A Work in Practice

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by Kristina Domitrovich // photos by Lindsay Pace Daffron

At Magnolia Grove, a bell chimes every half hour. With every chime of the bell, silence washes over the monastery. Sister Doi Nghiem greets visitors with a smile, and tells them to think of the person who means the most in their life, perhaps it’s his or her mother. She’ll say to think of the bell like your mother calling you home, beckoning you to relax and reconnect with yourself.

This simple act of stopping to take a breath, to reconnect, refresh and come back is one of the many ways throughout the monastics’ life at the monastery to show gratitude and thoughtfulness. Taking time to recognize the air entering and leaving the body – this is called mindful breathing. Mindfulness, breathing or otherwise, is a motif at Magnolia Grove.

The History

Thich Nhat Hanh was born in 1926 in central Vietnam. When he was 16, he became a practicing monk. When the Vietnam War began, he was faced with choosing one of two pathways: Continue meditating and practicing Buddhism in the monastery, or go help those suffering from the war. Instead, he did both by becoming an advocate for peace while still keeping his practice. Throughout the war, he never took a side – he simply called for peace. This call for peace, however, was enough for both North and South Vietnam to exile him.

Over the next several decades, he studied, practiced, founded schools, and taught mindfulness across the world. His message: Living the path of peace and compassion. In 1966, he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would go on to nominate Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was through his friendship with Thich Nhat Hanh that King chose to finally denounce the Vietnam War. At Magnolia Grove, in an unexpecting Mississippi, there is a deep connection with their teacher, but also with King. Throughout the monastery, there are many images of the two together, along with writings and teachings from both.

“I consider them both my teachers, actually,” Sister Peace said smiling. “They were two icon visionaries who had the good fortune to meet and change history, really.”

 

A bell tower rests near the meditation hall at Magnolia Grove.

 

The Lay People

The monastery offers many retreats for non-monastics. This offer to join the monastics for a period is extended to people practicing any religion, as they heavily stress that these are not Buddhist-only events. Sister Peace said Buddhism is not actually a religion, merely guidance for a life of happiness and mindful living. In fact, Sister Peace said she still attends Mass, and has been Catholic her whole life. With their practice, monastics are encouraged to hold on to the beliefs and traditions they practiced their whole lives, prior to joining the monastery.

“We all come here with roots,” she said. “You can’t disengage yourself from any of your roots. We can help heal those that have hurt us and we can help to cultivate those that give us strength.”

The monastery also has mindfulness days, where visitors can come for just one day to practice mindfulness and meditation. Through days of mindfulness and retreats, some visitors have become almost regular faces at Magnolia Grove.

 

Outside the meditation hall, Williams, Seeley and Ramirez laugh. 

 

Florentina Ramirez Staigers “The way out is in.”

In 2008, Florentina Ramirez Staigers began what she calls her healing journey. For her, that means traveling and creative writing, and along the way, she found mindfulness meditation fits the list, too. She joined the Peace Corps and moved overseas; with her, she took an eight-hour audio recording of Thich Nhat Hanh leading a retreat. Over the next several years, she found herself listening to the recording over and over.

“It just really helped me rebuild trust in humanity that I had lost,” she said.

When planning her return to the United States, she did some digging into different events various peace leaders were hosting. She found a retreat being led in New York by Thich Nhat Hanh, and went in 2013 for her first retreat. Seeing Thich Nhat Hanh teach lessons of mindfulness and caring is what attracted her to further her own practice.

“It was almost like seeing an Olympic athlete,” she said. “Someone who had really just mastered something, and he had mastered compassion.”

She now lives in New Orleans, which she says is just five to six hours away from Magnolia Grove, depending on traffic. In 2018, she found the elements of her life align in a way that allowed her to spend two months on retreat at Magnolia Grove. During this stay, she wrote a book of poetry. She wrote this collection with a few audiences in mind: those seeking healing, and people who may not have a concept of Buddhism and might be put off by it. She said poetry is a universal language, and practicing can be universal, too.

“The journey of this practice has been about finding myself and being my own best friend,” she said. “They’re just really guiding you back to yourself.”

 

Rhonda Y. Williams “Does it require my energy?”

“I call one place home, and that’s Baltimore; but when I come back here, I feel like I’m home. I rarely call any place home,” Rhonda Y. Williams said. “It just makes me feel light to come here.”

Williams is a history professor who focuses on improving human rights and calling attention to injustices. She said she is likely a literal “recovering workaholic.” Because of her dedication to her profession and trying to improve society through her activism, she said she never gave herself the time to breathe, but found herself looking for a rejuvenation.

“To better balance my energies and my time, so I can be in it for the long run and not the short run,” she said on her work. “Because you can easily burn out that way, and there’s too much work to be done to burn out.”

Her first retreat at Magnolia Grove was in October of 2017, and she has been returning since.

“For me it was like this unexplainable, immediate moment of joy for me to be here,” Williams said.

Through her retreats, she has found valuable coping lessons for her every-day life. Throughout her day, when situations come up that may have caused her to have a knee-jerk reaction in the past, she said she takes a breath to reevaluate and instead asks herself, “Does it really matter? Is this worth my energy?”

“There are practices that allow me to mitigate, deal with, but not suppress any concerns that I’m having,” she said.

 

Jiya Judy Seeley “Am I sure?”

Jiya Judy Seeley has struggled with life-long depression, what she calls her prison.

“I just realized one day that I was lost, and I thought, ‘Well, I just need to find myself,’” she said. “Because I thought I was just doing the things I ought to be doing in life, and that if I did those things, then life would roll along and things would be okay and I would be reasonably good – and that’s called settling. And I wanted something more because I believed in the promise that I was taught in Christianity.”

In 1996, she found meditation through yoga. In 1998, she found practicing mindfulness through Buddhism. As she got stronger in her own healing, she began reaching out to help heal others by practicing mindfulness in the mundaneness of life. Something as simple as thanking a Walmart cashier, and recognizing them as a human being going through situations in their life that she will never know. For Seeley, one practical, returning phrase is, “Am I sure?” She says this allows her to have grace for others. She said she’ll ask herself in moments of conflict, “Am I sure I’m right?” and take a breath before letting things go.

“‘Are you sure?’ Because I know there have been many times when I thought I was darn right, and I wasn’t, I was very misguided,” Seeley said.

This practice, she said, helps as she handles different situations throughout her life.

“I wanted freedom from the life of prison, and I wanted to laugh and I wanted to smile,” she said. “Am I still depressed? Yes, it gives me the opportunity to practice. … The darker the sky, the brighter the star.”

 

A glimpse into the meditation hall shows inspirational paintings and a bell.

 

The Day-to-Day at Magnolia Grove

Each morning, the monastics begin their day early, around 5 a.m., with an hour-long sitting meditation, followed by exercise and breakfast in eating meditation. These are times to focus on breathing, and reconnecting with the body. Sister Doi Nghiemsaideating meditation is one of the hardest forms of meditation for her, but one of the most rewarding. She said this time is spent to give thanks: give thanks to the process the food has undergone to arrive at the table, and to all those who had a hand in it. The monastics eat very slowly, being sure to appreciate their food both visually and aromatically before even picking up a fork. They take time to chew their food slowly, to the point of placing their fork down between bites because they will not need it for a while.

After breakfast, some will take the time to go to English lessons. Because monastics come from all corners of the earth, some are encouraged to practice at a monastery in America to improve their English. After English classes, the monastics will meet outside the meditation hall to sing together before going on a walking meditation.

While most of the day is divided – the monks and nuns practicing separately – the walking meditation is done as a whole. Thich Nhath Hanh taught the importance of community. This walking meditation time is used to feel the feet connecting with the ground, in connection with the breath. The monastery is located on 120 acres of land, and there is plenty of walking room. From the meditation hall, they traverse to a statue of King and Thich Nhat Hanh, where they take a break. During the break, some monastics will practice tai chi or stretch, some sit, others look at the nature around them. After the break, the group will walk on the monastery’s main road before taking a left into a field, then go through a tree line, up a hill, over a creek, and back to the main buildings for lunchtime. This lunch is spent in eating meditation.

After lunch, the monastics will have time to do whatever leisure activities they may wish before starting on work for the day, during what’s called working meditation. At the monastery, each person is assigned certain chores. From gardening, cleaning, repairs, lawn care – it all has to be done, and each member of the community contributes. After work, the monastics go to sitting meditation, followed by dinner and more leisurely, quiet time.

While some minor elements of the day may change – the schedule is kept on a white board for easy adjustments – the idea stays the same: a day of mindfulness.

 

Brother Dao Hanh, a monk from the Netherlands, smiles.

 

The decision to practice

“We live in a very fast-paced society, where any commitment is going to be difficult for people, I think,” Brother Dao Hanh said.

Committing from the start proved to be a little hard for this brother, too, so he originally committed to practicing for just five years. To become a monastic, there are three different stages, totaling about four years. Between each step, the monastic hopefuls must write a letter to their monastery, requesting an extension of their stay and study. In this letter, each one writes about their aspirations, gratitude and joy from being in the community, self-discoveries, and how they have grown thus far. The monastics will read the letters to decide if this novice has grown enough as a person, and decide from there.

Some monks find their practice fairly early in life, like Brother Dao Hanh who is 33; or Brother Phap Nguyen, who was a successful, young financial businessman in America, but quickly felt hollowed by his career. But others stumble upon their practice later in life. Brother Dao Quang is 52 and from Germany, and he’s been a monk for four years. He said he had quite a normal life: He had a job, family and friends, and a good position in society; but over time, he realized he was spiritually wanting.

“I thought it’s quite easy to earn the money for a house, keep running a house, go on holiday and all this stuff, building up a retirement, health insurance – all this stuff. And then I thought, ‘Ah man, I have to do this more than 20 years; what a waste of life to do every day the same,’” Brother Dao Quang said. “With the hope: ‘Retirement, and then I’m free. 20 years? Oh no.’”

With his daughter fully grown and his wife shifting jobs and growing more passionate about her work and hobbies, he began practicing more. Over time, he said he and his wife separated to focus on the aspects that made each party happier. He committed to life as a monastic.

 

Sister Peace rests beneath a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh, two of her biggest inspirations.

 

Sister Peace

Sister Peace was ordained in 2008, and has been at Magnolia Grove for a little over a year, though she has visited several times since 2013 for monastic retreats. In a previous life, she was in politics and worked for the mayor in Washington, D.C. Now, she serves her community as Magnolia Grove’s point-person. Sister Peace, like all the monastics at Magnolia Grove, spends a lot of time smiling, but maybe more so than the others.

Because monastics spend much of their days in meditation, one may deduce they are rather quiet, solemn people. There is truth in this belief, but the monastics’ personalities go deeper. Like they were taught, monastics never abandon their past, and that can include things like their sense of humor. When Sister Peace returned from the meditation walk, she saw Williams and Seeley standing on the porch. She let out a big grin and said a little louder than she may normally speak, “Hey, girlfriend!” with a giggle. She refers to visitors as friends, even those she met just moments ago. 

She has an army green raincoat that uses Velcro to fasten it closed. Either the Velcro does not work or Sister Peace has her own reasons, but she fastens her jacket closed with a white binder clip. Standing around with Seeley, Williams and Staigers, she removed the binder clip, and closed the two metal pieces together. Holding it daintily by the wings, she smiled and joked, “I call this my Lizzo purse,” referring to Lizzo’s mini purse at the American Music Awards.

Sister Peace, who greets everyone with a hug, is also a ponderer. At Magnolia Grove, there is a deep connection with Thich Nhat Hanh and King, a connection she says is unique to this Mississippi monastery. They have a memorial of the two, and this statue depicts them holding a document that reads, “beloved community.” For Sister Peace, she finds herself visiting this over and over again. 

“When I need to contemplate,” she said, “I’ll walk over there and I’ll say, ‘This problem seems looming to me, but there you loom – what problems did you have to overcome?’”

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