain during my own Day of Mindfulness, which I experienced for the first time with my sixty-five year old dad one year ago. We’d both been sharing a mutual enjoyment of reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s books lately. I think Thich’s gentle encouragements toward facing one’s fears and difficult emotions are what had resonated mostly for us both and what we anticipated for this day. What I didn’t see coming so much, though, was a forgiveness ritual which still mystifies me when I think back on it..
My dad and I sat together throughout the day and focused during the guided meditation and lectures by Thich Nhat Hanh, our superstar and yet a person who feels like an old, old friend. We ate lunch in the outside eating area with hundreds of other participants in complete silence and appreciation, and then we did mindful walking along the nature trail.
We had gotten back to the main area, ready for the second meditation section of the day. It began with a guided meditation and then moved into something neither of us expected. Thich Nhat Hanh’s assistant, Sister Chan Khong, gently asked everyone to stand up. She told us to connect with the roots of our being for a moment… our parents, grandparents, and ancestors who all came before us, and to think about the ways that we appreciated them and were thankful to them. Then, we were asked to acknowledge the pain or suffering our parents may have caused us in our lives. We were also asked to contemplate any pain or suffering which our grandparents had caused us at any point in our lives. As we pondered the suffering, we were then told to bend down to the ground and touch it with our hands, acknowledging forgiveness to our moms, dads, grandmas, and grandpas for causing us any pain in our lives. Touching the ground during this part felt powerful. I was digging my hands into the dirt with total contemplation and emotional vulnerability, right next to my very own dad doing the same thing for his parents and grandparents.
It was until this point where I felt the day was going by as expected, smoothly and special, and predictably. But this one moment was something different. I was standing next to my dad, and I was actively forgiving him and my mom for the ways they have caused me suffering, while he was doing the same about his parents, leveling to the ground each time and then standing up again side-by-side. The tears came and I think they were less about the painful past than merely the beauty of that moment. I saw my father being vulnerable, participating in this activity even though it was probably a little odd for him.
For me this was a moment of awakening, of understanding, and of compassion for my father and thus everyone in my life. My dad is a part of me, and so is everyone I’ve ever come into contact with, in addition to everything I’ve ever touched. It’s not so much of a me-versus-them world as I’ve been prone to understanding. It really is as Thich Nhat Hanh calls an “inter-being” life. So while I may have been wounded by my parents before, and perhaps seek their forgiveness for hurting them at times as well, I at least know that the recollection of pain always has a little space for compassion and vulnerability, too. So although we caused each other pain and suffering in the past, there we were, silently and actively acknowledging that we are only human and products of our roots, and everything else is just images of the past which we can either claim as ourselves, or release back to the ground and take the strength with us instead. I decided at least for that moment I’d like to release the resentments and anger toward my parents which I had stowed away inside of myself, and put them back into the ground. It felt real, real good.
In the end, we didn’t actually talk about that part of the day. But I’m so glad we did it and I am grateful that we had such a cool guided exercise to facilitate the whole experience. Having the knowledge that my family members and my ancestors are always with me in spirit, and that at any time, I can go outside and bend down to the earth and remember that feeling next to my dad, I now feel more strengthened in my ability to forgive others.
As it happens, this month is also my dad’s birthday. This article is honoring you, Tier Tate! Thank you for all your wise teachings and for helping me grow into the person I am.
For more information about Blue Cliff Monastery, you can check out their website here: Blue Cliff