Buddhist retreat center offers a place to escape into the now

SARDIS – At 9 a.m., three deep, smooth bell tones rang out from the singing bowl at the feet of the Buddha. They rang over the heads of the 300 poised to begin meditation, out from the Dharma hall, along the edge of the woods in western Panola County where the dew-wet tents that covered the devotees while they slept dried in the bright morning sun.
Vietnamese monks pulled their robes around their small shoulders and bowed their shaved heads. They folded their hands in front of their chins – ten fingertips touching – connoting the ten geographical directions.
College students, retirees, people from nearby and from around the world all heeded the bell and settled into mindfulness, preparing themselves to hear the teaching.
“I invite my mother and my father to breathe with me,” whispered the voice of the interpreter, a delicate, female rendering of the words of Ben Ho, the Buddhist lay leader who had organized the retreat at Magnolia Village.
“Do you fell solid as I feel solid?” Those who could not fit into the hall sat in folding chairs or lounged in the sun on the thick grass.
“Each of us has a miraculous source of energy, the Buddha nature,” said the interpreter’s voice. “Our true home is the pure land, the place where we can recognize the miracle of life and where we can love others, even those who are hard to love.”

Similar precepts
The name Magnolia Village weds perfectly the flower, a central image of Buddhist meditation, with the flora of the South. Located 10 miles southwest of Sardis, the village is home to spacious, manicured lawns and meditation paths as well as newly built dormitories and a communal hall in which sits a 10-foot high statue of the Buddha.
Magnolia Village is one of a handful of satellite campuses nationwide of Plum Village, the community, or, in Buddhist terminology, the “sangha” of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk whose melding of the Buddhist traditions of Mahayana and Zen have won an international following.
Each Sunday Buddhists from as far away as Texas and Arkansas converge on Magnolia Village to care for the property as well as to meditate together and hear talks on the Dharma, a Sanskrit word meaning “path” or “duty.”
Monday, Hanh, called “Thay” or “teacher” by his fans, was scheduled to make one of his biannual visits, but the 83-year-old who now lives in France wasn’t feeling well and was forced to cancel.
In Hanh’s place a delegation of over 20 monks and nuns who work closely with him, as well as other vowed religious and lay devotees of Buddhism from around the world, led the retreat.
Kara French, a gardener from New Hampshire, was visiting friends in Tennessee when she heard about the event. Early last Monday she sat on the grass, in thin, Indian-style clothing, meditating.
“I was introduced to meditation about 12 years ago,” she said. “Thay’s teachings have always brought me great strength.”
Michael Ide of Oxford sat near French on the grass, sunning himself like a lizard. Ide, who was raised Catholic in Picayune, jokingly referred to himself as a “Budeo-Christian.” He said the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, or slowing down and trying to live in the moment and to quiet the self, has shown him the “similar moral precepts” of Buddhism and Christianity.
“Both come down to loving yourself and loving other people and manifesting that love in the world,” said Ide. When he meditates, Ide counts his “mantras” or repetitive phrases on beads worn around his neck called “mala beads.” He likened them to the rosary beads that he used as a child.
“I even throw in a ‘Hail Mary’ once in a while,” he said.

Universal appeal
Vietnamese made up only about 20 percent of the over 300 people who strolled the grounds of Magnolia Village, practicing their breathing techniques and trying to concentrate on the beauty of their surroundings and their own Buddha natures.
A number of Anglo Christians made the trip because, like Ide, and like well-known Christian ascetics such as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, they’ve discovered profound meaning in Buddhist spiritual practices. Hanh, in particular, has scores of devotees among the Christian ranks.
During lunch, Murray Hudson, an Episcopalian from Dyersburg, Tenn., chewed his home-grown greens and rice slowly, another of Hanh’s lessons for enjoying life.
“This food is a gift of the earth, and we should eat it with gratitude,” said Hudson, brushing his gray ponytail aside and working his chopsticks with ancient skill.
Shree Lence, a member of First Presbyterian Church in Tupelo, made the trip with friends Moe Bristow and Robyn Gibson.
As she joined the line for the walking meditation, Lence spoke of her fondness for Hanh’s book “Living Buddha, Living Christ” in which he draws parallels between Christian teachings like “The Golden Rule” and Buddhist teachings about honoring all of life as sacred.
Bristow moved methodically across the field, crunching the dry, brittle grass underfoot and speaking of the minimalism of Buddhist thought. “I’m learning to want what I have,” she said, smiling.
Gibson, who owns The Yoga Center in Tupelo, uses Buddhist mindfulness practices and yoga as parts of a holistic approach to wellness, an approach that also includes techniques for stress reduction and flexibility.
“Today, women, especially, tend to put ourselves pretty low on the list of priorities, and we don’t take care of ourselves,” she said.
That holistic approach is also being embraced by counselors.
“We worry so much about the past and the future. Buddhism teaches us to live in the present,” said Thich Dao Quang, abbot of Tam Bao Monastery in Baton Rouge, La. Quang, a member of the American Counseling Association, rose from a meditation circle, bowed then opened his hands to let the wind pass through his fingers.
“It’s about connecting with your own inner resources and living in freedom,” he said, explaining why Buddhists encourage Christians to embrace Dharma teachings.

Honoring parents
As evening drew on the silent pilgrims converged once again on the Dharma hall. Ole Miss student Kelly Ho stood in the doorway, wearing a bright yellow Ao Dai, the tapered, high-collared traditional dress of Vietnamese women. She handed out miniature paper roses, red for those whose mothers were living, white for those who were deceased.
The singing bowl sounded once again, three solemn rings, calling everyone to silence and mindfulness.
As the smell of incense filled the room, Ho read from Hanh’s book “A Rose for Your Pocket.” A public address system carried her voice to the members of the sangha perched around the perimeter of the hall and down the hill sloping toward the rose bushes.
She spoke of how even bad poets and songwriters pour their souls into praising their mothers, and how all the great religious traditions of the world, including Christianity, venerate their mothers.
“Country people in Vietnam compare their mothers to the finest varieties of banana, or to honey, sweet rice, or sugar cane,” she said. Tears welled up in the eyes of many as she read on.
“Maternal love is the first taste of love, the origin of all feelings of love. Without my mother, I could never have known how to love. Thanks to her I can love my neighbors. Thanks to her I can love all living beings.”
At the base of the hill, the persistent breeze that blew all day moved the lily pads slowly across the still water of the reflecting pool.

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com

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