Memories of a Winter Retreat
I chose the shape of a mandala with three circles to give you a structure of my story. The frame is the Laurel room in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village, which was the home base during the winter retreat for my dear roommates and me, whom I like to call the Laurel brothers. The second circle is my inner process and the most inner circle is the image of the ship crossing to the other shore of the lotus pond.
The outer circle of the mandala represents my Laurel brothers. One of the biggest factors that shaped my experience of the winter retreat was my little Sangha living together in the Laurel room. It was good to live in this small Sangha because it was not possible to build deep relationships with all the members of the big Sangha (There were about 100 lay men in Upper Hamlet). There was such warmth and brotherhood and so much care. As I write this, I reconnect with the memories and my heart feels warm. I feel deep gratitude for my brothers Nick, Karim, Joe, Manuel, Gab, Christian, and Carlos. Our togetherness was so nourishing!
Of course, I faced difficult times living together in relatively a few square meters of space. Thanks to the practice and our togetherness, we were able to transform situations again and again. We also tried our best to support the brothers in the Laurel room who had to face some inner sufferings. It was a very supportive loving and nourishing environment that helped me to come into contact with these qualities in myself. Since I experienced being loved, I was able to increase my capacity to love and be able to encompass deeper levels of suffering.
I had to take back the responsibility for the unpleasant mental formations of anger and jealousy.
The next inner circle represents my internal process of looking deeply into unresolved suffering. A few years ago, I was in a rather difficult relationship, and I could not get over the fact that I held some deep resentment towards my ex-girlfriend. Trusting in the power of love, I started the practice of wishing her well on a daily basis. It was very interesting because I had to take back the responsibility for the unpleasant mental formations of anger and jealousy and experience them again. I could locate these unpleasant feelings on the left side of my body, where this unresolved anger was stored. Feeling the unpleasant sensations in my belly, I dropped her image in my mind and focused on wishing myself well, or more precisely wishing the unpleasant sensations well, regarding them as entities within myself, which resulted in seeing them clearer and clearer over the weeks.
Through this process, the observer and the observed in my meditation came closer and closer until it was possible to be a participant rather than an observer, which made it possible to jump into the lake of pain and experience it directly. By practising like that, the anger gradually dissolved. It was healing. After the process with my ex-girlfriend ended, I continued it with my parents, especially my mother. I cultivated gratitude towards them, wished them well, and dealt with unpleasant mental formations until I experienced a breakthrough one day in the meditation hall in Upper Hamlet after a Dharma talk.
I realised that part of my anger was the anger of my mother towards my grandmother, which was fuelled by my grandmother’s participation in the Nazi Regime. Suddenly I had access to the pain, loss, and suffering of my grandparents during the time of the war within me. This was one of the roots of my anger. I made my way out of the meditation hall and found this pile of earth where I knelt down and started crying. I saw images of war and burned houses flashing through my mind. I cried a lot from a deep place inside of me. Shortly after that, I intuitively experienced being my grandfather as a young man, bleeding from his wounds of war. Looking back a few months later, it seemed to me that maybe I could express feelings my grandfather could not express.
It was very healing to release this pain, which was within me all my life. I believe the suffering of my grandparents was part of why I was depressed as a teenager.
In the most inner circle is the little ship I made from a nutshell as you can see on the picture above. You can imagine Kshitigarbha, the Bodhisattva of Great Aspiration, being the captain of the ship leading a community of sailors to the other shore (of liberation). Participating in the Secret Santa game at Christmas, I came up with the idea of crafting a little sailing boat from a nutshell. Over the weeks, I enhanced the design and made it fit for the lotus pond. Finally my wish came true, and my little ship crossed to the other shore of the lotus pond. This little ship was a source of joy for others and myself.
I experienced living in community as living in a room of mirrors.
I experienced living in community as living in a room of mirrors. I found my patterns and relations with family members and friends reappearing in my relationship with people in Plum Village. From this, I learned a lot about how my mind works and my perceptions, and how reality is created. I got a grasp of how much I am responsible of how others appear to me. I learned that to find the roots of my suffering, it is necessary to be aware of my suffering continuously over many days and even weeks.
Finally I want to thank our mentors Phap Thuyen and Phap Lai for taking care of our Chrysanthemum family and the Maha (big) Sangha for manifesting such a beautiful place.
Matthias has been interested in Buddhism since the age of 14. In 2007, he visited Plum Village for the first time and has returned many times. In 2015, he finished his studies of Comparative Religion and was able to stay in Plum Village for three months. Back home he immersed himself in the question: What’s next? He has not found an answer yet, but fear. His current endeavour is to make friends with his so long neglected fear. He currently practices with Wake Up Vienna in Austria.