Two Hours to Count 38 People

Deer Park Monastery
Deer Park Monastery

I’m going to continue my non-library trend of late and talk about the Stick Ceremony. This past weekend I had the opportunity to return to Deer Park Monastery, one of my favorite places on earth, to celebrate the start of the Rains Retreat. This 90-day retreat occurs annually and is a time for us to look deeply and focus our practice and energy. The retreat begins with a ceremony that identifies those who are participating in the entire 90-day retreat and to set the boundries of the monastery.  We enter the mediation hall, the monastics are sitting in their sangati robes surrounded by the lay community of practitioners. After a bit, we stand for an incense offering and some touching the earth paying respects to the Bodhisattvas, and for me, to honor those characteristics and aspirations in myself. We sit again and chant together.

At this point four of the monastics stand and process to the front – each holding a tray. Update: Two of the monastics, one monk and one nun, each have a tray full of sticks to distribute. The other two monastics will collect the sticks after they have been distributed to each participant. Thank you Caleb for seeking this clarification. A bit more touching the earth and bowing before the tray is brought to the front and a stick is offered to the Buddha present for the retreat. This is done by the first monastics, followed by the second monastic who then picks up the small stick and places it on his tray. The next person to receive a stick is a place held for our Teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Again, the second monastic picks up the stick left by the first monk. This continues through the entire row of monks and nuns. Each picking up a stick and then returning it. Thus the process of taking a stick occurs.

Any layperson planning to remain for the Retreat also will take, and then return, a stick. When everyone has completed this stick taking, the four monastics head outside. Historically, they would take the sticks to the most important person in the monastery – the person in charge of the kitchen. Here they would count the sticks and tell this person how many meals to prepare, how many places to set,  for the Rains Retreat.  Our four monastics return to the mediation hall and announce to the sangha and the dharma teachers the number of people present for the Rains Retreat. The number is 38.

Following the stick counting, the ceremony continues with the definition of the monastery boundaries. Historically, this was done because there were no monasteries and the monastic community would setup in the forest area and “create” a monastery space. Those in the Rains Retreat do not leave that space for the 90-days except for essential trips such as groceries or doctor appointments. The boundaries are recorded for the Deer Park Monastery. How far can they go. Where are nuns allowed and where are monks allowed. Fortunately, Deer Park is a large place but the space is still more restrictive than normal.

We chant again. We stand and bow and the ceremony is complete. The Rains Retreat begins.

Beautiful zen practice. We spend two hours simply count how many people are staying for the retreat. We already knew the answer and yet we shared this experience together. I’m left smiling and happy with the aspiration to practice from home during these next 90-days.

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